Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Going Native": Aca-Fandom and Deep Participant Observation in Popular Romance Studies

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Going Native": Aca-Fandom and Deep Participant Observation in Popular Romance Studies

Article excerpt

This essay explores an experimental method for how an academic interested in popular romance fiction might study this bestselling genre. It sets out a practice for negotiating the "aca-fan" tension in the growing field of popular romance studies, based on methods of the aca-fan-writer, observant participation, and performative ethnography.

Here is a moment. I am in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's one really good seafood restaurant--fish trucked in daily from the Gulf of Mexico--having lunch with Eloisa James/Mary Bly. She is the guest of the University of Alabama; we invited her down in her capacity as Dr. Mary Bly, Shakespeare and Renaissance scholar at Fordham University, but also in her capacity as Eloisa James, New York Times best-selling author of historical romance novels. She delivered a campus-wide talk in the English department, visited my gender studies seminar, and spoke with my students about romance fiction. Mary is a respected academic, with scholarly publications and degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. Eloisa is a high-level, successful romance writer. I am there in that moment eating lunch as a fan of Eloisa James, asking her when her next book is coming out, since I read her novels and other historical romances for pleasure. I am there as an academic who works in popular romance studies, talking with Mary over shrimp salad about American cultural ambivalences around women's sexuality, etc. And I am also there as a beginner writer--what is called a "wannabe"--eager for and honoured by Eloisa's volunteered advice on my own historical romance manuscript. She reads and critiques my first chapter over key lime pie: "Core idea intriguing, but opening scene no good, not enough tension, raise the stakes, make the heroine suffer more! And the hero, his eyes could be sky blue!" All great advice, except I keep his eyes brown: "chocolate brown."

The point of all this? Multiple identities are in play: literally for Mary/Eloisa, with her two names and the two identities she, like many romance novelists, long kept separate. I, too, have a multiplicity of identity, of positionality, at play here. The more I have pursued work in popular romance studies as an academic, the more I have come to see this multiplicity as of key relevance for issues of methodology in the field. My claims in this essay are twofold. Firstly, we can think through the significance of this multiplicity by drawing on the concept of aca-fandom to analyze the status of academic attention to popular romance. Figuring out how to negotiate the complicated tension in play between the academic and the fan is a central task, I propose, for scholarship on popular romance. Secondly, this analysis can then yield purposefully theorized methodological pathways to help carry out this work. Based on my own ongoing research and that of current ethnographic theorists, I will introduce three terms toward such a methodology: the aca-fan-writer, observant participation, and performative ethnography.

Mapping out the territory and tension of aca-fandom requires situating this category within the broader romance community. If we think about this community--which for my purposes I am confining to genre fiction romance--as a large whole, we can divide it into four sub-communities: 1) fans, 2) romance writers, 3) industry professionals, and 4) academics; or those who consume the genre of romance stories as readers, produce it as authors, sell it as editors/agents/publishing professionals, and study it as academics. These people all read popular romance novels, but do so in different ways. Interactions among these sub-communities of reading practice and identity position are complex and not infrequently fraught with tensions of various sorts having to do with maintaining and/or bridging the boundaries among the sub-communities.

The category of fans, in more academic and perhaps fruitful terms, can be referred to as "ludic readers" (i.e., people who read for play and pleasure). …

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