Sunday, 13 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 4 - Slash fanfiction

I have reservations about calling this post 'Slash fanfiction' as if I'm going to be expressing my definitive viewpoint on it. There's no way I could do this, since almost every slash story I read slightly alters my view on what it's for and what it's doing.

Slash, for non-readers of fanfic, is a term describing fics revolving around homosexual pairings (it's opposed to 'het', heterosexual, pairings). Many of these are fairly improbable pairings, such as Snape/Harry (or 'Snarry'); others, such as Sirius Black/Remus Lupin, are more understandable, especially given the similarity in the two's animal forms, and their notorious affectionate embrace towards the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.

Suman Gupta, in the revised edition of his excellent book Re-reading Harry Potter, spends a small part of the last chapter trying to theorise why there is so much slash fiction. One possibility he moots is that unusual pairings, such as Draco and Harry or Ron and Draco, are trying to provide an alternative route to resolving the splits in the wizarding world through romantic love, rather than confrontation and violence. He also suggests that the slash presence on fanfic sites is an emancipatory move by fans to fill in the social gaps in the wizarding world, where only coy hints of homosexuality are found. (I'm ignoring Rowling's declaration that Dumbledore was gay, since there was so much slash fiction before Deathly Hallows was published and she made this statement that it hardly matters; at any rate Dumbledore is only one of a very large number of characters used in slash pairings.)

It is true that there are characters whose sexual lives we know very little about, such as Charlie Weasley or Sirius Black. But there are also those who we know are in heterosexual relationships, such as Lupin (briefly, before he and Tonks are murdered). Of course you could theorise that Lupin only marries Tonks because Sirius has been killed and he is searching for comfort. But most SBRL fics (as they're coded) don't do this: they either go backwards, looking at the characters' lives before 'canon' (the published texts), or they choose an alternate universe (AU) approach and rewrite their lives.

So why this intense urge to write homosexuality into almost every fissure of the Harry Potter? Go to's Harry Potter section, relax the ratings filter so you can view 'M'-rated fics, and search for almost any pairing of male characters of the same generation/era, and you'll find some, I can pretty much guarantee. Lucius Malfoy and Blaise Zabini (Draco's aristocratic classmate). Lucius and Harry. Snape and James Potter. Even 'twincest' between Fred and George Weasley (the loosening of traditional sexuo-moral boundaries in the fanfic realm will be looked at in the future at some point). It is extraordinary - and, for me, discovering this world at the age of 14 - exciting and liberating.

Plus, Gupta cites a survey done by a fanfic site that suggests most slash fanfics are written by women in their twenties. Most fanfiction in general is written by female fans - this is pretty much accepted - so perhaps this shouldn't be a big surprise. And there are, comparatively, very few fics with female slash pairings. Ginny/Hermione appears sometimes (but compare 57 pages of this pairing on to 398 pages of stories about Sirius Black and Remus Lupin). I read an excellent one about Professors Hooch (Quidditch mistress) and McGonagall once, but this was years ago, and there are still only 3 pages of stories with a 'McHooch' focus.

This is the bit where I have no answers. Is it to do with the nature of male vs. female characters in the series? In general, females are pretty marginalised: they're eccentric, like Tonks and Luna, maternal, like Molly Weasley, overly girly and flirty, like Fleur, Lavender and Parvati or mad like Bellatrix Lestrange (the only major female Death Eater, by the by). Hermione is more concrete, and highly intelligent, but she's also ripped to pieces in many ways: she can be vain and shrill and bossy. Umbridge is evil and clever, but ridiculous with her obsession with fluffy kittens and pink. Cho Chang is impatient and weepy. The only female character who seems to have real steel and charisma, as far as my reading goes, is Ginny Weasley, and unfortunately she doesn't really mature until the sixth book.

The male characters, by comparison, dominate the series in number and personality: look at Dumbledore, Voldemort, Snape, Draco, Sirius Black, James Potter, Wormtail, Cedric Diggory, Viktor Krum, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Fudge, Rufeus Scrimgeour, Argus Filch etc. All very memorable characters, with, in my opinion, much more solidity and individuality. More, in short, to hang a fanfic on.

There's also a culture of heterosexual masculinity throughout the books which it's quite fun to disrupt by introducing a strong sexual element into it. Take this fic, 'I'm Not in Denial', which begins with a typical brawl between Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley that turns into a sexual assault. The fighting goes on as the relationship develops - most of the time the two don't know whether to fight or fuck, to put it crudely. This is an extreme example, but it's posssible that fans find this much more interesting - and unlikely, perhaps, so therefore more novel? - to read than a typical lesbian pairing, which is often based on deep meaningful conversations and frustrations with the men in their lives (certainly this is true of Ginny/Hermione).

Could it also be argued that women have the same kind of fascination with male homosexuality as men do with lesbianism, if male-aimed porn is anything to go by? This is certainly possible, and the lack of erotica addressing this interest could certainly be attributed to the domination of the sex industry by male desires and the expectation of women to fulfil them - just in the same way that there are hardly any male prostitutes compared to the numbers of females.

I suppose I don't know the answer. I certainly continue to find male homosexual relationships deeply interesting - perhaps it's the exoticism of it, givenI will never be able to participate in such a relationship myself. I don't know. But, going back to 'I'm Not in Denial', one thing I like very much about it is the effort to address stereotypes, the demonstration that males can experience homosexual desire without being feminised at all. It's a shame there aren't more teenage boys reading these fics, especially those who are uncertain about their own sexuality, but at least the stories exist. It's a start.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 3 - Fanfiction, an Introduction

I'm not going to say much here, partly because I've just written two posts and I have a life to lead. But I do want to lay down some preliminary questions about Harry Potter-related fanfiction, which I'm going to be thinking about over the next few weeks/months, especially as I continue to read examples of it:

  • Why do people write fanfiction? Is it to fill in gaps they've identified in the books, to explore issues that are not resolved, to alter the world to fit their preferences, to experiment with alternate possibilities? (I suspect all of these are true in some cases.)
  • Are there common themes in the stories that receive the most critical attention? (I am measuring critical attention in terms of numbers of reviews on a site such as or The vast majority of these reviews tend to be laudatory, often emphatically so.)
  • How are new romantic/sexual pairings presented, and how often are the characters kept IC (in character) or taken OOC (out of character) in order to present them?
  • How are themes that would be considered incompatible with the genre of children's literature (especially deviant sexual behaviour) presented?
  • Who writes fanfiction? Male or female? What kind of age? (In the media, the genre is largely presented as a realm dominated by teenage girls, but this cannot be exclusively true.)
  • How much of themselves do fanfiction writers tend to reveal about themselves, and how often does this relate to how they write or what they write about?
  • How often is the loose generic allocation of 'fantasy' to the Harry Potter books manipulated or destroyed?

I'm sure other questions will appear during the course of this series, but for now we'll leave it there.

Harry Potter: Part 2 - Class, an Introduction

One big issue that is pretty obvious throughout the Harry Potter series is that of social status, especially social class. Various analyses have pointed out that there are several kinds of parallels to be drawn between relations in the books and social relations in our world.

More particularly, there are consistent representations of characters who, in our world, we would consider to be of a lower social class. For instance, we have the house-elves, a species servile by nature and employed almost exclusively without pay. They are presented as approximations of humans: they comically wear pillowcases, they speak in a non-standard dialect, and seem not to be able to police their own speech, having to resort to injuring themselves if they speak ill of their employers.

Then there is Hagrid, who is presented both as uneducated (he was expelled from Hogwarts for a crime he did not commit, and supposedly had his wand snapped) and governed more by impulsive emotions than common sense or intelligence (he lets out school secrets in the pub, he likes to drink too much and loses his guard, he sobs when any of his precious animals are hurt or taken away). He is frequently mocked by Draco Malfoy (more on him later), and geographically is an outcast as he lives in a hut cut off from the elite world of the school. He is oversized and clumsy (he, even more famously than Dobby, has a noticeable regional accent, rendered as West Country by Robbie Coltrane in the films), and it is revealed that he is half-giant, suggesting his cognitive abilities may be different (and by different, let's be honest, most will read inferior) to those of full humans. In Deathly Hallows, he nearly kills Harry by getting a spell wrong (a motif common to underdog-type characters); in general he is more of an inadvertent antagonist than an active protagonist.

There are the Weasleys, who, we are constantly aware, don't have much money. They have to buy second-hand school materials. In Goblet this results in Ron making a fool of himself at the Yule Ball, because he has to wear old-fashioned, frilly dress robes, and Harry mocks him mercilessly. This is interesting, because Harry is generally quite conscious of Ron's lack of money, being quite rich himself, and it is possible that Rowling has disguised social disadvantage with clownlike appearance enough that it becomes acceptable to take the piss. More on them at some other point.

There are other characters who are worth examining aside from these -Lupin, for instance, and Neville, as well as Harry himself - but for now I want to shape these by mentioning a point made by Andrew Blake in his The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, which is that the Hogwarts house system could be seen to map quite neatly onto the British class system: Hufflepuff are the working-class labourers, who are relatively unskilled but highly dilligent; Gryffindor are the lower-middle-class, who are more educated but by no means intellectuals, and rely on their bravery and confidence to get them through; Ravenclaw are of course the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, and Slytherin are the "wicked aristocrats", rich and snobby.

I'm not sure I wholly agree with this - given Harry's wealth, and Ron's lack of it, I think Gryffindor is a less easily locatable social set, for instance - but the analogy does raise some interesting points. Bearing in mind the story of the origins of the Harry Potter books, which has now become something of a legend/myth - that Rowling wrote the books in cafes while she was a single mother on benefits - it is perhaps unsurprising that the very rich characters are the most evil. But it is more surprising that Hufflepuffs, the unskilled workers, are the least explored house in the books (Cedric Diggory is their main spokesman, and he is disposed of after four books), and the most obviously low-status.

As I mentioned briefly with Hagrid, the films reflect this class difference fairly reliably - especially the Slytherins. Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs and Ralph Fiennes all produce cut-glass drawls for Snape, Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort, as does Tom Felton, more or less, for Draco Malfoy. Both Felton and Isaacs are far less 'BBC' in their accents in real life. The G ryffindors, meanwhile, are less identifiable - whilst Richard Harris was fairly 'posh' (excuse the term), Michael Gambon's Dumbledore often sounds slightly Celtic, Professor McGonagall has a well-to-do Scottish accent, the Weasley parents are Midlands at times and RP at others, Ron/Rupert Grint have a non-RP Essex accent, and so on. Harry is fairly RP, and Hermione/Emma Watson is, it's fair to say, amongst the upper classes accent-wise.

This is where the films blur into real life, of course, since Emma Watson is certainly from a well-off family and went to a private school. Perhaps one could draw an analogy between her and the 'Posh Totty' in the film St Trinian's, who run a sex chatline with their Queen's English voices, given how objectified Watson has been by the media, especially tabloids and men's magazines.

This has been a fairly meandering exploration, mainly because it is possible to explore all of these points in more detail, which I inted to do at some point. The complement of class issues one can tease out of the books is by no means complete here. So there is definitely more to follow.

- Andrew Blake, The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter (Verso, 2002)

The Harry Potter books: Part 1

I've had an ongoing interest in children's literature for quite a few years now, both as a reader and critic. Parallel to that, I've always adored the Harry Potter books, and got quite into reading and writing fanfiction when I was about 14, a fascination which has never really left me.

More recently, I've discovered that there was a spate of books published about the Harry Potter series in 2002-4 (some of which have been reissued in revised forms since the Deathly Hallows came out), and have been reading a couple of them. They're riveting stuff, full of analysis of power relations, class issues, gender representations, alternative sexualities, the significance of blood, religion, reception and banning, the films etc. In particular, Suman Gupta's Re-reading Harry Potter is wonderful, though I haven't finished it yet.

To call the effect of the Harry Potter books a 'phenomenon' (and I think it's fair to include the films as an effect rathr than a cause of this phenomenon) is, in my view, totally justifiable. Never before had a series of books, let alone those ostensibly for children, been so devoured, banalised, universally known. (The Twilight series will never match this, because its audience is so limited to teenage girls. And, quite frankly, because they're dreadful.) So they deserve special attention, and how 'literary' or 'good' they are, or any other value-judgement-type terms you can think of.

Every time I start thinking about this kind of analysis in any detail, my mind fills up and goes mad. There is so much to say about these books. They are rich with characters, subplots and backstory, and nearly everything is of interest. So I'm going to write a series of entries on these books, looking at broad themes, posing questions, perhaps formulating answers to them. These entries probably won't be in any logical order. But I'm doing a media module as part of my teacher training course, so I think it is going to be extremely helpful to me to start getting my thoughts together, so hopefully I might be able to write about them in the future.

I will also be thinking about a selection of fanfiction texts, because for me and hundreds of thousands of other readers, they have become an integral part of the Harry Potter experience. Ditto the films - but replace 'hundreds of thousands' with 'millions'. I'm excited about this. Enjoy, folks!