Harry Potter, computational fun and sexy gains

About the workshop on the Recreation of Harry Potter, endorsed by the SIG-DLS at DH2018 on 25 June 2018, led by Mike Kestemont and Enrique Manjavacas; and developed in cooperation with Greta Franzini and Marco Büchler, part of the 2018 Digital Humanities conference in México City

By Corina Koolen

Harry Potter novels, not one of the first topics one might think about when performing stylometry. But, as Mike Kestemont argues, popular literature is one of the unrightfully overlooked areas of digital literary studies, which still often focuses on the classics. With the workshop run by him and Enrique Manjavacas (many thanks for all your help!) during the international Digital Humanities Conference 2018 in México City, they show us exactly why this is undeserved. I am impressed by the setup chosen, which combines computational analyses with thoughtful reflection on a number of humanistic issues and interests.

One of them is the legal aspect of researching contemporary novels. After a discussion on the differences per country, where the basic conclusion is that there it is very hard to determine what exactly is legal in which country, Kestemont remarks: “We always talk about the author’s rights. I believe I have rights, too, as a researcher.” I could not agree more, this is going to be ammunition for legal discussions in the future.

Then the stylometry. Generally, stylometrists are known for performing authorship recognition. J.K. Rowling herself found out about the discipline when she was unmasked by Patrick Juola as the real author behind Robert Galbraith. There are other cool things to do, however, through stylometry. And this is where it becomes interesting for me as a researcher of popular literature: we are going to look at stylistic similarity between the novels and HP fan fiction. There are two cases that we will test, both of which follow the original structure of the novels. The first case is Aidan Chase. This fan fiction author, of whom little biographical information is available, reframed the originals to create a story world where Harry’s parents never died, but stayed true to the main story line. The second is Norman G. Lippert. He created new novels, based on the original characters, because his children were so disappointed that the series had ended. And indeed, the tools we apply show that Lippert deviates more from the originals than Chase. By using text-matcher by Jonathan Reeve, a not-yet-completely-polished but impressive tool nonetheless, in combination with the visualisation tool Bokeh, it is possible to visualize the overlap (see image); including the opportunity to make a line-by-line comparison of the sentences that have similar word usage. Chase is proven to copy large parts of the originals literally; showing how we can also apply stylometric methods to examine intertextuality, including reuse of materials.

Visualization in Bokeh - credit: Christof Schöch

Bokeh visualizes the overlap between two texts – size and location in the text. Credit: Christof Schöch

It gets even more interesting when we start to examine a larger body of Harry Potter fan fiction. Kestemont uses the database Archive of our Own to mine metadata and texts of fan fiction novels. This gives the researcher information that is never as easy accessible as it is here: who are the main characters, who have relationships, what are the fandoms that the author chooses to include — fan fiction authors provide this meta information because potential readers can use it to more easily to select fiction on the relationships and fandoms they prefer. The creativity is astounding: Lord of the Rings combined with Harry Potter is not as rare as I had expected it to be; and there are TV shows being crossed with Harry Potter that no one in the room has ever heard of and appear to not even be decently Google-able.

When we dive into the contents of these fan fiction stories, of course, there is sex. Lots of sex. (I for one never thought I would hear the term ‘elf porn’ in an academic context.) A computational topic model of fan fiction versus the original novels shows that topics specific to fan fiction are pornography, transportation and modern technology — that last one, interestingly, is also a topic The Riddle project team found as more typical (pdf) of ‘popular fiction’ as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction. But apart from the giggles the porn topic generates, it also shows something about how readers engage with characters. ‘Slash’ is, as fanfic researchers know, an important genre within fan fiction. Central characters, especially male ones, are paired in a romantic and often pornographic relationship. One of the first pairings was Kirk/Spock; the ‘/’ sign gives slash its name. Kestemont focuses on how attention to certain characters deviates from the original novels. Draco Malfoy and Severus Snape for instance, are much more present in fan fiction than in the Harry Potter novels, whereas Ron Weasley has the opposite effect. As Kestemont states: it gives us the possibility to research reception in a different way, to see how readers/writers engage with the original materials and characters.

That, I would stress, is an important academic outcome of this workshop, but I would like to end on another: fun. What always strikes me about Mike Kestemont’s work, is the joy he appears to get from his materials, the humour he brings to it. As he stresses, this is enhanced by working with bright and motivated colleagues such as co-tutor Enrique Manjavacas. But it is also partially explained by the type of material. As popular fiction is as much part of our cultural heritage as Great Literature is, this serves a dual purpose. First, we get a better view of fiction in general. Second, with that fun and humour comes creativity —  something we could use a little bit more of every now and then. Because that, I think, is where the magic happens. Bombarda Maxima!


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  1. Pingback: CLiGS @DH2018 in Mexico | CLIGS

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