if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 20-some-odd years in fandom, it’s that I should not be writing this post
So a reader left a comment on byw 56 (really, more than one reader, and more than one comment) which I am addressing on Tumblr instead of on the AO3, because, basically, I did not have room to write a five thousand word essay back to them in my comments. I also apologize for my somewhat stilted use of no contractions before the cut; I am trying to get around a Tumblr bug that turns apostrophes and quotation marks and emdashes into display garbage on the dash.
First, let me back up for a second, because, to me, the most important part of my reply is my reasoning for why I am not, in fact, going to reply very directly to the actual specific questions that these specific readers asked. WELP SORRY! I apologize for this if it is frustrating; but, as those of you that have been around here for a while know, while I was in grad school (and before that when I was kind of perpetually underemployed) my primary source of income was tutoring K-12 students. Unsurprisingly, since I was headed for a STEM graduate degree, I taught a lot of math, but my primary tutoring area of focus was actually critical reading for students who were preparing for the SAT (note for non-U.S. readers: the SAT is the main ~college preparatory readiness~ exam in the U.S., your score on which heavily influences university admissions). And a big part of why I often do not like to answer questions about my writing, including some of the questions that these particular readers raised in these particular comments, is because for most of my adult life, I have fed and clothed and housed myself by failing to answer questions about writing by other people. When you are teaching someone to read critically, particularly when you are teaching young people to read critically, the most effective thing you can do is, very frequently, to not answer their questions, but to do so in a considered and deliberate way.
(Note: If talking about the idea of critical reading in a fannish context is going to peel your onions, you should maybe stop reading this essay right now.)
A story I’ve mentioned here before, because I’m planning to do stuff with it for my Tumblr writing accountability project, is “Sun and Shadow,” by Ray Bradbury, which I taught regularly when I was working with middle school kids. I love teaching this story because always, always, always, the very first question middle schoolers ask when they read it is, “Why did Ricardo take his pants down to the photographer?” To which the only possible reply is, “I don’t know, why do you think Ricardo took his pants down to the photographer?”
It’s infuriating, I’m sure, to be on the student end of that, but that’s literally why I use that story: it’s a great hook! If there’s one thing that middle schoolers will be interested by in a work of fiction, it’s grown-ass adults mooning other people in public. So I can basically guarantee that the first thing a student will do, after reading it, is ask me that question. And for that story, their first sort of… fumbling non- and half-answers to their own question open up a lot of other hooks into the meat of the story: what is the photographer doing, when Ricardo drops his pants? how does the photographer talk to and about Ricardo, and his house, and his son and his neighborhood and the dog? how does Ricardo talk and think about himself, and his house, and his son and his neighborhood and the dog? what is this story’s point of view? how does that point of view alter and guide the story? what would this story be like if it was told from the photographer’s point of view? would it be the same story? what is the “Sun” in this story? what is the “Shadow”? can you draw me a picture of the first scene of the story? And once I can get a student considering those questions, and looking at the story on a really granular, dissecting level, it opens up a lot of other questions, the kind that require students to use their empathy.
These questions are, for me, why we believe that humans—particularly K-12 students who we societally agree are not quite done baking yet—should read fiction. When they can ask: what is Ricardo feeling, that he says on the page? what is Ricardo feeling, that he doesn’t say on the page? how do you know? what does the photographer see? what does Ricardo see, that the photographer doesn’t? how does that seeing and not seeing in this story relate to race, and class, and power? how do those things relate to how Ricardo feels?; and then struggle to answer those questions with the text, they grow.
The reason why I mention all of this is twofold. First, it doesn’t matter if you’re twelve or twenty-five or fifty or ninety: I see a lot of value in letting people sit and grapple with discomfort and distaste and confusion in response to something that they have read. That’s almost, for me, a direct how-to for how fiction can be used to expand our empathy for other humans. And I personally, as a Tumblr-certified Old Person™ and a 36-year-old human and a chronic and voracious reader, continue to experience this on a really regular basis: that I read something, and it bothers me, and I just… can’t… let it… go. So then I talk about it with HBBO, or with my parents, or on Tumblr, or whatever, and the tearing apart that we do in those conversations, and all the accompanying meandering down byways and sidelanes, tends to make me a better reader; and it definitely makes me a better writer; and—I mean, YMMV, but—a lot of the time I think also makes me, as a person, more kind and merciful and thoughtful. Which is, most of the time, a struggle for me: I’m a very impatient person and I’m kind of judgemental; I am not naturally really very merciful or kind or thoughtful at all.
Second, the reason why you don’t usually answer questions for students, when you’re teaching reading, is that the instant you answer a question instead of asking a different one, you shut a door.
There are specific things, yes, that I want kids to get from reading “Sun and Shadow,” starting with how things like race and class and power affect the things we see and don’t see. But I routinely have students bring up things, even in fiction I have read many times and know very well, that I have never thought about or seen. If you ask smaller questions, and kind of… build the stepladder for a student to answer a question that has… been born in them, just from the reading, they will very frequently guide you to places that you have never been to before. And I approach writing fiction, including fanfic, the same way I approach reading fiction, including fanfic: with the assumption that fiction is always readable from a lot of different, open-ended interpretations, some of which the author, much like any given tutor or classroom teacher, has imperfect access to, or does not have access to at all. I want my students to show me those things that are hidden from me. And I don’t want to answer questions about my thinking vis-a-vis my own writing, and, by doing so, shut anyone else’s open doors.
All that said…
I know a lot of people get frustrated by the perception that all of what I just said above is, like, English-teacher-ese for, “There’s no right and wrong answers! Nothing matters! Everyone’s a squid!!” That’s not at all what it means. There aren’t very many hard and fast rules, but there are specific details that a reader can, and should be able to, take away from reading any given work. How they then weight and analyze those details has a lot of freedom of movement in it, as a process, but there are, in fact, words on a page (or a screen). In other words: yes, fiction has elements that are huge and also very open, relating to things like tone and significance and character motivation and meaning, but there are other things—concrete details—that bake some things into the story, and those things live in the words: the specific words in a specific order that the author put on the page. The range of interpretations that a reader can reasonably take away from those words always needs to be pinned back to those details, those words. That particular author-created page.
It would be sort of strange to read “build your wings” and interpret it as—for example—a meditation on the ways in which people, and cities, are, in 1921, haunted by the memory of WWI (*fistbumps @havingbeenbreathedout*). “build your wings” doesn’t have anything to do with WWI, on the page. It’s possible that you could read it metaphorically, as something having to do with WWI, or, idk, the space race, or an alcoholic lizard-man living out his last days in a hut in Tucson, if you wanted to; idk, knuckle down and prove it; but to do any of those things in a meaningful way, you would need to tie that metaphorical reading back to details in the story.
And this is where I get back to replying to the actual comments that I got on “build your wings” 56.
I want to start this bit by saying that another part of why I don’t usually reply to comments in comments is that while I am always really grateful for anyone in the universe who wants to read what I write, especially those kind enough to take the time to leave me a comment about it, there are some issues that will come up in comments—not necessarily frequently but inevitably, yes—that I just… can’t reply to, without replying to in a way that is in fact kind of critical of the commenter. Specifically: I have long experience in fandom that tells me that, as a queer person, writing about queer people, I am going to get comments that feel, to me, like parts of my experience and identity are under siege.
This isn’t necessarily an accurate or proportional emotional response or anything, and it’s not like I think commenters do it out of malice; I just know that not everyone reading my stuff is coming from the same place as me, when it comes to the issues surrounding queer sexuality and complicated gender identity. I know to expect all of that, and I know myself, and I think a lot about the tone argument and everything and how I know I have a right to feel the way that I feel, but I also think that there’s a power relationship between an author and the person leaving that author comments that I don’t think it’s possible to get around, and I think that it’s easy for that to slip into territory where the author is, essentially, punching down. Even if the author is responding to something that’s cut at their sense of their own identity in a way that is painful, and painful for reasons that have to do with ways that that author is, themselves, oppressed. Even if that author is me. I also think that it’d be pretty fucking rude to tell someone saying nice things about my story that they’re doing it wrong, and I try, believe it or not, to avoid the temptation to be rude unnecessarily. All of this means it’s easier for me to just make it a policy matter: I don’t reply to comments in comments. You can be absolutely certain that I read your comment and was grateful for your comment and that you read my story. The very real warm fuzzies I got from that, you may take as read. But anything that beyond that that I may have thought, or felt, in reply to a comment, has the potential to get… a little bit dicier. So let’s just leave it be.
But I’m responding to this commenter. These two commenters, really. And yes, I am going to be critical of some of the things that those commenters said, because I found some parts of these comments really painful. Even if it’s rude of me to say so. Even if it, in fact, steps over into territory that you might feel is me punching down. For that: I apologize. But sometimes you have to be rude to be heard; and I have gotten a lot of comments like this, over the past three years, and I am just not comfortable letting comments like this just rest, anymore.
There are a couple specific ideas in the comments that I want to talk about. The first has to do with “switchlock”, or—more generally—questions of who is the “top” and who is the “bottom,” and “subbing”, and “masochism”, and kink. First: questions about John “topping” Sherlock, by which commenters appear to usually mean penetrating him anally, have come up many times since I started writing “build your wings,” and I’ve written about the question of John penetrating Sherlock as a metatextual issue before, so I’m not going to rehash it here again any more than I absolutely have to. I also feel like the whole story, but especially pt. 55 and pt. 56, are textually extremely clear about Sherlock having a lot of issues surrounding both sexual vulnerability in general and, specifically, being on the receiving end of anal penetration, not the least of which is that he says, outright, that he doesn’t enjoy it. So I think that we should be good, at this point, on that—particular detail level. John and Sherlock’s views on buttsex are, I think, at this point, pretty clear.
However, there are some more things going on, vis-a-vis my authorial relationship to these comments, and a lot of them have to do with what’s not on the page, so, having been invited to do so (yeah, I know, I’m really pushing that one to the edges, but whatever), and having acknowledged that I found these comments, in some ways, painful, I am going to just… make a bunch of broad statements about my perception of sexual reality, and then one broad statement about authorial intent, and then I’m going to… toss a few questions back into the readerly court.
I’m a queer lady. Over the past twenty-plus years, I have had a lot of queer sex. Not all queer people have sex the same way; however, I am familiar on a first-hand basis with how at least, hm… twenty? twenty-five? of us do; and that experience was spread across four major US cities and one significant international location, so it wasn’t, like, I tripped into this one tiny group of queers who all learned how to have sex with each other, and just each other, and so we all happened to do it the same way. I don’t even really think there is a “same way.” I’ve also had quite a bit of sex with queer men, more than once with more than one of them at the same time; and one of my long-time partners was a straight-up gay dude who was taking, with me, a detour down the lady-screwing garden path. I also have a lot of queer friends, including queer dude friends, and sex and queerness are a big part of my life and of our friendships, and we talk about sex in a lot of different conversational contexts, a lot of the time. I am, therefore, I think, also pretty close to as familiar with how queer dudes have sex with each other as it is possible for a person who has never actually been one to be. My experience isn’t universal and I wouldn’t claim it to be, and no, anecdotes (plural) are not data; but I can speak for a nonzero percentage of the real, actual, happened-in-fact sexual experiences of like two dozen queer people, and the real, actually self-presented if possibly somewhat fictionalized sexual narratives of maybe another three dozen queer people, many of these queer people in both categories being dudes, both dudes who have sex with one other in the abstract and also a nonzero number of whom who were in fact having sex with each other in my presence; and I can say that not a single one of those queer sexual interactions that I have had or witnessed or heard about over cocktails or fantasized about with a partner as foreplay (or during-play) looks even remotely like the fanfic-standard, either-100%-fucker-0%-fuckee-or-50%-catch-50%-pitch-but-basically-100%-anal model of dude-on-dude sexual play. My personal perspective is by definition narrow, but I find most queer sex in fanfic wildly unrealistic. Even when it’s hot, even when it’s well written, it ~ ~ ALMOST NEVER ~ ~ looks anything like the queer sex that I, in fact, in reality, have had.
The thing about queer sex is that it’s, well, queer. This next statement actually isn’t me throwing shade, though it kind of sounds like it, but: we show up having stepped past lines that straight people, very often, just assume are there, restricting what they can and can’t do. But our rules start out broken.
This plays out in a lot of different ways. For one thing, within a lot of queer communities, the boundary between “kink” and “vanilla” is very permeable: a whole bunch of things that, very frequently, seem super kinky to straight people are just how we fuck. Examples? Oh, well, vaginal fisting leaps to mind!! Rimming is arguably in this category too, depends on who you ask; what about strap-ons? Lesbian sex often though not always involves strap-ons. Sometimes gay dude sex does, too, especially though not exclusively for trans dudes. I legit own and use—sometimes for comedic purposes, sometimes because it’s hot—a dildo that looks like a green iridescent tentacle. Straight people, I don’t even know; sometimes I think all y’all discovered vibrators with Sex and the City and bondage with 50 Shades of Grey: I can’t competently go into the long literary history of marginalized people having nonstandard sex, but how about instead you just go and read Tales of the City installments from the ‘70s and come back and talk to me after.
It is true that in some contexts, some men who have sex with men use the word “top” to mean the person who is penetrating anally, and “bottom” to mean the person who is being penetrated, but those words don’t actually mean that to all queer people, not even all men having sex with men, in all contexts, all the time. A whips-and-chains “top” can prefer to be an anal sex “bottom.” An anal sex “bottom” can find sexual power play, like being dominated, repellant. Sometimes these labels are parts of a person’s identity; sometimes they are, instead, a shorthand way of describing what they want this particular person to do to them on this particular Tuesday. Sometimes men who are, in that moment, having sex with other men would all rather be the penetrator than the penetratee. Sometimes that leads into them switching off; sometimes it means they just don’t do anal. Sometimes it means that one of them lets the other fuck him up the ass even though he’s not really that into it, because he wants that particular sexual joy for his partner.
On top of all of that, transactional orgasm exchange, which can be a big part of het sex and often seems to me to be implicitly a part of the fandom “top”/“bottom” anal-focused mental architecture, doesn’t map at all well onto a lot of the sex that all us queer people are actually out here having. If you have an experience that you enjoy when someone has their fist up your butt, even if you can’t come from it, is that sex? Is it sex if your partner keeps doing it to you after? If you spend the day rolling around in bed talking and making out and dry-humping, how much of that is sex? How do you know when you’re done having sex if both of you are multiply orgasmic? How do you know if neither of you is orgasmic at all?
Tough questions, man. But… not questions that queers generally worry about that much while we’re fucking. We tend to be a lot more concerned about whether or not we like what we’re doing. Whether or not our partner likes what we’re doing. Whether or not we have, in fact, their consent: to touch them a particular way, to kiss them a particular way, to use a particular word for their genitals, to stick a particular body part in or against whatever hole or not-hole we are at any particular moment hoping to aim for.
Related to and compounding all of that definitional trouble that can make words like “top” and “bottom” and “kink” and “vanilla” so hard to nail down in a lot of queer contexts, queer sex also tends to be super, super improvisational: it has to be, if you start out by throwing the social script for “how humans have sex” out the window. I can’t put my penis in anyone else’s vagina, no matter how much they may want me to; I don’t have a penis; if you call anything I do have a penis it will weird me out. But if she likes it, I can fuck my partner with my big red double-ended cock. I can tell my best girl to get on his knees to suck on my tentacle, whenever he wants me to. So when you start out by saying: everything we learned on the playground about how grownups do sex makes zero sense; and layer with: but we want to give each other sexual pleasure; and then mix in: a huge swathe of how we are driven to do that, the norms think is incredibly weird; is it “kink,” to smack our partners’ butts, if they want us to?
Or is that just how we make love to each other?
The second thing I want to raise, here, is that a lot of these questions, and fandom’s typical answers to them, are either implicitly or explicitly gendered. The original comment that kicked off this essay drew a conceptual link among penetration, and big dicks, and masculinity; that commenter is certainly not alone in going for that particular bit of connective conceptual tissue, but quite frankly, if a queer person is thinking in those terms, they are almost by definition playing with gender. If your framework involves penetration = = big dicks = = masculinity, and you are a dude screwing another dude and you want to do anal, immediately that is going to make one of you less of a man. That can be something that’s fun to play with, but it doesn’t ever happen in a vacuum. Do you want to be less of a man? Does your partner? Is that a mental framework that you, or your partner, is going to resent? Is it something that lends a little extra spice to your fucking? Do you want to do it every day? Does it make you feel more connected to yourself, or less? Is it a game that you play on alternate Sundays, but need to leave behind the rest of the time? It can be any of those things, or all of those things, or something else besides; but most queer sex by definition isn’t the kind of sex where a man does man sex things and a woman does woman sex things and the man’s manliness and woman’s womanliness are reinforced by the way that they are fucking. That is—again, almost by definition—not what we do.
And honestly, since I am the person writing this story, it seems like it’s probably relevant that if you’re trying to sell the penetration = = big dicks = = masculinity conceptual connection, that isn’t something that I’m going to buy, pretty much ever. I just don’t find it useful for or resonant with my experience of sexuality: again, I’m a queer femme lady with a kind of complicated relationship to gender who mostly but not exclusively likes to fuck other queer ladies but also spent a nonzero amount of time—among other things—using her strap-on to plough a butch dude firefighter who liked to wear frilly panties. When two queer people have sex, it can be that one of them pretends to be “the man” while the other is “the woman,” but it sure as fuck doesn’t have to be. I’d go so far as to argue that a big part of what makes a lot of us queer is that most of the time, we actively do not want to have sex where one of us is “the man” and one of us is “the woman.” Specifically, in my experience, even when you’re talking about pink-feather-boas-and-lacy-knickers hyper-femme queer girls like me, if offered the opportunity to do another girl pretending to be a dude while we dial it up to 11 on being a lady, an awful lot of us would dramatically prefer to have sex where both of us pretend to be dudes. Legit! I’m dead serious! Nuts, I know, right? But it feels gayer, and we like being gay, and therefore—for us!—that way’s more fun.
My point here is that gender identity and gender play fit in and around all that maybe-kinky-maybe-not queer sex we’re having in ways that—again—don’t necessarily look anything like the fandom-standard model, which—in addition to being very focused on anal penetration with a flesh-and-blood penis, in addition to being very focused on either a) 50%/50% switching or b) 100%/0% someone’s-sticking-it-in dynamics—tends to be very, very masculine, and have a complicated-verging-on-aggressively-negative version of both femaleness and femininity. This is certainly a way that queer dudes can have sex with each other, no doubt. It might even be a common model, I don’t know, I don’t have the statistics one way or another. But, again: it is not how I, as a queer person, fucking other queers and watching other queers fuck and talking to other queers about fucking, have experienced real live queer people—including queer dudes—getting busy.
Authorial intent statement time! All of this? That last two thousand words of this essay? This is a huge part of what I’m thinking about, when I’m working on “build your wings.”
And here is where I start kicking questions back to you, the reader:
If a queer person is writing a story about queer sex, and that sex doesn’t look the way you think that sex should look, why is that queer person doing that writing?
This question works, really, however you identify: I’m a queer woman, writing about sex between queer men. I’m usually but not exclusively attracted to women, and I’m hella turned on by playing with and at gender, which—again—is a complicated part of my identity. So why am I writing about sex that looks so little like the sex that you expect to be reading about in fanfic? Am I writing about sex I think is hot? Am I writing about sex I’ve had? Am I writing about sex that I’ve thought about? Talked about? Seen? All of the above? None? Some? Am I just a weird pervert? Am I hopelessly fucked up about gender? You tell me, friend! I’ve just told you: when I fuck, it doesn’t look like you are expecting queer fictional people to fuck. When my friends fuck, it doesn’t look like you are expecting queer fictional people to fuck, either. So why? And why am I spending all this time writing about the specific sex that I am, in fact, writing about; and not the other? I must be getting something out of it, but I’m sure as hell not getting paid. So why do I do it? Do I get something from it personally, do you think? Do I get something from it in the context of fandom? Do I get something from it in the context of our broader society? For that matter, why are you expecting the kind of sex that you are expecting? What do you get out of it, personally? What do you get out of it in the context of fandom? What do you get from it in the context of our broader society?
How does the tension between the sex you are expecting and the sex that I am writing relate to gender, and sexuality, and power?
How does that tension relate back to consent?
And what space does the kind of sex that I am having my characters have give my characters to be those characters, and the story to be this story, within the context of the 478 pages that I have written? The additional… oh, 250 pages or so, that I have yet to go?
Because remember: this is a crafted work. All fiction—including fanfic—is crafted, and it’s really important not to lose sight of that. This isn’t, like, the arbitrariness of brutal reality; it isn’t born out of nowhere; it is, instead, something for which, as an author, I make choices. And, for a story that is, by volume, approximately 68.2% queer people navigating how to touch each other, an awful lot of those choices have to do with how I craft the ways in which they are, in fact, touching.
So what choices did I, in fact, make?
What words about touching did I, in fact, put on the page?
What implications do those choices have, for how you perceive these characters that I am writing, doing all that touching?
Why do you think I made those choices, to have them touch, and not touch, each other like that?
And how do you think those choices relate to the choices I make in crafting the other 31.8% of the story?
One of the biggest things that I am going to come right out and say that you have to grapple with, when thinking about all these questions, is that John is my point of view character. I never leave his head—which means that you, as the reader, are stuck in there too. John is just a human, and he’s not psychic; but most of the time, in this story, there’s one or more other people in the room—and an awful lot of that time, that other person is Sherlock. So at any given point in the story, you can ask yourself: what is Sherlock thinking? What is Sherlock feeling? What does Sherlock want?
And then you can ask yourself: why do I think that?
If it’s based on something John is narrating for me, how do I know that John is narrating it right?
You can ask all those questions about John, too, for the record—but the terms change, for John, because you have a much more generally unmediated access to his insides, since he is the point of view character. But is John always aware of what he wants? Is he always on board with what he wants? Does what John wants and feels remain constant, from moment to moment? If, instead, it’s changing, why, and how; and how do those shifts alter what John thinks and says and does—for example, when he is spending some quality time touching Sherlock, in the ways that the author has now authorially said with her author-hat on, look significantly more like the quality queer touching that she in fact personally does than you are, as a fandom reader, expecting?
Some things to think about, alongside all those questions that I’m not answering.
I’ll finish this with the question I finish with when I’m grappling with any work of fiction, including “Sun and Shadow” with my middle schoolers, including myself whenever I finish reading a book or a story. It’s sort of—the final hurdle, when you’ve already asked yourself a lot of little questions about a story, and you feel like you’ve found some ins to empathize with its characters. Annoying caveat time, though: it’s one of those big open-ended questions for which there isn’t, really, a single right answer. Not on anything. Not on “build your wings”; not even for me, and I’m writing it. For me I’ve got the whole story in my head, in a sort of… sketchy, somewhat-transparent form; and I still have like four or five different answers, on any given day. For the biggest, highest-level approach to interpreting the question… maybe only two or three. So I encourage you to answer this question for yourself, here after pt. 56 of 80, but I also encourage you to go back, maybe in a few weeks, maybe after another chapter or two, whatever you think; and then ask yourself again, to see if your answer has changed. But whatever you decide, and re-decide, and end up reconsidering, for your answer to be meaningful, it ultimately has to be tied down to the choices I made as a writer, about what words in what order I decided I wanted to put down on the page.
What is this story about, anyway?