Sheenagh Pugh

Poet and novelist

The Colonel's Lady and Judy O'Grady

Slash and women litfic writers

(This is the text of a talk I gave at the Cultural Exchanges Conference (Slash Study Day), de Montfort University, 2007)

I think I should make it clear first that in this talk I am interested in a parallel between female litfic writers and slash writers who both deal with men in intense relationships.  I don't at all wish to deny the existence of femslash, but it doesn't come into what I want to look at in this particular 20 minutes.

        I suppose in many ways I started writing this in my head when I first read the puzzled hypothesis of Salmon and Symons in Warrior Lovers 1  that women who wanted to read and write about two men getting it together might have "some sort of psycho-sexual quirk".  To be fair, they do conclude that this is probably not so, but the mere raising of the question does lead one to wonder not how much slash they have read, but how much literature they have read.  In particular, how much literary fiction by women novelists.

          Slash, at least written and published slash as opposed to the kind we make up in our heads, has only been around since the 1970s.  But those of us who wanted the kind of intense male relationship it concerns could always get our fix before that, simply by turning to respectable litfic (as Frankie Howerd said, if you want that sort of thing you must go to the legitimate theatre like everyone else). Indeed it was far earlier that Naomi Mitchison published Black Sparta, a collection of short stories set in Ancient Greece.  Reading this scene from "O Lucky Thessaly", it is hard to believe it first came out in 1928, even allowing for unintentional double-entendres:

Pindar took his hand and sat down on the seat beside him, holding him gently. "I love you," said Pindar. Hippokleas stiffened a little but seemed prepared to receive it. He said, "I love you too." For a time, neither said anything more; the same atmosphere of kindness and closeness wrapped them both round like a still, painted flame, urging them very slowly nearer to one another, their hands and arms and lips and whole bodies. They found it very delightful to say one another's names.  2

         It was amazing what you could get away with, even in 1928, by invoking classical tradition.  By the 1950s, of course, it was possible to write of such themes even in modern dress, and some writers did – Iris Murdoch, for example, in The Bell 3 But it is arguable that once you did this, you no longer had a mainstream work of fiction, but a more specialist one.  A scene between two contemporary men in a mainstream novel of those days might get very emotional but it would hardly ever turn physical.  Set it in Ancient Greece, and it could; furthermore your heroes would not be curious examples of deviance, but still the normal young men they always were.  Nor would their sexuality be fixed in stone by such a scene; it was accepted that ancient notions of sexuality were more fluid than that.

          The combination of female author, historical novel and two male heroes tended to produce some interesting results in the Fifties. In this book from 1954, we are in Roman Britain. Marcus, a young centurion, has bought a slave, a Briton he saw in the arena.

                    "Why have you bought me?"

"I have need of a body-slave."

"Surely the arena is an unusual place to pick one."

"But then, I wished for an unusual body-slave."  Marcus looked up with the merest quirk of a smile into the sullen grey eyes fixed so unswervingly on his own. […]

Esca looked down at his own hand on the edge of the couch, then up again. "It would have been easy to escape on my way here," he said slowly. "But I chose to go because it was in my heart that it might be you that we went to. […]  I had this, to my release."

"And now?" Marcus said, not giving a glance to the narrow, deadly thing.

For a moment the sullenness lifted from Esca's face.  He leaned forward and let the dagger fall with a little clatter on to the inlaid table at Marcus's side. "I am the Centurion's hound, to lie at the Centurion's feet," he said.4

 

            If that were a slash story, I could make a fair prediction as to where it was going next.  Except that it isn't, and it doesn't – despite the fact that in that time and setting, nobody would have raised an eyebrow had the centurion indeed been requiring such services of his body-slave. It is, of course, Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, and if Marcus and Esca ever do become more than friends, she does not say so (though several slash writers have).  The book was, after all, written with a young audience in mind, and sex of any kind didn't really figure in children's books of the Fifties.

           Even writing for an adult audience and at a later date, however, as she was in Blood and Sand 5  Sutcliff tended to stop this side of a boundary that in the more modest kind of slashfic would be marked by a line of what have sometimes been called smut-eating asterisks, or perhaps white space. In Blood and Sand, set in the early 1800s, her hero is a Scottish soldier called Thomas Keith, based on a historical character, who, having been captured in Egypt, ends up serving the ruler of Egypt, embracing Islam and rising to be Emir of Medina.  The defining moment of his life occurs when he meets his commander's younger son Tussun Bey.

And turning quickly, Thomas found himself looking up past the neck and shoulder of a raking chestnut mare into the face of her rider […] lion-coloured as to skin and eyes and the tawny hair that showed in front of his left ear, where the gold-fringed swathings of his turban had been pushed somewhat rakishly askew. {…] They remained looking at each other, the heat-filled silence spreading out from them like the ripples when a fish jumps in a pool.  There was a certain half-pleasurable apprehension among the onlookers waiting to see what would happen next. […] But neither Tussun nor Thomas were aware of […] the rest of the watching crowd, nor of the shade-trees nor the sun overhead, having other and stranger things to think about.

 

        By the next day they are bathing in the Nile and walking around hand in hand, but that paragraph of first meeting alone would, were they of opposite sexes, or indeed characters in a slashfic, be an unmistakable indicator of having fallen in love.  And again she has set the story in a place and time where it could theoretically happen – and this time she is writing in 1987, when such a theme could be far more openly discussed than in the Fifties.

       Again though she will back off from letting them consummate their relationship, and plainly not out of prudery, for the novel contains not only one explicitly homosexual character but an explicit, though heterosexual, sex scene, between her hero and the wife she unhistorically gives him.  Her explanation for this one invented character in the foreword is "I felt that he deserved a happy marriage, […] so I gave him Anoud, with my love."

       The love is genuine, but Anoud, Thomas's wife, is a gift to herself, an authorial Mary Sue if ever I saw one, with a saintly lack of jealousy about her husband's bond with someone else. Her identity with the author is almost explicit in a scene where she, Thomas and Tussun are together, the men drinking coffee and she sitting with them, observing and listening, part of their company without intruding on their bond. She joins in the talk with a political observation and then excuses it; "My father sometimes talked to me as though I were a son."  Sutcliff, like Anoud, was an only child, and because of chronic ill-health had been thrown much on her parents for company; after her mother's death in the 60s she lived with her father, not long dead when she wrote the book. A female character similarly becomes part of the male bond without disturbing it in the threesome she sets up at the end of The Eagle of the Ninth for Marcus, Esca and Marcus's young wife Cottia.

       A life which, for all its travel, was spent much in books and seems to have given her only one, unsuccessful, romance, is liable to produce a romantic, and I think that at the back of her avoidance of ultimate physicality between her heroes is a romantic vision of a perfect friendship of the soul.  There is at least one moment in Blood and Sand where if you read furiously between the lines you might conclude that something irrevocable had occurred during the white space, but I am not sure she wants you to think it, or indeed to think it herself.   Sutcliff writes scenes between men which are by any standards falling-in-love scenes, but she reminds me of certain fanfic writers who write stories more emotionally intense than any slashfic, without ever getting, physically, beyond the odd hug. 

       Her reticence also extended to some euphemistic language reminiscent of early slash, and it was still so at a time when most slash had got beyond that. In Blood and Sand, published in 1987, not only does the hero, in the bedroom scene, discover that his bride has "woman bits", but that dreaded appendage, the "manhood", makes an appearance.  Slash readers are still not quite safe from encountering this peculiar bit of anatomy; it is not so long since I came across Legolas and his elfhood.  But by 1987 there were already slash writing guides online execrating this kind of thing. 

 

Mary Renault, also writing from the 50s to the 80s, does want you to know that the relationships of her characters have a physical side, though in her use of smut-eating white space she rivals the reticence of Jane Austen in actually talking about it.  Like Sutcliff and Mitchison, she had figured out the advantages of a classical background and is best known now for those books set in Ancient Greece.  But she had begun her literary explorations of the variety of human sexuality in the setting of wartime and post-war London.  In the last of her books to tackle this theme with a contemporary setting, The Charioteer,6 there are two moments at which, I'm now certain, asterisks or white space have indeed eaten lovemaking episodes, but you must read carefully to see it.  I seem to recall, on first reading, coming on the word "afterwards" and being naive enough to wonder: after what?

           Now admittedly it was something, in 1953, that Longmans ever went ahead with this book at all; had the physicality not been played down, the book might never have appeared. Despite nothing beyond a kiss being actually described, The Charioteer was reticent in no other way. Renault, herself a nurse, has no truck with manhoods; her hero, when it is medically necessary to describe the thing, has a penis.

           The book told the story of a young man, Laurence Odell, becoming aware of his sexuality, and it did so in much the same way many a later slash writer of the seventies would have done.  In many ways it was similar to the early "first time" slashfic but for one thing: in those early slash stories (at least if the ones I have read are typical), the point of view character had a definite tendency to be the ingénu, the one who had no idea or very little idea of his true feelings. If there was an older and more experienced character, it was rare to see through his eyes.  The Charioteer has a total ingénu, the young Quaker Andrew, but the point of view character is Laurence, who for most of the book knows about his sexuality. What he has to decide is not which sex he fancies but whether he is going to opt for a consummated physical relationship or one of Plato's noble romantic friendships.

       What was it about this theme of romantic male friendship that fascinated women novelists in the 1950s?  It seems often to be connected with the context of war. Usually this would be an historical conflict; The Charioteer, alone among the books I've been discussing, is set in the present, during World War 2, but I wonder if that experience, still fresh in the minds of Fifties writers, was not also at the back of novels like The Eagle of the Ninth.  I don't think Sutcliff romanticises war, and Renault with her experience of nursing wounded soldiers certainly does not.  But there is a powerful urge in incurable romantics - and I think both Renault and Sutcliff were that, though I would class neither as a romantic novelist – to idealise and romanticise the bond between men at arms, and the emotional heights at which they live when each day may be the last.  Later treatments by women novelists of this theme used the First World War - Susan Hill's Strange Meeting in 1971 7 and Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy between 1991 and 19958

       Of course it could just be that war is a situation where intense relationships do develop.  But I wonder if women like Renault, Murdoch and Sutcliff, who lived through a war in which the civilian population was much involved without actually being able to do much about it, envied the more active and, in some ways, glamorous, role of those who fought it. 

           I've already indicated that I think Sutcliff tends to insert herself into her books via a female character who becomes part of the male bond without ever threatening it. Incidentally I don't, like some people in fandom, regard self-insertion as some sort of vile literary perversion.  If your personal avatar character is believable and entertaining in the story, then go for it, I say.  Certainly litfic writers always have done. Mary Renault made no secret of her partial frustration with her gender, and the eunuch Bagoas, Alexander's beloved in The Persian Boy 9, is surely her most famous, and successful, Mary Sue.

           And that provides an interesting parallel with Judy O'Grady's side of the question. At the last Slash Study Day, a male speaker said something I've been thinking about ever since. Slash writers are occasionally accused of regarding het as a lower order of writing, and in my experience some of them do, on the grounds that het tends to produce the kind of gooey, improbably perfect Mary Sue we really do want to avoid. I think slash writers feel they are immune from the urge to self-insert, being too busy inserting other things.

          But this gentleman said that when reading a slash story written in the first person, it was often easy to suppose the speaker was female.  His contention was that slash writers self-insert via the point of view character.  I don't think this happens as often as he supposes, and I also think he was not making enough allowance for the tendency we all have as readers to assume the "I" voice is some kind of self.  Nevertheless, I do think I have read slash stories where the writer indulged a wish not only to pair two fanciable men, but also to imagine herself into the scenario, in a less sidelined way than Sutcliff's uncomplaining wives-in-a-threesome.  Certainly I think Renault, via Bagoas, was getting as close as she could to a relationship with her all-time hero Alexander.

          But why do it via a male character: why not one of the women with whom Alexander did occasionally sleep?  One answer in the case of historical novelists is that their female characters offer limited possibilities because women, at least respectable ones, led more circumscribed lives.  When Marcus, in The Eagle of the Ninth, has to go on a dangerous journey, it is natural for him to take Esca, unthinkable that he should take his fiancée Cottia.  Often, the only way to get a female character to play a full part in the plot of a novel set in the past and containing much incident is to disguise her as a boy.

         Female writers of contemporary and futuristic novels don't have that problem, but they still grew up reading the same adventure stories we all did, where the male characters play all the interesting roles, and it is possible that this had a long-term impact. Ursula K Le Guin's science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness10, published in 1969, is a fascinating attempt to transcend stereotypical thinking about gender and sexuality, but much as I love it, for my money it is at least a partial failure. For one thing the problem of pronouns makes it clear that the point of view character's default assumption is male, and that isn't just because he is a man.  For another, the idea that all people in the novel's world are potentially bi and only take on a specific gender when in a relationship is fascinating, but, for me, deeply flawed by the fact that once one party has come into a certain gender, his or her partner automatically takes on the other.  This actually seems very heterosexist in that it not only sees sexual attraction as being purely for the purpose of breeding but dismisses the possibility that someone who has just developed man bits or woman bits might actually prefer the same in their partner.  In fact, groundbreaking as this world-vision was in some respects, it more or less denied the possibility of same-sex attraction, which always struck me as a shame.

         In Renault's case, and in the case of some slash writers, I think their own sexuality may play a part in why they choose to use all-male scenarios; the gay slash writer Nova once told me she just didn't much want to imagine a heterosexual sex scene, and I suspect Renault did not.  But straight slash writers, who I should think are much in the majority, tend not to want to do that either, and for them the reasons are more complex and, I think, more political, in the widest sense of that word. Not only do they wish to avoid the gooey end of Mary Sue-ism, they also wish to avoid the gender stereotyping and limiting of female characters to a "partner" role that often happens in the canons they write about.

         They could of course choose more politically correct canons, of which there are now many. But more often than not, our canons choose us, and I have heard slash writers of impeccably liberal credentials lament, guiltily, that though of course they approve of stronger female characters, they also miss the famous male bonds of the Sixties and Seventies TV canons.  I suspect Renault and Sutcliff were not the only raging romantics on the block. 

         Though I cavilled earlier about some aspects of Left Hand of Darkness, it was notable for trying not to define characters by gender.  Similarly Renault's heroes Laurence and Ralph spend a good part of The Charioteer refusing to let people on either side of the divide define them by their sexuality.  They are all sorts of things as well as gay, and though they understand why some of their gay friends, in a time of concealment and persecution, choose to reinforce their sense of community by acting in a stereotypical manner among themselves, they avoid either emulating them or losing their rapport with people they have other things in common with.  Ralph, indeed, won't even rule out sexual relationships with women, feeling that would make him just as closed-minded as straight men who can't imagine falling for a man.

         This insistence that sexual identity is not necessarily set in stone strikes me as another obvious parallel with slash.  Of course, in both slash and litfic it makes some odds where and when a story is set.  Renault's Greek and Persian heroes did not have the problem, living as they did in societies where fluidity was taken for granted.  In fandom, futuristic societies could potentially embrace the same fluidity, and in many source properties there is nothing to make this uncanonical.  Nevertheless, the norm in such fandoms still often seems to be that people grow up assuming heterosexuality and have to find out if an alternative is the case, no doubt because whatever era the fandom may be set in, writers are still writing in and in most ways for their own time.

         Hence, presumably, the number of "first time" slashfics where one party has simply never before considered the idea and is enlightened either by someone more experienced or by force of circumstance. That cave in a thunderstorm may be a cliché, but it evolved for a purpose, namely to make characters do what they might otherwise only think about.  In that, it was no different from the way Jane Austen uses Mr Elton's intoxication to make him forget himself with Emma.  If this device, and the myriad others invented to remove characters' clothes and inhibitions, look artificial now, that is partly because times have changed and characters can more easily be got to think about what was once unthinkable.  Nowadays readers are apt to take against the idea that two characters need some powerful outside force, like being enslaved in the Galactic Brothel, to discover their true natures.

         And this is not only true of slash readers.  Women litfic writers these days are exploring intense male relationships with as much enthusiasm as ever, but not only is their approach less euphemistic and more explicit, their heroes are much more likely to be contemporary.  "Brokeback Mountain" 11, whose heroes' lives actually span the decades I've been talking about, is an obvious example, but I'd like to talk about another short story, called "The Pursuit of Beauty"12 by the Welsh author Catherine Merriman.

          Her hero, Mark, is haunting the National Portrait Gallery in pursuit of a girl, Patsy, studying there.  To his alarm, he realises the security guard has started noticing him:

Yesterday, he recalled, the man had hung around nearby too. It was a small area, the mirrors had nearly always contained some part of him.  A segment of powerful shoulder, a broad swathe of felted back […] Mark had been as aware of him as of Patsy.

        Well, had that been a slashfic I could have told Mark at that point whom he fancied, but not being quite so on the alert with litfic, I was actually surprised when they ended up in the guard's cubby-hole:

"Och, come on, laddie." Impatiently the guard grasped Mark's hand [...] Mark watched him do it. His hand had lost volition. […] I am so frightened, Mark thought, that I am paralysed. That must be it. I'm so frightened, it's beyond feeling. There's nothing I can do.

        Needless to say, the guard is able to show him he isn't beyond feeling.  Afterwards Mark steps out into Trafalgar Square:

A fountain in front of him was spraying diamonds into the water.  Something terrible had happened to him, and he was in shock. 

 Or it hadn't, and he wasn't.

       This story is contemporary in its lack of manhoods and smut-eating asterisks - the ellipses are mine, included because the web host would otherwise require an "adult content" warning on the page.  But the real progress is in that last sentence, with its acceptance that sexuality is neither as irrevocable nor as defining as some think.  The Greek heroes of  Mitchison and Renault could have taken this encounter as casually as the guard does, but contemporary characters from the Fifties and Sixties would have done a lot of agonising about how complicit they had been and what it meant. Mark thinks about agonising, and doesn't.   In short, he is, in 2001, where most slash characters got to around the mid-nineties.  The Colonel's Lady goes by a more circuitous route than Judy, but they get to the same place in the end.

 

1 Warrior Lovers, Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001

2 Black Sparta, Naomi Mitchison, Jonathan Cape 1928

3 The Bell, Chatto & Windus 1958

4 The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff, Oxford University Press 1954

Blood and Sand, Rosemary Sutcliff, Hodder & Stoughton 1987

The Charioteer, Mary Renault, Longmans 1953

7 pub. Hamish Hamilton

8 pub Penguin

9 pub Longman 1972

10 pub Gollancz

11 from Close Range, Annie Proulx, Scribner 1999

12 from Getting a Life, Catherine Merriman, Honno 2001

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