Sholio (sholio) wrote,
Sholio
sholio

Meta-meta: on fanfic, genre and categorization

The recent conversation about gen and shipping on Abyssinia's LJ, spawning its own meta elsewhere including Synecdochic's take on the discussion's references to her fic, got me thinking about a number of things, not the least of them being why we spend so much time sitting around at our computers meta-ing about fan stuff.

But when it comes right down to it, fan meta is just another form of sitting around the dorm room (cafeteria, coffee shop, teahouse, bedroom, Acropolis or wherever) and hashing out ideas. I bet the ancient Greeks spent at least as much time talking about their wives, the sorry state of politics in 400 B.C., or the hot naked boys practicing their javelin throws down the hill, as they did on figuring out the principles of geometry.

College and I had an unfriendly parting of the ways, but one of the few things that does make me look back on it fondly is the dorm-living experience, and the many late nights sitting around in the lounge having wild conversations about anything and everything. I wish sometimes that I'd taken notes, because I think I'd hardly have to write another original line of dialogue again as long as I live; everything I need is in there somewhere.

And one of the reasons why I really love those kinds of conversations is that they make me question why I believe the things I do, and where my convictions on some of this stuff comes from ... and start reassessing them if they don't make sense. The discussion on gen got me to thinking about that.

As a reader of fanfic, I usually want to know ahead of time what I'm getting into. I want to know if a given fic is gen or slash, what characters it has, what pairings it has, if it's a deathfic, if it's angsty, if it's AU, if it's got explicit sex or not. And here's what makes this weird: my tastes in original fiction tend to go exactly the other way. I hate spoilers and love to be surprised; I adore genre mixing and seeing odd things put together in new and interesting ways; and most importantly, I really hate categorization of original fiction! I hate the fact that to find all of (taking an example of an author who writes widely disparate kinds of works) Madeline L'Engle's books, you'd have to look in YA and SF and literature and non-fiction, and maybe other places as well. I would loathe seeing published fiction as tightly categorized as is done with fanfic: a book going on one shelf if it's got a heterosexual romance in it, or another shelf if one of the main characters dies in the end, or another shelf if it's got a gay pairing, and yet another shelf if somebody gets raped. That's not just insanely stupid, but stifling to both writers and readers. Just the way that books get niched by their publishers into extremely broad categories like science fiction or romance is bad enough, because so many of the really good ones are genre-defying. What genre is Mark Helprin's modern-fairytale-esque "Winter's Tale"? Is "Catch-22" a satire or a war novel ... or both? Orwell's "Animal Farm" tends to get shelved in young adult while Alan Dean Foster's brainless adolescent fantasies get put in the adult SF section alongside Clarke and Heinlein ... what the hell is up with that?

I appreciate genre and categorization in published fiction from a reader's standpoint because it *does* help me find the sorts of thing I like to read. But I also hate it, as an institution, because of the way it chokes creativity -- not just because genre makes it difficult for something truly different to get published and find a readership, but because it's hard for writers to think outside the box. You discover that you like fantasy, so you read a ton of what the bookstore categorizes as "fantasy", and so you start writing your own novels and they end up picking up the fantasy trappings without the depth. And they sell. So you write more. And kids pick up and read them, and thus you end up with the umpteen gazillionth re-iteration of The Adventures of Blandman in Generotopia.

In light of all of this, it truly doesn't make sense to me that I want to shoebox fan fiction so completely. So now I'm trying to figure out why that might be -- why I lean so much more heavily on genre and category in fanfic to sort out the ones I want to read. For me, I think, a lot of it comes down to the presence, in fanfic, of the "one true path": canon, the source from which all else springs. And in fanfic, much more than published fiction, there are a lot of deviations from canon that are due to lack of skill or knowledge or self-restraint on the writer's part, as opposed to a desire to explore deliberate deviations from the source material. Author X doesn't write Rodney as a soppy doormat because she consciously wants to explore Western social norms of emotional expression and the way that varying this pattern can cause feedback that changes the existing canonical relationships; she writes him that way because she's 17 and really sucks at depicting an adult male viewpoint. Author Y doesn't write Sheppard and McKay as lovers because she wants to explore a subversion of our heteronormative society and gender roles; she writes them that way because she gets off on the idea of two straight guys having sex with each other. Not that there's really any reason why you can't do that, but it does tend to show, and there's a certain amount of logic in using genre categorization to avoid the types of stories where my least favorite fanwank fantasies tend to be concentrated. Avoiding deathfic (I don't always, but I often do) might mean I'll miss some real gems, but it's a quick way to avoid all the horrible, OOC, teen-angsty "OMG, I'm so sad, I think I'll go slash my wrists now" fics. 9 out of 10 rapefics squick me hideously, and it's not really worth it to me to wade through a sea of rape fantasies in order to find the occasional fic that uses rape as a means to explore character and society.

With Synecdochic's story, I never in a million years would have figured that she'd put Sheppard and McKay together as a couple in order to do a deliberate subversion of societal roles and then have that play out in subtle ways in the way that Rodney related to the society around him. I'd seen it as a straight-up slash genre thing, where sexual love trumps all other kinds of love (which is the feeling I often get from a lot of slash). Knowing that it's deliberate and was done with calculated effect, and for a reason having nothing to do with romantic love being deeper than platonic love ... you know, it *does* change how I feel about the story.

To be honest, I still don't think that it worked all that well, because neither I nor (as far as I can tell) most of her other readers really figured out what she was up to ... but part of this, I think, is because slash, as a genre, is framed a certain way and exists for certain reasons, and "Freedom" doesn't really do that, BUT ... most people already respond to slash a certain way (whether it's for or against or "OMG John & Rodney 4evah!" or "ewww, that's not my OTP, I'm not going to read any more"). In other words, it's kind of like using Nazis or Muslims or rape victims or anything else that people have strong reactions to; people are going to be so polar about it that you'll get a lot of people reacting to the story in ways you never intended, just because they already have a huge host of preconceived notions about Nazis and about the sort of person who would put them into a story. Your message kind of gets lost in the "Gah!" reaction.

Anyway, I think that between all the musing I've been doing lately on genre and categorization, and Synecdochic's own musings on the reasons behind the narrative decisions that she made in "Freedom", I think I actually *am* sold on the idea that it's not necessarily automatic for a story that hinges around two canonically straight characters having sex to translate to "slash genre", even though 95% of the time that would be the case ... any more than it's automatic for the presence of magic in a story to make it fantasy -- most of the time one would tend to imply the other, but I don't think that "Gulliver's Travels" or "Hamlet" are fantasy in the same sense that Book XVIII of the Adventures of Thorg the Barbarian is fantasy. You can use genre trappings as a tool and not just because the author likes the genre and wants to write more of it -- and what you end up with is a story with a very different feel than the other kind. Does that make sense?

But the caveat is that if you do that, you have a lot of work to "sell" the story to the other audience -- if I put ghosts and goblins in Manhattan, I'm going to have a hard uphill road to convince a mainstream, non-fantasy audience that they need to be there and aren't the reason for the story. This isn't because my readers are being jerks about it; it's just that it *will* take a little more convincing for them than for people who already read and like fantasy and are likely to say, "Oh look, an orc chasing a jogger through Central Park, cool!" and move on, as opposed to a non-fantasy reader who gets stuck on the "But there ARE no orcs in Central Park!" aspect of it.

As a gen reader, I don't think that "Freedom" quite convinced me of that necessity, as it was supposed to have done. But I'm quite a lot more open to the idea that you can have the trappings of a genre without necessarily being a part of that genre, depending on why those trappings are present, what role they serve in the story, and how closely the story as a whole conforms to the tenets of the genre overall. It's clearly a "your mileage may vary" situation, but I *do* kinda see the hypocrisy of applying a much looser standard of categorization to published fiction than to fanfic -- even if part of the reason why that double standard exists (again, IMHO) is because so much fanfic is basically ... porn. Emotional, sexual, platonic or otherwise, most fanfic is fantasy taking tangible form, in a much more direct kind of way than published fiction (where the same is also often true, but filtered through a lens of plot and theme and editors and bookstores.) You have to do SOMETHING to sort your own particular fantasies out from the ones that squick.

Obviously I'm not just singling out slash writers here. The vast majority of the fanfic I write, and read, is essentially wanking material for gen h/c fans; I'm well aware of this. I like to think mine are well-written wankfests with a good plot, but I'm not kidding myself -- I don't stick Sheppard and McKay in a hole in the ground and torture them because I want to make some kind of grand statement about human nature or want to retell the story of the Labyrinth of Crete in a sci-fi setting (though that would be kind of cool, come to think of it); I do it because I have a kink for half-dead guys hugging each other, and if I'm going to blow every evening for a week writing a story I can't ever sell or use in a portfolio, I'd damn well better be getting some warm fuzzies out of it. Not that I'm a total hack, not that I don't ever write fanfic that's supposed to be "serious", but at the end of the day, I write fic for fun, whereas I write original fiction for fun AND profit AND to chase out some of the demons in my own head. Fic ... it's just escapism for me.

And I tend to approach fanfic, as a reader, in the expectation that it's written largely for fantasy purposes, rather than to explore a serious plot or theme, and that it's written within its genre branding, and that it *can* be branded in that way. In some ways I also do the same with published fiction, at least to the extent that I do most of my browsing in certain sections of the bookstore because I know that I'm a lot more likely to find a book I like on the SF shelves than than the Harlequin romance shelves. But the difference is, with published fiction I see genre as sort of a necessary evil, and broader is better; whereas with fic, I want categorization and lean on it and get annoyed when writers either refuse to categorize themselves or play the genre-switch game on purpose. And there's a definite hypocrisy in that.

Goodness, this is a lot of meta. I'm going to bed.

[Side note: I have no clue what gender Synecdochic is ... and no way to prove the gender of anyone else I know online, either. I just use "she" as my usual generic pronoun, especially when I'm talking about fanfic writers because most of the ones I know *are* female.]

EDIT: Due to the potentially flameworthy topic of this discussion and the new people coming in from Metafandom, I wanted to mention that I'll be moderating with a fairly heavy hand. Please feel free to speak your mind as long as you're polite, reasonable and can do so without specifically insulting other people in the discussion. Also please be aware that this is a gen fan's journal and the opinions expressed herein tend to be more gen-friendly than slash-friendly. However, as long as you're polite and willing to listen to other people's viewpoints, you'll get no pestering from me. ^^
Tags: meta
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