Super fans & the books they love

Obsessed book fans favour works that are familiar and affirm their values, prof says

Immense fiction readership, such as with series like Harry Potter and Twilight, was not seen before the internet, prof says.
Immense fiction readership, such as with series like Harry Potter and Twilight, was not seen before the internet, prof says.
Fans of series like Twilight and Harry Potter have been known to spend hours waiting in line for the newest instalment.
Fans of series like Twilight and Harry Potter have been known to spend hours waiting in line for the newest instalment.

It’s midnight, and hundreds of costume-clad children, teenagers and parents are lined up outside a book store, each of them brimming with anticipation. Suddenly, the front doors open and everyone rushes forward.

This is the typical scene that die-hard book fans often face when waiting to purchase the newest work from a favourite series or author. Most of them will spend the next two days locked in their rooms with the book on their lap and bags under their eyes.

The phenomenon of extreme book fandom has occurred to a certain degree throughout history, with such works as Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. It is especially prevalent, however, in today’s society. In recent years, series like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight have gained massive followings and spawned films and endless merchandise.

Heather Evans, a professor in the English department who teaches a course on children’s literature, said the internet is largely to thank for the vast popularity of Rowling and Meyers’ famed books.

“There is nothing inherent in the books themselves that would predispose them to becoming phenomena,” she said. “The internet and social media have facilitated advertising and have hastened the speed with which readers may encounter new books or new instalments in book series.

“Each reader who posts a comment about a book or series on a blog or on a Facebook page contributes to the marketing of the book by spreading the word.” Evans said the type of immense readership we see with works like the Harry Potter books did not typically occur pre-internet, though incredibly popular works still existed.

Evans cited 19th-century sensation fiction like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and New Woman fiction at the end of the century like Sarah Grand’s novels The Heavenly Twins or The Beth Book as works that were extremely popular relative to the times they were released. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books were other examples she gave of series with countless devoted fans.

“We might also include many of Charles Dickens’ novels and short stories which were published serially, thereby heightening readers’ desire for each new instalment,” she said.

Evans said the popularity of a book or series rests on its ability to be accessible to the preferences of a large portion of the population.

“Most people are fairly common in their tastes and fairly average in their reading skills, so the less revolutionary, subversive, challenging, provocative ... a book is, the more likely it will gain a massive following,” she said.

Readers also tend to gravitate towards comfort and familiarity, Evans added.

“Most readers want to read things that resonate with them, that affirm their values and ideas, and that confirm their beliefs about the world, so the more familiar a story or book is, the happier the reader will be,” she said, adding that this is what accounts for the popularity of the Harry Potter series.

“Readers appreciate that the books follow recognizable plots, organized around the familiar school calendar, feature a consistent cast of characters, and rely on the same tropes and devices inaugurated in the first of Rowling’s boy wizard books. Reading each instalment becomes ritualistic.”

To fully experience life as an extreme fan, I registered as a member at one of the most popular Harry Potter fan sites, Members of this site can “take classes” ranging from care of magical creatures to divination, buy their very own owl, participate in online quidditch matches or even get sorted by the sorting hat. I thoroughly enjoyed the hour I spent perusing the site, despite being offensively sorted into Slytherin house.

So, just how many fans does a series like Harry Potter have? According to mugglenet, the site has been visited by fans in 183 countries and has 32,535 members. Over 400 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide, and the series has been translated into 67 languages. According to Forbes, author J.K. Rowling is the 937th richest person in the world, with approximately one billion dollars to her name, the first author to become a billionaire. According to Kimberly Sutherland Mills, Children’s and Teen’s services librarian at Kingston Frontenac Public Library, it’s the younger teens aged 11-14 who tend to be the most obsessed.

“They find it most urgent and are excited by it,” she said. “They’re passionate about everything at that age.”

Sutherland Mills said she thinks these book fads may have a positive effect, since they inspire young people to read more.

“The number of books going out for the teen collection has increased every year for the past 10 years,” she said. Evans said being an obsessed fan can have social implications for pre-teen readers.

“These are the readers who most need to be able to connect with their peers, to demonstrate that they’ve read the ‘in’ book,” he said. “Difference makes people, especially young people, nervous, so a person who has not read the book that everybody has supposedly read represents a little bit of a threat, a disruption to the order of things.”

This is especially seen with adolescents from the middle to upper classes, as they are able to engage in the more costly aspects of extreme fandom, Evans said.

“They can afford to indulge their obsession by purchasing not only the books themselves, but the accoutrements and paraphernalia that are marketed with them: t-shirts, action figures, etc.”

Evan said she doubts the claims that massively popular series like Harry Potter and Twilight are improving the literacy levels of the young people who read them.

“Anecdotal claims aside, the books themselves don’t necessarily foster reading skills or inspire reading,” she said. “If they did, we would have seen a tremendous increase in literacy rates among young people during the past decade as Harry Potter novels were flying off shelves, but we haven’t. In some cases, we have actually seen declines in literacy rates.”

Allie Roberts, ArtSci ’14, confessed to formerly being an obsessed Twilight fan.

“I really liked Twilight because it really focused on the connection between two people, developing their relationship,” she said. “No matter what happened, you knew that Edward and Bella would be together.”

Roberts said because she knew the outcome of the books would be positive, they provided her with a comforting fantasy world to escape to.

“Because it’s in a fantasy land, everything does work out, and especially when you’re going through a hard time in high school, it’s nice to have somewhere to remove yourself and read something that will guarantee to bring you happiness.”

Roberts said her obsession with Twilight took place mostly in grades 10 and 11. During that time, she read the series in a continuous loop and watched the first film eight times in seven days when it was first released.

“I read all three books, and then when the fourth book came out, me and my friend lined up at midnight and got the book.”

Roberts admitted the hype surrounding the book may have contributed to her own fandom.

“I loved Harry Potter and Twilight, but there may be other books out there that I’d have loved equally,” she said, adding that she found out about Harry Potter and Twilight due to their vocal fan bases. “Now that I’m older I can use my own judgement and explore other topics and areas for myself and find that love in books that are less well known.”

Roberts said she’s moved on from the vampire love story series and no longer needs to be a part of a large fan base to engage in a book.

“Because I’m older and I’m passed the stage in my life when I was most insecure, I’ll be able to enjoy other books and not feel like other people need to feel the same way for me to have the same happiness.”

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