Slashing away

As promised: my article on slash. Plus, you even get the notes, which were brutally slahes away in the print version. Enjoy!

I am about to tell you something that only a few of my friends know, and that I don’t usually share with the general public. That is, you’re about to witness something of a coming out. A confession of a predilection that might strike some as odd. Maybe even as a little disturbing.

Enough with the suspense building! Out with it: I from time to time enjoy reading slash.

Chances are you’re not very shocked at this moment because you simply have no idea what on earth I am talking about. Well, let me explain. Let us start with the concept of fan fiction, a concept you might be more familiar with. Fan fiction is when fans of a certain book/TV-series/movie/comic book/video game write stories involving the characters and often settings of their source. Stories used to be spread through mailing lists or fanzines, but it was the birth of the internet that allowed the phenomenon to take flight. A site like www.fanfiction.net boasts thousands of stories based on hundreds of different sources, from the powerpuff girls (820 stories) to one of the most popular ones, the Harry potter books (206951 stories at the time of writing).

Fan fiction wiring is of course nothing new. It’s not even something limited to teenagers with an internet connection. For example, the novel “Wide Saragossa Sea” by Jean Rhys was based on characters from Jane Eyre, and there have been several other instances in which authors have elaborated on an already existing book.

Obviously, one of things most written about by fans are romantic entanglements. And this is where slash comes in: sometimes, it’s not romantic entanglements between a guy and girl, but between a guy and a guy (or, in some cases, a girl and a girl). Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are a popular pairing, for example. Luke and Han, Wolverine and Cyclops, Xena and Gabrielle. Or, as I should write it, Xena/Gabrielle, because slash gets its name from, yes, the forward slash between the names of the paired people. There are variations: lesbian slash is sometimes called femslash, and when slash involves anime characters it’s often referred to as yaoi.

The most popular theory is that slash started with Kirk/Spock. Star Trek was one of the biggest fandoms about 30 years ago, partly because geeks are known to be prolific fan fiction writers and because there was a lot of frustration when the original Star Trek series got cancelled in 1969 (it took 18 years for the next show to start). Also, the Star Trek universe offered plenty of handy storytelling devices: Kirk and Spock (or any other two characters you might want to link romantically) could become stranded on a planet, caught in a force field etc. According to Wikipedia, the first published Kirk/Spock story dates from 1974, and there have been many thousands since.

The nice thing about the internet is that an originally rather underground movement gets the change to spread, and elaborate. There’s an entire vocabulary for fan fiction and slash. PWP stands for “plot? What plot?” and usually indicates a very short story (or “ficlet”) focused only on the hooking up of two characters (or, if the author should feel so inclined, three). A Mary Sue is an original character in fan fiction who is an idealised stand-in for the author (it has been estimated that almost 90 % of fan fiction and slash is written by females of all sexual orientations) and as such too pretty, too smart, and all-round too perfect to be true. RPS stands for Real-Person slash, a genre I’m not too fond of myself, which involves two random real people getting it on - or “shagging” if you’re more Duran Duran than Backstreet boys. Most writers give their stories a voluntary rating, based on those of the MPAA (PG, PG-13, R, NC-17), to indicate how much graphic description can be expected.

Now that I’ve told you what slash entails, the crucial question presents itself. What is it that I like about it? What makes me, on lost afternoons, google “Snape/Severus”, or alternatively, “Grissom slash”? [1]

I can’t really say. There is an element of sexual curiosity, of course (I’ve always found it strange that, while it is considered normal for guys to be turned on by the sight of two girls kissing, the opposite is seen as weird), but then why do I shy away from the stories rated NC-17? Probably my reading slash (and normal fan fiction too) is based on the same instinct that makes people read romance novels: we like reading about something we can never have. I truly believe that sex as in a (straight) romance novel is just as impossible to achieve as gay sex with a man is for me[2] but exactly because it’s something that cannot possibly be real, it rouses our imagination.

The fascination with gay men has been approaching mainstream status for a while now. “Will and Grace” is as mainstream as sitcoms come, but the more racy British show “queer as folk” was also popular enough to warrant an American remake. Coming out this fall –in time for Oscar season- is the latest film by Ang Lee, of Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger fame: Brokeback Mountain, an adaptation of a prize-winning short story by Annie Proulx that revolves around the forbidden love between two cowboys, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The funny thing is, in reviews, critics have described the film as making explicit what you always imagined could happen between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, between any two cowboys really, alone in the wilderness, camping out. Now, I by no means wish to imply that what Annie Proulx has done in her wonderful story (it can be found online) is merely what slash writers do every day, especially since, to be honest, much fan fiction doesn’t deserve prizes for style, but it is easy to imagine her story starting as one of the what-ifs slash writers concern themselves with.

What if Legolas comforted Aragorn in his tent at night? What if Dawson and Pacey got locked in a closet together? What if Seth and Ryan’s exes decided they were more interested in each other than in boys[3]?

An article like this should be ended with a zinger or –perhaps more appropriately- with a bang, but I think it’s more appropriate here to pause to realise how lucky we are that such a thing as the internet exists. It allows people with the most seemingly obscure interests to get together. It allows people like me, who’d have never thought of the idea, to enjoy the stories and the imagination of others. And the best thing? I’m sure slash is only one of many things only few people know about, but that lurk just under the surface of the internet, waiting for discovery. Know of any? Let me know.

[1] the CSI chef, with his interest in and understanding of sexual subcultures, and who in an episode once said that “the only unnatural sexual behavior is none at all.”, is a relative newcomer in the world of slash, but already very popular

[2] Without radical surgery, that is

[3] Oh wait, the OC’s creators thought of that one themselves… Although I wager Marissa and Alex had gotten busy many times in slash stories before they did on screen.

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