See part one for the background to this post.
I’ve been letting this sit in my drafts folder for a couple of days and I’m starting to feel the weight of perfection closing in … so quickly, quickly! I’m going to try and get these ideas out there before I’m crushed by the tyranny of Unfinished Thoughts.
Why write erotic fan fiction?
Why erotic fan fiction indeed.
So a couple of things.
Building on what I wrote in response to the question “why fan fiction,” thinking about the lives of characters “off screen” (or after the novel or series is done) can often translate into imagining the playing-out of relationships that were established in canon. Not only do many mainstream novels (not just the ones for children and young adults) fade to black around sexual encounters, they often skirt the whole question entirely by ending the story arc with the get-together moment, or at least the early days of the relationship. Inquiring minds want to know what happens after — and once you get to beyond a certain age, it seems pretty clear that sexual intimacy is often (though obviously not always) a part of the “after.” It’s long been a habit of the heart, for me, to extend the existence of fictional characters to give them the relationships and experiences the main narrative only gestures toward.
Too, when I was re-introduced to the concept of fan-created fiction and other fan works, it was as a genre that focused heavily on “slash,” or fan work where characters’ sexual relationships (whether canon or not) were the central theme. If your only encounter with fan works is through reading about 50 Shades of Gray or the resulting mainstream news coverage of fan fiction as a phenomenon, you can be forgiven in assuming that all fan fiction is erotic. It’s not. I’m not sufficiently expert in the field to say what percentage of fan work is, in part or primarily, erotic (I’d guess a substantial proportion, but that’s also what I tend to go looking for so my sample is extremely biased), but erotica is not the only direction fan work can take. Yet it was a key factor in what drew me, as an adult, back into the practice of fan writing.
I read it exclusively, for awhile, but eventually I started looking for pairings and stories that I couldn’t find anywhere (more on that in part three) … in other words, I found a gap in the literature! And like any nerdy academic, once I’d found the gap(s) people weren’t exploring I determined to explore them. So pretty soon, I started writing, and people started reading, and people by their own account enjoyed what they read, and who doesn’t like positive reinforcement?!
You could also ask the question this way: Why write erotic fan fiction?
I find erotica in general a compelling genre, and one — as I’ve written before — that has a great deal of (often underestimated) potential to help us explore meaningful aspects of the human condition. But I often find erotic fiction of the non-fannish variety incredibly hit-or-miss. As a member of my writing group and I were bemoaning the other day, it’s often the case that you pick up an anthology of Best Lesbian Erotica or Best Erotic Romance or even the more theme-driven works (steampunk, quickies, food porn, BDSM, etc.) and at the most you find two or three stories out of twenty that dampen the knickers.
I always thought, you know, “different strokes for different folks” (in this case, ahem, quite literally), but then I discovered erotic fan fiction? Maybe it was just that I happened to re-acquaint myself with the genre at a time when I was ready to start thinking about sexual narratives in a more sustained way. Maybe it was because I was exploring my own sexual potential in concrete ways, and thus sexual knowledge, both fictive and non, were suddenly ever more compelling. This is part of the equation, surely. Fan fiction — the writing and the reading, the community sharing — has become entangled in my learnings and conversations about sexuality more generally and how we human beings narrate desire.
But as I’ve been turning this question over in my head the last couple of days, I think there’s actually another more … technical? … reason why fan fiction erotica has a higher success rate for me (in terms of capturing my interest as a creator and consumer) than erotica in general. And the reason goes something like this: sex gains meaning through context. There are different schools of thought about what makes for effective porn, and some people will argue — or even just take as read — that effective porn is effective precisely because it’s non-contextual and non-specific. That the characters are effective primarily because they are utterly interchangeable. One of the arguments for why so few male performers emerge as stars in the mainstream porn business is precisely this: that the ideal (male) porn actor fades into the background, is unremarkable enough that the (presumed hetero male) viewer can effectively erase the actor from the scene and insert himself into the action. But for me, the exact opposite is true: the more particular and real the characters in a given story are, the more heartbreaking and hot the sex. Because I’ve been convinced I should care. Sex acts are weird and messy and frankly ridiculous … it’s we (participants and witnesses) who imbue the acts with meaning. (You’ll say there’s a physical component as well, and I’m not disputing that, but consider the difference between being someone biting your neck out of the blue and sucking a hickey into your shoulder in the midst of lovemaking … it’s context that makes the physical activity feel good, not the actions in and of themselves.)
Intimacy can be the work of a fleeting moment or happen in the context of a life-long relationship, but without context sex acts themselves are, well, boring (to me, at least).
Fan fiction evokes context. True, the best fan fiction can stand on its own and be enjoyed by readers who know virtually nothing about the canon narratives to which the fic refers. Case in point, when Hanna first started sharing fic with me she was largely sending me stories written for anime and gaming ‘verses I had no context for. And they were still compelling and hot. But I think there’s a way that even just knowing these stories tie into a larger narrative encourage us to build context and imbue a scene with meaning. We don’t have to know every detail of that context, just that there is one. We’re encouraged to see the characters not just as conduits for sexual satisfaction, but individuals with full lives and the weight of personal history which they bring to their (fictional) sexual encounters.
As someone who counted fictional characters as intimate friends from a very early age, I guess it’s not a big surprise to me that the act of participating (as a voyeur-reader, or as an author-creator) in the intimacy of fictional characters feels real and satisfying in a way that more conventional types of erotic creation/consumption have not, for me.
I also think the energy of the fan community feeds into this: virtually all of the fan writers creating smut in this context are also readers — we swap work, we are one anothers’ editors, we cheer on stories, we’re invested in the (fictional) relationships working, so perhaps there’s something in the very activity of co-creation that’s … erotic? It’s similar to the really good energy you get in a class where everything gels and a critical mass of professor and students are pushing one another toward mutual heightened understanding? The relationship isn’t just between the reader and the characters, but also the writer-reader and the reader-writer; even if fan fiction is penned (or typed) by a single author, there’s usually a whole network of fellow fans around that author who create context for the work itself. And I think somehow that gives the relationship(s) and sexual intimacies within the work a unique intensity of meaning.
Stay tuned for part three, where I muse more specifically about why I write the particular types of erotic fan-fiction I write…