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Speculating Stories (Genre Fiction)

Reading genre fiction can be an embarrassing vice for an English major. At times it seems like reading science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels or what have you is perceived as a waste of time. If you admit that you enjoy fantasy novels, you should not be surprised when people look at you in a bemused, vaguely judgmental way and ask why you're wasting your time on that. The writers of such fiction are not accorded the same respect that "literary" authors are (this was mentioned in passing in the Jenkins article, I think). Never mind that several genres can easily be identified in canonical literature. If courses on genre fiction pop up in the catalog, you can bet that they're novelty courses or electives.

However, while genre fiction of the fantastic persuasion may not be seen as an acceptable topic of conversation in formal academic circles, it's the subject of endless and often heated debate online. There is an enormous amount of discussion and speculation about the conclusion of Harry Potter to be found online (or so I hear in the dining hall), and the participants examine those books with no less attention and fervor than anyone trying to decode Joyce's Ulysses.

An example that I have more personal experience with is George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. It's a fantasy series of four massive volumes and counting. Yeah, it's a fantasy, but it's a damn good one. Martin has clearly read his Shakespeare, and he tells a great (and damn dark) story to boot. Unfortunately for those of us who read the series, massive volumes mean massive delays in between, and the cliffhangers aren't helping matters. During those periods, the speculation about where Martin's taking things begins, online (on forums and elsewhere), and in person. A few of my friends also read the series, and we've had several of these speculative discussions. The discussions really delve into character analysis, and thoughts on the ways in which Martin is structuring his novels. In other words, it's a lot like an English classroom sometimes.

In addition, the novels produced so far drop maddening hints about past events in the history of the world that Martin has created, and numerous enterprising internet folks have created what amount to online resources in which they attempt to put the pieces together. A good example of this is Tower of the Hand, which bills itself as "An Encyclopedia of Ice and Fire" and is packed with more speculation, general minutiae, analysis, and compilations of "history" from Martin's world than anyone could possibly want to read, though I don't doubt that there are a few who have read it all. Those running the site also show a borderline stalker-like attention to Martin's activities, but let's not get into that. So not only are people trying to interpret Martin's writing and speculating about its direction, but they are trying to flesh out the implied connections in the actual narrative and graft some sort of solution or coherence onto the mysteries in the story.

In any event, I find it unsurprising that one of the most popular, yet least respected genres of literature has found a home for interpretation on the internet. It's fitting in a way that the internet, which has come to be known as a medium that democratizes self-expression, should be the site of some honest to god analysis of the genres that the critical establishment has largely ignored.

harry potter on the internet

though people still really look down on the internet and probably see it as an appropriate place for people to discuss the genres they also look down on. Over Thanksgiving, a fight broke out between two of my cousins over Harry Potter. Unfortunately, I missed all the action, but I hear that the fight got pretty intense (of course, I "heard" about it from my cousin's live journal). One of my cousins, a serious harry potter aficionado and contributor to analysis of the series in online forums, was belittled by another cousin for "being stupid and insane" for taking the books seriously. More harsh words were bandied about and now the cousins are not speaking...

j.r.r. tolkein by the christmas tree

It's funny what a favorite author or genre will bring out.

Two Christmases ago, my brother and sister got in a similar argument about J.R.R. Tolkein--was he a real writer... was he an atheist... was he brilliant... was he just an idiot... it wandered into strange (and intense) territority. My brother is quite conservative and my sister is quite liberal and things got very personal--and somehow the argument kept getting back to Tolkein.

I ran upstairs to my room (my policy is to stay out of all arguments), closed the door, and took out a book. In spite of this all, I could still hear my father in the living room, his volume steadily increasing to counter my siblings': "Shut up... Shut up... Shut up... Shut up!..."