Squick and squee

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Title: Squick and squee
Creator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden and commenters
Date(s): December 5, 2004
Medium: online
External Links: Making Light: Squick and squee, Archived version
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Squick and squee is a 2004 post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden at her blog Making Light.

Some Topics Discussed

  • Idfic and the Id Vortex
  • writing profic, writing fanfic -- fanfic gives many people what they want, what profic can't provide
  • expository techniques and worldbuilding
  • writing about sex and other challenging topics
  • RPS
  • some about squick, very little about squee


The thing that most fascinated me was the part about slash fanfic writers learning techniques for holding on to good fictional values while they’re writing about massively distracting subjects, a.k.a. the Id Vortex.

What’s in the vortex? If I understand her correctly, it’s all the magic stuff: Sex, power issues, identity issues, physical or emotional violence, revelation, transformation, transcendence, violent catharsis, and whatever else is a high-tension power line for that writer.

Handling that material is a real issue for a lot of writers. Few of the strategies they use for dealing with it are wholly satisfactory. F.I., the traditional row-of-asterisks, later-comma dance of avoidance relegates an entire universe of significant character interactions to a ghostly, implicit life offscreen. If the audience didn’t feel that as a loss, slash fanfic would never have gotten started in the first place.

Some writers go flat and write short, scanting the scene, as though it were an unpleasant episode they were trying to get through without inhaling. Some overcompress their exposition until it turns crabbed and gnomic. That’s great when it works; you can instantly see what that near-riddle has to mean, and the full realization of what follows comes crashing down on you. But when it doesn’t work—which happens far more frequently than authors imagine, because that’s a very hard trick to pull off—a moment that should carry a strong emotional payoff and advance the story suddenly becomes a DIY project. If the necessary clues are there, the reader may be able to stop and decode what must have happened; but that’s like the difference between being told a funny joke, and reading an imperfectly translated explanation of why a joke in some other language is really funny if you speak that language.

And the profic? Almost uniformly sucks. Because pro writers either have some shame, and relegate the purest, most cracklicious iterations of those stories to drawerfic that their workshop buddies will never see, or else they’re shameless. But they usually have to be shameless alone— and so their versions are written so solitarily that they don’t have any voice of restraint, to pull them back from the Event Horizon of the Id Vortex when it starts warping their story mechanics.

Fanfic online venues are full of writers and readers who really want there to be more stories about whatever it is that floats their boat, and who’ll work to help make it happen. That’s why those areas are such hot R&D labs for writerly craft and literary theory. This is not unlike the early days of science fiction, when you had that same deep hunger for the product, and a community of writers and readers who’d give a strongly engaged reading to whatever was there, but who passionately wanted what was there to be better. SF developed its own bag of tricks, mostly expository techniques and worldbuilding, which serious historical fiction snaffled early on, but which mainstream lit is only gradually getting around to stealing.

Some Fan Comments


EEUW. I hate slash fan fic. (if you see me at a con, ask me about Lucy Synk the artist and her Artist GoH experience at a slash convention/ a kind of fandom that she was truly NOT aware of. It was not good for her.)

BUT I can see fantasizing about doing something with Hawkeye, he's the kind of man I'm actually married to (yes, Jim. And I'm a very devoted spouse. he makes me laugh, he makes me happy). Funny, scarcastic, pointy in many ways, intelligent and well-read. And who can sometimes go right to the meat of the matter at hand with no prior indiction or intent, to solve something that's going wrong.

I wish I had an insightful comment, but mostly this reminds me of my Mulder/Krycek days and makes me want to go back and read it all again.

That, and I'm reminded of how impressed I was when I discovered how professional much of the slash-writing community is. I don't mean talent, I mean beta-reading, rewriting, editing, rating systems, and the mostly well-written and clean copy that resulted from the system. Unfortunately, I don't think those standards have carried over to the teenage girls posting Harry/Draco fic on fanfiction.net, but at least the X-Files fandom tended to produce high-quality writing.
[Tom Whitmore]:

One of the interesting things about fanfic is that I definitely have different expectations of it than I do of professional fiction. If a piece of fanfic has a really interesting story, or the occasional lovely image, that's good enough, and I enjoy it. When I read a supposedly professional story, I am upset by things I'll pass right over in fanfic -- flaccid writing, making explicit too much of what should be shown in the characters' reactions, different characters sounding too much like each other, and the like.

To invoke Delany, I have different reading protocols when reading fanfic and profic. That doesn't mean I have no standards for each -- just different standards. And I don't enjoy most fanfic enough to seek it out, even so
[Kimberly Chapman]:

I am torn up about fanfic in general. I don't want to discourage people from expressing their creativity. However, I have my own original characters - some published, others in the works - and I don't want other people ever usurping my toys. Granted that's not an issue for me right now, but I logically thus have to support other writers who are likewise displeased.

My books already have heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I don't want anyone else turning one into the other. It has nothing to do with being offended by the change of sexuality and everything to do with my thoroughly-defined character concepts.

I've decided that amateur fanfic between friends is perfectly fine and well within the bounds of fairness. But pseudo-publishing it by putting it publicly online gets to me.

I'm not sure how to balance my desire to promote creativity with my desire to keep other people's hands off of my characters.

So how do publishers deal with this stuff?
[Naa-Dei Nikoi]:

I know that there's a lot of fanfic for most things, but the majority of published works never have any fanfic written about them. Of those that do inspire someone to go 'what if' and write something down about them and then go on to trying to share it out there in the ether, few get a fandom whereby several other people say 'ooh, what a good idea' and start discussing the book and sharing their own stories about it. In order to have fanfic, a story needs to do two things: engage the reader's interest and imagination and second, leave enough holes for the imagination to wander about. Not all stories can or should do that. In order to have a fandom, a story needs to be widely distributed enough to attract enough people who might be interested in interacting, so anything that doesn't make it to a second printing, is picked up by a small publisher and the like doesn't have a hope. It wouldn't be top of my list of things to worry about if I were out to get published.

Fanfic isn't written for the creator's perusal (indeed reading fanfic of something you've written is a bad idea) and it isn't about telling you how you *should* have written things.

Fanfic is about how a person has seen and speculated about a work; it is writing about things that could happen, might have happened under different circumstances and sometimes fanfic events exist because they could never happen. In seeking like-minded people to share with, fandoms can become networks of friends, to the extent that the thing that brought people together in the first place becomes secondary.

I think most authors ignore it. Some even see it as a good thing, given that fanfic writers are of necessity rabid fans of the book and can be guaranteed to buy everything they put out and issue free publicity. However, given that 'fair use' is in the eyes of the creator, if it all really, really bugs you, there's always the cease-and-desist letter.

Pookel - A lot of the process you describe is done by teenage girls, though. I know I made use of betas and rating systems for years, and I've only just passed out of my teen years. I've never written Harry/Draco and posted it on the Pit of Voles, though...

Full disclosure: I've been writing fanfiction since I was about thirteen. But I've always felt it was more in the vein of a writing exercise than my own work with my own characters. And it can be helpful. Two of my friends and I were talking about fanfic at lunch the other day, and one of them said that writing fanfic meant she got all of the cliches out of her system years ago. As opposed to all the novice writers in her fiction workshop, who are all writing terrible cliched work right now - but that's another issue.

I feel like cease-and-desist letters only hurt the image of the author, in the end. It will provoke a strong reaction from fans that the author hates them for enjoying the work so much and wanting to play around with it.

Naa-Dei, I think you've hit the nail on the head - fandom grows beyond the central work, after a certain point. I met three of my best friends through Harry Potter fanfic and roleplaying; our friendships are no longer about the books, but instead about each other.
[Elizabeth Bear]: I'm personally fascinated by fanfiction. I see it as an extension of the genre conversation or the folk process--I've also collected more versions of "House of the Rising Sun" than I can comfortably recall.
[Naomi Novik]:

Cease-and-desist letters also won't work unless the letter alone successfully intimidates the writer. The question of fanfic as fair use has never been tested in court; it's hard to imagine someone lawyering up to pursue someone who has cost them nothing, potentially discouraging and offending a part of the hard-core fanbase for their work in the process.

My sentiments remain that fanfic is a valid form of reader response, and is and should be entirely beyond the author's control. Once you've written the text, what the reader gets out of it is out of your hands -- and will inevitably be filtered through the lens of the reader's past experience and desires. That goes for fanfic as much as for other kinds of fannish discussion.

Personally, I'd be enthusiastic to see fanfic written about my soon-to-be-published pro work. I don't think that it's a coincidence that Star Trek both has extreme longevity and success, and was the first inspiration of fanfic and slash. As Naa-Dei says, a work that inspires fanfic is a work that's getting hold of the reader's gut in some way.

And this comes back to the Id Vortex idea that Ellen is talking about. I think that fanfic and slash fanfic in particular do often hit the lizard brain, so to speak, because the shared source that they are starting from has already tapped into the id on some level, and the fanfic is following that tap down (sometimes to the completely illogical conclusion).

Elizabeth, I might be wrong, but my interpretation is that the shame Ellen is referring to is not shame at putting the writing out there necessarily, but shame at *feeling* the underlying visceral pull of kink, so it may be the same discomfort that you're describing.
[Kate Nepveu]: Hurt/comfort is a part of the Id Vortex that pro writers *do* get close to, and part of the appeal of Mercedes Lackey's (early) stuff, Dorothy Dunnett, etc., depending in part on the age of the reader.
[Ellen Fremedon]:

Naomi clarified, Elizabeth, I might be wrong, but my interpretation is that the shame Ellen is referring to is not shame at putting the writing out there necessarily, but shame at *feeling* the underlying visceral pull of kink, so it may be the same discomfort that you're describing.

That is what I meant, though I don't think I expressed it very clearly-- I only expected that post to be read by the people who usually read my lj. But, yes, it's that fanfic tends to be more successful than profic at engaging the sorts of kinks we (as writers or as readers) are most embarrassed at *having* in the first place, and more successful at transmuting a kink-support framework into an effective story-- sometimes, into a story that appeals to readers who don't share the kink. (I'm using kink to cover all emotional hot-buttons, not just the sexual ones, btw.)

Ellen must've been fascinated by the same bit. She did a followup post on "what tools do you use to keep those stories from collapsing?"

I always get a kick out of seeing Making Light talk about fanfiction, like the old "who put chocolate in my peanut butter?" commercials.

The danger for me as a fanfic writer is that I'll be sucked into the Id Vortex. Tired as I get of coyness, I've also read stories that go to the other extreme.

It's like the characters are living on an emotional diet of twinkies and whiskey. Everything is so het up with Lust and Love and Loss and Pain that they would sob for a lost t-shirt. Half of what the slash world perennially debates as over-feminization of male characters seems to me a matter of feelings junkies needing bigger hits.

Learning to walk that line is not easy, especially when jumping merrily over it garners as much or more positive response. Hungry for product and open channels of feedback = good, but it can be tricky to figure out, when the feedback is "yum", whether we've actually cooked a balanced meal or just served cake for breakfast.
[Mitch Wagner]:

That's one of the exciting things about blogging. I do think blogging is overhyped, and I think it's by no means certain that it's going to be the Next Big Thing, any more than pets.com was the Next Big Thing. But, still, it's the first really NEW publishing model to emerge from the Internet. And it's in its early days yet; the blogs of 2014 will look very little like the blogs of today.

And the business model for blogging, in the form of blogads, is something legitimately new, different from anything in other media.

Although I'm not aware of anybody actually making a living off of blogads.

it's in its early days yet; the blogs of 2014 will look very little like the blogs of today.

Mitch: wanna bet? I think 2014 blogs will look exactly like today's in all important particulars: same mix of A- through Z-listers, same mix of motivations (get famous, try out ideas, have somewhere to dump all these thoughts, etc), same sorts of posts from the same sorts of people: lefty outrage, rightwing whining, academics doing their thing (I think this will become more common), everyday folks just staying in touch with geographically scattered friends, geeks geeking out over the latest tech, etc etc.

I base my prediction on the observation that people change much less, and much less rapidly, than technology changes their environment. How different is blogging from pamphleteering or zine writing, other than speed and scope of distribution? It may be a simple failure of imagination on my part, but I don't think there's all that much more you can do in the way of putting words (pictures, sounds, movies, whatever as technology allows) together and distributing them.

On the subject of filtering, here's another prediction, just for the hell of it: filtering is the Next Big Thing; or if not the very Next, then soon after. We are already like to drown in data and using some combination of trusted agents (portals, blogs) and algorithms (Google, pet methods of finding cool stuff via del.icio.us or whatever) to stay afloat. As the waters get deeper, the flotation devices will have to get better -- so although I lack the technical know-how to make specific predictions as to how this will happen, I think that new and better filtering methods/agents are not very far off. Also, I think they will begin to advertise as filtering methods, explicitly saying "we can help you find the signals you want in all that noise".
[Greg London]:

I like good sex scenes. I like good combat scenes. I like good scenes in general. I think fans write this sort of stuff because authors can't always pull it off.

The other bit is that if a fan starts to identify with a character, the fan may start getting frustrated if the character avoids feeling some emotions.

We live vicariously through the characters we read in books and watch on TV and movies. It isn't quite so vicarious if the characters are feeling the same emotions we feel every day. We want to feel passion and rage and sorrow and anything else that defines the whole human spectrum. We know what the day-to-day emotion feels like, so we want something more.

We know the lust is inside the characters we read about because we identify with those characters and the lust is inside us. So we want to ride along with them as they experience it. And if the author won't give it to us, then readers are going to start writing the kind of stuff they want to read.
[Nomie]: a lot of time, RPS is the desire to get more of a favourite actor than people see in interviews and such. So if somebody knows that Ewan McGregor and Jude Law are best friends, but both actors are reluctant to speak about their personal lives, some people extrapolate that into a relationship involving sex. Most people, though, approach RPS as if the characters were "sockpuppets," a term that's often used when roleplaying these scenarios. That is, the character might have the same name and face as the actor, and some of the same personality traits, but it all goes far off from reality there. It just means that two (or more) very pretty people are getting their rocks off in the same place and give people nice mental images. *shrug* (Disclaimer: I don't write RPS, but some of my best friends do.) I personally am squicked by it, but that's my own opinion.

Hmmm. What confuses me, Ellen, is that I have seen some slash writers talk about how the characters would never, and how that's part of the appeal. If they wouldn't, isn't that out of character? Not if they haven't, but if they wouldn't. Very few mainstream shows, if any, have characters for whom it would be in character to sleep with every single other member of the cast.

I can understand the slash writers who look at characters and say, okay, this is how so-and-so would behave in bed, based on what I've seen of them in non-sexual situations in this show/book/etc. But I don't see how that could cover all or even most of the slash out there. It varies too much. I can accept that viewing characters as sexual beings and refusing to ignore that part of life is a good thing. I have a hard time believing that the main character in every show or book has shown signs of preferring everything that turns the viewers or readers on.

The example you gave with Father Mulcahy specifically involved people who looked just like his friends and behaved entirely unlike them in every way, which seems like it could be about at most one M*A*S*H character, and the rest are explicitly not their M*A*S*H selves but just look like them.

I am always interested when I see people declare things wrong, like "Muppets having sex? That's just wrong!", or the reactions above to many of the fanficced pairings. Indeed I can't remember ever being squicked, exactly (by art, that is). Not even by stories of people roasting their family members on spits, 'erotically'. It don't turn me over, y'know, but it doesn't make me squirm and ick!

I wonder if this means I'm missing something, like the delights of things "cracktacular" or whatever it was. People saying "That's just wrong!" usually have a broad smile.

But in any case, "squick" is such a useful concept, as I have read somewhere (it's all "I got it off the Internet" in my little brains, I fear), because it places the onus on the reader. As opposed to "that's disgusting!/perverted!/wrong!" which attacks the author, "that squicks me" confesses, not exactly a failing, but a boundary of the reader's.

Healthy respect for others? Moral relativism gone mad? I report, you decide!