A poem for #blogElul 20: Judge
A poem for #blogElul 21: Change

New essay on midrash and fanworks

I'm delighted to be able to announce that a new essay of mine has been published in the Symposium section of Transformative Works and Cultures, the fan studies journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works. The essay is called Fan fiction and midrash: making meaning.

Here's how the essay begins:

Because I am a Jew, the Torah is part of my inheritance, and along with that inheritance comes the obligation to read and to interpret. Reading and interpreting are also things I do professionally as a rabbi, though they're open to, and arguably the responsibility of, every adult Jew.

One of the ways that Jews interpret Torah is through midrash, exegetical stories that seek to explore and explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts. The word midrash comes from the Hebrew lidrosh, to interpret or explain.

Midrashim (the Hebrew plural of midrash; in English, "midrash" can be either singular or plural) work in a variety of ways. They may fill lacunae in the Torah text, resolve contradictions in the text, or articulate character motivations and emotions that aren't explicit in the text. Sometimes they make a meta-point, an argument about where we should focus our attention, how we should live, or how we should read the text at hand...

After offering examples of midrashim which do each of those things, I draw a connection between midrash and fanworks (of all genres, though I focus here on fanfiction, because like midrash it's a written form):

As Jews constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about Torah, fans constitute community through our interpretive storytelling about pop culture or literary source texts.

I've written about this before -- see Transformative work: midrash and fanfiction -- though that essay isn't available online in full, so all you can read at the blog post is a teaser. Also, in Religion and Literature I presumed I was writing for an audience which might know about midrash but didn't know about fandom; TWC's readers, in contrast, presumably know about fandom but may not be familiar with midrash. Anyway, the big idea of this essay is that fanworks function like midrash, both in terms of the narrative moves they make and in terms of their community-building function. Ultimately I argue that when we think of fanworks in this way, we open up new understandings of both fanworks and the fans who create them:

Thinking of fan fiction as midrash is a useful alternative to Henry Jenkins’ textual poachers analogy. Whereas Jenkins' analogy positions fans as serfs poaching game from the lords' estate in order to make meaning and to reclaim ownership of the storytelling which fans see as our birthright, the midrash analogy positions fans as respected interpreters, analagous both to the classical rabbis who for centuries have interpreted scripture and to the modern midrashists who continue that work today.

(I'm actually a big fan of Henry's book Textual Poachers; it was hugely formative for me. But I think the poaching metaphor also has some limitations, and one of them is that it necessarily posits fans on the margins.)

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this for TWC is that  TWC is an open-access journal, which means that everything they publish is available online, for free: no need to pay for access to JSTOR or other academic databases. Go and read: Fan fiction and midrash: making meaning.

And while you're at it, check out the rest of the issue. I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.