If you have not read The Half Blood Prince through to the end, this post will have some spoilers. Also, if you are frum, this post does not pass basic standards for modesty, I'm linking to some sexy stuff so...if that would damage your good opinion of me or constitute a waste of time for you, don't read this. (Also, also, I am not a literary critic, I've totally forgotten how to even talk about reading.)
I know that the canon of English literature is full of anti-Semitic stereotyping. I have a variety of ways to respond to this. I have engaged The Merchant of Venice with Jewish teachers in secular classrooms who provided us with apologetic readings of Shylock. I have winced at Dickens, at Trollope, at Thackeray, at Henry James. I have read redemptive literary criticism of T. S. Eliot which didn't really redeem anything.
It has finally dawned on me that I am annoyed by J.K. Rowling's characterization of Severus Snape.
In Snape, Rowling has created a angry villain who has a hooked nose, greasy dark hair, sallow skin and glittering dark eyes, an inscrutable, sneering, untrustworthy double agent -- who hisses. I don't think Rowling was intentionally trading in anti-Semitic stereotyping. Does that sound funny after my litany of stereotypical adjectives? But I don't! I think those are general negative physical characteristics in Western culture, and that a person could use them without intending anything racist. It's just kind of pervasive. After all, Rowling does have at least two very minor characters among the student who actually have Jewish names (Anthony Goldstein in Ravenclaw house, Harry's acquaintance in the DA club, and possibly also Rose Zeller). At least one reader has pointed out that this is part of a concerted effort on JKR's part to show the diversity of present-day Britain. (Though hello, do you see a single Muslim name here? Are there no Pakistani immigrant wizards at Hogwarts?) Her intentions aside, Rowling's Snape does bum me out. What's with the languid movements and the hairy eyebrows and the general ickiness of her Snape? In the Half Blood Prince he's practically Judas ferchrissakes. (Or you could read it that way. At least you could at the end of book six, book seven might turn the whole thing on its head.)
This is only one of the many reasons that I have become infatuated with the incredible profusion of Harry Potter fan fiction. The internet is full of young women (and even some women my age) who are writing erotic stories about Severus Snape. Rowling may have written Snape to be unattractive, but there are a lot of fangirls out there who think a lanky, sneering, dark haired, sardonic, goth-looking man (with, thanks to the movies, Alan Rickman's incredible voice) is the most attractive thing ever.
I love reading erotic stories (this is the not tznius part) and in particular I enjoy the slash, which are stories about male/male character relationships. When I was the same age as most of the fangirls (late teens early 20s) I also loved gay male porn, but I thought I was a pervert, exploitative, sick, and on top of that, a bad feminist for liking it. These young women have formed a lightly teasing, silly and mutually supportive community of women who like to read and write about gay male sex. They even have a whole erotic vocabulary that I lacked. Like, I knew the word "angst" at 16 (as in "existential nausea") but did I know what "angsty" meant? No, because it didn't mean that in 1982 or whenever. Also "guh", I never had access to the word "guh."
Let me natter on a bit about the mutually supportive thing before I come back to Severus Snape. Much of the fan fiction is really truly crap, but I have found a lot of stories with literary merit. (Because I have been reading obsessively, frankly.) Sometimes these are very clever stories by young women who are just finishing high school or in college, or just after, and I figure "Oh, she's just getting started, this is going to be the beginning of a lot of good work for her." But I look at some of these stories and think, "Wow, she's my age and such a good writer, how can she waste her time creating these wonderful freebies for me out of someone else's characters?" I found a good answer here:
I've always been a writer.
Really. My first story, about an elf and a lost bear cub, was written when I was seven. My first attempt at a novel was written when I was sixteen. My first published work (The Thieves of Tharbad game supplement from Iron Crown Enterprises) came out when I was twenty-six, and one of my other game modules, The Scarlet Pimpernel, was in production when Steve Jackson Games was raided by the Secret Service in the early 1990s,* which means that there's probably a government file on me somewhere (and if they really want to spy on a divorced fortysomething, I hope they let me know so I can invite them in for tea and polite conversation).
Regardless…I stopped writing fiction about ten years ago for a variety of reasons: job loss, a relationship gone south, all the usual melodramatic, soul-sapping things that can happen on one's journey through life. I began writing fan fiction as a way to prime the creative pump, discovered LJ and the joys of Potterfic, and, well, people seem to like what I write.
(Well they should, because she is in fangirl parlance, "teh awesome." You know that I use the word parlance in everyday speech and that if I wrote fan fiction I would NOT have any trouble with the Snape diction issue, whereas I have to put "teh" in scare quotes.)
All these writers have created a giant creative writing workshop in which they support one another in discovering the elements of fiction, with a particular emphasis on characterization. They create writing assignments: whole websites devoted to one-hundred word pieces, or challenges based on a particular aspect of character. (Okay, sometimes a silly or smutty challenge, but still.) Unlike any college writing workshop I attended, the feedback somehow manages to be remarkably positive. Perhaps I am having one of those mistaken maternalist-feminist moments because I only read comments on stories that were actually good? In any case writers have "betas" who are essentially editors, who help with consistency and grammar and general readability. It's also incredibly cool that the internet is working this way, as my friend ASL said it would: providing a conduit through which the supposedly passive audience talks back to the providers of mass culture. The supposedly passive, almost entirely female audience made up of smart, somewhat isolated girls who like books.
Now to Snape: I am definitely in the camp of those who find him an attractive and multilayered character. Hey, I've had a thing for many a dark haired, bushy-eyebrowed, olive-skinned, big-nosed man. Even some who shared Snape's mean mouthiness and deep insecurity. It's true that I'm married now and my husband's nose and eyebrows are teh sexy and his personality is closer to the polite and solicitous Remus Lupin than to Snape's, but still.
I have seen many attempts to deal with Snape's ethnicity in the fan fic, since Rowling herself doesn't deal with it. One author decided Snape was Welsh. Another thought he must have a Bengali grandmother. (Snape makes Lupin Indian food, Balabusta is intrigued.) But several fan fiction writers have made Snape Jewish. I can't go back and link them all, oh my gosh, it's been weeks of cramming my head full of narishkeit. In one story I recall that the author had Snape reading the Mishnah while he waits, in BED, for Voldemort. Eww and eww and yucky feh. Another created a bizarre stereotypical Hanukah vacation for Snape during his years as a student at Hogwarts. The most positive and I think redemptive use of Snape's Jewishness is in these stories by ElliD, in which Snape is the son of a German Jewish refugee. She also has a longer sequence of stories in which Snape and Lupin have an affair with a backstory and every Hogwarts teacher has both religious and ethnic background.
In sum, and I have to stop writing this and go to bed already, Snape is a problem. He's less of a problem than he would be if Rowling had made him Jewish, but still, the more I think about it, the more I worry. Fan fiction provides a solution to some of this. It does even better at providing a solution to the problem of mass culture in general. It's a way for the readers to write back and engage the overwhelming popularity of these books.