When Harry met Richard, David and bilbo...

March 10, 2006

Cultural Exchanges Arts Festival
De Montfort University

At last it can be revealed: Richard Madeley is pregnant with David Beckham's baby. Impossible? Not in the world of slash fiction. Written (mostly) by heterosexual female fans of popular television and film, the genre features fantasies about gay sexual relations among well-known characters, especially those from Tolkien, the Harry Potter books and, of course, Star Trek .

Such stories first appeared in fanzines in the 1970s and have now migrated to the internet, where textual poachers "borrow" fictional characters to put them in situations only hinted at by their original writers. The latest fantasies are male pregnancy (mpreg), the spontaneous growing of wings and the manipulation of real celebrities, known as RPF, or real-person fiction.

The slash fiction study day was part of the annual Cultural Exchanges Arts Festival held at De Montfort University. That it took place at all is down to a rash promise that Ian Hunter made at the Tolkien 2005 conference, and the fulfilment of that promise is a compliment to De Montfort's sense of experimentation. Despite competition from a talk by Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter, the event still attracted a large crowd, 99 per cent of whom were white, middle class and female.

The day began with a disconcertingly high level of bonhomie, occasioned perhaps by the coming-together of so many people who share a common, rather geeky and illicit pleasure and who have just realised that there are others just like them.

Robin Anne Reid, professor of literature and languages at Texas A&M University, began by talking about the legal and moral implications of using celebrities in RPF. A later session explored the importance of pseudonyms. Reid "outed" herself as "Ithiliana" during the proceedings. All slash fiction authors use pseudonyms, not only because of the explicit nature of their material, but also because a large number seem to be teachers who do not wish to be accused of paedophilia or academics who do not want to be accused of being a closet Trekkie.

I went to Leicester with trepidation. I had expected a lot of over-intellectual bluestockings talking the latest theoretical cant. But I found none. Despite the faint whiff of hockey sticks and gymkhanas, there were good speakers talking sense about an odd subject in the company of friends. Although theory was hardly mentioned, the postmodern context was obvious. These women are indeed among the bricoleurs whom Derrida saw as the linchpins of the postmodern. In finding texts without centres, where something apparently was missing, a true sense of "supplementarity"

emerged. In dealing with literature in which men feature but male readers are effectively excluded, there is that "wildness" that anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardener first identified in the 1970s, exactly when fan fiction took off.

Sheenagh Pugh, senior lecturer in creative writing at Glamorgan University who is currently shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry, pointed out these women wrote "because they could and because it was fun". Given the trivial nature of the content and the barmy excuses for a literature of shagging and even despite heroic efforts to legitimise a subject when it needs no legitimising, this seemed a suitable answer to anybody who asked the question, "Why bother?"

Clive Bloom is professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University and author of Gothic Horror , the second edition of which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in the autumn.

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