Hard-Core Fans are Lit Critics Too
The internet often feels like a dark basement full of dudebros who are anxious to mansplain to the nearest woman why she can’t join their nerd community. Feminism’s answer to that? Witch, Please, a podcast that critically examines J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Hosted by two feminist scholars, Hannah McGregor and Marcelle Kosman, the podcast uses multiple frameworks of analysis to study the books, movies, and other expansions to the Harry Potter universe. The first episode of Witch, Please dropped in February last year, and its listenership quickly grew from a small circle of friends to a diverse international audience. Geez magazine’s Rachel Barber caught up with McGregor and Kosman just as they finished recording an episode in Kosman’s backyard. Barber asked about how they read books, form online community, and understand fandom.
Rachel Barber: Why did you guys decide to do this podcast?
Hannah McGregor: It started off primarily about the pleasure of reading a book with a friend. We are both interested in reading and talking about our reading with other people, so we thought that we’d do this together, without anticipating a listenership. We weren’t initially anticipating addressing a public, because at that time we didn’t have one. We were talking to each other, primarily, and that changes it. It’s the difference between creating an object to send out into the world for a listenership, which is what we are now doing, and what we were originally doing, which was talking to each other and recording it.
Marcelle Kosman: It has gone from being conversations that we have after a bottle or two of wine to being conversations that we structure in a specific way, that have us referring back to previous conversations, in a much more coherent way that we put together specifically for an audience. The reason we decided to record it was we thought it would be fun to put it on the internet, and it would be a fun record of the conversations that we were having, that some of our friends would listen to. But once we started to have a regular listenership, it became important to produce it in a reliable timeframe. Our Twitter presence became less a goofy thing we did, and more a genuine means of interacting with people who have things that they want to say about the things we’ve said. It’s funny to look back on what we were thinking when we started it, because we haven’t really added any new things, but we’ve become more professional in the way that the podcast has developed.
How do you understand your relationship with your listeners?
HM: It feels to me like a community. This is Michael Warner’s definition of a public: a group of people who may be strangers to each other, but who have all decided to pay attention to the same thing. We have a listening public by virtue of the podcast that we put out, and we enjoy that public, we enjoy interacting with them.
MK: If we didn’t have listeners, I’m not sure that we would have gotten as far as we have in the books or in the conversations. We started to look at this not as a fun thing that we were doing, but as work. Not work as in, “Ugh, I’ve got to go to work,” but as in something that we take very seriously. It became something to put on our CV, as well as to joke about over drinks.
Why did you chose Harry Potter specifically?
HM: It literally came out of a conversation where I was saying that I wanted to re-read them for ages, and just hadn’t found the time. Marcelle was like, “Oh, I re-read them all the time.” And I said, “Could we re-read them together, because that would actually make me do it.” I can’t remember which one of us suggested that we make a podcast out of it, but we had already been talking about getting into podcasting in other contexts, so it just seemed to fit. We got to try our hand at this medium, while also do this reading project that we wanted to do.
The stuff that you guys have been able to mine out of the text has been super rich. Did you have a sense that the books were going to be like that? You consistently find such amazing things.
HM: No, I don’t think either of us anticipated how much we would get out of this re-reading, how exciting it would be, how much richness there would be in the text and in reading with one other interlocutor. That’s an experience I don’t think either of us had had before, that really close engagement with one other person over a book. The other thing is that, by virtue of it being a public project, we also get this constant feedback from our listeners, which also further increases the richness of what we find in the series. They know things that we don’t. They notice things that we don’t. They really add to the conversation. Marcelle is nodding.
How would you define your approach to these books? What is your general theoretical framework?
HM: We are feminist scholars, primarily, so we are always really attentive to the gender politics that are being played out. We are also both critical race scholars, so we are always going to be thinking about race and the ways that race is being represented. We are not interested that much in authorial intention, and we are certainly not interested in attributing one stable fixed meaning to the text. Post-structuralism, where reader-response theory came from, is this idea that once the text is set free in the world, it has a life of its own, and readers can interact with it and find all of this hidden richness in it that lies at the level of language and narrative.
MK: We are also both book historians and cultural materialists, who are really interested in print culture, so since the sixth book (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) that has really become an important part of the way that we interpret how text functions in the series. That was less important to our readings early on, and it really became significant when Harry gets Snape’s old copy of the potions textbook, which is covered in annotations. We started to really pay close attention to the way that text functions as a whole.
Do you think there is a way of engaging in both escapism and criticism when you are reading Harry Potter? Or is that immediate, immersive, self-forgetting enjoyment of it exclusive of a critical analysis? Do you need to compartmentalize yourself in order to do both?
MK: I would say that I have done a lot less compartmentalizing than I thought I would have to do. One thing that has been surprising is how thoughtful, smart, and evidence-based the fan theories have been. Doing this project, for me, has been a real wake-up call that fan theories are the exact same thing as literary criticism. The validity of fan theories, just like the validity of literary criticism, is based entirely in how much textual evidence there is to support it. It became really clear really quickly, when people started to share fan theories with us, how strong and text-based they were.
That’s really interesting, because I had always been snobby and thought of fan theories as basically bookish conspiracy theories.
HM: Well, so is feminism. Anything the mainstream says is not reality and that requires decoding, looking for clues, and hunting for evidence to piece together a version of reality that is being deliberately hidden, that is a conspiracy theory or a critical lens. They are both resistant approaches to reading.
The more I become immersed in the world of fandom, the less I believe that fans are indulging in anything like escapism. I think escapism is a surface use of cultural products to turn your mind off, like “I don’t really love this, but it helps me to not think for a while.” Escapism implies that you are getting away from something, so I think a better word for what fans do with something that they really love is immersion. Immersion into the world of a text, a TV show, a comic book that is super engaged. Fans know so much more about the world of the text, characters and their backstories, the authors. They generate fan theories. They engage so richly with the world that they love, and I think escapism is too reductive a word for what fans are doing.
I think deep fan immersion looks really similar to critical reading, rather than being at odds with it. Like, I read romance novels for fun. But I have no emotional attachment to those characters. If I do re-read them, I don’t read them cover to cover. I don’t read them along with other people and talk about them. That’s not to say I don’t think you can’t do that with romance novels, because there are romance novel fans who engage those books in meaningful ways, but I am not a romance novel fan. I use them as a form of escapism. Whereas, my relationship with Harry Potter, or the comic books I read, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer – things that I’m a fan of – is very different. So escapism is a thing, it’s just not what fans are doing.
How do you navigate between academia and the fan world?
HM: I’m not sure that divide is absolutely necessary. I think people perform that divide – the idea that in order to be critical about something you must be unemotional and detached and impersonal about it. That is a stance that we are both critical of.
MK: How boring.
HM: So boring. Did you read that piece by some white guy at The Walrus, criticizing journalism from the first person? Basically he says that it is so boring how cultural critics these days constantly root their discussion of cultural objects in personal anecdotes and experiences, like, “Ugh we don’t care about who you are, just offer some interesting critique.”
People have come back and said that’s bullshit. It’s primarily bullshit because the people who are excluded by an insistence that personal experience doesn’t matter tend to be everybody who isn’t a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied white man. I said white twice because it is super important. That whole idea that, “Oh we’re in academia, it’s time to do these really cold, remote, disembodied critiques” – it’s just the fucking patriarchy, and it’s boring. I don’t think there is anything natural or inherent to a critical reading lens that prevents you from also being emotional and personal and fan-like in your approach to the text.
MK: I have no evidence for this whatsoever, but I think this also has to do with the divide between pre- and post-internet culture. I think that, for example, The Lord of the Rings was written 50 years before the internet. So that series and its fandom lends itself more towards a rigid, “This is what the texts say, this is the para-text, so this is what we have to go on,” and readers today may have inherited that.
Whereas, the Harry Potter series really bloomed in popularity after the internet became a household thing. So it’s not that the text of Harry Potter lends itself more to a rich interpretive fan community, but that its location in a very digital, media-saturated society lends itself more to those kinds of fan engagement. Again, I have no evidence behind this. It is just a feeling.
HM: I’m super behind that theory. I think that popular culture that emerged at the same time as the internet by definition has affected fan communities in different ways. Not that there weren’t fan communities previously, because there absolutely were. They just couldn’t produce these communities of interpretation in the same way that we now can on the internet.
In making the podcast, are you ever aware of altering content in order to specifically connect with listeners? Do you ever try things or say something more provocatively in order to create a greater response?
HM: We are never intentionally provocative, it just happens. I would say that being aware of the listenership, hearing back from them and getting a feel for the sorts of things they are familiar with and what they aren’t – I think that has shifted. What we pause to explain versus what we don’t explain has been shaped by who listens.
We know that our listeners have read the books, so we can gloss plot summary and move straight into interpretation. What we tend to pause to explain is stuff that we can’t assume our listenership is well-versed in, which is why it has turned out to be more of a pedagogical project for us.
MK: Similarly, because our listenership has largely been either self-identified feminists or feminist allies, we don’t do as much explaining of the feminist stuff that is motivating our analysis. Another example is that because we have a remarkably international listenership, we do spend a little more time explaining histories of racism and colonialism, specifically in a Canadian context.
All of those things have been motivated by the type of listenership that we have. But I wouldn’t say that it has ever been a negative thing. It has always been a positive and generative opportunity. We’ve never been, “Oh, listeners are going to get mad if we talk about this.” It’s been, “We’re going to talk about this, and maybe listeners will have things to say about it.”
Most of the people that I’ve recommended your podcast to have loved it, but there was one person who came back to me and said, “Not for me, it’s too jargony.” Again, this comes back to straddling the academic context, but has that been something you’ve heard before?
HM: We did a lecture at the University of Calgary where we talked about the kinds of authority that come when you have the credentials of the university behind you, and how part of that is the way you talk. The kinds of language that you use can be a way of discouraging disagreement, because we obviously are the authority because of all the fancy words we know how to use.
At the same time, while I am suspicious of jargon, and I do think we have work to get rid of unnecessary specialized language in the podcast, there are useful vocabularies that come with critical theories. I think part of what we are trying to do is provide our listeners with vocabularies that are useful for talking about things they already care about.
We do try to at least counter all the academese by being personal and engaged, which makes it possible for listeners to respond to us. We talk about our emotional response to the text, which opens it up for them to talk about how it makes them feel.
Why do you think your podcast has engaged people so strongly?
MK: I think it’s because we are really funny. Obviously, the fact that we are talking about Harry Potter is the most important thing. I don’t think that this would have happened if we were talking about Canadian literature. What we have encountered in terms of the Harry Potter fan community is that it is a really loving and thoughtful and excited fan community.
HM: The other piece that I would add is that there is a real hunger for smart feminist content. We’ve seen it in comic books, we’ve seen it in television, all over the place. Women fans are coming to the forefront, dominating more of the conversation and saying that they want explicitly politically feminist conversations to be happening. So I think we tapped into a conversation that a lot of young women want to be having right now.