Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

07 Nov 2007, 2:09 a.m.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Making Out

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Once upon a time, I watched that OK Go treadmill video once a day for a week because it cheered me so. I'm currently there with times Stephen Colbert has broken character, set to "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen. Evidently "Don't Stop Me Now" is a popular montage tune on YouTube, mayhap inspired by that scene from Sean of the Dead.

In the comments, we see hordes of teenage girls noting that it's only n years till they can legally schtup Stephen Colbert. And indeed when we get to see Colbert's genuine smile it's quite winning. And this video is three and a half minutes of just those endearing moments, so of course it's cracktastic and attracts those gals. Maybe there are fanboys among the SQUEE! contingent too, but in their Twitter-length comments they'd have to justify why Colbert would divorce his wife AND TURN GAY for them at their 18th birthdays, and that takes a little longer than 140 characters.

The vid does not drive me to YouTube-comment-posting levels of lust; nonetheless, I enjoy The Colbert Report quite a bit. Certain episodes ("American Pop Culture: It's Crumbelievable" and the Decemberists shred-off) I've watched several times, and I maintain that "The Word" is changing how people understand Powerpoint. But I did not seek out the literary criticism, fan homages, fan music videos (aww), and fiction about Colbert written by amateurs until a few days ago. My reasons and findings: forthcoming.

If you don't know about slash and other fan fiction variants, or even if you do, there's no better intro than essays by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (whom I still haven't met!), such as: "Fanfic": force of nature; Squick and squee; Namarie Sue; and finally Punditslash. There is also a relevant xkcd cartoon in which the critical impulse turns into the creative impulse in four panels.

In case you think all slash is wrong, let me introduce you to the Very Wrong Slash community on LiveJournal. But what makes slash "wrong"? In the immortal Arrested Development distinction of "hot wrong" vs. "regular wrong," slash is only regular wrong if the author can't make her borrowed characters' actions believable. And it's easier to write fiction that's hot wrong using borrowed characters, because subversive and hot is like metahumor -- it works best when it's subverting something you have always taken for granted, not just taking a newly introduced idea one step further. And that varies by reader, like any taste or kink.

Example: I found this explicitly sexual Goofus & Gallant slash a little unbelievable, and it didn't overturn my mental furniture. In contrast, the moment I saw the name "Alton Brown" I said "Oh my God" aloud.

Alton grasped the edges of the counter, then moved his left hand along as if looking for something. He pressed a hidden button under the lip of the counter, and a shallow drawer concealed above the other drawers popped out. In it were .... could it be? Mike stopped [redacted] for a moment in sheer astonishment. Labeled in Alton's neat handwriting were half-a-dozen small screwtop jars: chocolate-cayenne, raspberry coulis, pineapple-mint, unflavored, cinnamon-clove, ginger-mango. There was also a stash of gloves and a beautifully polished marble french rolling pin, the kind that tapers. Alton cleared his throat. "Um, I've never liked the feel of the glycerin-based lubes, so I infuse my own silicone lube. I was.... I was hoping you'd like....." His voice tapered off, but this time it wasn't uncertainty, or ONLY uncertainty. It was invitation.

See, that helps you calibrate your standards for wrongness. Test yourself on this premise: alternate universe slash where Sarah Vowell, the casts of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann, and Tina Fey attend a high school where Jerry Seinfeld and Will Ferrell teach. Or crossover Colbert Report-Harry Potter fanfic (no sex, mind) where the Stephen Colbert persona is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Might it be hot-wrong in some nonsexual sense of the word "hot"? It's certainly funny.

Author's Note: I'm not sure if this counts as a fanfic, a parody of a fanfic, a fanfic of a parody, or all of the above. Whatever it is, I just had to write it.

Slash folks sometimes argue over which pair of characters belongs in a couple -- which is the One True Pairing? Troi/Riker or Troi/Worf? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or Stephen Colbert and Tad, his building manager? (Self-conscious Mahabharata slash could have some fun defining Draupadi's OTP.) What pair feels right?

But that feeling of OTP rightness fits, in good slash, with the elegant subversion that makes it pleasurably wrong. Erin Ptah's wonderful and Pratchett-influenced "The Thing With Feathers" is an example. The way she borrows Colbert and Stewart, they belong together -- yet she rearranges the reader's universe, disorienting and reorienting my experience of The Colbert Report.

Some people write RPS, or Real Person Slash, about celebrities. I find this more icky because now the writer is objectifying a real person. The layered nature of reality on The Colbert Report allows writers to play with RPS and Fake Person Slash in the same story, so some FPS lands in the RPS community and it gets weird. Weirder, anyhow. And that's as close as I come to the reflexive anti-fanfic stance I've seen in a few folks: Fan fiction is cheating, since you're not making up the characters or their universe. And you're stealing someone else's work, and you shouldn't publish it, and probably it's stupid for you even to be writing it, much less reading it.

It makes me happy to read good fiction, fan or pro. And it's edifying, although what I've learned about The Colbert Report will be in a future post. But is all of fanfic stealing, cheating, regular wrong?

Nope. Maybe it's my generation and the affordances of technology, including how we determine what is important or relevant. But smarter theorists than I, not least The Presidents of the United States of America, have long noted that all work is at least a little derivative. We emulate role models, we pass along memes, and we share. OK Go borrowed most of those treadmills.


Sumana Harihareswara
07 Nov 2007, 3:20 a.m.

I realized after posting that the Alton Brown fic could be considered RPS or FPS depending on how much of a persona you think he puts on for "Good Eats." If you wish, substitute "Square One TV" as an example. Or Encyclopedia Brown.

07 Nov 2007, 7:39 a.m.

Too Hot For MC Masala!

07 Nov 2007, 12:59 p.m.

Sumana insisted I post this as a comment. The elements that make the Alton Brown quote above slash also make it a work of satire. Slash is based on a common satirical technique of making the subtext explicit. Sumana and I have a song about this.