Sunday, January 24, 2010

Guest Post: K. A. Laity on Joanna Russ on Slash Fiction

Joanna Russ on Slash Fiction
K. A. Laity

K. A. Laity is both a fiction writer and an academic scholar. Her short story collection Unikirja (Aino Press), for which she won a Eureka Short Story fellowship and a Finlandia Foundation grant, grew out of her love for Finnish myth and folklore. She writes and presents scholarly essays on medieval literature and culture, gender, film and comics. As C. Margery Kempe, she is also a writer of erotic romance such as Chastity Flame (Ravenous Romance), Spinning Gold (Noble Romance), Sex Cymbals (Freya's Bower) and many more.
In response to a recent post at Teach Me Tonight, K. A. Laity responded that
people writing about M/M romance and slash fiction really should read Joanna Russ's far-too-seldom read piece on it in her unfortunately OOP collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985). Very insightful about how readers tend to use these M/M pairings in fan fic.
Laity then offered to write this post about Russ' "Pornography By Women For Women, With Love," published in Russ' Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing P., 1985. 79-99.

One of the moments in romantic scholarship herstory that gets too often overlooked, is the work by "the first openly gay, feminist spitfire of fantasy and speculative fiction," Joanna Russ. To be fair, much of Russ' work has been overlooked for far too long because of the lingering reputation of her work as "difficult"—particularly her innovative 1975 novel The Female Man. Its taut examination of gender roles and intertwined time lines, which challenged readers upon its release, now fit easily into the mainstream of postmodern literature.

Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts: Feminist Essays was written when the MacKinnonite anti-pornography movement had reached its peak. In the collection, Russ not only writes about her own process of coming out and the cultural forces that mitigated against it, but also about the larger questions of pornography and female desire. While the entire collection makes fascinating reading, I want to focus on the chapter "Pornography By Women For Women, With Love" as it provides some interesting roots for the ongoing academic dissections of romance writing today and its sometime step-sister, slash fiction. Russ draws specific parallels between the two genres.

Russ examines Kirk/Spock slash fiction, which was still largely unknown at the time beyond its practitioners. She finds herself delighted that "all of the editors, writers and readers are women" and finds that fans portray Spock and Kirk "like Tristan and Iseult, the two are fated to love" (81). Russ compares the focus on postponement of desire to romance novels of the time, where "the lovers must be pushed together by some force outside themselves" and "somebody is always bleeding or feverish or concussed or mutilated or amnesiac." This element is key, Russ argues, for "the stories over and over set up situations in which the two are not responsible" (82), allowing them to give in to the urges that society—or more often, their own scruples—would condemn.

While the pairing appears to be M/M, due to the actors involved, it's important to remember that it is a human/alien pairing. Referring to Lamb and Veith [Lamb, Patricia Frazer, and Diana L. Veith. "Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines." Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood P, 1986. 235-56.], Russ reminds us that Spock's "alienness is a way of 'coding' into the K/S fantasies that their subject is not a homosexual love affair between two men, but love and sex as women want them" (83). This is key to the appeal of slash, but also perhaps to that of the modern M/M romance. Russ points out that the traditionally masculine and feminine traits fluctuate between the characters, creating an ideal relationship:
Neither has to give up 'his' work in the world; both have adventure and love; telepathy provides lifelong commitment and the means of making such a union unbreakable and extremely intimate; and while both partners are 'masculine' in the sense of being active in the world, they provide tenderness and nurturance for each other in a very 'feminine' way. And the sex is marvelous. (84)
Why use male characters then? Russ agrees with Lamb and Veith's conclusion that no one "can imagine a man and a woman having the same multiplex, worthy, androgynous relationship, or the same completely intimate commitment" (84). While we might hope that things may have changed since 1985, I suspect the plethora of supernatural titles that have made paranormal romance the pre-eminent genre suggest that this is still not possible for many to envision that kind of relationship with human males.

In part, Russ believes, this sexual fantasy, which commonly relies on the repeating "hurt-comfort" motif, developed because "we have—ingeniously, tenaciously, and very creatively—sexualized our female situation and training, and made out of the restrictions of the patriarchy our own sexual cues" (86). But she also makes clear that "sexual fantasy can't be taken at face value" and that the situations depicted in K/S stories are not ones the readers and writers would like to actually experience, just like the rape fantasies of the earlier bodice-rippers. "We know that women don't want to be raped; episodes in female fantasies that look like rapes really are something else, i.e. Will somebody, something, for heaven's sake, enable me to act?" (88). Russ ties male rape fantasies to the same patriarchal restrictions, exacerbated in the States by the tendency to substitute violence for sexual enjoyment in popular narratives.

And as scientists would agree even now, Russ is right on target when she writes that "we do not have nearly enough knowledge about female sexuality" (94). What she is certain of is that slash fiction offers something "raw, blatantly female and very valuable and exciting" (95). It also offers an important insight on the popularity of M/M romance and the reasons women choose that palette, though it still skirts the issue of the exploitative aspects of that appropriation. For Russ, the appeal is clear:
What they do want is sexual intensity, sexual enjoyment, the freedom to choose, a love that is entirely free of the culture's whole discourse of gender and sex roles, and a situation in which it is safe to let go and allow oneself to become emotionally and sexually vulnerable. (89)
The continued popularity of M/M slash and romance suggests that even in 2010, it is still difficult for women to imagine that happening between heterosexual couples.


  1. If the central concern was to create relationships which are "entirely free of the culture's whole discourse of gender and sex roles," wouldn't slash between two female characters offer equal opportunities to writers?

    That makes me think there must be at least a few other reasons why m/m is more popular than f/f. And since there are lesbian and bisexual female authors of m/m, it can't just be that all female authors of m/m find men more sexually attractive. So I wonder if the fact that male characters tend to get better/more exciting roles in novels and films also has something to do with the preponderance of m/m over f/f.

  2. It almost seems as if women can't be "un-gendered" -- which reminds me of medieval clerics' admonitions that women must "un-sex" themselves if they wished to be truly holy. Women as difference, men as norm.

    There has to be something, I suspect, in the scopophilic aspects of male bodies on display, not just the sexual attraction angle, but also an appropriation of the power that's written culturally upon male bodies. Can it really just be that it's still easier for women readers and writers to imagine a male body as the site of that kind of action? It's certainly the case of mainstream film makers, who can't seem to imagine a woman's body as anything but an object or treasure for a male character.

    There's also more of an anxiety re: f/f scenes in stories. At least that's been my impression from some reviewers who seem to it's best to explicitly warn readers about f/f scenes in narratives that aren't explicitly lesbian. Het readers who enjoy m/m scenes often express dismay at reading an "unexpected" f/f scene.

  3. When I went off to look up what you meant by "scopophilic" I came across something which seemed to be a relevant summary of some of the discussions there have been about film makers and women viewers:

    Since the early 1970’s feminist critics and theorists have debated and analyzed the idea of filmic spectatorship. Most of these feminist writings are rooted in Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and revolve around the idea of scopophilia, or pleasure in looking. Some argue that it is impossible for a female viewer to be a true spectator of film due to the patriarchal nature of the industry that constantly projects women on the screen as passive objects that merely receive the gaze of the male characters, viewers and camera, without ever returning the gaze (Mulvey, 1975). Other theorists argue that a woman can receive scopophilic pleasure from film viewing, but only by employing a form of transgendered spectatorship (Mulvey, 1981; Kaplan, 1983). (from the abstract of Williamson, P. A. , 2004-05-27 "Scopophilic Pleasure and Gender Identity in Being John Malkovich." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New Orleans Sheraton, New Orleans)

    "There's also more of an anxiety re: f/f scenes in stories."

    I know that Tania Modleski [in "My Life as a Romance Reader." Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 15-28] wrote that she found she was quite easily able to put herself in the place of the hero in a f/m romance and then she was making love to the heroine (26-27). In other words, it wouldn't be very difficult for a female reader who identifies with the male protagonist to end up in a sort of f/f situation when reading a f/m romance.

    That makes me wonder if some of the readers who avoid f/f scenes might feel a similar anxiety about explicit descriptions of the heroine's body in a f/m story as they do about f/f sex scenes. If they did, that might be one reason why they have a strong preference for m/m.

  4. To take your argument a step further, I wonder how much is also about introducing kink elements, especially when it's D/s, or BD/s. Most of the slash writers I know are pretty serious about their feminism; writing that sort of scene as het, and there is an invariable question wrt the power dynamics. If the woman is sub, then the writer could be seen as reinforcing a traditional dynamic that can undermine a feminist message. If the man is the sub, then the writer opens herself up to accusations of wanting to dominate men herself, or overturn the natural order, or some such nonsense.

  5. ADM, I think there's an element of that and the discomfort non-practitioners have in general with BDSM narratives that overlook the importance of consent and the construction of the fantasy play.

    I think women in general are still so much more conscious of criticism of themselves as women and as readers/fantasizers. You don't see the same thing in what I always refer to as "male romance" (i.e. spy thrillers and hard-boiled crime fiction). I think there is a fear among some readers if they respond to a f/f scene that it means they have lesbian tendencies ready to pop out like a chest burster in Alien.

    Is there an element of narcissism in the putative male gaze (whether it's looking upon a female or male body) that gets dropped out of the equation in an f/f scene? Is part of the appeal having the male gaze trained upon the character with whom the reader has identified?

    Sorry for the jargon -- I usually try to avoid it, but knee-deep in a film class. Critics of Mulvey (and she herself) have since adjusted her initial arguments to address the (albeit still few) female film directors and assess whether a female gaze is possible -- and whether the gaze must always sexualize its object. I'm not sure there's agreement about those issues.

  6. Jargon and all, excellent post!

  7. LOL -- thanks. I realise a simpler way to say the latter bit would be to say that a big part of the pleasure of romance is being desired -- and usually by a male gaze.

    For het women -- who are accustomed to a lifetime of flexibly identifying with male and female protagonists in movies and novels, there's no trouble moving between m/m and m/f -- but the f/f narrative leaves the adoring male gaze out of the equation. Hmmm.

  8. I know that most writers I know - and I - write gay fiction because, as another commenter has said - men have more fun (to put it very simply) - and by that I mean in history, as I write historical novels. It's far far easier to have two men together for long periods of time without anyone losing their reputation. And I love to explore how gay men managed in times when it was dangerous and illegal. Nothing to do with fetishisation of any kind.

    Would you consider putting my review sites on your blog roll? I will of course do the same:

    Speak its Name (gay historical fiction)

    Bosom Friends (lesbian historical fiction

  9. Sure, I'll add to my blogroll.

    I think it's important to remember that the identification of men as "gay" or even homosexual did not start until relatively recently. Sexual practices were one thing -- homosexuality has always been with us -- but people would not have identified as "gay" which is an anachronism. The practices themselves and their reception would have depended on many different factors as different as the cultural considerations and the class and status of the individuals involved. It's always easier to get away with doing something when you're king than when you are, say, a miller in a small village.

  10. Well, yes, of course. As I say, I write historical fiction, so getting the details and the social mores of the time right is vitally important. I'm aware that the identification as "gay" - or at least the TERM gay is fairly recent - or at least early 20th century - but gay culture was certainly around as early as the 18th.

  11. Some of you may be interested to know that my colleague and I interviewed Joanna Russ in the summer of 2007 about slash and female sexuality. We wanted to know if her thoughts on the topic had changed at all. They hadn't changed very much, though she was fascinated by the proliferation of slash in online fandom and even had us print out and send her stories

  12. K.A. Laity said...
    I think there is a fear among some readers if they respond to a f/f scene that it means they have lesbian tendencies ready to pop out like a chest burster in Alien.

    I just spewed Diet Coke....

    I have wondered exactly that myself...if that might be the case. We had a slash writer come to a workshop I attended to talk to us about the subject (I had honestly never heard of slash before that date) and she gave us a two hours talk about the subject.

    One of the things she told us was that some pairings were popular, while some simply weren't. You could write Harry/Ron all day long, and no one would ever bother to read it, no matter how accomplished a writer you were. People simply prefer Harry/Snape, even with all its trapping of power issues and love/hate...or perhaps actually because of that.

    But it seemed to me as if her readers were, in effect, weeding out the 'easier' romantic pairings, which might, as noted above, be related to the fact that males often have the more dynamic parts.

    (The above author, whose name I've actually forgotten, did not write HP slash. She specialized in Star Trek: Voyager.)

  13. Forgive me if this sounds bitchery than I intend. I got no sleep and have yet to have coffee. In any case . . .

    As a heterosexual woman, I actually find it disturbing that women want to engage with m/m over a f/m and yet refuse to engage with an f/f pairing at all. Peronsally, I would like to come across more f/f pairings. Not because I find it kinky or sexy but because I do see why female sexuality should only ever be expressed by the male body. I find m/m self-negating, a way of veiling and cloistering female desire behind the phallus that bothers me because I fundamentally do not believe that female desire should be veiled or obscured. Nor do I believe or think that m/m pairing is inherently more subversive or feminist than any other pairing. I think, rather, that it is the skill of the writer in the execution of the themes that creates subversive tendencies. I think it is faulty logic to assume that because one engages in reading or writing male homosexual pairings that you are subversive, iconoclastic, a real rebel or whatever. It's kinda of like suburban white boys listening to rap music, IMHO. I entirely admit that while I understand the reasons, I still don't get the reasons on a bone-deep level.

    As a former reader of fantasy, one of the primary reasons I am attracted to romance is the abundance of heroines and the potential for an abundance of heroines who are active. I don't know why f/f couldn't not do as much as, if not more than, what you suggest Russ believes the m/m pairing does. This is especially true because I swear in real life, I meet way more interesting and awesome women than men (regard the plethora of them manifesting themseles in these comments). I just wish they got depicted in narratives more.

  14. It seems to me that romance and romance fiction rely so heavily on overcoming differences between the genders that m/m or f/f scenes are incompatible with either. Where does the "romance" reside in either m/m or f/f scenes?

  15. Angela, I don't think it sounds bitchy at all: I am fascinated by this subject because so many women clearly are more responsive to this subgenre and I'm very curious about the reasons it's so.

    I don't think there's any thing inherently "more feminist" or "subversive" about writing M/M -- in fact, I wonder if it's an inability to see or imagine female agency in a story that makes it popular.

    I'm also sensitive to issues of exploitation -- het women appropriating M/M narratives without assessing whether they are repeating the same motif as "lesbian" porn that is not made to appeal to lesbians but to het males, which is not always going to overlap.

    There are a lot of issues all wrapped up in this topic and I don't think there's any one answer that will respond to all manifestations of the phenomenon.

    JKC -- that is always my aim in life, so thanks for sharing your Diet Coke spewing. Made my day!

  16. Anonymous -- the romance lies in overcoming the differences between individuals. Since the "differences" in romance often have a great deal to do with gender expectations, same sex pairings turn our attention to other differences which may be of any variety: city/country, big family/small, rich/poor, trusting/doubting -- everything.

  17. Entering cautiously here, in view of the exalted academic tone, on the question of 'gay/homosexual' culture. I know that most of you probably already know what I am going to say, but I think it may still be worth spelling out.
    Never mind those recent Middle Ages: in Graeco-Roman society, sexual activity was perceived and analysed basically in terms of the power relationships: one partner was the doer, the active party, and the other the passive, done-to person. Which was which depended on sex (males superior to females), age (older superior to younger) and social status (self-explanatory: some of those slaves had to put up with a lot).
    This is at least part of the reason why what we call male homosexuality was no big deal, and did not even have a special name in Antiquity, and female sexuality, of any kind, was of little interest to artists and writers.

  18. I think the important thing to remember about slash, particularly as it is produced now, is that it doesn't exist simply as a collection of texts. What's great about russ's essay, "Pornography By Women for Women" is the emphasis on women write erotically for each other. And in oline fandom, the erotics of the slash exchange, whether the stories are m/m or f/f or f/m, are plainly evident. Even when writing about Harry/Snape or Clark/Lex or Sam/Dean, these (mostly) women are actively and purposely engaged in the act of turning each other on and getting each other off. Far from being an erasure or denial of female sexuality, slash abounds in it, the actual sexual desires and expressions of the people writing it.

    I am no more bothered by the proliferation of m/m slash written by women than I am by HEA in romance novels. How are women using these texts, what are they saying about them, what relationships with other women do these texts allow, how are they vehicles for other kinds of expressions? Those are much more interesting questions.

  19. "my colleague and I interviewed Joanna Russ in the summer of 2007 about slash and female sexuality."

    Conseula, have you published the interview somewhere? Or are you planning to write something on her which would be like your Conversations with Octavia Butler?

  20. Great post, Margery! It has left me with much to ponder. ;-)

  21. Laura--We haven't yet published it (life and grading tend to take up a great deal of time), in part because we haven't decided where would be the place for it.

  22. "we haven't decided where would be the place for it"

    In that case I'll be very, very predictable and suggest that, as the interview is about "slash and female sexuality" you could perhaps submit it to JPRS, as it says on the call for submissions that, among other things, JPRS is looking for interviews.

  23. Yeah, Consuela -- I can't wait to read that interview, too!

    Lisa -- Thanks for stopping by!

    AgTigress -- you are so right. That's the importance of historical context. I'm teaching a course about medieval texts on film and one of the texts I use is Arthur Lindley's The ahistoricism of medieval film which spells our how 'historical' films (and I think by analogy, historical novels) tell us a lot more about the present than they tend to do about the past. Of course there's a big difference between the creators and how much research they employ, but those historicals are always going to be shaped by modern sensibilities to some extent.

  24. "...'historical' films (and I think by analogy, historical novels) tell us a lot more about the present than they tend to do about the past."

    Yes, indeed they do. The great trick in understanding the past is learning to distinguish the ways in which our ancestors were different from ourselves, and the ways in which they were similar. Sometimes the praiseworthy aim of trying to be objective and setting aside our own personal cultural conditioning can go too far; I have read some papers by colleagues in my own field in which they seem to assume that we are a totally different species from the humans of a couple of millennia ago!

    In some respects, the cultural divide between the past and the present is no greater than that between modern contemporary cultures. I am full of admiration for historical novelists who can make the past accessible for the general reader without doing serious violence to the realities of the era they have chosen.

  25. I confess I was somewhat disappointed. I was hoping for a more updated assessment of women writing gay romance, and yet to read your article, one would think Russ was the last lesbian feminist to write on this subject. Certainly I'd have expected a small nod, at the least, to the huge and growing body academic studies on fandom, gender, slash and those who write it (Henry Jenkins, anyone? As here?) and an acknowledgement that there are plenty of academics currently writing about this subject and who are active in slash or m/m writing, like Dr Robin Anne Reid, and Dr Francesca Coppa. They even have a name for people like this - 'aca-fen'.

    Things have moved on just a tad from Kirk/Spock. It would have been useful to have acknowledge that in your post, even though it's admittedly an overview of one particular piece and academic, because people, academics and non-academics alike are coming to this subject fresh all the time. Even media articles about slash either only talk about K/S or Harry Potter. You never see a mention of the huge Real Person Slash/Real Person Fiction, for instance. Or the fact that women wrote gay male fiction before slash or pro m/m. Or that gay men slash and write m/m for the female market.

    "The continued popularity of M/M slash and romance suggests that even in 2010, it is still difficult for women to imagine that happening between heterosexual couples."

    Since your article is about a lesbian academic, this is a strangely blinkered summary of what reading and writing m/m and slash is about - why are lesbians and bisexual women writing it (in signficant numbers, even possibly as a majority of writers), if it's all about the het couples? I grant you that idealisation is part - but only part - of why women write this stuff, but it's a far more complicated issue even for heterosexual women like me, as I have recently been exploring in my own journal with respect to myself.

    As it happens (and as Dr Vivanco knows from reading my journal), your post has arrived just as slash fandom and some of us on the pro side are going through a serious navel-gazing exercise about why women slash and if it's a good thing or not. You might like to look at these:

    And though I hesitate to use this post to pimp my own, this is where I, as a straight woman, talk about why I am writing this:

    Discussions with Dr V have led me to the conclusion that I write about and through male characters not so much because I want to idealise men (that's certainly part of it) but because I want to idealise my own existence. That is, I want to create an avatar who doesn't have to deal with sexist bullshit and misogyny - and in this world, that means creating a man to play me on television, so to speak.

    I'm no academic (at least, not on this subject) I find Russ's explanations too simplistic, in other words.

  26. I don't want to be an apologist for Russ or claim to know what is in her head, but her writing about slash and her recent interview with my (and my colleague) suggest very much that Russ comes to the same conclusion as Ann Somerville. More importantly, though, and here is why I think Russ is particularly useful when thinking about fandoms in which slash is prominent, Russ urges to think about the relationships between the mostly straight women writing m/m *for* each other and reading *with* each other. A community of women is producing this work, not women in isolation. Far from negating female sexuality, m/m slash is awash in it.

    Ann is correct, though, that anyone interested in writers examining the whys and hows of slash fandom would do well check out the conversations going on right now.

  27. Ann, if you read my introduction, the point was not to suggest that nothing has been done since 1985, but to acknowledge a key text from the past that has been often overlooked.

    I would also never suggest -- and Russ is not suggesting -- that m/m negates female sexuality.

    I want to idealise my own existence. That is, I want to create an avatar who doesn't have to deal with sexist bullshit and misogyny: that's precisely what Russ is arguing.

  28. I think it was me, actually, who used the word negate. I don't think anyone else went that direction.

  29. "the point was not to suggest that nothing has been done since 1985, but to acknowledge a key text from the past that has been often overlooked."

    Sure. But you didn't put it in context, nor indicate that scholarship - and discussion - after Russ continues, and as I said, I found that disappointing, since this blog is all about education and discussion.

    I said nothing approaching "m/m negates female sexuality."

    "that's precisely what Russ is arguing."

    No, not precisely. She's tying it very specifically to idealised sex and the suppression of women's sexuality by the patriarchy. She's ignoring - or you are presenting her work as ignoring - many wider issues of expression and oppression.

    It's not all about sex, whatever Freud said!

  30. Russ is suggesting that the reason women writers use male characters to "escape" from sexism and misogyny is because of those patriarchal pressures. In other words, to ask why is that men=people and women=not men.

    I didn't address current debates because this blog already does that; I wanted to provide a missing piece that was part of the history leading up to the current discussion. I certainly never meant to suggest that this was the final word or the only voice; simply a lost one.

  31. Correction: "to ask why is it that"

  32. Since a few comments have been made about the purpose and contents of this blog, I thought it might be helpful if I responded to them in general terms.

    Firstly, I agree with Ann that "this blog is all about education and discussion" but I think that precisely because it's all about discussion as well as education, the flow of information goes in more than one direction. I'm always aware of how much information and expertise the readers of TMT have, and I've learned a lot from the comments many have made, as well as from my co-bloggers and guest bloggers. [Yes, and if I carry on in this vein it's either going to sound like an acknowledgments list, or a call for a group hug, so I'll stop there ;-) ]

    Secondly, with regards to what K.A. said about not addressing

    "current debates because this blog already does that; I wanted to provide a missing piece that was part of the history leading up to the current discussion. I certainly never meant to suggest that this was the final word or the only voice; simply a lost one."

    I'm only one of the bloggers here, and I can only really speak for myself, but I'm going to be a bit more modest about what this blog does/has done. As far as my own posts go, I do try to cover a range of subjects, including ones which are rather outside my areas of expertise. I'm learning as I go along, and there are some areas about which I know a lot less than others. When I write about areas like that, contributions from those who know more than I do are particularly appreciated.

    In addition, the nature of blogs and blog posts mean that Teach Me Tonight isn't a carefully structured and comprehensive overview of the entire romance genre (and related topics). It's a somewhat haphazard collection of calls for papers, analysis of individual texts, news items, musings on larger topics, summaries of existing research etc. Some of those summaries are more comprehensive than others.

    Today I started reading Phyllis M. Betz's 2009 book on Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis and it seems to me that the topic we're discussing on this particular thread has so many ramifications that someone could almost certainly write a whole book about it, too.

  33. Laura, my perception of these blogs and the comments to which they give rise is that they are essentially conversations, and as such, straying off the point and sometimes leaving questions hanging are perfectly normal. It is only in a discussion that is very closely moderated by a chairman that this sort of drift can be avoided, and the drift is valuable, anyway.

    So now I shall make another couple of slightly off-topic remarks.

    I am interested to hear about the book you are reading currently, and wonder if you will discuss it in detail at some point. Lesbian novels generally seem to me to have a very interesting background. My particular interest is Jane Rule, whom I regard as one of the finest novelists of the 20th century, but who was never widely acclaimed, apparently because her overt lesbianism led her books to be sidelined into that dubious realm labelled 'gay & lesbian fiction'. It seems that when a straight writer creates gay characters, his/her work is still 'general fiction', but even when a gay writer has a mix of straight and gay characters (just as in real life), their work is regarded as 'genre fiction'. Maybe that's changed now, but it certainly used to be so.

    Also slightly off-topic: I do so wish 'slash fiction' had another name, one that was more appropriate and less ambiguous. It's a horrible name. I know it actually refers to what I call an 'oblique stroke' (though I don't know why), but it is quite impossible for me to avoid the mental image of slashing/cutting with an edged weapon.

  34. "It is only in a discussion that is very closely moderated by a chairman that this sort of drift can be avoided, and the drift is valuable, anyway."

    Yes on both points. I don't particularly want to stop interesting "drift" because (a) it can be valuable in its own right and (b) it may turn out that it's not really a "drift" at all, but unexpectedly leads to much greater understanding of the original topic.

    "I am interested to hear about the book you are reading currently, and wonder if you will discuss it in detail at some point"

    I'm wondering if it's going to be reviewed in JPRS. I think the first issue is coming out this Spring, and it wouldn't surprise me if Betz's book was reviewed there.

    Another thing which makes me want to hold back is that I'm currently reading it rather fast, because I have a deadline to meet, and I'm really only looking for very specific sorts of information, so although I'm reading the whole book, I'm not sure I'm paying enough attention to all the details to be able to review it properly.

    In addition, I don't know much about lesbian romance novels, so I doubt I'll be able to tell if there are gaps etc in what Betz has written about them.

    She has written quite a bit about romances with heterosexual protagonists, and while I agree with some of what she has to say on that topic, I also think she's included some debatable statements (often based on sweeping generalisations made by the authors of some of those romances, particularly in the Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women volume). This means that some of the comparisons she makes between lesbian and heterosexual romances seem less convincing to me because of that.

    Still, I may jot down a few quotes and see what I can pull together by way of a mini-review. It might be a while before I post about it, though, because to write the review I'll have to go back and re-read the first couple of chapters, and as I said, right at the moment I'm in a bit of a rush.

    "My particular interest is Jane Rule"

    Betz does have a little bit to say about Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart, but it's discussed in a relatively small number of pages, so you might find the amount of space devoted to it a little disappointing given that it's your "particular interest."

  35. "Betz does have a little bit to say about Jane Rule's Desert of the Heart, but it's discussed in a relatively small number of pages"...

    Hmm. I'd have thought it (and several of Rule's later novels) deserved rather more than a few pages, for many reasons. I suppose one might argue that many of her books are not 'romances' as such, but The Desert of the Heart is a romance, and was quite a ground-breaking publication when it came out in 1964. After all, its chief precursor was 'The Well of Loneliness'!

  36. To bring in another angle, I'd like to say that I've long noticed that my favorite Het fics are often done by women who primarily Slash. Gender essentialism tends to be problematized or thrown out altogether in their work, the couple gets written more like individuals with their own unique assortment of masculine/feminine traits than representations of the archetypes Man and Woman and I adore it ever so much. I think that it can be argued that the practice of slash can maybe develop ways of thinking about romance that are not sexist in women who had a longing for that already, building up those mental muscles through practice so that they can overcome the cultural programming to cast Het couples in a patriarchal script.

  37. Er, to just clarify a bit more: there's another angle where there's a sub-set of slashers who are quite misogynistic, who seem to have internalized ideas about men being important and worthwhile--both mentally and physically: I recall with horror the discussion I came across where teenage slasher girls were talking about how the vagina is objectively disgusting compared to the penis--in ways that women aren't and focusing on them for that reason, and I think it's interesting to contrast that with Slashers who are consciously questioning gender roles instead of acting out of internalized misogyny and how that can lead to some of them having the impulse to write Het that does something similar. I just find it interesting that two of the groups of women who slash could come to it for such conflicting reasons. Though maybe it's not so conflicting, since they're both reactions to misogyny. Maybe the misogynistic teenage slashers I stumbled across will grow up to be radical feminist slashers. ;)

  38. "Maybe the misogynistic teenage slashers I stumbled across will grow up to be radical feminist slashers. "

    One of the most fascinating aspects of the ongoing current discussion in fandom has been to see how slash has helped so many young women express, understand and accept their sexuality. The vagina hatred doesn't surprise me much, since women are trained to see each other as competitors, and there's certainly a good deal of male-derived propaganda taught in places like Catholic girl schools (as I know from personal experience) which teaches women to suspect and even despise their own bodies and sexuality.

    As a non-het writing m/m author and ex-slasher, I'd love to know which slashers now write decent het (because all the ones I know go on to write m/m.) The only one I can think off hand is Jennifer Pelland, and she's an SF author, not Romance.

  39. I began my writing career in the slash fandoms. I now write original fiction in the M/M erotic romance genre. I also own a small press that publishes nothing but M/M it in print and ebook. I'm straight, married with children and this is the genre that appeals to my imagination enough to write. I enjoy the more equal power dynamic. M/M gives me the opportunity to explore the things I like best and least about men from both sides of the relationship. I don't have to worry about what danger I put them in as being beyond acceptable or one 'having' to rescue the other for anything but personal desire or need. No societal conventions force reactions from the characters in regard to their intimacy. There is more freedom, in my opinion, to be rough and tumble, distant, overpowering, intense and all the other emotions/actions that are usually contained in m/f romance. Plus I find the fantasy thrilling and attractive.

    Bottom line is I write it because I want to. The only reason any author ever has to give.

    Even ROLLING STONE Magazine put M/M romance on their 2010 HOT LIST this month in the 'hot books' section.

  40. Or simply that m/m fiction allows women to turn the male gaze on the man. I remember watching a late night tv show that talked about portraits and how you could tell a painting had a homosexual subtext by the way the male positioned himself as an object of desire. Men objectify the the body they desire, and women don't seem to have the tendency to do that except in the context of slash. by taking the point of view of a gay man, you're able to oogle the male body all you like, or you could switch points of view depending on how sexually attracted to either.

    from that point of view, if m/m slash is written by mostly het women, then why would you think they'd wanna write f/f if they're straight? It reminds me of an episode of Coupling when one of the male characters said he only liked watching lesbian porn because he's afraid of seeing even the hint of the naked male body. ok, we're not that extreme, but the same idea applies.

  41. actually when said like that, it seems a bit weird and sad that we'd have to express our desire for the male body in such a convoluted way. we do it by identifying with the point of view of a gay male, laura mulvey would have a field day with that.

  42. "Men objectify the the body they desire, and women don't seem to have the tendency to do that except in the context of slash."

    Don't women often have that tendency in f/m romances?

    Or would you not count the descriptions of male bodies in romances (whether m/f, m/m, m/m/f or any other combination involving "m"s) as "objectifying" since, if the romance is well-written, each male protagonist has a personality as well as a body? But then, that's probably true of much slash fiction too, isn't it?

  43. "Or would you not count the descriptions of male bodies in "objectifying"...."

    This may be just me, but it isn't that I wouldn't consider such descriptions objectifying, but that I am more likely to encounter such descriptions in slash than I am romance. Especially the kinds of descriptions that do not paint the man as always the aggressor, and instead describe men's bodies in a more submissive and wanton way, rather than as pervasively dominating.

    So, I guess, no. I really wouldn't consider them objectifying in the same way. The way men's bodies are objectified in romance seems to more mirror how they are idealized in comic books rather than the way women's bodies are objectified in general. And since I don't find the Hulk* to be all that sexy....

    Granted, the slash I read is pretty specific, and the romance I've read was mostly from the years leading up to the current erotic romance boom. So, it's not like I can be certain of overall current trends.

    Still, while I'm sure there is romance - especially erotic romance - out there that goes against what seems to be the norm, as a reader I have an easier time finding fanfiction - especially m/m ff - that does this than traditionally published anything that does this.

    For me it's sorta like the way I tend to be more cautious about reading genre books by men over genre books by women. It's not that I think I'll hate everything any male science fiction writer ever writes, or that I will adore everything every woman ever writes, it's that experience has taught me that I need to be a bit pickier about which men I read in order to avoid the stuff that makes my skin crawl.

    *except for FEMINISTHULK bc he just rocks so much**

    **yes, I mentioned the Hulk just so I could mention FEMINISTHULK

  44. "The way men's bodies are objectified in romance seems to more mirror how they are idealized in comic books"

    I thought about this, and despite the fact that I've written about the way heroes' bodies are depicted in romance and despite the fact that I've read Jane Litte's post about "The Super Sizing of the Alpha Male" in which she commented that romance

    authors have tended to over masculinize the hero to the extent that we have caricatures instead of characters for heroes. In recent years, I’ve seen the romance alpha hero morph from tall, strong, and commanding to oversized, monstrous, and overbearing.

    I think that while I'm intellectually aware of the phenomenon, it doesn't actually affect me much while I'm reading because I have almost no visual imagination, so I don't visualise any of the characters I read about. If I were to read fan fiction based on a film/TV series, though, I'd have some idea of what the characters look like.

    I've often wondered what it would be like to have a visual imagination like other people do. In this particular area it seems as though my lack of one may be working to my advantage. ;-)

    I don't read much fan fiction, probably because I don't watch/read most of the films/texts a lot of fan fictions are based on (I have come across and read some Jane Austen fan fiction) so I don't feel competent to write blog posts about it.

    I was very grateful to K. A. Laity for her contribution, though, and since I came across a couple of MA theses about romance and fan fiction, I've just put up a post about them. I've quoted from your comment because it seemed very relevant to something the author of one of the theses mentioned. I hope that's OK with you.