Gen is a label for a fanwork that contains no romantic or sexual content, either het (heterosexual) or slash (homosexual). The term comes from "general audiences", the MPAA term for a child-safe film. However, it shouldn't automatically be considered G-rated (suitable for young children). It can--and often does--deal with mature subjects, including graphic violence and other potentially complex themes.
In practical terms, mild heterosexual content is often considered acceptable in a gen story, as it would be in a network television episode. The "het" label may be reserved for more adult/explicit stories, or those where the main plot concerns a romance. Many gen stories do involve characters who are romantically involved in canon, but there are few slash stories of this type, because relatively few shows or films that appeal to media fans include homosexual relationships in canon.
Some backlash to this idea has appeared in meta discussions. Liberal fans often see the definition of gen as having 'no slash' [between men or between women] as homophobic. In general, however, "gen" fanworks may acknowledge the existence of a romantic relationship, especially one that is canon, but this should not be the primary focus of the tale.
According to Fern Marder, in the 60s and 70s, gen referred to content based on a particular series, film, etc. but without any of the canon characters or settings. The Nu Ormenel series about the Klingon Empire was considered a genzine. The exact origin of this definition and how widely it was used is unclear; however, it was in use by some members of the New York Star Trek fanzine publishing community in the early 1970s.
General interest fic -- genfic -- for this forum, does not preclude either sex or relationships (homosexual or heterosexual). It can have sex, violence, adult language, adult situations. It can be rated G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. (Why NC-17? Because the real NC-17 is for adult themes and not for pornography.) [...] So Genfic can be anything that the MPAA would accept as a movie to be rated -- anything short of porn.
In 2007, Livejournal blogger Cofax wrote,
...it's clear that the concept of What is Gen varies not only from fandom to fandom, but from individual to individual. Some people think Gen is That Which We See on our Television, so that canonical relationships without explicit sex would be gen, but extra-canonical violence might make the story not gen. Some people think Gen is a story that never even mentions sex or pairings, regardless of what's in canon (which sort of turns Gen into a rating rather than a category, actually). Some people think of sex as the only factor worth considering, and its presence or absence, and the explicitness of what is shown, define all stories.
According to Livejournal blogger Musesfool in her meta essay about gen, some gen writers/readers have taken to using the term 'bob' for "stories where there is a sexual element but it is not the point of the story." She writes that "Bob" was first used by Cofax, who said, "I just don't know that segregating fic by just this one criteria is the best way to solve it. Eh. I may just do as Vee suggests, and label all my stories 'Bob' in future."
A Little History of the term "Gen"
The "gen" label for a non-sexual story began to be used in the late 1970s, as modern labeling practices evolved out of the slash and porn controversies of that period, which erupted in incidents like The SekWester*Con Porn Debate in May 1977. According to K.S. Langley, initially there weren't any sexually explicit zines or fanfics in Star Trek fandom, and Night of the Twin Moons (1976) may have been the first to be advertised with an age warning; thus, all stories were "gen" and there was no need for a special term.From a 2014 discussion at Fail-Fandomanon:
[Gen] originally stood for "general". You had slash zines and general zines. General, at that point, also included het, though the het porn was usually categorized as "Adult" - but it was still filed with the General stuff.
Sometime in the early/mid 90s, General and Relationshipper split off from each other. At that point 'shipper exclusively meant het. Slashers were not 'shippers. So you had General, Shipper, and Slash. (I think the split came in X-Files fandom, which invented the entire term 'relationshipper', which is where we get ship from, and had the Mulder/Scully vs No Romance wars, but don't quote me on that.)
Then, in the early 00s, 'shipper lost it's apostrophe, lost it's -per, and just became "ship". It stopped meaning exclusively m/f, and started meaning all romantic relationships in fic, which is when we start calling things "het".General, which had long since lost it's -eral, therefore became exclusively about non-romance sometime in the mid 90s, because the romance camps had so firmly split themselves into separate categories by that point.
Is Shipping the Default for Fanfic Fandoms?
Some fans on LJ have remarked upon the apparent lack of gen in fandom (especially non-sf fandoms). Many fans believe that, when averaged across time and multiple fandoms, gen only accounts for about 20% of fan stories. The other 80% is thought to comprise works of a romantic and/or sexual nature.
Anecdotally, a gen work posted to online communities or archives will typically receive less feedback than a work containing romance or sex of similar (or even lesser) quality, or by the same author. Few gen authors, no matter how good, receive any wide acclaim within their fandom.
Unsurprisingly, this is a situation many gen authors find frustrating, if not outright disheartening. It also influences newcomers to the fandom, who see the word "pairing" in the descriptions of so many stories, whether homosexual or heterosexual. They may believe that all or most fanworks must contain such a relationship, or are more likely to be accepted if they do. In the case of some fanwork archives and communities, they are correct.
Are "most or all fanworks" slash now?According to Nicole V, this perception existed on mailing lists as well; Nicole reported that a constant argument on the primary Blake's 7 email list was that slash 'drove out' gen. Sometime in 1994:
I remember combing thru [sic] several GAZs—the old zine listing zine—and totalling up the number of slash zines versus gen zines currently available at that time, and there were far more gen than slash (facts! I had data!).
Joan Verba  mentions a similar "all Star Trek fanzines nowadays are K/S" complaint happening back as far as 1980. She counted Trek and K/S zines listed in adzines throughout that time period and showed that, at least at that time, K/S never reached even half of Trek zine output. (Though she was comparing K/S to all other Trek, not K/S and het stories to all other Trek.)
The reasons put forth for this perceived imbalance are varied:
- Fans want to play "what if". When the source material is largely gen, slash is one of the easiest ways of pushing the boundaries.
- Similarly, fandom is about subverting canon, not conforming to it. (Less is said about the fact that the overwhelming preference for slash fanworks is causing its own standards of conformity.)
- Women (and a lot of men) like romance.
- The majority of media content produced by mainstream American culture is gen—why add more?
- Shipping is the entire reason a fandom for (showname) even exists.
- Gen is boring.
- With pairings, you generally know exactly what you're going to get, while fics labelled gen are a grab-bag.
- Romance or smut is easier to plot than gen, or make it easier to 'raise the stakes' of a story.
- It's easier to generate conflict between characters when they're romantically involved.
- Humans like sex.
- Sex is an easy metaphor for emotional intimacy and vulnerability.
The difficulty of finding gen works is often remarked upon by gen aficionados. Again, the relative scarcity of material is compounded by the tendency of archives and communities to classify works by pairing, or to simply not accept works that do not contain a pairing. Most major fan communities, including rec and commentary sites, also have a strong pairing—typically slash—focus. Some gen-focused communities exist to try to redress this balance, for example, the reccing community Gensplosion and the Femgenficathon fest.
SF fandoms tend to have a larger gen community than non-SF fandoms, possibly because SF sources tend to include a larger community of male fans to whom gen stories appeal and who may be contributing to the fan fiction. Bi-fictional fans in SF fandoms often say that more of the interesting universe-building and universe extrapolation comes from the gen fans, that the pairing fans are too busy getting characters into bed to do the fictional heavy lifting the fandom needs and which is generally expected of more serious writing attempts.RPF fandoms are nearly always heavily focused on pairing fic.
Ever Changing DefinitionsA fan in 2007 commented on the changing definitions of labels and fandoms, and added a bit of explanation of where things started:
Fandom, like any other culture, does not stand still. And, like any online culture, it evolves at a pretty fast pace. So while it's all well and good--and kinda fun--to rail about how a given story is or isn't gen, if fandom as a whole has decided that the working definition of gen includes that story, then it does. Rail all you want, but unless you get a significant portion of fandom to agree with you, you're just ranting.
*To me a gen fic is fic that doesn't involve either a same sex or het romantic/sexual relationship. Period. Lately it seems like people think that a fic that doesn't focus on a romantic/sexual relationship but has one in the background is gen. I personally don't agree, but if fandom wants to call it gen, then I'm gonna find a tiny bit of slash and/or het in things labeled gen. Hardly the end of the world.
**To me, slash and/or femmeslash is fic about a homosexual relationship between characters who are NOT gay in canon. This is an older definition that comes of getting into fandom at a time when there simply weren't canonically gay characters. It's hard for me to think of a QaF Brian/Justin fic as slash because they're gay in canon. But...fandom's evolved to deal with the fact that there are actually canon gay characters and fic about them has to be categorized and so why not call it slash. So fandom's passed my definition by and really, I'm okay with that.
Which actually brings me back to the point of this post. You have to learn that just because you define a fanfic genre a certain way doesn't mean that fandom is going to agree with you and if it doesn't? You need to learn to deal.
ETA: I've just had a thought about fannish history and the whole gen vs. het vs. slash issue. When people wrote fic about Star Trek, or Starsky and Hutch, or The Professionals or the X-Files...we were writing about single people. So the definition of a fic was easy. A fic about a Mulder/Scully romance was het, and a fic about a Mulder/Skinner romance was slash, and a fic that read like it was an episode of the X-Files was gen.
Once people started writing in fandoms where the characters are actually in ongoing relationships other than the "green space babe of the week", it got a little more confused. Something set in Buffy fandom that reads like a Buffy episode could conceivably have Willow giving Tara a quick kiss on her way to do something else and then...is that gen? Well no, and it's not slash by the old definition either. In order to fit with changes in the media, the definitions have to give way to something workable.So there's that too. 
Fans can, and often do, debate applying the label of "gen" to a story. Below is a list of types of stories that may be labeled gen, het or slash, but over which there has been controversy.
Some stories labelled gen by their authors may be perceived as pre-slash by readers if they contain "slashy subtext" or apparent unresolved sexual tension, or may even be argued to be slash by readers who feel that any sexual interest—explicit or implicit, intended or not—makes it slash. Some authors may object to this reading, arguing that any perceived slashy subtext was not intentional and that the author's intention is what determines the genre, and that the label of 'pre-slash' creates the expectation that any subsequent works will contain true slash elements.
Readers often express frustration if stories labeled pre-slash have no slashy subtext apparent to them. They may feel cheated, or that they've wasted their time on a story that wasn't what they were looking for.
There are also those who are bothered by what they see as fandom's increasing inability to accept deep friendships or other close relationships between characters without sexualising them. (Mind you, fans who refer to "increasing inability" don't realize that these battles and accusations were common from the very beginning of K/S in the mid-70s.)
Such debate also occurs in het circles, but to a lesser extent.
Stories with slash pairings but without sex or romance
Some authors or readers may label stories that involve a slash pairing as "gen" if the focus of the story is not on romance or sex, but instead has a plot that is unrelated to any sexual interest between the characters -- the same-sex characters are clearly a couple, but the story is about how they fight crime or explore an alien planet, not about their relationship. Some authors (and reccers, and people who tag stories on linklog services like Delicious) label such stories both slash and gen, or "slashy gen", labels that can completely confuse other fans. Labeling a story both het and gen is more rare.
Many fans believe that readers expect fanworks with slashy subtext, but no actual slash content, to be labeled -- in a way that het subtext is not. Some fans may label their stories as "pre-slash" to stave off any complaints from readers who do not wish to see even a hint of slash in the fanfiction they read. (See also Warnings - Controvery for warning for slash.)
Stories with canonical same-sex couples
The slow increase in canon sources with same-sex pairings has led to fandoms where every story that contains a pair of characters could be labeled m/m or f/f under the stricter definitions of gen. Fandoms have rarely thought canon het couples as a background element made a story het. Those fandoms may have different common practices for labelling of stories with background pairings.
Intense Friendship or Smarm
- See Smarm for details
Smarm is a genre of fanwork which focuses on the emotional connection or intense friendship between two characters. In its most extreme form, smarm may include declarations of love and commitment to one another, physical displays of affection, or soulbonding between the two, (e.g. in The Sentinel,) but no sexual (or romantic) relationship is depicted or referred to, and so it is considered gen by most readers.
Readers may debate whether stories involving intense but not explicitly sexual relationships are slash or gen, or possibly pre-slash. Freedom's Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose is one example of a story that was labeled slash by its author, but was considered gen by several readers and in fact won a gen award. Meanwhile Beach was labeled gen by its authors, but was considered slash by many readers.
Sometimes Domestic Discipline is written as part of a non-sexual relationship, and some authors classify those stories as gen. However, some gen archives find such content unsuitable. For example, the DD policy of the gen Sentinel archive Cascade Library excludes DD, whereas Guide Posts, the first Sentinel archive, accepted gen DD. (See The Sentinel for details)
- See Rapefic for details
Some fans label stories including rape as gen if the rape is the only sexual content in the story; and the story is depicting a sexual assault, not ravishment (rough but consensual, depicted erotically) or a rape fantasy; and the focus of the story is on a character's recovery or on non-sexual hurt-comfort. These fans may feel that labeling a story in which a character is raped "slash" or "het" implies that the story is about a sexual relationship rather than about an act of violence. Other fans argue that any story involving sexual content cannot be gen, even if it contains no consensual sex.
Gen Slash or Gen Het?
Many fans feel gen stories are ones without major slash or het elements, but a quick search or two on Delicious in its heyday showed that some fans happily give both, or even all three labels to a single fanwork. A search for stories with both "gen" + "slash" tags conducted on 3 December 2008 returned 4506 hits; "gen" + "het" returned a still large 3358 hits.
- Slash is not just another word for romance; archive link, by natlyn (March 2006)
- When is Gen not Gen?; archive link page 1; archive link page 2; archive link page 3, telesilla (January 13, 2007)
- recs, and meta; Archive, post by cofax, March 21, 2007
- Why so little genfic?. Posted 21 June 2007. Accessed 2 December 2008.
- Shipping as the Default?. Posted 26 February 2008. Accessed 2 December 2008.
- Musings on fanfic and the minority of gen. Posted 6 September 2008. Accessed 2 December 2008.
- For an example of a fantasy series which not only depicts a canon gay love match, but does so in a joyfully matter-of-fact manner, see Welcome To Night Vale.
- Defining "gen" at the queerlygen community, accessed April 29, 2010
- K.S. Langley said that she had never encountered this definition and that stories/zines with no adult content was the first definition. (email communication with user:aethel, 25-29 May 2015)
- accessed 3 October 2008
- NC-17 refers to any film considered unsuitable for children, but non-pornographic and intended for the general public. This does not mean it has no explicit sex, merely that it is portrayed as erotic or soft porn. Henry and June, an art film with many explicit sexual scenes, was the first film to get an NC-17.
- cofax. recs, and meta, LiveJournal post, 21 March 2007. (accessed 14 June 2015)
- Musesfool. baby, i got my facts learned real good right now, posted 21 July 2009. (Accessed August 19, 2009)
- Cofax. comment, posted 22 March 2007 in recs, and meta (accessed 20 Aug 2009)
- email communication with user:aethel, 25 May 2015.
- "Shipping" and "shipper" were also familiar terms in fan discussions of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the same time period.
- March 23, 2014, at Fail-Fandomanon, Archived version
- mecurtin, 'Untitled Comment'. Posted 24 June 2007 in fanthropology: Fic Genre Frequency. Accessed 2 December 2008. This study also found that fan-produced gen videos, especially those that are intended as character study or portraits of an ensemble/team, make up a higher percentage of total videos than gen stories do of total fan stories. See Vividcon for more detail).
- Personal communication from Nicole to rache, December 2, 2008
- Verba, Joan. Boldly Writing. F T L Pubns, March 26, 2003, pg 54 and others
- liz_marcs, ''Untitled Comment'. Posted 07 September 2007. Accessed 2 December 2008
- tomato/tomahto, potato/potahto; archive link, telesilla (May 24, 2007)
- jmtorres, Slashgen or Preslash, accessed April 29, 2010
- Insanejournal user Irreversibly, 'Untitled Post'. Posted 11 May 2008. Accessed 2 December 2008.
- minisinoo, 'RECLAIMING PHILIA: or the mis-sexualizing of relationships' Reposted & revised 29 June 2005. Accessed 2 December 2008.
- Wikipedia entry on Bromance
- Cascade Library - Site Information. Updated 21 March 2008. Accessed 1 December 2008.