Satisfied?

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Title: Satisfied?
Creator: Paula Smith
Date(s): 1992
Medium: print
Fandom:
Topic: fanfiction & Man from U.N.C.L.E.
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Satisfied? is an essay by Paula Smith in Psst... Hey Kid, Wanna Buy a Fanzine? #3.

Its focus was the balance between realism and romance in fanfiction with a focus on Man from U.N.C.L.E. The author contrasted and compared three recently published stories/zines: Perestroika, The Long St. Crispin's Day, and The Seventeen Days in October Affair.

Excerpts

We readers want both grit and fannishness, truth and "the good stuff' in our stories. Realism and Romance.

By romance, I don't mean simply love tales, although that is a far from minor component of fannish stories (and mundane popular fiction, too). Whether as staunch friends or outright lovers, we fans like our heroes to care about each other, and to show it occasionally. We are also drawn to the romance of jeopardy, of narrow escapes, "interesting" tortures, and the like. There's also romance in renewal, of a character finding new reasons to go on with his work despite burnout; or in death, as an appropriate end to the life. And more types of romance besides.

The elements of romance we repeat in story after story, fandom after fandom, over and over until certain combinations of them even form set genres: "slash" or "hurt/comfort" or "death" or "first-time" stories. The larger literary world (including TV) is full of its set pieces, too, though generally with more of a masculine bias, so that instead of slash, there's one-night-stand sex, and the pain pieces concentrate more on the heroism of the victim, and less on the love-bond with his rescuer.

These story forms are our myths, and they reveal a lot about ourselves or our dreams for ourselves: in adversity we wish to remain heroic, or to be rescued by someone who thereby proves love for us; in sex we wish to be suffused with love, or else left free to move on for more. We tell ourselves our myths because they are meaningful to us, or even supply us with meaning for our own lives.

But if romance is what connects our stories on a deep level, realism is what gives them individuality and focus. Realistic tones, settings, actions, and details create unique and intriguing plots, distinguish the specific characters, and set the limits of the particular universe. Without realism, a fandom is a savorless mush, with all stories almost exactly alike. The "all-purpose slash story" may be a joke, but it reflects a deep truth: if all you need do to "create" a new story in a different fandom is substitute one name for another, well, you may have a piece of writing—you may even have an archetype--but you sure don't have a piece of art. You don't have a Ghood Story.

The boundaries of life (and consequently realism) may separate us, but they also define us, they let us know how we are different from the rest of the universe. Realism distinguishes and specifies; romance unifies and generalizes. You need both, and it is the proportions and tension between them that make a story both satisfying and unique.
The very idea of a United Network Command for Law and Enforcement is a problem. Who polices the international police? What are the checks on the executive heads of U.N.C.L.E.? What stops them from interfering wherever and whenever, in whatever they please? What are the limits of their effective power, how won't they apply it? What legal entity gave them the license to order what they do? In the show there were some vague allusions to the U.N.GL.E. "charter" and Waverly was always arguing with the bean-counters, but what really kept him from using his full powers? What stopped him from influencing an American election, or liquidating a Mexican president, or inciting a Canadian nationalist revolt? His force of character, apparently, and that alone. He was good, and so we are to believe his decisions were exclusively for the good. And of course, the real world, as we all know, doesn't work so neatly.

It's such a sticky point that most of the show's writers and most fan writers pretty much ignore the issue and just stay away from themes that would bring up unanswerable questions. (This was clearly why Thrush was invented, and overused, as a convenient, non-real villain.) It also means the writers shy away from the interesting questions.

For there's a deep romance in the notion of U.N.C.L.E. As a contrast to the scary reality of nuclear war, or CIA-KGB undermining of governments, a benevolent, essentially pacifistic law-enforcement agency that could and would defuse the little-boy brawls of the nation-states had and still has great appeal. It also provides a satisfying answer to a characterization problem of the two heroes—why should Napoleon and Ulya rush out every day to be shot at and dangled overgiant vats of boiling oatmeal, except that they are somehow rewarded for it? Unlike real spies, their pay is not big money or direct service to their respective countries, but, as David McDaniels put it, "the highest coin": the ideals served by the Command, to create a united, lawful world.

However fantastic the Command may be in actuality, though, if it is not dealt with realistically, or at least plausibly, the story universe collapses, and we are left with two rather psychotic characters center stage. I'm not saying every MUNCLE talehas to beahuge.darkspy story fullofcrossanddoublecross, or deal with the collapse of real governments, or be stuffed to the bursting point with politics. I am saying that stories which give at least a nod in the direction of realistic backgrounds, and a sense that the characters are affected by what they do, are, whatever their possible failings, more memorable and satisfying stories.
All three of these pieces [she refers to Perestroika, The Long St. Crispin's Day, and The Seventeen Days in October Affair], though mightily different, work well despite varying proportions of romance and realism. Even the most extreme example of one contains a good helping of the other, and I expect that's vital for a Ghood Story. We've all seen totally romantic pieces, but they don't tend to stick with us, if only because (as evidenced by those endless Harlequin books) one romance is too awfully like any other. We've also seen, though these are rarer because realism is harder to write, totally square-on-the-nailhead nuts&bolls spy stuff, but these don't stick with us, either, because there's too little that's human about them. We are creatures of dirt and dreams, and our favorite stories need to reflect that. If they don't, they just aren't satisfying.

Reactions and Reviews

Paula's is a piece of poetry disguised as prose—her own insights into the uniquely (and almost universally) feminine origins of fanfiction give her words a sheer "rightness," a veracity that made me just sort of sit up and grin like an idiot ("YES! That's it") That's what we want out of fanfiction-bless your heart, Paula, for expressing it so perfectly. [1]

References

  1. from Psst... Hey Kid, Wanna Buy a Fanzine? #4