Being a Pop Culture Historian

I got my hands on copies of Harry Potter and History ( just the other day. As you can see, I’m very pleased, not only because I have two chapters in the collection, but also because I have a whackload of new fun reading to zip through.

Professional Pride: In writing for a pop culture project, a scholar needs to do right by their field. You don’t spin stories out of nothing or rely on tertiary sources if you want to grab readers’ attention and paint a compelling picture of how the fictional world they know relates to history. So you dig for hooks (I used Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to explain the roles and limits of British women in real world history for “Witches vs. Women: What Muggles Could Learn from Wizarding History”). You’ll also find quotes from primary sources as well as insights credited to dozens of historians whose books, chapters, articles and scholarly encyclopedia entries filling the end notes for my chapter. Many historians are also mentioned by name in the body of the text.

Fandom Lore: A pop culture historian also has to know the pop culture source. This doesn’t mean just popping in a DVD and watching the movie version: it means reading the texts (if they exist) and critically exploring the story world. I’m a self-confessed fan of many books and shows. I have been “into” fandom for a long time. When you sign on to write about a pop culture topic, you have to develop or refresh your knowledge of that source material. So, yes, I’ve read all of the Twilight books now (more than once) as well as all of Rowling’s Harry Potter books (including the ancillary Quidditch Through The Ages, Fantastic Beasts and the Tales of Beedle the Bard). I also had repeatedly watched every episode of Battlestar Galactica that had yet aired before “The Battle for History in Battlestar Galactica” went off to the editors of Space and Time: Essays on Visions of History in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. (Yes, I know I’ve been “Jossed” but the final edits were done before the last half of season four aired.)

Respect for the Reader: Writing for a popular audience is often described as “dumbing down” a subject. I believe that it’s a true test of scholarly mettle to communicate clearly to a non-specialist. Someone who’s inspired to pick up your book, whether at the bookstore or online, and browse through it is giving you a chance to show them why they should care and what they can get from a little time spent reading on the subject. They may not have your specialist knowledge of history, but they may remember arcane details of the pop culture source in great detail. Why not use that knowledge for your own advantage and let the pop culture material lead readers to real historical learning that they’re likely to retain since it relates to another well-developed interest? You may also find that you learn something from the well-established fans, as well.


1 Comment

Filed under history, pop culture

One response to “Being a Pop Culture Historian

  1. Ink

    Congrats, Janice! (I’ve been using “Room” for a writing project recently, too–what an important essay that is.) Great post, and I look forward to reading your chapters. Just watched DEATHLY HOLLOWS last night, actually. Haunting!