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Nuances of Genre Labels

Wednesday, April 25, 2018 - 15:10

A Note on Commenting

Before getting into the topic of today's post, I wanted to mention that I'm currently dealing with the disappearance of my previous comment-spam filter (Mollom) and my web gurus and I are trying out some new approaches. Unfortunately, the one we're currently trying still lets about a dozen spam comments through every day that need to be manually whacked. So I've temporarily set all comments to manual approval, which means that there may be a few hours delay between posting and approval. (Given that I get an average of one "real" comment per week as compared to the dozens of spam comments per day, this isn't likely to even be noticeable, much less annoying. But just in case...)

My goal is to have 1) No spam comments get through (because they tend to be nasty things with malicious links or at best porn/viagara/etc. links); 2) No captcha requirements (because I know your opinions on these); and 3) Allow for the optimistic possibility that real-time conversations might occur on occasion (so the current manual approval is not optimal). One possibility would be to block all comments that have live links in them. (Sometimes my real commenters leave links, but they could be text-only and be relatively functional.) Another possibility would be to allow people to set up guest accounts on the website and then let people with accounts comment without manual approval. The website software has this functionality, but I don't know how people would feel about needing yet one more online account to do something they're used to doing more easily. One approach that I've absolutely vetoed is the "use your fb or twitter account to comment" approach because I don't want to require my commenters to link their activity here to Big Brother's attention.

At any rate, if you run into any oddities, that's likely what's going on (and if you spot a spam comment, don't worry, I'll smash it).

The Main Event

I may very well have posted something on this in the past--sometimes I forget whether I've actually written about something or only thought it through. Having literary interests that cut across a number of different communities from various angles, I'm fascinated by the nuances of genre labels that purport to indicate the same concept. In this case: books focused on women who love women. And being a cognitive linguist, I've paid close attention to the ways people use the various terms: the contexts they're used in, the subsets of material they're applied to, and especially the types of books people will most closely associate with them when they're being unselfconsious about genre categories.

This is not a rigorous scientific study, but these are my general conclusions about the functional meanings of several of these terms. The fascinating thing is that if people are discussing their meanings self-consciously, you usually get claims that they all mean the same thing and cover the same scope of books. And it's true that any of these terms can be used for almost every book that features a female character who has romantic or sexual interest in women. But it's sort of like when people are trying to define the category "filk music".[*] You'll certainly hear people say, "Anything someone performs at a filk sing is filk. End of story." But when you pay attention to how people use the word across a large corpus of examples, it's clearly more particular and nuanced (though far from unanimous) than that. So I'm interested in the meanings that emerge from usage, not the definitions the words can be forced into.

[*] If the word "filk" is unfamiliar to you, don't worry about it too much. Or Google it. You may be fascinated.

The terms I'm going to talk about today (though far from all of them in use) are: lesfic, f/f, wlw, queer [applied to books], LGBTQ+ [applied to books]. Append the hedge "in my perception based on how I've encountered the term" to everythign I post below. I'm not going to repeat it for every statement. The descriptions below are prototype feature clusters, not hard-and-fast "necessary and sufficient conditions." (See comment about working from a cognitive linguistics framework.)

Lesfic - The core meaning focuses around the presence of the following characteristics: Protagonist(s) is clearly identified in-story as a lesbian or bisexual woman. Protagonist(s) is not in a romantic or sexual relationship with a man within the scope of the story. There is a default expectation that the author will be female and identify as queer in some fashion and that the publisher will primarily focus on the lesfic genre (unless self-published). The most prototypical members of this category will be contemporary realistic erotic romance. In general, the more differences there are from that prototype (e.g., non-contemporary, or paranormal rather than realistic, or non-erotic, or non-romantic mystery/thriller/etc.) the less likely readers will be to reflexively consider a book lesfic. (As demonstrated by things like spontaneous inclusion as examples.) To some extent, the term lesfic is associated with reader communities in which the majority of members (though not all) self-identify as lesbian. It is not uncommon for someone who identifies as a lesfic reader to read primarily or solely within that genre and to be unaware of or uninterested in books from large publishers even when they include lesbian content.

F/F - This label comes out of the terminology of fan fiction, indicating "female /female" as contrasted with m/m=male/male, or f/m=female/male, or other possible combinations and longer strings. In general, the term implies that a story is focused centrally on a sexual relationship that is usually, although not necessarily, also romantic. F/f can also encompass stories about isolated sexual encounters by women who don't identify as lesbian or bi. The use of this category label creates an expectation of some degree of erotic content. It is very common for authors who identify their work with an f/f label also write stories about other gender pairings. (And, in general, when an author who writes across a spectrum of gender pairs writes a story about two women, they are more likely to identify it as "an f/f story" than as, for example, "a lesfic story".) The use of f/f tends to imply a character-focused genre work, though the genre may be romance, mystery, sff, paranormal, etc. There is no specific expectation as to the gender or sexual orientation of either the author or reader of a work identified as f/f. The use of the term f/f in relation to publisher type is complex. Within category romance, I rarely see it used to describe books from major publishers, but major romance publishers rarely if ever publish romances involving two women. It's used for romances published by small presses or self-published. I do see it used sometimes for books from major sff publishers, and it's used for small/self-published books in all genres.

WLW - I have seen statements that this particular term (standing for "Woman Loving Woman") originated among black authors and readers. I haven't seen a correlation in usage that corresponds to that, but I may simply not be seeing the conversations that would provide the data, given that I'm not part of the relevant communities. I encounter this term much less commonly and so I don't have as strong an impression of the nuances of usage, but it feels to me as if it conveys many of the same genre features as Lesfic, but without the same implication of a specific author/reader community context. It feels similar to f/f in the sense of identifying the gender (but not necessarily the sexual orientation) of the characters, with the default expectation of romance as a significant plot element. I don't have a good sense of whether the use of wlw correlates with the author's sexual orientation, but I don't think I've seen it used in relation to male authors (whereas I definitely see f/f used by and for male authors).

Queer - In general, this label seems to correlate with stories that include a variety of genders and sexualities among the characters, or at least for works by authors who cover that wider scope in their body of work. There is a sense that the works identified as queer are not targeting a specific readership (other than "readers who aren't put off by the word "queer"). There is also a correlation with authors who are less likely to identify themselves using more specific terms like "lesbian". In general, I tend to see this as a genre category label more in the context of SFF than, for example, for categories like contemporary romance. However this may be due to skewing in my data collection. There seems to be a tendency for books by major publishers to use/be described using queer or LGBTQ+ rather than any of the previous terms.

LGBTQ+ - (For "+" read: any possible continuation of the acronym of whatever length and specificity.) This is a bit of an odd one and I'm going to be a bit provocative in my description here. In general, I see books, publishers, and authors use the category label LGBTQ+ to indicate philosophical adherence to broad-spectrum inclusion, while in practice I find that it signals a primary (and often overwhelming) focus on gay male characters. So, to some extent, this label is out of place within a list of terms used to identify books featuring women in homoerotic relationships. Perhaps oddly, LGBTQ+ is more likely to have this male-skewing than "queer" does. I haven't observed LGBTQ+ to corespond to any particular expectations in content, authorship, or publisher.

So that's my fuzzy cumulative impression of the emergent definitions of these words in a publishing context. Does it match your impressions? Are there other correlations that you've noticed?

Major category: