When people ask what I do nowadays, I instantly recall an old novel by a 19th century popular writer, Ouida: she did “romantic” action with lots of angst, and the title was Under Two Flags. Nowadays I seem to work under two hats: as an academic who’s specialised in “popular fiction” – including SF, fantasy, horror, and what used to be Gothics – and as a long-term writer and now aspiring author OF popular fiction, newly embarked on the precipitous learning curve to discover how you (hopefully) stay out there.
Under those hats, though, is the person who acquired both – or maybe the third, original hat. That person is what I call an overflower, or active enthusiast. Overflowers, to me, share a common impulse: not just to enjoy reading a book, but to actively, in some deeper way, make it their own. The collector version wants not just this but all the author’s books. The fan collects the books and maybe writes fanfic. The academic wants to write an article or study about the text and/or writer.
For academics, this means translating, I just love this book! into acceptable academic form. First, you need something about the work that snags your critical eye – unusual, complex, striking in some way. Then the enthusiasm has to be strong enough to support your work. An academic article is quite an undertaking. The first and simplest step is to find a critical approach that will “open” the text for you. Then you have to apply the approach to the text and put the result analysis into academic format, complete with references, bibliography, etc.
I did this a couple of years ago with a Laura Kinsale novel, For My Lady’s Heart. As a reader I consider her pretty neat. Especially, she has a very good ear for non-contemporary dialogue– and I *hate* tin-ear dialogue, which is why I don’t read many historical novels. More, she researches well enough to catch the sensibility of the period. Heart is a variant of a very famous medieval romance, “Gawain and the Green Knight,” and Kinsale gets closer than almost any other modern author to the “authentic” Middle English idiom, and sometimes, even the correct usages of “thou” and “you.”
That is very seldom done correctly nowadays, because it varies very subtly according to relative rank of speakers, closeness of relationship, current emotional temperature, and intent. In The Lord of the Rings, a classic case is Aragorn and Eowyn – she addresses him as “you” – correct formal usage to somebody of higher rank – until she pops her chocks at Dunharrow, and breaks into “thou” and “thee.” HE never addresses her as anything but “you” – proper courtesy to a woman, even if of lower rank – until at the very last, when she’s safely married off to Faramir, and he can honestly and “lovingly” say, “It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.”
Kinsale’s nearly as good. I just love (there’s the enthusiast) the scene where Ruck and Melanthe are making their makeshift marriage vows. She has “thee’d” him from square one, as a social inferior, even before she fell in love. Ruck, who has steadfastly avoided “thee-ing” her despite x days of trauma and flight together, starts off very formal “Princess of Monteverde, Countess of Bowland – my lady – I humbly take you – take thee – ah, God forgive me, but I take thee with my whole heart, though I be nought worthy …” There’s a shift that isn’t just careless writing or ignorant line-editing. The whole weight of the Middle Ages, rank and status and the outbreak of irresistible personal feeling, is in that one small change.
Those comments, though, are too enthusiastic for academe. In fact, I couldn’t even get them into the paper. Instead I had to find a critical text on “Romance” – which goes far beyond our modern genre, back to the imperial romances like King Solomon’s Mines, to the medieval romances like “Gawain,” and on to the Hellenistic Greek sagas of the late centuries BC. – and then apply its ideas to Heart. Discovering, for instance, that it works on the same principal as the theorist says fits all romance –its interest is not in going Straight There, like an action novel. And the core of Heart is indeed the long “detour” in the wastes of the Wirral, where Ruck and Melanthe really discover each other.
I spent a considerable time, too, working out comparisons with “Gawain and the Green Knight,” and learning about that work in the process. But the whole project, which ended with an academic paper and a reason to go from Australia to Glasgow for a convention where I could deliver it, came from the wellspring of reader’s enthusiasm: I just had to translate my delight in Kinsale’s ability to transport herself and her characters into the Middle Ages so well.
In the opposing hat, academic theory filters into my writing life. The latest novel I’ve published, Amberlight, began from a series of imagined images: a city in moonlight. Massive, smooth granite boulders on a local mountain range. But the next level came from my PhD, on feminism and Science Fiction, where I’d reached the SF theory chapter. And I was trying to figure what distinguished SF and Fantasy. Next thing, I was writing a novel whose intent was to balance it so closely on the border of SF and fantasy, no-one cd. decide which it was. I was quite delighted when I sent it to one of my very well read mates who really didn’t know which label to use on it. But again, the wellspring for all the effort was enthusiasm. Whichever hat I wear, it seems I should really extend the number to three, because the enthusiast has to bubble underneath them all.