Thursday, May 5, 2011

"If it doesn't affect you, then why read it?"

Thanks to a link at Sweet Freedom, I've just read a recently published interview with Joanna Russ by Consuela Francis and Alison Piepmeir on slash fiction and related subjects. The interview was conducted four years ago-- in May 2007, which is a year after Samuel R. Delany did a phone interview with her at WisCon 30. The Journal of Popular Romance Studies offers a transcript in both html and pdf. The pdf is definitely preferrable. Here are a few tastes, to pique your interest:
JR I remember when I first got a phone call from a friend. She told me about slash, and I didn’t get mildly interested, my hair stood up on end! I said “What? Can I get that?” “Yes,” she said, “you can,” and I began collecting them, and finally when the collection began to get utterly unwieldy and huge, I sent them to Bowling Green University, the Popular Culture Institute there. I wanted them to go somewhere they would last and not just be thrown out or whatever.

AP Does that mean that you don’t have your slash anymore?

JR I don’t have them with me, no. I have the few stories I wrote, copies of those, but that’s it. I’ve found that because they’re so erotic, after I finished one of them I would have this terrible thud as I came back to reality, and I decided I just didn’t like that. So, sorrowfully, I sent them away, where they would be loved. I might think they are.

[. . . ]

AP Well, we brought you some Smallville slash, just in case you want to see it but you don’t have to take it if it feels like that would be too much.

JR Most of it is sort of pornography.

AP Well, we definitely want to talk about that.

JR If it doesn’t turn you on, it’s kind of indifferent.

AP And that was one of the great points that you made in your essay about slash, the fact that people who don’t get it, who are not turned on by it, are not the right people to criticize it because they’re missing some crucial elements, and I thought that was exactly right.

JR I think that applies to all kinds of fiction and all kinds of drama. If it doesn’t affect you, then why read it?

AP And are you going to be able to have really useful insights about how it does or doesn’t work if it doesn’t work on you? So were your slash stories sexy? I mean, your regular novels are sexy, did the slash allow you to be more explicit?

JR Yes, and make my scenes longer. Yeah, it did I think. And yet there’s a good deal of slash where that doesn’t happen, but even there it’s full of emotion and emotional intensity.

[. . . ]

AP Conseula and I have been talking a lot about female desire and the fact that it seems to us that the lessons that we have been taught as girls and women about what desire was, what it meant, what it felt like, what shapes it took, that those lessons were all profoundly, profoundly wrong. In ways that as a thirty-four year old woman who has been a feminist for years and years, who teaches Women’s Studies, I’m surprised at how surprising this is to me, because I should know this by now, but it’s like, it’s even more wrong than I thought. So I just think that our culture, that we don’t know anything about female desire.

CF And yet, here’s this world of slash where this is all these women are doing, talking about it and asking questions.

JR But they’re in disguise. They’re disguised as a man. I once noticed that in slash there are so many references to these characters’ penises that it’s like a little label that says “Hello, I am” and the name. “I have a penis and I’m therefore male,” but clearly that’s not what’s happening.

CF Why do you think that women can’t have these conversations about their own desire through female characters?

JR I think it’s something like this. As I said, the characters are not exactly male. They’re disguises of some sort, kind of like “I have the proper genitals so I am male, please remember that.” I have written a couple of stories myself in which women are disguised, literally disguised as men. You try to write about women and you don’t have the cultural tropes that you could use, there’s very little there. It’s kind of like disguising yourself as an upper-class person, as an aristocrat. It counts, it matters that they’re male. It makes what they do serious. Apparently the real message does get through, because you said a lot of the fans hate it. They don’t think it’s about men, they know better. [Writing about male characters] kind of frees your imagination or your memory or something. This had happened in the nineteenth century, quite a few women who were novelists would write stories about women who were disguised as men or they would write them from a male point of view, and that is saying “if I were only a man, I could do this or that, or be this or that.” Some were not like that, there’s an early detective novel, 1890 or something like that in which a young woman is a detective, and there’s a lovely illustration from the first publications of this thing in a magazine then, and there she is with her skirts and her parasol and her hands are teeny. A drunken lout is about to hit a woman, and she is saying, “stop, sir,” and she doesn’t look as if she could hit a cream puff, but that’s her. That did happen. But in many of them, no, it didn’t.

I think [writing about male characters] has something to do with one’s sense of oneself as an active person, as free. I mean, we have sense, we look around and we see those guys who are doing all sorts of stuff, even if they can’t do it right, they’re thinking about it. They’re making fantasies about it, there are movies about it. So this becomes not only “we will show you the personal life of these people, which is left out of the mass media, but we will write about them as we know people on the inside, and they will ring true to us, to the writers and readers in a way they would not if they were women.”

AP And I guess that’s the part that interests me and that I have not found an adequate explanation for. That reading the stories about Clark and Lex for instance, in the Smallville slash, is really sexy, I mean, that stuff is hot, and works for me in a way that the stories about the female characters in Smallville don’t work at all. Is that some sort of compensatory thing, because my identity as a woman is not solid enough?

JR No, I think that nobody’s social identity as a woman is solid enough. And when you’re doing this, you’re inventing, you’re fantasizing. It’s still very much a different world for men and women. I remember somebody, a feminist at Cornell, once said to me, “I was talking to this audience and they were looking rather unconvinced, especially the guys, and then I said, how many people here put only their initials in the telephone listing in the telephone book?” And the women’s hands all went up, and the men went, you do? They didn’t know. They hadn’t noticed. Yeah, they do. And that makes a big difference. It’s like gay friends of mine who went to the March on Washington, and said we were all over the place, we got into a subway and it was nine tenths gay people. And she said you don’t realize what a burden you carry until it’s gone. Everything just went, it was wonderful, and I think that’s true whatever the burden is. Whatever the minority burden or the sex burden, whatever it is, when it’s gone you go, oh my god.

AP The social identity of a woman is such that sexual stories with women are not . . .

JR It’s not real unless men do it, something like that, I think.

The interview is really more of a conversation than a straightfoward interview, I think. Russ here ends up asking some of the questions, and her interviewers answering, and she picking up from there.

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