Sheenagh Pugh

Poet and novelist

The Erotic Space

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Cultural Exchanges Conference at de Montfort University on I March 2006 (Slash Fiction Study Day).

The Erotic Space
A genre of subtexts and possibilities

I think the pleasure of it for me is that interaction between them marks out a space, which for me is a very erotic space, but then doesn't fill it, so that you're free to imagine any sort of relationship, without having to subject it to your men-act-this-way, women-act-that-way heterosexual grid.
             Ika, on "Arts Today" (Radio National, Australia)

The quote above is from a slash writer, Ika, explaining what the nature and appeal of the genre are for her as a writer and reader. And perhaps I'd better stress at the outset that I too am coming at this subject from the perspective of a reader. I am a writer (of profic poems and the odd novel) and a teacher of creative writing. When I got interested in fan fiction through reading it, it was in the same way I might have grown interested in fantasy or detective fiction; I was concerned with what sort of writing it was rather than with the motives of those who produced it. Yet when I started reading around the subject, I soon found that almost everything written about fan fiction was from the cultural, sociological or media studies viewpoint: as often as not, it boiled down to "who are these strange people and why do they do it?"
             My own interest was quite other. As a writer myself, I thought I could see why they did it: because they could, and it was fun, much the same reason I wrote poems, in fact. I was more interested in what they did, how they went about it and the quality of what was produced. In fact, I wanted literary criticism of fan fiction as a genre, and since there didn't really seem to be a study from that literary viewpoint, I had a go at writing one, which turned into The Democratic Genre. Hence my presence here today. I should be massively ill qualified to discuss slash from a cultural or sociological standpoint. What I want to think about is its nature as writing, what defines it as a genre, or sub-genre, of literature, and what both readers and writers find in it for them which they don't find elsewhere.
             All definition is flawed and I should say at once that I am not at all sure whether to think of slash as a genre in its own right, or even a sub-genre of fan fiction, because so much about it overlaps with so much else. Its subject matter of same-sex relationships - or even, in the earliest definitions of slash, same-sex relationships between characters who were not initially aware of their feelings for each other - is not confined to fanfic but has obvious parallels in litfic. Within fan fiction, slash seems to me to overlap with other sub-genres, notably angst, hurt-comfort and above all the more recently defined 'shipper fic, in which relationships between characters are paramount, in particular relationships seen as OTP (One True Pairing). The word which has already come up four times in this paragraph is "relationship", and perhaps we could at least agree that slash, whatever else it may be, is a way of writing - a genre, for convenience - that is heavily based on relationships that either exist or, perhaps more importantly, might do.
             When I found fan fiction for the first time (about five minutes after I went online, in the late 90s), I suspect my reaction was the same as everyone else's: "My God, I've been doing this all my life". Not in the sense of writing it down and posting it to zines or lists, no. But in the sense that, like every child who encounters fiction, I had read a book, or seen a film, or a TV serial, and it had come to an end before I was ready to leave that world. So I had continued it in my mind, imagined new stories for people I didn't want to see put back in their box.
             Sometimes it wasn't that the story had come to an end, but that the bits of it the scriptwriters chose to leave out were just the bits I most wanted to see. This was especially likely to be the case with TV shows. Here I knew I wasn't alone, because there were far fewer channels in the Sixties when I was at school, and what TV there was naturally became more of a shared culture. The chances were high that everyone in the class would have watched, and would be discussing next day, whatever the cult show of the moment was. When I was around 14 or 15, it was The Man from UNCLE, and there was a definite sex divide to the discussions. While the boys were praising fight scenes and car chases, or marvelling at the cod science - THRUSH making gold from sea water or whatever - the girls rhapsodised about how good Illya looked while being tortured, and wished the writers would make that happen a bit more often. It wasn't that we disliked him, far from it. In the episodes as our little group re-imagined them, he might have been comprehensively beaten up every week, but he was always consoled afterwards, lovingly and at length, sometimes by ourselves in the guise of whatever convenient girl of the week the scriptwriters had provided as a Mary Sue, but more often by Solo - whether that was also us in disguise I am really not sure, though in my case I think it was at least sometimes.
             We didn't call our collaborative speculations hurt-comfort at the time. Rather it seemed to us that we were filling in the huge emotion-and-relationship-shaped gap the scriptwriters had chosen to leave in the story, presumably because they felt it didn't make such dynamic TV as rushing around zapping things. Fan fiction is writing within and around a canon, and that kind of writing, whether in fanfic or profic, is, by its nature, a genre of filling in gaps. Sometimes they are point of view gaps: we saw the story from X's angle but never from Y's. Sometimes they are gaps in the timeframe: what happened before the story began, after it ended or in another place while it was proceeding, which generate prequel and sequel stories and missing scenes. There are what might be called alternative possibility gaps: what if the story had veered off at a tangent here; what if x hadn't happened or y had? The gap that writers fill with angst and h/c is essentially a character-drawing gap, filling in the emotional back-story of the characters and their relationships, and it seems to me an important one in this context because it is in this same gap that slash also often happens.
             I'm not at all sure, by the way, that gaps are always perceived as flaws in the canon or that we necessarily want the original writers to fill them in. I think, often enough, that would deprive us of the pleasure of doing it ourselves. Illya was almost a walking gap; he had hardly any back-story and his emotional life was a mystery. And I'm fairly sure that was how we wanted it to be. To quote Nova on the conflict between what a liberal wants and what a slash writer wants:

I feel as though I should want more explicit gay characters on prime time TV but in practice I prefer the gaps and the transgressiveness of slashing latency. (1)

When I found slash fan fiction for the first time, which wasn't all that long after I found gen, I got, again, that feeling of amazed recognition, the I always knew those two were at it reaction. But this time, of course, there was a difference. All fanfic writers and readers can "see" the timeframe gaps that generate prequels and sequels, or the point of view gaps that are filled by writing from another angle. Most, too, can see the emotional gaps that get filled with angst and h/c. But the slash gap is arguably unlike any other, in that some fans see it very clearly, while for others it simply doesn't exist. Of course, this isn't unique to fan fiction either. Studying The Merchant of Venice at school, it seemed clear as day to me that Antonio harboured sexual feelings for Bassanio, which might or might not be reciprocated. Our English master, however, saw no such thing, and it wasn't because he was unwilling to admit the existence of such feelings; we were also studying Marlowe's Edward II, and he was honest enough about the same-sex relationships in that play, not that Marlowe had left him much choice. A few years ago I read an interview with an actress who was equally adamant that there was nothing sexual about Antonio's feelings; it was simply, she thought, that male friendship was more demonstrative in those days. The interviewer didn't ask what, in that case, Antonio means by "I am a tainted wether of the flock" and why he should choose specifically to compare himself not just with a ram but with one which is not as other rams in that particular department.
             No doubt, however, she could have found a way around it. It is sometimes said, and with some justice, that a determined slasher can find a slash subtext in anything, frequently by flying in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It does sometimes seem that it is not possible to broadcast a new TV show containing two male characters without someone on the BritSlash mailing list managing to reinterpret it in this light. But I have often thought the converse is true too: that determined anti-slashers are just as adept at blinding themselves to evidence that points to the conclusion they wish to avoid.
             Nor is that surprising, for they too are fans and have the same two basic motives for reading and writing fan fiction, namely to stay longer in a world they enjoy inhabiting, and to extend or reshape that world in a way that fits their view of it as it would ideally be. It follows that potential elements which don't fit that view will be minimised or discarded. It's rather as if a tourist in a foreign city were able to pick and choose which bits of it would be there when she arrived, perhaps keeping the chocolate cafés and parks but eliminating all the traffic, and those museums you feel duty bound to inspect. And if that were possible, it is certain that no two visitors would see exactly the same city: your Vienna may vary, as the footnote to the fic might say.
             One major reason that a slash fan and an anti-slasher can look at the same TV show and see two different worlds is that slash, as a way of writing, depends so heavily on the interpretation of subtexts, and I think particularly non-verbal subtexts. Words, and the tone in which they are spoken, are notoriously open to interpretation: how much more so gestures, expressions, actions and the lack of them - not to mention the correspondence, or lack of it, between words and non-verbal signals. Arguably, slash is more interested in non-verbal signals than any other genre or sub-genre I have come across, and that surely has to do with its history.
             Slash these days is about a lot of things, but looking back at early texts, one cannot doubt that when it began, it was very much about men being surprised by feelings they had never admitted either to another or, more importantly, to themselves. Such protagonists are of necessity unaware narrators: they cannot tell the reader, or another character, what is going on in their minds because they aren't sure themselves and may well misread their own motives and actions. Also these protagonists were men, and in those early fics generally men of action, whose verbal communication skills were not always of the highest anyway. In such a situation a character's words, guarded, dissembling or merely confused, may be less of a guide to his true feelings than the body language which is more instinctive and harder to fake. Camille Bacon Smith has noted, in Enterprising Women (2), how a reading of a scene between two characters may be altered if you turn down the sound and look only at the body language. (3)
             "Official" writers are of course as aware of this as fan writers; one need only look back at the "Luke Ashton" plotline of ITV's The Bill when, over and over, Luke's words and his body language were at odds - for example, when he embraces his fiancée Kerry and gazes over her shoulder with a desperation she fortunately can't see. Now Luke was gay and in denial about it, so that he continually tried to convince himself, with words, of what his body language as consistently contradicted. That was in 2003, when a gay protagonist in a long-running series was no longer unheard of, though still controversial, and when writers could be reasonably upfront about the subject. But back in the late 70s when slash writing took off, openly gay TV characters were rather rarer than hens' teeth, and if any writer had wanted to suggest such a relationship, he would certainly have had to do it by means of subtext.
             Hence those who saw or wanted to see a slash relationship in popular TV shows, certainly of the seventies and early eighties, could quite fairly point out that no writer was going to make it explicit and that if it was there, you would have to look for it in subtext. Nor were the places where they looked for and found such relationships always far-fetched. We have Simon Nye's word for it that he intended this subtext in Men Behaving Badly: "there was always a significant homoerotic content in the relationship between Gary and Tony. You always got the impression that they'd rather be left alone together but that was something they could never admit to themselves." (4) That was in the more liberal nineties, and still confined to subtext, partly at least because, as he says, it was confined to the subtext of their own minds; characters cannot articulate clearly to others what is not clear to them.
             Back in earlier times, when even if such characters did know what was going on in their heads, they could not have said so on air, shows dealt with it in their own individual ways. The Man from UNCLE used its odd blend of camp and deadpan humour. In, for instance, "The Suburbia Affair", Illya is cooking soufflés and sulking about Solo's failure to provide the ingredients, because Mr Waverly has apparently decided that there could be no more inconspicuous cover for his agents than for two bachelors to set up house together on a Sixties suburban housing estate. It is very difficult to watch this without concluding that the writers knew exactly what they were implying.
             (Indeed, for what it's worth, I have a theory that one important key to the existence of a slash subtext in an apparently straight canon is whether the couple in question ever end up, for whatever apparently innocent reason, in bed together. Illya and Solo are thrown on to the same bed in "The It's All Greek To Me Affair". The last episode of Starsky & Hutch, "Sweet Revenge", famously ends with Hutch joining Starsky in his hospital bed and in the British comedy drama series Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads (5), in which the subtext almost took over from the text, Terry and Bob sleep together on Bob's wedding night, rather like PC Luke Ashton and Sgt Gilmore, though less action ensues.)
             Slash was, then, from the beginning, a genre which picked up on perceived subtexts and made them visible, and it was a genre which accorded great importance to non-verbal signals. It was, by its nature, a genre of unaware protagonists, who were also often unaware narrators of their own stories. In the early days of fan fiction, stories tended to be told in the third person by outside narrators; there wasn't much first person narration and some readers felt it was intrinsically ill-suited to fanfic, with its dependence on writer and reader sharing the same take on the character. To quote Cami:

First person point of view used to be very rare in fanfic. I'm not sure why that's changed. I think it makes it harder to "sell" a fanfic character from first person POV. The intimate nature of first person means the writers and reader have to be on the same wavelength for the character to work. (6)

I think the increasing use of first person POV in fanfic mirrored an increasing confidence among writers and a growing assurance in the use of voice. But one reason slash writers in particular wanted to become more adept at it was, I suspect, a purely practical one, and specifically related to their subject matter. Nova has remarked "I noticed that my PWPs are all first person - much easier on the pronouns" (7)
             Just so. You don't have to read much slash to become aware of that problem of pronouns, and the doubt that can soon arise in scenes between same-sex characters as to which is meant by "he", "him" and "his". And we've all seen some of the more embarrassing attempts at solving it in early fanfic, generally by using increasingly desperate and inappropriate descriptors. The number of times Illya became "the blond" or "the Russian", or Spock was referred to as "the science officer" in contexts where his partner surely would not have been thinking of his profession.... But a far easier method, of course, was to avoid the problem from the start by switching into first person and turning "he" and "him" into "I" and "him". Slash writers had more incentive than most to do this, and though it's a long time since I did a count, I do think you would certainly in earlier times have found more first person work in slash and femslash than in either het or gen, and that this may still be true, for the most prosaic and practical of reasons: it is just linguistically easier.
             Nor was this the only means of solving the pronoun problem. If a slash writer did not feel inclined to use first person, she needed to use other means of establishing the point of view so securely that readers could not be in doubt as to who was speaking or acting. One way was to use third person intimate, an outside viewpoint but one very close to the point-of-view character and seeing consistently through that character's eyes. A writer who does this is unlikely to use the point-of-view character's name much, because the narrative is close enough to him to take that for granted; people do not think of themselves by name. Another way is to make extensive use of dialogue. This not only turns "he" and "him" into "you" and "me"; it makes use of the fanfic reader's knowledge and recognition of character voices. If the voice is right, there can be no doubt about who is speaking.
             Not that this technique, either, is confined to slash or even to fanfic. When Kipling was writing his Three Soldiers stories, for three male voices, he eliminated all doubt by making them a Cockney, an Irishman and a Geordie. In fanfic however it is generally less simple; one is imitating not a dialect but an idiolect, one person's individual way of speaking and thinking, and though this too is a technique any litfic writer might employ, it is, I think, a skill particularly evident and developed in fanfic. In litfic it depends on the writer's knowledge of his characters and his ability to convince others of this. In fanfic it works because of a shared knowledge: both the author and the reader know these characters intimately and because of this, when both agree that the voice is done right, it has a greater and more immediate impact.
             Again I would stress that I think good fanfic writers - and the only two genres of writing that really matter are good and bad - would naturally explore all manner of different techniques in the interest of becoming better writers. But the particular problems of any genre do influence which techniques its writers are liable to be keenest on exploring. Thriller writers, for instance, need to be adept at changing and maintaining pace; crime novelists tend to be better at plotting than your average writer.
             And whatever the reason a genre adopts particular techniques, once adopted they have their own effect. First person demands a different way of getting inside someone's head. I have heard readers, both of fanfic and litfic, object to first person on the ground that it tempts the writer to tell you exactly what is going on in the person's mind, and so it does, but a good writer is aware of that danger and learns to avoid it. In the hands of such a writer, a first person narrator will be as unaware as he would be in life, unlikely to go about analysing his motivation and not necessarily even understanding it aright. But though he may not, the writer will: those who work often in either first person or third person intimate necessarily become very close to their point-of-view characters and tend to see any story filtered through the prism of character. I don't mean to imply that slash writers as a whole couldn't care less about other elements like plot or sense of place. There are plenty who are adept with both. But character, of overriding importance in most fan fiction - after all, it was our love of the characters that got us reading fiction about them in the first place - does seem to me to be even more crucial to slash writers.
             Hence, presumably, the abbreviation ATG. This, meaning Any Two Guys (or, later, Any Two Gals) was a derogatory coinage for slashfics in which the sex mattered not just more than the story, (that would be a PWP or Plot? What Plot? and quite acceptable to most readers) but more than the characters, to the extent that you could swap one set of character names for another and make no difference. To quote a slash writer and reader in an email debate on a closed list (and hence named only by initials):

In effect the sex is actually a minor part of slash. I'm not knocking it - I love joyously bawdy, endlessly inventive sex - but it only works because I believe in the more important mental and emotional coupling rather than the anatomical attachments.
             SM (8)

Now slash is pretty much a female genre. Indeed, how far removed it is from either gay or straight porn aimed at men may be gauged by trying to imagine the average male porn reader saying that for him, sex on the page would only work if he believed in the more important mental and emotional coupling. And it might be argued that statements like that above, from a female slash fan, emanate from a cultural taboo, a feeling that women aren't really meant to like reading about sex for its own sake but need some deeper, i.e. more respectable reason.
             There are certainly still people about who believe that, witness the debate which ensued when one Jared Wilson posted on the web site World Views a review of the film Brokeback Mountain in which he opined that it would fail commercially because the young ladies who were fans of Gyllenhall and Ledger would not want to see them all over each other. (9) Many replies to this post mentioned the existence of slash and tried to explain that actually there were rather a lot of ladies who would pay good money to see that very thing. But Mr Wilson could not be convinced. He conceded that men could be titillated by the sight of two women together, but insisted the opposite never happened (it must be nice to be so sure of things completely outside one's own experience).
             Though you and I know he is grievously mistaken, it might yet be true that some women who like reading slash have a residual feeling that they ought not to, and therefore rationalise it as being about the characters' mental and emotional relationships. But I doubt it, because that reaction would surely also apply to PWPs. And though not all slash fans like PWPs, the term has never been derisive in the way that ATG is. I think the widespread contempt for writing which is seen as ATG has more to do with the paramount importance in slash of character and relationship. And that goes back to its mission to fill in gaps.
             Ika spoke of canon creating an "erotic space" in which writers and readers were then free to imagine a new kind of relationship. Not just a relationship the characters never had explicitly in canon, but one that might well be different from any they had had or imagined having before. And different, too, from any that either would have had with someone of the opposite sex, because the power dynamic would be other and the participants would have to think outside the box in which society's stereotypes had placed them. Another slash fan, Halimede, explained in a fascinating post on the blogging community LiveJournal why, for her, slash can feel feminist even when containing no female characters:

People being true to themselves is incredibly sexy. In slash, for the romance to occur the two (or more) characters usually have to leave the beaten path. The love is not expected the same way it is in mainstream-het, it's not the default option. As a result there is more individuation in the same sex set-up as the characters come to terms with this, whereas in mainstream-het romance the opposite occurs, with characters being subsumed by their partner or the relationship. I'd say this is true even in Romeo & Juliet type scenarios, where their het-love is stronger than the characters and (even if it destroys them) inevitable, while in the equal but opposite same sex scenario the peril comes from the fact that the love is precious but not inevitable.
             The difference in flavor between slash and mainstream-het then, for me, is that even in the context of romance the individuality of the characters is a stronger story element.
             Maybe that is also why a lot of slash feels feminist even when no women feature in it: It's (mostly) women imagining romances where the individuality of the partners is of as much value as the romantic relationship. I've always been puzzled why even the most soppy, twu wuv slash fic can have this feel for me. I think this might be why. (10)

I have always thought this quote pinpoints one of the main differences between slash and mainstream heterosexual romance: in a slash scenario, romance is not the default option It is an alternative path; if the writer wants her characters to go down it she has to do quite a bit of work to head them off from the default and persuade them down the path of her choice. When we pick up a book and the first characters we meet are a reasonably personable young man and woman, an expectation is switched on in us that they will somehow get together. There may be obstacles, but we assume that they will eventually be overcome.
             So ingrained is this expectation that an author can sometimes exploit it by subverting it. Near the start of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, the young drawing-master Walter is entering a breakfast-room to meet his new lady pupil for the first time. She is standing by a window at the far side of the room, in silhouette:

She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window - and I said to myself, the lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps - and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer - and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly! (11)

It is our surprise, as readers, that Walter is expressing as much as his own. This character has been introduced with enough parade to make it evident that she is the heroine. We already know Walter is the hero. So, surely, he must fall in love with her - indeed his reactions on first seeing her make it plain that he half expects to himself. Except he obviously hasn't, so what is she for and where are we going next?
             In fact, of course, she is Marian Halcombe and, most unusually for a young female character in a 19th-century novel by a man, she is there for her own sake, not to get married to anyone. In our own day, such characters are more usual, but even now, a novel or story involving two characters of opposite sexes still triggers the expectation, often enough fulfilled, that we are heading towards "they got married and lived happily ever after". The only question is what obstacles they will have to overcome along the way. It's not impossible, of course, for a writer to subvert this expectation, but because it is so ingrained there is a risk that many of his audience, rather than thanking him for the surprise, will be displeased and disappointed if he does. Witness the infuriated reactions of some Amazon reviewers to the end of Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. (12)
             So how does this relate to slash? Certainly in its early days, slash was going against ingrained reader expectations, rather than with them. Even if we were convinced we saw a same-sex subtext between two characters, we did not expect any writer to spell it out and resolve it for us. I can still recall the sense of excitement and unpredictability I felt when I first started reading slash stories, because I was never quite sure what would happen. How would they overcome the obstacles to getting together, which were both different from those facing a heterosexual couple and more daunting? Would they get together at all, or would it remain unresolved; if they did get together how far would things go? What would happen to the existing relationship and the power dynamic between them and would things end happily or unhappily?
             This early sense of unpredictability seems the more remarkable to me now in that it had to work against fanfic's - to me - insufferable habit of categorising everything and telling you exactly what you're about to read. I try very hard, these days, to avoid reading the information at the start of any fic. Believe it or not, I don't want to know in advance whether I'm about to read gen, het or slash, nor whether someone dies or there's an unhappy ending. I want to find all that out along the way.
             The reason generally given for this categorising habit is the necessity of warning off the unwary, which doesn't wholly convince me. If, in a bookshop, I pick up a novel intended for adults, the blurb on the dust jacket may give me some clues but I don't find detailed warnings about possible sexual content. It is taken for granted that such things may or may not happen in a book for adult reading. Even if one accepts a need for more warnings on the web, which is allegedly more easily accessed by the young (though what could be easier than opening a book, I don't know), it would surely be enough to use something non-committal like "adult content" as a warning.
             It seems to me that the reason categorisation has such a hold in fanfic has more to do with the nature of the genre and, in particular, the special role of the reader within it. It began, after all, because readers wanted both to continue the existence of a world and to change it to suit their own fancies. To return to an analogy I used earlier, it's the world where you can go to Vienna and find all the cafés but none of the museums. Or to Narnia and find all the talking animals but none of the preaching, or to Middle Earth and find lots of Ents but no Elves. Categorisation lets potential readers be sure that they are going to the version of the world in question that they, personally, favour, and in that sense it is empowering. But it is also self-limiting, because if taken too far, it never allows them the possibility of being seduced and convinced by some other version - the joy, surely one of the greatest in reading, of discovering something you had no idea you were going to like.
             These days, it seems to me that if you want that unpredictability it must be generated by the originality of the writer, as it would have to be in a het pairing. It is no longer intrinsic to slash as a genre, because slash can no longer be seen as a spin-off from any other existing genre; neither a subversion of romance nor a sexualisation of hurt-comfort. It has been around long enough to acquire its own conventions and become, in its turn, the norm, setting up expectations in the reader just as mainstream het romance does, and a writer who wants to confound those reader expectations must play against them somehow. In addition the naturally subversive tendency of slash has to contend with more openness and less prejudice in society and the media. It is possible to overstate this; we are not yet living in an era when different and experimental sexualities are universally tolerated. True, it is now possible to have gay storylines in soaps and dramas, but the fuss they always generate indicates that they are still looked on as aberrant and problematic. To quote a fan on the experience of a scriptwriter friend of hers who was working on a gay storyline in the pre-watershed BBC hospital drama Casualty:

I wanted to get them to kiss but we were given a list of allowed body contact. In the case of Casualty these guys were getting married, for goodness sake, and they were allowed to "ruffle hair" as long as their bodies didn't come into contact. (13)

The wedding storyline also earned the BBC a death threat. And even if society and the media become more accepting, men, and hence male characters, will still have issues with intimacy and their own feelings. Nonetheless, I do think there is an interesting question to be asked about slash as a genre, namely does it have a finite life? You couldn't ask this about most genres; people are not going to run out of ways to write fantasy or detective fiction. But genres do, now and then, vanish from the world: not a lot of people nowadays are writing sea shanties or mediaeval miracle plays - or anything that could be seen as a modern version of them. Shanties are no longer needed, because the work situation that generated them no longer arises; miracle plays demand a reader mindset that doesn't really exist any more. In The Democratic Genre I quoted Ika:

Slash as I like to read and write it comes from a dying kind of canon, the central m/m pairing which is happening less and less as female actors get more respect. Which is a good thing but it means there's far more m/f central pairings and ensemble shows. A lot of the more recent slash I've seen seems to be almost for the sake of it [...] it's becoming something more imposed on a canon than organically growing out of it or being deduced from it. (14)

Now the operative phrase is of course "as I like to read and write it", for Ika is there talking about what might for convenience be called classic slash, and that is no longer the only kind there is. Genres develop and change, and slash has been no exception. One very obvious development was RPS, with its use of real, named people to recover some of the transgressive frisson classic slash had arguably lost. Another was femslash.
             It may look, on a first reading, as if early slash was all about men, or at least male characters, but I think that is a misleading impression. It was almost entirely written by and for women and I think it was at least as much about them: how they saw men and how they wanted to see them. I have heard gay men object that men in a sexual relationship, gay or straight, simply don't talk or emote about it as much as they do in many slash stories. But then the idea is not really to represent accurately the sex lives of gay men, a thing which, as Ika remarked, they are well capable of doing for themselves. For her, it was about "making up new ways of understanding the relationship between sex, gender and experience" by going outside the categories and stereotypes that say male characters act this way and female characters act that way.
             It follows that all-female relationships afford as much possibility for innovation as all-male ones. If femslash was slower to take off, and is still, though growing, not around in the amounts you find m/m slash, that is hardly surprising; it was working against three major obstacles. First, the sheer paucity of interesting female characters in the seventies fandoms that generated classic slash. Second, the fact that, statistically, most slash does still seem to be written by straight women. In a fanzine I analysed for the book, 12 out of the 16 writers, all female, defined themselves as straight and that proportion seems about right for the writers I personally know: though they are more open-minded about sex than most, the majority are conventionally married. It would seem probable, then, that the idea of writing sex scenes for men excites and interests them more than writing similar scenes for women. Third, the fact that female characters in that situation would have fewer obstacles to overcome than men, partly because female homosexuality, in most cultures, is less disapproved of and usually not illegal, partly also because women tend to have fewer issues with intimacy and communication.
             They do, however, have issues with other matters, notably power and the retention of individuality in a relationship, which for me is crucial. There's a poem by e.e. cummings which begins

somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence (15)

Defining slash is a minefield, because like most genres that have been around for a time, it has developed; one can certainly no longer say that it is purely about speculative same-sex relationships between male characters who in the canon did not express such relationships. But one thing that still seems crucial to me is the element of characters metaphorically travelling somewhere they have never been, beyond any experience they have previously had. I don't think, as some do, that it is impossible to write slash about canonically gay characters, but for me, in order for it to be slash, as opposed to gay fiction, those characters still have to go somewhere outside their experience and find out new things about themselves - explore their own subtexts and possibilities, in fact.
             One thing that all too often happened to female canon characters in het relationships, both in canon and in fanfic, was a complete loss of personality. Halimede, in the quote referred to earlier, said that in mainstream-het romance, characters are subsumed by their partner or the relationship. I think that was actually far more likely to happen to the unfortunate female half of the partnership. A fairly obvious example was the character Jenna from Blakes 7. She starts off as a tough-minded spaceship pilot and smuggler, with a wide circle of criminal acquaintances, but also an idealistic streak, she's clearly looking for something to believe in. That's a very promising female character outline for 1978. Unfortunately, what she finds to believe in is a man, Blake, and though when he is absent she still gets to do the odd bit of stuff, in his presence she is increasingly reduced to his back-up, sometimes gazing at him in a manner reminiscent of Cherie at Tony - another strong-minded female who allows her own personality to be subsumed in the context of a het relationship.
             It follows that femslash pairings were one way of giving female characters relationships without such a risk of diminishing and subsuming them. Indeed in such relationships they could not only retain their individuality but go somewhere they had never travelled, in that they would not be bound by stereotypes of male-female behaviour in a relationship, particularly in terms of the power dynamic. In fact, of course, there can be dominance issues in same-sex relationships; I wouldn't say that the canon versions of Xena and Gabrielle were models of equality, though fanfic, true to its nature, seems more willing to experiment with changing the power dynamic between them. I do think there is a strong political element in much femslash, particularly that written by women, and I've seen femslash devotees argue that conventional slash, with its emphasis on male characters, short-changes women.
             Myself I don't think it does, certainly not when looked at from a Lit Crit viewpoint. The most important character in any story is the writer, whether overtly present or buried; he or she is the puppeteer, as Thackeray put it, who chooses the characters and decides how they shall move.
             You could argue that conventional m/m slash is all about women making men act, speak and relate as we want them to. There's a famous slash novella called "Duty"(16) by the late Pat Jacquerie, in which two male characters find themselves stranded in one of those communities with strangely Grecian social customs that seem to crop up so often in slash stories. They meet only men, and assume that the women are secluded. To comply with the customs of their hosts they find themselves having to sleep together, exploring and changing their relationship in the process. Only very near the end of the story do they finally meet women and discover, to their shock, that not only are these women the rulers of this society, it was they who ordered the sexual interaction, and have in fact been monitoring and recording it. Our heroes have, in short, been on the Planet of the Slash Writers, though that analogy is never explicitly made, and there can be no doubt for whom this world was created. The mere presence of more male than female characters does not mean a genre is about men, or values men more than women, any more than the overriding presence of female characters in male porn means that this genre is about women. It's the puppeteer, not the puppets, who controls the show.
             I asked earlier if slash had a finite life. As we can see, it has developed as any genre has to if it is not to go stale. But its two main developments, femslash and RPS, both essentially did one thing: they widened the pool of potential characters. In this they did not so much alter or move the genre on as provide it with more material to work on. In Japan you got YAOI, which again widened the character pool, this time by adding original characters. One reader and writer I spoke to for The Democratic Genre, J J McGee, suggested an even more radical expansion to which, had she been speaking a couple of years later, I think she might have given the name 'shipper fic:

I've always felt that you can have something like "het slash" in situations where both characters are highly walled off and afraid of being vulnerable. "Slashy" to me has always implied more an emotional style of genre than the actual mechanics of getting two guys into bed. (17)

This seems to me to be quite significant because, having now been reading slash in a few fandoms for a few years, I'm beginning to think there is a limit to the amount of slash any one writer can write about any one set of characters. In the fandom in which I started reading in about 1998, there were already many writers whose work was in zines and online but who no longer wrote in the fandom. Seven years on, several of the writers who were active then, some of whom only started in about 2000, have moved on to other fandoms, and this does not seem to be unusual. Many say "I think I've written all I can about that pairing", which seems, again, to go back to the essential character-and-relationship base of slash; these writers do not want to stop writing it, but feel they have nothing more to say about it as regards characters X and Y.
             In that respect slash clearly differs from some other genres both in litfic and fanfic, for instance detective fiction and crime writing. Holmes could and did go on solving cases up to and after Conan Doyle's death. There's no obvious reason why Starsky & Hutch can't go on fighting crime for ever. But unless a writer has a truly protean vision of her characters and is willing to try out all manner of mutually incompatible possibilities, there comes a point when she has mapped out their relationship, or her take on it. This is especially likely if, as has been suggested, slash is specifically concerned with people finding things out about themselves and exploring new possibilities, new territory, through their relationship. There presumably comes a time when there is no longer anywhere they have never travelled, and nothing that is outside their experience. Once that happens, the writer will start to hear herself repeating what she's already said, and will either move on to another genre or start mapping out the territory for some other pairing.
             This is an utterly reasonable reaction for a writer, which is why I was surprised by my own reaction. As often as not, I felt great resentment when I lost my favourite writers to some other fandom. Indeed, in a classic instance of shooting myself in the foot, I would refuse to read their fic in the new fandom, even though I knew they were writers capable of giving me much pleasure. When reading litfic, I don't believe I do this. If a favourite writer does something different, even moving between genres, in most cases I would trust my previous knowledge of them and give the new venture a chance. Why I don't feel that way in fanfic I can't say, but at a guess it has to do, again, with the paramount importance of character in fanfic generally and slash in particular.
             I think the same reader devotion to certain characters and pairings is evident in 'shipper fic and, again, the fairly unreasonable reactions of some 'shipper fans if their favoured relationship seems to them in any way denigrated or attacked. The very phrase OTP - one true pairing - has always struck me as slightly inimical to fan fiction, especially slash, because it begins by limiting possibilities. I've been in fandom for a while and I was still shocked by the ferocity of some recent fan diatribes against J K Rowling because, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (18), she did not "see" Harry and Hermione as an OTP. Surely it is of the essence in fanfic that there is no one right way of seeing a character or universe and that everyone, even the original author, is entitled to an opinion?
             Indeed this is really the only way slash survives as a genre. Writer A explores all the possibilities of a set of characters, then moves on to another. Eventually she may move out of the genre altogether. But, with any luck, writer B is already coming along, with a whole new, individual take on the same characters, to send them once again to new territory. Or TV or film comes up with more characters and new fandoms to play variations on. J J McGee, quoted earlier, said that for her the genre was not principally about "the mechanics of getting two guys into bed". Now those mechanics can actually be a lot of fun and I don't want to deny that. There is a very useful if slightly tongue-in-cheek online resource, "Innocent Reasons To Strip" (19) which is what it says on the tin, a compilation, by members of a slash fiction mailing list, of relatively innocent ways to remove characters' clothes, a very necessary plot device in slash. They range from the obvious - having to swim, clothing on fire - to the extremely recherché - underwear replaced by flesh-eating genetic mutant, which should be familiar to Red Dwarf fans.
             But McGee is right, of course. If it were purely about getting two guys - any two guys - into bed, then not only would ATG not be the pejorative term it is, but plotting would be a whole lot easier, because any of the plot devices on that list would do to get any character naked. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: any slash fan would be looking down the list saying "well, I can't use that for him, he'd just never get into that situation". It is in the end about characters and relationships, the subtexts of these relationships and their latent possibilities, and above all a writer's and reader's individual take on them, more so, I think, than any other branch of fan fiction. Most of us, even in fandom, could agree on roughly how Hornblower might fight a sea battle, or Hutch might go about solving a case. But when it comes down to how Solo feels about Illya, whether there is anything between them, whether if so it is consummated, how, and with what result for their relationship, there will never be any kind of consensus, only an infinite landscape of possibility. And I am well aware that in this talk I have not come near exploring everything slash can mean to a writer or reader. I think that might be the nature of the beast.

Notes

1 The Democratic Genre, 2005 (TDG)
2 Enterprising Women, University of Pennsylvania Press 1992 (EW)
3 EW, chapter 7, p189
4 interview in The Guardian, 21 October 2002
5 BBC, 1973-4
6 in a zine review on http://www.hermit.org/Blakes7 , also TDG, p71
7 TDG, p136
8 SM, TDG p102
9 http://movies.worldmagblog.com/movies/archives/020888.html
10 http://www.livejournal.com/users/halimede/99142.html?view=326982#t326982
11 Penguin English Library edition, 1966
12 Scholastic Press, 2000
13 AP, TDG p 108
14 TDG p 99
15 From Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage.
16 Southern Comfort 9.5, ed Ann Wortham, Ashton Press 1996. Also at the web site http://tarrantnostra.com/pat/fargone/duty.htm
17 TDG, p 94
18 Bloomsbury 2005
19 http://homepage.mac.com/shelobmarian/handmade/innocent_reasons_to_strip.html

 

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