[Review] Literary Fandom In The Edited Issue Of “Spiegel Der Letteren”

As an emerging body of  work, fan studies has been characterized by its attention to popular culture. The communities and fan works based on television, movies and games have been at the centre of fan studies scholarship. Such an emphasis has often left out other forms of adoration, particularly those associated with the high arts. While there are some outstanding publications on fans of high culture (The Opera Fanatic by Benzecry; Nineteenth Century Poetry and the Literary Celebrity by Eisner, or the work of Henion and Gomart), such works remain scarce, and often focus on taste, status and hierarchies in favor of the social and affective discourses of fandom. Where are the music and art lovers in fan studies, or the literary aficionado? The recent Dutch issue of Spiegel der Letteren has collected several articles around the theme of the literary fan for a special issue.


Drawing a connection between literature and fandom is much-needed, but definitely not evident to many scholars in the humanities.The language of these two disciplines can vary, and their starting points are fundamentally different. While fan studies emphasize participation and engagement with mass culture, literary studies is based on the idea of distance, authorship, and a formal culture. Such studies tend to focus on taste, exclusivity and authenticity. That is to say, the fan is commonly characterized by his intimacy and adoration, while the literary audience is believed to be critically distant. How do affective and resistant readings of – what we jokingly call at conferences – “fan studies’ fans” map onto literature?

Literary Celebrity and Fan Works

The fan of literature can first and foremost be understood in relation to the author that s/he looks up to. The figure of the literary celebrity (a concept by Eric Eisner) is an important one in this issue. The emergence of the literary celebrity is connected to the emergence of celebrity culture in different domains of mass culture, but also to Romanticism, when the genius was born. While the interaction between authors and readers was quite narrow in earlier ages, Romanticism created distance. The true artist, poet or writer was considered a genius – an extraordinary, talented individual, admired by others. The articles in Spiegel der Letteren discuss the cult around authors such as Bilderdijk or Reve, but also explore the memory culture of authors such as Vondel.

Like other media fans, the literary fans is creative.  The articles by Gaston Franssen and Zosha de Rond, as well as by Thomas Vaessens and Lara Delissen, closeread literary fanzines. Franssen and de Rond the cultural economy of three fanzines dedicated to Buch, Schippers and Hermans. The magazines carefully combine “popular practices with the conventions of institutionally sanctioned forms of high culture”. Vaessens and Delissen write that Das Magazin breaks with a modernist model in fan studies, as noted down by Jenssen (1992) in The Adoring Audience. Fans no longer represent or act against mass culture, as opposed to consumers of high culture or aficionado.

Are literary fanzines exceptional? In many ways, no. Characteristics of fandom – amateurism, participation, genre and media diversity, and appropriation – all map onto the literary fanzines, Franssen and de Rond show. The magazines constantly have to balance between the critical distance appreciated in literary circles, and their fannish adoration. This  tension reflects in their content; the zines are a mix of reviews, close readings, gossip, and even fan talk ‘Ze zijn wars van literair of literair-kritische pretenties, maar ze maken desondanks aanspreaak op cultureel kpitaal: ze zoeken naar erkenning door de auteur en gaan de discussie aan met academici en critici”. The logic of a magazine, they write, is also intimately connected to the status of an author. If the author is not that esteemed, the fanzine functions to validate his writing; if the author is widely accepted, then the zine is more subversive and creative.

Crossing Histories and Places 

The articles deal with diverse material and topics, ranging from Dutch fan zines and the relationship between fans and authors to the fan’s relation to cultural heritage. Other than a fascination with authors themselves, the issue teases out a fascination with history, or “historiezucht”, that grounds the identity of the literary fan. I was struck by the transhistoric approach of all contributions, that bridged times and spaces, and seemed motivated by a historical fascination with literature as a form of cultural heritage.

Literary tourism is a central theme – the revisiting and commemorating of places related to authors. Jenssen writes about tourism in the early nineteenth century revolving around Dutch poets such as Rhijnvis Feith. She explores the discourses around obelisks and statues to commemorate the poets. Fandom and admiration are connected to national sentiments and cultural memory in her argument.

Though less commercial than Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon or Scott’s Abbottsford, Bilderdijk house became a site of tourism and the author was met with prestige. Honings reads the accounts of Bilderdijk himself and the sources of fans, who longed to meet the author. The man was a phenomenon. Bilderdijk himself, according to his own account, was not amused that fans visited his house in Leiden or, later, in Haarlem. Interestingly, Honings argues, his fame motivated literary tourism. Fans were not always aware of his work, but were interested in meeting someone famous;a well-known thinker with an international reputation. His poetry lacked identifiable places. In this case, there is no literary landscape that fans visit to spark their imagination, in contrast to tourism related to Sir William Scott, or Dracula, or Sherlock Holmes.

Bodies of Authors and Fans

Modern authors play with this image in a process of self-fashioning. Edwin Praat shows how the Dutch author Gerard Reve combined elements of the high/low or arts/entertainment “both in his work and in his public manifestation”. He carefully constructed his image as a Dutch “volksschrijver”, and played with fame in an ironic way.

The idea that the author’s body is prominent, even in the nineteenth century, fascinates me. Honings describes the fans that wanted a signature of Bilderdijk, or a lock of his hair. Fans were interested in Bilderdijk’s life and body, Honings concludes, not in naturalizing their interpretations of his art. Tourism related to a celebrity can have different motivations, which are less concerned with the work and legacy of a celebrity, and more guided by his fame.

The cultural fascination with the body of the author is also foregrounded in Praat’s article on Reeve – an exhibition of Reeve’s wisdom teeth disgusted some fans and critics, but delighted others. One offended critic remarks that he could do without such profane exhibitions of the celebrity,and would prefer it if his fiction was upfronted. This is an interesting parallel to Honing’s fans, who cared less about the fiction, and more about the fame, and the supposedly vulgar bodily displays.

The body of an author can also be subjected to hero-worship, as Jongsma and Rock argue. They examine the functions of a statue of Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel. Several types of fans manifest in the discourse around the statue, including anti-fans and non-fans. The violation of the statue by anti-fans is striking. Their violence responds to the statue itself, and Vondel, but also to the Dutch culture that it represents. It was no less intimate, or fanatic, than the behavior of fans, the authors argue. Their actions are personal, and a form of engagement.


It pleased me to see that fan studies has come such a long way, and is picked up by traditional humanities magazines and journals.Concepts such as participatory culture, celebrity, media tourism and the adoring audience are expanded upon with great ease by these scholars. They do not defend their engagement with fan studies, but demonstrate – with great ease – how literary studies can benefit from a great study of the fan.

This issue also shows that fan studies can gain in theoretical finesse when they engage more with the long history of cultural and literary studies. This issue is riddled with memory spaces and discourses of cultural identity that complicate the figure of the fan. Spiegel der Letteren stars a fan that is a cultural citizen, not a media enthusiast, fan artist or activist. By engaging with celebrity authors and cultural heritage, fans ground their national identity. Investigating such local discourses of fandom – perhaps best voiced within our own language traditions – is a valuable contribution to fan studies and the larger body of cultural studies.

Categories Fandom

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