While I got some interesting comments on my post on the 13th, none of them were actually on the questions I posed. While I’m going to circle back to my own questions, I’m going to muse for a bit on furry fandom’s oldest lament, nobody appreciates the writers.
It’s true that illustrations get immediate responses and a wider audience. I’ve heard people explain this by going back into fannish history and relating how furry grew from anime and comics fandom, or with a somewhat more curt “furry is just a visual fandom.”
However, this has nothing to do with fandom. If someone puts a print by Michael Whelan or Jackson Pollock in front of you, you’ll make a value judgement within seconds. If I put a short story by Ursula LeGuin or William Faulkner in front of you, though, you can’t do that. Words require substantially more effort. It’s easier to watch a movie than read a book, and movies that are miserable commercial failures sold many more tickets than wildly successful novels sold copies. This certainly isn’t about furry fans, and while it’d be easy to blame it on illiterate modern youth, this has been true for as long as there have been movie theatres.
Some would still argue that furry fandom is uniquely hostile to the written word, but I’d strongly dispute that. While I can only arrogantly use myself as an example, among ConFurence attendees circa 1992, Revar the vampire bat, from my novella “A Gift of Fire, a Gift of Blood,” actually beat out Erma Felna for most popular furry character. I’m sorry, lamenting writers, but if furry fandom was completely illiterate, that just wouldn’t have happened. More people may know and love (or hate) Terrie Smith’s Chester the ringtail, but furry fans can, and do, read.
The problem is visibility.
Simply put, writers aren’t nearly as visible as artists. In part this can be blamed on, well, writers. Bluntly, most of us just don’t write very much. There are all sorts of good explanations, sensible reasons and pithy excuses, but the cold, hard truth is that if you’re not consistently getting stories out in places where people can go to see them, you’re not going to be seen very much. Yes, we’re amateur writers in the canonical sense of the term, but most of us don’t take our writing output nearly as seriously as amateur artists take theirs.
However, the flip side of that is having places where people can go to see them. In the “Gift of Fire” days, the go-to publication for writers (and to a large degree, even amateur artists and writers) was Yarf!, which put out a respectable 40-60 pages on an eight-times-a-year publishing schedule. But Yarf! has fallen on hard times—officially, it publishes four times a year now, but in practice barely an annual—and, as the fandom’s locus has moved online, some would say it’s become rather irrelevant.
The move to the net has been on balance beneficial to furry artists. Despite the eternal flap over art piracy, the fandom has expanded tenfold over the last decade, in part due to art archive sites. But there’s never been anything like the Yerf Archive for stories. The closest we ever saw was Miavir’s Index, but that wasn’t an archive, it was (as so named) an index of links to other locations—manually updated and over the years updated less and less. And, while it had a charming character from Miavir’s own editorial ratings, it wasn’t a selective index.
For the most part, writers just ended up slapping stories up on their own web sites and tried to advertise the links. This works to a degree—my stories still get seen—but there are obvious limits to it. Most of the hits I get are through search engines these days; I’ve gotten the occasional complimentary e-mail from completely non-furry readers who’ve stumbled across a story when they were looking for something else entirely.
And that’s important enough to repeat. Furry creations can catch and hold non-furry audiences. The best furry writing and art has the ability to reach audiences beyond the fandom’s boundaries.
Or, at least, it did. This has been the biggest frustration for me as I’ve watched furry fandom grow in the net era: it now functions as a closed ecosystem. There are artists who break out of this—and the ones who do are usually the ones who set “trends” in furry art rather than follow them—but many don’t. Amateur artists can make a side income, if not a living, without ever going beyond the fandom market. We are ten times greater in number now, and ten times more insular.
Despite the income opportunities, I don’t think this is a good thing for artists. It’s been no better for writers, and may have been worse. (Save for Sofawolf Press, there’s no paying market in the fandom for fiction I know of currently, so there’s not even that solace.) Furry stories, comics and illustrations incubate in an environment comprised primarily of other fan creations, an increasing number of which drew only on earlier fan creations for inspiration, and fandom cliché and jargon is as a consequence taken for granted. Characters call one another “furs,” foxes are promiscuous bubble-heads that wolves always want to top, “yiff” is used—God help us—without irony. Furry fandom has fallen victim to inbreeding of the imagination, and more and more of our muses are apparently sitting around trying to pick out “Dueling Banjos,” their single thick brows furrowed in concentration.
I don’t want to say that some of these stories aren’t enjoyable; some of them are well-written and show real talent. Yet that’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? No matter how good a “for furry fans only” story may be, it can’t draw someone into the fandom. It’s born flightless.
And the tragedy of that, to me, is that concepts we’d recognize as furry in stories and literature are incredibly broad. They range from the talking animals of The Wind in the Willows to the more mythic, adult treatment in The Blood Jaguar and China Mieville’s gritty King Rat, and in science fiction stories as disparate as The Pride of Chanur, Dean Koontz’s Watchers and the seminal Sirius. We even have mystery series whose detectives are cats.
To get from furry to beyond furry, there needs to be something that can function as a bridge. There are many things to complain about with DeviantArt, but despite its faults, it’s very easy for artists and viewers who aren’t “furry fans” to come across furry work there. It might not seem that a furry-only archive represents that much more of a barrier to casual entry, but “stumbling across” a piece by Kenket or Dark Natasha is pretty difficult. A furry fan might try to interest non-furries in visiting an archive to see a specific piece, but many of those archives are filled with things that — and I mean this in the kindest, gentlest way — suck. This is, of course, also true of DeviantArt, but it’s still at least one kind of bridge between furry and non-furry. The other kind of bridge would be, well, the kind of archive that a furry fan could interest a non-furry in without worrying too much about the suck.
For all of the whining about Yerf’s snobbery and editorial caprice, they were the only site I’m aware of that tried to compensate for Sturgeon’s Revelation. If 90% of everything is indeed crud (and some would say Sturgeon was an optimist), then any given subject, including furry, is best represented by the other 10%. (As someone commented in my post on this subject originally, Rosenberg’s Corollary to Sturgeon’s Revelation: “But oh, that ten!”)
This brings me around full circle to my comment that there’s never been anything like the Yerf Archive for writers. The only conscious effort I know of in progress right now to be a “bridge market” is Sofawolf; for all of the fandom’s internet-as-hub mindset, there’s never been an attempt to do such a thing online.
I’ll return to this in a followup.