I've been thinking a lot about fan-fic and slash-fic lately.
Now, it's really difficult to write a post about fan-fic and slash-fic without defining the terms for the readers who aren't familiar with either. And it's really difficult to accurately define these terms because they mean different things for different people. So I'm going to try to define what the terms mean to me, but with the advance warning that I tend to define these terms more loosely and more broadly than many other people do. And, it's worth noting: I don't own the terms and I'm not the definitive guide for using them. So there's that!
But having said that, I use the term fan-fic to refer to stories written by fans of an existing fictional work. The fan-fic work utilizes some or all of the existing work's pre-established characters, world building, and possibly story arcs. I use the term slash-fic to refer to "fan-fic that contains romantic pairings between existing characters that is not directly supported by the established work", but it's important to note that a large body of slash-fic requires changing or modifying a character's established sexuality in order to make the pairing work.
Based on these very broad definitions, I've loved fan-fic for years. Some of my favorite novels are new retellings of old fairy tales or modern rewrites of Shakespearean plays. My favorite Greek plays are the ones that took pre-existing myths and reworked them into new interpretations. I've seen "The Divine Comedy" described in jest as "history's first recorded self-insert fan-fic", but by golly I like that Dante gets to meet Virgil and be Best Friends Forever. Fan-fic has always seemed to me to be a great platform for breathing modern concerns and issues into relevant older pieces, as well as for filling in plot holes or extrapolating what happens after The End.
Slash-fic, on the other hand, I've had a more changeable relationship with, and for that I blame Sherlock Holmes. You see, I like Sherlock Holmes stories, although I think I liked them more when I was a child and the logic trains seemed more clear-cut and less authorially-mandated. But I like them nonetheless, and I especially like that Sherlock Holmes is portrayed, in my opinion, as a rare asexual character in a genre that more often than not seems to center around the hero getting The Girl (if not lots and lots of girls) as a prize at the end of every solved mystery.
But Sherlock Holmes is also one of the most famous literary characters I can think of who is also regularly the subject of slash-fic romance with his sometimes live-in roommate Watson, despite Holmes' (in my opinion) carefully portrayed asexuality and Watson's romantic devotion to his wife. And if you'd asked me a few months ago what I thought about the tendency to slash-pair Holmes/Watson, I would have said it really isn't my thing. But then Melissa McEwan said something that made me reconsider my position.
A few days after I very badly communicated in a Slacktiverse thread that non-canon pairings weren't really my thing because of this hang-up I have with Sherlock Holmes, Melissa McEwan posted on her blog a trailer for the upcoming movie "The Hobbit". And because Shakesville is a feminist blog with a heavily female readership, a delightful conversation sprung up about Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" epic and the relative lack of female characters therein. In the ensuing discussion, I confessed that as a child I had accidentally read hobbit Merry and elf Legolas as females, because I had assumed that someone in an epic adventuring party needed to be female. I also offered that I had been so upset on the realization that there were no women in the LOTR adventuring party that I wrote a truly execrable fan-fic about "Gandalf's daughter". I pointed out that this character I had written was a silly and one-dimensional device intended simply to follow the party around and provide a 'hook' for me to sink into the narrative.
Melissa responded by saying:
It doesn't sound silly to me.
It sounds like building a room of one's own (so to speak, and with all due respect to Ms. Woolf) within a literary space.
If feminism is learning the cultural architecture to build rooms of one's own wherever one finds the need, and I believe that it is, then creating a character for an author who couldn't be arsed to create one for you is an act of feminism, not silliness.
"Creating a character for an author who couldn't be arsed to create one for you is an act of feminism." I'd never seen it that way before, and now that it had been said, I couldn't see it any other way.
We live in a world where popular fiction, if it wants to avoid being shoved into the "issues" section, frequently presents a world of monochromatic characters in hetero-normative relationships. Female characters, no matter how "strong" or competent, are more often than not shoved aside in favor of male protagonist pie. Minority characters -- people of color, people with disabilities, people with body fat -- are included rarely, if at all, and almost never as main characters and almost always with glowing neon "issue" signs over their heads. Non-neurotypical characters, including people with multiplicity, are rarely included and almost inevitably whodunit. QUILTBAG characters are frequently silenced or absent altogether.
Of the 100+ books I read last year, only two of them even mentioned gays and lesbians, let alone the other letters in the alphabet soup. One of those books was a non-fiction book with the word 'gay' in the title. The other was a history book about U.S. presidents. The last fictional book I read with a bisexual character was Steig Larsson's "The Millenium Trilogy", and the bisexual female protagonist largely prefers men. I cannot remember reading a fictional book with undecided, intersex, transgender, or asexual characters that wasn't explicitly an "issue" book. I can't remember recently watching a movie or television show with QUILTBAG characters where the issue wasn't largely included to drive ratings or to serve in place of actual characterization except maybe, maybe, True Blood's Lafayette. Who, in addition to being gay, is also a drug dealer and a prostitute (and a perfect example of why television writers need to read up on Wicca before throwing it into a show with Vampires and Werewolves and Fairies as though all of those things is just like the others). Well-adjusted, happy QUILTBAG characters seem to be as rare in mainstream fiction as unicorns.
If creating a character with an identity similar to yours, for an author who couldn't (for whatever reason, because I fully recognize that It's Very Complicated) create one for you, is an act of positive subversion, does it matter if the character is a new one a la Gandalf's Daughter or a new interpretation of an existing one a la Sherlock Holmes?
I'm not sure that it does matter, at least as far as fan-fic goes. Possibly the full power and finance of Hollywood does not need to be directed into turning Hamlet gay for a Hamlet/Horatio pairing, or Mary Bennet lesbian for a Mary Bennet/Charlotte Lucas interpretation, or Odysseus transgender and his classic odyssey through space-time reinterpreted as a modern odyssey through self-identification. With great power comes great responsibility, and with the power that big-budget movie makers wield to create definitive renditions of text, possibly they have a greater responsibility to cleave to the author's perceived intent.
But fan-fic is written largely by the powerless and shared widely among those who are not looking to permanently change the original work. The goal of fan-fic is almost always to enjoy and savor the original piece, but with a few tweaks here and there to make the story more approachable for the fan and their readers. And with that in mind, I now have to think that fan-fic and slash-fic can be positive acts, acts that take an existing work and say, "I know you couldn't include a person of my gender, a person with body fat, a person of color, a person who identifies as QUILTBAG, a person of my religion, or a person of non-neurotypicalness in your narrative. But I love your narrative enough that I'm going to write a fan-fic to fix that for me. And I'll share it with anyone else who has the same needs as I."
I now think that can be a good thing, a positive subversive act meant to signal to the larger world that we -- the non-white, the non-male, the non-heterosexual, the non-neurotypical, the non-body conforming -- are here and we are not going away any time soon. I think it can be an act that signals that we are not only building rooms of our own in new houses that we build from scratch, but we are also building additions to the older, existing houses that we've been given to inhabit.
It's More Complicated Than That, of course. Fan writers aren't always automatically on the side of angels, and things become more muddied when the author of the original work is still alive and the work is still under copyright. (This is one of many reasons why the examples in this post are all works in the public domain.) There's the question of author intent to consider, and how much that author's intent should weigh on the interpretation of the work in question. There's the question of how the fan-fic is written, and whether the newly added elements are 'merely' subversive or actively harmful. (As with, for example, fan-fic that portrays intensely triggering, disturbing, or illegal elements.) Like almost every issue there are shades of gray, and reasonable people are going to disagree here and there.
But considering all that, and purely as my personal opinion, I think that when crafted with love and respect and when shared with the intent to expand and embrace, fan-fic and slash-fic can be positive subversive acts. And I am mostly in favor of that.