He pauses, flexing those amazing pecs. "Let's try once more. 'The god ran his fingers through his thick curls; she could only gasp in amazement.' See? Use a semi-colon, not a comma there. If you do it right, I'll consider running my tongue up and down your body." The Semicolon, from Thamiris's Sexed-Up Grammar Guide Sexed-up isn't quite how you would describe Thamiris right now. Grammar is indeed preoccupying her, but it's not the kind that comes with bulging pecs and hot-breathed pronouncements from the male characters of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Instead of parsing the romantic possibilities of one of her favourite TV shows, she's reading run-of-the-mill undergraduate essays and her libido is flagging like -- well, like a university professor confronted with too many passive verbs when she'd really rather get active with Ares, God of War.
Thamiris, needless to say, is a pseudonym. "She was an Amazon queen who hacked off the head of some king who pissed her off," says the latter-day Thamiris with some relish. "And she was known for her intelligence."
It's the kind of handle a thirtysomething Vancouver teacher takes when she needs to separate her day job winning kids round to Euripides's Medea from an after-hours passion that involves bulging pecs, darting tongues -- and erotic fiction with perfectly placed semicolons that she crafts for an admiring Internet audience of likeminded literary Amazons.
She is one of the most inspired practitioners of a potent underground genre known as fan fiction, where cult TV series such as Smallville, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Star Trek inspire wild tangents of fancy and fornication. And yet when it comes to sharing her gift with the outside world, our Thamiris is filled with maidenly modesty. It's not so much the erotic nature of what she writes -- most of it highly charged male/male pairings designed to boldly split a prim grammarian's tight infinitives -- as the fact that her literary output is, she says with an intellectual's secret shame, "based on TV."
The cultural possibilities of television do not end with the pretty demographically pitched stories that issue unsought from the silly box in the corner. When you enter the wonderfully twisted (and mostly female) world of fan fiction -- where, after the standard legal disclaimer, Spock can requite Kirk's passion, Starsky can have his way with Hutch and Scully finally beds Mulder -- it is like suddenly discovering the flat Earth's deliciously rounded curves.
Fan fiction may have started quietly and tentatively in the 1960s with Trekkies who desperately needed more stories than the original Star Trek series was able to offer. And for many years, the genre lived a low-key life in limited-circulation 'zines. But with the arrival of the Internet, the process of crafting alternative TV worlds has heated up and the longing for fan fiction has launched a vast parallel publishing empire.
Fan-fiction archivist Mary Ellen Curtin, writing two years ago, offered a very conservative estimate of half-a-million "fanfic" stories in on-line circulation. The number is far greater now. "It's a huge literary movement that the official publishing and academic world is largely unaware of," says Sharon Cumberland of Seattle University.
It is also a movement that consists almost entirely of female amateurs, which may account both for the official world's indifference and the eroticism that thrives where officialdom doesn't pry. "This is a way for women to form communities and share stories with one another," says Cumberland, author of a study about five women who wrote collaborative fiction revolving around characters played by dashing Antonio Banderas.
"The safety of the Internet allows women to take erotic liberties without being outed." Cumberland says. "We can understand it when women get together to write about grandma's quilt, so why not when they create a character to express some other aspect of our experience or desire?"
Thamiris is quite pleased to say that she has been liberated by fan fiction. While still reluctant to give out her real name -- there's a profoundly blasphemous God/Lucifer story that could come back to haunt her -- she says her views on sexuality have been completely overturned. "I was a feminist, antiporn, really hard-core, and it was deeply disturbing to me that I could be writing this stuff. But then I started to see that porn isn't inherently evil, that it doesn't lead to oppression, because I was producing it. And this has had an impact in my real life -- I now have a greater acceptance of all things sexual."
Much of fan fiction, it's true, is no less respectable than the medium it plays off: Many writers aspire to write legit scripts or spinoff novels, and television series such as General Hospital and Queer as Folk have created fan-fiction contests to channel this passion into bigger buzz and higher ratings. Meanwhile, the genre's leading Web site, fanfiction.net, has recently banned the more salacious forms of sexual storytelling known as slash (after the oblique line that separates the two partners in a coupling).
Indeed, along with the wonderfully unrepressed hectorings on grammar of the Thamiris variety, there are many Web-log discussions about the need for moral boundaries within the on-line free-for-all -- though granted, these tend to be less about avoiding sex than advising against couplings that involve real-life boy-band members or underage screen characters.
"When fan fiction was grass roots and much more underground," says Massachusetts Institute of Technlogy professor Henry Jenkins, author of the seminal 1992 study, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, "an aspiring writer would always come to the 'zines through a guide who was a part of that world. Now the writing environment is so open that there are people publishing who have no social ties to fandom per se and no links to its traditions."
Some on-line discussions, as a result, can sound less like a community of shared desire than a colloquy of medieval hair-splitters (Is it wrong for a middle-aged woman to lust for teenage characters if they're played by 25-year-old actors?). But it's clear to most seasoned practitioners that allowing Harry Potter to be ravaged by Justin Timberlake is a real no-no. This is literature, after all, not some random adolescent fantasy.
That fan fiction could be art is a contention Giller Prize devotees may find impossible to accept, particularly because these works without hard covers and a respectable imprint never ascend onto their reading lists. "People see TV-based writing as a waste," says Thamiris. "It's always, 'Why are you doing this and everyone's 12 and get a life.' But the superficial elements distract people from what I'm doing: I'm part of a writing community and that's not a waste of time in any context."
That sense of community is what fan-fiction writers come back to again and again when they talk about the medium's value. "Fandom is a safe, nurturing place to write," says Tara O'Shea, a 29-year-old Chicago Web-site designer. "And often it seems to be a little too safe, given the sheer volume of bad stuff out there." O'Shea's goal is to write official novelizations of her favourite series and she knows of authors who've made the leap from fan-fiction amateurism to print professionalism. While many producers and studios officially take a hand's-off approach to fanfic Web sites (to avoid later charges of plagiarism) and a few authors such as Anne Rice have forbade imitators, it's widely accepted that the more savvy producers monitor fan sites.
The original motivation of fandom, says Henry Jenkins, "is born from the balance between fascination and frustration. Mass media never perfectly satisfies our needs and interests. It's always slightly misdirected, and so fans begin to flesh out the parts that aren't there. It's a grass-roots customization, and it occurs within a social space."
When Thamiris posts a Smallville or Hercules story on-line and asks for feedback, she'll immediately hear from 50 or 60 fellow writers, all of whom offer detailed analyses of plot and character and sexual tension, with the occasional "Yummy!" thrown in. "There's so much positive reinforcement to write," she says.
Positive doesn't mean uncritical. Thamiris remembers vividly her first halting attempts at writing a Hercules story. "When I sent it to a beta reader [fanfic-speak for a no-holds-barred editor] it was quite a shock. 'You have to fix this and this is too pompous and you sound too academic and this is wrong.' You come in shy, but you learn, and the community is very good at talking about how you're supposed to respond: Suck it up, act like a man."
She wouldn't have it any other way. "If I wrote pro-fiction [fanfic-speak for paid writing] I think I'd do something literary, not popular, and I wouldn't get the same warm and fuzzy feelings I get when I post on-line. Being isolated, being shut up in a garret, that's not writing to me. We write with a community -- a lot of writers even write in chat rooms and every sentence they write gets an immediate response."
Ironically enough, it's that powerful and liberating sense of community that raises doubts about the worth of the fiction it motivates in such quantity. How can people who work in groups and derive their stories from sci-fi and beefcake TV make any claim to art?
"The idea that you have to create original characters to be any good," Cumberland observes, "is palpably untrue. Originality is just an invention of the high literary culture of modernism, which has come and gone. When you read the best fan fiction, there's a parallel with an oral culture of myths and legends that goes back to Homer."
Thamiris readily admits it was a hunky postcard of Smallville star Tom Welling that drew her to her current TV obsession. But she wouldn't have stayed to watch and write if it weren't for the show's archetypal qualities. "It's the superhero myth, and that's not all that different from the Trojan War or the Bible. God and the Devil, Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, good and evil, it's the same story. And you know, Lex Luthor actually has a model of the Trojan War in his home."
That self-conscious reference to a 3,000-year-old pedigree is very telling. And it's not so far-fetched, says Michael Ullyot, an organizer of a recent University of Toronto conference on the fall of Troy in the Renaissance imagination. When he discusses the huge body of literature derived from Homer's stories, he could almost be talking about fan fiction. "You take the pattern of the facts," he says, "and you step beyond it, to find a small space in the larger picture. Your creativity derives from the great narrative: You attract a larger audience and gain more legitimacy by being connected to a story that everyone knows. Your story becomes great by association."
Well, maybe the potential greatness of fan fiction, unlike such Troy sequels as Virgil's Aeneid or Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, is still in doubt. But its connection with literary tradition becomes more obvious as Ullyot cites numerous precedents from Chaucer's more personal Troy story, Troilus and Criseyde, to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regium Britanniae, where a descendant of Virgil's Aeneas (himself a refugee from Homer's Iliad) detours to Britain and brings literary legitimacy to a country insecure about its heroic origins.
Thamiris is well aware of precedents -- she's a professor of literature after all. When she feels the need to boost her pride in what she writes, she rereads Ovid's Heroides, which retells Greek stories of abandoned women from a more humane Roman perspective. "Definitely fanfic," she says. But for Thamiris, as for many other writers of fan fiction, the need to establish a pedigree and gain broader respectability is secondary to other more immediate desires. "Of course we want to put pretty boys together. But with so many writers being female, we're doing something that's traditionally been a male preserve -- instead of being the objects, we're creating the objects. There's a lot of power in that -- and a lot of pleasure."
The delicious smell of Vulcan skin A selection of fan fiction, from the steamier end of the spectrum: "Lucifer has very warm lips, warm as the seed God spilled on the ground. At first, they simply stand there, pressing together, Lucifer's arms around his neck, God's arms around Lucifer's waist, Creator and created. The body in God's arms undulates, like there's a breeze living inside him, live chaos, or a snake. He's solid, too, where God is solid, and when they rub, there's a splash to the west, as dolphins ride in the waves of a wide blue ocean." In Principio by Thamiris (inspired by The Bible) "Kirk threw his arms around Spock's shoulders and pulled him close, glorying in the heat and pressure of that deceptively slender body. Suddenly his nostrils were invaded by the delicious and surprising smell of the Vulcan's skin.
Almond. Kirk chuckled to himself. Interesting choice." Fancy's Hot Fire by Jungle Kitty (inspired by Star Trek) "Standing there with Clark searching his face, hungry to believe, Lex felt like a pendulum. Falling out of darkness, rising up into light. Falling back. And then Clark's stoic expression shattered at exactly the right moment, and he grinned, and grabbed Lex, and kissed him so deep and hard that actual sex seemed superfluous. Which was good, because Clark had chores. And parents. And a mouth Lex could just have, if he wanted it . . ." The Road Home by Meredith Lynne (inspired by Smallville) "Snape was only doing this because he had to, because this was what their traditions demanded. It must be torture for him to look after Harry's pleasure this way, when he'd devoted so much time over the past few years to making him as miserable as possible. But at least it was Harry he was touching, instead of some faceless idol. It was doubtless the best that Harry would ever be able to expect." Rite of Passage by Rushlight (inspired by Harry Potter) "It had been a while since the last time Fraser had worn the collar, but the time between then and now seemed inconsequential to Ray. Even though he was halfway across the room he could already feel it, supple under his fingers, against his partner's throat. It stayed, like every other piece of leather Fraser owned, well and lovingly oiled, all the more so for being less regularly used. It was no wider than an inch and a half; and the fastener had three settings -- tight, tighter, tightest. Ray already knew that Fraser had it fastened so he could really feel it whenever he swallowed." Supple by LaT (inspired by Due South) "Elizabeth Bennet Darcy awoke to the delightful sights, sounds, and smells of her white-lace bedroom. Instinctively, she reached out to the pillow beside her but the only trace of Mr. Darcy that remained was the imprint of his handsome profile. Smiling to herself, Lizzy lifted the soft sheets to her chin. A blush danced across her face as she eyed the dishevelled clothing on the floor. Mr. Darcy had been in such a amorous hurry last night that he had torn her new green silk gown. Indeed, Mr. Darcy had ordered the dress himself from Paris with the strictest of orders that it be made to compliment her fine eyes." Elizabeth and Darcy By Cassandra (inspired by Pride and Prejudice)