Ellen Fremedon, in her Live Journal Cenelice to ganganne hwaer gegan hafde naenig man aer, gets right in there and wrestles with the embarrassingly shameless heart of storytelling; also good fanwriting, bad prowriting, and what she calls the Id Vortex.
I won’t try to summarize it, except to say that it’s short, discomfiting, and I think she’s on to something real.
(And where are my manners? Belatedly: Thank you, Debra Doyle, for the original link.)
Further thoughts next morning: The thing that most fascinated me was the part about slash fanfic writers learning techniques for holding on to good fictional values while they’re writing about massively distracting subjects, a.k.a. the Id Vortex.
What’s in the vortex? If I understand her correctly, it’s all the magic stuff: Sex, power issues, identity issues, physical or emotional violence, revelation, transformation, transcendence, violent catharsis, and whatever else is a high-tension power line for that writer.
Handling that material is a real issue for a lot of writers. Few of the strategies they use for dealing with it are wholly satisfactory. F.I., the traditional row-of-asterisks, later-comma dance of avoidance relegates an entire universe of significant character interactions to a ghostly, implicit life offscreen. If the audience didn’t feel that as a loss, slash fanfic would never have gotten started in the first place.
Some writers go flat and write short, scanting the scene, as though it were an unpleasant episode they were trying to get through without inhaling. Some overcompress their exposition until it turns crabbed and gnomic. That’s great when it works; you can instantly see what that near-riddle has to mean, and the full realization of what follows comes crashing down on you. But when it doesn’t work—which happens far more frequently than authors imagine, because that’s a very hard trick to pull off—a moment that should carry a strong emotional payoff and advance the story suddenly becomes a DIY project. If the necessary clues are there, the reader may be able to stop and decode what must have happened; but that’s like the difference between being told a funny joke, and reading an imperfectly translated explanation of why a joke in some other language is really funny if you speak that language.One of the things you see most often is the narrative collapsing into formulaic language. As Robyn Bender once observed,
My wise friend RW says there are two hallmarks of a Generic Sex Scene: (1.) You can grab a few such scenes at random from different books, juggle the names and eye colors, and be hard-pressed to tell which scene goes with which story; and, even more damning, (2.) you can remove the scene entirely, substitute the sentence, “Then they had sex,” and the larger narrative will not suffer.Which is spot on. Writers fall into these evasions because the material makes them uncomfortable. They don’t want to embarrass themselves. That’s where Ellen Fremedon comes in. She starts by discussing a particular slashfic scenario that took her by surprise, something she’d never imagined (and which frankly I wish I’d never heard of), but which was
THE MOST CRACKTASTIC THING EVAR, but… it works, in this supremely creepy sick-and-wrong immensely compelling way.Then went on:
That storyline cuts pretty close to the id, you know? And it’s just one of a large number of similarly… charged storylines (soul bonds, every fuck-or-die scenario ever written…) that you see very very often in fanfic, and from time to time in profic as well.She’s talking about stories in which two characters have to get involved, regardless of their personalities, histories, or relative social context. Personally, I’ve always thought the potion Tristan and Isolde drink is a more suitable prop for horror than romance.
And the profic? Almost uniformly sucks. Because pro writers either have some shame, and relegate the purest, most cracklicious iterations of those stories to drawerfic that their workshop buddies will never see, or else they’re shameless. But they usually have to be shameless alone— and so their versions are written so solitarily that they don’t have any voice of restraint, to pull them back from the Event Horizon of the Id Vortex when it starts warping their story mechanics.Fanfic online venues are full of writers and readers who really want there to be more stories about whatever it is that floats their boat, and who’ll work to help make it happen. That’s why those areas are such hot R&D labs for writerly craft and literary theory. This is not unlike the early days of science fiction, when you had that same deep hunger for the product, and a community of writers and readers who’d give a strongly engaged reading to whatever was there, but who passionately wanted what was there to be better. SF developed its own bag of tricks, mostly expository techniques and worldbuilding, which serious historical fiction snaffled early on, but which mainstream lit is only gradually getting around to stealing.
Is it going too far to formulate this as a rule of thumb? Very likely, but I’ll try one anyway: New ways of telling stories develop most readily when you have a population that’s hungry for the product, the creators have little or no dignity at stake, and there are open channels for feedback and discussion. The American comic book developed like that. So did Kabuki, Bunraku, and Elizabethan theatre.Back to Ellen Fremedon:
But in fandom,* we’ve all got this agreement to just suspend shame. I mean, a lot of what we write is masturbation material—not all of it, and not for everyone, but. A lot of it is, and we all know it, and so we can’t really pretend that we’re only trying to write for our readers’ most rarefied sensibilities, you know? We all know right where the Id Vortex is, and we have this agreement to approach it with caution, but without any shame at all. (At least in matters of content. Grammar has displaced sex as a locus of shame. Discuss.) And so we’ve got all these shameless fantasies being thrown out into the fannish ether, being read and discussed, and the next thing you know, we’ve got genres. We’ve got narrative traditions. We have enough volume and history for these things to develop a whole critical vocabulary.And so they do. Bear in mind that this is the social continuum that came up with accretional rating systems as a substitute for the editorial gatekeeping function, formalized the institution of beta readers, and identified and anatomized the Mary Sue.
We have a toolbox for writing this sort of thing really, really well, for making these 3 A.M. fantasies work as story and work as literature without having to draw back from the Id Vortex to do it. And I’m just kind of flailing now and going “Fandom is cool! Squee!” but, really, I wonder what the effect on, if not mainstream literary fiction, at least on mainstream genre fiction is going to be when the number of fanwriters taking that toolbox with them into pro writing reaches critical mass—which I think it’s going to, in the next decade.Maybe, maybe not. If I have any doubts, it’s because I know that there’s been a steady trickle of fanfic writers turning pro since the days when fanfic was primarily (but not exclusively) about Star Trek characters, and was circulated via mimeography. But maybe Ellen Fremedon’s right. Fanfic’s been around for a while, but this aspect of the fanfic community as R&D lab is something that’s grown up on the Internet.
Suggestions for further reading: If you’re a writer looking to get better at writing sex scenes, a good place to start is historical novelist Sara Donati’s series of eleven short essays on the subject. I love her examples of how to get it right, which include a couple of scenes by romantic-comedy writer Jenny Cruisie, a scene by Booker Prize winner A. S. Byatt, and a piece of Farscape fanfic. The essays are: Writing Sex Scenes. :: Part One: Humor. :: Part Two: Lyricism. :: Part Three: Stream of Consciousness. :: Part Four: NC-17. :: Part Five: Where Things Go Wrong. :: Part Six: Where Things Go Wrong(er). :: Part Seven: Good Bad-Sex. :: Part Eight: More Good Bad-Sex. :: Part Nine: Falling in Love. :: Part Ten: Less or More.