Genres of fan fiction won my informal little survey of what data people wanted to see me present next. Thanks to everyone who participated and saved me from having to make this decision for myself!
“Genre,” in this survey, referred to the broad fanfic categories of genfic, slash, femslash, and het. As a bit of fandom history, in the Tolkien fan fiction community, these classifications have been particularly fraught. Early Tolkien archives often focused on or excluded particular genres. (I struggled over my wording there: Archives varied in whether they phrased their posting guidelines in terms of welcoming a specific genre or disapproving of/excluding a specific genre. The exclusionary tendencies of some corners of the Tolkien fanfic community continue to be felt today–the discussion of last week’s post on age touched on that–and I do not want to brush over this ugly aspect of our history, but it also doesn’t seem totally fair to lump in archives trying to curate a particular genre with those phrasing their guidelines to keep out certain genres; I feel like intent is really important here.) Tolkien fan fiction history shows that early online fan fiction groups were overwhelmingly slash-centric, and non-slash groups sometimes seemed to be responding to that, i.e., the Open Scrolls Archive splash page. In any case, genre is something that participants in the early Internet fan fiction community remained very cognizant of. As such, I was interested to see how writers and readers currently identified themselves and their genre preferences.
This week, I’m going to start relatively simple, looking at the responses to two series of questions on the survey: “I identify myself as a X writer” and “I enjoy reading X stories,” where X is one of the four genres identified above.
Genre and Writers’ Identity
One criticism I received when the survey was still open concerned the wording of this series of questions: “I identify myself as a X writer.” Some participants didn’t like my wording here and the emphasis on identity versus merely authoring a particular genre of story, but this was quite deliberate. I didn’t want to know at what rates authors wrote stories in the various genres; this information would be relatively easy to glean from many archives. Rather, I wanted to know how authors saw themselves as creators. For example, most authors have technically written genfic: stories without any romantic or sexual pairing. However, these authors may not identify as genfic writers. Likewise, if an author writes ninety-nine genfic stories and then pinch-hits a mildly slashy ficlet for an exchange, that author has written slash but probably would not agree with the statement, “I identify myself as a slash writer.” At the opposite extreme is someone like me: Slash also comprises a relatively small percentage of my total writing (which is mostly genfic), but one of my most important stories, By the Light of Roses, is a slash story, so I’d probably agree with the statement, “I identify myself as a slash writer,” because I see my writing of that story as a sea change in my career as a writer.
The graphs below show the percentage of participants to respond to each statement using each of the five options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. I’ve tried to arrange and color-code the pie slices to make a few comparisons relatively easy. Strongly Agree/Agree and Strongly Disagree/Disagree are of course colored similarly, but I’ve also made the two “strongly” responses a darker hue and situated them beside each other to make it easier to see what proportion of participants had strong feelings on a particular statement. (Click here or on the graphs to view them full-sized.)
- More participants identified as slash writers than any other genre, with 46.9% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement. (It is important to note here that the survey did not specify m/m slash.) To compare, 38.8% of participants identified as genfic writers, 28.9% identified as het writers, and 26.7% identified as femslash writers.
- Slash also provoked the strongest reactions, both positive and negative. 36.3% of participants felt strongly about their identity as a slash writer (either choosing Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree). The other three genres elicited fewer strong reactions: 27.9% for femslash, 19.9% for het, and 18.1% for genfic.
- Participants experienced much more uncertainty about their identities as genfic and het writers: 35.7% and 31.3%, respectively, chose No Opinion/Not Sure. In comparison, only 21.0% and 18.9% selected that response for femslash and slash, respectively.
Genre and Reading
The statements about reading were more straightforward and therefore less controversial: “I enjoy reading X stories,” where X is the genre. The graphs below show the percentage of participants to respond to each statement using each of the five options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. As above, I’ve used similar color-coding to show at a glance how many people agree or strongly agree (purple), disagree or strongly disagree (red), and feel particularly strongly about a statement, whether positively or negatively (darker hue). (Click here or on the graphs to view them full-sized.)
- My main takeaway here: Most people like reading most stuff. The only genre where a majority did not select Agree or Strongly Agree was femslash.
- Genfic and slash were equally popular among readers, with 73% of participants agreeing or strongly agreeing that they enjoy those genres. In comparison, 64% of participants enjoyed reading het, and 48% enjoyed reading femslash. (Again, “slash” did not specify “m/m slash.”)
- As with authors, readers felt most strongly about slash. 47% of participants selected Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree for the statement about slash. In comparison, 32% felt strongly about reading genfic, 29% about femslash, and 17% about het. Femslash, however, is the genre participants generally felt strongly negative about reading. The number of participants who chose Strongly Disagree for slash, het, and genfic are all relatively close to each other: 7%, 4%, and 2%, respectively. The number to choose Strongly Disagree for femslash was nearly twice that for slash: 13%. This also matches the data for writers, who were least likely to identify themselves as femslash writers.
- Participants felt equal amounts of uncertainty about their preference for femslash, genfic, and het: 21% chose No Opinion/Not Sure for these three genres. They felt far less uncertainty about their preference for slash, with only 11% selecting this option.
Not so long ago, I used to sometimes have the experience of reading my LJ friends list and seeing one of my slash-writing friends complaining about her lack of audience because she wrote slash and Tolkien fandom thinks slash is gross, and then scrolling down and seeing one of my genfic-writing friends complaining about her lack of audience because all everyone wanted to read was slash.
Well, by current standards, neither of them have much of a right to complain, since about three-quarters of readers will at least consider their genres. However, Tolkien fandom history is complicated on this point, and I don’t think the current numbers represent what the fanfic community was like ten years ago or even five years ago.
I think the strength of feeling toward slash among the writers–recall that 36.3% of participants chose Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree for this statement–partly reflects that history. While the debate over “canon” and the correct/proper use of Tolkien’s works was much larger than slash, I wrote in a recent in-press paper that “slash became a convenient proxy for the bigger debate about the proper use of Tolkien’s works,” and I think that is a good way of putting it. Because of the popularity of the genre, it came to represent transformations necessary to make a fictional world begun one hundred years ago by a self-styled reactionary and devout Catholic relevant to a modern audience that finds many of those beliefs outdated (at best) to abhorrent.1 Of course, many fans found the works just fine as they were, and many of them found Tolkien’s religious and philosophical beliefs appealing and were drawn to the fandom expressly because of those beliefs. Others used the books to explore ideas and characters based around their own experiences–what the fandom scholars tell us is the function of fan fiction.
The traditionalists in many ways had the upper hand. While I’ve heard rumor of their existence, I’ve personally never met a slash writer actually opposed to writing genfic (which is going a step further even than the 5.95% of writers who Strongly Disagreed with identification as a genfic writer). Ten years ago, however, when I first became involved in the Tolkien fanfic community, I knew plenty of genfic writers who would gladly tell you all the reasons slash was an unacceptable genre for Tolkien fanfic. Slash tended to keep to its own spaces–whether this was borne of a desire to associate with like-minded people, due to feeling unwelcome in more generalized fandom spaces, or a bit of both, I cannot say, although I’d love to know the views of people who were around for this time in our fandom’s history–which I suspect helped to integrate “slash writer” as part of authors’ identities as authors. Hence, 21% of participants strongly agreed that they identified as slash writers, more than any other genre. (Perhaps not surprisingly, in a distant second, 12% of participants strongly agreed that they identified as genfic writers.)
If slash was so contentious, why is it the most popular genre now, for both writers and readers? Perhaps part of this is ideological change in the larger world. The reason I wrote By the Light of Roses as more than the PWP my friend had requested was due to my outrage over what I viewed as my sister’s exile from her home country for falling in love a woman. (Her wife is not a U.S. citizen, so their options were limited to marrying and living in her wife’s more progressive country or her wife applying to come here and waiting the many years for that maybe to happen.) This was less than ten years ago; they’re preparing to move back to the U.S. this year. How much has changed in that time!
There is also the possibility of new fans becoming acculturated to fandom practices. In Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Camille Bacon-Smith explores the initiation process that fan fiction writers underwent in pre-Internet fanzine culture, where mentors gradually exposed the new fans to the more “esoteric” genres as they became able to understand the messages expressed by those genres.2 Internet fandom has no equivalent to those mentors, and new writers are exposed to any genre they care to click on in an archive. Internet Tolkien fan fiction and the release of the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy meant a massive influx of new fans unable to “decode” (to borrow Bacon-Smith’s terms) genres like slash fiction. Those writers who have remained in the community, in many cases, have learned on their own or under the guidance of other community members to do just that. (I am myself an example of this. When I first encountered slash fiction, I wasn’t opposed to it but just didn’t understand why so many people wanted to write it. Within a year, I was reading it; within a year after that, I was writing it.)
The numbers on femslash tell a very different story. Femslash is the newest genre in the Tolkien fan fiction community, so it is perhaps not surprising that 62.2% of participants disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified as femslash writers. It was the only genre where less than half (47.4%) of readers indicated that they enjoy reading femslash. Femslash is also more difficult in a fandom where named horses outnumber the named women in its most important work.3
What did surprise me (and honestly dishearten me, as a femslash writer myself and someone who has seen friends pour a lot of love and energy into promoting the genre) was the strength of that disagreement: 24.6% of writers strongly disagreed that they identify as femslash writers (the next highest was for slash, with 14.6% choosing Strongly Disagree) and 13.6% of readers strongly disagreed that they enjoy femslash (Slightly more–14.6%–of readers strongly disagreed that they enjoy reading slash. I’ll look at the overlap here in weeks to come.) At the risk of reading more intent into responses than the responses themselves allow, I interpret this as 24.6% of authors avoiding femslash not because Tolkien’s work provides little inspiration or they simply lack interest but actually finding the genre distasteful in some way.
However, eternal pie-eyed optimist that I am, I suspect the numbers for slash would have more closely approached the numbers for femslash ten years ago, which suggests (acknowledging that this conjecture is based on nothing more than the nebulous experience of one person) that time and increasing familiarity with a genre can also increase interest or at least improve perceptions of that genre. Likewise are stories involving female characters: Ten years ago, not much was being done with canonical women, and many writers actively avoided OFCs, but both attitudes have changed in the intervening decade, and stories involving both are more accepted (again, based on my own perceptions and experience only).
The amount of uncertainty surrounding identity as a genfic or het writer was also interesting. Many more people chose No Opinion/Not Sure for these genres than for slash and femslash. Two possible reasons come to mind. First, it may be that authors are generally less familiar with these terms than the terms slash and femslash (although this doesn’t show in the statistics for the readers, which makes it unlikely). More likely, I suspect that these genres simply don’t encourage one’s identity forming around the genre. Neither genfic nor het are particularly embattled; it is difficult to protest genres that describe the original work one is writing about. They are also extremely common. A writer would be hard-pressed to never write genfic or het, again because the source texts themselves are genfic sprinkled with het pairings.
In the weeks to come, I’ll be looking more deeply at questions related to genre. If there’s anything you’re curious about, please let me know in a comment!
- In Letter 53 to Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien writes, “I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you).” I think Tolkien’s Catholicism is common knowledge enough that I don’t have to support it, but if this is news to you, let me know in a comment, and I’ll amend my post.
- Page 93.
- Una McCormack, in her essay “Finding Ourselves in the (Un)Mapped Lands: Women’s Reparative Readings of The Lord of the Rings,” from Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien, opens her essay with the observation: “It came as a point of interest to me–if not exactly a surprise–to learn, at a recent conference on Tolkien, that there are more named horses than named women in The Lord of the Rings” (page 309). The Silmarillion is slightly better, of course: A whopping 18.8% of the characters in the “Index of Names” are women.
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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