Discrimination (1998 essay by torch)

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Title: Discrimination
Creator: torch
Date(s): September 16, 1998
Medium: online
External Links: Rant table of contents; Discrimination
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Discrimination is a 1998 essay by torch.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Essay

[don't read this read that]

There are a lot of stories out there, and more coming every day. Slash on the web is growing fast. In X-Files slash fandom alone, I believe there were more stories posted during the first half of 1998 than during all of 1997. And we won't even talk about Sentinel, which seems to be the most prolific fandom on the net right now. A slash reader who isn't also an extreme speed reader can drown in the quantity of fiction available.

However, it is rather more difficult to drown in the *quality* of fiction available. I don't think there is anyone who feels that every single slash story that gets posted is equally good.

So we screen the stories for ourselves and each other in various ways. We make recommendations among friends, we read recommendation pages, we swap tips and comments on mailing lists. And we learn whose taste we can trust, and whose seal of approval we can interpret as a 'don't go there'. Because people like different things, obviously, and there's no one single measure of what's good and what's dreadful.

[you say po-tay-to]

When it comes to recommending good stories, a certain conflict tends to arise between the kink-readers and the writing-readers, and hostility may ensue. For instance...

Reader K: It was the greatest story! It had Krycek wearing handcuffs, on the floor and begging for it!

Reader W: It had *Kriecheck* on the floor. Give me a break.

Some time later:

Reader W: It was the greatest story! The poetic metaphors were just amazing!

Reader K: It was a Krycek/WMM story, and WMM *peed* on him! Ick!

Reader W and reader K will each believe that the other has no taste. If they both make recommendations in public, they may use each other's statements about what's good to know what to avoid. Which is useful; as long as they don't have to agree, they can both be happy.

[what do you mean, you don't like it?]

There are several recommendation pages these days that include slash, or specialize in slash. However, there aren't any pages that offer reviews and criticism. (Well, there's Slash Revolution International, but that's 'rave reviews' only, which to my mind makes it a recommendation page, not a review page.) After the demise of the Slash Fiction Hall of Shame, I don't think there is any place on the net that dares to be critical. That site caused near-endless debates in the slash community. Was it right to use recognizable stories, with titles and authors' names included, as examples of bad writing? Was it right to even say that something *was* bad writing? Wasn't it rude, crude and heartless of the site owner to criticize writers in public like this, people asked...

And other people replied that it's hard to explain bad writing without examples, that everyone is entitled to an opinion regarding what *is* bad writing, and that posting in a certain forum means that you run the risk of being criticized in that forum--in this case, on the net. The argument went on and on and on and *on*. Which was both enjoyable and interesting, even when tempers frayed.

I think reviews and criticism are good things. Discussion is good, debate is good, anything that makes people think is good. And what *I* think is that if you post a story in public, you have to be prepared for the possibility that someone might review it or criticize it in public. Once the story is posted, you have absolutely no control over what people might say about it, privately or in public. How could you? The only way you can make sure that no one says anything about your story that you don't want them to say is by never showing it to them in the first place.

This doesn't mean I believe that there are hordes of eager critics and reviewers out there waiting to pounce on any story that is offered, or that these critics and reviewers are mean and evil. For one thing, I think it's safe to say people who are serious about criticism and reviews are considerably less likely to say "this sucks!" about anything than your common or garden variety troll. For another, I don't think there is anyone right now who is prepared to face the wrath of the slash community by saying negative things in public about specific stories, when even negative comments about a type of story can get you flamed to a crisp by the defenders of said type.

I'm not going to do it myself, for one. I'm a meek little critter and not up to dealing with the flood of mail that would result from setting up a warning page as well as a recommendation page. Maybe I'm not up to dealing with the hurt feelings, either. It's hard to be part of the community and criticize its work at the same time; to think writer Y is a sweetie, but say in public that her stories should be avoided by the discerning. Yes, go ahead, call me a wimp.

[what goes where]

So do reviews belong in public, on mailing lists and web pages, and criticism in private email only? Not necessarily. Reviews do belong in public, of course, since they're intended to be useful to other readers, which they won't be if they sit unread on the reviewer's hard drive. But as I said, not many people feel brave enough to post public reviews unless said reviews are entirely positive. There are those who feel that saying something negative about writer Y's story is tantamount to spitting in Y's face and stomping on her favorite teddy bear, and who will, if they see it happening, immediately stomp right back. Which fosters a wonderful community spirit. (I really will have to write a rant about this community thing one day.)

As for criticism... it can be a very private thing, between the critic and the writer. But it can also be useful to others, the way writing classes can be useful, the way discussions of writing techniques can be useful. I would love to see in-depth discussions of stories on mailing lists, analyses of what works, what doesn't work, and why. This doesn't happen even when writers say that they don't mind; there's the fear of hurt feelings, even when permission is given, and there is the fact that this does require a certain amount of thought and effort... Personally I would be delighted if people used my stories as public examples and pulled them apart to see what makes them tick; the thought of anyone spending that much time on my work is extremely gratifying, and I'd probably learn a lot from it once I stopped gnashing my teeth.

[home improvement]

I *want* to learn. Some people don't. Those who do advocate public reviews and public criticism often say that they think this would improve the quality of online slash, and my comment to that is a resounding *ahem*. The idea that criticism and reviews could make online slash better (and I'm not even going to try to define 'better,' okay?) is a nice one as ideas go, and it's even possible that it might work, but only people who are interested in becoming better writers are likely to take whatever advice is offered. It won't do much good to tell writer A that she employs fanfic cliche B extensively if her only response is "yes, but that's my kink and I like it and my readers like it and I'm going to keep doing it."

Someone, I've forgotten who, used a golfing analogy while discussing this issue once upon a time, saying that it's not generally considered offensive to give people advice on how to play better, and most are happy to receive such advice. But there are those who play for years and never get their handicap down below 30 and who are desperately unhappy about it, and those who play for years and never get their handicap down below 30 and don't try very hard because that's not the point, to them. I'm not saying that the writers who correspond to these golfers should be exempt from the possibility of being reviewed or criticized, only that no one can make anyone a better golfer or writer without that person's cooperation.

There's another flaw in the golfing analogy. (That's the problem with analogies. They always end up confusing everyone.) There are few golfers who have a handicap over 30 and believe themselves to be excellent at the game, whereas there are certainly slash writers who produce stories that make me, at least, shudder but who definitely believe they're God's gift, and who have fans who also believe that they're God's gift, to whatever fandom they happen to grace with their presence. Golf skills are quantifiable in a way that writing skills aren't; there are fewer variables in defining a good golfer than in defining a good writer, it's a question of facts rather than of taste.

And as I said above, everyone has their own opinion of what makes a good slash story, and reader W and reader K would have very different ideas of what good writing is and how to encourage it.