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 Hp Criticism, scholarly writings
aramantha
Posted: Apr 25 2005, 08:12 PM


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The Lion and the Unicorn, 28.1 (2004). 168-170
This looks like a journal to keep a good eye on.
A review of:
Colin Manlove. From Alice to Harry Potter: Children's Fantasy in England. Christchurch, NZ: Cybereditions, 2003.

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Whatever their merits as literature, we must credit the Harry Potter books with invigorating children's fantasy as well as inspiring a spate of scholarly criticism?with an inordinately large number being devoted to the Harry Potter books (see Lana Whited's review in the September 2003 issue of The Lion and the Unicorn). For those seeking criticism on the broader spectrum of English children's fantasy, Colin Manlove's From Alice to Harry Potter: Children's Fantasy in England is a reasonable place to start. No other recent work attempts to cover so much ground or does it so succinctly. The cover of the book touts it as a "companion for children's literature courses, and as a stimulus for the general reader and [End Page 166] students at all levels." Manlove is not writing the definitive critical history of English children's fantasy. This is clearly an introductory work. Indeed, its strength is its identification of trends, or, as Manlove puts it, "placing all the texts in a current of development" (8). Manlove is well equipped for the task; he is a specialist in British fantasy and has published widely in the field, one of his chief interests being historical criticism. However, his work has not always been specifically in children's literature, which may account for some of the curious lapses and points of view I will discuss below.

Because so many children's fantasies have great staying power and seem as fresh today as when they first appeared, we sometimes forget that they are, nevertheless, the products of their time. Winnie-the-Pooh and Mary Poppins may seem timeless, but they reflect the social and intellectual milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, respectively, and reveal a great deal about the prevailing attitudes of the day. Manlove's emphasis is on the place of English fantasy amid those prevailing attitudes.

Manlove begins his survey in the mid-nineteenth century, when writers began turning to children's fantasy following its neglect of over a century during the so-called Age of Reason, which looked with great suspicion on the unleashed imagination. It was, in fact, the Romantic movement's worship of the imagination and the growing public interest in national folktales sparked by the Grimms, among others, that led to the writing of the first true children's fantasies by such writers as Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald. Manlove explains the popularity of traditional fairy-tale form in Victorian fantasy, with its strictly ordered world, defined rules of magic, and just retribution, as appealing "to that side of all anxious Victorians which welcomed a genre founded not just on imagination but on moral certainties and an ordered and just universe" (18). His discussion of Victorian fantasy introduces us to some long-forgotten writers and works, such as Mary De Morgan (On a Pincushion, 1877, and The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde, 1880), who was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, and Lucy Clifford (Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise,1882), in whose work Manlove sees "something of the same psychological penetration and sense of the complexity of experience that we see in James's novels" (32).

The general direction of fantasy following the Victorian era was toward the playful and escapist. The third chapter, entitled "The Long Idyll: 1900-1950," is itself long, comprising some twenty percent of the entire book, and might have been divided into two or more shorter ones to some advantage. (Indeed, given the book's announced application as a course text and the enormous amount of material covered, chapter [End Page 167] subdivisions with appropriate headings would have been a useful feature.) During the first half of the century, when so many of the classic and enduring fantasies were written, Manlove points out that, surprisingly, children themselves tend to be marginalized or even completely absent from the stories. Instead, we see stories of anthropomorphized animals, toys, even machines. This is especially true of fantasies written between the wars when writers turned to escapist themes as an antidote to the grim events occurring in the adult world?devastating wars, debilitating economic depression, political and social chaos.

Manlove makes a curious connection between the magic in the fantasy of the 1930s and world affairs, noting that the magic in many of these fantasies is assimilated within the ordinary and the unremarkable. Even the fantasy heroes are on the surface unexceptional?a no-nonsense nursemaid in London (Mary Poppins), a seemingly very ordinary super-magician (Haldane's My Friend, Mr. Leakey), and an unassuming hobbit. All this, Manlove suggests, "is not wholly unlike the nature of 1930s experience: perfectly ordinary routine life went on while containing one of the most fantastic mutations of reality ever perpetrated; perfectly ordinary bigotry, racism, envy and fear were accepted attitudes, until a turn of the mirror showed their astonishing product" (66-67). He poses an interesting hypothesis, but leaves it largely unproven. And his own analysis may be reaching into the realm of the fanciful when he concludes, "it is almost as though children's fantasy felt intimations of the earthquake to come" (67).

The remaining chapters are divided by decades?the 1950s through the '60s, then a chapter each for the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Manlove sees the fantasies of the 1950s, led by C. S. Lewis and Philippa Pearce, emphasizing moral choice and freewill. The most dramatic change in the 1960s was a contraction of this element of choice and a more intrusive fantasy?instead of children leaving this world to enter the secondary fantasy world, the fantastical enters this world, as in the works of Alan Garner and William Mayne. Indeed, this blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality became characteristic of much of the fantasy of the last decades of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, a common theme of fantasy was displacement and alienation, seen again in Mayne (A Game of Dark), and in Helen Cresswell's The Outlanders and Richard Adams's much-loved Watership Down. The trend of the 1980s, in Manlove's view, was the presentation of multiple realities?in time-shift fantasies, secondary world fantasies, or fantasies that "subvert any clear, single or fixed view of the universe" (149). [End Page 168]

In the 1990s these subversive tendencies take the form of "interiorized fantasies"?daydreams, nightmares, and hallucinations of children beset by terror and insecurity. In many of these stories, the very people who are supposed to be protecting the children are the ones who pose the greatest threat?the parents or guardians depicted in Philip Pullman's Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the United States) and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are the most obvious examples. Manlove ascribes the popularity of these stories to the fact that the terror is overcome, the chaos is reined in, order is restored by the child protagonist, and the stories thus become reassuring and, more importantly, empowering. We might have expected Manlove, who engages in a fair share of intellectual snobbery, to skewer J. K. Rowling?how could anyone that popular be any good? Instead, he acknowledges her shortcomings?her books are largely derivative?but pronounces Rowling a good stylist with a keen sense of the child's interests. The books are, in Manlove's words, "a different kind of literature [expressing] a child's ideal world and a child's way of seeing" (192).

Although Manlove's writing is generally intelligent and insightful, the book is marred by some unfortunate editing errors?Frodo Baggins is referred to as Bilbo's son, for example, and he claims that Lewis's fantasies employ the device of an enchanted wardrobe through which the children enter Narnia, when in fact this is true only of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perhaps most annoying is Manlove's thinly disguised snobbery. Early in the book he notes that modern fantasy for children has never wholly assimilated the vision of "the unfathomable savagery of children," as in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. This failure, he contends, contributes to that "essential vein of triviality" still prevalent in children's fantasy (63). Since neither James nor Golding was writing for children, their works are curious bellwethers to invoke. Using this criterion, apparently, he quickly dismisses in a few sentences the likes of P. L. Travers and J. M. Barrie, but devotes several pages to the now seldom-read fantasies of Walter de la Mare and John Masefield (whose reputations Manlove's efforts fail to revive). Particularly in the latter chapters, we get the sense that nothing really delights Manlove and his critical voice devolves into carping?hardly the tone to share with undergraduate students. This, incidentally, is why his magnanimity toward J. K. Rowling is so unexpected?and welcome. Had he taken a similar tack with other popular authors, he might have produced a more satisfying work. Too often he seems to forget the audience of the fantasies he is critiquing, and it is easy to get the distinct feeling that his interest in children's literature is a secondary consideration. [End Page 169]

If his intended reader, however, is the undergraduate student of children's literature and the general reader, then the most grievous shortcoming in this otherwise informative historical survey of English fantasy is probably the absence of an engaging authorial voice. To put it bluntly, it is often dry. Manlove is obviously widely read and possesses a keen sense of the trends of English fantasy, but the endless plot summaries of unfamiliar works?many out of print?can get to be numbing and the book is best taken in short doses. All that said, it probably is the best?and certainly the most up-to-date?survey of English children's fantasy available.


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David L. Russell
David L. Russell is a professor of languages and literature at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, and the author of Literature for Children, a widely used introductory college textbook, as well as of several books and articles on children's literature.


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aramantha
Posted: Apr 25 2005, 08:23 PM


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http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lion_and_the_...1pennington.pdf

"From Elfland to Hogwarts: The Aesthetic Trouble with Harry Potter". John Pennington.

I don't think some of us will like this or agree with it, but it is certainly worth a thoughtful read.


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aramantha
Posted: Apr 25 2005, 09:08 PM


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"And then came the fall -- on the nature of evil in JRR Tolkien's and JK Rowling's arch-villains."
Andrew Blake, Margarita Carretero-Gonzalez, and Carlos F. Marquez-Linares

http://www.wickedness.net/ejv1n3/book.pdf

This is a terrific round-table discussion by these three scholars at the Fourth Conference on Evil and Human Wickedness (Prague, March 2003).


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aramantha
Posted: Apr 25 2005, 10:25 PM


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And another:
Hoax. Parody and Conservatism in Harry Potter, by Peter Dudink.

This is an MA thesis that ranges very wide. Some chapter headings:
Christian images and ideas; Nature and technology, Hare-brained solutions and Harry's brain. . . It's very irreverant and quite critical, and so I think it's worth a look.

http://etd.uwaterloo.ca/etd/pdudink2002.pdf



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Godric
Posted: Apr 25 2005, 11:47 PM


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I read quite a bit of Manlove's stuff over the last year. He... I don't know... misses the point a lot, and too often focuses on smaller details at the expense of overlooking important topics, though the same is true for just about every literary theorist of his vein. Assuming his book as a companion text to a course is very ambitious, I'm not it's necessary, either, once you get past second year you really shouldn;t need "companion texts" any more.
I'll see if this is in the library, though, I'll read the other links some other time, thanks for this, mantha!!


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Godric
Posted: Apr 30 2005, 04:09 PM


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The snippet on evil in HP was quite interesting, and enjoyable. The thesis, however, is an extremely poor one, riddled with error, inconsistency, and unexplained premisses. If that's the work he produced after a year i'd hate to see on eof the essays this guy rushed on a sunday evening.
Although a few credible and interesting points were raised, which did make me pause and wonder if he might be on to something from time to time, mostly the links were assumed, stretched and groundless.
Thanks for the links, though, Mantha.


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aramantha
Posted: May 3 2005, 03:48 PM


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And thank you, Godric, for your informed critique. I'm especially interested in your opinion, because there don't appear to be too many trained critics of these works out there who are also real fans and have done the consistent close reading you have. Let me make sure -- the piece you are mentioning in your last post is the thesis by Dudink, or the round-table discussion with Blake and friends?

OK -- here's another, from the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society (Volume 35, No. 3, May/June 2004). Lot of discussion of Tolkien here too:

Harry Potter is a Hobbit: Rowling, Tolkien, and the Question of Readership.
by Amy Sturgis.

http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/docs/harry_is_a_hobbit.pdf

Also:
Ivy has found a very interesting article by Roberta Seelinger Trites, entitled:
The Harry Potter novels as a test case for adolescent literature.

Here is the short abstract:
"The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling serve as a test case showing how Foucault'stheories about power can be used to best understand adolescent liteature. The crux of defining adolescent literature as distinct from children's literature revolves around the issue of power."

I have read through this once, and I need another read. I found it convincing (although it shows here and there that same odd unawareness of detail that only the kind of close reading we obsessive fans achieve seems to overcome happy.gif -- but it's mild in this case) as far as it fgoes, but it is only one issue (a big one, but I am not convinced it's the central one). I do think, from my own theoretical perspective, that it may offer some insight into why a lot of adults are attracted to these books. The way we resolve our relation to authority figures as teens continues to affect our relationship to authority, through transference to all the people that come in and out of our lives, ever after. (Of course the issue of power in this article has much, much more to say than merely reflecting on obedience to authority.)

Ivy obtained the article through her university, and I can't post the link here for copyright reasons. But if you really would like to see it, I think we can forward it to you. I have the idea that HR might like it, or hate it, happy.gif , and though it's quite chewy, I think she could navigate it.


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Godric
Posted: May 4 2005, 05:39 PM


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Yeah, they're the ones I'm on about, 'mantha. By no account take my opinion as gospel (for Godric's opinions on gospel, see the religion thread infight Club happy.gif ), I'll read those new ones, plus 2 articles Skivin' kindly forwarded me, when next the weather is lously and I don't feel like studying.


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aramantha
Posted: May 20 2005, 06:37 PM


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Well -- this is a recent article from the religious studies point of view, offering a comparative reading of Christian theology in Tolkien and Harry Potter. (More Tolkien than Rowling, but we like 'em both, so what the heck.) It is not one of the rants that trash Harry Potter out of hand for occultism. The author tries to lay out some parallels, especially with the issues of evil, and love expressed as self-sacrifice, with biblical themes. It's a bit literal and doesn't run all that deep, but I thought it might sit here as an example of its kind.

What I find interesting is that the author would draw the themes of both books back to Christian themes as if those were the Ur-source, rather than reflecting that the themes are a lot older than the Christian tradition itself, and that Christianity and its motifs are also drawing from the same sources. (For example, and forgive my centaurian bias -- the author makes reference to the trope of the "wounded healer" as specifically Christian. The myth of Chiron is only one pre-Christian example, and a relatively recent one, of this extremely ancient shamanic idea.)

I think most of the more accepting pieces about religious themes in Harry Potter tend to do this -- it's a tough bias for people in that camp to overcome. Still, it's not so bad, and since it reflects what is informing a lot of popular homiletics out there these days ("if you can't suppress it, use it") it's worth considering. And then too, the author of this article actually appears to have read the books, which is refreshing, regardless of her interpretation.

http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/pdf/2005-5.pdf


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aramantha
Posted: Jul 9 2007, 11:33 PM


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This is almost a year old, but I just stumbled on it today. Kind of an uncharitable send-up of serious criticism on Harry Potter, but interesting.



Harry Potter and the mystery of an academic obsession


And you thought Harry Potter was kids' stuff ? Try telling that to the delegates who packed into a conference in Las Vegas last week discussing moral alignment and metanarrative in the works of JK Rowling. But one question: why were the mostly female delegates dressed up as witches and schoolgirls and talking feverishly about Potter porn?

Carole Cadwalladr
Sunday August 6, 2006
The Observer


The first lecture I go to is called 'Muggles and Mental Health: Rites of Transformation and A Psychoanalytical Perspective on the Inner World of Harry Potter'. It's nine o'clock in the morning. Outside the temperature is 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, in a windowless conference room in the JW Marriott Hotel, Las Vegas, there are around 60 people, all with notebooks open, ready to begin.
In some ways, it could be any other academic conference: Dr Christopher Blazina, an associate professor of psychology at Tennessee State University, has a PowerPoint presentation prepared. The audience is studiously attentive. And a couple of people are typing directly into their laptops. It could be any other academic conference apart from the fact that there are at least three middle-aged women dressed as witches complete with hats, cloaks and wands. In front of me is a row of four twenty-something women in grey school skirts, knee-socks and black gowns. And, sitting next to me, assiduously writing notes with a feathered quill onto what looks like parchment, is a boyish-looking teenage girl with cropped brown hair, and, the tell-tale giveaway, a pair of little round glasses.

Lumos 2006 is not just another conference, it's 'a Harry Potter symposium', and most of the audience aren't academics at all, they're common-or-garden fans, 1,200 of them in total, here for three days' worth of talks, presentations and panels. Dr Blazina's presentation is just one out of a possible six others being held in the same time slot, including 'Not Just Good and Evil: Moral Alignment in Harry Potter' and 'Bloody Hell! Why Am I So Wild About Harry?'
His main thesis seems to be that Harry is growing up. Or as he puts it, 'Hogwarts is a tangible liminal state where Harry learns to re-sort Bad Objects and decathect from them'.

The last time I paid attention, Harry Potter was a phenomenally successful series of children's books. But this, I discover, is the kind of hop elessly naive viewpoint that causes my fellow Lumos attendees to gasp and shake their heads. Children are banned from the conference. Over-14s are grudgingly allowed only if they're chaperoned at all times. I go to only one talk in which the speaker thinks of mentioning that it's a book for children. And even as he says it, I see the audience losing interest.

This is Harry Potter for adults. A concept that I'd always thought of as one of those minority tastes like quantum physics for children. Or Star Trek for girls. In fact, it's not such a bad comparison, because it transpires that Star Trek is to young men what Harry Potter is to middle-aged women. And young women, too, actually. It's overwhelmingly female. Eighty-five per cent of delegates are women, with an almost even split between the 16 to 24s and the 25s and older.

The first two women I meet, in the queue for check-in, are Linda and Susan. They're fairly typical, I come to realise, of a certain Lumos constituency. They're both in their thirties and both teachers. They're dressed in school uniform with matching gowns that they've run up themselves on their sewing machines, and they're both slightly giddy with excitement.

'So, you're a fan of the books?' asks Linda.

Well, not really, I say.

'But you've read the books, right?'

Well ... I say, some of them.

'But you've seen the fi lms at least?'

A couple, I say.

'Oh my gosh!' says Linda. She's genuinely shocked even though I may have rather overstated my familiarity with the work. I read The Philosopher's Stone on the plane. And have spent the last seven years or so listening to my niece and nephew, aged nine and 12 respectively, endlessly recounting the plot, although 'listening' in this context might be another of my overstatements.

But, hell, I was an English student once so I've not-read Milton and not-read Spenser; not-reading Rowling in comparison is a walk in the park. Besides, I have put my niece, Bethan, on standby. If there's any really tricky questions, I've arranged to text her dad.

This, however, is before I've had the chance to really study the programme. A Berkeley professor called Frederick Crews did a rather gentle lampoon of literary criticism back in the Sixties called Pooh Perplex, a collection of essays purporting to be written by various academics on the subject of Winnie the Pooh. Then a few years ago he wrote a sequel, Postmodern Pooh, which included a paper on 'The Fissured Subtext: Historical Problematics, the Absolute Cause, Transcoded Contradictions, and Late-Capitalist Metanarrative (in Pooh) ' by a Marxist called Carla Gulag who compares Pooh to Chairman Mao.

But what's the point of parody when real life does it so much better? There are more than a hundred diff erent presentations listed including: 'Disney Does Derrida: Joanne Rowling as a Writer of Our Times', and 'Parallels in Tyranny: Voldemort, The Ministry of Magic, and Jewish Persecution' - and why invent Carla Gulag when there's somebody called Todd J Ide presenting a paper on 'Comrade Potter: A Marxist Reading of Harry Potter'?

I'm not entirely sure what Bethan is going to make of this. But then, I discover, there's quite a few things that I hope are beyond Bethan's comprehension. On the fi rst night, I stand waiting to go into the Great Hall for dinner. It's been billed as 'a chance to sample British food' and there's a rumour that it's 'something called shepherd's pie'. I'm hoping this isn't true.

So, I say to the two women next to me, why are you here? Although in truth I think I already know: such-wonderfulbooks, JK Rowling-a-genius etc.

'It's just great to be able to talk to other people about Harry Potter,' says the first one, Lisa. I nod my head earnestly. 'Particularly,' she says, 'Harry Potter porn.'

Harry Potter porn? I say.

'Harry Potter gay porn,' she corrects me. 'We write it. It's called slash fi ction. You take the characters and you imagine them in diff erent scenarios. There's het fiction too, where they think the characters are straight. Whereas we assume that everyone is bisexual until proven otherwise.'

What can I say? Lisa is 38; she's a paralegal and lives in New York. Her friend, Hally, is 26, and a student. They just seem like perfectly nice, educated, middle-class women. Who write homoerotic fiction about wizards. By Lisa's reckoning, at least half the delegates are engaged in writing fan fi ction, 'and there's fan fi ction with plot, and then there's fan fi ction which is just sex. But we sub-divide ourselves into who you ship.'

Ship?

'Who you put together. I do Remus-Sirius, but Hally here she does Harry-Draco .'

Draco, his arch enemy? I say. The little blond one?

Lisa nods her head.

I had no idea that Harry was a porn star, I say.

'Oh yes. You should see some of the things that Harry gets up to!'

I'm really not sure I want to, actually. And at dinner I sit next to a fresh-faced pair of sisters: Olivia, a nurse, and Abbi, a teacher, who've driven nine hours from New Mexico to be here. I try to judge if they, too, are into hardcore wizard-onwizard porn.

Do you do ... 'slash'? I ask Olivia and Abbi.

'No!' they say. 'We're fans, but we're not freaky fans.'

Later, though, I fall into conversation with Krissie and Kat. Krissie is 20 and works in a toy store in California. And Kat, 18, is a student from Toronto. They're so puppyishly enthusiastic and so glowing with youthful innocence. And then they tell me their 'ships'.

Krissie writes Harry-Draco. And Kat 'does everyone with anyone'.

But why gay porn, I ask them. 'It's like how men like lesbian stuff,' says Kat. I give them my email address and when I get back to London, two of their stories are waiting for me. I can't bring myself to quote them, though, in case a stray child has got past the late-capitalist metanarrative paragraph.

The next day, Rachael Livermore, a 25-year-old from London, gives me one of the best explanations of the phenomenon that I hear. It started with Kirk in Star Trek, she says. Fan fiction writers needed a romantic partner for him, and since there wasn't a suitable female character, he got paired off with Spock. It's slash as in Kirk/Spock.

'I do Snape and Harry. And Snape/ Lockhart. There are female characters in Harry Potter but they're just not very interesting. Ginny 's like the popular girl at school who picked on us, and Hermione is just annoying.

'It's empowering. We are reversing the gender roles. We are saying we like porn: deal with it. A lot of men don't really know what to make of it.'

And what do you do for a living? I ask Rachael.

'I'm an accountant,' she says.

But then everyone needs an escape. It just amazes me that for 1,200 people this involves sitting in darkened rooms listening to presentations on 'Harry Potter and the Sanctity of Everyday Life: JK Rowling's Complex Treatment of the Trope of Normalcy' .

This last one is by Dr Gwen A Tarbox, a professor of English literature at Western Michigan University. She did another talk I went to called 'Bridging the Gap Between Scholars and Fans in a University-level Harry Potter Course' so if anybody is qualifi ed to talk on the subject of Harry Potter as an academic discipline, she is.

So is there such a thing as Harry Potter studies? I ask.

'I would say so. There's such a large body of criticism now and the level of scholarship is really excellent.'

But isn't it the type of thing that gives Eng Lit a bad name, I ask her. Aren't you just playing to the crowd?

'We need to recognise that just because something's popular doesn't mean it's bad. There's a great deal we can learn about things that are popular. And it's popular among such a diverse group of readers.'

And then we have a little spat in which I say, Yes, but she's not Nabokov, is she? and she comes back at me with 'major philosophical themes' and 'a satirist in the tradition of Swift who debunks the idea of arbitrary authority'.

The biggest problem, she says, in talking at a Harry Potter conference is 'understanding who the audience are'. You can see the plus side, though. I stumble across a queue in one of the corridors. There are a hundred or so people lining up to hear 'Snape's Eyes' by Dr Edmund Kern.

Snape, who's been the baddie through six books, is almost universally adored, something which puzzles me until Debbie McLain, a volunteer and 'stay-athome mum' who's the main organiser of Lumos, explains it to me by saying that 'a lot of women are drawn to the characters who they hope may experience redemption'. Oh yes, I think, JK Rowling and the Complex Trope of Female Delusion.

According to the programme notes, Dr Kern holds the chair in history at Lawrence University. His talk, however, is just a nice old-fashioned piece of lit crit based on a close reading of the text. It's the type of thing that English professors did before theory was invented. Which is all well and good - it just has nothing whatsoever to do with his academic speciality. Not that anyone notices.

The audience is rapt. He receives thunderous applause. He's treated less as a history prof, more as an international rock god. And he's not theonly one. There's a group of teenage boys from the website, Mugglenet, who appear to think that they're in a boy band. And, at a talk by Steve Vander Ark, the creator of another website, the quite scarily encyclopaedic Harry Potter Lexicon, there are whoops and cheers and screams when he puts up a map of Britain and sighs when he points out that as we wait for book seven, the final book, 'We're at a unique moment in history. We don't know how it will end. We are living through this amazing time which no one, no one will ever experience again.'

I particularly like the way he calls JK 'Jo' with a quasi-religious type of awe. She supports fan fiction, apparently, of the non-sexual variety. But I can't even begin to think what she would make of it all. There's something of early Beatlemania to it. And, even in Vegas, one of the oddest places on earth, the barmen in the hotel casino shake their heads at me when they see my name tag. 'You're with the convention?'

I am, I say. They give me a long, hard look. You've heard of Star Trek conventions, I say. It's not so different.

'Nuh-huh,' says one. 'There it's all about the merchandising and maybe, you know, you get to meet William Shatner. It's not about wearing a cape and going to lectures.'

But then, there's something so very female about this. It's the first time that women have ever dominated fandom in this way, and so of course it's all about doing extra homework and making sure your uniform is nicely pressed. It's really not a coincidence that one of the most popular characters to dress as is Hermione Granger, Harry's over-achieving little-miss-perfectionist friend.

Everybody conscientiously troops in and out of the lecture rooms regardless of the fact that some of it is, quite frankly, rubbish. There's something slightly unseemly about watching a whole load of academics leaping on a bandwagon. I make a point of going to 'Lies, Damn Lies and the Daily Prophet: A Look at Journalism and Ethics in Harry Potter' since although most people swoon when they hear my adorable accent, one female Harry Potter refuses to answer my questions on the grounds that 'the British press lack ethics and principles'.

Hmm, I think, and march into the seminar ready to do battle. But from what I can figure out, and I don't think I was missing anything major, the main point is a comparison between Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, and Joseph Stalin.

I listen to a sub-GCSE level Lacanian critique and then 'Comrade Potter: A Marxist Reading' in which the speaker claims that a Nimbus 2000 broomstick is 'coveted not because of its usefulness but because of the value assigned to it by society'. Even I know that this isn't true. It's actually pretty useful for Quidditch too. And then 'Disney does Derrida', which is subtitled 'Joanne Rowling as a Writer of Our Times' when it could equally be 'When in Doubt Chuck in the Word "Deconstruction" and See the Suckers Lap it Up'.

Frederick Crews's sequel, Postmodern Pooh, is infinitely more ridiculous than his Sixties original because in the past 40 years, the literary theory establishment has almost collapsed under the weight of its own jargon. I think that if I hear the word 'discourse' again, I'll scream, although it's when I go to 'Out of Bounds: Transgressive Fiction' that I get really annoyed. It's a seminar analysing Hermione Granger-Professor Snape fan fiction. That is to say, a relationship between a teenage girl and a fortysomething man, which often, it transpires, takes the form of a rape narrative. There are 200 women in the room. And a whole lot of talk about female empowerment and gender reversals, but, frankly, if it was 200 men talking about rape narratives involving underage schoolchildren, it would be a matter for the police, and I don't think this is empowering anybody.

But then, when it comes to fan fiction, there really are no limits. In 'Written in the Dark of Nox: Fan Fiction and the Social Taboo', the speaker does a quick poll to see who present writes narratives involving bestiality. Hands shoot up. There's just one man in the room who spends the entire session staring at the carpet.

I corner him on the way out. 'I came with my girlfriend!' he says, quickly.

I thought it was just about liking nice cuddly wizards, I say.

'So did I!' he says. 'Jeez! I mean.'

I head out into the sunlight. I need to get away from the windowless rooms and the sex-with-animals. There's a game of water Quidditch going on in the swimming pool and I bump into Olivia and Abbi, my non-freaky friends from New Mexico, and Lisa and Maria, another set of sisters who are a GP and a TV producer from Sydney, and Megan and Mallory, two shiny-eyed, shiny-haired 21-year-old twins from Washington.

There are so many mother-daughter pairs, so many sisters and female friends all cutting loose from their families, their children, their parents. Over three days, I start to realise why so many of them need Harry Potter. The oncology nurses, and the social workers, and the ones like Abbi, a single mother of two young children, whose eyes shine when she talks about JK's own personal history.

They all dress the same as each other in the way that teenagers do. But then, fitting in, I think, is a very female thing; it's about being interested in and understanding relationships. And this, it seems to me, is why fans enjoy the books. The fact the characters can do spells is really neither here nor there.

Megan and Mallory, it turns out, are making a documentary about 'Wizard Rock', bands that base themselves on characters from Harry Potter. 'Isn't it so amazing that the books have inspired so much creativity?' they say.

And, well, actually, it is. It's all amazing. And seeing anybody, let alone 1,200 people enthused with joy about anything is really quite uplifting. And not just anything. Books! It makes my girlish, swotty heart swell with pride. The fact is that I agree with Gwen Tarbox. 'There's a great deal we can learn about our culture from studying this,' she told me. I think she's right, I'm just not sure exactly what, although I'm willing to place a bet on it having 'discourse' in the title. Or possibly 'trope'.

review@observer.co.uk



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Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.
Anton Ego
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