The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm"

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Title: The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm"
Creator: Kitty Woldow
Date(s): 2002
Medium: online
Fandom: focus on The Sentinel
Topic: smarm
External Links: The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm", Archived version
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The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm" is an essay by Kitty Woldow. It was posted at her website The Temple of Smarm.

From the author: "...a historical and philosophical essay by the one who knows where it all started."

A similar essay by Kitty is Real Men Don't Act That Way.

Some Excerpts

For years, the term "smarm" has been filtering through fandom, and while there is some general acceptance of its meaning and usage, there hasn't been a good definitive statement of its meaning and purpose. To remedy that situation, I present the story of how the word came to be applied, what it really means, and why I think so. While I never intended to name a genre (nor did I ever claim I invented it, all I contributed was the name), it remains that I have made an impact on how fandom organizes itself internally, and therefore I feel some authority in explaining what the precise meaning of smarm really is.
As for whether the word is not a good one to use because of its "real" meaning, I find the objection to be irrelevant because "smarm" is now a term of art. Anyone who doesn't know what that means is invited to look up the word "consideration" in a law dictionary, and discover that lawyers have an entirely different idea of what it means and aren't about to change how they use it just because the rest of the world doesn't use the same definition they do. Those of us in the fanfic community know what smarm is, so why is what anyone outside of it thinks any more important than their ignorance of what slash fic is really about? Newbies have to learn what "ship" and "fic" and "zine" mean; we all did, even though many of us cannot remember the exact occasion of our enlightenment. I do not feel the stress anyone might experience when meeting "smarm" for the first time in fannish usage is a particularly good reason to rail against the word's application. Plus, I do enjoy the appropriateness of a term which not only has its own specific meaning, but can be inverted perfectly to describe its own antithesis, for it is certainly true that there is nothing quite so smarmy (standard definition) as badly written smarmy (fannish definition) fic.
The classic problem is that some number of people have always professed confusion between smarm and slash, claiming that verbal and physical expressions of affection must, inevitably, indicate sexual desire. Smarm is accused of being loaded with slash as subtext, but that is entirely in the beholder's eye. People who are slash fans readily admit that they are fans of slash itself, not of any particular set of characters. They will read any fandom's slash literature and they will slash any set of characters, because it is the format, not the characters, that they are interested in. And they are also capable of seeing subtext in ANYTHING. If the characters so much as glance at each other, slashers mentally transform it into a steamy gaze of desire. If the characters avoid looking at each other, it is obviously evidence of them repressing their deep inner desires. There is no such thing as a fandom which does not have a slash component, and for most fandoms I've ever heard of, the slashers far outnumber the gen and smarm and ship (which is fairly recent; there never used to be an acknowledged het romance subtype to fandom, they were a very small minority within gen) groups put together. The smaller a fandom, the more likely it is to be *entirely* slash, with possibly one lone smarmer who is wavering herself over what she is trying to write. In addressing this peculiar state of affairs, I have done some thinking about the types of stories that fill the fannish lexicon, and decided that to really understand the differences between the various genres, one has to base the discussion on a definition of them by their most basic, unchangeable characteristic. That thing which, if it is not there, makes the story some other kind. I have, I say with no modesty at all, arrived at some conclusions in this field.
There have been some papers actually aimed at analyzing the hurt/comfort genre's appeal and what the foundation for it might be, but I think so far they have fallen short of recognizing the true universality of the operative effect, which I believe is the smarm part of the story. It is a human thing to seek for and to revel in outpourings of positive emotion, and for those who are most dedicated to reading h/c, there is an actual physical thrill in the experience. Good smarm gives the reader a momentary spike of something which manifests variously, but is most commonly described as a tightening of the throat and stomach, and may involve swift goosebumps and chills or a similiar sensation in the spine. It is, I think, the same thrill slashers get from first time stories - that sudden release of an unsensed tension waiting for fulfillment, which would explain why first time stories make up better than 90% of slash libraries. From outside slash, you might expect they'd be writing about ongoing relationships, but they're not. They're writing the Moment of Discovery over and over and over.

Comments by Fans

the stick in this particular ass has splinters, yo. Discuss or refute.

I reluctantly refute, on the grounds that surely splinters alone could not cause a problem of this magnitude. I mean, I'm trying not to be hypercritical here, but - oh my god. There are - no pun intended - deeper problems here than sticks. To recapitulate some of my earlier comments, which this essay really helped gel:

She says that slash includes sex (although I would point out here that I have read smarm with a mutual exchange of sexual pleasure, which to my limited, lesbian-sex-addled brain, is sex, and therefore slash when it occurs between two characters of the same sex), and therefore lust, and lust is a desire for personal gratification, and therefore slash is selfish.

Ignoring the logical flaws here just for the moment, because frankly I want to jump all over them but I am resisting, I have to assume the author has never had the kind of sex that is entirely about your partner's pleasure, and yet that is, at least to my mind, one of the biggest joys of a long-term relationship: you can have sex that is all about your partner. (And, as I said to catalenamara, I'm sad that [Kitty] thinks that sex diminishes a relationship. I thought that, too. When I was 16. It took some wonderful and talented people to convince me I was wrong, and I just - I am very depressed by the idea that someone could be stuck forever in that place.)

And then there's the fact that none of this explains why it's important that smarm stories include so many of the trappings typically associated with a sexual and romantic relationship in a modern Western setting. (She says it doesn't matter if they do, but in fact that's one of the cornerstones of the genre, from what I can tell.) I mean, yes, smarm was never going to be for me, since it seems to rely on explicit statements of feeling, and I vastly prefer for feelings to be revealed solely through action. (I have the best ever side-by-side example of this, by the way.) But without the sexual elements, smarm would just be a genre that's too warm and fuzzy for cold, prickly me. With them, I am left suspecting that smarm writers either a) want to subtract sex from romance or b) want to subtract homosexuality from a sexual relationship between men. And a) is fine, if that's what you need, but b) raises some questions for me, you know? [1]


  1. I wanna know what love is; I want you to show me. , thefourthvine, September 2007