The Death of Smarm
by Lucy Gillam
"Moonlight filtered unevenly through the frosted panes of the glass, glinting against crystals of ice and spilling its preternatural essence onto Blair’s bowed head. Jim clenched his jaw and swallowed once, twice, unable to completely repress a sudden surge of undefined emotion. Even in baggy sweat pants and a faded T-shirt, one bare foot curled on top of the other, Blair seemed somehow ethereal in the winter moonglow. He was leaning slightly forward, his forehead nearly touching a pane of glass, his arms wrapped around him for warmth, his attention completely riveted by something outside."
"He had come to think, during the long night and its endless dawn, that it was the touch of Blair's skin on his that brought surcease from his agony. Only as his tongue met Blair's in a slow, pure caress did he realize it wasn't the contact with his friend's body that had done it at all. It had been the touch of Blair's soul, raw with love as all the barriers between them were taken away, that had brought the suffering to an end. As it always had, since the day he had met him, and known then he was looking into the other half of himself."
"I am startled by the sound of Jim grunting as he slips in his own sweat and falls to his knees. Hunched over, his arms embracing the leather bag, his mouth ajar and exhaling deep, heaving breaths, he no longer seems intimidating. Instead the gentle moonglow overlays the beautifully sculpted planes of his body with silver. I sense that I am looking through primeval mists at suffering Atlas, bent over and broken, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. In a pulsing, adrenaline flash of insight I know that I will never again meet anyone as significant as Jim Ellison, that he is the most pivotal human being who will ever enter my life."
"This time, though, he wasn't bowing his head in defeat. He was relaxing further into Blair's infinitely tender care. Blair still asked so much, and he still didn't know if he could possibly achieve what Blair demanded so easily of him. The request had been made as though surrendering all self were a step as self-evident and simple as getting out of bed in the morning. But Blair's touch was such peace, even through the pain, and a man who could touch him that way loved him enough to make anything possible. A dim memory of red lines of strength scrolling away from Blair's naked heart came to him as he felt the splash of water between his legs, softened by Blair's hand. The last sting of soap faded."
Lovely romantic images, aren’t they?
Except, um, they’re not supposed to be. These quotes were taken from genfic.
Greetings, and welcome to another installment of Lucy Wins Friends in the TS Community. Today’s topic: Smarm.
What, you ask, is "smarm?" Well, maybe you don’t, but I’m going to tell you anyway. "Smarm" is a particular variety of genfic which centers around (or at least heavily emphasizes) the intense friendship between the main characters. It usually involves verbal expressions of love and/or affection, and sometimes involves physical expressions of those feelings (this is called "glomming"). How exactly it got the name "smarm" is a source of some debate – I suspect at one time, the name had a kind of "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, yeah we know this is over the top" quality. It has since lost that, and become a genuine jargon term, much like "slash."
Now, smarm can be a beautiful thing. Although I freely admit that I don’t read much genfic outside of TS (but that’s a whoooooole other column), within Sentinel fandom, I’m very bi-fictional, with a slight leaning towards gen. I find the friendship between Jim and Blair completely fascinating, and often more interesting than a romantic pairing between the two.
You sense the "but" coming, don’t you?
But … once upon a time, I wrote a little story about Blair passing his qualifying exams (if you don’t know what that is, you’ve never been in grad school, lucky you) and called it smarm. There was nary a hug in sight, and I don’t think the word "love" was used once. Just two guys making it very clear to each other in the oblique, roundabout, actions-are-better-than-words way of guys just how important they were to each other. And almost three years ago, that qualified as smarm (oooh, bad pun! No donut!).
I don’t think it would today.
Why? Because smarm … smarm has largely become the equivalent of the PWP. Plot is at best a flimsy contrivance to cause Our Heroes to proclaim their devotion, and at worst an annoyance to be utterly dispensed with.
Okay, so fair’s fair: PWPs are a staple of slash. Why shouldn’t genners have their equivalent? Well, partly because in the absence of, you know, sex, the story mostly involves two guys sitting around talking deeply (and often floridly) about their feelings. Which can be interesting enough the first ten or twenty times, but does start to pall after a while.
It also eventually runs into problems of characterization. Now, I know this is a sticky point. And I can conceive of circumstances under which Jim Ellison would pour his heart out about how much his friend means to him. I can see Blair comforting Jim with a proclamation of devotion.
What I can’t see is Blair staging hysterics over the "death" of Frosty the Snowman as a scheme to get Jim to hug him. And even if, in some parallel universe, he did, I can’t see Jim responding with anything but a whap upside the head and a "snap out of it, Chief." I’m reminded of an episode of a short-lived sitcom in which five (male) friends gathered to watch Brian’s Song, and had a contest to see who could hold out against crying the longest (one, I believe, teared up even as he tried to claim he didn’t cry). Naturally, they used all sorts of camouflage and excuses, and had to leave the room as soon as the tears escaped their eyes.
Now, THAT is how American men cry about tv shows.
Which brings me to the point where I really win friends: the real downfall of smarm as a sub-genre has not been the utter dismissal of plot, or the elevation of "friendship moments" from Nifty Part of Story to Entire Reason for Story. The slow disintegration of smarm (and sadly with it much of TS genfic) has been a direct result of the need/desire on the part of smarm writers to push the envelope, to increase the intensity of both the emotions and the verbal and physical display of those emotions.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you "Beach."
"Beach," for anyone not on Senfic, is a multi(multi, multi, multi) part epic by Kitty and Martha that has become the death knell for smarm. Not because it’s so purple that Anne Rice would hesitate at some of the prose. Not because it pushes the gen/slash continuum into oblivion. Not because it’s so plotless you’d need an electron microscope to find the story. Not even because it took Jim and Blair 20 parts to walk about 50 feet and another 25 to take a shower (together).
"Beach" is killing smarm because it has become smarm. It is the standard to which writers who wish to write smarm now look. And it is the best ammunition slashers who think gen writers/readers (especially smarmers) are just "in denial" have ever been handed.
"Beach," or at least the 25 parts I read before I finally gave up, consists of Blair finding Jim naked and more or less catatonic on (you guessed it) a beach – vague hints are dropped of some sort of torture that has caused his senses to go completely haywire. The only thing that helps him at all is physical contact with Blair. Thus we have much touching and caressing and a french kiss or two. 25 or so parts of physical (Jim) and emotional (Blair) agony later, they make it to a hotel room, where we have more touching and cleaning off of sand and a shared shower.
That’s about where I got off.
Ouch. Bad choice of words.
Because all of this, you see, is purely platonic. Nary a sexual thought in sight. And unless I’m totally misunderstanding the goal of smarm, I’m not supposed to be having sexual thoughts, either.
Now, let me be the first to say that the argument that all gen fans are somehow in denial of their slashy leanings pisses me off. In a culture where I sometimes have a great deal of trouble explaining to people that some women do find the idea of two men together a sexual turn-on, I’m always amused at slashers’ inability to understand that some women don’t. I like genfic.
Which is why "Beach" and the inevitable imitators/wannabes give me the willies. I don’t want to be in a slashy mindset when reading gen. I don’t want to be thinking, "oh yeah, they’re doin’ it" when reading a story that isn’t supposed to involve them doin’ it. And most importantly, I want to be able to both respect and trust authors enough to take them at their word when they label a story slash or gen.
Now, I must needs point out that the authors of "Beach," and of similar stories, are quite adamant that, in their stories, Jim and Blair are not doin’ it. And I don’t want to argue with them about that, because it comes down to a mindset I simply can’t get into: I honestly don’t understand the appeal of having two wet, naked men stroking each other in a totally platonic way. And while I normally pride myself on trying very hard to understand mindsets not my own, this one takes me to places I just don’t want to go, involving as it does a lot of pseudo-psychoanalytic speculation. I hate it when people do that to me, so I won’t do it to someone else.
What I will do is respond as a reader, and say that I find the idea of two adult American men cuddling, kissing, contemplating one another’s beauty in the moonlight, endlessly declaring their affection in florid prose, in a totally platonic way, profoundly unrealistic. I’m a gaming nerd; I therefore hang around men a lot. And let me tell you, a Budweiser-esque "I love you, man," is about as much as you’re going to get unless someone’s dying. As for cuddles … ever noticed that your average guy can’t even hug another guy without either closing his hand into a fist or thumping the other guys back. Watch some time - no prolonged palm-to-body contact. It’s like a law.
It has been suggested to me that the reason I get slash vibes from these stories (besides just being a pervert, which they say like it’s an insult) is that I don’t understand "true friendship." I have to say that I deeply, profoundly resent that particular argument. I’m not going to go into a long, detailed defense of my friendships. Suffice to say that of the people I would die for, the people I would kill for, the people who keep me going when the world is too much with me, the only one I french kiss is the one who put the rock on my left ring finger (not counting the occasional double-dog dare in a Cold Stone Creamery, but that’s another story).
Worse, I think this kind of attitude, and the increasingly over-the-top gestures that populate smarm, belittle the smaller moments that make up real relationships. My darling SO has done some very romantic things for me (I’m probably the only person in America who can say she was proposed to with an Edgar Allen Poe poem); but the moment I realized I loved him was when I heard him tell my cat how much he’d miss her while she and I were gone for Christmas. My best friend doesn’t have to declare her affection for me: the silly little card she sent when I was stressed over my comps told me that.
Now, despite my title, there are obviously people who think smarm is alive and well, and who like it just the way it is. But I mourn for a sub-genre that has gone in a direction that honestly puzzles me. I longingly remember genfic that demonstrated the platonic love between two friends while still having them act blessedly male. I wistfully think of the days when plot was a good thing.
Smarm is dead; long live smarm.
Opening quotes from "Moonglow," by Ann Brown, and "Beach," by Kitty and Martha