Image Credit: Desert Heat – Spock and Kirk by Gayle Feyrer
SLASH: a genre of fan fiction that (typically) imagines queer relationships between presumably straight characters. Increasingly slash refers to ‘shipping’ characters (imagining them in relationships) regardless of sexual orientation.
For this month’s Sunday conversation, a number of us converged to consider the teeming terrain of slash fiction. Over the space of a week, we managed to tackle slash as an appropriative art form and a site of queerness; we thought a bit about ethics and zones of permissibility as they relate to slash, particularly Real Person Slash (RPS); and we considered slash as a model of influence for writing outside of slash as a genre. And there is much more left to say. This conversation is fascinating, wide-ranging, and too, too rushed. Consider it ongoing.
Featuring contributions from myself, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Alex Kalamaroff, Byron Campbell, and a special guest spot from Michael du Plessis.
MEGAN MILKS: I’m interested first in hearing: what’s your relationship to slash? Are you a reader of slash, a writer of slash, a writer writing outside of the slash community but adopting slash-like approaches? Why/what is appealing or interesting to you about this genre of writing?
ALEX KALAMAROFF: Along with introductory explanatory readings, are there examples of slash (ideally easily accessible online) that you’d recommend that are of particular interest, Megan? Like what’s some of the best slash you’ve read? … I’ve got a copy of your book Kill Marguerite (aaah … I haven’t read it yet but I am going to start by looking at the “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”, which I think Tim mentioned).
Also, feel free to edit/delete all of this later on, since it’s more me learning than analyzing/discussing.
But to actually get into the proposed questions: What interests me about this
is how it incorporates and manipulates and messes with and has fun with all this cultural stuff around us. Like sometimes I think just about how much culture there is–everything books, movies, TV shows, etc.–too much nearly. Slash is cultural reuse, renewal; it’s good for the environment. And it twists things, denies them their heterosexual hegemony a bit maybe?
Well, I’m learning.
TIM JONES-YELVINGTON: As a queer person and Women’s and Gender Studies undergrad, I feel like I have been aware of slash for a long time as this earlyish example of viewers applying a queer reading to pop culture, going back to Star Trek fandom and Kirk/Spock slash in fan-distributed zines in the 1970s. I have also been aware of the fact that the majority of slash is, or has been, written by heterosexually-identified women, and debates about whether this is more or less queer or transgressive, about whether it is empowering of a kind of feminist/female gaze, or whether it is somehow appropriative of LGBT culture, and I guess I have leaned on the side of finding it more transgressive and radical than not. I have been interested in slash both because it is a queer reading of pop culture, and also because it demonstrates agency on the part of viewers, that viewers are not passively receiving pop culture like some Marxist criticism might have us believe. At the same time, I sort of started to lose interest in slash after a while, just because, for one, a lot of the writing is kind of crappy and just as narratively and formally confining as the mainstream texts in which it intercedes, and for another, it became ubiquitous and mainstream enouagh that some of that radical potential seemed to be getting lost—I mean, self-published gay erotica books are I think bestsellers on Amazon, and people like EL James are now becoming huge money-makers off their fan fiction. …But some of the newer slash I have discovered in tumblr culture is SO inventive, in terms of the way it like rewrites biology and sex and gender (and I am thinking specifically here of mpreg and knotting), that it has reawakened my interest. We are perhaps still not talking about thrilling writing on the sentence level, but we are talking about a sexed/gendered imagination that can radically transform bodies and desire in a way that reminds me, Megan, of some of what I love in your own work, particularly your story “Slug.”
MEGAN: Sure, Alex! But first let me say that I’m interested in slash because I am interested in genre and form, in appropriation, and in gender and sexuality politics. I don’t at present participate in slash communities, though I participated in fan communities quite fervently when I was younger, and I’ve read a good amount of slash.
I think probably my favorite ever slash piece is this meta-slash piece “Not Based on a True Story” by Isilya, which imagines members of nSync as Backstreet Boys slashers. So Justin Timberlake is the narrator, agonizing over a story he’s writing about Nick Carter being in love with Howie, who is actually a standin for JC, whom Justin T still has feelings for. It’s masterful popslash, mindblowingly good meta.
But back to my own investments. There are so many reasons to be interested in slash. For one, it’s blazingly original derivative art. (I’ve written about derivatives, simulacra, and degraded copies over here.) I have been thinking about the slasher as parasite, occupying original source texts/characters and taking over their brains or tongues.
Slash is highly inventive and bold—and explores all kinds of genres, overlapping with romance, erotic romance, scifi and fantasy, bizarro, and so on. As you say, Alex, it’s a repurposing of culture that strikes me as very feminist and also very queer (yes, most slash/fanfic is written by (predominantly straight) women, or at least used to be—but the content is WAY GAY). There’s also a lot of interesting, fantastic explorations of transgender embodiment, too, with body swapping and men becoming women due to alien surgeries or whatever—though a lot of that resolves in exceedingly heteronormative ways: straight couple with baby on the way. (Go here for an excellent essay on trans and genderfuck embodiment in slash by Kristina Busse and Alexis Lothian).
I am mainly interested in real person slash (RPS), because of the ethical tensions there, and my interests in representation overall. The zone of permissibility is wide in slash, but in RPS some of this permissibility comes into question. Most of the slash I’ve read is quincest—that is, slash that imagines Tegan and Sara Quin in various relationships with one another. It is a marginalized genre of slash, in that a lot of T&S fanfic writers spurn it.
Alex, you mention my work with the Sweet Valley Twins—yes, I’m totally pulling from fan fiction there. I’d say “Elizabeth’s Lament,” the first of the Twins pieces, is more slashy than the Choose Yr Own Adventure, in that it imagines Elizabeth in tormented love with Jessica.
When I first started exploring slash, I expected it to be more pornographic than it is, but a lot of it is feelings feelings; like most romantic fiction, the narrative sets up obstacles to consummation of desire, so that much of the space of the story is devoted to yearning. It’s often very melodramatic and feeling-heavy, and I’m interested in this production of affective intensities, how all kinds of different affective positions get poured into various characters, and the characters shift accordingly. [examples? will fill in later]
JANICE LEE: I feel sort of an outsider to this conversation, so am still getting my bearings. But I asked my friend Michael for his thoughts and here’s some of what he had to say:
MICHAEL DU PLESSIS: I guess I’m curious about the connection between recycling/renewal/repurposing and queerness. I wonder to what extent extent slash needs to be in relationship to hegemonic/mainstream/heteronormative material in order to produce its queerness. Does queerness depend on what already exists and then configuring it differently, queerly? Is queerness the process of that reconfiguration? I wonder about Bourriaud’s notion of “post-production culture” which Bourriaud sees as _the_ condition of culture. What is it in slash that reconfigures queerly, beyond content? Camp has been defined as a way of reactivating the “dead” surplus value in commodities that are outmoded–Andrew Ross talks about camp in the 1960s and 1970s as coming out of the collapse of the Hollywood system and the emergence of TV as dominant medium, on which classic Hollywood movies then get rerun and which then opens them to camp appropriation. But this also suggest that camp and queerness are in some way synonyms, which I’m not at all convinced is the case.
TIM: Michael, this question about recycling and repurposing reminds me of an essay of Megan’s that I go back to time and time again, that she posted at Montevidayo, where she talks, after Deleuze, about the radical potential of the simulacra as degraded copy. (I think also of “copy of a copy for which there’s no original,” I guess, although citing Butler and Gender Trouble seems sort of tired or like Queer Theory 101 at this point in history). One of the examples in that essay is Justin Bieber, and talking about how or why it is more interesting to think about the ways in which Justin Bieber introduced new variations within the mold of the nonsexual pinup teen pop star—for instance, by projecting a gender performance many compared to young lesbian and queer women’s—than it is to talk about him as just another iteration of a longstanding pattern of identical, sexually “safe” androgynous young stars. Since Megan wrote that post, One Direction fanaticism has arrived and peaked and begun its decline—and I have found One Direction to be even more interesting for how they have playfully made more overt some of the homoeroticism that has always been sort of latent in the whole boy band thing. Related to our topic, I think some of the most interesting slash fiction happening right now is about 1 Direction, and specifically about members of the band impregnating each other and/or engaging in sexual activity in the manner of canines.
Regarding camp, I by no means think that ‘camp’ and ‘queer’ are even remotely synonyms. I associate camp with one subculture or aesthetic(s), and one that though I love it to death is mostly gay male-dominated and increasingly historical. I would never have thought to draw any kind of connection between slash fiction and camp, although I think I understand the conceptual link you are making in terms of queerness as reconfiguration.
ALEX: Megan, I feel like it’d be fun if you left all the [expand here] bits as is.[continue this thought later as to why I think this]
BYRON: While I don’t have any background in queer theory, I’ll pop in with my thoughts on slash in response to Megan’s original question.
My relationship with slash: not part of any slash communities, but as a reader and a writer I’ve engaged with some writing that could be considered slash. I’ve written some undistributed slash fiction that approaches the bizarre in ways I’m pretty proud of–the best example is a Metal Gear Solid 2/Final Fantasy XII crossover piece that spans the gamut of relationships/pairings, including Snake with a Chocobo. I haven’t given much thought to what drew me in about producing these pieces. I wrote them mainly as a treat for my wife (though I enjoyed writing them), which actually touches on something interesting about the use of reformatted pop culture figures as a mode of communication, like these shows/books/whatever are a shared vocabulary that makes it easier for their fans to connect with one another.
I’m mainly interested in slash in relation to the concept of fandom and ownership/appropriation. Even hetero-oriented slash, I think, could be considered “queer” in the sense that it subverts the norms/expectations/conventions/whatever the original content creators view as “acceptable” or normative. It disrupts the inviolability of the canon. I guess I’m thinking more of slash in relation to mass media stuff like television, movies, comics, less so classic literature or other times when the definition between slash and other types of appropriation blurs. And I’m also interested in it as a subgenre of erotic fiction, of which it’s the only type I find remotely interesting (partly because I find porn involving real people incredibly creepy, which I guess rules out Megan’s RPS, though it’s interesting conceptually).
Responding to Alex’s point above, I guess I’ve arrived at the same conclusion from a different direction. Instead of a rejuvenation of cultural overstimulation, I see slash’s achievement more as…grr, trying to find words here…I guess leaning more toward Tim’s concept of agency. It recasts consumers of pop culture as producers, and it undermines the concept of “canon,” which I think fewer and fewer people subscribe to in any case. It makes explicit the observer effect in mass culture, that you can’t consume something without changing it–this is literally true in serialized narratives like television, where fan-favorite one-off characters become regular cast members over time, but there are always going to be “head canons” when it comes to any form of narrative, even the narrative of boy bands Megan referred to. And in doing that, it slots in with the other aspects of fandom such as cosplay, fanart, etc. Which is also tied up in the internet and the ease of sharing of this type of stuff–it’s not closed-loop mailing lists anymore. It’s a fascinating continuum or ecosystem–you have communities emerging based on a shared vocabulary of a TV show, band or whatever, rather than geography or nationality, and you have them communicating through these appropriative texts, made possible by the pervasiveness of the net.
I think this video exemplifies what I’m trying to say in terms of fandom, community, and how slash is merely a facet of other modes of fan production:
TIM: Byron, isn’t there a meta-episode of SUPERNATURAL where the brothers stumbled on to slash fiction about themselves? I have been told there is such a thing. This seems like a topic worthy of further discussion—slash fiction increasingly affecting or shaping the mass media text to which it responds. Or NOT affecting or shaping the text—My understanding is that this has become a genuine source of conflict or tension between Teen Wolf’s creator Jeff Davis and his fans who expect their slash wishes to come true. I’m on the fence. On the one hand, fans having that much of an impact seems kind of radical in terms of the “undermining” you’re talking about. On the other, isn’t it ultimately just a bland mainstreaming of a once-insurgent-ish subculture? Like I remember hearing that someone just got a mega lucrative book contract for their One Direction erotic fan fiction. That seems kind of lame. …I see also in your comment a challenge to Michael’s notion of queer reconfiguration. What Michael described was a fairly linear process of queer reconfiguration/reactivation of an assumedly heteronormative text. But if the original text’s canonicity is challenged, then that linearity is also challenged, and it seems like camp and slash become something more like a rendering of queer desire and feeling that the text always contained as potential.
ALEX: [Was going to write something more here, but instead nahh…] To quote Chris Kirkpatrick’s rejoinder to Justin Timberlake in “Not Based on a True Story” by Isilya: “”What would be the point in writing this without the politics? I can’t wait for you to finish; I can’t wait for the flames and the fiery destruction. I don’t think you know what you’re unleashing, but I’m going to enjoy watching the car crash anyway.””
MEGAN: And we’re off! [will delete that later] I guess I’m not clear why having an impact on the canon is necessarily a form of “bland mainstreaming”. I don’t know that slash communities overall are superinvested in subversion beyond the story level—the fan convention industry is certainly exploitative—or at least turns fans back into consumers.
Michael, it’s great to see you here! I want to bring in your Memoirs in a bit…
I wonder to what extent extent slash needs to be in relationship to hegemonic/mainstream/heteronormative material in order to produce its queerness. Does queerness depend on what already exists and then configuring it differently, queerly? Is queerness the process of that reconfiguration?
This is a very provocative question, one I’m still thinking through. I mean I don’t see queerness as one thing (guessing this question is partially rhetorical), but I think it is, yes, in one sense, the process of that reconfiguration. Yes this is an aesthetic strategy that has been/continues to be used by queers (and members of other oppressed groups) to make queer/other what is produced for majority audiences. And I think that’s still really exciting, and has important cultural effects. Hmm. I need to think more about this. [….]
Tim, I do see strong connections between camp and slash—but my sense of camp is pretty broad, I see it everywhere, and I see it all over slash, whether it’s intentional or not. Have you read Bruce La Bruce’s Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp?
TIM: I think for me, most slash lacks sufficient glamour and ambition and theater to qualify as camp—but I may be too tied to an outmoded, Sontag-ish notion of camp. I have read La Bruce’s essay. I found myself really reluctant to cede the word camp to some of the forms of boring heterosexual (AND gay/queer) kitsch that he considers “camp,” e.g. most of what he calls “bad camp,” but I found it very provocative. I guess in terms of contemporary camp theory, I find Rich Juzwiak’s revision of Sontag to be the most useful—he says that in our current pop culture landscape, “pure camp” in the Sontagian sense is basically impossible, every camp text seems to betray at least some degree of self awareness, but the most interesting ones are those where you can’t quite tell what is deliberately camp and what isn’t, that are a bit more liminal. There is a part of me that is very attached to honoring and retaining what I guess LaBruce would call the classic gay camp, the “gay culture” that Halperin argues for in How to be Gay, as much as I know this to be a limited sensibility. One of my absolute favorite authors is James McCourt.
MEGAN: I think in these terms the most successful camp text I’ve encountered in recent years is David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.
In my readings of “””femslash””” (ugh, hate this term), much of which involves characters/people who are already written as or known to be (IRL) queer, the queerness comes from the affective intensity, the soap operatic exchange (and the obstacles that delay the exchange) of feeling, the excess.
Quincest (and twincest more broadly, and also I guess RPS overall) is about the taboo. At its most basic, slash is about using taboo (originally more strictly M/M homosexual taboo, now exploded into a field of wildly varying taboos) to create obstacles, which in turn create desire and risk, and more desire. An argument can be made that, because deviant/queer desire creates more obstacles, there is more dramatic potential, and more potential for: yes. Feeeelings. Complicated, torturous feelings. That must get out! A lot of these narratives are using tried-and-true strategies borrowed from romance structures.
Lots more to say about all of this, and I’m all over the place but I want to get into potential overlaps between innovative writing and slash. Michael, since you’re here, I’m wondering whether you see, or could be persuaded to see, your Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker as a slash project. I’m thinking of the ways in which you ship JonBenet and Little Lord Fauntleroy. (It’s much more than that, obvs, and these characters are always several characters—not unlike the metaslash I linked to above!) Curious if/how you see your work in relation to slash, and what possibilities open up (or close down) in thinking about it in this way.
[Michael did not respond to these questions.]
MEGAN: I would also be interested in talking about other fanfic-y projects you all have come across within the world of innovative writing. I can think of: let’s see, Kevin Killian’s work with Kylie Minogue; Leon Baham’s Ponyboy, Sigh; Kate Durbin’s E!; Sarah Dowling’s Drown; Joyelle McSweeney’s Pistorius opera. I mean, we could talk forever. But I guess the question is,…Maybe getting back to this issue of reconfiguration: how/are these queer (and/or camp) projects? and how might reading them as slash fiction, or informed by slash/fan fiction, change how we read them, esp i/r/t their queer/transgressive potential? Or: what other interesting questions do you want to pose?
TIM: I don’t know if this addresses the question of how slash/fan fiction might change our reading of these texts, but I can say that as a reader of several of the “innovative” literary texts you named, who is also a fan of a lot of pop culture stuff, especially TV melodramas, I find myself most interested in the authors who are very earnest in their appropriations of pop culture, who allow fandom and reverence and desire and feeling to consume them, and thus potentially consume the reader, who allow themselves to dwell in a state of perpetual obsession or swoon, without critical distance, that can leave the reader unsettled and dizzy and panting. I guess this is influenced by my own increasingly shameless enjoyment of “my stories”—approaching my TV watching from a distanced, intellectualized critical perspective feels more and more tiresome. At the same time, I find I am not so much interested in challenging or actively attempting to interrogate the distinction between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture as I am in exploiting and dramatizing it, for instance by rubbing the highbrow and lowbrow up against each other in ways that could actually risk further reifying or entrenching that dichotomy. All these strategies seem to me to suggest ways that slash, or at least fandom, can inform “innovative” writing, and our readings of “innovative” texts.
Megan—this doesn’t really address the current question, so feel free to move it wherever, but I find myself still obsessing over Michael’s question of: “Does queerness depend on what already exists and then configuring it differently, queerly?” I don’t know whether this was his intention, but it seems to imply that perhaps a more radical or pure queer vision would be more creatively generative, rather than an altered copy. To which I guess I think it’s important to register my feeling that I find it nearly impossible to imagine queernesses outside our current normative contexts, languages, symbols, etc. But at the same time, I think it’s important to challenge the chronology that situates that queer reconfiguration as always following from a heteronormative original that already exists. I’m thinking here of Jonathan Katz and the “invention of heterosexuality,” the discovery that heterosexuality, like cisgender more recently, is a category that was not named until the “other” was named first, so that “heterosexuality” as a named identity is actually a derivation of “homosexuality.” It feels to me more like maybe queernesses and normativities are maybe always coexisting and informing each other. And also—just as queerness isn’t any one thing, there is also much variation within normative categories that current hegemonies belie. Like one of my favorite things about slash, when I first discovered it, was how it seemed to complicate “heterosexual” ciswomen’s desire.
BYRON: @Tim, to your earlier question, yes, Supernatural is really good about embracing its fan culture. The latest episode, called Fan Fiction, had the characters witness a musical theater production of Supernatural at an all-girl school, and it actively references some of the major trends in the show’s slash community (brother/brother incest and “Destiel,” as seen in the video above–the actresses playing the Dean and Castiel characters were a couple IRL in the episode). And of course musical theater is about as campy as it gets. Now in terms of “isn’t it ultimately just a bland mainstreaming of a once-insurgent-ish subculture,” I’d have to agree. This episode of the show, for instance, sent a really complicated message. On the one hand, it ended with the characters and the in-universe representation of the showrunner (introduced in a previous meta episode) explicitly saying “I like what you’re doing here, even though it doesn’t match my version of events; keep doing it.” On the other hand, by folding that message into the show itself, especially the much-publicized 200th episode, I think it does commoditize or exploit this countercultural production, stuff that (except 50 Shades of Grey) is usually very explicitly produced and distributed outside of the capitalist hegemony, if I’m using that term correctly–directly from writer to reader, with no exchange of capital.
I also wanted to echo this thought: “I find myself most interested in the authors who are very earnest in their appropriations of pop culture, who allow fandom and reverence and desire and feeling to consume them, and thus potentially consume the reader, who allow themselves to dwell in a state of perpetual obsession or swoon, without critical distance, that can leave the reader unsettled and dizzy and panting.” Absolutely. And Megan, “An argument can be made that, because queer desire creates more obstacles, there is more dramatic potential, and more potential for: yes. Feeeelings. Complicated, torturous feelings. That have to get out.” — I think this is the draw for sure. As you point out, it’s the structure of a lot of classic romantic fiction. Possibly because casual sex and desire are now seen as normative, no longer a source of shame, the (predominantly straight) women who write slash need something to map that essential erotic tension onto, even if it doesn’t match “their” desire?
ALEX: Aah – couple hectic days at Boston Public Schools…I’m back! So is the desire in slash a fancy, risque hat?
Does (the number of obstacles) x (the fire of desire) + (the taboo quotient) = the maximum possible allowance for, and I want to make sure I’m getting the right # of e’s here, “Feeeelings”?
I’ll try to organize my thoughts into a summary sculpture here. I feel a couple anchor points have been raised:
- The Appeal of Taboo as an Enticing (maybe/possibly/but maybe not really radical?) Outlet for More Normative Feelings: “An argument can be made that, because queer desire creates more obstacles, there is more dramatic potential, and more potential for: yes. Feeeelings. Complicated, torturous feelings. That have to get out.” (Megan) … “Like one of my favorite things about slash, when I first discovered it, was how it seemed to complicate “heterosexual” ciswomen’s desire.” (Tim) “Possibly because casual sex and desire are now seen as normative, no longer a source of shame, the (predominantly straight) women who write it need something to map that essential tension onto, even if it doesn’t match ‘their’ desire?” (Bryon) … “Related to our topic, I think some of the most interesting slash fiction happening right now is about 1 Direction, and specifically about members of the band impregnating each other and/or engaging in sexual activity in the manner of canines.” (Tim)
- The Intrigue of the Cultural Agency of Fans, or an “Amazingly Original Derivative Art”: “I really like the idea of the fan as parasite, leeching off of original source texts, claiming ownership over them” (Megan) … “because it demonstrates agency on the part of viewers, that viewers are not passively receiving pop culture like some Marxist criticism might have us believe.” (Tim) …
- Queerness as a Somewhat Dependent, Rich, Inexorably Contextual Perspective: “Does queerness depend on what already exists and then configuring it differently, queerly? Is queerness the process of that reconfiguration?” (from Michael) … “I find it nearly impossible to imagine queernesses outside our current normative contexts, languages, symbols, etc.” (from Tim)
- The Exhaustion Element – Going Mainstream, The Inevitable Blandness of Pursuing Taboo (?): “it became ubiquitous and mainstream enough that some of that radical potential seemed to be getting lost” (Tim) … “Isn’t it ultimately just a bland mainstreaming of a once-insurgent-ish subculture” (Tim)
Right now I’m thinking a bit about the context of slash, especially the surrounding technology that has allowed slash to be readily shared and allow for such communities.
I’m also thinking a bit about RPS and the ethical questions that Megan mentioned but which we haven’t really delved into.
MEGAN: Alex, thanks for focusing this convo into these main threads of discussion — we’ve really been roaming into and out of all of these, it’s helpful to have them identified and parsed. And thanks, Alex and Byron, for bearing with us as we insufferably geek out over defining and redefining queerness.
Looking at your first point, I am not sure I agree with this idea of “normative feelings” — when it comes to determining what’s “normative/radical” I might draw the line when it comes to emoting—who gets to judge what is a normative feeling? I wonder if you’re meaning something else here, though: because we have been talking about normative narratives.
I really like your synopsis of our discussion of queerness: “Queerness as a Somewhat Dependent, Rich, Inexorably Contextual Perspective.” Your use of the word “contextual” here calls to mind some characteristics of conceptual writing. i.e., conceptual writing is “writing in which the context is the primary location of meaning-making” (Vanessa Place in her afterword to I’ll Drown My Book). If conceptual writing is contextual writing and queerness is contextual, is queerness always already conceptual?
There’s a logical fallacy there but I like it.
Or I give up. I remain satisfied with Jose Munoz’s conception of queerness as horizon, a not-there-yet.
Tim and Byron—I too love Tim’s description of what is most interesting about slash-y lit texts: “I find myself most interested in the authors who are very earnest in their appropriations of pop culture, who allow fandom and reverence and desire and feeling to consume them.” Submit, submit. Absorb, be absorbed. Instead of taking up a position of critique, a position of fascination, curiosity, and gratitude. (Quickly, to return to this question about mainstreaming/exploitation: okay, I see a bit more what you mean in terms of the capitalist dimensions there. But again, I want to point out that the radical/insurgent dimensions of fan communities already coexist with consumption, capitalism, corporatism, etc. It seems misguided to suggest that we can separate them out.)
When I was working on my Twins pieces (which involve the Sweet Valley Twins) a good writer friend kept pushing me to further exaggerate my “satire” of SVT; that is, she assumed that satire was what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t doing it right. It was a confusing conversation because for her, satire was the only available mode, and for me, I didn’t exactly know what mode I was going for—but I knew it wasn’t satire. Now I can say, oh, it’s a fanfiction (in part because of Johannes Goransson’s post on fanfiction as a model of influence — in fact, I kind of wish we had started this conversation with that post). It was immensely useful to get that push, because it enabled me to identify and reject a critical mode for that project, and instead adopt a more earnest yet parasitic fanfictiony stance. In teaching Kate Durbin’s work, which is probably the most conceptual of the other non-slash slash texts I’ve mention, I’ve found that students often don’t know how to approach it at first, except as critical commentary. Fanfic aesthetics ask us not to critique but to absorb.
What if we turn the question the other way and ask what it means to think of slash as a mode of conceptual writing? What do you think?
TIM: I’m glad you mentioned Johannes, because I think most of my own rejection of the critical stance is influenced by Johannes and Joyelle. …I see that as very different from conceptual writing, though, unless you’re defining conceptual more broadly than I realize it, or I’m misunderstanding conceptualism. I think of conceptualism as involving a rejection of the author’s subjectivity and as allowing a machine process of some sort to generate the text. Whereas I feel like I’m kind of personally more interested in spilling my subjectivity all over the page, albeit in maybe an unstable way, influenced by folks like the new narrativists.
MEGAN: I am defining it broadly, I guess; viewing appropriation as one mode of conceptualism. But I think your narrower, perhaps more accepted notion of conceptualism as a machine process can also be interesting in the context of this conversation—if we view slash fiction, and I guess fan fiction more broadly, as machinery, a narrative (or even translation) machine generating out all these different/same stories with the same characters, reproducing over and over and over again. AU + Harry/Ron + Hurt/Comfort. Quincest + Non-AU + PWP (Plot what plot). The questions posed by slash seem conceptual in nature: how does narrative work/what constitutes art/what is the quality of the narratives we are immersed in/where is subjectivity when one is parasitic.
Last question I think, which is a comment maybe, and takes up Alex’s interest in exploring ethics a bit more: Part of what spurred my interest in having this conversation is the recent controversies surrounding some Alt Lit texts, namely PeterBD’s We’re Fucked and Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, both of which could be read as having RPS (Real Person Slash) dimensions: We’re Fucked imagines romantic/sexual encounters between Janey Smith and many other real people writers; Richard Yates ships real people Haley Joel Osmont and Dakota Fanning. I guess I am trying to reckon with these connections to slash myself, and looking for help. While I want to defend the zone of permissibility in Real People Slash—I don’t think imagining Tegan & Sara having sex with one another is assaultive (though I recognize that some do)—when it comes to Fuck List/We’re Fucked, my immediate, strong reaction is No; this is violating—and mean.
TIM: I will admit that when I initially saw the Janey Smith/Steven Trull htmlgiant post upon which the PeterBD book was based, knowing that Steven considered Kathy Acker an influence, and was “IRL” acquaintances with people like Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian, I read it not as assaultive, but as within a new narrative tradition that claims gossip as an aesthetic, implicating real personalities in order to heighten investment in a text and ground it in community, and I found the word “fuck,” not to be wholly violent or coercive, but rather multivalent in a way that might include a mix of worship, desire, adoration, etc. …But when I saw how many of the people included in the list felt violated, and also began to learn more about Steven’s “IRL” problems around harassment and boundaries, I very quickly realized how privileged a position my reaction was coming from. I do believe and understand that language and discourse can have a material impact as far as reinforcing violence and systems of oppression. At the same time, I don’t equate language-based violence and material violence, and have been somewhat concerned by some of the criticisms, like Dianna Dragonetti’s, that have collapsed material violence like, for instance, the allegations against Gregory Sherl or Stephen Tully Dierks, with language-based violence. I feel like we need to protect a space for violence in our art, for art that reproduces rather than criticizes the violence of the dominant culture, which I guess IS often a conceptual project. But the Peter BD/Steven Trull situation HAS very much heightened my consciousness around the need for consent when using “real people’s” names. In my own project-in-progress, LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE, I have assigned real authors’ names to several characters, which was actually promised to these individuals as a reward for donating to a past fundraiser I ran to support a performance associated with this project. But because of the transgressive nature of my text, the characters bearing the names of some of these real life authors engage in a range of sexual and/or violent activities, including sex with minors, forced fellatio, intimate partner violence, etc. I feel especially aware now of the importance of sharing this text with the authors in question, and gaining their consent, before moving forward with any publication plans.
I think Richard Yates is messy not so much because of the use of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning’s names, but because of how it depicts personal correspondence and interactions between Tao Lin and E.R. Kennedy, and Kennedy’s recent allegations of emotional and sexual abuse during the course of that relationship. …Although if I understand that situation correctly, Kennedy gave consent in some form at the time of initial publication.
When it comes to using real life personalities, probably something should be said about the vast difference in power between celebrities like Osmont and Fanning and indie/conceptual/innovative writers, as well as the difference between nonfiction and obvious fiction—however blurred that latter boundary might at times become, especially in conceptual writing.