Last month's semi-slash fic generated a lot of commentary, and a lot of opinions. Here, from someone familiar with the genre, a few introductory words.
The door to slash in Law & Order fan fiction opened just a crack with the publication of Kathie Murphy's A World of Hurt in the Fall issue of apocrypha. Reader reaction on the NetForum was limited, but some readers labeled the story "revolting" while others were clamoring for more. As a survivor of several heated slash debates, I know slash is a complex controversial issue that can divide fans and is best understood dispassionately. Love it or loathe it, but understand what it is.
Slash is a subgenre of fan fiction in which two major characters have a same-sex relationship. Slash is usually sexually and always emotionally explicit. It can involve violence, rape or sadomasochistic sex as readily as romance. It is written by women for women and has little or nothing to do with what gay men or lesbians like. It is not gay lit. Emotional barriers are let down and the dialogue is often romantic. The stories aren't always plot-driven; the PWP (or Plot? What Plot?) story exists as an excuse to get any two main characters together for sex. Slash is primarily male-male (m/m), but that is changing rapidly as Xena and Alien Resurrection fan fiction have come online.
Slash stories are ordinarily not political. Writers rarely claim that the two principals are inherently gay, merely that they love each other. The stories tend to avoid the political and social ramifications of two adults in a homosexual relationship in favor of the emotional aspects. First-time stories are very popular and often involve extreme angst as one character confronts his/her possible bisexuality.
Slash had its beginnings in Star Trek's distinct lack of strong continuing female partners for the male leads. Fans saw a void and filled it with the best lasting partner available -- the friend, partner, colleague, buddy. A romance of equals. The intensity of the relationship was often tempered under fire as they had adventure after adventure together. Their loyalty never wavered. A mere woman could never come between them.
This loyalty remained the deepest connection between the two men and carries through most slash fandoms. In the Man From U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo has any women, but his true love is Illya Kuryakin, the man he seems to rescue endlessly. The rescues and the pain caused by infidelities provided opportunities for great emotional upheaval and tender reunions. Action series generally provided a constant set of crises --injuries, near-death experiences, kidnappings -- that allowed the heroes to realize their love for one another. In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins described this unique first-time prototype:
"Not infrequently, slash stories open with the injury or near-death experience of one of the partners (or the death of another significant character); such moments of 'hurt-comfort' force a recognition of the fragility of their relationships and what would be lost should their friend be killed."
Times have changed, and characters often have stable marriages or relationships. But heroes in long-term heterosexual relationships are not immune from being slashed. The Highlander Duncan MacLeod's love Tessa could not understand his true nature nor love him as purely as fellow Immortals Richie and Methos or the Watcher Joe. This theory runs counter to his on-screen sexual relationship with the Immortal Amanda, but slash writers write their way around it.
The British science fiction series, Blake's 7 was shot on a shoestring with much action taking place at very close quarters. Stories relied on emotion and intense conflict, rather than special effects, which made it perfect for slash. Susan Clerc explained the lure of slash in this fandom in The Generic Slash Defense Form Letter:
"The emotionally-charged relationship between Blake and Avon is one of the qualities that hooked me on the series. Although I sneered the first time I heard someone say what I'm about to repeat, I've found it to be true -- the relationship is not dealt with enough in genzines to suit me and slash is the only reliable source of what I want."
Slash seems out of place in Law & Order, but Kathie's story still works on a different level. It is possible that a young Jack McCoy might have experimented sexually during the pre-AIDS seventies. Her story varies from the usual formula because Barney is not a major player in the actual series. The story contains no overt sex, but the emotional under-current is satisfying enough for someone who prefers emotion over sex.
"...And by the time Adam Schiff retires, and he makes his bid for the District Attorney's post, it will all be forgotten. 'If someone dredges it up again then,' he told me, 'it might even pick me up a few gay votes,'"Barney recounted bitterly.
Only an extremely savvy writer could manage to untangle the political, social, and religious minefields inherent in linking any two characters in Law & Order. The series includes married men, Catholicism, and the machismo of the police department, among the most obvious stumbling blocks. These issues cannot be ignored as easily as they might be for characters in a futuristic world or Immortals living 400 year-old fantasy lives.
Several police shows have supported active slash fandoms: Starsky and Hutch, The Professionals, and WiseGuy. These shows took place out of the cultural mainstream which allowed greater latitude of interpretation. Some very skilled slash writers turned out some exceptional WiseGuy stories where plot did not take second place to the relationship. However, for some readers, the bottom line is the relationship they see on television. If a reader doesn't believe the sexual relationship exists based on interpersonal action onscreen, even the most skillful writer will fall short.
For readers still on the fence, there is a great deal of slash available online at no cost. Try a story from a familiar series. Remember that the quality of the writing will vary as much as any other online or paper-based fan fiction. If readers are interested in further readings on slash and participatory fandom, Textual Poachers is an excellent and fan-sympathetic resource that deals with slash far beyond this simplistic discussion.
Slash is not going away. But perhaps this fan community will look at the entire issue as a choice, not a challenge. Despite religious objections, political debates, and free-speech arguments, it is possible to agree to disagree without rancor. The key is personal choice and a sense of humor.
If you're still interested in learning more, here are a few references from the author:
The Generic Slash Defense Form Letter
What is Slash? Arguments For and Against
Fan Fiction on the Net - Slash
Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins, Routledge 1992