TW: some discussion of sexual assault in the reviews, Because Oblique
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Back in the day, a zine was a serious investment. It could cost say $40 easily, and arranging for shipping could be troubling, embarrassing and in some cases even dangerous (try explaining the contents of that envelope to a family member who exerted financial power over you in 1985). Many a publisher had their masters destroyed by a morally-minded copyist after laying out huge sums for perfect binding, for example, and of course going to the police about the financial and material losses wasn’t much of an option (you were in a real legal grey area on several counts). In this publishing culture, reviews (collected, for example, in specialist compilations) were frank, and could be downright nasty. After all, you were about to spend $40 to cover that publisher’s overhead in 1980s money, and risk exposure by a nosy mailman, etc.: you wanted to know that what you were getting was worth it. Such reviews also provided honest criticism, and a means for that era of fandom to have meta discussions and keep in contact.
Since then we’ve been through a few successive phases of shifts in discourse standards. The advent of Cult of Nice and the subduing of Cult of Mean meant that for some time, unless expressly solicited, public feedback on lj and archives for many fandoms was almost universally positive. This of course had pros and cons. Now, with fandom playing out over the more diffuse Tumblr platform and the re-rise of the Archive via Ao3, we’re seeing to some extent a reinvigoration of negative criticism in fandom. This does owe something to Tumblr’s particular discursive mode as well, which can veer between invigoratingly insouciant and outright toxic.
Oblique Publications started work in 1988, and continued to be a fairly prolific multi-fandom house for roughly 15 years. Their Blakes 7 content influenced how the fandom developed, and as this is one of the first mega-fandoms, that’s quite archeologically significant. Blake/Avon, the sort of once-and-future dominant pairing of the Blakes 7 fandom, has at times dipped below other ships in terms of output and popularity. In the long view however it has remained the most prolific, and, to my thinking the most artistically successful (and, not unrelatedly, the best archived: I cannot stress this enough, archive to survive) sub-community and body of work. Oblique is often credited with “solid writing, clean editing, attractive design, and a darker edge than was common at the time, including BDSM and endings that weren’t guaranteed to be happy.”
I feel Oblique’s reputation for dark, serious and admirable writing is frankly often unearned. The house’s influence on Blake/Avon has been both significant and ultimately destructive, encouraging relentlessly bad and unproductive characterisations and a view of the story-universe that’s limiting, dull, and insufficiently responsive to canon. These fics are acclaimed for their grit when they’ve the texture of canned custard. It’s a Game of Thrones effect: bad shit is happening; it must be literary. In fact, Oblique generates rather pulpy affects, which would be dandy if these were any fun. They are not.
I feel the need to talk about this because Oblique is a massive shadow over the land. Even if people haven’t read Oblique fics, they’ve read fics that have and they end up spitting up that familiar atmospheric malaise. The pairing has never successfully crawled out from under Oblique. I too have this hangover, and I didn’t even have the pleasure of enjoying getting drunk. I want us to be able to imagine alternate and perhaps better things, and I’m not sure we can at present. To free myself as a reader and writer, and hopefully to adjust the course of readings of pairing texts and possibly the future production thereof, I thought it’d be helpful to review all 57 of the house’s B/A fics (in alphabetical order). Of course I read them all: I read everything else first, and this was all that was left. To spare your browsers, I’ll put these up in chunks. Oh, don’t worry: there are many more posts to come.
I’ve gone for a chatty tone in these to make them readable, because it came naturally (especially as I endured stories I really disliked), and because I will defend the use of a tone a horrible MA tutor once called ‘journalistic’ to death and beyond through all the ravages of my deliquescing.
What I’m about to do may make some people in fandom raise their eyebrows, and strike them as a violation of fandom etiquette. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, it is however well within established reception traditions, specifically those which prevailed for zine fandom (a category which the texts under discussion fall into). Also, the fics in question are around two decades old, now. The ‘fannish lives’ of the people involved have for the most part gone different directions by now or ended. I don’t believe I’ll be doing harm or even hurting feelings, really. And I’m involved: how fandom works, how B/A works, affects me, and Oblique is still exerting an influence. As such, I would like to speak to it, and feel justified in doing so.
It might also look like chatting shit about family members in public. I am, however, of the opinion that I can do that if I like, grandma, and that more to the point, fanstudies too often treats fandom as the subject of sociology or anthropology: ‘let us preserve the secret and quaint rituals of the untouched tribe!’ I have no interest in these unreconstructed, cringe othering discourses, which do not sufficiently participate in the critical self-reflection anthropology has done as a discipline about its dubious origins and methods in the past decades. Nor am I enamoured of the STEM-fetish that leads a field of textual criticism to imagine itself at one with the social sciences. As if these are not themselves held in disdain by the sort of technoscientific discourses of mastery Adorno is rightly contemptuous of! It’s the partly-sighted leading the blind, if full-sight is here read as ‘manifest ideological and intellectual questionableness’.
For me, (media) fandom is an art community and art practice producing art works, all of which are both active and historical. As such I feel the art produce of these dedicated amateurs can indeed be critiqued in the way you might analyse other, non-fandom independent zines, and in fact that it is disrespectful not to engage with the material thus. When you make fandom into a pathologized phenomenon rather than a subject fit for discussion under the auspices of English, History and Media Studies, you do violence to the creators and their work—violence that upholds canonicity in gendered, heterosexist and classed ways.
Never mind the bollocks, here’s the bollocks.
STORY: Against the Wall
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: M. Fae Glasgow writing as Edi N. Burgh
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? vila is safe
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? their love is weakness and sentimentality and a sure road to death (so are they never going to love anyone ever, then? or is it THEM? &sometimes it arguably causes them to do things that preserve their lives so–no you know what fuck it)
EDITOR’S NOTE: BLESSEDLY NAKED (Maybe I’m unfair about author’s notes–the tone I hate was perhaps really normal at the time, and pre-lj possibly this was one of your few opportunities to communicate to other fans *as yourself* and to set the personality of a publication? I still hate what they do with it, but maybe that’s WHY.)
OVERALL: I don’t hate this fic. They love each other and know it but think it’s a bad idea so have spontaneous sex via a proxy. Tbh I think that would… overflow like the real thing, and am not invited to consider /why/ This Can Never Be in a rational, engaged, adult manner, but I like that they have feelings for one another and no one gets raped.
STORY: Ante Mortem
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: M. Fae Glasgow
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? VILA IS NOT SAFE
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? Blake loves an ideal version of Avon and is dumb; Avon is full of ennui.
EDITOR’S NOTE: at least it is short
PROSE: fucked by no dialogue
OVERALL: Aralias has said before that many a fic that has too little dialogue could be fixed with its addition, because structurally, dialogue would force pace to work better and force people to interact, to buffet against one another, and would direct the action differently. This fic makes me feel her point. Glasgow is fond of this tripartite structure, where Blake, Avon and Vila all ‘have their say’, and I think it *could* work and never does. Blake gets character assassinated all the harder for being given the opportunity to pseudo-think, but then not given half the common sense of canon!Blake and/or a goose, and being assigned the duty of Jarviking about the place. Avon gets to be world-weary and simultaneously full of poignant feelings and far too cool for feelings. Vila gets to be a weird servile cringer assigned the duty of hating Blake For Avon/critiquing Avon in a way that actually just consists of licking his combo of poignant feelings!! and cold bitchiness. Vila is so, so emptied out by these. Glasgow’s fics seem kind of animated by–an unrecognized loathing for all three of them that doesn’t want any of them to fully exist, but they’re hardest on Vila, who just gets to fetishize Avon’s Alphosity. I must admit, I skimmed this after page 5. It’s just hard-going and dull and unpleasant, and for all Glasgow thinks Blake is a piece of shit, idk, at least he… gets some fucking goals and sensory experiences that aren’t Avon’s peeving about with ossified bodies and Vila’s rolling around under a fur spread. As Kanye tells us, ‘fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on’.
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Caroline K. Carbis
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? Yep, Vila
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? they can be together I guess but vila will be there too to make sort of comedy cockney oo-er noises
EDITOR’S NOTE: clear
PROSE: gape-jawed barracuda anus, ends with a joke about ‘meat’ and ‘sandwiches’–have we lived and fought in vain?
OVERALL: So this needs rewritten, but if one rewrote it, it could be decent. It is essentially just a B/A fic–Vila is around at the beginning so Blake can see Avon kissing someone (any one of 10 other things could have done the job of this) and then at the end… for a threesome he has had 0 part in bringing to fruition? That is not ABOUT him for either of the others? Also idk really what anyone feels in this. Or why anything matters? Eh.
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Sebastian
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? Yep, Vila
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK?
ULTIMATELY: because Avon says ‘I am willing to adjust my demands’ and Blake is like ‘blarrrrrgh I’m still leaving!!’, and not in a believable ‘too hurt to be rational rn’ kind of way, but just like, because the atmosphere of doom is upon this pairing, and Blake must go into the West and diminish. It is honestly surprising how many of these feel like ‘elves just gotta peace, yo’, like–that level of ‘it is beyond explanation or rational intervention’ inevitability.
BEFORE THAT: because Avon is a weird emotional crab person per always and Blake is Too Political and they don’t idk talk about this or contingency planning: this suffers from One Night Stand’s problems, in a way I’ll talk about soon. It’s difficult to pin down because too much happens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: one of the worst things I have ever seen; just involuntarily quacked like a duck skimming it I mean letting the words and sentences, the thoughts and sentiments, the passions and the emotions flow into my soul… you duck-quacked too didn’t you? I know you did.
OVERALL: Right, where to begin? Listen, I would not deny that Brutus is an honourable–no no that Bittersweet has some good bits. Like, some sentences that linger with me, some good set-pieces, maybe even some things that inform the way I think this pairing? Not as much as some fics, for me, but Bittersweet has a lot to recommend it.
Unfortunately what it also has is the problems of One Night Stand in miniature: Sebastian would like to navigate you through a series of emotions and set pieces. She is DETERMINED to do this, and she is Sebastian and this is Oblique so there’s no one to beta her into shape and tell her that it literally does not matter if this part and this part are both v.g. if they do not go together. The Vila beginning is strongish though I don’t care for it, but honestly only comes up in the lightest ways at like two other points in the fic, and thus should not be here. The whole arc needs disciplined. I appreciate that this is a slow-burn and that it’s refusing an easy THEN THEY WERE TOGETHER! consolation, but because the arc wasn’t shaped I honestly started skimming this: some of the better writing to come out of this whole grimdark embarrassment of a publishing house. It got boring, it didn’t emotionally connect up, there was no underlying shape to things, and so it got hard to determine what meant anything. You could say this was a mimetic response to their relationship/their random terrorism, but I am not willing to credit Bittersweet with that.
STORY: The Blink of an Eye
MUSE OF FIRE RESPONSIBLE: Jane Baron
HAS POOR VILA BEEN DRAGOONED INTO THIS SHITSHOW? Jenna instead
WHY ARE BLAKE AND AVON DOOMED THIS WEEK? Blake has a death wish and is stupid and Avon is too sophisticated for him. They are now committed to one another, but you’re not allowed to feel it’s a particularly good idea.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I feel my left eye seizing a bit. with rage not jealousy or dust.
PROSE: not awful.
OVERALL: Avon is too sexually sophisticated for Blake: ‘OH BLAKE YOU NEED TO PRACTICE SEX FOR MONTHS BEFORE YOU CAN TOUCH ME AGAIN’. A joke? that LINE could be, but then they talk more and he totally means it, even though EARLIER IN THE STORY the narrative says that Blake is like GREAT because he used to be vv good at this and in practice. and the whole fundamental fucking-premise of it is like–it makes no sense either at the stated or later-revealed!! explanation. you have to give this fic SO MUCH to make it work.