Cry, the Beloved Smarm
Smarm...where do I begin?
It's hard for me to talk about smarm. It's rather like talking about the professor who mentored you, introduced you to the field which became your life and love, nursed you through crises and held your hand through finals, and then later...began to drift into the bottle or some other self-destructive vice; who is now a doddering, ill-tempered, bitter, petty waste of space that everyone - including you - wishes would just go away.
And yet, you remember....
My stories, before TS fandom, skirted the edge of smarm. I knew what I wanted to write because I saw it in other fan stories. But I always shied away, backed off before it could happen. Even my decidedly non-smarmy writing mentor told me I needed something *more*, that I was chickening out...building up to intense emotional scenes and dropping them.
Then came TS, and the Smarm Challenge. It was one of the few that produced large numbers of stories, many of which were really good. (It was also way before challenges got really STUPID.) The rules: Write something that contained "smarm" (then defined merely as physical or verbal expressions of affection) with NO owwies. "Not one bullet, knife, nor razor-sharp edge of a term paper is permitted to mar Our Heroes' flesh. No bruises, no nightmares."
In other words, how to get two men to open up emotionally without the usual (easy) incentives? Simple enough. I was enjoying the challenge, not really thinking about writing anything - I believed myself incapable. Then I read Kitty's "The Wall," a simple and profound story about fear of loss that still embodies to me the very best of what smarm is capable of. It had a strong effect on me - this is what I'd been looking for in fanfic, what I'd been trying (but failing) to put in my own stories.
So I kicked around a few ideas, and wrote "A Brief, Shining Moment," in which I finally broke through my barrier of reluctance and reached inside to hit that well of emotion I'd been toying with in my stories, but never tapped before. I believe the story works, though of course you'll have to decide for yourself if you agree with me.
My story was archived in the Smarm Sanctuary. I was officially a Smarmer.
Then I discovered IRC, and IRC "smarming" - writing smarm stories with other people in a channel. Which was great great fun at first, but (I believe) contributed to the degeneration of smarm as a genre. You see, on IRC, when everyone's trying to top each other emotionally, things accelerate FAR faster than they would in the normal course of story-writing. Evolution of a sub-genre is sped up like that of David McCallum in that old Outer Limits episode; what began as a reasonable person with talent and potential becomes a mishapen, exaggerated parody of its former self.
So, with smarm.
My problem is that I see all too clearly the faults of smarm as we have it today - it's ruined the work of several writers who turned out enjoyable tales once upon a time and now only seem to be trying to out-smarm themselves and each other. "Smarm" has become a synonym for slushy badness - closer to the original meaning of the word. (When I first ran into it, its use seemed ironic - affectionate but self-mocking, like the use of "smut" in slashdom. It's losing that irony.) This is occuring largely because IRC smarms started making their way onto lists and archives masquerading as stories, which mostly, they aren't.
Don't get me wrong (though you may prefer to). "Beach," that epitome of the extremes to which smarm has gone, is still something I read and adore. But I enjoy it in the same way I enjoy...eating chocolate cake batter. See, chocolate cake batter is a *good* thing in its normal amounts - i.e., what's left on the sides of the bowl after the spoon has scraped (but NOT the spatula - that's just cruel). It's a wonderful, simple, but almost orgasmic delight. Who has not enjoyed licking the bowl and the silver metal things from the hand mixer? (Don't you hate it when you can't fit your tongue between the bars? <g>)
But reading "Beach" is something like making up a batch of cake batter and eating the entire bowl in an afternoon without ever baking the cake. I've DONE that. (In fact, I've done both in combination. Usually when I'm depressed as hell.) I do it, and I'm not ashamed of it, but I'm not exactly proud of it, either. I know there's something not quite kosher about my desire to do it - that it *says* something about me and my needs that I don't want everyone to know. It's comfort food, but it makes me blanch to think that *that's* how much comfort I need when I'm really down.
I like smarm - what I think of as the true smarm, which is the old definition - Lucy's "Qualifying Exams" still qualifies, as does Merry's Domesticity series, though they are tame by the current standards.
Smarm evolved. It is not what it was.
Smarm began as being: "Physical or verbal expressions of affection in a gen story."
It became: "Intense non-sexual affection."
And then: "Intense, non-sexual affection, expressed physically or verbally in the WAKING presence of the other partner." (Which disqualified one of my favorite onscreen examples of smarm in TS - Blair leaves the loft upset over the death of his friend, Jim asks if he wants company, which Blair thanks him for but declines, and we cut to: Jim asleep on the sofa in front of a TV playing static. Awww! But I was told it wasn't smarm because Blair never saw it or knew about it. Huh?!)
And finally, Smarm has become: "Extreme declarations of love and physical affection up to and including kissing," (which I can buy) "with tongues," (which I can't), "in which the thought of sexual arousal never has the slightest notion of even beginning to speculate about the faintest possibility of crossing the character's minds." There's a definite sense of sex as being sordid, dirty, unnatural - which is a prevalent attitude in our culture, but one that is not remotely true. It's rooted in simplistic "matter is bad, spirit is good" dualism, and is one of the sicknesses we need to work at *curing* in ourselves, not encouraging.
And there we have it. I cannot ally myself with such a movement...yet I can't help thinking about what I remember smarm being. Smarm got me into Netfic. Smarm broke me out of the repressive resistance I had to writing physical affection between characters. I still like smarm - but not this mutated Smarm, this "I am NOT slashy at ALL, in ANY way!" kind of smarm. There can be smarmy slash, and slashy smarm.. "One of These Nights" by Thomas is an example of the first, and "Absence of Justice" by Merry Lynne of the second. The love between Jim and Blair in these stories is not just sexual - it's on many, many levels, and the sexual aspect is only part of it. The rest - the friendship, the affection - is firmly within smarm's purview. Why should those emotions suddenly be considered defectors, simply because a sexual dimension has been added?
Smarm. I can't forget it, I can't come up with an untainted name for it. To me the recent smarm is the abberation, the old stuff the "real and true" smarm. And yet (like the old school slash fans) I know the meaning of the word has changed for everyone else. It changed as Sentinel fandom changed, hardening and becoming bitter and more polemic as the show didn't deliver what fanfic had led us to expect. The Smarm Movement declared war on the series and on slash and polarized everything into opposing camps. Smarm became louder and shriller and restrictive, and the moderates drifted away.
All but me. I can't endorse what smarm has become, but I can't let go what it used to be that I loved. The subtleness it used to be capable of, the profound power it had before extreme use jaded readers to it. A simple descriptive term has become a word to provoke knee-jerk revulsion in most discerning readers. And yet stories with smarm *in* them (including slash stories with smarm in them) continue to be popular because, when well done, it really does touch a place in our hearts that nothing else quite can. It is this, this quality I once called smarm, where the power lies. But I can't call it that. The word has been lost.
Cry, the beloved smarm. Alas, it is gone, and I mourn.