Pairings, wave theory, interpretive communities

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Title: Pairings, wave theory, interpretive communities
Creator: torch
Date(s): March 22, 2007
External Links: Pairings, wave theory, interpretive communities; archive link; WebCite
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Pairings, wave theory, interpretive communities is a 2007 essay by torch.

The last paragraph:

Long story short

We don't just read a story about A and B or X and Y, we read through the lens of everything we think, and have previously read and written and discussed, about A and B and X and Y. And by we I mean that everyone has their own lens and their own way of looking at things, whether they're part of an interpretive community or not. You say potayto, I say potahto, I say PWP, you say WTF.

Why are these characters in love? Hell if I know. But if you tell me you see it, I'll believe you, even if I don't see it myself. You don't have to write a first wave story to make me happy, or to justify your preferences; you don't have to explain why they're in love unless you really want to. (But if you do want to, go ahead! And send me a link. *g*)

Some Topics Discussed in the Post and Comments

Excerpts from the Essay

Where does a slash story start? Not in terms of plot, but in terms of attraction. Every writer chooses a starting point -- maybe the story starts before one or both of the guys has even realized the other one has a great ass, or maybe it starts when they've been together for years and are having lazy morning sex. And no matter where a story starts, someone's going to look at it and say, but, hey. Why are these guys in love?

And part of it is about the reader buying the premise to start with, and part of it is about the writer building the premise in the story. And this is where the wave theory comes in.

In brief, the theory talks about four waves of slash fan fiction, where the first wave is writers who do "character-based stories with slash," stories that start with the assumption that here are two canonically heterosexual men who have a very special bond, and work at building a believable relationship progression based on that premise, and the fourth wave is writers who do "multimedia slash," where the writer might actually write in more than one fandom, and doesn't have a solid grounding in gen or friendship stories before setting out to get these guys, who are probably not all that overwhelmingly straight, laid.

And yes, I'm summarizing and being facetious and leaving out details like anything. *g* I don't actually want to debate the wave theory, as interesting as it is, I just want to get to the next part.

The wave theory in my head

the_shoshanna told me about the wave theory back in '98 or so, and I didn't exactly take notes. Instead, I twisted it around in my head a bit. The idea that writers could be classified by what wave they were didn't sit right with me, apparently, and so my version of the wave theory was/is about stories instead.

A first wave story, then, would be one where the writer builds everything, including sexuality, from the ground up, explaining within the text that yes indeed, these guys have never shown any sign of being attracted to other guys, BUT, and then detailing the attraction and the reasons behind the attraction and how this ties in with piece one, two, and forty-seven of canon.

A second wave story would start from the position that the guys' potential sexual interest in each other doesn't need to be justified, and just work on building the relationship and showing why and how A and B, specifically, would be falling in love.

Third wave, hm, third wave would be where the story just posits that they are in fact in love/attracted, without trying to explain it through references to and extrapolation from canon, and goes from there.

And fourth wave would be the "omgnownow" PWP. Or should fourth wave be established relationship stories?

I think possibly my version could use more than four waves. Maybe I'll just call it a spectrum. My point is, anyway, that to me it makes more sense to look at stories this way, going from a "cold start" to the ones that practically start mid-fuck, or mid-declaration of everlasting love and devotion. I think most writers who write a pairing tend to write in at least two places on the spectrum, unless they are on a strict diet and eschew PWPs and schmoopy vignettes.

In other words, you could say that nearly everyone is a fourth wave writer these days. And yes, "nearly everyone" is a cheerful exaggeration, but while there are people who are completely monofannish, it's difficult to not at least be aware of other fandoms, and the fans thereof. That's another reason why the theory works better for me applied to stories than to writers.

It's not you, it's me

But this isn't just about the stories, it's about the readers, and how they look at things as individuals and as parts of an interpretive community. Me, I'm a John/Rodney fan. The pairing makes sense in my head, and there's a sizeable group of other people who feel the same way, and we sit around and talk about it, and read and write about it, and the more we talk and read and write, the more the pairing solidifies and sort of takes on a life and a gestalt of its own, independent of any one individual who is part of the talking and reading and writing.

For John/Rodney, and some of my other pairings of choice, I'm a fourth wave reader. I'll read a PWP without wondering where the spark of physical attraction came from; I'll read an established-relationship story without questioning that they could have reached that kind of understanding. The writer doesn't have to build the relationship from the ground up -- but of course that doesn't mean I mind seeing that. Bring it on. *g* The point is, though, I'm a sympathetic audience; I don't really need to be wooed, although I quite enjoy when it happens.

But there are other pairings where I'm strictly first wave. I won't believe unless you show your work, and maybe not even then. Stories that treat attraction between X and Y as a given will just leave me shaking my head.

To the dedicated readers and writers of X/Y, though, it makes perfect sense. They have their own interpretive community revolving around X/Y, the rightness thereof, and they don't want to start from scratch in every story just so it makes sense to me, nor would I expect it of them. Maybe they read it once and that was enough; maybe they'll write it one day when they get around to it; maybe they don't think it's necessary to write it at all. Obviously X and Y are in love -- just look at them!

Excerpts from Comments at the Post


This is something I struggle with a lot in my own stories, mostly when I'm almost done with a story and my initial "OMG John and Rodney and their LOVE have to pretend to be MARRIED so Rodney doesn't get DEPORTED," enthusiasm has worn down to a nub - then I start to wonder "Wait, do these two people even LIKE each other? Do they ever just sit down and hang around with each other?" - and I start to think about putting in some scenes where that happens, but I can't quite get them written, because they come out wrong, or boring.

The end of a story, for me, is a lot of close work - this scene doesn't work, or I used that word too many times, or that scene feels rushed - and I always lose any perspective on the thing, and I start to question whether anything that's inside my head is really getting down on the page, and how much work it's going to be to make that happen.

re: the waves - one of the things I really adore the most in a story is being surprised by what wave I'm on. I really love first time stories the most, but I also love getting the rug pulled out from under me - like "You thought this was going to be a tender first time story where John realizes he's gay, but SURPRISE! John knows he's gay and has been fucking Rodney for six months." It sells me on the relationship because that's how relationships ARE - you don't get to watch people's relationships from the first time they saw each other and thought "Hey, nice pants - " You meet people in mid-stream, and catch up as you go along. I wish I could think of an example, but I can't quite - Francesca does it a lot in her stories, I think.
trobadora: Yes! It makes a lot more sense to me to talk about stories rather than authors. And, you know, this has made me realise something about myself: I'm strictly a second-wave-and-upwards reader - if I can't buy into at least a second wave story I won't be interested in reading at all. And that even goes for pairings I have no vested interest in. Huh. Thanks for making me think!
flambeau (original poster): Now I'm pondering whether I have different reading levels for different pairings, depending on how involved I feel. hm. I probably do, but I can't quite nail it down right now. What I did think about when I read this comment was how I will cheerfully read PWPs for pairings I know nothing about in fandoms I know nothing about, if the mood strikes me, but if I ever get into those fandoms and pairings? The PWPs might not work for me at all and I'll be looking for second wave stories that will make my journey with me. *g*
copracat: I came to SGA through the fiction and happily read all the slash pairings and more-than-twos. As the seasons went on, though, I found I just couldn't wear Carson in any relationship except a strict and obvious canon one. Carson/Rodney/John stories I'd enjoyed as a new reader lost all their interest for me by the time I caught up with most of season 1. What the writer had made sense of lost its meaning after I had made my own relationship with canon. She, they could no longer convince me.

I totally believe this. It's next to impossible to be a first wave kind of fan now. It was hard back when it was still just *mailing* lists. Now, with just about everyone's friends list being multifannish in nature? You'd have to really *work* to avoid shooting right past the first wave before you've so much as glimpsed a given fandom's source.

I do think there's still room for the first wave stories, though. I see them in crossovers, of course, and then there's the fan-fiction for sources... Hmm. The sources large numbers of us know/'know' that have somehow never been (widely) slashed.

Certain Really Very Good television shows, for example. Or Childhood Favorites. That sort of thing.

Perhaps it's a matter of how most of us are just so used to viewing the world -- and media -- through slash-colored goggles -- no, wait. Maybe it's the fact that it used to be harder to *get* slash-colored goggles. Harder to get that validation, that community-agreement. Thing. Maybe?

Nice post. :D
cathexys: to[r]ch, marvelous post!!! You know I adore the wave theory, and I love your connecting it to interpretive communities...
tessarae: This is what made the recent discussion about slash, gen & "Freedom's Just Another Word" very slightly baffling - I went into that story cold as far as knowledge of the show went, but within the context of John/Rodney as an established pairing. I was a thrid-wave reader, in other words, so the idea that Rodney considered himself a widow was no surprise. Even though I had only the vaguest notion who Rodney was...

Yes, I think the first wave stories will always be with us. Or I hope so, anyway, it would be sad if they died out. Crossovers tend to be at either extreme, don't they? either let me start from the very beginning or for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, Fraser and Batman are having sex. Completely agree re: a certain type of rare sources, where a person really can be... unspoiled isn't really the word, but unaffected by fandom buildup simply because there is no fandom. (Yet.)


I think I'm mostly a third wave surfer, at least in my current fandom -- but as I told cathexys once, the inside of my head is all fourth wave all the time. It's one of the reasons I like it when other people take the time to start small, and build. :)

Yes, this makes so much sense to me. Some pairings will always ping as fourth wave pairings, where I've never needed the background. Some I've come to see over time and don't need it now, because I've read enough stories to have built up the backstory in my head, so I don't need to see the work (though I do love first time stories, especially if there is pining and unrequited love that really isn't and best-friends-turned-lovers so if a writer wants to show me that slow buildup, I'm all for it), and some I'm going to have to be convinced of time and again.

One of the things I've said over the years whenever the whole OTP conversation comes up is that the longer I write in a given pairing, the more OTP about them I get, the less need I feel to do the work as time goes on, so my stories will only really *work* for people who are already fans of the pairing, or who at least believe it to be a possibility, and I think this happens to most people who write regularly in one pairing. The weight of all the accumulated fanon and stories is brought to bear, so suddenly I don't need to explain in more than a sentence that *of course* Remus and Sirius were lovers after Hogwarts, and that when Sirius went to Lupin's at the end of GoF, they were *resuming* that relationship, not starting a whole new thing. etc.

I think that's often why stories written by non-OTP people are often the ones cited by other no-OTP people as "how it should be done" - they're generally first wave stories that convince people, rather than third or fourth wave stories that just expect you're along for the ride.

Or, after I've rambled way too long, as with so many things, it comes down to, buy the premise, buy the joke story. If I come in looking for True Love in a Shack, you don't have to make me see it.

I've started to realize that as an outsider, you're better off going with another outsider's rec list at first a lot of times :)

But really, that's the entire point of interpretive communities...why in the world would someone who's not in the group get all the little in jokes and the hints *and* the fact that they're omg so in love!!!

And i agree on it changing over time. I think we've had the discussion before that the characterization narrows as well over time the longer you write, right?

A long, long time ago (okay, fine, about a year ago) I set out to work almost from the ground up with one of my favorite pairings - one that has no actual canonical evidence for it, and very, very little subtext. In fact, calling it subtext is probably overstatement. But I worked hard to show a possible AU where these two characters could come together, and it was seven months of work before I was all done with the project. Definitely a second-wave story. A fourth would have struck me as out-of-character, and a third would have depended on the writer.

Now I enjoy all formats, although my writing is almost always second, third, or in-between.
livia penn:

Oh my god, I was working on a meta post on THIS EXACT SUBJECT. Even down to using the first/second/third wave terminology. (Except I only had three waves. )I was chatting with laurashapiro about Due South fic a week ago and I was like-- where's the good DS fic these days? and she was like "Actually it's a really active fandom with tons of new good authors," and I was like, yeah, but I imprinted on it as a... second wave fandom, and now it's all fourth wave. (Which I defined as a more experimental, "in medias res" approach to storytelling-- whether the premise of your story is "Fraser and Jack Harkness are having sex" or "Ray really likes bondage" or "The world is coming to an end in two hours" or "For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, Fraser has been turned into a girl" -- you don't have to set it up with 500k first, you don't have to start from scratch, you can just DO it.)

And there's *awesome* stories coming out of the modern DS fandom, it's true-- great stuff, original, unique stuff, lots of new pairings and ideas-- you'd never have Ray/Ray or Ray/Fraser/Ray or Ray/Fraser/Thatcher in a fandom where everyone was writing first wave stories. And that's just *pairings*! Forget about something like genderfuck or a story that has a non-linear story structure or starts in medias res. Speaking of Res (sorry) I was thinking--

Resonant is an author that you can almost *watch* go through the waves as she starts out in DS fandom-- her very first DS story, "Reel," is pure first wave, non-explicit, all about metaphor-- "soon he will take the hands meant for his." But she moves through first wave pretty fast; then you get a couple of the traditional second wave "Case file with simultaneous relationship arc / Sex and confessions of love at the end" stories -- along with a story or two like "Juncture"-- "For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, Fraser and Ray are having sex." What a perfect summation of the Third Wave! *G* When she's firmly in the third wave, she gets crazy and experimental with both the story structure *and* the traditional portrayal of a First Time in stories like "Broadway Hotel" and "Amends" (which is actually a Second Time story.)

And then there's a period where the stories are all still F/K, but they start getting shorter and shorter, like "Transition," packing as much punch into a tiny package as possible. (There's also a very casual handling of kink that you wouldn't find in a first or second wave story. (Remember when people used to warn for *rimming*?)) And then she gets completely wild and fourth-wave and, although still posting posting mostly Fraser/Kowalski starts posting Ray/Ray and Ray/Ray/Thatcher and Turnbull/Kowalski *short stories*-- just, okay, here they are, handled just the same as a third-wave F/K. It's not quite to the point where you can say "For reasons that don't require explaining at this juncture--" there does need to be a little explaining, in order for the author to convince and the reader to buy into it; it doesn't have to be "500k of setup and then being attacked by a bear." It can be done as we go. *G*

The other thing about LJ is that I think it encourages a lot more writers to take chances and write things they wouldn't have before; I remember deviously squeezing a paragraph or two of slash into a longer fic in a random fandom *just so I'd have someplace to post it,* because there was a MovieSlash mailing list and an AllSlash mailing list but where the heck was I supposed to post a long, tiny-fandom het story? These days, of course, I'd just post it to LJ. I imagine it'd be the same if I were writing, say, Thatcher/Frannie or Fraser/RayV/Frannie back in the "first wave" days. Or, that's not actually a very good example because the DSA *does* accept femslash and het. But some fandoms didn't have that sort of infrastructure, or they might forbid it on incest grounds, or the list might have some random rule against threesomes because the listmod doesn't like them, and then-- if there's nowhere I can post it, no-one's ever going to *see* it, are they? Why bother writing it? Whereas today I'd just post it to LJ.

Also, I basically came to the same conclusion you did-- for me, it's not a case of "Second wave is always better" or "Fourth wave stories are better," but sometimes I enjoy one, and sometimes I enjoy the other-- and it's not even always a case of "for X/Y, I need a second wave story, and for Y/Z, I need a third wave story" -- I mean, even for a pairing I'm totally convinced of, I sometimes enjoy the kind of sweet, old-fashioned "Now I'm going to lie silently beside my beloved in a very small tent and angst about these Strange New Feelings for 500k, and then we're going to have rather vanilla sex for two chapters, and then in the last chapter we're going to come out to everyone we know and move in together," type of story. For me, it's comfortfic. *G*

And sometimes I just want to read the story where it's "For reasons that don't need explaining at this juncture, Teyla is the Queen of Faerie and the boys are her courtiers, and here's a fay-themed BDSM OT4 PWP with pointy ears. The end."
flambeau: I wonder if more people prefer to start writing in a fandom with a first or second wave story, taking thing slowly, or if we've all soaked up the fourth wave ambience so much that it's just randomized by taste.

I was just having this long conversation with kaiz over my failed question *g* and what I was really trying to get at, which I think is sth I might have to call narrateme (or narrative mini tropes or narrative memes or sth :)...the ursoup that kind of gives us the narrative vocabulary of storytelling and how and why swimming in the same pool can create a lot of similar stuff...

Anyway, we were then talking about the difference in zines or dominant MLs/newsgroups and how distributive channel change (taken together with different demographics, and, I suppose, just general changes over time) have widened the field immensely. Now, I don't want to make an argument that when there was only one slash ML for a fandom, everyone therefore wrote romance and now that the distribution channels are all diverse we get more variety...but I think there are connections between the variety and individuation of LJ on the one hand, and the huge increase in same-sex but not romanced slash that's haunting the gen debates...
flambeau: The explanation-level factor of wave theory probably works really well for plots, too, yeah. And once again, I find I'm fourth wave all the way. Never apologize, never explain. He's a unicorn, deal with it. And so on, and so forth...
trinity clare:

This is awesome, and I'm gonna apply it to het in this comment, so consider yourself warned. :D

I just got into Dark Angel fandom over the winter holidays - watched the whole show in a week and started writing fic immediately. And then when I went online and looked at the fandom, I got the shit scared out of me. There had been ship wars! And crazy Mary Sues! And all the other symptoms of a young fandom! But I found myself digging through the archives for fics that were four or five years old to find the first and second wave stories I was looking for. It was confusing. Now I'm glad I have the vocabulary to describe it, since I'd never heard the wave theory before.

Thinking about it, one of the things I love about popslash is that I happily buy into any pairing, in any kind of story from first to fourth wave, and read it quite happily. Justification and build-up is good, but I'm just as happy without because there are no two characters were I think, nope, not those two together. But then maybe also popslash stories don't fit quite as well into those exact four waves, as the canon is harder to pin down.

Now I want to go through all my stories and classify them by wave.

I wonder if it has to do with canon (or lack of it) so much as audience, and how popslash readers constructed their interpretive community (well, several overlapping, &c, whatever). Which was, you know, freely and with great flexibility. *g*

One of the things about the original wave theory is that it seems to posit an initial gen fandom that fans are part of and then slowly diverge from with their first wave stories, which, to generalize wildly, in the current climate of building slash archives before a show has even aired, and so on, doesn't precisely fit, and definitely doesn't seem to apply to popslash so much.

I tend to be third wave a lot of the time -- largely because I can't quite figure out how to explain why A likes B that way. *g*

*from metafandom*

I hadn't come across the wave theory before but I really like how you've used it here, it make s lot of sense!

I think naturally I like 1st or 2nd wave sotries best and when I come across them I tend to leap on them with a joyous heart and never want to let them go but the longer I've been online the more multi-fannish I've become and as you dip in and out of fandoms it's much harder to find those stories so I taught myself to read 4th wave stuff. (I actually think I do mean taught as well, I used to despise anything that was established ship or no explanation and now I'll read the no explanation stuff though established relationship tends to freak me out a little still)

I think there's a lot to be said for the idea that most people go through each wave in their own discovery of a new fandom too. Once you've read/written that 500k epic that explains everything about your view of the character that's there in your head and you can move on to waves 2 though 4 with that always there behind whatever you're reading/writing.

You could also say that it's about audiences, and which audience a writer is writing a given story for. If I'm writing for the people who accept Joe and Bob as an established relationship then I don't have to "show my work" in that particular story (love that term, BTW) and I can write a fourth wave story where their relationship is a given and I move on to other things, plot-wise. If I expect that some significant number of people reading the story might go "Huh?" at the idea of Joe and Bob getting together, though, then I'll have to write a first wave story to show how they get together and how it works and chances are that'll be the main plotline.

Writers are part of the audience, of course, and if I have to convince myself that Joe and Bob are going to get together then I probably won't write a fourth wave story even if I know there are a lot of readers out there who'd enjoy it. But I might be fourth wave as a reader but writing a first or second wave story because I know that that's where a lot of the other readers are and I want to write for them.

And writing a first wave story for a fourth wave audience can be not only boring but also annoying. I remember reading Nancy Drew books as a kid and by, like, book four or so I was thoroughly tired of having the writer explain at the beginning of Every Single One who Nancy Drew was and about her father Carson Drew the famous lawyer and their kindly housekeeper Hannah Gruen, who'd raised Nancy like a mother, and about River Heights and who Ned Nickerson was, etc., etc., please, I get it, can you just stop now?? But they never did, and I'd read forty-some of those darned books by the time I quit. Reading a first wave story can be like that, if you're a fourth wave reader. You've been there, done that, gotten the shirt from Cafe Press, and unless this particular writer has an incredibly new and original spin to give the how-they-got-together story, you're really just not interested anymore.

Or maybe if this writer is just wonderfully, fantastically talented and their prose exudes wonder and delight phrase by phrase, you can ignore the fact that you've read essentially this same story twenty or fifty times before. But for your average fan writer, especially one who's kind of new to the fandom, as most people writing first wave stories are, that's unlikely. It takes a lot of skill to pick up the same plot everyone and their sister-in-law has used before (which certainly includes most of the basic first-wave stories in any fandom more than six months old but also includes some other common tropes and themes as well) and make it sound fresh and new and interesting, and most writers just don't have the skill to pull it off.

Not a writer, per se, but this makes me wonder where I would stand in the wave categories. As a reader, I've always enjoyed lots of types of fics - I like the long, drawn-out get-together fic, the already-established relationships, the PWP's, the crack!fic, everything's equally good in my book.

Going by these explanations, I'd never fit into the first wave or the fourth or any of them, because when I get into a fandom, I like to dive in headfirst and read it ALL.