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[META] Russian Priest Uses Internet Memes to Fight Slash

When I first read this article titled “Russian Orthodox Priest Starts a vKontakte Group to Battle Slash”, thanks to a tip from from teddybearsandspaceships, I clicked straight to the vKontakte group in question (vK is generally known as “the Russian facebook”) and at first was convinced the page had to be a none-too-clever satire.

I mean, “battling slash” using internet memes? Earnestly explaining that an overinvestment in fictional characters screwing each other would lead young girls to ignore boys their own age who were trying to court them? A genuine attitude of “slashers are wonderful people! We only want to save them from the evils of this terrible hobby”? It had to be a joke, right?

But no, according to the article – posted originally on a news site covering the southern regions of Russia – it was all completely serious. 

Some background on Russia and Fan Cultures

The thing I find particularly fascinating about this is that in all of this it seems like the article finds the priest and his focus on fighting slash a bit odd but what the article doesn’t find odd is, for example, fanfiction. Or slash itself. 

As a Russian speaker who grew up on the fringes of the Russosphere, the way the article described fan culture was emblematic, to me, of how I’d always experienced it within my community. I never had any trouble telling my parents or friends that I wrote fanfic or made vids or graphics or anything of the sort. There was no shame in creativity and devoting my time to science fiction in particular was always considered a worthy intellectual pursuit. This wasn’t because my parents were “geeks” (indeed, I never identified as a geek despite being actively in fandom since I was 13), but because of the different status of both science fiction as a genre and creative spare time pursuits in general in the post-Soviet Russian speaking world as opposed to the English one.

To put it simply, in a country where the overwhelming majority of college graduates were engineers, everyone had a hobby. People sang, acted, wrote, composed, all in addition to their day-jobs. Many authors, poets, musicians of the Soviet era were scientists by trade. 

The starkest example, to me, of how differently fanfiction was treated in my world as opposed to the English speaking corners of the internet I inhabited, was this: my parents bought me printed, illustrated, hardcover fanfiction when I was in middle school, without even bothering to tell me that it wasn’t canon.

Having read Lord of the Rings in Russian (highly recommended, by the way, but that’s a different post), I was delighted to discover that Frodo’s adventures had sequels, past “Return of the King”. Under the New Year tree, one year I received all six of Nick Perumov’s books – the first three set in Middle Earth.

It took me a very, very long time (since I was never active in LotR fandom) to discover that in the English speaking world, no one knew that Tolkien’s work had sequels. Where to me it was so obvious – all my friends had read Perumov’s books, I had them up on the shelf, in beautifully illustrated hardcover, right next to the original trilogy. 

On How Slash is Perceived

This general disregard for copyright, prevalent in Eastern Europe to this day in every major industry (film, music, books) and a much more favorable attitude to fannish pursuits in general, brings us back to the priest, father Alexei, who’s decided to fight slash on the internet.

As the article states, father Alexei originally came to meetings of a Sherlock Holmes fan club in Moscow, where most fans were into the recent BBC version. He was surprised when one of the first questions he got from the audience was “will we be discussing slash themes?” It was then that slash was explained to him.

It’s amazing to me, after reading article upon article in English over the past few years where fanfiction was treated as inferior, threatening, weird, illegal or amoral, how completely neutral and nonchalant the Russian description here is and how accurate, considering some of the ways I’ve seen slash characterized elsewhere.

“Slash is a genre of hobbyist creations (“fanfiction”) which depicts sexual relations between same-sex characters of well known works where said characters had no homosexual feelings for each other in the original. Among the most popular examples – homosexual fantasy about the characters from the Harry Potter book series.”

The entire article takes a somewhat amused tone at the priest’s preoccupation with slash and his attempts to “eradicate” it, all while never classifying slash readers as exclusively women nor characterizing slash as a genre concerned only with male characters. (I also love that they used Sherlock BBC fanart for the cover photo).

In fact, in the priest’s description of the group of slash fans he originally encountered male description words are used. Of course Russian, a gendered language, has a tendency to use male words to describe a group even if it has a female majority, but I still find it interesting that slash is not perceived automatically as the interest purely of women, in the same way that gendered perceptions of literature (Jane Austin wrote “girl books”, for example) are different in different cultures. In Israel, the media used to refer to the “Twilight” series as “teen fiction” until the books became so popular in the US that the coverage started to reach over oceans and seas. Eventually “Twilight” was re-branded as “books for girls”, because of the influence of the US market.

In the vKontakte group there’s mention of the fact that slash is “particularly popular with young women and girls” but then, the explanation given for why “fewer boys are into slash” is that they feel like the genre “steals the girls’ attentions from them.”

Fighting the Battle Using Internet Memes

Lastly, the group itself is almost too surreal to be believed. 

The logo itself is a crossed out “/”, the posts consist of internet memes such as an old Russian lady yelling “why don’t you try making your father and your neighbor into a ‘pairing’?” as if trying to emphasize the inappropriateness of doing this to fictional characters, joke graphics of BBC Sherlock dreaming of moving to Russia – to have a wife and child (and lots of borscht at last!). There are stills of Sherlock with the anti-slash sign photoshopped in to warn viewers “not to speculate too much” about Sherlock’s precarious lying-down-like position, advice posts on living a “healthier” life that includes riding bicycles and going to sleep early instead of staying up late on the internet. As a sign of achievement the group even posted this graphic, ostensibly created by slashers, with an anti-slash symbol painted on Batman’s chest and the words “they got in the way of our fapping”.

And of course, my favorite part is that despite being a product of the Russian Orthodox Church (which frowns on homosexuality) many of the arguments posted in the group are the same sort I’m used to seeing around fandom. For example, the claim that slash appeals to women who hate weakness, politeness, emotional-ness, and other typically “female” characteristics and slash is so popular because it allows women to pretend they’re straight men – tough, quiet, strong – while still maintaining their own heterosexual interest, and so making these straight men be interested in other men, instead of women. The argument is that to love slash is to hate femininity and that a real “pro woman” stance would mean embracing the qualities that slash seeks to erase.

Other arguments include the claim that slash is simply unbelievable and that it’s ruining the depictions of friendship in media. “First male-female friendship was undermined to such a point that any two characters of the opposite sex in a story are assumed to have sexual tension and now male-male friendship is being undermined…” 

None of these arguments hold much water, but they do touch on issues of gender and sexuality and representation that I think are present in slash, and academic and fannish discourse on slash, and taken together with the way the page seems completely fluent in fandom terminology I’m impressed at how well organized this effort is, how well it knows the phenomenon it’s fighting.

Of course, all of this does tie into anti-gay rhetoric used by the Orthodox church in Russia – the possibility that slash could be appealing to anyone but straight teens is never even mentioned – and the attitude is very much that of “saving” slashers from themselves, steering them away from this harmful hobby and into a healthier way of life. 

It’s tough to say how many of the “anti-slasher” vK group’s followers (379, as of this writing) are there because they sympathize with the cause versus how many are there for the lolz. The original article quotes father Alexei saying, “Slash groups on vK consist of hundreds of thousands of members. Every fandom-related group has slash stories, slash graphics, video, audio. We’re just a handful of people. But thousands will agree with our thinking and together we can make a difference on social networks.” 

Whether or not the effort to eradicate slash is successful (my money is not on father Alexei, I’m afraid), I find it interesting, yet again, that the struggle here is occurring on the Russian version of facebook – not an arena anyone wanting to confront English speaking slash fandom would have likely chosen. 

[META] “The Last Ring-bearer”

Guest post by Helen W.

I follow how fan fiction is perceived by nonfannnish society through a weekly survey of references to fan fiction in mainstream media (somewhat broadly and arbitrarily defined). The past few weeks, I’ve been seeing a number of references to fan fiction in the context of the discussion of a recent English translation of Russian scientist Kirill Yeskov’s The Last Ring-bearer (Последний кольценосец), a 140,000 word novel “set during and after the end of the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of [J.R.R. Tolkien's] The Lord of the Rings) and told from the point of view of the losers“, according to Salon’s Laura Miller.

Though sold commercially in Russia, and in translation in several European languages, fear of the Tolkien estate has kept an English translation from being professionally published.

Several months ago, Yisroel Markov, who claims he spent “several lunch hours” on the project, produced a full translation of The Last Ring-bearer and, with the blessing of Yeskov, put a link to a download on his LiveJournal. And then the fun began.

I first became aware of The Last Ring-bearer via articles on Guardian.co.uk and Lovereading UK. Though the headlines of both articles imply the Tolkien estate is actively working against the dissemination of The Last Ring-bearer (“Free fan-fiction reworking of The Lord of the Rings infringes copyright”; and “Lord of the Rings reworking a hit with fans, but not Tolkien estate”), the estate’s response has actually been pretty muted. Quoting from the Guardian piece, David Brawn at HarperCollins, Tolkien’s exclusive publisher, said: “To my knowledge, none of us have ever been approached to publish this book.” Russia has operated outside copyright “for years”, Brawn added, though the situation is now changing. “Online there are lots of infringements which it is extremely difficult to do anything about,” he said. “When you get something as popular as Tolkien, fans want to create new stories. Most are pretty amateurish. Tolkien himself isn’t around so it’s the estate’s view that it’s best to say no to everything. If you let one in, you’d open the floodgates.”

( Compare this to recent press reports of the estate’s response to Steve Hilliard’s Mirkwood: A Novel about J.R.R. Tolkien. )

Mainstream attention to The Last Ring-bearer might have ended there if it hadn’t been for Salon’s Laura Miller, who published a lengthy piece on the novel on Feb. 15. Of particular interest to me was Miller’s closing: “Yeskov’s “parody” — for “The Last Ringbearer,” with its often sardonic twists on familiar Tolkien characters and events, comes a lot closer to being a parody than “Wind Done Gone” ever did — is just such a reminder. If it is fan fiction (and I’m not sure I’m in a position to pronounce on that), then it may be the most persuasive example yet of the artistic potential of the form.”

Miller’s piece caught the attention of, among others, The Atlantic’s Mark Bernstein, who wrote on his blog, “It’s a probe of the former Soviet Union and an examination of memory and of history, and if the rest of the book lives up to its opening chapters, much [of Miller's views on other subjects] may be forgiven.” A mention of Miller’s piece on Slashdot has garnered 581 comments. Showing an amazing lack of knowledge of fan fiction, a piece on Mumbai Mirror began, “Every story has two versions. However, for the longest time J R R Tolkien’s epic three-part novel Lord of the Rings was the only version of life on Middle Earth and the dark lord Sauron its main villain. However, a new book titled The Last Ringbearer looks at the War of the Ring (the climactic battle at the end of LOTR) from the perspective of the people of Mordor.”

And on The Moviefone Blog, Eric Larnick wrote, “How would you react if we told you a secret installment of ‘Lord of the Rings’ in some other-worldly language existed, circulating among a few intrepid literary archivists, building in rumor to the point of myth? Now what if we told you that that new ‘Lord of the Rings’ story has finally arrived Stateside — and that you can read it for free right now. Curious? […] [W]hen you’re done reading it, we can all begin speculating when the big-screen adaptation will finally happen (most likely the year 2350 when copyright law is abolished in the Great Disney Wars.)”

I’m still trying to figure out what this means, if anything, for fan fiction. Does a generally positive reaction to The Last Ring-bearer bleed over into respect for the thousands of fics published every day with no notice outside of fandom? I fear the opposite – that The Last Ring-bearer, alongside professionally-published works of highly derivative fiction (e.g. Wide Sargasso Sea, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) provides opportunities for the offhand insult of fan fiction in general. (Incidentally, Salon has also published a translation by Markov of an excellent essay by Yeskov, written for a fanzine in 2000, about why he wrote The Last Ring-bearer.)

I also can’t help but wonder how the coverage of The Last Ring-bearer would be different if Yeskov was a woman, or had written the novel anonymously so that Yeskov’s career in science wouldn’t be a legitimizing factor. Or whether there’d be any mainstream notice at all (tens of thousands of Lord of the Rings stories on the internet suggest not).