Austen Fandom vs. Austen Academics, a Guest Post from Melanie Rachel

Austen Fandom vs. Austen Academics, a Guest Post from Melanie Rachel

At the JASNA annual conference last October, I was fortunate enough to meet with a number of JAFF writers and editors.

Did I participate in a little fangirling? Well, yes. 

During the course of our various discussions, the topic of the divide between the Jane Austen fandom and Jane Austen academics arose, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I’m one of those people who has a foot in both camps (a Ph.D. in English and author of two JAFF novels, working on another), and in the Jane Austen universe, I’m certainly not alone. Research on Austen herself and on the historical era of the Regency (versus the Georgian and Victorian) is very important for the composition of good stories. We need to know which words were in use at the time and what they meant, which of society’s “rules” were rigid and which were flexible, who was eligible to apply for a special marriage license, or how accurately a rifle could be fired. I now know that the date of the “Season” was not set in stone, but was based on Parliament’s calendar. I also know what happened to seats in the House of Lords when the current holder of the title was too ill to continue, but still alive. (No, his heir could not take that seat if he didn’t already hold a title of his own). Understanding that the years of the Regency supported a fashionable world whose moral sensibilities were more akin to the Roaring 20’s than the more conservative Victorian era is essential to our world-building. Knowing how Austen viewed her world, through the letters we still have and the research of “clever, well-informed” scholars, is incredibly helpful. So we can surmise, at least, that most writers are very happy to have the information or topics of speculation provided by academics.

The reverse cannot really be said, as a whole, for academics. I say this with some disappointment, and with a nod to my own failures in convincing other academics that fandom is serious business. The notion that Fan Studies, even when we’re dealing with classic literature, isn’t a “real field,” is pervasive, though I suspect, like culture studies in general, more acceptance will come as younger students join the ranks of doctoral candidates.

I do amuse myself, from time to time, by thinking of Fitzwilliam Darcy (pre-Hunsford, of course) as the snobby full professor who has an unlimited professional development fund and is assigned a large faculty office with lots of windows.  Elizabeth Bennet? She’s an assistant professor of cultural studies who has to beg for conference registration funds and is shuffled off to a windowless office in the basement, next to the soda machine. Hey, maybe I should write that . . .

Of course, this kind of fractious camp-building isn’t limited to Jane Austen. I’ve seen this kind of divide at least since my own graduate school days, where literature students turned up their noses at MFA students, devaluing the creative and championing the analytical. I wondered then, and I wonder now, whether my fellow academics understood who was writing the very books they spent their own careers dissecting. Aren’t primary sources, like novels, our “first cause”?

As I’d been warned, this tension clearly played out at the JASNA conference in Huntington Beach, which, for the record, I enjoyed enormously and highly recommend (next year it’s being held in Kansas City, Kansas, and will focus on Persuasion).

As one does at conferences, I attended several presentations. I had particularly anticipated hearing “Jane Austen’s Lives and Deaths Through Fan Fiction.” The speaker was a graduate student writing a dissertation about JAFF.

At last, I thought, someone building a bridge between fandom and academia.

Unfortunately, while the young woman was clearly intelligent and the presentation well-rehearsed, it was also rather reductive. She focused purely on the published fiction, reading a random selection of novels that had received 1, 3, and 5 stars on their Amazon reviews (she told us she’d read about 125 in total). Therefore, 2/3 of her chosen texts were those most JAFF readers found lacking in some important way. In addition, while 125 books might sound like a lot to anyone who doesn’t read JAFF, it’s a rather small sample of the whole.

Once she read each book it was neatly categorized by trope. She mentioned as an example those stories that focused on excusing Darcy’s poor behavior at the beginning of the novel. Instead of arrogant, he is shy, or troubled over his younger sister’s near elopement, or even suffers from social anxiety (I call these writers Darcy apologists, and it’s true, they are legion).  Until I inquired, though, she made no mention of those writers who also create Darcys whose behavior is much worse than in canon. All in all, they even themselves out, and it would have been fascinating to explore why we respond to Darcy this way when he’s really hardly in the book at all.

Why do we want Darcy to be a better man before he’s done the hard work he needs to do? Is our impulse to spare Elizabeth Bennet from a humiliating experience, or to mitigate its impact? Or is it that we simply want our romantic leads to be closer to perfect than they are? On the other side, why are we taking our anger out on Darcy by making his infractions worse? Why would we want to do that? Is there a larger narrative we are accepting or rejecting?

A second trope was that of kidnapping, primarily Georgiana or Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice fan fictions. The trope certainly exists. But so do spoofs on the trope—see, for example, JanetR’s humorous “Again?” Yet there was no conversation to be had on that subject, either.

When we write, our stories say a lot about us. I am really more interested in figuring out why these tropes exist than I am that they exist at all.

After the presentation, I approached the speaker to ask whether she had visited any of the online communities. While she was aware that they existed, she had not included in her research any of the JAFF sites that are the heart of the writing. She missed those spoofs, she missed the humor, the short stories, the unpublished novel-length stories, the sharing of plot bunnies, the amazing outpouring of time and effort of writers helping writers (particularly new writers), and, at least at one such site, A Happy Assembly, the tête-à-tête folder where not only do historians deeply immersed in events and culture of the time answer author questions, the discussion of Austen’s novels themselves continues to be held in minute detail. A recent discussion, for example, focused on what it might mean that Sir Lewis de Bourgh had his windows glazed (the answer being that this was a newer home compared to say, Pemberley) and how the notion that Rosings was not from a family with an ancient name might mean to Lady Catherine’s designs on Fitzwilliam Darcy. If any of my undergraduate literature students pointed out a detail like that in an essay, I would be beyond thrilled.















This is why the presence of fan fiction readers, writers, and supporters at conferences like JASNA is so important.  If we want the opportunity to change the trajectory of the discussion, or even influence it a bit, we have to be present, to talk about the focus of these kinds of studies and why the relationship between academic and fandom need not be acrimonious. Not to mention you get to meet some fabulous people! This year, one of the keynote speakers was Richard Knight, who discussed the ongoing care of Chawton, the estate where Jane lived the final eight years of her life. Next year, Amanda Root, who played Ann Elliot in perhaps the best-known Persuasion film adaptation, will be speaking about that role.

The speaker will go back to her university and write her dissertation, and likely remain fixed on published JAFF books to the exclusion of the very lively online communities from which most of those stories sprang. This is not a tragedy. We will all survive the indignity. But we can do better.


Meet Melanie Rachel

Melanie Rachel is the author of Courage Rises and Courage Requires, both available for sale on Amazon. Her current modern WIP, Headstrong, is posting at A Happy Assembly. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Penn State University and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her family and their freakishly athletic Jack Russell Terrier. She fell in love with Jane Austen as a young camper and then camp counselor, reading under the stars with the help of a flashlight. Extra batteries were considered essential camping gear.












Headstrong (WIP) :

23 Responses to Austen Fandom vs. Austen Academics, a Guest Post from Melanie Rachel

  1. Yes, you should write that contemporary. Also, it would be great if one of the students had a paper with so little background. I wonder why JASNA had her speak when they receive so many proposals. It was probably trying to relate to non academics.
    Interesting blog.

    • Lol! So many plotlines, so little time…

      You know, JASNA asks for for proposals a year in advance. It might be that the research just take an unexpected path as it’s being written. I think they are trying to “sex” up the presentations in some way, as all conferences try to do–but this one fell short, in my opinion.

  2. Interesting post, Melanie. Doesn’t surprise me that most academics look down their n…pardon me, don’t accept JAFF. For me, it’s a world of its own, and I love it. I do like Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ but some of the P&P’s I love. And I love Darcy and Elizabeth. Perhaps lumping everything solely under Good or Bad or Acceptable or Unacceptable doesn’t work for many things. JAFF, I think, is one that seems to fall into a category of its own that should overlap with the academics view of Jane Austen and her works. After all, she inspired all that’s considered JAFF. That indicates common ground right there, and if she is acceptable, shouldn’t JAFF be acceptable as well? Thanks for sharing, Melanie. 🙂

  3. Thanks, everyone! It’s not a problem that I’m going to solve, lol, but I think it is one that requires more input from those of us in JAFF. In academia, there’s sometimes a fallacy that if something is enjoyable, if it’s popular, if sells, it can’t really be any good. And while I’m certainly not comparing what I write to what Jane Austen has, I think fandom and fan fiction (not just with us, but this is my fandom, lol) is a hugely interesting phenomenon in its own right, and it deserves to be discussed and analyzed by authors who really enjoy it. And we do–as Katie says, it’s pleasurable. Trying to figure out why (or at least some of the reasons) isn’t doing a disservice to academia, it’s helping us to better understand the world we live in (as Rose points out, that’s one of the reasons we like academics so much as well as writing). It’s cultural studies, which in some ways is the study of us! And we’re in this amazing wave of participatory culture on steroids because of the reach the internet has given us. So JAFF hits all my writing AND academic buttons, lol!

    Lori, Cindie, Renata, Chaelsea, and darcybennett–thank you for your kind words! Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

    Ruth, I’m with you. I think trying to do a dissertation on the topic without being willing to totally immerse yourself in the world you’ll be writing about is short-sighted. Even if you are visiting as an “anthropologist” of sorts, you have to allow yourself to let go and experience what it is you want to analyze and discuss. Otherwise, your work will fall short. I feel for the student, too, though, not knowing precisely what sort of pressure she’s getting from her committee and the pressure from everywhere to just finish the thing! I’m very familiar with that, and writing by committee is awful. I don’t know why they insist on a book length project anymore–honestly, they’d be better off polishing up four or five really good articles and trying to get them published.

    Rose–this is why I love, love, love, the tete-a-tete (can’t do accents ;-<) forum on AHA. I mentioned it in the post. I asked a question about how much an English girl’s school might cost in the period of about 1800-1810 or so, and had a long line of answers, with original documents, within a few hours. My reference librarian can’t work that fast. And of course, getting those docs sends me down my own little rabbit holes. Lol.

    Jane Austen’s Regency Experience, lol, that’s great. It makes me think of the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland. I agree–there are plenty of JAFF writers and readers out there who thumb their noses at academics, too. It’s just that mostly they aren’t giving presentations about it.

    If anyone knows of other sites that have something similar to the tete-a-tete forum, please post them here–it’s just an amazing way to harness the collective intelligence of those who enjoy the history of the period, not just the romance of Austen’s stories (and she’d be disappointed, I think, if that’s all we thought about).

    I truly love the way “what ifs” work in fa fictions of all sorts. “What would happen if just this was different . . .” I think these stories can be so powerful, honestly. It doesn’t bother me a bit to have Darcy better or worse or different than canon, as long as the writer offers the context explaining why. I think it’s kind of reductive to label and categorize things that way without any additional details or discussion is all. When I call a certain group “Darcy apologists,” it’s done with affection. I’m writing one of those Darcys right now, and yes, I love him. ;->

    You are right to point out the P&P is really Elizabeth’s story. I’ve written this before–but Darcy’s not actually physically in the story much. But his presence helps drive the changes in Elizabeth. She’s quite a bit younger, so it’s not surprising to me that she’s the one who needs to grow up a bit more. Darcy perhaps is too comfortable in his world at the ripe old age of 27/28, and so he does need to contemplate his behavior and change some things, but Elizabeth is the one developing and changing a great deal more.

    Christina–thanks! And I loved meeting all you guys. Hoping to see you again in Kansas City!

    Thanks, Regina, for helping set up the blog for me–I’m very appreciative!

  4. Great post Melanie. I agree that leaving out JAFF online community had taken away an important part of this phenomenon. And another thing, we read JAFF because it gives us pleasure.

  5. Thank you for sharing this post with us, it was really interesting to read and sounds like a fun experience. Hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving later this week.

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience at JASNA and for the interesting post on the divide between academia and fandom communities. I agree with so much of what you posted and wish that those writing about the fandom would get the full picture and not just select a few published works.

  7. This was totally fascinating to read. It must have been very difficult to sit through a lecture from someone doing comparative literature genres and fan fiction who clearly doesn’t get it. Reading a hundred or so published works without going on line and reading the countless versions and plethora’s of differing scenarios should not have given her the facts she would have needed to reach her conclusions. It’s like having just enough information on a subject to make you dangerous.
    I’ve read at least 400 different JAFF, countless online stories and watched all the versions on film and television. I adore the way different interpretation is developed into new ideas and scenarios. Some are funny, the nuances and character study just amazing. I can’t for one second phathom why there are those who don’t like the various interpretations or understand it; its inspiring to read, its imagininative, creative and takes Austen’s stories and characters further in study and depth if you will. Interpretation is all subjective and must be considered as such. If I like a shy Darcy but you like an arrogant ponsy man and that’s how you view him, you will indeed find it in JAFF stories. We can have a discussion and talk about it, explore the notions, the times, the life and culture of that era. However, to say well that’s not what Jane Austen was saying etc., i feel is wrong. How do you know? How does anyone know?
    I go to my brother-in-law who’s Uncle is a famous Welsh poet. At University they were studying and interpreting his work. So my brother-in-law went straight to the source and asked his uncle. When he got his dissertation back at the end of the semester, he had received a very low mark. According to his professer, my brother-in-law had misinterpreted his uncles poetry and was marked as being clearly wrong…now since the poetry’s correct interpretation was from the poet himself, how does one argue that? Art work comes under the same scrutiny as well, so how do we broaden accepting ideas and interpretations? I think teachers themselves have to be open to interpretation right from public school onwards. I know that not everyone prescribes to my point of view but at least I’d like to think that it’s open and ready to accept differing ideas and that others are of the same mind as me. If I’d been at a table discussion with Jane Austen herself, I’m pretty sure that had she the opportunity she’d have written a lot more in her books, possibly giving us sequels too, but since she was writing at a time when women were subjected to rediculous male assumptions that females were weak minded and not as intelligent or worthy. It’s fairly obvious that we have today to read is a daring and vivacious group of stories that make your heart melt, and make you go,  What if? ….

  8. An interesting post! I went to JASNA AGM 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky and had planned on going to the 2016 one in Washington DC but was busy moving. I certainly do plan on going some again and valued the experience, even if, like you, I noticed a dislike for fandom readers and writers. As a graduate student in history (albeit, a paused one), I do understand some of where the academics are coming from. Although, since my focus is the history and not the literature, my view is that Jane Austen is not the end all, be all of Georgian/Regency life. I wish more writers would examine primary documents of the period and not the regurgitation and watering down printed in some cursory overview of Jane Austen’s Regency Experience (note: my intention here is to not use a real title as I have nothing against a specific book). The problem we then have on unpublished forums that discuss and nitpick Austen is that they seldom go outside her works or these sorts of books. There is a wealth of information out there available even for free on Google Books or The Gutenberg Project but instead people wish to focus on restating what they read in a book without investigating the sources (as history is not all blanket agreement) or, even worse, merely quote blogs which quote blogs which quote blogs. Additionally, while writers and academics alike need communities, I believe research is a personal responsibility. I might ask a question but just to be pointed in a direction. I’ll be looking it up on my own. Again, in these sorts of situations it is often not the case. Finally, this might be a bit of “airing the dirty laundry in the front yard” but there are plenty of people who have not felt welcomed at such sites and in such discussions. They can be as close minded in their fandom as others can be in their academics. For someone who is not a hard and fast JAFF fan, I honestly think tiptoeing into that water could do more harm than good.

    To answer some of your questions regarding Darcy tropes, in my opinion it does not mean an author is attempting to make Darcy “better” before he does the “hard work” to give complexity to his mindset before he arrives at Meryton. For that matter, few would say they are attempting to write the universe Austen made. Most I know would say we are changing things and that will obviously change certain bits about the character. However, at the end of the day I would say there are a wealth of quotes in the book which show that Darcy had no “improper pride,” was “perfectly amiable,” “all along,” and “did not change in essentials.” Did he need to learn a lesson or two? Yes. I would say, though, that Elizabeth changed and learned more. And if I can be sad about anything in JAFF, it’s that we focus more on Darcy than Elizabeth. I’m guilty of it too as I’m writing an uber-tortured-Darcy story at the moment. I think it’s because we see Elizabeth’s path but not Darcy’s. How does a man who is actually very good in his heart and is probably just having a bad year give off such strong signals of badness? Oh, then again, it’s really only Elizabeth (and Mrs. Bennet) who feel that way about him. For myself, while I recognize this is an exaggeration and a trope used by Jane Austen (how many times have we read books since or seen movies where the bad guy/good guy is actually the one you least expect?), there are, of course, shades of human character we may all see. I’ve known plenty of Lady Catherines and Carolines. So the next time I meet a Darcy, perhaps I can pause and consider there might be more beneath the surface. In the end, I read and write JAFF to help make sense of the world around me which are the same reasons I pursue academics.

  9. I had a great time meeting you! AGM was so worthwhile for many reasons. Agreed.

    Btw, Am adding your books to my must reads!

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.