Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing quite a bit of fanfiction, and enjoying myself immensely in the process. Prior to getting sucked into the Supernatural fandom, it’s something I hadn’t done since high school, when I and my friends would collaboratively build elaborate Zelda fics and I’d make myself blush by writing Final Fantasy VIII stories where Squall and Quistis kissed. As such, and while I’d incorporated the occasional sex scene into my original fiction – first as a teen, and then as an adult – I didn’t have much experience with literary smut beyond the little I’d read. Given the regularity with which both fanfiction and romance are denigrated, therefore – and despite the fact that I think such denigration is bullshit – I fell into the trap of thinking that graphic sex would be easy to write. I mean, how hard could it be?

Very, is the answer, and now that I’ve produced some 350,000 words of smut and smut-adjacent prose, I can state quite categorically that doing so has made me a much better writer.

Here’s why:

As anyone who’s ever attempted one can attest, action sequences are among the trickiest types of writing to do well. Especially when it comes to a close-combat fight scene, there’s a real art to getting it right. At the level of raw bodily mechanics, you have to properly choreograph what’s happening such that both you and the audience can imagine it clearly, but without the prose style becoming either so detached or clinical that you lose momentum. By the same token, you’re essentially describing a series of related or identical actions taking place in quick succession, which impacts on your language choices. Ideally, you want to walk a fine line between repetition and simile, switching focus between intimate detail, like how it feels to land a blow, and the bigger picture of what’s going on – the setting, the time, the context. And then, of course, there’s the emotional component: why are the characters fighting? What are the stakes? How does everything that’s happened before this point influence their actions? What’s the dynamic of the exchange? Are the combatants evenly matched, or is there a disparity? How is it going to end?

There’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying, and if you get it wrong, you run the risk of throwing your audience out of the story.

And every single one of those factors applies to sex scenes, too.

Bad or mediocre sex scenes, like bad or mediocre action scenes, are ubiquitous precisely because there’s so much involved in doing them well. Even – or especially, rather – when you’re writing from the focussed point of view of a single character, it’s important to remember that the other participant/s have their own motivations: that they aren’t just passive sexual objects. Sex is communication, connection, negotiation, and how and why your characters go about having it will say a lot about them. Though I often find the slashfic obsession with who tops vs. who bottoms to be needlessly reductive and objectifying, given that women – who are the genre’s predominant writers and readers – are so frequently assumed to be sexually passive and uncritically portrayed as such, it’s easy to see the appeal of a setting where the sexual roles of familiar characters are instead argued on a case by case basis. It’s a lesson to bear in mind regardless of the gender/s involved in any sexual scene you’re writing: how someone behaves out of the bedroom doesn’t necessarily dictate their preferences within it, and in terms of furthering emotional characterisation, that’s a rich vein seldom tapped in other genres.

By the same token, and as I’ve angrily noted before, it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Not only does this completely elide the possibility that the details of good sex might be similarly relevant, but as an approach, it tends overwhelmingly to have sexist consequences: that is, if women are assumed to be the primary victims and men the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, and if this is the only type of sex we think is worth describing, then we end up reinforcing exactly the same toxic gender dynamics such scenes might ostensibly mean to criticise.

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: if you feel comfortable including rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite. Which isn’t to say that every book that includes assault needs to include consensual sex, too: that’s far too restrictive a mandate. Rather, I mean it as a general writing principle: to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

Learning to write sex scenes has involved a steep but deeply beneficial learning curve. Unlike in the case of action sequences, there’s a level of self-consciousness that has to be shed in order to write them, and a unique level of cringeworthy ridiculousness that’s risked by getting them wrong. But I’d far rather read more books across all genres that at least attempt to write a variety of positive, communicative sex scenes that sometimes miss the mark than continue to live in a world where sexual pleasure – and especially female pleasure – is considered more taboo and less narratively relevant than graphic torture and rape.

Warning: all the spoilers for Supernatural.

Eventually.

1.

Seen from the outside, love is always a matter of interpretation. Not just the question of its presence, but its nature and depth, its reciprocity and point (or points) of origin. There are, I would argue, as many kinds of love as there are people. Love isn’t static; it grows and changes, waxes and wanes and flourishes in unexpected hearts. To quote my favourite e.e. cummings poem:

and being here imprisoned,tortured here
love everywhere exploding maims and blinds
(but surely does not forget,perish, sleep
cannot be photographed,measured;disdains
the trivial labelling of punctual brains…

Human beings lie about love almost as frequently as we feel it. We lie about being in love – to ourselves, to others – for any number of reasons: because we’re malicious or ignorant; because we’re in denial; because we’re trying to survive or protect ourselves; because we can’t find better words for what we’re feeling; because we want it to be true; because we don’t.

As such, our stories reflect that fact. The observation that the course of true love never did run smooth was true before Shakespeare wrote it and will remain true long after we’ve forgotten he ever did, because when it comes to love, we’re all unreliable narrators. You can challenge the idea of love as presented in any story, because love means something different to everyone. As children,we learn that the fairytale princess always loves the prince, but as adults, we wonder if maybe Snow White simply traded one death for another; if the prince’s actual happily ever after didn’t have a beard and a barony.

Love is no less real for being unconsummated, unreturned, unexpressed, nor is it defined by the purity or rightness of its subjects. Loving someone no more precludes their abuse than excuses it; love can be toxic, suffocating, violent, insensible. Love’s best impulses don’t act as justifications for its worst, and yet we can feel both – do both, even – all at once, and never flinch from the contradiction, assuming we even recognise its presence.

In high school, my favourite history teacher once taught us about a Roman emperor who serially cheated on the wife he famously loved. A girl protested; how could he love her and cheat? Surely the two propositions were mutually exclusive. My teacher shook his head; it was more complex than that. The girl disagreed, as did several other students: being in love meant you didn’t do bad things. No, I said, he’s right. You can love someone and still hurt them. My classmates looked at me like I was a geek for agreeing with the teacher; the teacher looked at me sadly, like he knew how I knew, and wished I didn’t.

(I looked away.)

2.

Queerbaiting is a real problem.

Ideally, neither our culture nor our narratives should demand physical proof of queerness, as though a character’s sexual or romantic orientation is invalid unless actively demonstrated. The idea that our feelings don’t exist unless we’re seen to act on them not only puts aromantics and asexuals in the impossible position of having to prove a negative, but contributes to the same backwards reasoning that says bisexuality and pansexuality are incompatible with, even disproved by, monogamy; as though the act of choosing one person makes you fundamentally incapable of being attracted to someone of a different gender. Our sexuality is not confirmed according to whether we’ve acted on it: virginity is not the same as asexuality, having only had partners of one gender doesn’t preclude our attraction to those of another, and thinking we were straight at sixteen doesn’t mean we can’t identify as gay at sixty. Sexuality is a continuum, a spectrum and an exploration, and exactly as diverse and complex as we ourselves. Ideally, therefore, queer interpretations of narrative should be considered every bit as natural and normative as heterosexual ones, with the validity of neither said to hinge on whether or not, in that crassest behind-the-bikesheds whisper, the persons involved have done it yet.

However.

Pragmatically, there is still a wretched and unfair need for queer narratives to be made explicit in text; to bear a greater burden of narrative proof than their heterosexual counterparts, the better to normalise the idea that actually, we shouldn’t need to justify them at all. Let’s be real: was there anyone who watched the first four seasons of Castle or the first six seasons of Bones who doubted that Castle and Beckett, Booth and Brennan were into each other from the outset – or at the very least, who doubted that the audience was meant to infer their attraction? This is what tropes are for: they tell us the romance is there before the relevant parties ever act on it, so that if and when they do, it’s not a total shock to the audience.

But when the tropes come, and come, and come, and the action never does – when one kind of romance is inevitably confirmed, and another inevitably left as subtext, despite employing the same narrative devices – then what you get is queerbaiting, pure and simple, and whether it’s the result of malice, ignorance, creative dissonance, creative compromise, network/editorial pressure or a combination of all five, it still contributes to the erasure of queer narratives. Because while, ideally, we shouldn’t conflate love and romance with sex and physical intimacy – while we shouldn’t view the former as being any less real, or less narratively present, without the vindication of the latter, and especially not when romantic tropes are otherwise clearly in use – the present cultural default is so powerful and so omnipresent that, somewhat paradoxically, it’s only through demonstrative, explicit acts of queerness that we can hope to progress to a place where the absence of physical consummation in a given narrative isn’t due to erasure, but because the audience understands it to be an optional aspect of romance.

This kind of canon-endorsed subtextual validity is already normal for heterosexual pairings; extending it to everyone else, therefore, is not only fair, but optimal.

3.

Stories, like people, are subject to change.

On screen, the presence of unexpected chemistry between actors can lead the writers to incorporate new romantic options into future films or episodes, or to reconsider the implications of previous scenes in light of audience interpretation. Particularly in the current day and age, when the combination of social media platforms and the convention circuit allows for an unprecedented back and forth between fans and creators, external commentary has the power to influence future narrative choices.

Evolving a narrative doesn’t override the fact that, once upon a time, you were hostile to the very idea of change. You can take a story in new directions, but you can’t retcon your past intentions, and there is a very clear difference between, on the one hand, a creator wanting to make a queer romance textually explicit and being prohibited from doing so, and on the other, deciding on an endgame queer romance only after years of publicly denying that such a thing had any narrative traction whatsoever. A positive change in perspective, if and when it comes, should always be applauded as a progressive development, but that’s not the same as grating total amnesty for every prior offence. As with personal evolution, we should be capable of acknowledging that someone has changed without claiming either that they were perfect all along or that the change is invalidated by the very behaviour that precipitated it.

People, like stories, are subject to improvement.

It’s complicated, is what I’m saying. But somehow, we muddle through.

4.

With all that established, let’s talk about Supernatural.

Technically, Destiel – the relationship between Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel, which is arguably the most prominent queer ship in any modern fandom – isn’t held to be canon. Dean and Castiel haven’t kissed on screen and aren’t formally dating, and while romantic subtext has been a part of their interactions since Castiel’s introduction at the start of Season 4, the greater burden of proof that’s culturally expected of queer narratives says that their relationship must therefore be platonic until proven otherwise, where proof means physical/sexual intimacy. The issue has been further muddied by the fact that there are clear differences of opinion on the subject among the show’s cast and creators: some object to it outright, some acknowledge the textual basis for the interpretation without supporting it as a canonical option, some are on the fence, and some are openly in favour of it.

And then, too, there’s the issue of the characters themselves, whose particular complexities only serve to make Destiel an even more fascinating case study. Castiel is an angel occupying the body of a human man. His ‘true form’, we’re told, is ‘about the size of your Chrysler building’, and angels in their original state are described as ‘junkless’, with Castiel describing himself at one point as ‘a wavelength of celestial intent’. By his own admission, Castiel is ‘indifferent to sexual orientation’, and within the show, he has – like the angel Raphael – inhabited both male and female vessels. Castiel is also shown to be capable of feeing sexual attraction, though when he first appears, he’s canonically virginal, to the point of being confused by his body’s reaction to watching pornography. But while Castiel has demonstrated both romantic and sexual attraction to a number of women – as an angel, we see him kiss a demon (Meg) and an angel (Hannah); as a human, he sleeps with a Reaper (April) and tries to date his human employer (Nora); and in the alternate future of the Endverse, he’s depicted as sexual to the point of hedonism, organising regular orgies – we’ve never seen him physically involved with a man.

But over and over again, it’s also stated, not just that Castiel loves Dean Winchester, but that he’s in love with him – and Dean knows this, a fact which, as of Season 10, has been confirmed both canonically and by writer Robert Berens. It’s worth taking a moment to examine the progression of Castiel’s feelings, the better to show how unequivocally and consistently they’re presented in Seasons 4 through 10. Whatever accusations of queerbaiting can be fairly levelled at Supernatural, and regardless of whether the original intention was always to present Castiel as someone romantically in love with Dean, on the basis of the evidence, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to deny that this is, in fact, a perfectly valid interpretation of canon:

Castiel - Gripped You Tight

Destiel - Shoulder Touch

Uriel - Castiel Likes You

Castiel - I did it all for you

Destiel - Shoulder Touch 1

Castiel - I Gave Everything For You

Castiel - And This Is What You Give Me

Stench Of That Impala

Castiel - Too Close To The Humans In My Charge

Castiel - Yearning

The One In The Trenchcoat Who's In Love With You

Castiel - I Always Come Whe You Call

Castiel - Redeem Myself

 

 

Emmanuel

Castiel - S7

 

He Was Your Boyfriend First

Metatron - Save Dean Winchester

 

Castiel is an angel; for Dean’s sake, he disobeys Heaven. He loses his wings. He literally falls, and if you can think of a more powerful narrative declaration of love than that of an angel falling for a human, with all the metaphoric and mythological resonance that entails, I’d be interested to hear it. The fact that Castiel loves Dean is repeatedly affirmed in canon, not just through inference, but direct, unequivocal statements. In Season 6, Balthazar describes Castiel to Dean as ‘the one in the dirty trenchcoat who’s in love with you;’ in Season 9, Metatron states that Castiel’s goal was ‘to save Dean Winchester’, reiterates that his plan was ‘all about saving one human’ and then concludes that Castiel is ‘in love… with humanity;’ and in Season 10, Dean refers to Sam and Castiel as ‘the people who love me’. Castiel loves Dean, and Dean knows it: that’s indisputable.

With Castiel’s feelings thus confirmed, the obvious point of contention is whether or not Dean feels the same way. The argument that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual is one that’s had traction in the fandom since Season 1, long before Castiel appeared on the scene, in part because the Winchester brothers being mistaken for boyfriends was an early running gag – so early, in fact, that in Dean’s case, the ‘joke’ about him being sexually interested in men is made several episodes before he’s ever shown to be romantically involved with a woman. (Sam, by contrast, starts the show in a heterosexual relationship.) In fact, Supernatural’s creator, Eric Kripke, has stated that the brothers are named after Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the protagonists of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, whose structure and themes are also incorporated into the show’s mythology; but Dean Moriarty was, in reality, Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, a bisexual man who was both a womaniser and involved over many years with Alan Ginsberg. (The fact that Castiel is also based on another canonically bisexual man, Hellblazer’s John Constantine, is of similar relevance; Kripke created Castiel in Constantine’s image after he was unable to obtain permission to use DC’s character.)

This being so, the fact that Dean Winchester is frequently portrayed as a ladies’ man is hardly proof of his disinterest in men, and especially not when you consider the character’s origins. Fascinatingly, in a 2008 interview – which dates to the second half of Season 3, and therefore prior to Castiel’s introduction – actor Jensen Ackles said of his character:

Dean’s a bit of a pool shark and also a bit of a gambler.  It doesn’t really show it all the time, but it’s definitely implied that there are poker games and pool matches that they can win some money on.  And who knows?  Dean’s a promiscuous kind of guy.  Who knows how he drums up the funds that they use?

The implication being that Dean has, perhaps, prostituted himself from time to time; and while this isn’t quite Word of God, it’s nonetheless pertinent to the question of Dean’s character, partly because Ackles mentions it as a possible consequence of Dean’s promiscuity, and therefore his of sexuality, rather than describing it as something that might happen for purely financial reasons; but also because, given the dive bars, truck stops and seedy environments frequented by the characters, the overwhelming likelihood is that, if Dean Winchester were to sell himself, it would most likely be to men. All of which is, of course, completely hypothetical; and yet it remains highly relevant, because for all the years of queerbaiting, avoidance and public backpeddling on the subject of Dean’s (bi)sexuality as engaged in by certain of the cast and writers – some of whom have subsequently left the show, changed their position or been told outright to avoid discussing the issue – it seems clear that, even in the early days, the question must have occurred more than once, and to more than one person, without ever being adequately resolved.

It doesn’t take over a decade of creative disagreement to resolve a non-issue, for the pure and simple reason that, if there was no issue, there’d be nothing to address. Which begs the question: if a character can be convincingly argued to be bisexual on the basis of the canon, is proof of consummation really required to make that analysis valid? In the real world, a bisexual man who has only ever been involved with women is no less bisexual than someone who’s slept with people of different genders. That being so, if we assert that Dean Winchester can’t be bisexual unless we see him actually kiss a man, we’re effectively arguing that sexual orientation is contingent on physical consummation – and that is reductive bullshit.

Yet at the same time, there’s an understandable need to distinguish between the literal limits of canon, and valid interpretations of same. Thus: if it’s unreasonable to argue that physical consummation is the only means of proving someone’s sexuality within a narrative (straight characters, after all, are routinely assumed to be straight even when their sexuality is never explicitly labelled as such – even when we never see them romantically involved with another person – because heterosexuality is such an implied cultural default that we consider it to go without saying), then what’s the actual burden of proof? What needs to happen – or what might have happened already – in order for us to say that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual?

In 4.14 ‘Sex and Violence’, Dean and Sam encounter a siren: a creature who attracts men by turning into, in Dean’s words, ‘whatever floats the guy’s boat’. For all the original victims, this meant women with whom they eventually developed a sexual relationship; but when the siren approaches Dean, it does so in the guise of Nick Monroe, a male FBI agent who shares Dean’s taste in classic rock and classic cars. ‘I gave him what he needed,’ the siren tells Sam, ‘And it wasn’t some bitch in a G-string. It was you. A little brother that looked up to him, that he could trust. And now he loves me.’ That being so, while ‘Nick’ might be borrowing from Sam in terms of Dean’s emotional needs, that doesn’t change the underlying sexuality of siren mythology, in which they represent the fulfilment of a romantic/sexual fantasy. When the siren similarly enthrals Sam, asks the brothers to fight and says that ‘whoever survives can be with me forever,’ it’s not a platonic promise. Sam’s own research describes the siren as a ‘beautiful creature’ capable of ‘enticing’ men with their ‘allure': at every turn, the language speaks to sexuality and desire, and given that Supernatural’s canon involves multiple instances of Sam and Dean being mistaken for a gay couple on the basis of their interactions, having the siren exploit their fraught relationship dynamic as a means of seducing Dean is not only in keeping with the character’s preferences, but a move with ample narrative precedent.

In 5.8 ‘Changing Channels’, Dean and Sam are trapped by the Trickster, aka Gabriel, in a series of TV shows – one of which, Dr Sexy MD, a clear parody of Grey’s Anatomy, is something Dean watches as ‘a guilty pleasure’. However, while Dean tries to downplay his affection for the show, he’s clearly enough of a fan to not only identify the primary characters and explain their respective backstories to Sam, but his intimate knowledge of the lead character’s physical appearance is what ultimately reveals the Trickster’s presence. Gabriel, disguised as Dr Sexy, is wearing tennis shoes, an incongruous detail that prompts Dean to challenge him. ‘I swore,’ he says, ‘that part of what makes Dr Sexy sexy is the fact that he wears cowboy boots.’ This, then, is a direct admission from Dean that he finds another man sexually attractive; and not only does he cop to finding the character sexy, but meeting him in person renders him visibly flustered.

Dr Sexy

Dean - Flustered By Dr Sexy

 

In 8.13 ‘Everybody Hates Hitler’, Dean is canvassing for a case in a university bar when he becomes suspicious of a man he suspects of tailing him. Irritated, Dean approaches in his fake FBI guise and asks why he’s being followed; the man, Aaron, replies that ‘I thought we had a thing back at the quad, you know – a little “eye magic” moment’, which results in Dean being, once more, flustered. ‘Yeah. Uh, okay,’ he replies, ‘but no – uh, no moment. This is a… federal investigation.’ A few scenes later, it’s revealed that Aaron really was following Dean, and only pretended to hit on him as a diversionary tactic – but while Dean doesn’t know this in the moment, as a point of analysis, it’s relevant to interpreting their reactions at the bar. Because when Aaron responds to Dean’s apparent FBI status by saying, coyly, ‘Is that supposed to make you less interesting?’, Dean’s expression lifts, as though he’s genuinely interested – while Aaron, who clearly didn’t expect his gambit to go anywhere, starts to look out of his depth.

Aaron - Less Interesting

Dean and Aaron

By the time Dean leaves the bar, he’s so distracted that he stutters his goodbye to Aaron, walking backwards and bumping into a table. Later, however, when Aaron reappears and reveals that he really was tailing Dean after all, Dean’s reaction is hardly disaffected. ‘So, wait,’ he says. ‘What you’re saying is that you and me – we, uh, didn’t have a moment?’ When Aaron replies in the negative, Dean looks disappointed; he remarks to Sam that ‘he was my gay thing’ – a callback to his earlier description of their encounter – then tells Aaron, ‘It was really good. You really had me there. It was very smooth.’ Dean was both flustered and flattered by what he thought was a genuine attempt to pick him up; enough so that having Aaron’s actual disinterest revealed was a let-down.

Dean - Flustered By Aaron

Dean - He Was My Gay Thing

 

It’s also relevant that, in the DVD commentary for this episode, writers Ben Edlund and Phil Scgriccia explicitly acknowledge the romantic aspects of the encounter:

Ben Edlund: Well, that’s the weird thing is that it reads in this weird way where it does feel like Dean’s a little bit like—It’s almost like a romantic comedy kind of fluster. Which is very interesting for the character Dean, because it just sort of suggests this weird [laughs] this potential.

Phil Sgriccia: [laughs] This potential for love in all places.

Ben Edlund: Oh, Aaron and Dean, they could come together. He’s had a rough life. He’s a hard character to, to, you know. To settle down with.

This is, I would argue, Word of God confirmation of Dean’s bisexuality. Dean has the ‘potential’ to date men; the scene plays like a ‘romantic comedy’; he and Aaron ‘could come together’. Taken in isolation, both the scene and the remarks of the writers would still read as definitive, but in combination with the events of 4.14 and 5.8 in particular, it seems incontrovertible that Dean Winchester is canonically bisexual. He might not always be comfortable with that fact – an uncertainty that’s wholly in keeping with his characterisation – but after ten seasons, that it is a fact seems no longer up for debate. There is more than sufficient evidence that Dean is attracted to men, and to argue that it somehow doesn’t count because we haven’t actually seen him kiss anyone is a fundamental erasure of the fact that someone’s sexual orientation isn’t contingent on their performance of it.

Which brings us back to the ultimate question: given that Dean is bisexual, and given his awareness of the fact that Castiel loves him, does Dean also love Cas? And if their affections are mutual – and if both of them are cognisant of this fact – then can we successfully argue that Destiel is canon, on the not unreasonable basis that relationships neither begin nor end with physical intimacy? And if so, then how is their romance supported by the presence of tropes in the text?

In 1.12 ‘Faith’, we learn that Dean believes in evil, but not in good, a dissonance which surprises Sam. Their subsequent exchange is one of the most powerful – and prescient – in the entire show:

Sam: Maybe it’s time to have a little faith, Dean.

Dean: You know what I’ve got faith in? Reality. Knowing what’s really going on.

Sam: How can you be a sceptic? With the things we see every day?

Dean: Exactly. We see them, we know there real.

Sam: But if you know evil’s out there, how can you not believe good’s out there, too?

Dean: Because I’ve seen what evil does to good people.

Similarly, in 2.12 ‘Houses of the Holy’, we learn that Dean doesn’t believe in angels – an irony of foreshadowing, given the events of Season 4 onwards. Once again, his scepticism surprises Sam, and the ensuing conversation neatly mirrors their exchange in 1.12:

Dean: I’m just saying, man, there’s just some legends that you just, you file under “bullcrap”.

Sam: And you’ve got angels on the bullcrap list. 

Dean: Yep.

Sam: Why?

Dean: Because I’ve never seen one. 

Sam: So what?

Dean: So I believe in what I can see.

Sam: Dean! You and I have seen things that most people couldn’t even dream about. 

Dean: Exactly. With our own eyes. That’s hard proof, okay? But in all this time I have never seen anything that looks like an angel. And don’t you think that if they existed that we would have crossed paths with them? Or at least know someone that crossed paths with them? No. This is a, a demon or a spirit.

Dean doesn’t believe in a higher, benevolent power, because his daily experience of the world’s brutalities makes such a faith impossible. He’s also fiercely self-hating, though he goes to great lengths to pretend otherwise, to the point where we often learn more about Dean’s internal life through monsters who access his thoughts than we do from Dean himself. In 1.6 ‘ Skin’, for instance, a shapeshifter wearing Dean’s body – and who therefore has intimate knowledge of his personality, memories and feelings – sums Dean up by saying, on his behalf, ‘Me? I know I’m a freak. And sooner or later, everybody’s gonna leave me.’ Later, in 3.10 ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’, Dean is stuck talking to his nightmare-self, who first taunts him – ‘I know how dead you are inside. How worthless you feel… Daddy’s blunt little instrument. Your own father didn’t care whether you lived or died. Why should you?’  – and then turns into a demon, warning him that ‘You’re gonna die. And this? This is what you’re going to become.’ 

Having sold his soul to save his brother, Dean dies at the end of Season 3 and goes to Hell – and then, at the start of 4.1 ‘Lazarus Rising’, he’s rescued by Castiel, waking in his grave with an angelic handprint branded onto his shoulder. Not that Dean knows it at the time; he spends the whole episode trying to find out who brought him back, and when Castiel finally shows up – sparks literally flying; his first appearance makes lightbulbs explode – Dean Winchester, who doesn’t believe in angels or a greater good, is suddenly confronted by one of the former who saved him for the latter, and who recognises his self-hatred without for a minute accepting it:

Castiel: I’m an Angel of the Lord.

Dean: Get the hell out of here. There’s no such thing.

Castiel: This is your problem, Dean. You have no faith…

Dean: Well, I’m not buying what you’re selling, so who are you really?

Castiel: I told you.

Dean: Right. And why would an angel rescue me from Hell?

Castiel: Good things do happen, Dean.

Dean: Not in my experience.

Castiel: What’s the matter? You don’t think you deserve to be saved?

Castiel - What's The Matter

Castiel - You Don't Think You Deserve To Be Saved

Up until this point, Dean’s deepest insecurities have been mostly voiced by monsters: demons and nightmares who fling his self-hatred in his face, weaponising his thoughts. But Castiel does the opposite: in one conversation, he goes straight to the root of everything Dean loathes about himself and summarily upends it. You don’t think you’re worthy of salvation; and yet, I saved you, because you are. And while Dean doesn’t instantly accept it – ‘If there is a God out there, why would he give a crap about me?’, he asks in the next episode – that doesn’t detract from the significance of Castiel’s actions.

Though Dean is constantly at odds with Heaven’s plans for him, his connection to Castiel continues to develop, changing into something more than platonic affection. In 5.3 ‘Free To Be You And Me,’ during a particularly tense conversation, Dean says, ‘So, what, I’m Thelma and you’re Louise and we’re just going to hold hands and sail off this cliff together?’ – a reference to the fact that the women then share a kiss, and whose inference is emphasised, rather than diminished, by Dean’s body language.

Thelma - 1Thelma - 2

Thelma - 3

 

By Season 6, it’s Castiel’s love for Dean – specifically, his desire to let him live a human life, rather than dragging him back into angelic politics – that ultimately causes him to commit an act of gross betrayal, colluding with Crowley and opening the gate to Purgatory, releasing the Leviathans back into the world. When this leads to Castiel’s death – or appears to, at least – we see Dean collecting Castiel’s bloody trenchcoat, the only remaining piece of him, and keeping it.

Dean - with the trenchcoat

 

Romantic symbolism aside, this happens at a time when Dean’s regular car, the Impala, soon becomes too conspicuous for regular use, and has to be exchanged for a series of different vehicles. So when, some fifteen episodes later, Castiel finally reappears, an amnesiac living as faith healer under the name Emmanuel, and Dean still has the coat to hand – kept neatly laundered and folded in the trunk of his car – we know that he’s been carrying it with him, swapping it into each new vehicle, either as a talisman or in the hope that Castiel would return. Though not explicitly romantic, this is clearly a loving gesture, one which is neatly paralleled by Dean carrying Bobby’s hip flask after his death. In both cases, the object has sentimental value, representing Dean’s strong attachment to the original owner; and just as Bobby’s ghost returns to help him, tied to the flask, so does the coat contribute to the restoration of Castiel’s sense of self.

At the end of the season, Dean and Castiel end up trapped and separated in Purgatory, with Dean’s quest to find Castiel told in flashbacks throughout the start of Season 8. It’s at this point, I would argue, that Dean’s feelings begin to take on an overtly romantic dimension. He prays to Castiel ‘every night’ in Purgatory, and when he finally tracks him down through a literal world of monsters, his joy and relief are palpable.

Dean - Where's The Angel

Purgatory Hug

Purgatory Hug 2 Purgatory Hug 3

 

Castiel, we learn, is being hunted by Leviathans; he stayed away from Dean in an attempt to keep him safe. Dean, however, point-blank refuses to leave Purgatory without Castiel.

Dean - Eye Of The Needle Dean - Nobody Gets Left Behind Dean - Not Leaving Here Without You   

But when Castiel stays behind anyway – a deliberate decision on his part, in penance for his previous actions – Dean is so distressed, he distorts his own memories of the event. Unable to believe that Castiel stayed by choice, he mentally reframes his abandonment as the result of Castiel giving up, yet simultaneously berates himself for having failed. That he then starts to see Castiel – a side-effect of Cas’s impending return by angelic means – is something he explains to himself as a consequence of grief and guilt, much like Sam hallucinating his girlfriend, Jess, directly after her death. As such, when Castiel finally reappears in 8.7 ‘A Little Slice of Kevin’, Dean’s yells at Cas for staying behind and, in the process, reveals his true feelings: ‘Look, I don’t need to feel like hell for failing you, okay? For failing you like I’ve failed every other godforsaken thing that I care about! I don’t need it!’   

At first glance, this seems a fairly poor declaration of love; and yet, I’d argue, that’s exactly what it is. Canonically, Dean has said the words ‘I love you’ exactly once: in 5.16 ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, where he relives a memory of talking to his mother as a four-year-old (‘It’s okay, Mom. Dad still loves you. I love you, too. I’ll never leave you.’). Otherwise, it’s something he only ever expresses obliquely, like in 2.20 ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’, when dream-Mary says she loves him, and Dean replies, ‘Me, too.’ He also expresses the sentiment through references, as in 8.20 ‘Pac Man Fever’, when Charlie Bradbury says ‘I love you’ and Dean, in a clear evocation of Han Solo’s famous line, responds with, ‘I know.’

Because Dean Winchester, as we well know by now, is not only self-hating, but actively feels responsible for every bad thing that happens to his loved ones. In fact, he even says this explicitly in 2.22 ‘All Hell Breaks Loose: Part Two’, while blaming himself for Sam’s death: ‘I guess that’s what I do. I let down the people I love.’

Dean - I Let Down The People That I Love

So when Dean says that he’s failed Castiel ‘like I’ve failed every other godforsaken thing that I care about’, that’s not an idle statement. It’s a direct reference to the fact that Dean thinks loving someone predestines him to let them down. The logic runs in a loop: he loves Cas, therefore he failed him; he failed Cas, therefore he loves him. The one is proof of the other.

Dea - For Failing You

By 8.17 ‘Goodbye Stranger’, Castiel has been reprogrammed by Naomi and the other angels, undergoing specific training to make him capable of killing Dean. The two of them argue over the angel tablet, and even as he fights Naomi’s control, Castiel beats Dean bloody – at which point, Dean echoes something he said to Castiel in Purgatory, a declaration strong enough to break through his conditioning and bring him back: I need you.

Dean - I Need You (Purgatory)

Dean - I Need You

Crucially, the line in 8.17 was originally written as ‘I love you’, and even with the change in the final product, the emotional resonance remains. The significance of this particular scene, however, is a twofold catharsis, and one that directly parallel’s Castiel’s original rescue of Dean. In 8.7, when Castiel sets Dean straight about how and why he was left behind in Purgatory, they have an exchange that eerily mirrors their initial conversation in 4.1, but with the roles reversed: this time, it’s Dean who’s trying to save Castiel, and Castiel asserting the impossibility of the act:

Castiel: I pulled away. Nothing you could have done would have saved me, because I didn’t want to be saved.

Dean: What the hell are you talking about?

Castiel: It’s where I belonged. I needed to do penance. After the things I did on earth and in heaven, I didn’t deserve to be out. And I saw that clearly when I was there. I… I planned to stay all along. I just didn’t know how to tell you. You can’t save everyone, my friend… though, you try.

It was Naomi, not Dean, who rescued Castiel from Purgatory; but it was Dean who rescued him from Naomi’s control, which was the greater danger.

Dean Winchester says I love you in many ways, and this is one of them.

5.

Seen from the outside, love is always a matter of interpretation. Not just the question of its presence, but its nature and depth, its reciprocity and point (or points) of origin. If the audience can reasonably doubt the sincerity of a character who professes their love overtly, but whose actions say otherwise, then by the same token, we may also claim the existence of a love that’s never formally professed, but which is nonetheless demonstrated.

Canonically, Castiel loves Dean Winchester. Canonically, Dean Winchester is bisexual. Canonically, Dean Winchester knows that Castiel loves him. Canonically, Dean Winchester cares for Castiel, and blames himself for failing him. Canonically, Dean Winchester defines himself as someone who fails the ones he loves.

Canonically, Dean Winchester loves Castiel.

Destiel is canon.

This doesn’t mean that Supernatural isn’t guilty of queerbaiting, or that Destiel is by any means a slam dunk for queer representation in narrative. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to rummage through gifset after gifset, script after script, to prove the validity of a relationship which, had it been identically constructed between straight characters, would long since have been accepted as obvious, even without any physical consummation. In fact, returning to the heterosexual pairings mentioned earlier – Castle/Beckett and Booth/Brennan – it’s interesting to note that both those couples kissed on screen long before their relationships were ever considered official; Castle/Beckett as part of an undercover disguise, and Booth/Brennan at a coworker’s dare. In both instances, while kissing was deemed proof of mutual attraction, it didn’t cement their relationships; and why would it? Love is a separate thing to physical intimacy, and kissing does not a couple make. A Destiel kiss would demonstrate the presence of physical attraction – and it would certainly go a long way towards offering visual confirmation of queerness in the narrative – but it wouldn’t be the thing that proves the characters are in love.

In discussing whether ships are canon or not, fandom has an understandable tendency to want tangible evidence: something to which we can point, without fear of contradiction, as proof of a pairing’s validity. Queer relationships are grossly underrepresented on screen, yet queerbaiting abounds, and as such, we place a premium – necessarily so, for the sake of both visibility and progress – on physical displays of affection, conventional declarations of Official Togetherness and explicit textual labelling as means of proving that certain relationships exist, and that the characters subscribe to speific orientations. But we cannot make this the be-all, end-all of the dialogue, not only because some relationships and orientations are always going to defy conventional labelling, but because this materially erases the possibility of asexual, non-physical or slow burn relationships while simultaneously reinforcing the idea that you’re not ‘really’ dating someone unless you’ve kissed, or fucked, or met some other arbitrary benchmark for physical intimacy that has no meaningful relevance to how you feel about someone, except that it makes the observer feel more comfortable in their judgement.

We aren’t wrong to want visible representation, nor are we wrong to loudly decry the hypocritical prevarications, circumlocutions and general pigheadedness of creators who, when asked directly, neither admit nor deny the sexual complexity of their characters, but who instead take the queerbaiting middle path of implying-without-saying and pat themselves on the backs for doing even that much. But at present, the general fandom conception of what constitutes a canon relationship is woefully oversimplified, juvenile in its obsession with have they kissed and are they going steady. Critical analysis is about building a case on the basis of the evidence and arguing it successfully, which – I hasten to point out – isn’t the same thing as silencing all disagreement: the fact that someone might make a coherent case for different versions of the same narrative doesn’t mean their logic is flawed, but rather than the text supports multiple interpretations with equal validity (which is often a hallmark of a good story). Canon isn’t only the fixed facts of the narrative, but the process by which we interpret them, and when we forget that, we risk diminishing the story, making it static rather than fluid, freezing it in carbonite, alive but dead.

Destiel is canon because it’s a conclusion that can be logically drawn on the basis of the evidence. That doesn’t make it the only possible conclusion, but it does mean it’s a valid one. Creative intent can certainly be used to support a textual interpretation, as per Word of God comments, but just as the audience can (for instance) reasonably assert the presence of racism in a narrative whose creators swear blind they never intended any such thing, so too can we reasonably assert the presence of a relationship which, while not expressly confirmed as such, is nonetheless consistently demonstrated. Yes, we need to continue demanding more and better unambiguous representation; yes, we need to continue to call out queerbaiting; and dear god, yes, does Supernatural ever have some problems.

But Destiel is a valid canonical interpretation of the show and its characters, and while there are other interpretations to be had – even contradictory ones – that doesn’t make it anything less than legitimate.

So there.

Cas-Jimmy - Understatement

Though gifs have been around since 1987, the format has achieved a new prominence in the past few years, and has now become an increasingly integral part of online discourse . Given their early history, this is arguably a surprising development. Back in the 1990s, gifs tended to be brightly coloured, often garish pixel animations, and before the end of the decade, their usage had became synonymous with bad web design. Their overuse was partly responsible for the development of the phrase banner blindness, and in 1999, there was even an early Penny Arcade strip, Macromedia FlashDance, satirising the problem:

PA gif strip

As more sophisticated image formats were developed, gifs fell out of favour, and though they remained in usage as a source of internet humour throughout the early noughties, it wasn’t until photo-based social media platforms like tumblr began to take off post-2010 that the format started to achieve its current prominence. The widespread availability of simple gif creation tools has also contributed to their ubiquity, as has the fact that, ten years on from the arrival of YouTube, it’s now extremely easy to find high-quality video of just about anything online. Like a literal equivalent to the proverbial Rule 34, if a video exists, it can – and probably will – be giffed, and given the fact that the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee just issued a press release consisting almost entirely of gifs, it seems fair to say that both the medium and practice has gained a traction beyond the subcultural.

But despite the now-common presence of gifs in online news articles and their widespread use as reaction images, very little seems to be being said about the profound, almost radical impact they’re having on our critical analysis of visual media. Gifs are looped videos: perpetually in motion. They show discreet, specific moments of narrative, and while the format is silent, the fact that they can be captioned or subtitled enables the preservation of dialogue. Which means, in essence, that for the first time in the history of visual media studies, we can directly compare multiple sections of multiple videos on the one screen, at the same time, in a loop, without having to wrangle multiple muted video players, assuming that was ever a viable option. Because gifs can be embedded in a piece of text, we can illustrate a digital essay on a given film or TV show by literally showing the reader the scene, or scenes, we’re describing, without requiring that they click away from the page. And because gifs are looped, we never have to stop and rewind: we can immerse ourselves in the subtleties of a given moment – the repeated sweep of a well-executed panning shot, the subtleties of an actor’s microexpressions – without additional technical distractions.

And this is significant: not just because it enables a deeper, more thorough analysis of visual media, but because it makes that analysis both overt and accessible in a way it wasn’t before. A well-constructed gifset is a thing of tremendous beauty, and the more of them I see, the more I’m convinced that we’re in the midst of an academic paradigm shift. It’s not just that gifsets let us contrast the dialogue, cinematography, composition and acting of various visual narratives side-by-side in unprecedented ways, or even the fact that anyone, potentially, can make one; it’s the that this tremendously useful ability is online-only at a time when the vast majority of academic writing, even when digitally accessible, is stuck in static, access-restricted, locked-in formats, despite the fact that most everyone else is using free blogging platforms. Technically, gifs can be inserted into PDFs, but it’s uncommon to try, difficult to achieve, and without the use of particular plugins, the end result won’t work – and as PDFs are seemingly the most common form of academic document, that presents something of an obstacle to their adoption.

Academic publishing, as an institution, is one of the most nakedly dinosauric and profit-driven industries around. Much content is peer-reviewed for free, saving publishers the expense of paying for professional editors. For books, cover designs are frequently minimalist, again saving on production costs, and in the case of journals – and despite the often exorbitant cost of subscribing to their output – contributors are unpaid. While there can be significant differences in practice from discipline to discipline and some notable exceptions regardless, generally speaking, academic publishing takes advantage of its captive audience of students and professors in order to charge sky-high prices for textbooks and journals alike, despite the comparatively low overheads involved in their creation. As such, the innovation of something that’s desperately relevant to academic critical analysis, but which is currently proliferating for free in non-academic formats, not only due to its widespread accessibility and pop cultural origins, but because academic journals haven’t yet moved to include it, is worth investigating further.

Because gifs, I would contend, are relevant to more disciplines than just film studies, which is the obvious one to mention. Arguably their greatest point of utility is their ability to magnify microexpressions: those fleeting, tiny, there-and-gone tics that often betray our deepest reactions to things, and which, for all the volumes they speak in person, can be so easily lost in other formats. While this newfound ability to study the nuanced microexpressions of actors has undeniably added to both our appreciation and interpretation of their performances, it also has significant utility when turned elsewhere. Gifs of politicians, journalists and other prominent figures abound, and are slowly but steadily changing the nature of public discourse. Not only is there something powerful in being able to capture, recycle and disseminate (for instance) Tony Abbott’s lecherous wink during a radio interview with a pension-aged sex-line worker, but distributing gifsets of political interviews or parliamentary sessions has become commonplace even beyond their countries of origin, with the captions sometimes appearing in translation. Though full episodes of The Daily Show aren’t legally available outside the USA, for instance, gifsets of its various sketches and interviews are frequently shown elsewhere, their creation and dissemination falling within the guidelines of fair use, and the same is equally true of other programmes.

That being so, it’s hardly surprising that gifsets have inspired an enormous amount of analysis, meta and commentary online, the vast majority of which exists outside of traditional academic channels. Which isn’t to say that such content lacks either academic merit or rigour, however informal the use of language; rather, it means that academic conversations are no longer happening within purely academic spaces. In fact, given the undeniable presence of both amateur and professional academics on sites like tumblr, whose digital format both enables back-and-forth discourse and the ability to site sources through links, there’s an argument to be made that the internet had lead to the creation of a new type of academic space, one as yet unmediated by academic institutions. The proliferation of gifs is just a small part of this, but as a highly visible facet of the phenomenon, it makes for an interesting point of entry into some of these larger developments.

However academia develops in the coming decades, it would be foolish to underestimate the relevance of the internet and visual media – and of the ability of pop cultural innovations to have academic applications.

 

 

Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though. – Andrew Smith

The idea that Andrew Smith’s daughter is the first girl he ever had in his life is a staggering lie. For one thing, he has a wife, and presumably has, or had, a mother; and for another, women are half the global population. They have been his classmates, colleagues, girlfriends, relatives, and while not all those relationships will have had the same degree of meaning to him – while his connection to his daughter might be the most important of all – the idea that he was functionally isolated from women before he up and fathered one is bullshit. What he’s saying isn’t that he never had a chance to bond with women, but rather that, until he had a daughter, he didn’t, and wow does that tie into some ugly rhetoric about male ownership of women being a trigger for their caring about our wellbeing. (The fact that we still pitch women’s rights to men by giving them the what if it was your mother/sister/daughter/wife speech, as though it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to care about us on our own merits, is a case in point.)

There is, to me, a casual kind of sexism, a sort of paterfamilias handwave, that comes of a man who’s lived with a wife and daughter for almost twenty years blithely admitting his total ignorance of their gender. Never mind that this is also a lie, unless Smith seriously wants to double down and claim that, yes, the women he loves most in the world are fundamentally alien to him; the problem is that he saw nothing wrong with pretending they were strangers.

I don’t think Smith meant to do this: I suspect, rather, that he was trying to acknowledge the implicit criticism in the question without actually engaging it, and ended up blundering into a much thornier problem by accident, rather like stepping into the path of oncoming traffic in order to skirt an open manhole, which you then stumble into anyway, but not before taking a couple of motorists with you. Having brothers is not what stops you learning about women. Maleness can be insular, the culture of masculinity rigidly maintained, but just the mere presence of men is not, by itself, a thing that negates the simultaneous presence of women. Smith was ignorant, not because he had brothers, but because a combination of cultural influence and inherent privilege conspired to tell him that women weren’t worth learning about, and by ignoring the distinction, he points the blame away from himself, and from the culture in which he was raised – both of which can be subject to critical analysis – and onto an objective fact over which he has no control, and which therefore seems impervious to criticism. I was raised with four brothers, therefore I couldn’t possibly know about women. QED.

I’m not angry because Smith gave a flippant answer to a serious question; I’m angry because he seemingly didn’t care enough to realise that’s what he’d done. Even if Smith’s daughter was the first real girl in his life, he’s had seventeen years to consider that she, and other girls like her, are unique individuals capable of sustaining narrative interest, and to realise that his ignorance on that front is unacceptable. Citing her birth and his brothers as part-reasons why he hasn’t already done so is, therefore, if you’ll pardon my French, a really fucking lazy way of saying the dog ate my homework. Tacking a ‘but I’m trying to be better though’ on the end of that mess without understanding that literally every word preceding the final sentence proves its necessity is just adding insult to injury, like you’re aware there’s a problem, but couldn’t be bothered to check if your answer was part of it. Here is what I feel for Andrew Smith, and other men like him, who end up in these situations: embarrassed. You’re a professional writer who expressed a thing so glibly, so naively and so poorly ina professional context that you’re now put in the unenviable position of having to explain, over and over, that you didn’t actually mean the words you wrote. Which leaves you with a choice: either own up to having produced an astonishingly bad piece of writing, inasmuch as it utterly failed to communicate your actual views on women, and try to address why this happened, or defend the quality and cop to the sexism.

It’s your call.

Trigger warning: references to child abuse.

For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

– Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One 

Christ on a fucking bicycle.

Y’know, for all that I’ve taken issue with Penny Arcade in the past, on this occasion, I don’t think I can muster up a better response to the absolute, jaw-dropping ridiculousness of Ryan Boudinot’s remarks than to quote this strip and say, with feeling:

Penny Arcade - Who Let Him Command A Pencil

I mean, really: if you’re going to set yourself up as some literary Yoda by lambasting the inherent mediocrity of the vast majority of MFA students, complete with sweeping generalisations and thinly-veiled contempt for writers in training, then the absolute least you can do is demonstrate a cogent awareness of language and its implications, the better to suggest that you know what you’re doing. Because when you say that reading badly-written memoirs of childhood abuse makes you wish the writer had suffered more, and then go on to say that child abuse deserves to be treated with the utmost respect, not as a topic in its own right, but for writing craft – implying, if not outright stating, that you think it’s more important to respect the skill with which abuse narratives are crafted than the personhood of actual survivors – you come off sounding like a callous, oblivious douchecanoe who doesn’t understand basic fucking empathy, let alone the power of words, and that might, you know. Undercut your point.

I’m never sure quite how to feel about MFAs. Not being American, the regard in which they’re often held is alien to me, and every so often, you hear horror stories about the more exploitative aspects of the MFA system, as per the whole James Frey debacle. Certainly – and as Boudinot himself admits – you don’t need one to get published in any format, and with the advent of ebooks and digital self-publishing, the rise of commercial fanfiction and the slow death of traditional print media, the publishing landscape is undergoing active, even radical changes. That being so, I’m disinclined to view Boudinot’s status as a former MFA teacher as evidence that he possesses either literary competence or industry insight above and beyond the norm, and given the disdain with which he seemingly views his former profession – hello, Goddard College! What a stellar employee you’ve lost – I’m not sure he’d disagree with me.

Well. About that one thing, anyway.

Because as far as I can see, the rest of his argument is little more than a stereotypical, self-indulgent, self-fulfilling exercise in Special Snowflakeism, and while I generally prefer to avoid cliches, as Boudinot is apparently determined to embody the archetype of the Pretentious White Male Writer, I’m going to shore up that assertion by selectively quoting his Twitter feed, which reads like the Poe’s law version of a Mallory Ortberg column. I mean, honestly:

That ‘real deal’ moniker is a reference to his MFA piece, wherein he laments the lack of genuinely talented writers to be found in such programs:

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

What I find so bizarre about the idea of innate talent as a relevant, identifiable factor in this context is that, by lauding it as he does, Boudinot is effectively copping to being a mediocre teacher; at absolute best, he’s claiming that the success of his students is ultimately beyond his control. If you believe that a certain amount of inborn skill is requisite for greatness – and if, as Boudinot seemingly believes, it’s a rare commodity – then what’s your incentive to teach the great unwashed mass of students who, in your eyes, lack potential? And how, exactly, does one go about differentiating innate talent from learned ability? An MFA is a postgraduate qualification: given that Boudinot also believes that the majority of great writers start as teens, any students at his level may well have been writing, or reading with the intention of writing, for years, while others might be just starting out. That being so, and lacking any impartial mechanism for distinguishing which is which, one suspects the real complaint here isn’t one of ability, but timing. Namely: if a writer is already sufficiently skilled on starting their MFA to constitute a Real Deal, then someone like Boudinot can take a mentor’s credit for their success without necessarily contributing to it, while anyone who requires greater encouragement won’t reach their apogee soon enough to suit his vanity.

Either way, I fail to see how any teacher can possibly do justice to either their students or their own methods if they believe, from the get-go, that a majority are born inferior.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

There are notable exceptions to this rule, Haruki Murakami being one. But for most people, deciding to begin pursuing creative writing in one’s 30s or 40s is probably too late. Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language. You have to be crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one.

This is, to put it succinctly, bullshit. While it’s certainly true that our brains are more plastic the younger we are, and that language acquisition is easier for children than adults, human beings were telling stories long before we ever learned to write them down. The ‘neural architecture’ we develop in order to learn to read at all – reading being a human invention distinct from speech – is not synonymous with our ability to comprehend narrative. You can be illiterate, and still a consummate storyteller; or, conversely, you can spend a lifetime reading books without ever understanding how to write one. By conflating a ‘lifelong intimacy with language’ with a childhood spent reading, Boudinot is not only doing a grave disservice to oral storytelling, but is actively insulting every literary adult who learned to read late, or who struggled with dyslexia in childhood, or whose love of reading was otherwise delayed for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their appreciation of stories.

Creative writing is a discipline that requires effort, yes, but claiming that it’s ever too late to start is just as patently absurd as the idea that only some people are born with workable talent. No wonder Boudinot’s Real Deal students are such unicorns: not only do they need the right genes, but they have to act on their inclinations within the first three decades of life to properly qualify. (The irony of believing that immutable, inborn talent can still have a fixed expiration date is apparently lost on him.)

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

I went to a low-residency MFA program and, years later, taught at a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency” basically means I met with my students two weeks out of the year and spent the rest of the semester critiquing their work by mail. My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.

See above, re: Boudinot is clearly a shitty teacher. How dare his students want advice on time management! How dare they feel insecure about their work! God, it’s not like professional writers struggle constantly with weighing deadlines and the prospect of creative burnout against the demands of parenthood, family commitments, day jobs and the restrictions of illnesses – oh, wait, it actually is, because time management is both a difficult skill to learn and an integral part of being a writer; as, for that matter, is wondering what level of professionalism you have to attain before you “really” count as one, and whether that status can ever revert.

But because, once upon a time, Boudinot’s favourite Classic Authors were all sat ’round in a squalid garret enacting the literary version of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen Sketch, he thinks his modern-day students should all just shut up and figure it out themselves, which logic is roughly commensurate with saying that, since people in history used to suffer and die from causes that are now wholly preventable, nobody with access to modern medicine has the right to complain about feeling sick.

Or – hey! I know! Let’s extend that reasoning to Boudinot himself, and contend – as seems only fair – that his complaints about the difficulties of teaching a 21st century MFA course, online, with only two annual weeks of actual student contact, are an insult to educators who worked tirelessly in warzones throughout history. For shame.

Conversely, I’ve had students ask if I could assign shorter books, or—without a trace of embarrassment—say they weren’t into “the classics” as if “the classics” was some single, aesthetically consistent genre. Students who claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books were invariably the ones with the most limited taste. One student, upon reading The Great Gatsby (for the first time! Yes, a graduate student!), told me she preferred to read books “that don’t make me work so hard to understand the words.” I almost quit my job on the spot.

So, let me get this straight: in one breath, Boudinot chastises his students for having limited taste, and in the next is shocked and appalled when their tastes don’t conform to his own, as though having read The Great Gatsby is somehow proof of anything other than having read The Great Gatsby. And while I don’t want to leap to conclusions about Boudinot’s views on gender, it strikes me as relevant that not only does he exclusively cite male authors – Haruki Murakami, Roberto Bolano, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jason Shinder – but, in discussing his students, every Real Deal writer has a male pronoun, while the two negative examples both refer to women.

Sufficed to say, there’s nothing in this article that lends me faith in the man. In fact, he comes across as a walking cautionary tale about everything that’s wrong with the MFA system: judgemental, disinterested, disengaged teachers with a suspected male bias who, by their own admission, don’t believe that most of their students will ever amount to anything, who openly profess their own inability to help the rest achieve publication, and whose best advice is to toil in obscurity for a few years before self-publishing. All that being so, I can’t help feeling that Ryan Boudinot’s biggest hurdle to enjoying work as an MFA teacher was Ryan Boudinot. What a lovely man he sounds. He’s certainly taught me a lesson.

 

Earlier this week, K. Tempest Bradford wrote an article encouraging readers to forego books by straight, white, cismale authors for a year, the better to “change the way you read and the way you go about picking things to read”. Bradford is not alone in her approach; as she herself mentions, Sunili Govinnage read only authors of colour in 2014, while Lilit Marcus spent a year reading only books by women. The point of such experiments should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying even a small amount of attention to literary and SFFnal politics over the past few years: thanks to a combination of conscious and unconscious bias, works by straight white men are reviewed more, praised more, promoted more and generally given disproportionate prominence in the literary scene than those by other writers, and as such, it’s easy to miss out on excellent books – to say nothing of contributing to a culture where their authors are routinely dismissed – by never questioning what and who we’re reading.

Enter Laura Resnick, who has missed the point so spectacularly, it’s hard to know where to begin. To quote:

…my reaction to being challenged to give up Straight White Male writers for a year goes like this.

I can’t think of any writers whose names indicate their sexual orientation. Can you? Is there any such thing as a gay/lesbian/transgender name? Or do authors routinely list their sexual orientation in their formal jacket bios?…

Nor does an author’s fiction give the reader a reliable indication of his or her sexual orientation. For example, the New York Times bestselling Lord John novels feature a gay protagonist; the author of his adventures is heterosexual (Diana Gabaldon). There are also gay authors who write straight protagonists. I can think of several current examples, but since I’m not sure how public they are about their sexual orientation, I’ll stick with naming the late E.M. Forster and the (very) late Oscar Wilde.

And even when an author’s photo clearly indicates their gender and racial/ethnic heritage, how often do photos reveal their sexual orientation? (Rarely, if ever, would be my guess.)

And what if there is no photo?

And I just.

OK.

This is one of the stupidest strawman misdirects I’ve ever fucking seen. Christ on a bicycle, Resnick is literally writing this on the goddamn internet while flapping her hands like the internet doesn’t exist; like there’s just no way to learn anything about an author’s identity beyond what’s contained in a physical fucking paperback; like Bradford is really just asking us to stand in a bookstore and guess. Bradford, in fact, doesn’t say anything about how readers should go about determining authorial identity, presumably on the basis that explaining how to Google things might come off as condescending. I mean, look, yes: Resnick is correct to assert that you can’t just assume someone’s race or sexual orientation on the basis of their name or the content of their writing, and that identity is a thing with many facets. Obviously. But Bradford has never claimed otherwise, and acting like there’s literally no easy way to learn these things, the whole enterprise is tragically doomed from the start when you are, as mentioned, actually on the internet, is just a whole new level of derailment.

Because once you get down a few paragraphs, Resnick’s real problem with Bradford’s challenge becomes clear: it’s not that she thinks this information doesn’t exist, but that she can’t be bothered to look it up:

So in order to ensure that I am not reading straight white male authors, I’d have to do far more googling and research on writers than I am willing to do, since my interest is in their fiction rather than in the authors or their personal details. And even if I wanted to go to such effort, some of that information isn’t available without a bizarre intrusion into their privacy, since some writers choose not to discuss various aspects of their lives in interviews and social media.

My god, it’s just so hard.

The way Resnick has it, you’d think that Bradford was exhorting us all to start acting like digital stalkers, as though considering the personhood of the author is necessarily synonymous with needing the author’s details any cost, regardless of time or privacy. I mean, does Resnick even understand the part where this is proposed as a challenge – that is to say, as a call or summons to engage in a contest – rather than a set of hard rules for everyone to adopt, forever and ever, amen? And even if Resnick was minded to accept, it’s hardly a policed event: K. Tempest Bradford isn’t lurking outside her house, machete in hand, ready to barge in and demand an accounting if she accidentally reads a straight dude’s book. The actual point in all of this, which Resnick has stubbornly missed, is to encourage people to read more widely; to engage with perspectives other than their own; and to maybe consider the race, the gender, the sexuality of the authors they read as relevant, given the proven cultural bias towards promoting the works of straight white men over others.

The idea that this approach is somehow inimical to having an interest in the content of a writer’s fiction is the exact opposite of what Bradford and Govinnage are positing: namely, that an author’s real-world identity and experiences are sometimes – though not always – reflected in their works, and that if we’ve defaulted to reading only or predominantly one type of author, then perhaps we’ve defaulted to only or predominantly reading one type of content, too. As such, if we are, as Resnick claims to be, sincerely interested in reading good stories, then ignoring the relationship between author and work – as though every book, like the goddess Athena, is cut fully-formed from the flesh of some oblivious, authorial Zeus – is something we should be wary of doing.

And then it gets worse:

Additionally, apart from having no interest in trying to research writers’ personal information before deciding whether to read their fiction, my reaction to Bradford’s article is that I would have found her argument more effective if phrased in a positive and constructive way, rather than phrased in the negative, counter-productive way she chose—by advising on authors (straight white male) not to read.

Ladies, gentlemen and others of the internet, behold this sterling example of tone policing, aka You Didn’t Discuss Your Experiences Politely Enough (According To Me) And So I Choose To Disregard Your Argument. The fact that this approach is favourite among sexists – the “I’d listen to feminists if they weren’t so angry” brigade – makes it doubly cringeworthy when deployed by a white woman against a woman of colour: as Flavia Dzodan famously said, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, and in the wake of Patricia Arquette’s tone-deaf call for women who aren’t straight, white or cisgendered to step up and help white ladies achieve equality for themselves, I find myself with even less patience for this sort of White Feminism than usual. I don’t know if Resnick identifies as a feminist or not, but for the love of god, fellow white women: do not fucking tone police women of colour on issues of diversity. More to the point, what article was Resnick reading? Bradford’s piece isn’t an angry polemic against the evils of patriarchy; it’s a calm, articulate acknowledgement of the fact that yes, there’s a bias in the literary world, but here’s a suggestion for countering it.

Again, I feel obliged to point out that nobody is forcing Resnick to read anything she doesn’t want to. Hell, it would’ve been quite easy for her to say, for instance, “I support the sentiment of Bradford’s article, and even if you don’t want to skip your favourite white male authors for a year, there’s still a lot to be gained by diversifying your reading”, and left it at that. Instead, she goes out of her way to attack the logic of Bradford’s challenge, which makes what she says next seem more than a little insincere:

I agree completely that reading a wide variety of authors and themes is a wonderful idea, one to be embraced. This practice has always been encouraged in my family, and it’s practiced by many of my friends, too. I also agree that reading about women, other societies, and other sexual orientations from the perspective of authors who are women, or who are from other societies than our own, or who have other sexual orientations other than “straight” is a suggestion to be embraced. But I don’t agree that limiting my reading in any way is a good idea. Not even if it’s the group—straight white male writers—whose voices have been heard the longest, loudest, and most consistently in our society’s reading culture.

I say again: Bradford is proposing a fucking challenge. By definition, a challenge in any context has rules and limitations, which is how you differentiate your participation in it from the norms of everyday living. That being so, it’s fair to ask: is Resnick opposed to all reading challenges on principle, or just to this one? And if Resnick is really so concerned with the prospect of limited reading, then why has she just spent umpteen paragraphs complaining about how unreasonably difficult it is to try and read diversely?

Years ago, some stranger at a party asked me what I read, as people often do with writers. I named a bunch of books I’d read lately, and named a bunch of writers that were among my favorites, and when I was done… The person asked, “Don’t you ever read any male authors?” I had named only women, and I hadn’t even noticed! Not until this person remarked on it.

Although I still tend to read more women than men, ever since that conversation made me realize I’d been limiting my reading, I make more of an effort to read male novelists. Your mileage may vary, but eliminating straight white male authors from my reading would probably set me back, in terms of the variety I read, since male authors (of any ethnicity or sexual orientation) used to be noticeably absent from my fiction reading.

Look, I’ll be honest: I tend to read mostly women these days, too. But when it comes to my cultural consumption in other areas – when it comes to films, comics, TV shows? Those arenas are pretty fucking heavily male-dominated, even when you actively want to diversify, and as such, I feel no particular urge to try and redress the balance when it comes to written fiction, which is the one narrative arena in which I can come anywhere close to finding parity, let alone surpassing it in my favour. Straight white dudes have a fucking monopoly on visual storytelling, and not just in front of the camera, but behind it, too – directing, scriptwriting, animation and countless other fields are all so squarely white and male, it’s like staring at a box of envelopes. And while I’m not suggesting Resnick should tailor her fiction consumption to fit my preferences, I take issue with the inference that there’s no correlation between straight white male dominance in fiction and straight white male dominance elsewhere; as though this isn’t a single facet of a bigger, more complex problem.

Look at it this way: if you’re eating bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but have fruit for desert, and someone comes along and exclaims over how strange it is that you don’t eat bread for that one last meal, too, then switching to a baguette before bedtime will not add variety to your diet, even if you keep the strawberries. By all means, Laura Resnick, read what you like – but don’t confuse your personal reticence to change your habits, even temporarily, for a reason why the rest of us shouldn’t even try.

 

Trigger warning: discussion of depression, suicidal ideation.

The greatest trick depression pulls is convincing you it doesn’t exist; that the baseline misery it enforces is normal at best or irrelevant at worst. Even when you know, rationally, that self-blame is itself a symptom, still you second-guess yourself. You think the problem is something else: that you’re fundamentally lazy, or melancholic, or both; that you’re simply not sleeping properly, or exercising enough, or taking the right vitamins. The idea that these deficiencies might be symptoms rather than causes crosses your mind, but you don’t take it seriously; it feels too much like giving up, like letting yourself off the hook. You want there to be something concrete you can do to improve things, a button to press or routine to enact that will suddenly make things better (not that things are wrong, exactly; the fact that you’re constantly tired and sad and anxious and mentally composing suicide notes at the grocery store while simultaneously berating yourself for being so melodramatic because obviously, you’d never really do something like that, is neither here nor there), and if there isn’t – if there’s nothing you can physically do – then that means you’re powerless, or possibly broken, and who wants to have either of those things confirmed?

So you don’t say anything. You move through a world whose gravity seems to pull you down with greater force each day. However much you sleep, it isn’t enough. Your temper frays. You never feel replenished; only drained, as though some vital well at the heart of yourself has run dry, and nothing you do has the power to fill it back up. One by one, your appetites fade: you can’t read, or write, or eat, or shower, or dress – do anything, really – without feeling like the world has vampire teeth in your jugular. Your joys are either tepid and flat or, very rarely, brief and manic. Nothing feels real. You wonder if you’re a sociopath, because shouldn’t love feel stronger than this? Or maybe you just made terrible choices, and everything is all your fault: maybe you just have to live like this forever.

And then, one night, you burst into tears for a solid ten minutes while reading a story that’s set at the beach, because you miss the sun with a visceral ache, like something that’s been pulled out of you, and for the first time, you seriously consider the idea that there might be a tangible reason for all of this. Sure, you’d thought of it before – you knew what Seasonal Affective Disorder was, even brought it up with the doctor the one time you went in to talk about depression, when they shrugged and said maybe, but also gave you some brochures about free counselling and the option of going straight to pills – but the fix seemed ridiculous. Buy a magic science light, as though a fucking lamp could possibly solve your problems. But you’ve been exercising every day, taking iron and Vitamin D and magnesium supplements for months; the recognisably post-natal aspect of your depression stopped a while back; by every external measurement, you should be in an excellent place, and yet you feel worse than ever. You’ve tried everything short of an anti-depressant prescription, and if that’s going to be the next port of call, then why not give the light a shot first?

So you buy the light, plug it in at the desk you haven’t properly used in months, and sit. It’s bright and warm, and something in you relaxes. You start smiling. Within twenty minutes, there’s a tingling sensation all along the skin of your neck, familiar and alien, and it takes you a while to place it: this, for you, is happiness. You used to feel it outside, in the sun, on hot summer days, and always assumed it was a purely aesthetic reaction, your body responding to the beauty of blue skies and warm skin, but in this moment, you realise it’s so much more than that. You don’t just miss the sun; you need it, and suddenly it’s here again, for the first time in what feels like forever, and oh.

Oh.

It’s like waking up from a coma. You clean the fridge, then clean the kitchen – tasks which, even hours ago, felt utterly insurmountable. You dance to music, just because. You play with your child, and not only doesn’t it drain you; it delights you, and you no longer feel like such a broken mother. You sleep better. You start to write again. You keep up the exercise, but now, the high you feel while moving doesn’t instantly drop away when you finish. You tell a friend, still struggling to believe it, and she tells you that exposure to sunlight is linked to seratonin production: the chemical that literally controls your ability to feel happy and energised.

Oh.

You use the light every day. After two weeks, you start reading novels for pleasure, a practice you’d more or less stopped, and which had stated to feel like pulling teeth. (It doesn’t, now. It feels like coming home.)

You are whole. You have SAD. You have a magic lamp.

And it’s going to be all right.

WIN_20150219_172431