After last week’s slog of mostly unsatisfying data, I’m ready to give demographics a break for a week and, before taking a look at genre and reader demographics, considering a question that I hope will be a little more interesting. (Sorry if you were desperately awaiting evidence on whether slash readers are older on average than genfic readers!) Specifically, I want to know whether a writer’s identification with a particular genre correlates with their attitudes on issues of morality, canon, and criticism in fan fiction.
If you’ve been involved with Tolkien fanfic for any length of time, then you know the argument. Some people will insist that sticking to Tolkien’s values–including his perceived intentions–is the only way to respect his work, and respecting his work is essential to taking the liberties of using it. Others will insist that fan fiction is by its very nature a vehicle of criticism, and authors are perfectly within bounds to use fiction to challenge his ideas and beliefs. Still others don’t really care about the purpose of fan fiction; they just want to have fun with the texts and a fictional world that they enjoy imagining beyond what the author provided. Of course, most writers fall somewhere in the mix between these extremes. Do writers who feel one way or the other tend to write (or avoid) particular genres?
Remember that the statement concerns identity with a genre, not simply writing it: “I identify myself as an X writer,” where X is either femslash, genfic, het, or slash. I didn’t simply want to know if a person had ever in their (sometimes very lengthy) time in the fandom authored a story of that genre but what genres they see as shaping their identity as a fan fiction writer.
Why So Serious?? Genre and Escapism
Writers often identify escapism as a motive for writing fan fiction. One of the statements in my survey asked participants to respond to the statement, “Writing fan fiction is a form of escape for me” (response options for all statements were Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure). This question confirmed the popular wisdom: 85.4% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.
I was interested in the question of whether writers who identified with any particular genre had escapist motives more (or less) often than writers in general. Slash writers were the most likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement. The percentage was pretty similar for participants who agreed or strongly agreed for the other three genres. Below are the percentages who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement for the four genres, in order from greatest to least:
Slash writers: 92.4%
Het writers: 88.5%
Femslash writers: 86.8%
Genfic writers: 86.0%
The most interesting results I found, however, occurred when I looked at the numbers for those who’d agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about escapism but disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified with a particular genre. For every single genre, the writers who didn’t identify with that genre had escapist motives less often than those who did. And it didn’t matter what genres you were comparing between, e.g., a person who identified as a genfic writer has escapist motives more often than someone who didn’t identify as a het writer. Seeing the numbers may make clearer what I’m trying to say. The percentages below show how many participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about escapism but disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified as authors of that genre, again in order from greatest to least:
Non-slash writers: 84.8%
Non-genfic writers: 84.7%
Non-het writers: 84.4%
Non-femslash writers: 83.6%
The opposite is true to: These “non-genre” writers are more likely to disagree or strongly disagree about escapism than their genre-embracing counterparts.
What to make of this? That the authors who resist identification with the major genres of Tolkien fanfic (and the not-always-serious tropes and conventions that go along with them) view their their fan fiction as having a more serious purpose than “mere escapism”? That those who identify with a genre or few are more likely to cut loose and let their imaginations wander off on a romantic fling with Fingon or to a fluffy family cuddle with the Fëanorians or a ridiculously fun space AU? It does seem that way to me. (If you see a different interpretation, let me know in a comment!)
Genre and Morality
One of the statements I included in my survey was “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs.” This statement has a loaded history in the Tolkien fan fiction community, where morality was often invoked as a reason to exclude or even attack writers of certain genres and pairings. Amy Fortuna, the founder of Least Expected, the Internet’s first Tolkien slash archive, wrote in a comment on the post Reading and Writing Habits Related to Fan Fiction Genre:
Speaking as someone who was around in the early days – pre-movie LOTR slash fandom circa 1999, in particular – slash fandom was specifically a safe space from the more mainstream parts of the fandom. The archives of tolkien_slash, the first [mailing list] specifically for slash and femslash fandom, make interesting reading; I recently reread some of the first few messages, and they are very much about *finally* having a safe space! I used to go and fight pitched battles about slash on general Tolkien forums – perhaps naively believing I could get people to understand.
Ten years ago, it wasn’t pleasant, but 17 years ago it was constant uphill fighting every step of the way, outside of our safe places.
Arguments like “Tolkien wouldn’t have approved of that” or “that wasn’t Tolkien’s intention” were used against a range of interpretations, but slash writers probably heard these kinds of remarks the most. These kinds of arguments are definitely less common these days, but I was curious if the different genres still attracted fans with particular views on what role–if any–Tolkien’s morality should play in what authors should write (and what archives should allow them to share).
The short answer is: Yes, writers of the different genres have very different views on this question. The data below show what percentage of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs,” for each genre, in order from greatest to least. (Once again, I am stuck using the awkward non-genre terminology to identify writers who chose Disagree or Strongly Disagree when asked about identity with a particular genre. Of all participants, 21.4% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about morality.)
Non-slash writers: 36.2%
Het writers: 32.9%
Non-femslash writers: 29.0%
Genfic writers: 28.5%
Non-het writers: 12.7%
Non-genfic writers: 11.7%
Slash writers: 11.4%
Femslash writers: 7.55%
In other words, those writers most likely to value Tolkien’s morality in writing their own stories are those writers who do not identify as slash writers. Those least likely to value Tolkien’s morality in their writing are femslash writers.
I was initially surprised at the fact that the genfic writers fell solidly in the middle of the pack (although still above the average for all writers). I thought they’d be the group most likely to try to keep their stories consistent with Tolkien’s morality; after all, genfic is by definition not explicitly sexual (whereas the other genres all can be). The more I think about it, though, the results are probably capturing a lot of authors like me who write mostly (or all!) genfic but nonetheless use the genre to criticize and comment on Tolkien’s views. Walking a narrow moral line is as antithetical to our purpose as it is to those who write fanfic for the purpose of writing slash pairings.
It was the het writers who were most likely of the four genres to view Tolkien’s morality as important when writing their stories. This surprised me; about a third of them agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. It’s hard to know how to interpret this. Perhaps it includes those writers who enjoy writing romance or erotica but who balk at writing same-sex relationships that they believe Tolkien would have disapproved of. Perhaps it includes writers who embrace canonical relationships, all of which would have been het, and reject noncanonical pairings entirely as inappropriate use of his work.
Femslash comes up as the genre where authors are least likely to pay heed to Tolkien’s morality and by quite a bit: the only genre with numbers in the single digits. This didn’t surprise me. This continues to support the view of femslash as a genre often embarked upon by authors with progressive purposes for writing, such as seeing more diverse characters represented or exploring the experiences of characters from underrepresented groups.
Overall, these results show that, while the Tolkien fan fiction community has become a much more tolerant place than it was a decade or two ago, issues of morality and genre continue to be bound to each other like a Dark Lord to his favorite jewelry. Although a majority of authors who don’t write slash avoid the genre for reasons unrelated to morality, for more than a third of them, it seems that Tolkien’s morality may play some role in their choice of genre. This perhaps explains some of the continued tension between fans of the various genres, even in the absence of the flame wars that characterized the fandom a decade and more ago.
Genre and Critical Purpose
The results above concerning morality are almost an exact mirror the responses to the statement, “Writing fan fiction lets me challenge Tolkien’s worldview.” The percentage of participants who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement by genre is shown below, from greatest to least (52.2% of participants overall agreed or strongly agreed):
Femslash writers: 79.0%
Slash writers: 60.9%
Non-genfic writers: 59.3%
Non-het writers: 51.1%
Genfic writers: 49.3%
Het writers: 44.8%
Non-femslash writers: 43.0%
Non-slash writers: 42.2%
Once again, femslash writers are the most progressive (by a huge margin!) in their purpose for writing, and those authors who don’t identify as slash writers are the least progressive. As with the results above, dividing the eight groups into groups of four, the most progressive are femslash and slash writers, along with writers who don’t identify with genfic and het.
As above, het writers are more conservative in their approach to fan fiction than genfic writers are, which continues to surprise me given that the het genre often contains graphic sexual content, which is somewhat antithetical to Tolkien’s beliefs. However, as discussed above, embracing canonical (therefore het) pairings may be a reaction to viewing morality as important to fanfic and criticism as inappropriate.
In all, the statement about morality and the statement about challenging Tolkien’s worldview show that genre is strongly associated with attitudes toward common purposes for writing fan fiction. Femslash and slash writers, as a general rule, embrace progressive social values in their stories and view fan fiction as an ideal medium for challenging Tolkien’s conservative worldview. Genfic and het writers, on the other hand, are far more likely to find it appropriate to adhere to Tolkien’s values in their writing. The understandable conflict that can ensue from these differing views explains how you get vitriol lobbed at all of the genres by writers of the other genres: genfic is boring, het is offensively heteronormative, and slash and femslash are immoral. (Although I think it is also fair to recognize that outright attacks, often from a position of power of authority, was/is far more common in my experience against slash and femslash writers, and these writers were excluded explicitly or implicitly from many groups and archives related to Tolkien fanfic.)
As a monofandom participant myself, I don’t know if anything like this happens in other fandoms. I am familiar with the concept of “ship wars,” but these don’t seem to have the same basis in one’s essential views on appropriate and inappropriate use of an author’s source text in transformative works as the conflicts that have long beset Tolkien fandom. Correct me if I’m wrong. I think this grows from the deeper history of the Tolkien fandom, not just the fanfic community. Tolkien has always attracted people from extremely disparate backgrounds. He perhaps meant for his work to appeal to readers familiar enough with the myths and literature that inspired it to understand his own transformative uses of those materials. Instead, he attracted everyone from hippies to religious fanatics, and the fandom has had the tendency to view other’s interpretations of the texts not just with suspicion or disdain but as flat-out wrong.
A final adminish note: Within the next two weeks, I will be relocating from Maryland to Vermont (in a effort to fully realize my own eco-nut hippie dreams of goats and honeybees, self-sufficiency, and trees instead of traffic jams, or to quote Bilbo: “I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains“). My goal is to get enough posts scheduled that the upheaval of my life is imperceptible to my readers here. However, I’m likely to be slow on answering comments. In fact, I’ve already become slow in answering comments. I will catch up once I’m back online and will also then resume my goal of responding in less than 24 hours.
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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