by Lucy Gillam
Wow. Like, deja’ vu all over again.
This column is raising so many familiar issues, I feel like I’m caught in a time warp. Once again, I am caught in the situation of balancing the need to speak on a given issue with the risk of giving a few troublemakers more attention than they deserve. Once again, I am in the position of defending critical inquiry into fanfiction. Once again, I feel the need to address the incredible hostility of Sentinel fandom to said critical inquiry.
I’m going to console myself by being perfectly honest about these issues and my feelings on them for the first time since I entered fandom via Sentinel fandom. I will try to do so in a tactful manner, but I warn you: this is not going to be pretty.
A little background:
About a month ago, the issue of critical discussion of fanfic came up on the Sentinel adult discussion list. Once again, the prevailing issue was the “rights” of readers versus the “protection” of writers. Somewhere mid-discussion, a Senad member brought up private “flames” received by a Senad/SXF poster as an argument against criticism on-list(I put the term in quotes because “flame” is a highly subjective term, and no examples were given). The final decision was that discussion could only take place with the express permission of the author.
In response, two long-time Sentinel fans formed a new list called Prospect-L, which is devoted to open and unrestricted discussion of any and all slash aspects of The Sentinel (another list, SaFicDic, was formed at the same time, for the discussion of slash fic. This list has a “no discussion” list that SXF authors may put their names on if they do not wish people to discuss their fic).
The response was, to say the least, explosive. Prospect-L has become the highest traffic list in recent memory (surpassing, she said with some envy, FCA-L’s opening few weeks). Senad, meanwhile, was flooded with rumors about the horrible, vicious goings-on (my personal favorite was an assurance from the most vocal opponent to discussions of fanfic that, oh yes, she knew what was going on). The listadmin finally shut down discussion, only to have it reopened when three Sentinel slash authors withdrew their stories from the slash archive (852 Prospect), one of them publicly citing Prospect-L as the reason. The response from Senad has been more or less “I told you so.”
Let me be perfectly clear about my own “subject position” in this mess. I left Senad about two years ago in utter frustration over the restrictive policies and the oppressive “niceness” that keeps anyone from saying what they really think. I am friends with both the listadmins of Prospect-L and the slashfic archivist. I am also subscribed to Prospect-L, and am enjoying it immensely.
I have no great desire to completely revisit the argument of Winston Was Right and Apology for Criticism. On the overall issue of critical discussion of fanfic, I think my feelings are clear. I will only reiterate that I find it extremely ironic that the same people, including the Senad listadmin, who have reacted with horror to any whisper of an attempt to silence any sort of fiction, who have so frequently cited freedom of speech in defense of fiction, would themselves work so vehemently to silence the speech of others because it is not fiction.
Nor am I going to spend a great deal of time “defending” Prospect-L. I’ve spent the last year defending the right of fans to engage in critical discussion of fanfiction, both explicitly in columns, and implicitly by creating this site and the Fanfiction Critics Association. The huge response to FCA-L, and the likewise huge response to Prospect-L (336 members and growing), have demonstrated that enough fans are interested in critically discussing fanfic that the existence of such lists should no longer need defense.
Refuting the claims that Prospect-L is filled with “flames” and “tearing down” of authors is likewise an exercise in futility. Four years in Sentinel fandom have taught me that those opposed to critical discussion of fanfic will label as a “flame” and as “tearing down” any comment that is not 100% positive. No argument on my part is going to change their minds.
What I will do is tell the honest truth about what I see happening.
First, let me address the pulling of fiction off the archive. This, as far as I am concerned, is an exercise in pure spite against the archivist, and by extension against the founders of Prospect-L, who are both private friends of the archivist, and publicly affiliated with her in multiple ways.
Let’s look at this logically. All three of the writers have left their fiction at public web sites. It is no less accessible to the denizens of Prospect-L (most of whom are long-time fans, and know where the web sites are) than it was before. The only people who will not have access to this fiction are the newer fans who will not know where to find it.
(For the record, I’ve heard a few people indicate that they will now publish their fiction only in zines. I thought they’d like to know that zines have been publicly reviewed on Prospect-L, FCA-L, CI5, and quite a few other lists and web sites. The notion that one can simultaneously reach a large reading audience and “protect” the work from critical discussion is, to say the least, contradictory).
The authors in question (I refuse to give them more attention by naming them) are not stupid people. They cannot be under the illusion that removing their fic from the archive will keep it from being discussed. Rather, this is their way of making a “statement.” The writer who publicly announced her removal specified that she was doing so because she wants “no part of Prospect-L.”
As statements go, this one is certainly lacking. The Senad/SXF community has been taking the slash archive (and with it, the archivist) for granted for years. They have presumed to dictate what the archivist should put on the website she maintains (Sentinel fans will recall the TLAD debate). When the archive is running smoothly, she is ignored. When problems arise, she is harassed. The fact that she expends an enormous amount of effort with little to no “reward” (much like writers are often said to do) is generally overlooked. All the while, they have had the luxury of a single site for all but a very few Sentinel slash stories. If writers choose to “protest” Prospect-L by removing fiction from the archive, I suspect that fans will find it far from worth the price of that protest.
Which brings me to the most uncomfortable part of this column.
My opinion of Senad and its policies is no secret. And I wish to emphasize that this opinion is not based on one day, or even one month on the list (and yes, that was a dig on the Senad posters who have voiced an opinion on Prospect-L based on a day of membership). I entered fandom through Senad. I made my first fannish friends through Senad. I joined the “royal court” as the High Court Rhetorician (that should have been their warning). I was on Senad through what was arguably its finest hour, the campaign for a fourth season. I left for a variety of reasons, many of which had to do with the atmosphere created by the listadmin’s desire to “protect” writers from anything that would prevent them from writing.
I should add that I am not merely speculating about the listadmin’s priorities. Ann (I see no reason not to use her name) has stated publicly that she chooses to protect the SXF writers, if need be, at the expense of discussion on Senad.
This need has created an atmosphere of public “niceness” that masks a nastiness surpassing anything found on the worst Usenet group. The merest hint from a writer that anything – a comment about her stories, about the type of fanfic she writes, her opinion of an episode – might cause her to stop writing is met with choruses of “support” (for the writer) and recriminations against the person who hurt the writer’s feelings. The “take my toys and go home” strategy became common enough to become a subject of offlist humor. Worse yet, it has bred an air of cynicism, to the point that any expression of vulnerability is suspected of being a ploy for sympathy.
Even worse, behind the scenes, cliques formed, backbiting dominated, and grudges festered. While I was on the list, I received private e-mails in response to public posts that outright slandered other list members. I watched a smear campaign take place against a friend, unabated by any public response from the listadmin.
Still, I honestly mean it when I say it gives me no joy to say what I’m about to say. Senad was home for a very long time, and part of me still mourns my early days there. However, if I’m going to discuss this at all (and I do believe that it needs to be discussed), I’m going to be honest about it.
I think that the air of hysteria on Senad about Prospect-L has been deliberately fostered by several list members in an effort to at most shut down the list, and at least demonize it and its founders. I further believe that the removal of stories from the archive is part of that effort. I think that these listmembers are well aware that even the hint of “losing” fic is enough to throw most fans into a blind panic. Threaten the production or availability of fic, and people will fall in line. It’s been proven time and again.
Ultimately, I think their actions will backfire. 336 Sentinel fans have demonstrated that they want to discuss fanfic in an honest, open atmosphere. Writers who have joined Prospect-L have indicated a new interest in writing TS fic. Discussion has been lively and intelligent.
Meanwhile, three authors have restricted their own readership to no discernible effect on the list they are protesting.
You have to wonder if this is what they really wanted.