Monday, October 18, 2010

Fan Fiction and Romance

Earlier this year, K. A. Laity wrote a guest post for Teach Me Tonight about Joanna Russ and slash fiction and since I recently came across Katherine Morrissey's 2008 MA dissertation, "Fanning the Flames of Romance: An Exploration of Fan Fiction and the Romance Novel," I thought I'd return to the topic. Morrissey found that
The majority of popular stories, the pieces of fan fiction which participants identified as their favorites, were nearly all focused on romantic stories. More significantly, most of these stories featured slash pairings. This differed from the broader reading practices reported by fans. When asked about their overall preferences, participants said that they read similar amounts of the major story types (specifically het, slash, and gen) and a smaller group of readers read femslash or lesbian focused stories. [...] While fans may be open to reading across categories, favorite stories, the ones readers return to and remember, were nearly all focused on male homosexual romance. This contrasts significantly with the focus on heterosexual pairings and female protagonists found in romance novels. (62)
This is something of a generalisation, given the long history of lesbian romance novels and the recent flourishing of m/m romance. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that heterosexual pairings do continue to dominate the romance genre. Morrissey also found that despite the fact that "Romantic themes nearly always had a presence" in fan fiction, "most fans did not read romance novels. If they did, fan fiction stories were read more. For this population, fan fiction's approach to romance has significantly greater appeal" (78). Morrissey therefore compares and contrasts fan fiction with romance novels in order to answer the question "When fan fiction is examined side-by-side with romance novels, what are the textual similarities and differences that emerge in these romantic stories?" (2).

While it may be entirely correct to state that "Fan fiction and romance novels constitute two bodies of romantic literature being produced for and by women within dramatically different environments" (ii), direct comparisons between the two are somewhat problematic inasmuch as romance novels are not representative of all "romantic literature being produced for and by women" in the commercial fiction environment. If one were to seek out an area of commercial fiction which is comparable to romantic fan fiction, one should perhaps include all the commercial genres "produced for and by women," including "family sagas" of the kind written by Catherine Cookson, women's fiction, chick lit, the "bonkbuster," and "‘erotic fiction for women by women’ as exemplified by Virgin Publishing’s Black Lace imprint" (Sonnet)1 or Harlequin's Spice imprint:
engrossing stories about women's lives, experiences and relationships, woven through with several explicit sex scenes that have context within the plot. We expect writers to be graphic—using the kind of frank language typical of the genre—as well as daring, exploring any and all sexual situations, even ones considered "taboo." [...] Spice Books are not traditional romances, nor do they require a happily-ever-after ending.
Despite the fact that Morrissey mentions Harlequin's Spice imprint, she nonetheless draws a distinction between romances and fan fiction based on
the fan's traditional comfort with the sexual content of their romance narratives. While romance novels have historically been careful to place sexual encounters within marriage (or the promise of an inevitable marriage), fan fiction textors [i.e. the creators of fan fiction] and readers happily produce stories in which sex may be enjoyed in a variety of circumstances and often write about sexual encounters without a larger courtship narrative accompanying them. (18)
By contrast, she suggests that romances,
By encoding sexuality and desire within marriage, motherhood, and heterosexuality, [...] adhere to dominant social norms and constrain the diversity of sexualities and practices represented. Readers seeking more explicit and open sexual texts may go directly to the erotica genre of literature instead. However, as erotic texts for women establish themselves and loosen social stigmas, romance publishers also adapt, as is indicated by their increased focus on erotic romance. (51)
However, not all romances encode "sexuality and desire within marriage, motherhood, and heterosexuality" and some people may choose to read erotica not "instead" of romance, but in addition to it.

Morrissey seems to hold certain basic assumptions which I think require a little bit more nuance. For example, Morrissey concludes that
Romance novels provide readers with fantasy experiences and an escape to happier or more exciting realities. The goal of these fantasy experiences is immersion. [...] While placing stories in historic settings or fantasy worlds far removed from a reader's daily life is an important method for initiating immersion into romantic fantasies, two additional storytelling techniques, focusing on food and costuming, cement this process and connect the reader's body to the heroine's. (48-49)
This seems to assume that female readers closely identify with the heroine and/or she becomes in a sense a "placeholder" into which they can insert themselves in order to share her experiences. This may be true for many readers but as I've mentioned before, it isn't true for me and I suspect I can't be the only one who adopts a more "fly on the wall" perspective. Indeed, Morrissey herself later writes that "The heroine may traditionally be offered as an identification point in romance novels but readers can choose to identify with the hero, both characters, or do something entirely different" (98-99).

The existence of romances about friends who become lovers and marriages in trouble seems to call into question Morrissey's assertion that
In romance novels, protagonists begin as strangers to each other. They may have been acquainted in the past, or in passing, but there is always sense of two individuals seeing and approaching each other for the first time. Contrasting this, in Stealing Harry, the two leads are life-long friends. (90)
It may well be true, as Morrissey states, that the most popular fan fictions
are significantly longer than most romance novels. They are also ongoing, updated over the course of years, another noticeable difference from romance novels, which typically focus on a romantic couple once and then move on. These contrasts with romance novels suggest that fan fiction readers may be looking for alternatives to romantic conventions, as well as more variety in the types of romance they consume. (64)
This does, however, seem to ignore the many romance series that exist, in which protagonists from previous novels in a series reappear as secondary characters in another, or secondary characters from one book are transformed into the protagonists of later ones. In addition, there are also series in which a single romance arc extends over various novels: J. D. Robb's In Death books, for example, are very popular with many romance readers, as are Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels, and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.

Morrisey goes on to state that
Romance novels end with established, monogamous relationships. Partners marry, build homes together and create families, moving onto another stage in their lives. At the end of most romance novels, a relationship is permanent. (81)
whereas fan fictions
balance happiness and progress with a sense of realism. The message is that relationships are hard, they require work, but the characters are probably still up to the task. These less utopian endings present relationships a little bit closer to those in the real world. (84-85)
However, given that many people in the "real world" do form permanent romantic relationships, "marry, build homes together and create families," is the fact that romance protagonists also do these things really an indication of a lack of realism?

Morrissey also contrasts romances with fan fictions on the basis of statements made by
Commercial romance authors and defenders Ann Maxwell and Jayne Ann Krentz [who] discuss several traditional romance novel story types in their article, "The Wellsprings of Romance," and critique what they identify as two emerging modern hero archetypes or myths, the "househusband" and the "Alan Alda clone." One is a homemaker, the other a supportive partner and listener. Maxwell and Krentz acknowledge that these characters may have some attraction to readers, but issue a caution, "[...] these myths lack an ingredient that is vital to popular fiction: conflict." (85)
Morrissey therefore concludes that
The presence and popularity of fan fiction stories incorporating [...] more balanced, less aggressive and dominant characters challenge Maxwell and Krentz's assertion that these protagonists do not provide the right dynamics to entertain their readers. It is not that they stories lack conflict, as they suggest, the textors have just found different character journey's to build stories and relationships around. In many of the slash stories dramatic tension is connected to sexuality and societal expectations, in others the story setting and plot provide the characters with their challenge. [...]
The popularity of these different stories is an important reminder that the heroic alpha-male character does not hold romantic appeal to all readers. Instead, readers are interested [in] various depictions of masculinity. Stories can be written about partnership, family building, and a couple's growing understanding and connection through communication as well as conflict and power struggles. This does not mean that fan fiction stories cannot also play with power and control. Neither does it mean that conflict will not exist between two protagonists. It simply means that romance is not being limited to one particular relationship type. Again, within fan fiction stories, the romance formula is being broadened and diversified. (88-89)
I would suggest alpha male heroes don't appeal to all romance readers either, and that the reason Maxwell and Krentz were so trenchant in their statements was due to the fact that, at the time they were writing, there had been an increase in the genre of "hero archetypes" other than the alpha male which these authors preferred. Their statements, then, can perhaps be read as evidence that the romance genre itself is "diversified." I would go further, and claim that it has never been "limited to one particular relationship type": the beta hero
is not a recent invention. Edward Ferrars in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) is
too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart […]. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life. (Vivanco and Kramer)
It should be acknowledged that Morrissey is aware both of some of the limitations of her source material, and of the dangers of generalising about genres which include vast numbers of texts:
The difficulty in writing about entire categories of literature is that there are always so many more topics to be discussed. For every generalizing statement, there are further contradictions to be accounted for or explained. Thousands of romance novels are published each year and a seemingly infinite amount of fan fiction stories are available online and off. Only a small sample of romance novels and fan fiction could be examined for this project. (105)
I suspect that Morrissey's conclusions are far stronger when they focus solely or primarily on fan fiction: they are based not only on a reading of a selection of primary and secondary sources but also on her survey of fan fiction readers which "received nearly 1000 responses in the first twenty-four hours alone and this pace remained steady throughout the two-week process. At close, the survey had 7,748 participants" (58). As mentioned, she discovered that "The majority of popular stories, the pieces of fan fiction which participants identified as their favorites, were nearly all focused on romantic stories. More significantly, most of these stories featured slash pairings" (62). She also discovered that "Most of [the] survey population was younger that that of romance novel readers. The majority of survey participants were eighteen, but the dominant age group ranged between eighteen and twenty-eight years of age" (65). It is probable that there are younger readers and writers of fan fiction who were excluded from the survey, since it stated that "You may NOT participate in this survey if you are under 18 years of age. By completing this survey you acknowledge that you are OVER 18 years of age" (109). She also found that there was a "near complete absence of men within the survey population" (66) and that while "The majority of the survey population was [...] heterosexual (68%), [...] over a quarter of the group identified as bisexual or homosexual (23% bisexual, 4% homosexual)" (66).

With regards to the content of the fan fictions, Morrissey claims that "without the publishing industry as a dominant gatekeeper, textors are able to engage in greater experimentation with story structure" (76). She gives as an example "the most popular [of the fan fictions mentioned in her survey,] Speranza's Written by the Victors (Stargate Atlantis) uses an innovative story structure. This story is presented in two formats. Half of it is told through excerpts from fictitious articles, book reviews, and academic debates, the other half is traditional fiction" (80). She also mentions that
As a form of literature now produced primarily online, fan fiction textors are taking greater advantage of the opportunities digital creation provides. There is a long history or fan art and video creation within fan communities. Now, these objects can be combined with stories to enhance the reading experience. Images and artifacts are created in photoshop to develop stories further. Textors do not need to limit themselves to describing a character's apartment, they may now link to pictures of it, and to the coffee shop down the street. Stories constructed in smaller sections can be linked together into a larger story in whatever order the reader wishes to place them in. (104)
Morrissey herself suggests that "recent changes in the romance publishing industry suggest that the opportunities found online may be influencing traditional publishers as well" (104) and this does indeed seem to be the case. Publishers have begun experimenting with incorporating a variety of features into books originally written for publication in paper:
E-books of the latest generation are so brand new that publishers can’t agree on what to call them.
In the spring Hachette Book Group called its version, by David Baldacci, an “enriched” book. Penguin Group released an “amplified” version of a novel by Ken Follett last week. And on Thursday Simon & Schuster will come out with one of its own, an “enhanced” e-book version of “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein.

All of them go beyond the simple black-and-white e-book that digitally mirrors its ink-and-paper predecessor. The new multimedia books use video that is integrated with text, and they are best read — and watched — on an iPad, the tablet device that has created vast possibilities for book publishers. (Bosman)
Harlequin, too, has been experimenting with enriching ebooks:
Have you ever read something in a novel and wished you could see a picture, find a definition, or learn more about it without having to look it up? Now you can with Harlequin’s Enriched eBooks. This special electronic book is enhanced with web links to information about the setting, ceremonies, and other unique elements in Hotly Bedded, Conveniently Wedded, along with an author note, recipe, and photos from author Kate Hardy!
Morrissey also suggests that unlike romances, in which the protagonists' appearances are often described at length,
within the works of fan fiction [...] descriptive moments were primarily limited to character makeovers. [...] The absence of these scenes within fan fiction stories may be explained by fan cultures' general familiarity with the appearance of the original characters. [...] No matter what the origin, however, the importance of awe inspiring, dramatic physical beauty is diminished within many of these stories. This leads to depictions of attraction in which physical appearance has a presence, but its role is not as strong, or as consistent, as it is in romance novels. (92-93)
This seems an interesting hypothesis, and I would have been fascinated to read more about it. If any of you are fans who also read romances, I'd love to know your opinion of this point. Many fandoms are wholly or partially based on TV shows and movies, and many actors are more attractive than average so I wonder if fans may already have formed their own assessment of the actors'/characters' physical attractions. On the other hand, jennygadget has commented that slash fictions are more likely to
describe men's bodies in a more submissive and wanton way, rather than as pervasively dominating. [...] The way men's bodies are objectified in romance seems to more mirror how they are idealized in comic books.
Morrissey also speculates that fan fictions with heterosexual pairings reveal an
ongoing confusion over women's power and agency within relationships and suggest similar confusion for women in the real world.
One way of circumventing these issues is to eliminate the male/female dynamic and replace the woman with another male. Suddenly moments of aggression, parenting, empathy, action etc. do not carry with them the attachments and ramifications they have within the male/female dynamic. (87)
This is a hypothesis which might also be relevant to the study of m/m romances.

Finally, since this has been a post about slash fiction, romance and an MA thesis, I thought I would take the opportunity to mention another, but much more recent MA thesis: Meredith S. Faust's ""Love of the purest kind": Heteronormative Rigidity in the Homoerotic Fiction of Ann Herendeen" (2010), which is available online from here. To date Herendeen has had two novels published. She has stated that the first, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (2008), "was inspired both by my reading of historical romance and by [...] “slash fiction.”" However, as far as slash is concerned, Herendeen finds that
there's one aspect of them that doesn’t appeal to me: it’s all “look but don’t touch.” Here are women writing about men having sex with each other, for the delectation of women readers, but all the main characters are men and the women never get any of that action.
In her first novel, therefore, she
slashed a genre, not a specific story or set of characters. And then, I slashed the slash. I introduced the hero as gay from the beginning, and showed him in love with a man and attracted to men—that's the first slash. But then I slashed again, writing a heroine back into this all-male paradise.
Her second novel also includes both heroes and heroines, but this time she isn't slashing "a genre": her Pride / Prejudice: A Novel of Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Their Forbidden Lovers (2010) is quite explicitly based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

1 Interestingly, slash fiction is known to have influenced at least one of the books published by Black Lace. In 1999 Black Lace's editor, Kerri "Sharp edited Wicked Words, a collection of erotic short stories that became the first British book to introduce slash lit to mainstream publishing" (Berens). It includes work by
Kitty Fisher. Her short story 'Shadowlight' was modified for Black Lace, but reflects the traits of slash in that it is a sci-fi narrative about an affair between two men.


  1. It's from 2006, so not very new, but I'd like to recommend Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse to those who'd like to do further academic reading about fanfiction.

  2. Thanks, Victoria! Morrissey doesn't mention any of the essays from Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, although she almost certainly should have, given that one of the essays is extremely relevant to the topic she chose:

    Chapter 2. One True Pairing: The Romance of Pornography and the Pornography of Romance
    Catherine Driscoll

    In this essay, I reconsider the relationship between romance and pornography in fan fiction, proposing that fan fiction allows us to think about them as genres that are not only compatible but intimately connected. Although romance and porn have been popularly associated with women and men, respectively, fan fiction intersects them and reflects on both. Fan fiction might be part of a recent commercial diversification of pornography into the sexual practices of women, but it is also a new mode of popular romance fiction. Considering what fan fiction can tell us about the intimacy of romance and pornography, I place fan fiction in a history of literacy, popular culture, and the private self, concluding that pornography is structured in relation to the conventions of romance, and romance fiction is sustained by porn’s ecstatic relationship to exposure. Fan fiction, belonging to the categories of both porn and romance and yet to neither, allows us to rethink their form, content, and significance. (pp 79–96)
    (abstract copied from Hellekson's page of abstracts of essays in the volume)

    I haven't read it, but I might have to try finding a copy.

    In case anyone's interested in more references, Hellekson has also put the volume's bibliography online.

    I've added details of the Driscoll to the Romance Wiki bibliography.

  3. I've also added details of another article I came across as a result of following up your lead, Victoria. It's

    Flegel, Monica and Jenny Roth. "Annihilating love and heterosexuality without women: Romance, generic difference, and queer politics in "Supernatural" fan fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures 4 (2010). It's available online. Here are a couple of excerpts in which the authors compare and contrast the slash fiction with romance fiction:

    It can certainly be argued that Supernatural slash reconfigures the romance narrative, particularly in its troubling of "love triumphant," while J2 stories continue to provide Supernatural fan writers and readers with the opportunity to revel in more conventional romantic tropes, placing Jared and Jensen in domestic and community settings which satisfy desires for more traditional happy endings. (3.3)

    They suggest that

    Some explanation for the heteronormative elements so prevalent in J2 RPS can be found in Tania Modleski's analysis of the role romance plays to "'inoculate' [women] against the major evils of sexist society" (1982, 43). Modleski argues, for example, that romance teaches women to recode anger or violence as love, thus helping us to cope with the demands that patriarchy places on us, whether those be the social demands for heterosexual union and reproduction, or the demands created by a system in which hegemonic masculinity is increasingly violent. As Pamela Regis later puts it, romance is a place where women's problems are explored (2003, 29). When two men play out the same roles, fights, and challenges that a man and woman do in a conventional romance, it is possible that we are seeing a form of Modleski's inoculation at work: even when it is two men, the message suggests, the relationship is the same, the fights are the same, the worries are the same; therefore, the implication is that relationships inevitably play out within power structures. The feminine domestic space and the relational concerns that romance often focuses on, and that are so common in J2 RPS, rely upon the codes of heterosexual monogamy within relationships that are, on their surface, written as gay. This creates the paradox that in J2 women are absent in contexts that are coded heterosexual.

    Thus, J2 RPS does not necessarily result in representations of gayness in ways that the potentially more subversive Sam/Dean does. To explain, Eric Anderson argues that there "has been tension between two working ideologies regarding the relationship between homosexuality and the dominant social structure…Assimilationists desire inclusion into the existing social structure," while "reformists…have sought to transform dominant social structures" (2005, 47). While we would not argue that fan fiction writers are necessarily cognizant of or participants in such debates, we certainly argue that the success of the assimilationist model, one that uses the argument "I'm just like you" to win the respect of heterosexuals and their support for aims like gay marriage, has certainly affected the representation of homosexuality in the broader cultural arena.