The Genre of Suck


I’m struggling to revise an academic essay right now, a fanwank-y piece about the American TV show Supernatural [what else?]. However, unlike my usual SPN stuff, this essay centers not on feminist readings of fan practice but on the narrative tic-tock of the show itself.

That is, I’m struggling to say something useful (gods please) or even interesting about the canon side of things; specifically, about the angel Castiel’s shenanigans in season six and brief foray into godhood–via a postmodern critical lens, no less.

Sigh. And it sounded so cool as an abstract.

But man! do I suck at it, this kind of writing.

It’s not the mechanics of revision that are troubling me now. To the contrary, the editors of the maybe-collection in which said essay would appear have been kind, providing very thoughtful comments, suggestions, exhortations on the first drafty-as-fuck draft. So I know how to hack the thing into some kind of shape.


But re-reading [foundational rhetorical critic] Carolyn Miller this week has helped me to nail this sucker down, the thing that’s driven my confusion about the essay from the get-go: I don’t understand what the thing is supposed to do, in the end.

Miller argues that a genre is defined in large part by the “action it is used [by writers and readers] to accomplish” (151). So, ok, who cares if I can talk about a fictional avenging angel in terms of contemporary rhetorical theory and a Foucaultian analysis of power? Fundamentally, what action might such an essay be used to accomplish? And by whom?

Right! I don’t know!

That doesn’t mean there isn’t one, that there’s no action in play here. No. I just have no fucking clue what it might be because–when you get down to it–canon-centered fandom essays are not a genre I tend to hang out with, frankly.

Here’s Miller again:

A genre [she asserts] is a rhetorical means for mediating private intentions and social exigence; it motivates by connecting the private with the public, the singular with the recurrent (163).

That is, a genre offers a socially acceptable way for a writer/speaker to publicly express an individual intention in a manner that can be recognized by others.

So slash fic, for example–you know, just for instance–offers a genre through which writers can express a private intention to revel in, uh–

–within a generic form that’s socially acceptable [at least within particular communities of readers]. And the genre also provides sufficient constraints as to make an individual writer’s public expression recognizable to an audience, to someone other than the writer herself.

I suppose what I’ve discovered, then, in the process of battling with this essay is that I’m lacking a goddamn private intention here: I’m crafting a public expression that’s not grounded in me, necessarily, in a burning recognition of exigence to which I feel my scholarship must speak.

Maybe it’s the rhetorician in me talking [duh], but this experience has reminded me that I’m much more interested in what texts do, or what we do with texts, than in the content of the texts themselves. I mean, the content matters, dude; indeed, it was the content of one particular SPN episode [that I will be hatefucking in perpetuity, as my ex puts it] that put me on the road to fandom-centered scholarship.

Which is all well and good. But given that I agreed to play in a generic sandbox of another color, it might have behooved me to get a little dirty first.


3 thoughts on “The Genre of Suck

  1. so I had to read this through a couple of times to make it make sense, a fault of my unfamiliarity with the academic genre you’re studying. But I think I have a comment. Tonight I have been following tumblr, facinated by two users creating a ship (and thus fic) out of nothing but escalating text interactions. When you were talking about the in cannon arc of Cas as the new god, it occured to me that the new ship I was watching (2014 thigh holster Dean/Stanford Sam [or teen!Sam + bonus pilot!Dean- you know how tumblr gets…]) could not have happened if the characters were not already cannon. The language the tumblr users were communicating with, forming a new relationship for themselves and new a new relationship for the show’s characters, could not have happened without the cannon reference. The short character arc created for 2014 Dean is rich with possibilities and a commentary on what might already exist inside current Dean. Taking that character with all those implications and pairing him with Stanford era Sam created a layered, tragic, hopeful, bittersweet encounter (with porn, but, again, tumblr). A man at the end, bereft of his soulmate brother through misfortune and possible betrayal, facing the beautiful unsullied (mostly) version of that brother, still a boy with his whole life stretching out ahead. The meeting is not cannon, but the possibility of it is- the characters are writen, their scenes are played, and this universe allows for time travel. I could offer up an analysis of 2014 Dean or Stanford Sam (it would be psychology flavored, it’s what I know) and their various functions in the fabric of the cannon narrative (I won’t), and it would be completely colored and grounded in scenes from the show and the fiction written about them and their interactions. I couldn’t parse them apart. I can’t unknow fandom and my own headcannon. You brought your toys to play in a new sandbox, did you really think that they’d be completely old-sand free when you got there? You brought your ground with you, even if it was just a couple of grains of sand. Thanks for letting me ramble, best of luck with the essay.

    1. Cheers for your thoughtful response!

      Yes, that was a fascinating real-time ship creation, wasn’t it? And you’re right–

      >The meeting is not cannon, but the possibility of it is- the characters are writen, their scenes are played, and this universe allows for time travel

      So the generic constraints of Supernatural–or its allowances–make the 2014!Dean and Stanford!Sam pairing possible, even though it’s constructed from fanon (or headcanon, I think they call it on tumblr?) and good old fashioned slash.

      And maybe that’s where I erred, in trying to create this essay. As a fic writer, I take the kind of license you describe here for granted: canon is a space for me to mine for characters, plot, etc. and then I do want I want with what I dig up. Canon’s a productive place for me to go, usually, in my writing. But for some reason, in stumbling into this particular kind of academic engagement with canon, I’ve treated canon as a place of constraint rather than production. I feel as thought I’m playing by somebody else’s rules, with my toys in someone else’s sandbox, as you put it: when really, when you get down to it, we’re all starting from the same set of toys to begin with.

      I suppose this is a long way of saying that I’m a control freak. I like doing whatever the hell I want within the fan fic genres I choose, and I like to think that I spend as much time monkeying with those [sub?]genres (knotting, for example, or genderswap) as I do acknowledging the elements that make those genres work. I can’t do that, in this essay. I am answerable to someone else’s idea of what the final sandbox should look like, if that makes sense. I can either embrace that and move forward, or keep fighting it and make myself (and my editors) unhappy.

      Thank you–your response has helped me to write/think through this.

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