Thursday, 29 September 2011

Fanfiction, slash, and the Female Gaze

I'm taking a pause in the middle of Mazecheat edits, which are slow, boring work (mainly adding in technical/plot points so that the end actually works - which is complicated, requires close reading and is highly unrewarding). And it's lunchtime and there's nothing on BBC iPlayer I feel like watching, so... I thought I would write this.

I've been meaning to write about fanfiction/slash fiction for a while - ever since, in fact, I read one of the first ever online reviews of The Traitor Game, which said: "the one thing I'm curious about is whether B R Collins cut her writing teeth online, as there are elements in it which are closer to fanfiction than to professional fiction - and this is in no way a criticism!" Later she added that it was "something to do with the quality of the emotions. Like I said - definitely NOT a crit!"

Ri-ight, I thought.

I didn't get it at all. I knew nothing about fanfic at that point - and when I looked at some it still didn't make sense. Fanfic, I thought, is when a writer takes SOMEONE ELSE'S CHARACTERS and SOMEONE ELSE'S WORLD and writes their own story about them and it. (Those caps aren't emotional, by the way, they're supposed to imply a kind of slightly bemused emphasis. Imagine me talking to myself in a very slow and confused sort of way.) So if you're writing with your OWN characters and your OWN world... er... well - fic possibly, but where does the fan bit come in? (Unless you're your own fan, of course, which I suppose, in my case, possibly... but that's presumably not quite what she was driving at. She'd never met me, after all.)

It bugged me. Because deep down - and the more I read fanfic, the stronger it was - I had a conviction that she was on to something. And that felt... weird. As if I'd revealed more of myself than I meant to.

And I kept reading. I read lots and lots of fanfiction, most of it slash fiction. And slowly, slowly it started to dawn on me. She wasn't really talking about fanfiction in general. No, she was talking about slash. Slash is - and I'm mainly talking about M/M slash, just so you know - a form, or let's say a subspecies, or maybe a kind of daughter-species, of fanfiction. But here's the crucial thing: 'original' slash can (and does) exist, when 'original' fanfic (presumably) doesn't.

For anyone who isn't familiar with slash, let me give you the basic rundown. Slash fiction is (generally, see above) fanfiction which involves a non-canonical pairing of two (generally) male characters. It is (generally*) written by women for women. And most of them (generally**) are straight or bi. I.e., they find their male characters sexually attractive.

(For more details, plus endless, endlessly enticing links - this time I got distracted through here and here to, er, here - go to TVTropes. Actually The Traitor Game has its own TVTropes entry, where the troper has obligingly joined in on this debate...)

So what's the difference between slash fiction and gay fiction? Surely gay men (for example) writing about gay men will have the same basic approach? And they don't get labelled slash, do they? (And whether or not you think "slashy" is pejorative, it's certainly more marginalising and easily dismissible than "gay".) I'm happy to acknowledge slash as a genre, but I'm not prepared to define it simply by the gender of the author (M/M fiction by woman = slash, by man = gay). No. So what is it about? The believability of the Ms as Ms? The transparency (or otherwise) of the convention that these are, actually, Fs, rewritten and encoded in order to explore something about them in the real world?

Anthony McGowan (great YA writer and altogether Good Thing) once said to me that he was astonished at how male he thought the characters in The Traitor Game were. And it was one of the nicest compliments I've ever had. (My mother, on the other hand, told me they were far too female. I like to think that Tony knows more about male experience than my mother... but you never know.) I really wanted TTG to be authentic; I didn't want the characters to be some female fantasy of adolescent boys. (There's a place for that... but possibly only in my head.) And I do think, truly, that I succeeded. "Gay", then, rather than "slash"?

And yet... it is a bit slashy. I mean... What was it the review said? "Something in the quality of the emotion"? Well. There's a lot of sexual attraction. There's a lot of boys looking at each other. There's a fair amount of sublimated eroticism which focuses on eyes and hands and voice, rather than - well, breasts or arses or cocks or... Maybe there really is something in the quality of the gaze, not just its object, which can imply or subvert the gender of the gazer. Maybe there's something female in how you look, not just who you're looking at. Maybe the implied gender of the gazer is more important, in the end, than the gender of the gazee.

But no. I don't like that conclusion, and I don't trust it, either. My gut tells me that fancying someone is fancying someone. Sexual attraction is sexual attraction. Men don't automatically fall for big tits, any more than women fall for a lovely personality. The Female Gaze, as Our Friend TVTropes says, 'may overlap with Homosexual Male Gaze'. Think we're back where we started.

And yet... and yet...

I am playing around at the moment with a slash novel. Yes, deliberately slashy, deliberately self-indulgent - not one for the publishers, more to remind myself of the onanistic pleasure of writing, to drive away the I-must-make-a-living-demons that prey on creativity. I started it yesterday. It's from a male character's POV, and on the first page I reread the sentence: "Behind him there was a young man - his own age, but taller, with a clear, cold look in his eyes, as though the mountain air had got between his irises and the outside world."

Bingo, I thought. That is so slashy.

And I don't even know why.

*OK, I'm going to stop doing this now. You get the idea.
** No, I'm sorry, I can't.


  1. I wonder if the category of melodrama is relevant here? I think slash might be like melodrama in being directly directed towards some kind of emotional excitation in a visceral way that literary fiction usually isn't, without necessarily being directed to sexual arousal in the way pornography is. And melodrama, like slash, has often been considered a female genre (more in terms of audience than in terms of authors, though, I think).

  2. This was fascinating and, as a slash writer, something I've never really thought about.

    I think you're on to something with slashy writing focussing on specific non-sexual body parts (eyes, hands etc). Loving descriptions of ice-cold blue eyes and crimson gazes (and the many, MANY different permutations) kind of go hand in hand with slash. There's also the way slash always (mostly always) focusses on the emotions rather than the physical. It's not so much that there's a 'clear, cold look in his eyes' but the emotional impact of that look.

    I do think, however, that there is something inherantly female about slash writing. Maybe it's because it orginated as women writing for women? Regardless, it's normally pretty easy to pick slash written by men. It's still slashy, to be sure, but there's a different... feel to it? I don't think I'm very good at explaining it.

    I found this article ( while I was doing research for something else (And only remember it because the title 'Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking' makes me giggle) where a whole bunch of slash writers and fans discuss slash and the reasons behind it. It's definitely worth a look.

  3. The world of slash is fascinating, isn't it? I have read plenty, and not all will fall into the hands/eyes/emotions categories, yet I can always sense the woman behind it, as was the case with Traitor Game.
    I'm glad you are not hiding this habit of yours as some published YA novelists have done..:)

  4. Thanks, guys - lots to think about there! I had no idea I had such intelligent readers... :)

  5. and, as That Reviewer... fascinating!! xx Leonie Flynn

  6. I only just realised you had a blog (because I am a doofus), and look, you write about gay/slash fiction and how you navigate the whole 'slash fiction' conundrum if you're writing about two guys falling in love. (This is Pertinent To My Interests because I'm writing about two guys falling in love.)

    I could write a ton about this, but I'm saving it up for a blog post of my own at some point. This post is definitely going to get quoted a few times, though :)