Slash Fanfiction: A Personal Essay
by Celandine Brandybuck
I am a slash writer. As such I find myself having to explain and sometimes defend that, particularly given that the fandom in which I mostly write is Tolkien's. I am also an academic by profession, but this will not be an academic essay (despite the occasional use of footnotes); nor do I pretend that my experiences in this area are universal. All I am trying to do is set down some of my observations and opinions about the slash phenomenon, with most of my examples drawn from the Tolkien fandom with which I am most familiar. If it is of interest to anyone else, I'll be surprised and delighted.
It's probably best to begin with definitions. Fanfiction is in essence what it sounds like: stories written by fans of a particular work, which may be a book or series of books, a television series, or a film. Some published authors and filmmakers discourage this from being done with their creations, even going so far as to take legal action against fans who write such works; others tolerate or even sometimes approve. Fanfiction varies wildly. It ranges from very short stories to long novels, even series of novels; from prose to poetry to so-called "songfic" which utilizes lyrics from pop songs as a springboard for the work; from action to humor to drama to romance and every other genre imaginable.
Fanfiction used to be quite restricted in its accessibility. From its inception through the 1980s and into the 1990s, most fanfiction was available only through published "fanzines," produced as labors of love by hardy souls within various fandoms, most notably the Star Trek fandom but others as well. (1) Because it cost something to produce these fanzines, their creators inevitably exercised some editorial control and did not publish stories that they considered to be too poor in quality to suit their readers.
This changed radically with the birth of the internet. There are hundreds, even thousands of sites dedicated to fanfiction in cyberspace. Some are huge, multi-fandom archives such as fanfiction.net; others are devoted to a particular fandom; some to only a subset of story types within the fandom (e.g., an archive for Hobbit stories in the Tolkien fandom); some are personal sites which may include the site owner's own writing and/or a selection of stories they like by others, perhaps again limited in some manner. (2) Some will take any genre or rating of story. Some will permit only "general audience" stories, and on the contrary some are intended for "adult" stories only. (3) While some of these sites are moderated or controlled in some way to ensure that the stories that appear are suited to the purpose of the site or archive, others are not. So as well as genre, fanfiction quality also varies to an almost incredible extent, from the first efforts of very young authors (young in years, or simply new to writing) to the work of people who are in their offline lives professional published writers of many years' experience.
Slash is a genre within fanfiction, conventionally defined as the romantic and/or sexual pairing of two characters of the same sex, who in the original work are heterosexual. (4) Within this genre, slash can take on a number of forms, from mild romances that limit the characters' interactions to tender looks and perhaps a few kisses, to adult-rated stories where the primary point is the depiction of explicit and graphic sexual encounters, to (rarely) stories of a more general nature (action, humor, drama) in which the characters happen to be homosexual, but this is not the primary theme of the story. To outsiders, it is the explicit stories that typify slash. While this is an oversimplification, it is true that a large proportion of slash is rated as adult material.
The preponderance of slash in the fandoms I have any knowledge of is M/M, that is, it involves relationships between two men. In at least two of these fandoms – Tolkien and Pirates of the Caribbean – this is a natural result of the fact that the great majority of characters in both original stories are men. There is a somewhat higher proportion of female characters in Harry Potter, but two of the three primary characters are male.
By no means all fans within any particular fandom appreciate fanfiction to begin with. Some think it is inappropriate to go beyond the canon work at all. Others are simply not interested. For those who do read fanfiction, opinion is split on whether slash is an appropriate form of expression; often this split is vitriolic, depending on the fans and the fandom. There are of course some fans who disapprove of homosexuality completely, whether in day-to-day life or in fiction. Others are tolerant of homosexuals in real life, but find slash fanfiction offensive; the usual reason seems to be that writers of slash are necessarily causing the characters to behave "out of character," changing them too greatly from the original to be acceptable. (5) Some fans only object to slash that is explicitly or graphically sexual; these fans often dislike such explicit work when it is heterosexually oriented as well, and again the usual argument is that it is an approach out of keeping with the original.
Over the past two plus years that I have written slash, I have come to realize that a lot of anti-slash people are simply never going to change their minds, which is their prerogative. When I first heard of fanfiction, I thought it was a terrible thing. What brought me to appreciate it was reading some very good works that I thought were true to the original and explained some things that the original did not explain to my satisfaction. The first stories I read were general stories, not slash, but eventually I tried reading slash too and discovered that it could be done well and have much to say. To convince someone that slash is a legitimate genre with something to say, I think they have to read a strong, well-written story. Even that will not convince someone who has moral or ethical objections, of course, but for someone who has not really thought about why they dislike it, just has an immediate "yuck" reaction, a good story can open their eyes.
Good writing is key, but good writing alone is not enough; if the story reads to me just as an excuse to put two sexy male bodies in bed together, I might read it for a thrill, but that's the most interest it will hold for me, and possibly not even that. It's stories that push boundaries in some way that are most worth my limited time in reading. That's what I try to do, mostly, when I write slash. I don't always succeed. Not all stories do what the author sets out to have them do, after all.
Slash writers and readers
In reading, here and there, both online and off, about slash writers, I've seen it stated repeatedly that slash is mostly written and read by well-educated, middle-class, heterosexual (often married), underemployed white women. Maybe, maybe not. There are a few male slash authors out there, I know, but the great majority of those I'm directly aware of are female. My anecdotal impressions are that a substantial proportion of female slashers are bisexual (myself included), and not necessarily underemployed; many of us carve out precious hours from busy lives in order to write. As for ethnicity, the few fellow slashers I've met in person have all been women of European ancestry, but I can't say more than that, nor can I say anything about income or class. In the Tolkien fandom, certainly, a high level of education is common, but not unique to the slash fanfiction subset of that fandom.
I've asked several other writers of slash why they write it, and their answers largely jibe with my own. They write slash because it lets them look at the universe of that fandom from a different angle than the traditional one. They write it because they want to show two people in love whose relationship begins from a more equal position than traditional male/female relationships are usually capable of. They write it because they think that, frankly, two men making love is a very sexy thing. I'll get back to these reasons later.
As for readers, my only direct knowledge comes from an anonymous email list that I have maintained for people interested in reading my stories as they are completed. The members of the list receive notice of both slash and non-slash stories, so may not all be keen slash readers. I can say with reasonable confidence though that under 10% of the list members are male. (Identifying gender online is tricky; unless the person overtly claims to be male or female, one has to judge by the chosen name, which can be, sometimes deliberately, deceptive.) Again, this is anecdotal, but it would seem that conventional wisdom is not incorrect in believing that most readers and writers of M/M slash are women.
Slash in the Tolkien fandom
But what is it about slash, anyhow? I'm aware of an award given in the Tolkien fandom for fanfiction, in which the organizers had some difficulties because some of their potential judges would not read explicit material unless it was slash; they declined to read heterosexual erotica, even though in their personal lives at least some of them were in heterosexual marriages. There are people in the Tolkien fandom who have so submersed themselves in particular slash pairings that they refuse to read stories that present those characters as heterosexual, even though they are, of course, portrayed so in the original. (6) Some authors write slash stories exclusively, or almost so, and appear uninterested in writing either het or gen fiction. (7) So slash has gripped the imaginations of some fans to the exclusion of other types of fanfiction. Why?
I don't have a good answer to that question, to be honest, because my own writing experiences are extremely varied. My longest single work by far is an ongoing slash serial, but the majority of my other Tolkien-fandom stories are not slash. The only other fandom in which I have written, Pirates of the Caribbean, has been more of a slash fandom for me, but even so in terms of total number of words written it's pretty equally balanced between slash and non-slash. I'm more likely to read slash erotica than het erotica within fanfiction, but I don't refuse to read the latter. Because I don't partake in this attitude, I find it hard to explain.
Tolkien fans are often rather rabid on the subject of slash. I think it's complicated in this fandom by questions of what constitutes canon generally, because there's the book of The Lord of the Rings and then there's the films, and the two have some pretty definite partings of ways. If one sticks with the books, there's then also The Hobbit, probably The Silmarillion, possibly Unfinished Tales, and then the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth which present a number of layers of development of the entire mythos, and have both internal contradictions and some conflicts with the two books published in Tolkien's lifetime. (8) A peculiarity is that authors whose primary focus is on the era of the Silmarils – thousands of years before the time of Frodo's quest – seem to have two contrary reactions. On the one hand they are often strongly interested in questions of canonicity, drawing on the more obscure works such as HoMe to flesh out what is skimmed over in The Silmarillion. On the other hand, there is a very strong slash component in a good many of these authors' stories.
When dealing with questions of canon, the author needs to be kept in mind. Tolkien was a fervent Catholic; it's clear from his letters that he believed strongly in the sanctity of marriage, and it seems extremely unlikely that he would have considered homosexuality a valid form of love either in the real world or in his created world of Middle-earth. While there are many unmarried characters in his works (and extramarital sex was certainly not a legitimate option for them as Tolkien would have conceived it), simply because a given character has no heterosexual partner is not necessarily legitimate grounds to assume that he (or she) is same-sex oriented.
I'm a slasher, as I said to begin with. I don't object to slashing First Age Elves. I think that it needs to be acknowledged that such pairings are not within canon, however, no matter how one twists and turns. To me, if you write within Tolkien's world, you have to accept that same-sex relationships were not something he would have considered valid; thus any slash story in this fandom is necessarily an AU, an "alternative universe" from the original. There's nothing wrong with that! It baffles me when someone is hyped up about being strictly canon, and yet writes slash without admitting that slash simply isn't canon in Middle-earth. (9)
Here I'll stop and say that for me, personally, AUs are most appealing when they are strictly limited; when the author has changed just one or two or three things from the original universe, and the story either directly or indirectly explores the ramifications of those changes. If too many things are changed, for no apparent reason, I begin to wonder what the connection is to Tolkien's Middle-earth except for some names. In general I prefer to both read and write fanfic that is recognizably the same world as the original; I feel that this shows a respect I consider appropriate, since all fanfic is in some way an homage.
Tolkien fanfic has especial difficulties because there are two possible canons, as mentioned above. If an author is writing "bookverse," I'll expect them to know the basic four books reasonably well. If the author is writing "filmverse," I expect them, now, to have seen all three films. Some authors draw on both, of course, writing for instance primarily bookverse but drawing on the appearances of the film characters for description. This is noticeable for several characters in particular; in the books, Boromir and Faramir are dark-haired and resemble Aragorn quite closely. A blond Boromir is clearly film-influenced.
Similarly, there are questions of interpretation of the characters' sexuality that may differ between book and film. The interactions between Aragorn and Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring may read more easily as slashable in the film than in the book. Part of this may simply be the result of the timing of each; J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic academic, writing mostly in the 1940s, was in a very different world from Peter Jackson, a New Zealand horror-film director, making the films in the first decade of the 21st century.
As I touched on before, I write slash for several reasons. Passages, my longest and most graphic story, is objectively not a very good story, structurally speaking. That is because it is trying to do two things simultaneously; use the AU element of slash to explore some of the boundaries of Elvish society (with occasional sidelights on Dwarves and Men, as well), and write unashamed graphic smut. It also began its life intending to be a short story (it was indeed begun as a response to a challenge from a friend) but then I got interested in the characters and found I enjoyed writing the sex scenes especially, so I kept going.
Why would a bisexual woman like writing (and reading) sex between two men, or in this case, Elves? Part of it is the transgressive nature of the setup; these two Elves are consciously outside the borders of what is acceptable to their people. I think it's for something like the same reason that teenaged girls (and older ones too) swoon over the bad-boy, dangerous types. There is an attractiveness to the freethinker, the rebel. It is not particularly because they are Elves, although the nature of that race has allowed me to point up the fact that this is a lifetime commitment, and an Elf lives as long as the earth endures, in theory; so this is not something to play around with and move away from if it becomes too difficult. Part of it, too, is undoubtedly embedded in my own history. I have always found a certain level of androgyny in men attractive. This need not be effeminateness, but can also be expressed in other ways; being physically smaller than average, for example. Or being willing to express emotions in ways that are more typically in modern western culture considered female. Overwhelming levels of "macho-ness" I personally find threatening and repugnant, not at all a turn-on, which doubtless figures into my preferences for reading and writing.
The idea of the two parties in a relationship starting on a relatively equal footing, physically and emotionally, then, is one that appeals to me. Slash allows me to set that up without having to force or justify it. While it is certainly possible to write strong female characters who will take equal power with male characters, it is a difficult thing to do in a fandom where there are few canonical female characters to begin with, and whose personalities are relatively established. Tolkien's women are not weak, but most of them sacrifice more than their male partners in the course of their lives and relationships. So for me, a male/male relationship avoids some of the power inequities inherent in many male/female ones. Which is not to say that the two partners are identical; there are age differentials, for example, that come into play, and differences in personality are always a factor in any relationship. Nevertheless I have very consciously chosen to avoid assigning "top" and "bottom" roles to my two protagonists, because one of the things that I rejoice in, in slash, is this equality.
Feminism and slash
I do not call myself a feminist, although I am in agreement on many points with people who would use that label. I am not bothered by the fact that the great majority of characters in Middle-earth are men; when I read The Lord of the Rings first as a pre-teen, I had no trouble in identifying with one or another of the male characters at different times. If a male reader reading a book with a similarly high proportion of women could not do the same, I would feel sorry for him, but I would consider that his problem, not a flaw inherent in the book. Traditional feminism would also reject graphic slash because it is – when one gets down to it – basically pornography. It is written to get the reader (and probably the writer) sexually excited. Slash cannot be argued to be degrading to women, however (the classic feminist dismissal of most porn), unless one wishes to say that absence is necessarily degrading. There are slash stories in which any women who appear are treated poorly, of course, but more often they are simply not there at all; the reader is expected to identify and sympathize with at least one of the male main characters.
The question then becomes whether it is legitimate, from a quasi-feminist perspective at least, to ask this of the reader. Is this not simply a step backward, presuming the male figure to be the norm? Perhaps, but that seems to me to be too simple. Slash can be seen as both a challenge and a comfort. The (assumed female) reader is asked to identify with a male body, often very explicitly described in physical terms. This is the challenge of the unfamiliar. On the other hand, the object of desire is also a male body, and that is normally something much more familiar to a (assumed hetero- or bisexual) female reader. For male readers, the difficulty and familiarity are, of course, reversed – except for a gay or bisexual male reader, who would, one presumes, find it all just same-old, same-old.
So I don't think that having primarily or exclusively men as characters is necessarily and inevitably anti-women, or anti-feminist. It presents different challenges to the female reader to ask her to sympathize with men instead of women, but this need not be seen as bad.
In defining slash, I noted that many people – perhaps especially non-readers, but many readers as well – tend to equate slash with its most extreme manifestations, that of the graphic PWP, or "porn without plot." (10) Surely this is a common type of slash story, as a look at some of the larger online slash archives will tell you; the great majority of their stories typically fall into the "adult" rating.
There's something to be said for this. It's not normally admitted in public that we read or write stories for titillation. "Adult shops" by whatever name are hidden downstairs, around corners, in red-light districts, on the edges of towns. Even when an ordinary bookstore has a section of erotica, it's fairly limited and sometimes hard to find, especially if one is unwilling to ask for its location. (11) So online slash – which one can usually save, print out, or bookmark for later reading – is a bit of a godsend to the reader who wants to read a nice hot gay sex scene from the comfort of her own home.
Plus, I'm here to tell you that graphic slash gets feedback, always desirable to an author. Not to say that het and gen stories don't get any, but slash seems to get more, and sometimes that's reason enough to write it. I haven't ever actually received any feedback that said in so many words, "I got off on reading that, thanks," although I'd be awfully pleased if I did, but I do rather assume that's at least sometimes the case.
Because I do in part write graphic slash in the hope that it does arouse my readers. And in part because writing it arouses me. I've even gone so far as to acquire assorted items from purveyors of sex toys and similar in order to do some research for the slash. Really. So writing slash has in some ways been sexually liberating – feminist theorists should be proud.
But I think that this association of slash with overt and non-traditional sexuality is precisely why a lot of readers (and even writers) are reluctant to "come out" as slashers. For all the liberation of the past 40 or 50 years, it's still not quite acceptable to say that not only do you read erotic fiction, what really turns you on is M/M slash fanfiction – or even just gay erotica generally. Pulp romances from the impulse shelf at the supermarket check-out, the ones with the woman standing in some romantic landscape on the cover, are far less likely to get a raised eyebrow from an acquaintance who asks what you've been reading lately. (12) Those can be explicit, even graphic, but they're resolutely het and thus within the bounds of traditionally acceptable behavior in a way that slash is not.
Given that this is a personal essay rather than anything else, I don't really have any overall conclusions to draw, so I'll end by saying something about writing slash, specifically about writing graphic slash.
I think there are three basic requirements here. First, the vocabulary you use needs to be appropriate to the fandom and to the characters. In the Tolkien fandom this means avoiding terms that are extremely modern, clinical, or slangy for genitalia, actions, etc. "Hot love muscle," "anal sphincter," or "prick" all feel wrong for that universe; you might get away with the last on occasion, especially if the characters were mortals, but it would stretch credibility somewhat. Other, less antiquated-feeling fandoms are different in what kinds of terms they can tolerate.
Second, it's a good idea to do a little research into what sorts of activities are possible and desirable between men. Reading other fanfic is a place to start, but sometimes that can mean the blind leading the blind. Female writers, even if they're well-acquainted with male bodies from the outside, so to speak, may not always have a thorough grasp of what's happening or how it feels from the inside. Read some stuff written by male authors, fiction or non-fiction. It's certainly not necessary to have done everything you write about to write it well and accurately, but don't just make it up. And if you get creative in your lubricants, postures, or whatever, check for credibility; generally speaking two men can't have sex in plain old missionary style, for instance, as the equipment doesn't hook up very well. (13)
Third, perhaps most crucially, don't be ashamed about what you write. This doesn't mean you'd have to be willing to read it out loud to your mother. But you do need to feel comfortable with what's going on in the scene, because if you aren't that will almost certainly come through in the writing, which will mean that your reader will also feel embarrassed instead of turned on – not what either of you wants.
After that, it's up to you. Write a PWP, write a romantic angst-fest in which the sex scenes are icing on the cake, whatever. (14) Have fun!
(1) This is not the place to go into a history of fanfiction; various dates are given for its origins. It's been argued that much medieval and Renaissance literature would qualify as fanfiction, for instance the story of Troilus and Criseyde, an embroidery upon the traditional Homeric stories of the Trojan War. Sherlock Holmes has been sometimes suggested as the 20th-century beginning. It does seem reasonably well agreed-upon that there was a huge explosion of it with Star Trek, however, from around 1970.
(2) Examples of these with which I am personally familiar include: fanfiction.net (general archive, multi-fandom, unmoderated); the Henneth Annûn Story Archive (anything in the Tolkien fandom, but moderated for quality); the Stewards Scrolls site (stories about Denethor and other members of his family within the Tolkien fandom); the Library of Moria (Tolkien fandom, only slash stories).
(3) Most fanfiction sites rate stories using a system based on the film-rating scores current in the USA: thus stories range from G to NC-17. "Adult" would include stories rated R and NC-17 on this scale, whereas "general audience" would mean G, PG, and PG-13.
(4) It could be argued that if the original television show, film, or book portrayed the characters as homosexual, placing them in a heterosexual relationship in fanfiction would equally be slash, but I am not aware of any cases like this in the three fandoms I have any contact with (Tolkien, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Rowling's Harry Potter series).
(5) Being "out of character" is a criticism leveled at many non-slash fanfiction works as well, naturally, often with good cause.
(6) This is not necessarily a strictly slash phenomenon, however. There are non-canonical het pairings that provoke the same type of reaction in many fandoms. So I see this more as an outgrowth of the OTP (one true pairing) concept than anything else.
(7) "Het" stories involve a heterosexual romance or relationship as a significant element, as slash stories involve homosexual ones. "Gen" stories are those in which romantic relationships do not play an important part; the characters are typically but not necessarily heterosexual.
(8) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were published during Tolkien's lifetime, and he seems to have regarded their forms then as fixed, according to some of his letters. He spent the rest of his life continuing to work on The Silmarillion, but it remained uncompleted at his death. His son Christopher (with assistance from Guy Kay) edited the mass of unfinished stories, poems, and miscellanea to create the published version of The Silmarillion, which was intended to be consistent with the two previously published works. Unfinished Tales is a selection of not-quite-finished stories and fragments that did not make it into the collated Silmarillion. The History of Middle-earth, edited again by Christopher Tolkien, presents much (though not all) of the evolution of both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings through the drafts of the material, along with ancillary items. Because these were drafts, and Tolkien died before deciding on a final form for them, there are contradictions and inconsistencies throughout.
(9) This attitude assumes that any story that stays within canon – however that may be defined, most conservatively in Tolkien fanfic by including only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – is inherently more valid and to be preferred over stories that do not, regardless of other merits that the stories may have.
(10) Various explanations of this acronym exist; the one I've given is common. Another is "plot, what plot?"
(11) A situation I've been in, in a large bookstore in London. The store directory stated that erotica was to be found on a particular floor, but I was completely unable to locate it and not comfortable asking. This was not simply a reluctance to ask because of the subject matter; I have an almost pathological dislike of asking for directions, as my personal acquaintances can attest.
(12) Or stopping by the house and noticing what's on the coffee table, or the bookshelf. Though I am given to understand that this may be more of an American phenomenon, this visiting at home by relatively casual acquaintances.
(13) To pick another example, think about that lubricant. Something like "oil of cloves" sounds very sexy and nice-smelling and all that, but essential oils are often extremely strong and volatile and will provoke itching, welts, rashes, and all sorts of nasty reactions unless diluted to a very great extent. Saliva doesn't have that problem, but it's not really a very good lubricant. Stick with something like plain old cooking oil if you can; remember that it's going into sensitive areas.
(14) But don't, I beg you from my own personal dislike, write hurt/comfort in order to have sex for healing afterward. Injury, whether physical or psychological – especially rape, but any other kind as well – is painful, not sexy. I except s/m, which I consider another kettle of fish entirely as it's entered into voluntarily.