Hey, we all have those words and terms for which we bear an illogical (or maybe not-so-illogical …) loathing. Here are my fannish five.
(I should add that this list is relevant to the Silmarillion fandom, perhaps the broader Tolkien fandom in places, but they are hardly representative of Fandom as a Whole, if there is any such thing, and they are not meant to be.)
5. AU. Short for alternate universe, this term isn’t bad if it’s used for what it is meant to represent: stories that are set in an actual alternate universe. This term’s shortcoming comes from the way that its definition has been distorted unto meaninglessness by confusing unpopular interpretation with distortion of the canon. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, so I won’t say much more here except to note that it is unfortunate that a term intended to delineate a distinct, legitimate genre has instead become an aspersion and used to attempt to shame authors into a mainstream, fanonical, and crowd-approved interpretation of JRRT’s texts.
4. OOC. Short for “out of character,” I’ve seen this used as a warning, as a form of AU (i.e., “Warning: I’ve made Maedhros really mean and OOC!”), but most often as a criticism of stories where the reader feels the author strays too far outside the bounds of believability.
But, in Silmfic, “OOC” is almost meaningless.
We recently had this discussion on the SWG list. As I pointed out in my post, even the most written-about characters are barely mentioned in the text; for example, Maedhros–who commands an impressive 22% of stories on the SWG archive–is mentioned only eighty-eight times in The Silmarillion. This isn’t a whole lot to go on.
Silmarillion characters, by and large, are not characters at all. They are archetypes; they are familiar faces throughout literature, here, being used to illustrate broad points about an imagined history. While a perceptive reader can and will detect complexity in these characters, this is more often derived from implication than anything explicit that JRRT has done in terms of characterization. For example, Fëanor is widely regarded as a complex character. What The Silmarillion actually says about Fëanor, though, is anything but shades of gray: He is depicted negatively, representing the worst qualities of pride and arrogance; he is the quintessential fallen character who serves a broader purpose as a vehicle for expressing ideas about possessiveness, pride, and obedience to authority.
These are Fëanor’s canonical traits: He’s a proud jerk. Readers, though, see complexity in his relationships with his family, people, and the Valar. They read between the lines to determine that he was not always such a negative character; that his negative traits evolved from what was done to him rather than from core character flaws.
Most of Tolkien’s Silmarillion characters are this way. They have a handful of defining traits and not much else. It is possible to see much more implied in the story, but this is largely conjecture and interpretation and can hardly be called “canon.” So what of OOC?
OOC, I think, is a completely irrelevant label in Silmfic 99% of the time that it is slung against a story or author. “Keeping to canon” in terms of characterization is limited to understanding the roles that a character plays in the broader framework of the story and not much else. In other words, understanding Fëanor the symbol/archetype requires that he maintain certain traits in order to function in the same way in fan-authored stories as he does in the texts. Making him a meek and pie-eyed boot-licker of the Valar is likely to irrevocably change his character’s function in the story*. Making him chronically anxious or empathetic or a great teacher or a loving father … not OOC. Those things can all coexist alongside his necessary role as the proud jerk to create a portrait of Fëanor the man (not Fëanor the symbol/archetype). As authors, moving characters beyond their roles as symbols or archetypes is usually a good idea.
In Silmfic, OOC is rarely a legitimate critique. More often than not, it is wielded against those stories that do not conform to the reader’s personal interpretation of a character. For example, Another Man’s Cage was once deemed “OOC” by a reader because Fëanor hugged his kids. This particular reader–who clearly wasn’t inclined to see characters rounded beyond those few key traits JRRT gives us–couldn’t see how one as “evil” as Fëanor could ever do something so sweet and cutesy as hugging his kids.
There is absolutely nothing in the texts to support this idea. There isn’t, of course, anything in the texts that definitively states that Fëanor did hug his kids either. Which left that reader and me at an impasse, neither of us wrong but neither of us right either, hurling textual facts at each other that proved nothing definitive.
Slathering “OOC” onto any interpretation which one does not agree is not the solution.
* I would not be me if I did not mention that one can actually justify some of these “OOC” 180-from-the-texts depictions by remembering that The Silmarillion was written as fictional myth or history, with all the thorny issues of finding “truth” in myth or history present here as well. This takes more convincing in a story, I think, but is not outside the realm of possibility.
3. Mary Sue. “Mary Sue” is another one of those terms that has lost its meaning. When I first joined the Tolkien fandom, Mary Sue was usually defined as “ya know her when ya see her.” As I did more and more reading, Mary Sue came to be a character with flawed characterization: Instead of being possessed of all the round, complex traits that we know we should invest our characters with, she was flat and unequivocally Good. Because she represented the author, of course, and the author was simply acting out a fantasy.
Later, Mary Sue was redefined for me as an actor that warped the plot or the other characters. The problem with her wasn’t her flat characterization but the way that she had of hijacking canonical plotlines or skewing canon characters into “OOCness” (see the gripe above this one), i.e. making Frodo’s choice to take the Ring to Mordor not an act of self-sacrifice but because he was enamored of her, and she was going along with the Fellowship because she and Legolas could not be parted from each other. She could be the most believable female character in the world, but her exertion on the storyline and her fellow characters (as understood in the canon) was too strong.
Naturally, “Mary Sue” is not the only fannish term to have different definitions depending on who you ask. (Just ask a few people what “PWP” stands for …) That’s not my problem with the term.
The concept of “Mary Sue” is often itself misogynist. Like “AU” and “OOC,” it often becomes a criticism broadened to include any story with an original female character. This is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it suggests that there is something wrong with giving the spotlight–or even part of it–to a woman. One of my major critiques against JRRT’s writings is that they are an old boys’ club. Yes, he did better than many–even most–male fantasists, but his stories are still about males shaping their world to suit their vision. It’s called the Fellowship of the Ring for a reason. There is also a reason why even gender-conscious fans do not blink at the term “Men” being used to refer to mortal human beings of both genders: Because mortal women in JRRT’s writings so rarely give us reason to apply it to them that we don’t usually get the chance to notice the sheer wrongness of a sentence like, “Haleth was a Man who led her people to victory.”
One of the major positive functions of Tolkien-based fiction (aside from its value as entertainment or personal fulfillment or as a fun community-building hobby) is that authors can give voices to the unnamed, unvoiced women in the stories and begin to correct the gender imbalance in JRRT’s works. Pinning a derogatory label on the front of every female character who does not appear on the short list with which we have to work in “canon” is one way of further stifling creativity in this regard.
Secondly, the oft-mouthed definition of Mary Sue as a (female) character who is “too perfect” is problematic. What does that mean? That a woman can’t be beautiful, smart, and charming? (I do not believe that. I know some.) Characters that are “too perfect” appear throughout JRRT’s writings. They are both male and female. Critiquing a character as not relatable because of his/her unreal perfection is fair game. Claiming that, as a whole, female characters that are “too perfect” can’t function in a story is sexist. Despite the existence of terms like “Gary Stu” and “Marty Stu,” I’ve never actually seen these terms applied to a story. The message I come away with is that “perfect” women (read: strong, beautiful, assertive, charismatic) are problematic. The same traits in a guy are Finrod.
Thirdly, the accusation of “Mary Sue” is most often made against those characters appearing in stories authored by young women. They are problematic (it is said) because they are shameless self-inserts and represent a female fantasy and nothing else.
And what, pray tell, is wrong with that?
It seems to me that male-authored literature and media is full of self-inserts that represent male fantasies. How many skinny nerds become superheroes or martial arts masters or secret agents charged with saving the world? How many of them get ripped and get the girl? How many adolescent males authoring fan fiction do you think make their male self-inserts well-rounded characters? And how much critique do you think these young men get when they fail to do so?
We not only critique young women; we made up a whole term to point out their literary sins!
No, “Mary Sue” has to go. Not only is it being applied too broadly to exclude female characters in general, but it is being used to devalue the writings and fantasies of young women. It asks, why should they be writing about themselves as an equal, as a Tenth Walker, when they could just pick one of the boys that JRRT gave them to write about?
2. Slash. As I’m writing this, I’m sensing a trend in my loathing of most of these terms: once-accurate (and largely neutral) terms become pejorative and are broadly applied to anything that even vaguely resembles what the term was invented to actually define. Or: if it quacks like a duck, that means it must be a duck, even if it’s really a goose, my dogs’ honking stuffed duck toy, or my crazy uncle dressed like a duck on Halloween.
Slash, as I understand it, was a term originally coined for stories with a prominent same-sex non-canonical consummated pairing. Despite the awful-sounding name, it really was meant to be neutral: “Slash” referred to the literal slash between the characters’ names when indicating the pairing, i.e. Maedhros/Fingon, Aragorn/Legolas, Kirk/Spock. It was a distinct subgenre of fiction that represented the author’s purpose in writing the story–to present sexually a non-canonical homosexual (usually male) couple–and not to act as an indication of non-sexual content.
These days, though, I get the impression that “slash” has come to mean “anything gay.” If your characters just happen to be gay and just happen to have an off-screen and completely non-sexual same-sex pairing, then that is slash. If I want to look at the social issues that might have been present in Gondolin if Ecthelion and Glorfindel really were a couple, even if I never venture beyond the council rooms and parlors of the city to look at their personal/romantic lives, even if they never kiss, then a certain subset of readers will expect me to label that story as slash. It’s not remotely incestuous; it doesn’t “violate canon” in any way, but it depicts gay characters, so people need and deserve a warning.
Among my friends who write mostly same-sex pairings, there is lately a revolt against the term. They don’t like it, and I don’t blame them. Broadly defined as it is, it becomes a way of enforcing homophobia. Readers who don’t like slash often use sexual explicitness as the reason for that. They’ll often affirm, in the same breath, to dislike graphic het stories too. The difference is that a lot of these readers won’t blink at a story that mentions Maglor’s extra-canonical marriage but will pitch a fit if Glorfindel and Ecthelion have an extra-canonical off-screen romance. That’s homophobia, folks. Allowing homophobic people to avoid that truth by aiding them in sweeping anything “gay” under the same label as “gay sex” is wrong.
1. Canon. Tolkien’s stories are full of mythical entities. A coherent canon is one of them.
If one defines “canon” as basically the same as “inarguable facts” (implying that the writer cannot deviate from them without making a mistake or writing an AU), then there are precious few of those in JRRT’s writings.
That is not the problem. That is, in my heretic’s estimation, what makes JRRT’s writings such a fruitful playground for my own creative endeavors and why, I suspect, unlike many other fandoms, one doesn’t see too much migration of Tolkien fans.
The problem is that discussions of canon often begin with the belief that it is possible–with enough study of the texts–to find out answers, “what really happened” in the stories. That it is possible to grade most scenarios, tidily, as right or wrong in terms of canon. That “canon-compliant” and “AU” do not occur on a continuum.
I’ve already made the argument elsewhere that precious little truly counts as canon. Few of the “facts” presented in the stories can’t be challenged in some way. I’ve argued yet elsewhere that where people are hung up on questions of canon, they need to be asking questions about stories and writing. I stick by those beliefs and, in my perfect fannish world, would no longer see discussions of canon framed as finding right or wrong answers but as looking at myriad possibilities with the goal of creating a thoughtful or entertaining story.
So … what terms would you strike from the fannish lexicon?