Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fanfic Week - Part 3

III: The Bad Rap

Where were we? Ah yes, exploitative fanfic, which simultaneously is pretty much what you’re thinking and also a lot more than that besides. Where previously we considered cases of “I want more of this Source Material Property, but there isn’t any more being made, so I will create my own” as well as “I want more of this Source Material Property, and I want it done right which is currently not happening, so I will take it upon myself” now we are forced to contemplate the case of “I want more of this Source Material Property, specifically more adult-themed material which is probably not at all commercially viable for various reasons whether or not said Source Material is still being produced, not to mention arguably being quite at odds with the original authorial intent, so I will gratify that urge on my own”. And yes, this could conceivably encompass hyperviolent Pokemon stories with blood and guts and dramatic deaths and so forth but mainly here we are talking about sex.

I am reminded of something which the great interwebs sage Lore Sjoberg once said when he was writing about furries. A person might tell you they are really into Coca-Cola memorabilia and your response would probably be mild indifference. Ditto if the person said they were into Tudor England or singing saws or any number of other weird niche interests. But there’s something instinctive in all of us that causes a predictable near-universal reaction when someone says they are into anthropomorphic animals, and that reaction is “Wait … is this a sex thing?” It doesn’t have to be, it could stem from a completely innocent fascination with animals, but of course the unsettling mascot-costume orgies are what get turned into episodes of CSI with what feels like a certain inevitability. But this might be unfair. I’m willing to at least concede the empirical possibility.

And probably it goes thusly for fanfic, too. If Spider-Man comics published continuously since the early 60’s, plus multiple cartoons, a blockbuster Hollywood trilogy, licensed novels and the odd video-game here and there aren’t enough to satisfy my love of the character, so much so that I will seek out prose stories starring him online … wait, is this a sex thing? It’s weird, it involves the internet, how naïve do you have to be to not connect the dots?

It's the radioactive blood.
Even now this is probably somewhat belated but allow me to quickly shift for a moment from the generalizations to the more personal: I am into fanfic, but I am not into that kind of fanfic. I’m trying to sketch the broad outlines of the whole phenomenon/community here, though, and it would be willfully myopic of me to not at least acknowledge the whole erotica wing of the museum, since I’m perfectly well-aware that it exists. And furthermore, I’m not trying to hate on it. I’m no prude and I’m a very “whatever floats your boat” kind of guy, even if the buoyancy in question is totally not for me. More for you, I guess. You and your boat.

Another thing I’m reminded of: music class in middle school, which our teacher tried (with nothing but noble intentions, I’m sure) to pitch directly at us by focusing entirely on rock and roll and using that to convey concepts from chorus-verse structure to syncopation. One day the lesson plan had something to do with musical genres and subdividing taxonomies and so on, and the teacher was asking us all to volunteer the names of sub-genres of rock and roll, like rockabilly and new wave and so on. Someone said “heavy metal” and that set off one of the resident metalheads in the class. (Again, bear in mind, this is middle school. We were all, like, twelve.) The metalhead was very dismissive of “heavy metal” as a useful label because there were so many different kinds, from thrash to death to black to glam, and he went on and on naming species of metal for what seemed like ten minutes. Of course he was, in what was without a doubt the most I ever heard that kid speak in class ever, proving our teacher’s point about how different styles of music can on the one hand have distinct characteristics but on the other hand share commonalities with an overarching tradition. But mainly (not that he came right out and said this) what I think he was trying to do was carve up the metal landscape for the sake of his own sense of identity. He was known amongst his peers as a metalhead and he knew it, but he also wanted to know that we all knew that what that meant was that he was into Slayer and Megadeth, and emphatically NOT Cinderella or Poison or any other pretty-boy band that just happened to have long hair and the capacity to make someone’s grandmother say “Turn that heavy metal nonsense down!”

Do you take my point? (Don’t worry, I’m not even sure I do at this point.) When I first started getting into fanfic I learned a useful, related term: slashfic. That’s the sexy stuff, so named because it usually involves specific binary character pairings in romance, with the two characters’ names separated by the slash symbol. So someone sublimating their desire to see Captain Reynolds and Inara Serra from Firefly finally bump uglies would write Mal/Inara slashfic. And yes, that’s the redundant construction, and it would be valid to say “Check out this Mal/Inara story” where the fact that it is slashfic is implied. This is crucial to know if you are haunting a listserv and someone says “Check out this Kirk/Spock fic!” and your first hought would be, “Oh, OK, cool, an original Star Trek story that just focuses on the captain and his science officer having an adventure.” They will have an adventure, sure, probably, but it will likely involve bathing pools and/or Pon Farr. And this, it turns out, the erotic exploration of same-sex couples who have virtually no antecedent sexual tension in the source material (I say virtually because some people will argue about the existence of subtle subtext for any story until the heat death of the universe) is an extremely common slashfic instantiation, to the point where they almost become synonymous and you have to specify “straight slashfic”.

And it’s nomenclature, which I obsess over anyway. And it relates to something which I claim to understand from the inside but which I often see misused by outsiders. I totally get how when anything has an even slightly unseemly element to it, people perceive it entirely and exclusively in that light. But it drives me crazy when some proper nomenclature could clear things up. If everyone used “slashfic” to refer to amateur erotica about established fictional characters, and “fanfic” to refer to amateur stories about established fictional characters, then I wouldn’t feel so ashamed to cop to an interest in fanfic. But fanfic acquires the bad rap of one of its subsets, and so it goes.

Of course, there are plenty of other things which can and do give fanfic a well-deserved bad rap. The fact that it’s a pursuit for amateurs who hang out on the lawless ol’ intertubes means that the quality of the writing can range from pretty good to abysmally wretched, in every sense from comprehension-defying grammar and spelling and punctuation to unironic embrace of the most cringeworthy cliché ideas imaginable. The fact that it springs from the fount of superfandom means that it can contain deep, dark pockets of near-ruinous obsession. The fact that online communities tend to ooze up around it in the form of mutual admiration societies, where Suzy praises Betty’s Sweaty Bi-Curious Adventures of Dr. Carter and Dr. Ross from ER to the high holy heavens and therefore expects Betty to similarly exalt Suzy’s own epic time travel saga wherein Dr. Kovac goes back to the Korean War and has sex with everyone from M*A*S*H … that is just a bad fact, man. All of those are embarrassing, and I haven’t even gotten around to breaking down Mary Sues yet.

So when you combine the whole “sex thing?” conflation with all the other legit ugly warts of fanfic, perhaps you can understand why laying claim to it as a hobby is not something I tend to toss out much at dinner parties (or in over a year of blogging, for that matter). And yet there it is, a hobby of mine, however much I keep it a secret. Can I possibly justify at all, even to myself, in light of how impossible I clearly think it is to justify to others?

Perhaps. But that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow.

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