Chestnut Hill 2017: Emily’s Conference and Festival Report

Peri Fisher giving her talk on the power of YA lit to effect social reform.

Catching the heels of Louise’s excellent round-up of the sessions she attended at 2017’s Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Conference, I submit my own report, dear Hogwarts Professor readers. In addition to the conference, my intrepid friend Katherine Sas and I also attended the Harry Potter Festival in the village of Chestnut Hill, just down the street from the College, the day after the conference, as we have done the past few years. The fest was particularly good this year, for both magical and non-magical reasons. I’ll spell them out here, with photographic evidence of the mischief that was so delightfully managed by Chestnut Hill, PA in 2017.

The Conference

Like Louise, I began the conference with Christina Phillips-Mattson’s talk Say the Magic Word: Spellwork and the Legacy of Nonsense, which is an excerpt of her book-length work studying the sophistication of children’s literature in the modern age. Mattson is a recent Harvard PhD. who was mentored by folklorist Maria Tatar, a past plenary speaker at the Chestnut Hill conference. I was particularly attracted to the title of her talk by my own interest in the sacramentality of, well, just about everything in Potter, but especially spell language (listen to a talk I gave at another Potter conference on sacramentality here). Mattson’s talk, however, focused more on the trajectory of the nonsense mode (and what it conveys about the importance of language) in children’s literature from Lear and Lewis Carroll onward, than on its foundational reliance on the logos epistemology of the Judeo-Christian tradition: understandable, as her field is literature, not religion. Her talk was very interesting and well-delivered, and I had a lovely chat with her regarding the connections between her scholarship in literature and mine in religious studies during the lunch break. Hooray for interdisciplinary collaboration in Potter studies! It’s what makes events like Chestnut Hill so great. I hope to hear more from Mattson at future Chestnut Hill gatherings. Do check out her book here.

Next I snuck into Lauren Camacci’s examination of the use of alcohol in Potter. The talk gave me a new appreciation for alcohol as a major plot-driver and character flag in the series. Camacci’s talk reminded me of Beth Sutton-Ramspeck’s talk on dirt in Potter at the Ohio State University Potter conference I attended this year (read about it here) in that both talks took me – in about 20 minutes – from an assumption of insignificance (of dirt, of alcohol) to a state of fascinated consideration at how a seeming bit of story backdrop can carry such hidden meaning. But then again, this is why we love Potter. Look for Camacci’s paper in a forthcoming edited volume, Inside the World of Harry Potter.

I popped back over to the East Parlor to catch my friend Peri Fisher – a long-time attendee but first time presenter at Chestnut Hill – giving her presentation on the power of young adult literature to break down sexist societal norms. Her ideas were excellently presented and convincing, and I’m confident we’ll hear from Peri again next year.

Still the Dean

I arrived at Professor Granger’s presentation on Nabokov, already underway, in time to catch the five things John Granger has learned this year (see photo). Funny how “five things” can be enough to press the reset button on Potter scholarship moving forward. John showed how Rowling, like her literary hero Nabokov, is a master of parody. There may be many new and important voices in Potter studies of late, but John Granger is still the Dean.

Then it was off to the session I both appeared in and moderated this year. But first, Stephanie Weaver, a PhD candidate from St. John’s University, spoke on how Rowling’s dragons symbolize the problems of resource exploitation in the Anthropocene (or current geological age; you know, the one with all the humans). Then Tracy Bealer of Borough of Manhattan Community College really made me feel sympathy for Dementors with her illustration of how their evil is not related to their being, but constructed by those on which they would naturally prey. (So think of Dementors the way you might think of polar bears, who would also eat you if they could. It’s nothing personal; they’re just hungry.) Also, Lorrie Kim, author of Snape: A Definitive Reading, presented an intriguing look at the many mysteries that connect the Potter saga with the new Fantastic Beasts storyline.

This year was my third year presenting at Chestnut Hill, and after a year of writing my first novel in collaboration with a local writer’s group, I decided to tackle a sometime elephant in the room of Harry Potter analysis: Rowling’s prose. While Rowling is a master of plot, planning, suspense, characters and capturing all those wonderful moments that make readers ugly cry even on multiple re-reads, her prose has been roundly panned by critics for its reliance on literary crutches such as clichés and –ly adverbs (especially to describe the way characters speak, thus I named my talk “Said Hermione Earnestly” because she uses that one… a lot…). For my talk, the audience and I looked at three negative reviews of Harry Potter, and from them drew three conclusions:

  1. If you’d like to be published, heed Stephen King when he says, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Just avoid them in fiction writing, and avoid clichés too. Remember: show, don’t tell. (But if your story is good enough, you may just be published regardless of your adverb count, like Rowling was, eventually.)
  2. Tensions between popular and literary fiction are real and cause biases that are difficult to see past. For example, Harvard scholar Harold Bloom read Sorcerer’s Stone and concluded in his NY Times review that the book possesses “no authentic imaginative vision” and that 30 million book buyers are simply wrong to love it. (Huh?) In such cases, the reviewer may be reading to reject instead of to reading to understand, due to the opinion that other books, more literary in nature, are more deserving of the popularity and media attention the Harry Potter books enjoy. This position may even cause reviewers to go beyond attacking authors of popular fiction in their scathing critiques, to attacking the readers and media who drive the books’ popularity as well. Appreciating this context empowers us to understand the content of these critiques without taking them personally, even when they’re meant to be taken personally.
  3. Neither perfect prose, nor critical acclaim, nor media hype signal great literature. Vivid characters, humor, sparkling dialogue and seamless, effortless-seeming plots signal great literature. Read Rowling, read Austen, read Dickens: it’s all there, and all the –ly adverbs in English couldn’t make it “bad writing.” (Then again, if you seek publication, see conclusion #1…)

Okay, enough about me. Next came lunch accompanied by excellent, magical, musical entertainment by students and faculty from Archbishop Carroll High School. Louise’s comments on

Keynote Cecilia Konchar Farr on what makes books so good.

Cecilia Konchar Farr’s keynote presentation were spot-on and I’ll only add what a lovely, humorous, and (dare I say) fannish touch Farr had during her presentation, which greatly enhanced her message about the complexity of Potter fandom. Audience response to her talk seemed to confirm this complexity, and Farr demonstrated open-mindedness and grace in the Q&A, as all together we tackled the thorny issue of what is and is not canon in the Potterverse. This will remain a thorny issue moving forward because, well, Jo loves Twitter.

Along with Louise, I also attended Katy McDaniel and Mark Sibicky’s presentation about terror management theory, and was similarly impressed. Next I enjoyed Caitlin Harper’s creative application of the Seven Deadly Sins as a lens with which to understand the role of each child in the Weasley family. Finally, I listened to a solid presentation by Molle Scheumann, a Masters student at the University of Memphis, on Hermione Granger and feminism, which succeeding in avoiding the feminist whitewashing of the character that happens sometimes on the Canadian podcast Witch Please (which I otherwise love and recommend for adult audiences) and elsewhere. Hermione’s flaws make her interesting and intelligible to readers, and Scheumann’s presentation brought out this reality, instead of burying it under a girl power agenda.

Like Louise, I enjoyed the discussion-based end-of-day roundup, and hope it will be repeated at future conferences. I used my time at the mic to express my whole-hearted endorsement of Oxford lecturer Beatrice Groves’ new book Literary Allusion in Harry Potter in the hopes that the conference organizers will consider Groves as a future keynote speaker. It is my belief (one I share with Headmaster Granger) that Groves’ book represents a watershed in Potter scholarship. More on that in a future post, I hope.

The Festivities

Friday night after the conference, an intimate group of us (only 12 or so) enjoyed a delicious and relaxing meal at the Iron Hill Brewery in Chestnut Hill. We toasted absent friends, knowing as we do that friends “are, in the best sense, ever-present, because immortal.” (William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude) John even treated us to a fairly tuneless (sorry, John) rendition of his Alma Mater. Because… I’m not sure, but it was fun.

Beautiful.

Saturday Kat and I attended the Village of Chestnut Hill’s sixth annual Harry Potter Festival, which was far, far better managed than the fifth annual. Last year, a crowd of 45,000 showed up in cold rain to a festival which seemed equipped to handle perhaps a few thousand. Honestly, last year was scary. At the height of the 2016 festival, Kat and I were involved in a crowd crush that was only alleviated by a shop owner allowing a stream of fest-goers to escape into a back alley. I’m happy to report that while crowds in 2017 held steady around 45K, the Village was ready for even more. Chestnut Hill took many important steps to improve the festival experience, including satellite parking locations with shuttle service to the festival and Quidditch tournament, a slew of Potter-themed events, many more food and merchandise vendors (including all the usual junk, but also some really interesting items, such as original Potter art by local watercolor artist Eddie Flotte), and a veritable legion of PortaPotties.

The festival was enhanced for us also by the company of Potter scholar and fan-tour leader David

David Gras… I mean Newt Scamander with an Ilvermorny student, who was just one of many people who stopped him for a photo-op. We felt important just hanging out with him.

Gras in his splendid Newt Scamander get-up. As I hope my photos show, people-watching (character-watching?) is one of the most entertaining aspects of the Chestnut Hill Festival, even for those of us who don’t dress in full costume. However, if David joins our intrepid band next year, he may inspire me to pull my Mme. Rosmerta costume out of storage… or maybe I’ll do Tonks… or maybe a Weird Sisters band member…?

Dates for 2018’s conference and festival have not yet been released, but when they are, you’ll hear it here, with our sincere hope that you’ll join us at next year’s Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Conference and Chestnut Hill Village Harry Potter Festival. Until then!

Comments

  1. David James says:

    Brilliant Post Emily……Especially the section on Newt Scamander !!!
    That coat that Oscar Winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood designed for Eddie Redmayne in the movie is probably going to be my trade mark for awhile as I plan to research and develop more talks on the symbolism and philosophical elements that J K Rowling and other fantasy writers have hidden within the characters and the mythic/magical Beasts in each of their works.
    Most importantly, the Harry Potter Conference at Chestnut Hill was outstanding this year with so many gifted and talented presenters such as yourself and others with in depth of papers from political, social, literary, educational to Psychology and Philosophy all expounded from J K Rowling’s literary world. The list of scholars this year was impressive, along with the knowledge given in each field of their presentations. It was also a special surprise to have our own “Hogwarts Professor”, John Granger make a great, but all too brief presentation on Rowling’s Nabokov connection and Travis Prinzi with his insightful look into Dolores Trumpbridge. Well Done Everyone !!!

  2. Emily Strand says:

    Thanks, David! I was bummed to miss both yours and Travis’ talks. Next year they will pass out time-turners, I hope!

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