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Hurt-comfort: generic considerations

By:Dwimordene
 June, 7 2008

Marta recently linked to a hurt/comfort 'advice' essay by 000_hester_000. It got me thinking enough to put fingers to keys and the result was something much longer than could be posted on LJ by an anonymous poster.

   ~~~

Marta recently linked to a hurt/comfort 'advice' essay by 000_hester_000. It got me thinking enough to put fingers to keys and the result was something much longer than could be posted on LJ by an anonymous poster, for all that it bears traces of that original posting format.

But I am also not getting an LJ, due to weakness of will; and out of laziness of character, I don’t feel like specially formatting the thing to put on my own site. I decided to post my reflection here instead, and not in the fic archive, because although writing-related, this is an essay without specific reference to Tolkien fanfiction. (If this is still deemed unacceptable, I’ll remove the journal.)

The original essay that prompted me to write is here: http://community.livejournal.com/fanficrants/6818073.html?format=light

~ 0 ~


This is a fun piece that speaks to a lot of frustrations that most readers can sympathize with, no doubt. However, I found that reading it back through the quick discussion on Marta's LJ crystallized something that was dissatisfying to me, and which is in general dissatisfying to me where this kind of essay is concerned.

On Marta's LJ, in the comments section, it was noted that most of the advice can be generalized to apply to *any* story. That generalizability is interesting to me (as well as slightly frustrating) because I think that it comes of not quite identifying the subject to be critiqued. What stories qualify as “hurt/comfort”? What does the label “hurt/comfort” pick out?

From one perspective, as a simple description of one aspect of a story, I think it is uncontroversial to say many stories (almost any story, really) are 'hurt/comfort': taken broadly, unless you're writing an unmitigated tragedy [1] or else humor, the dramatic arc will probably entail someone suffering and then finding relief with family, friends and/or lovers (and hopefully, an end of the situation that caused the suffering, though at least, there ought to be a serious addressing of that situation even if it cannot be undone all at once). I think that often, advice essays, like the one linked to, take this to be what 'hurt/comfort' is or implicitly assume that there is a significant continuity between h/c and any other kind of fiction writing. [2] This assumption helps to account for why advice columns that take aim at 'hurt/comfort' tend to give advice that is easily generalizable to all kinds of non-h/c stories on the assumption that stories have similar structural requirements.

From another perspective, however, as I said, I'm not sure that that assumption allows authors easily to hit the target of talking specifically about hurt/comfort as a genre. For at the same time that the broad definition seems implicitly to be at work in essays like 000_hester_000’s, there is an opposed assumption at work that is a little more explicit, though perhaps not absolutely so. It seems to me that essays about h/c assume that there is a discrete body of fiction out there that constitutes a genre. To be a genre means to pretend to having distinctive features that are not shared by other stories. What are these features? Genres are often distinguished on the basis of content: horror, comedy, drama, etc. Occasionally, they are distinguished by form: poetry, drabble, novel, etc., although fandom practice I’m familiar with seems to stretch the term ‘genre’ to cover only the first two, and that rarely.

Now, in 000_hester_000's essay I don’t get a clear sense of how h/c is distinct from other genres, other than that there is hurt and comfort (but see above on why this is not sufficient to make a generic distinction). I can infer features that the author finds objectionable and which are therefore to be associated with hurt/comfort, but they could be true of any piece of bad writing. If it is true that a person is assuming the broad understanding of hurt/comfort, but assuming also that that broad definition coincides with a single genre, then what ends up happening is that good hurt/comfort is rendered indistinguishable from any good dramatic [3] story.

The which being so, it seems to me then superfluous to draw the distinction between “hurt/comfort” and “drama,” and that the correlative danger of doing so is that when one does attempt, on the back of these assumptions, to draw the distinction between the two, one ends up implicitly rendering “hurt/comfort” nothing more than the name for a badly written drama. Fans and apologists of h/c as a genre would no doubt cry ‘ghettoization!’, among other things, and rightly so. But then we need to be able to draw a real, generic distinction between drama and h/c, so that we can see h/c as a separate entity with its own structure and standards for evaluation that derive from that structure. Only then will we be able to recognize the special kinds of problems hurt/comfort lends itself to, and which need to be subjected to critique.

Thus we have two questions: in what does the distinction lie, if h/c is a genre? And how do we evaluate h/c in terms of its generic specificity?

Personally, I think the point where "h/c" comes to describe a genre distinct from other kinds of stories, instead of describing a cross-generic or non-generic narrative structure, occurs when it is used to identify stories whose aim, even if not explicitly stated, seems to be restricted to showing a highly charged private fantasy of comfort. [4] By 'private' I don't mean 'shown to no one but me', since obviously it’s on the net for anyone to read; I mean that the fantasy comfort scene has way more to do with me and my desires than it has to do with the characters and established fictional universe, and that is hurt/comfort’s baseline, distinctive character. [5] It seems to me that this kind of privacy shows itself in the way that such comfort scenes seem cut off from attention to the kinds of things a particular character can be vulnerable to, and from the circumstances that would need to be convincingly generated for that vulnerability to become exploitable in fiction. It seems as though the comfort scenes arise in a relative vacuum, apart from any coherent dramatic arc or context.

This is why, in my opinion, it is almost superfluous to criticize h/c for the general tendency to fail to present a coherent plot: the plot is not the object of a hurt/comfort story, the comfort scene is; the plot, or rather, what stands in for the plot (the event/sequence of events of hurting and the often illogical and unlikely circumstances surrounding it), is, strictly speaking, only an excuse (or, to use less value-laden language, the occasion) for portraying the comfort scene. Likewise, characterization (except as determined by the comfort scene) is not the object: the characterization is strictly subordinated to the necessity of arriving at the comfort scene, and therefore need not have anything to do with how the ‘real’ so-and-so might plausibly react. [6]

It may appear at first glance that I’ve missed the mark. After all, when we look at stories labeled h/c, and we recognize them as the target of 000_hester_000’s essay, do we not have already a list of the defining features of h/c? What has this definition really added to our understanding? To begin with the first question, what we get from reading the essay is a list of certain flaws commonly found attached to h/c: in 000_hester_000’s essay, we are able to see them in reverse, i.e., by looking at what she thinks is a solution to a problem, we get the problem: “OOCness,” non-reference to canon, failure to respect “realism,” both physical and psychological, a tendency to use rape in the hurt phase, etc. I’m not denying that these are real features that we do commonly use as generic markers when we are complaining about h/c, but they are all negative features or flaws. We do not really have a working definition of what hurt/comfort is generically.

Not, that is, unless we assume that this list of flaws constitutes a kind of 'symptomal' definition. A ‘symptom’ by definition is an effect of a particular logic – it is not an ‘accident,’ nor is it in itself a flaw. ‘Flaw’ indicates that one aimed at one thing and accidentally ended up failing to achieve it, and where this failure to achieve the mark is understood then as deficient with respect to that original aim, in which positive value is invested. A symptom, however, is not a simple deficiency (and need not be conceived as a deficiency at all), but a sign of a logic other than the one taken as standard. Thus even if, for example, “OOC” designates objectively “out of character,” there would be OOC as a result of failing to hit the desired mark (“IC-ness,” if you will), and there would be OOC that occurs as an effect of aiming at a totally different mark. [7]

At this point we pass to the second question: I am going to assume that the flaws that 000_hester_000 identifies when addressing h/c writers are symptoms, i.e., manifestations of an underlying logic: the logic of a different kind of genre. In this context, and in terms of what my definition adds to the list that 000_hester_000 generated, that means that if the generic definition I’ve suggested is a good one, then we should be able to see these as a manifestation of the logic involved in the primacy of the comfort scene. But even if we assume this, I don’t think it’s enough just to articulate the symptoms in a list, for the reason given above: just listing them does not suffice to determine h/c as a genre yet, rather than simply bad writing. It does not establish even a hypothetical relationship between the generic marker and the symptomatic appearance of that marker.

Therefore, while I will accept 000_hester_000’s list as accurately identifying symptoms, I’m not going to list each of them independently, as she did: her purpose is therapeutic, whereas mine is analytic. So while it makes good sense for her to highlight each of these features separately in order to discuss how to overcome them, I’m more interested in trying to figure out why these are common ‘traits’ associated with h/c: I want to know where these highly criticized ‘features’ come from and why they constitute the specific symptomatic constellation of problems to which h/c as a genre is prone.

I have said that the primacy of the comfort scene is definitive of h/c as a genre. This needs to be fleshed out a bit, so that its implications can begin to be articulated. One might assume that I am simply postulating a temporal priority in terms of narrative genesis: that is, the comfort scene is the first scene to give itself to the author. Obviously, the only way to test this would be to circulate some kind of questionnaire, which I have not done and am not planning to do. I do suspect that this is often correct, but that it is ultimately not sufficient to assert a simple temporal priority.

Likewise, while it is also the case that “primacy” can and does mean that the comfort scene is the aim of the narration, and as such, it determines the story’s arc, this formulation, too, is not adequate. What I mean by saying that the comfort scene has primacy is this: starting from the postulation that the comfort scene is highly charged and tailored to the author’s private fantasy, to say that the comfort scene has primacy is to say that the logic of the author’s desire is what is determinative of the story logic in the first and last instance, both in terms of plot and characterization.

In other words: the comfort scene, isolated from any other narrative elements, is maintained as the bedrock of the fictional universe, and is therefore necessarily incapable of being altered by plot considerations or characterization considerations just because it is a response to the author’s desire, his or her enjoyment encapsulated in a set fantasy piece. It is the immutable core of the story, and the element that both motivates the creation of the narrative and marks the completion of the narrative arc (or possibly of narrative units in a string of h/c episodes strung together in a multi-chapter story). In the author’s exclusive elevation of it, it is, if you will, the alpha and omega, timeless and so changeless, of the story.

Now, I will venture to say that this founding and static immutability of the comfort scene is simultaneously the condition of h/c’s generic existence and its greatest problem, since that kind of immutability – which is (if I may use the metaphor without offense) a kind of narrative autism mandated by authorial investment in the fantasy comfort scene – implies three things. Firstly, it implies that no chain of events that would be logically and temporally prior to the conclusion of the story can affect the end of the story. Secondly, it implies that the connection between the conclusion of the story (the comfort scene), and the ‘plot’ (the hurting), is minimal and purely formal. [8] Thirdly, both of these factors encourage incoherency and an aspect of the story that is suggested by several of 000_hester_000’s points but not drawn out specifically: namely, the extreme exaggeration that so often attends both the hurt and the comfort halves of hurt/comfort. In a standard dramatic story, elements of the story have to be adapted to each other, including the ending to the preceding plot. If the conceived-of end doesn’t end up fitting the story as it has developed, either the ending changes, the story is abandoned, or the author returns and tries to decide which seems more ‘true’ to the characters and fictional universe in which the story is taking place – the conceived-of ending or the plot as developed – and then makes decisions about how to proceed from there.

Hurt/comfort in its generic meaning does not have this kind of flexibility, however. When one element absolutely cannot change, everything else ends up bending around it, like light around a gravity well. When that one unchangeable element already maintains a markedly stronger connection to my personal desires and fantasy than it does to the fictional universe in which it is being inserted, then both of the key elements of h/c, the hurt and the comfort, are freed up from many of the narrative constraints that generally work as moderating influences. At a guess, the less my fantasy desire is consonant with the parameters of the canonical fictional universe, the more extreme and exaggerated both the comfort and the hurt is likely to be, in one way or another, and the more likely it is that other fan readers will notice points where coherence breaks down, or where OOCness breaks out.

Thus we often end up with one of the three following scenarios (if not more than one):

(1) The hurting is often a kind of pornography of violence – limitless violence enacted on ideal victims who never die, but only linger in a state of suffering. [9] Suffering, just by itself, tends to suppress, if not eliminate, every identifiable personality trait belonging to the character placed in this position: for a detailed study of how pain eliminates personality, see Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: the first chapter on torture includes a careful analysis of pain.

But in h/c, the evacuation of recognizable personality from the victim character(s) doesn’t take the form of a simple suppression of personality, which is (part of) Scarry’s claim. Rather, it takes the form of OOCness – substitution of ‘somebody else’s’ character traits for the traits that attach to a particular character. The traits substituted should depend entirely on what the author thinks will enhance the emotional pitch of the comfort scene – not what will render it sensible, but what will render it more intense. [10] This judgment seems to be made not based on attention to the qualitative cross-connections between specific comfort and specific hurt, but rather according to a very simple quantitative rubric: the bigger the hurt, the more elevated the feeling of the comfort scene. We can see where the tendency to limitless violence comes up, here.

Nor is this the only effect that the unfettering of violence by the primacy of the comfort scene can have. 000_hester_000 complained that often there is not much to explore in terms of plot, and that what is there in terms of a developed problem is nonsensical and incoherent. In fact, ‘developed’, if taken to mean a coherent, detailed articulation of a problem, is a misnomer because it presupposes that the comfort scene and the hurt scene(s) have both chronological and logical connections – that they occupy, as it were, the same, reversible, logical space and temporal continuum so that they can affect each other.

But this is not how h/c operates, if I am correct. Under the definition I’ve put forward, what I would expect to be the rule for h/c is not a developmental logic so much as an accretion or aggregation of ways of being hurt, aimed at increasing the intensity of the suffering to the greater glory of the comfort scene, but without any necessary connection of events to each other beside that. I would expect this because it follows, I think, from understanding h/c to be essentially defined by the narrative fragmentation (back to the level of free-floating elements) which results from maintaining the immutability of the comfort scene. Characterization is not developed through these scenes, but conforms to whatever the final scene requires in terms of levels and kinds of distress.

Not only does general experience tend to bear this expectation out, but what we find is that experience begins to coalesce into a coherent logic: the OOCness complained of by 000_hester_000 and the continual remonstrance against unrealistic violence, are not two independent phenomena in h/c, but are correlated with each other as twin results of the fixed privilege of the fantasy comfort scene with regard to all other narrative elements.

(2) The exaggeration of the efficacy of the fantasized comfort: the comfort is a panacea. [11] I don't mean by this that the comfort offered is a cure-all, however. "Cure" to me implies dealing with the root cause of the problem that causes suffering; otherwise, it's just palliative care. But if the root cause of the problem that led to all this suffering were dealt with, then both comfort and violence would have to come to an end, and that's not really what's desired. What's desired is usually that the victim experience emotional comfort that shows his/her (imo, usually toxic) dependency on another character, in order for the victim-character to be tormented anew, so s/he can be comforted anew.

(3) Sometimes, exaggeration occurs in the opposite direction, so that the injury done a character is really quite mild (either 'mild' in the sense of, "Oh, I have a hangnail!", or 'mild' with respect to what would be likely to traumatize or wound a particular character psychically). Then it's usually extremely obvious that the hurt is merely the occasion for the comfort to happen, and that neither the hurt nor the comfort has any real roots in the borrowed fictional universe, or in any universe other than the universe of fixed authorial desire.

Given all of the above, is it any surprise that the comfort proffered by h/c most often is stereotypically sexual-emotive, involves a high degree of sentimentality, and paradoxically infantalizes both victim and comforter just because, on the one hand, of the intrinsic and essentialized dependency of one character; and on the other, because the comfort cannot really deal in a serious fashion with the root cause of suffering, due to a lack of necessary connection of specific content between the fic’s narrative cap and what comes before it?

If h/c is viewed through the lens developed above, then I think it’s fair to conclude that many of the criticisms leveled at h/c as a genre miss the mark. Not that I don’t agree that the criticisms are aimed at real features often attending h/c stories, features that often do pain me as well as other readers. But they tacitly assume that the fic’s structure is the same as any other dramatic story’s structure, and that therefore, the familiar constellation of seeming 'flaws' to which 000_hester_000 draws attention are a product of accidental inattention, as a result of simple inexperience or lack of skill. But I don’t think that’s the case at root: by way of counterexample, I’ll note that there are some beautifully written scenes of torment and comfort in h/c, indicating a high level of language mastery, yet they are no less hurt/comfort in the generic sense I described.

But if the symptoms of h/c as a genre descriptor are not due to simple inexperience or inattention, then to what are they due? As I suggested in the beginning, I think that the fic’s structure is the way it is, and exhibits the characteristic symptoms it so often does, because they are the quickest route to the comfort scene, or the one that enables its repetition most efficiently, and these goals need have no relationship to the kinds of expectations one might have of stories motivated by different concerns and a different relationship of the author to the climactic and resolution points of a story. In other words, some of the things that grate on most readers’ nerves – OOCness, exaggerated violence, ‘generic’ characterization – are not mistakes but solutions responding to the fic’s structural constraints, while other features – incoherence, exaggerated efficacy of comfort – are simply consequences of the comfort scene being allowed to drive the narrative exclusively.

Consequently, the way into this kind of story is not through the usual route, i.e., interest in the plot and its execution, in the characterization’s complexity and consonance with or interesting deviance from the canonical characterization. The way in is rather through identifying with the comfort scene. If that scene doesn’t capture the reader in the same way that it captures and fixates the author and to a similar degree, then it’s unlikely the reader would be able to enter into the h/c story, unless his/her ‘thing’ is the pornographic violence often seen, in which case the ending will still probably irritate the reader.

Having come this far, I’m going to go out on a limb here and try to fit what I’ve just said into a broader fandom context. I would suggest that the division of “hurt/comfort” from other genres should be part of the more general division between what is popularly called “PWP” and, let’s say, a coherent drama that is plot- or character-driven. Why? Because “PWP” is also defined by a general absence of plot (“Porn without plot” or “Plot, what plot?”), [12] or only enough of a plot to stand as an excuse for the desired sex scene to come about. In fact, there’s probably a huge overlap between genres that revolve around sex and sexuality and “hurt/comfort” – at least, in the slash genre, [13] this is certainly true. [14] And I’d venture to say that that overlap is at least as significant as, but probably not quite coincident with, the overlap between slash and PWP. Think of a two-dimensional representation of a Borromean knot, and just increase as much as possible zones of overlap.

There are also elements of what I’ve said that may shed some light on that perennial fandom favorite debate: who/what is Mary Sue? The acknowledged general description of Ms. M.S. or Mr. M.S. is that s/he is an authorial avatar, whose primary effect on the fictional universe is to serve as a focal point around which everything else bends without regard for the specificity of other characters, circumstances, etc. S/he warps the fabric of the fictional universe according to his/her own static characterization, which cannot be affected by the plot, and which rather determines how the plot and characterization of other characters will go, regardless of the constraints that the canonical universe might set on character and circumstances.

I suggest, therefore, that Mary Sue could be understood as the product of the same fantasy fixation on a particular element and self-referential logic of desire that operates in the construction of the comfort scene in h/c, just localized to a single character. (Or, if you like, the comfort scene’s logic is extended to the entire story, making the whole thing one giant ‘comfort’ scene.) Moreover, consider again how you get into a Mary Sue story or a PWP: it's not by focus on plot, or characterization, or reference to canon, or the intersection of these three things, but by identification with the element that governs the entire narration: Mary Sue, the sex scene, or the comfort scene (and sometimes, you get the trifecta: the Mary Sue sex-for-comfort scene).

So following the implications of my definition of h/c as a genre and the suggested PWP connection, I would say that there would be a general distinction in motivation, aim, and logical structure between stories that take themselves to be traditional dramatic works (plot- or character-driven development into climaxes and resolutions) and stories that explicitly or implicitly form genres based on a rejection of or significant de-emphasis on plot and character in favor of one central element that governs the narrative to such an extent that it is itself unable to be amended, with the result that the ties between resolution (or perhaps just ‘end’ would be better, 'resolution' having connotations that would be inconsistent with the logic of an h/c on my account) and climax are reduced to minimal, formal dimensions. These formal dimensions, just because they are formal relations, are not capable of being directly used to generate considerations of specificity, with the result that events appear as incoherent to a greater or lesser extent. Hurt/comfort would then be one example, alongside PWP, of a narrative form that does not derive its logic from plot or characterization, but from one, singularly desired scenario. [15]

I realize that having so defined h/c makes it much more likely that h/c stories will have a certain symptom structure that finds no way to take 000_hester_000’s advice while still maintaining the distinction between hurt/comfort as a genre and drama as a genre. In response to which, I’ll say three things. Firstly, I will confess that I personally find hurt/comfort stories generally to be distasteful and poor drama, or rather, distastefully poor drama and to suggest some interesting if not terribly palatable things about our fantasy lives or the way we live our fantasy lives socially. My language at various points in the essay almost certainly gives this away, so that this admission is hardly a revelation. Whether my largely negative reaction to the majority of h/c stories irreparably damages my ability to give a fair analysis of the phenomenon is a question for the reader to decide. Some may well decide that I have accomplished in spades what I have suggested other authors have only accidentally implied: namely, the ghettoization of h/c into a position from which it cannot but be understood as bad drama.

Secondly, while it is true that it is hard, on my account, to determine how one can preserve the generic distinctiveness of h/c while avoiding several undesired symptomatic features, the account is consonant with an early-noted aspect of h/c in the essay to which I was responding. Allowing for hyperbole born of frustration, 000_hester_000 did note that she found most h/c stories to be awful, and that the genre had a higher than average percentage of awful stories in it. If the definition I’ve suggested captures a real, centrally distinctive generic feature of h/c stories, and is able to connect several ‘flaws’ into a coherent symptomal constellation, then it acts as an explanation for that abnormally high percentage of 'awful' stories by furnishing us with a logic of their appearance, but also suggesting the stance of the reader who evaluates them as simply ‘flaws.’ Not all qualitative defects are equal, after all, and when we treat them as all the same, we lose sight of the specificity of the qualitative problems to which different kinds of stories lend themselves.

Finally, I have tried to avoid saying that certain ‘objective’ (or more objective) features necessarily will manifest, and to reserve talk of ‘necessities’ and ‘absolutes’ to relationships established between the author and a particular scene in relation to other scenes. Even there, it is perhaps too strong a language to speak, and may result ultimately in the frustration of my aim, namely a clarifying investigation into the meaning of a certain term and its practical consequences.

By way of attempting to close on a more positive note, however, let me try to offer some suggestions about what sorts of considerations an h/c writer, in the generic sense that I've defined, might want to pay attention to in order to respect the structure of the story and improve his/her chances of attracting a sympathetic readership. It would seem that if I am correct, both in picking out the generic markers of h/c, and in suggesting how it is that this kind of story is to be approached, the sort of poor writing that should be eliminated is largely of a technical nature: beautiful writing has a correlatively bigger role, I would suggest, in this kind of fragmented narrative structure than it does in a story whose structure is continuous and determined by plot or character. Plot- or character-driven stories can afford to be a little more 'workhorse'-like in terms of their style, because they depend more on establishing an interesting development of events and characters than they do on the beauty of the writing.

Hurt/comfort, however, is structurally far less capable of taking advantage of the plot to sustain the reader's desire to read onward. So instead, I would think that adopting the strategy of poetry would work. Poetry, after all, may in many cases share the fragmented structure and fixed focus on one element with h/c, PWP, etc.: in a poetic work, seduction operates through the well-chosen, evocative word. And the h/c fic is basically an act of seduction around that one central, fixed comfort scene. Or think of writing a dream, since the kind of fantasy I'm suggesting is at back of h/c has a close connection to dream life, taken in a psychoanalytic interpretation. Concentration on methods and tricks of writing that belong to writing dreams and/or poetry – the artful elision, rhythm, qualitative juxtaposition, even outright rhyme – probably would help a hurt/comfort fic to show as a good piece of writing, while preserving its structure and leaving the fantasy scene intact.

~ 0 ~


[1]Even if you are writing an unmitigated tragedy, giving some relief in the middle can make your tragedy all the more compelling and painful by the time you dash everyone's hopes. So even an unmitigated tragedy may have a trajectory from suffering to relief somewhere in there. Even humorous stories may have that arc as a portion of the plot.

[2] The motives for this assumption are not evident. It could be the force of habit of assuming that all stories are somehow similar, or have similar aims, or should have similar aims. Where this is manifestly not the case, however, problems can arise. At that point, we usually see, in the clash of evaluations following on a story's publication, one of two responses: either the story’s merit is decided by reference to personal, non-generalizable standards of the reader’s taste or else by referring to the excellence of the author’s technical skill, that enabled him/her to pull off a non-standard story with style. No doubt, both views have some merit, but what is avoided in this (other than fandom confrontation) is consideration of whether this story’s novel content rests on a different story structure, and how, if this is the case, the structure and content work together to generate standards of evaluation.

[3] Here, my use of ‘drama’ is obviously equivocal: on the one hand, I used it as one genre among others a few lines earlier. Now I’m using it as if ‘drama’ encapsulates many other genres. Identifying drama in its generic use, as referring to a story distinguished by content from other kinds of stories, is not my aim in this essay. I will therefore use it to mean any story that features narrative development, either based on plot or character, which climaxes at some point, and then resolves into an ending that is consonant with what has passed before in the narrative. This does not exclude its being used to create generic distinctions, as will be seen, but it will be less confusing to have this usage of the term spelled out in the beginning.

[4] Obviously, this means that some stories could qualify as h/c even if their authors do not label them as such, and that conversely, some stories labeled h/c are not able to be thought in terms of the generic description I'm going to develop.

[5] This generic definition differs from efforts to describe h/c purely in terms of content (a hopeless task, in one way, since one can multiply exceptions and features indefinitely). It also tries to avoid reduction to purely structural terms that are likewise incapable of identifying a specific genre, since such a reduction would evacuate all content from the story, leaving us unable even to refer to its fan-accepted name, ‘hurt/comfort’. What I intend here is something in between those two, abstract extremes. In this way, I hope to avoid stigmatizing specific content, allowing structure and a certain relationship to content to play the primary roles in generating evaluative standards, yet without losing sight of the specific and specifying content, either.

[6] Please note I am not saying we can know absolutely how the 'real' character would react, only that we can generate a range of interpretations that seem plausible given what we see canonically, and identify, on the basis of that range, character reactions that are less plausible to varying degrees.

[7] A cautionary note is in order here. It should be clear from what I just said about OOCness that ‘symptom’ is a value-neutral term. We can see the OOCness of a character in a humor story as welcome and valuable, insofar as it is a symptom of a logic other than one that aims at fidelity to a certain accepted range of interpretation of character, for example. We can also, as when we visit a doctor, see symptoms as expressions of a diseased state, and so dangerous, bad, undesirable, etc. That additional valuative judgment is independent of establishing what h/c might be, generically speaking, and what kinds of criticism might be appropriate to it specifically, though there is debate around this latter claim, even if it isn’t clearly articulated.

[8] What do I mean by purely formal? Well, take, for example, the fact that the comfort scene is usually pitched in the vein of overcoming all hardship. This overcoming of all is not due to the quality of the comfort, it is due to the logic of desire, which is self-referential: the comfort must overcome all because otherwise the fic’s raison d'etre would have been subordinated and altered, thereby undoing the reason to write the fic. The fic must be written because the scene is so very desirable to the author. Etc. The upshot of this closed logic of desire, which establishes and maintains the primacy of the comfort scene, is that in order for the desired scene not to be affected by anything that comes before it, it has to be able to serve as the capstone to any and every scenario: all kinds of hurt, all kinds of (implied or absent) obstacles, all kinds of opponents, all kinds of weaknesses, must be able to end in the comfort scene. But just because "all" is a category, it is intrinsically non-specific, which is one way of accounting for the weird and disturbing disconnection of the comfort (whatever form it takes) from the specific hurt suffered. Since the comfort scenario is extremely specific, the chances are very high that the specific comfort scene that should be able to overcome 'all' will totally fail to address what actually happened to the character who was made to suffer.

[9] The logic of h/c, in its excesses of violence, suggests a historical reference: Sade. It's exactly this kind of highly eroticized (‘charged’) violence - limitless in its scope, and inflicted on a highly eroticized victim, limitless in endurance - that Sade aimed to depict. However, anyone who has read Sade probably has noticed something: it’s terrible writing, boring and numbing in its stupid repetition.

[10] This is another instance of a merely formal relationship between ‘plot’ and end scene.

[11] Except where it's not, i.e., the next time the author wants to inflict limitless violence - maybe in the very next scene.

[12] Both of the accepted interpretations of "PWP" indicate a general de-emphasis on having or needing a plot. I’m not saying this means we should take these spellings-out literally, but simply as real indications of the relative (un)importance of plotting considerations to a PWP.

[13] Here, I’m distinguishing slash-as-a-genre from stories that include mention in passing of homosexual characters/relationships or which do not focus on the homosexual relationship, even if a character acknowledged as homosexual is given a prominent place in the story.

[14] And will likely remain true until we reach a point where the most satisfactory fantasy “comfort” between adults is not sexual intimacy, or (speaking specifically of the slash-h/c genre combo) when homosexuality ceases to play such a huge, and probably compensatory, role in feminine heterosexual fantasy. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying homosexuality is a 'special effect' that will disappear when we 'accept our natural roles' or something ridiculous of that sort. I am also most emphatically not saying homosexuality is bad or derivative, nor am I suggesting that only heterosexual women write slash or h/c slash. What I'm saying is that homosexuality, and specifically male-male homosexuality which is likely 90% of slash, is probably overdetermined by socio-cultural-political factors to stand in for an ideal romantic-sexual relationship for a significant number of heterosexual women, and I would hardly exclude myself from this category, being, among other things, a heterosexual woman who writes really angsty male-male slash.

[15] Some may say that the division I’m suggesting is too hard and fast: surely there is a continuum among stories, so that an original author or a really skilled fan author best conceals the way in which their fixed scene/character/element operates to establish the warped field called 'reality.' Reality without warpage is nothing – it’s just a question of how well you can convince people that what they’re seeing is a 'Newtonian' horizon, rather than an 'Einsteinian' one, and when readers switch to seeing the story as analogous to 'Einsteinian space,' warped around ‘fixed’ elements, the writer has probably failed to secure the conditions for the readers’ immersion into the fiction s/he has created. On one level, I completely agree that reality without warpage is nothing at all, or at least, not reality, not even fictional reality, so this may make good sense.

On another, there’s no real necessity to view h/c as a genre (as opposed to as a general description of one aspect of a narrative arc) except insofar as fandom seems to think it exists. In view of this, I would say that if the above objection (your distinction is too hard and fast, we should think in terms of continuity) is still maintained, then to the degree that we accept it, we have reason to surrender the idea that what we’re dealing with should be interpreted as genre distinctions (so h/c, PWP, Mary Sue – these are not genres whose structure is distinct and follows its own logic that is irreducible to the logic of a traditional dramatic story that is plot- or character-driven). But then what are we dealing with? Bad writing, period? Something else?


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