Slash Fanfiction: A Personal Essay

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Title: Slash Fanfiction: A Personal Essay
Creator: Celandine Brandybuck
Date(s): August 4, 2004
Medium: online
External Links: Slash Fanfiction: A Personal Essay, Archived version
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Slash Fanfiction: A Personal Essay is a 2004 essay by Celandine Brandybuck .

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.

For additional context, see Timeline of Slash Meta and Slash Meta.


"I am a slash writer. As such I find myself having to explain and sometimes defend that, particularly given that the fandom in which I mostly write is Tolkien's. I am also an academic by profession, but this will not be an academic essay (despite the occasional use of footnotes); nor do I pretend that my experiences in this area are universal. All I am trying to do is set down some of my observations and opinions about the slash phenomenon, with most of my examples drawn from the Tolkien fandom with which I am most familiar. If it is of interest to anyone else, I'll be surprised and delighted."

Some Topics Discussed

  • Tolkien slash
  • reading and writing slash
  • is slash porn?
  • the gender of slash fans
  • what is slash, why slash



Slash is a genre within fanfiction, conventionally defined as the romantic and/or sexual pairing of two characters of the same sex, who in the original work are heterosexual. Within this genre, slash can take on a number of forms, from mild romances that limit the characters' interactions to tender looks and perhaps a few kisses, to adult-rated stories where the primary point is the depiction of explicit and graphic sexual encounters, to (rarely) stories of a more general nature (action, humor, drama) in which the characters happen to be homosexual, but this is not the primary theme of the story. To outsiders, it is the explicit stories that typify slash. While this is an oversimplification, it is true that a large proportion of slash is rated as adult material.

The preponderance of slash in the fandoms I have any knowledge of is M/M, that is, it involves relationships between two men. In at least two of these fandoms – Tolkien and Pirates of the Caribbean – this is a natural result of the fact that the great majority of characters in both original stories are men. There is a somewhat higher proportion of female characters in Harry Potter, but two of the three primary characters are male.

By no means all fans within any particular fandom appreciate fanfiction to begin with. Some think it is inappropriate to go beyond the canon work at all. Others are simply not interested. For those who do read fanfiction, opinion is split on whether slash is an appropriate form of expression; often this split is vitriolic, depending on the fans and the fandom. There are of course some fans who disapprove of homosexuality completely, whether in day-to-day life or in fiction. Others are tolerant of homosexuals in real life, but find slash fanfiction offensive; the usual reason seems to be that writers of slash are necessarily causing the characters to behave "out of character," changing them too greatly from the original to be acceptable. Some fans only object to slash that is explicitly or graphically sexual; these fans often dislike such explicit work when it is heterosexually oriented as well, and again the usual argument is that it is an approach out of keeping with the original.

Over the past two plus years that I have written slash, I have come to realize that a lot of anti-slash people are simply never going to change their minds, which is their prerogative. When I first heard of fanfiction, I thought it was a terrible thing. What brought me to appreciate it was reading some very good works that I thought were true to the original and explained some things that the original did not explain to my satisfaction. The first stories I read were general stories, not slash, but eventually I tried reading slash too and discovered that it could be done well and have much to say. To convince someone that slash is a legitimate genre with something to say, I think they have to read a strong, well-written story. Even that will not convince someone who has moral or ethical objections, of course, but for someone who has not really thought about why they dislike it, just has an immediate "yuck" reaction, a good story can open their eyes.

Good writing is key, but good writing alone is not enough; if the story reads to me just as an excuse to put two sexy male bodies in bed together, I might read it for a thrill, but that's the most interest it will hold for me, and possibly not even that. It's stories that push boundaries in some way that are most worth my limited time in reading. That's what I try to do, mostly, when I write slash. I don't always succeed. Not all stories do what the author sets out to have them do, after all.

Slash in the Tolkien fandom

But what is it about slash, anyhow? I'm aware of an award given in the Tolkien fandom for fanfiction, in which the organizers had some difficulties because some of their potential judges would not read explicit material unless it was slash; they declined to read heterosexual erotica, even though in their personal lives at least some of them were in heterosexual marriages. There are people in the Tolkien fandom who have so submersed themselves in particular slash pairings that they refuse to read stories that present those characters as heterosexual, even though they are, of course, portrayed so in the original. Some authors write slash stories exclusively, or almost so, and appear uninterested in writing either het or gen fiction. So slash has gripped the imaginations of some fans to the exclusion of other types of fanfiction. Why?

I don't have a good answer to that question, to be honest, because my own writing experiences are extremely varied. My longest single work by far is an ongoing slash serial, but the majority of my other Tolkien-fandom stories are not slash. The only other fandom in which I have written, Pirates of the Caribbean, has been more of a slash fandom for me, but even so in terms of total number of words written it's pretty equally balanced between slash and non-slash. I'm more likely to read slash erotica than het erotica within fanfiction, but I don't refuse to read the latter. Because I don't partake in this attitude, I find it hard to explain.

Tolkien fans are often rather rabid on the subject of slash. I think it's complicated in this fandom by questions of what constitutes canon generally, because there's the book of The Lord of the Rings and then there's the films, and the two have some pretty definite partings of ways. If one sticks with the books, there's then also The Hobbit, probably The Silmarillion, possibly Unfinished Tales, and then the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth which present a number of layers of development of the entire mythos, and have both internal contradictions and some conflicts with the two books published in Tolkien's lifetime. A peculiarity is that authors whose primary focus is on the era of the Silmarils – thousands of years before the time of Frodo's quest – seem to have two contrary reactions. On the one hand they are often strongly interested in questions of canonicity, drawing on the more obscure works such as HoMe to flesh out what is skimmed over in The Silmarillion. On the other hand, there is a very strong slash component in a good many of these authors' stories.

When dealing with questions of canon, the author needs to be kept in mind. Tolkien was a fervent Catholic; it's clear from his letters that he believed strongly in the sanctity of marriage, and it seems extremely unlikely that he would have considered homosexuality a valid form of love either in the real world or in his created world of Middle-earth. While there are many unmarried characters in his works (and extramarital sex was certainly not a legitimate option for them as Tolkien would have conceived it), simply because a given character has no heterosexual partner is not necessarily legitimate grounds to assume that he (or she) is same-sex oriented.

I'm a slasher, as I said to begin with. I don't object to slashing First Age Elves. I think that it needs to be acknowledged that such pairings are not within canon, however, no matter how one twists and turns. To me, if you write within Tolkien's world, you have to accept that same-sex relationships were not something he would have considered valid; thus any slash story in this fandom is necessarily an AU, an "alternative universe" from the original. There's nothing wrong with that! It baffles me when someone is hyped up about being strictly canon, and yet writes slash without admitting that slash simply isn't canon in Middle-earth.

Here I'll stop and say that for me, personally, AUs are most appealing when they are strictly limited; when the author has changed just one or two or three things from the original universe, and the story either directly or indirectly explores the ramifications of those changes. If too many things are changed, for no apparent reason, I begin to wonder what the connection is to Tolkien's Middle-earth except for some names. In general I prefer to both read and write fanfic that is recognizably the same world as the original; I feel that this shows a respect I consider appropriate, since all fanfic is in some way an homage.

Tolkien fanfic has especial difficulties because there are two possible canons, as mentioned above. If an author is writing "bookverse," I'll expect them to know the basic four books reasonably well. If the author is writing "filmverse," I expect them, now, to have seen all three films. Some authors draw on both, of course, writing for instance primarily bookverse but drawing on the appearances of the film characters for description. This is noticeable for several characters in particular; in the books, Boromir and Faramir are dark-haired and resemble Aragorn quite closely. A blond Boromir is clearly film-influenced.

Similarly, there are questions of interpretation of the characters' sexuality that may differ between book and film. The interactions between Aragorn and Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring may read more easily as slashable in the film than in the book. Part of this may simply be the result of the timing of each; J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic academic, writing mostly in the 1940s, was in a very different world from Peter Jackson, a New Zealand horror-film director, making the films in the first decade of the 21st century.

Feminism and slash

I do not call myself a feminist, although I am in agreement on many points with people who would use that label. I am not bothered by the fact that the great majority of characters in Middle-earth are men; when I read The Lord of the Rings first as a pre-teen, I had no trouble in identifying with one or another of the male characters at different times. If a male reader reading a book with a similarly high proportion of women could not do the same, I would feel sorry for him, but I would consider that his problem, not a flaw inherent in the book. Traditional feminism would also reject graphic slash because it is – when one gets down to it – basically pornography. It is written to get the reader (and probably the writer) sexually excited. Slash cannot be argued to be degrading to women, however (the classic feminist dismissal of most porn), unless one wishes to say that absence is necessarily degrading. There are slash stories in which any women who appear are treated poorly, of course, but more often they are simply not there at all; the reader is expected to identify and sympathize with at least one of the male main characters.

The question then becomes whether it is legitimate, from a quasi-feminist perspective at least, to ask this of the reader. Is this not simply a step backward, presuming the male figure to be the norm? Perhaps, but that seems to me to be too simple. Slash can be seen as both a challenge and a comfort. The (assumed female) reader is asked to identify with a male body, often very explicitly described in physical terms. This is the challenge of the unfamiliar. On the other hand, the object of desire is also a male body, and that is normally something much more familiar to a (assumed hetero- or bisexual) female reader. For male readers, the difficulty and familiarity are, of course, reversed – except for a gay or bisexual male reader, who would, one presumes, find it all just same-old, same-old.

So I don't think that having primarily or exclusively men as characters is necessarily and inevitably anti-women, or anti-feminist. It presents different challenges to the female reader to ask her to sympathize with men instead of women, but this need not be seen as bad.