The Origin, History, and Correct Definition and Use of the Fannish Term "Smarm"

For years, the term "smarm" has been filtering through fandom, and while there is some general acceptance of its meaning and usage, there hasn't been a good definitive statement of its meaning and purpose. To remedy that situation, I present the story of how the word came to be applied, what it really means, and why I think so. While I never intended to name a genre (nor did I ever claim I invented it, all I contributed was the name), it remains that I have made an impact on how fandom organizes itself internally, and therefore I feel some authority in explaining what the precise meaning of smarm really is.

It was about 1983 when I first used the term and it was based on a Star Wars zine I had been reading, where I came upon the word in a LoC column describing some nicely gooey scenes in a story from the previous issue. There had been all sorts of terrible torture and then extended bits of lovely comfort, and the letter writer said she thought those comfort scenes were a bit smarmy. I had never heard the word before and thought, gee, is that what zine pubbing fandom (to which I was just being introduced) calls that stuff I liked in the story, the gooey bits that gave me the spike in the stomach? Nice to finally know there is a word for it. It was not, of course, intended that way, but when I asked the person who'd loaned me the zine, she, apparently not willing to admit her own ignorance of the word, assured me that my interpretation was correct. Since she'd been buying and reading zines for a couple years before I even knew they existed, I had no reason not to assume she was right about this part of the whole fannish vocabulary I was just learning.

Thus the word was misappropriated. Having at last discovered the term for that thing I had enjoyed so much my whole life without realizing other people also did, I happily proceeded onward into writing fic and doing my own zines, labeling what I wrote and wanted to see as smarm. It was through Riptide initially, where I put out a letterzine (King Harbor Tourist Information) and two story collections (Pilot's Prayer), then my Lethal Weapon (Doin' the Job) and Quantum Leap (The Imaging Chamber, Accelerator Accidents) zines, that the term began to filter outward among the general zine reading public, most especially those who were also smarm devotées. Once I got online and taught the term to TS fandom, it spread along the net and reached its present state of untraceable ubiquity. No doubt by the time the OED picks it up, I won't be able to convince anyone at all that it was I who coined the usage, but this article can at least provide those future compilers with some small measure of etymological authenticity.

As for whether the word is not a good one to use because of its "real" meaning, I find the objection to be irrelevant because "smarm" is now a term of art. Anyone who doesn't know what that means is invited to look up the word "consideration" in a law dictionary, and discover that lawyers have an entirely different idea of what it means and aren't about to change how they use it just because the rest of the world doesn't use the same definition they do. Those of us in the fanfic community know what smarm is, so why is what anyone outside of it thinks any more important than their ignorance of what slash fic is really about? Newbies have to learn what "ship" and "fic" and "zine" mean; we all did, even though many of us cannot remember the exact occasion of our enlightenment. I do not feel the stress anyone might experience when meeting "smarm" for the first time in fannish usage is a particularly good reason to rail against the word's application. Plus, I do enjoy the appropriateness of a term which not only has its own specific meaning, but can be inverted perfectly to describe its own antithesis, for it is certainly true that there is nothing quite so smarmy (standard definition) as badly written smarmy (fannish definition) fic.

As for why it's a useful or necessary word, I have yet to hear another proposed for the single concept it embraces. "Hurt/comfort" requires hurt, which is not necessary for smarm. The comfort part of that particular equation is why most people enjoy the genre, and it can be boiled down to the smarm that is generated; if all the hero did was go to the hospital and get better on his own, it wouldn't be a very interesting story no matter how he was hurt. "Angst" is about pain, not love, and certainly doesn't require any positive feelings to be had, much less openly demonstrated. I have, unfortunately, read a fair amount of fic in that category and it's darned depressing stuff. "Buddyfic" can be completely without any emotional content whatsoever, the term only specifies casual friends be present. One always hopes that something deeper and more profound can be glimpsed amongst the shenanigans, but that is not a requisite of the genre. "Smarm" is the only word recognizable as describing a particular ontological event: the expression of non-sexual love. Not merely the feeling, but the verbal and/or physical manifestation of it.

The classic problem is that some number of people have always professed confusion between smarm and slash, claiming that verbal and physical expressions of affection must, inevitably, indicate sexual desire. Smarm is accused of being loaded with slash as subtext, but that is entirely in the beholder's eye. People who are slash fans readily admit that they are fans of slash itself, not of any particular set of characters. They will read any fandom's slash literature and they will slash any set of characters, because it is the format, not the characters, that they are interested in. And they are also capable of seeing subtext in ANYTHING. If the characters so much as glance at each other, slashers mentally transform it into a steamy gaze of desire. If the characters avoid looking at each other, it is obviously evidence of them repressing their deep inner desires. There is no such thing as a fandom which does not have a slash component, and for most fandoms I've ever heard of, the slashers far outnumber the gen and smarm and ship (which is fairly recent; there never used to be an acknowledged het romance subtype to fandom, they were a very small minority within gen) groups put together. The smaller a fandom, the more likely it is to be *entirely* slash, with possibly one lone smarmer who is wavering herself over what she is trying to write. In addressing this peculiar state of affairs, I have done some thinking about the types of stories that fill the faniish lexicon, and decided that to really understand the differences between the various genres, one has to base the discussion on a definition of them by their most basic, unchangeable characteristic. That thing which, if it is not there, makes the story some other kind. I have, I say with no modesty at all, arrived at some conclusions in this field.

Slash is about sexual desire, and therefore about personal gratification. For a story to be slash, at least one character must want to have sex with another. That may not be all that's going on, there can be love and smarm and friendship and angst and hurt/comfort and all the rest, but without somebody feeling lust for a person of their own gender, you don't have slash. Whether it's ever revealed, requited, or consumated is utterly irrelevant; the important factor, as in some criminal law, is intent. And it is a completely selfish motivation: personal sexual desire.

Smarm is about the love between friends that does not have a component of sexual desire. It is the type of relationship where either person would die for the other, where the single greatest motivation of each is the welfare of the other rather than himself. It is, in this way, completely opposite to slash. It doesn't matter if the characters hug, or kiss, or even touch each other in ways that can be construed as sexual, so long as the one factor of their intent remains unchanged, focussed outward rather than inward. I believe this is where a lot of slash fans become confused, because they are used to stories where the characters do deeply love each other without realizing themselves that it will become a sexual relationship. The readers are used to a progression from friendship to love to sex, and when smarm does not provide that final leap, they are frustrated at the build-up, much as I am when reading a hurt/comfort story that has tons of awful torture and pain, and then stops short at the end without giving me an equivalent comfort fix to make it all right. "Where's the pay off?!" we demand in unison. The problem is, smarm never started out to have the pay off they expect, and never will, because it is a character motivation separate and utterly distinct from the entire raisôn d'etre of the slash genre.

To a lesser degree, smarm is also sometimes described as an intense version of hurt/comfort, which is also not true. H/c is merely one of the styles of stories which can contain either slash or smarm as its central theme - the hurt exists only to give the characters an excuse to break out of their normal patterns of behavior and display what they would not ordinarily show to each other or to the rest of the world. Whether the thing that comes out as they comfort each other is a sexual love or a selfless one is not decided by the story being h/c; the h/c format is merely the vehicle for getting to the underlying message. It is the single most commonly used one, because it's so damned easy - and most fanfic writers (myself included) are lazy creatures of habit. You don't need to injure a character to get his friend to display affection toward him (witness the rich and varied results of the "No-Owwie Smarm" fic challenge in early TS), but it sure does give you a great ready-made excuse for any sort of deviation from habitual patterns of interaction, and one that society at large is willing to accept without question.

There have been some papers actually aimed at analyzing the hurt/comfort genre's appeal and what the foundation for it might be, but I think so far they have fallen short of recognizing the true universality of the operative effect, which I believe is the smarm part of the story. It is a human thing to seek for and to revel in outpourings of positive emotion, and for those who are most dedicated to reading h/c, there is an actual physical thrill in the experience. Good smarm gives the reader a momentary spike of something which manifests variously, but is most commonly described as a tightening of the throat and stomach, and may involve swift goosebumps and chills or a similiar sensation in the spine. It is, I think, the same thrill slashers get from first time stories - that sudden release of an unsensed tension waiting for fulfillment, which would explain why first time stories make up better than 90% of slash libraries. From outside slash, you might expect they'd be writing about ongoing relationships, but they're not. They're writing the Moment of Discovery over and over and over.

That's exactly what smarm provides as well. A glimpse behind the everyday walls of a relationship, when the characters see and realize that they feel so strongly for each other. The appeal is compounded of surprise and joy at the discovery, even though it is not exactly a surprise to the reader, who has been anticipating this moment of resolution. The degree to which one experiences the spike may have some influence on whether a person favors smarm or slash (or ship), and some folks never seem to get it at all and they are the plain gen readers and writers.

But I don't think the smarm reaction or the other issues around displays of emotion are confined to fandom. You see so much effort in the popular media going toward finding and displaying that exact same moment of two friends unashamed to display their affection. From ads for long distance service to news cameras zooming in on weeping dignitaries at state funerals and athletes joyously hugging each other, the sources for smarm are all around and they are exploited all the time. How many shots of burly het firemen hugging each other did you see after 9/11? Why do you think they were so popular? It's a topic that could use some trained research to explore, because smarmy fanfic is just one tiny manifestation of something much bigger, older, and more universal. If anyone out there is good at writing grant requests, please contact me, I've been wanting to get paid to investigate this for years.