There’s been a teeny debate online this week between two people I met at EasterCon: Gavin Pugh of Gav Reads, and Sophia McDougall. The discussion centred on slash fiction and whether it was right to (homo)sexualise fictional characters in fan fiction. I won’t go into that here–you can read the respective blogs if you’re interested–but it got me thinking about the impetus behind slash, and ‘shipping in general. In other words, geeks vs romance.
Romantic/erotic fan fiction is largely written by women for women, and seems to me to be a response to the lack of female-oriented storylines in early SF, particularly on TV. Yes, Kirk could often be found snogging the female alien-of-the-week in Star Trek, but as with most episodic TV, everything had to be reset to zero by the end of each story, so there was little space to develop a believable romance. Besides, maybe you didn’t dig Kirk, in which case you’d be lucky if the writers threw you a bone once per season with a story about Spock’s pon farr or a few scenes in which Sulu takes his shirt off. The response of female fans was to write their own stories. This still begs the question, why?
It’s not as though the world is lacking in romantic fiction. Indeed, it’s the bestselling genre by far, outstripping crime, thrillers, SF&F, etc put together. So it’s not like female geeks lack reading material. Or do they? Until recently, the romance genre was largely confined to contemporary, mainstream settings, with sidelines into popular historical eras such as the Regency period. These have limited appeal to the average geek girl, who wants her fiction to have aliens or faery folk in it, not doctors or shipping magnates (at least, not unless they’re xenobiologists or spaceship magnates!).
By the end of the twentieth century, things were starting to change. More and more women were writing SF&F, and romantic, even erotic, storylines were creeping into the genre. Mostly this was confined to new subgenres of fantasy, particularly urban fantasy (predictably enough – vampires have been a metaphor for sex since Bram Stoker’s day), although a few venturesome authors like Catherine Asaro dared to write romances firmly within the SF genre.
And yet, romance is still looked down on within SF&F. My publishers, Angry Robot, had a lot of fun on April 1st by pretending they were going to start up a romance imprint. A few people were taken in by this, perhaps because AR are an innovative publishers with a wicked sense of humour, so the bogus titles listed didn’t seem that far-fetched, at least not at first glance. But there’s a serious side to this story, in that romance still has “girl-cooties” and male SF readers in particular don’t want it in their books.
Myself, I fall in the middle of this spectrum. I enjoy a good romance as much as the next girl (The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee is one of my favourite books and makes me cry every time I read it), and when developing story ideas I find myself drawn to romantic plots and subplots almost against my will. At the same time it’s not the main thing I look for in a book, so I have sympathy with the guys.
To be honest, I reckon there’s more than enough room for both readerships in our genre. Room for the whole spectrum, from romance-free hard SF to steamy love stories that just happens to be set in a fantasy world. The important thing is that the cover copy and artwork don’t mislead readers into thinking they are getting one thing then giving them something completely different. The cover of my book is going to feature my hero with his sword out* for a good reason…
Caveat emptor. Here Be Romance. Or not, as the case may be.
* No, hush! Stop that giggling at the back!