Watts (chipotle) wrote,
Watts
chipotle

C&Q Too Redux: on furry writing

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.

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  • 37 comments
As always, your well thought out arguments are a joy to read, even on subjects which have no relevance to me. Though some points you raised are certainly relevant to anyone who cares about the nature of the fandom, as anyone who considers themselves a part of it should.
Please realize that I'm commenting upon this as a person relatively new to the fandom, and that I can only speak out of my own personal experience, which should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

I have two small children, and I'm continually struck by how many children's stories and illustrations are filled with anthropomorphic animals. Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, nursery rhymes, and The Velveteen Rabbit are a few classic examples I can add offhand to the ones you've already mentioned.

I think that, generally speaking, what mainstream society objects to is the sexualizing of anthro animal characters, or even the rendering of them in more nonsexual but still modern ways. I don't know if this is related to the tendency to be alternately prudish and provocative outside of any furry contexts, or if it's related to (unnecessary, imo) concerns about pedophilia.

I think that's a flaw in the mainstream, not one with furries ourselves. Certainly there's nothing inherently wrong with having an inner fantasy life, and where else should we go when nurturing our creativity but back to its original inspiration, the stories of our childhood?

That said, for whatever reason, the furry fandom seems to have become both scapegoat for and victim of all that is negative within Internet culture. I don't know why. All I know is that I've seen it. I've been amazed at the number of webcommunities devoted solely to furry persecution, the number of people who define themselves solely by opposing the fandom, the number of folks in Philly who viewed people there for the con with open disbelief or derision.

I don't really understand why. I accept that society views the whole thing as generally weird, but I don't intellectually understand it. Still, there are many things about the mainstream that baffle me and the response to furries is just one drop in the proverbial ocean.

So, to address your question: yes, I think that anthropomorphized animals can and do have a place in fiction outside of the fandom, though I think that it's most likely to be successfully marketed to small children or to a certain genre of SF&F fans.

Apart from that, though, I think that the insularity to which you're referring may have developed as a necessary response to persecution. It's perhaps a chicken/egg phenomenon, but I too feel a bit protective of the fandom and my friends within it, not to mention myself, when I think of exposing all of our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies to the world at large. The world hasn't done such a great job with the little glances into our subculture that it's gotten thus far.

Another question is who is meant by 'the mainstream'. 'Mainstream' gamer/geek society is a bit different from mainstream society as a whole, and there are generational considerations to think about as well.

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Anonymous

12 years ago

chipotle

12 years ago

ladyperegrine

12 years ago

kereminde

12 years ago

chipotle

12 years ago

If your story is populated by anthropomorphic animals of various species, as most furry stories are, then you either have to explain and justify this setting, or you have to take it as given, and neither of these are very workable. Actually, I find the latter more workable. I find the former unworkable because it involves going through this painful elaboration of backstory which, to me at least, is usually pretty dull and only has a few resolutions, but my main problem is that it very soon becomes the bulk of the story. Like if they're genetically created, you have to explain the technique somewhat. Then you have to explain why it was done, for what purpose. And who did it, and explain their role in the setting, if any. And it has to make sense, it has to be something you'd believe would happen. With the latter approach, you say that there was genetic research, or that it's convergent evolution, or that the gods did it, end of story, and you sidestep the problem.

The difficulty with the latter approach, though, is that it doesn't provide a justification for why there are anthropomorphic characters in the story at all. I mean, this could be the root of the perception of furry fandom as a fetish... there often is no good story reason for there to be talking animals in place of humans, and if one tries to write a justification into the backstory it's often obvious as a mechanism created for that purpose.

Now, there are good structural reasons for substituting animals for humans, largely summed up by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics... the more nonspecific a character is, the easier it is to project one's self into its place, and it's often easier to grant emotional weight to a non-human character, which is why all those Disney movies work so well. And while I find the idea of ascribing particular traits or temperaments to species, on the basis on popular lore, to be pretty hackneyed, it's clear that a lot of readers buy into it.

But none of this is going to work if you don't have a good writer doing it. Meaning it has to be somebody who writes for its own sake, not only because they want to give life to their fetish or live in their fantasy world, which is why so much fan fiction and art is so bad. It has an agenda, one which has less to do with artistic or literary quality than you'd imagine. I'm not just talking about pornography; there's a lot of nonsexual fan art and fiction whose only purpose is to render these ideas so that they can be gawked at, and it's tailored to an audience which is similarly obsessed with particular concepts, to the detriment of readability and so forth. This is why furry art tends not to find a 'mainstream' audience even though the mainstream is saturated with anthropomorphic characters. It's not just the sex. As you say, so much of it is rendered in an inaccessible shorthand. If you want outsiders to be interested, you have to write to them. That's all there is to it. If you aren't capable of controlling your composition, I'm sorry, you're only going to reach the converted.

Weren't you going to do some web magazine which would showcase such fiction? What happened with that?
Weren't you going to do some web magazine which would showcase such fiction? What happened with that?

That's always the $64K question with me, isn't it? I keep failing to recognize that I can't do something like that as a one-man show, and that just moving to the web from print doesn't suddenly fix that. If I get myself more organized this year, I think I can actually do it as a lead.. but I'm definitely going to get support.

shockwave77598

12 years ago

ladyperegrine

12 years ago

Well, we've been publishing an anthropomorphic science fiction zine for over 15 years now, hard copy, I know for a fact that a lot of my readers do NOT consider themselves furry fans. Heck, some of my contributors don't consider what we do furry, even though it's all anthropomorphic animals.

We don't pay cash for contributions, but we do give contributor copies. And, as I said above, still in the black, and large proportion of our readers aren't furry fans.

I'm not sure you could say we're a conscious attempt to be a bridge: but when we started, we didn't know there was a furry fandom out there, and our editing standards are make it good literature first.

I understand that because we print stuff only set in our own universe, this puts some people off, and we certainly aren't the equivalent of a giant archive. But...
I think Tai-Pan meets what I was thinking of as a bridge in most respects, yes -- something a furry fan would see and think "that's obviously furry!" but something a non-furry would see and not think "that's pretty weird, man."
One of the problems I'm having with the dead tree edition of Tails of the City is getting anyone to care. When I was posting it on the web, I was getting about four hundred hits each week, and sort of figured that I'd see about the same response for the DTE.

Unfortunately, though I have advertised it in the places I can think of where people might care, I've only sold about two dozen copies... and several of those were purchased by my mother. Oy.
Well, there's one big difference between the web and print editions of Tails of the City: the latter is something you have to pay for. While I'm not sure of a way to quantify what would really be good sales, the off-the-cuff statistics I found for commenting on forum-posted stories -- 1 comment for every 20 views or so -- might be a very rough milepost. In advertising, a conversion rate of 5% would be considered pretty good in most contexts. (Internet banner advertisements with a click-thru rate of just 1% are pretty much runaway successes.) So, basically, I don't think sales of two dozen copies so far is bad.

I'll note in passing, though, that I made an effort not to include any story readily available online in Why Coyotes Howl. While I'm thinking of releasing one of the stories for free sometime this year as an advertisement, I know from personal experience that once you've downloaded the whole album for free, you don't feel a lot of urgency to buy it at the CD store.

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Yes, the invisibility has caused me to write much less.
An amatuer artist can sit down in one hour and produce a finished work, ready for show. Typically an amatuer writer, going full tilt, can produce a couple of pages of text in that same time period. And since even short stories are usually longer than that, it takes more time to write than to draw.

For myself, the problem is that I'm laboring in a vaccuum. With the loss of fanzines and the disappearance of Miavir's site, few people know of my efforts. Folks have to actively look for my website and the stories within, so the only visitors are fans already. If that's true for other writers then we are all looking at a shrinking fanbase. It is difficult to put in the time and energy necessary to create an enjoyable story when you realize that few are going to know about it, fewer still will read it and practically no-one will share the story with their friends.
Sure, it absolutely does take more time to write than to draw. But it isn't lost on me that when I was a "recognized writer" in the fandom, I was publishing two or three stories a year in fairly well-established venues. And I suspect that two stories a year is probably a realistic _minimum_ if you want to actually have a presence. One story every two or three years, and you're likely to stay invisible, no matter where those stories are showing up.

The problem of where to display those stories is another matter entirely, of course.

prickvixen

12 years ago

I'd like to say something meaningful, but I can't. Similiar to thoughts I've had, especially the inbreeding, and it's not just the art. The ideas in furry fandom are magnetic, once you're aware of them, it's hard to do something. If you get too close to an established stereotype, but have it just off slightly, people won't like it. So it creates islands, zones you have to work around to avoid being sucked in, which kills some story possibilities that could be done if the author was innocent. There was one floating about a year or so ago, sci-fi, about a human trying to seduce a feline using subliminal messages in music. It was, and could only be written by a non-furry, because too many elements were like FM, Taps, Furry Space. Sort of like the Generic Fantasyland, with Elves and Dwarves that dogs fantasy writing, there is a stock furryland, full of Cliche' Genericas that is hard to get beyond.
The Generic Fantasy Land is something China Mieville (in)famously ranted against a few years ago, calling Tolkien "a wen on the arse of fantasy literature." While going after JRR earned him more than a few enemies, the point of his short diatribe was better captured with the line, "Given that the pleasure of fantasy is supposed to be in its limitless creativity, why not try to come up with some different themes?" Many critics of that essay rather missed the forest for the trees. (Granted, Mieville brought that on himself by setting the trees on fire, but I digress.)

I don't think it's really that difficult to get past furry cliches, though -- you just need to be aware of them, and then to think of your setting on its own terms. I'm aware that one of my more popular older stories, "Travelling Music," was _already_ a furry cliche when it was written (average Joe guy meets a furry in contrived circumstances and gets romantically entangled), but I took it strictly in its own context without thinking about furry fandom at all. People who _weren't_ furry fans wouldn't think of that aspect as being cliched, of course, and people who were furry fans generally forgave me. (For the record, it probably owes more to the movie "Splash" than anything in furrydom!)

prickvixen

12 years ago

Perhaps we could create an LJ community? I know it's a simplistic suggestion, and I'm not saying that it would solve the problem, but I think that at the very least we writers could make an effort to read each other's work and give constructive critiques.
I tried the whole "hey fandom, I'm a writer" thing, you know. I'm sure you watched.

I got more attention in SF/F. And money.

If furry fandom wants to attract more writers, it has to actually, you know, compensate them. You can make good hobby money selling art in the fandom. Writing for it? Oh no. Can't even buy yourself a cup of coffee.
That's something I haven't touched on yet, but I've thought about it. I've made enough money writing in the fandom to buy not only a cup of coffee, but a fairly high-end coffee machine, but I recognize I'm a rare case.

I think furry fiction markets haven't developed in the fandom despite its growth less because furry fans are illiterate than because such a market tends to be more complex than the art market. Generally, artists in the fandom are selling directly to their purchasers; writers, though, usually sell to editors. So to get the market going, you need people who have the resources, skill and desire to be editors and publishers. (Not to mention money: as low-paying as C&Q was, it would have still been over $1K a year, and an at-the-time unemployed, highly-in-debt technical writer couldn't keep funding it out of pocket in the hopes that it would eventually break even.)

Furry artists do have the luxury of a bigger market completely in the fandom; I think furry writers have a smaller audience if they're writing just for that. On the flip side, I think it's quite easy to have stories that sit on the border: furry fans might embrace them as furry, but people who aren't in the fandom would still read and enjoy them. And I think that's probably the key here. Out of the artists who've come along in the last decade in the fandom and pushed con art show sales up dramatically, most of them regularly sell to non-furry audiences, I've noticed, although many of them noticeably segment their work and/or think of themselves as already working on that border. This is something many writers in the fandom don't position themselves for.

haikujaguar

12 years ago

chipotle

12 years ago

haikujaguar

12 years ago

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You're essentially arguing that there's no point in cultivating the minor leagues, because either someone's gonna go right to the Yankees' starting lineup or they're going to be playing whiffle ball forever.

Look, I just spent a while trying to respond to haikujaguar making a (somewhat) related assertion, and I'm beginning to get kind of frustrated with the "obviously anyone with any talent would be bypassing this all completely" attitude. Yes, people who are good enough to become professional will eventually, well, become professional. More power to 'em. But most people make stops along the way, and I'm really failing to see why the idea that such a stop could be a place whose goal is to give furry stories a fractionally wider audience is so incredibly far-fetched.

haikujaguar

12 years ago

chipotle

12 years ago

haikujaguar

12 years ago

chipotle

12 years ago

haikujaguar

12 years ago

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