Generic convention, generic invention, or: RPF as biography by other means

[Welcome to the Peskies (Pesky and his partner, whom I’ll call Poet, as lurkers / occasional readers. I don’t expect they’ll comment but I wanted to say “hi.”]


Scholarly discourse assumes that every method or discipline has rules and principles that tell us what may or may not be known as a result of studying it. Economics as a discipline, for instance, studies many of the same subjects as psychology or chemistry or literature or mathematics, and some of the disciplines make use of each other (“interdisciplinarity”), but each discipline asks its questions differently and hence gives us different answers to our questions.

A similar principle applies to texts. Texts take on different forms with different rules according to their forms — such rules are called generic conventions. These rules determine what may be said in a particular text. News, fiction, poetry, history, satire  — all of these may concern a single topic — but what we expect to read in each text is different. (And part of one’s skill as a reader is determining which sort of text is being presented and applying one’s knowledge of the generic conventions to it to understand what it appears to say.) And not all assertions are equally meaningful — so that an assertion in a satire, for instance, should potentially be taken to have a different meaning than an assertion in a biography.

One of the guiding approaches of this blog — in sum, an attempt to explore myself in light of my knowledge and perceptions of me + richard armitage — comprises my attempt to write texts that obey different generic conventions or combinations of same in order to understand the topic. Inter alia, some texts are confessional; some informative; some analytical; some biographical; some persuasive; some poetic; some fantastical; some erotic; some satirical; some programmatic. Not everything that might be said on any topic can be said in all of these genres of text, even the ones that are hybrid. Not every text tries to do the same thing.

Most of the genres in which I write are largely not informed by huge amounts of speculation, or when they involve speculation, I articulate the governing assumptions and label the speculative assertions in them as such. When they are fictional, fantastical, or poetic, I write them in ways to make the genres clearly identifiable so that the reader can use these in evaluating them. Presumably the alert reader can be trusted to identify a confession or a poetic text as such rather than mistaking it for an analysis. I think I can be judged to be reasonably reliably informed about myself, and when I write about Richard Armitage, I do so in light of evidence about him insofar as such can be found. Even if readers sometimes decide that sentences clearly marked as speculation are assertions of fact, those sentences still include elements — qualifiers, adverbs — that indicate how reliable I feel a conclusion to be. All writing involves an act of interpretation, but insofar as it’s possible, this blog tries to be honest about its interpretive stances, and it doesn’t try to hide them from anyone.

Genres — and a writer’s explicit interaction with them as author — play important roles in our understanding how texts make meanings. For reasons that will be apparent to the superfans, at least, I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre of RPF lately and why I so much enjoy reading, considering, and discussing it that I’m not willing to eliminate my adherence to it from this blog (even though I don’t write it — I recount only my own fantasies, which are a variation on RPF but not true fictions in the sense of RPF, insofar as my fantasies are accurate representations of how I see myself at any given moment). Here, I have to factor out one aspect of these texts — the tendency for RPF to include sexual content — as too much for this post to discuss meaningfully, although I have thought about this matter and will write about it eventually as well.

But simply considering the question of RPF (with or without sex) as a genre of text about a perception of Richard Armitage, what are its attractions for me?

I think it’s because, as a genre, it offers the author speculative options for understanding Richard Armitage that other genres don’t. That is to say — I’ve spent as much time as anyone reading everything that’s been published about Richard Armitage that I can find and evaluating its content on the basis of different scales of merit. I’ve also tried my hand at writing biography, and I plan to continue — while I haven’t been completely satisfied with the results, I also think I’ve achieved a fair picture (or at least one person’s fair picture) of who Armitage could be. But in the genres I usually use to write about Armitage (source critique, performance analysis, interpretive biography) some questions simply are not asked or answered because the available data will not go there in the ways that the genres involved require. Biography requires a particular kind of data and a particular means of writing about things one does not know that concedes (either explicitly or implicitly) the gaps in one’s knowledge. Biography mobilizes the trope of reality and it is bound by the rules of evidence and the accepted language for evaluating and writing about it. Biography as a genre may speculate about things insofar as it puts data together in an integrated way — what do Armitage’s past behaviors suggest about his personality at a particular time, for example — but it always speculates within particular parameters and points to its speculations.

For instance — someone emailed me yesterday to ask me about Richard Armitage’s romantic life. Darned if know. Really (so if you’re about to hassle me over an alleged search I’m involved in for secret information you can save your breath — I don’t dig for information that is not already publicly available, or know anything more about any Armitage-related topic than anyone who reads publicly available sources already knows). A long time ago, I wrote a speculative text on what a particular answer to this question would mean to me if I knew it were the correct one (a text that labels itself as such, throughout, by the way) but reliable data simply do not go to substantiate anything more than a vague answer.

Even more importantly, however, even if they did, if I had a reliable public source with a list of who Richard Armitage’s romantic partners had been — which I could then include in a biographical text — they still wouldn’t answer so many of the questions I wonder about. Not every discipline answers every question; not every genre of text addresses an issue in the same way. Some of these things can be approached via the development of headcanon about Armitage, and this is still one of my favorite things to do with fellow fans: chat about what Richard Armitage is really like based on what we’ve read and seen and how we interpret that material.

RPF, in essence, goes one step further down the road that headcanon development outlines. What’s so interesting about RPF is the permission it gives us to ask and ponder and write about subtle questions that aren’t treated in other genres. For instance, not just “Which car does Armitage drive?” but “What kind of driver is Richard Armitage?”; not just “Who is Armitage’s romantic partner?” but “What is Armitage like as a romantic partner?” Discussion of the former would fit in the genre of standard biography both in terms of evidence and as a theme, whereas the latter would involve a potential generic transgression for standard biography (particularly of a living person) and a definite transgression in terms of evidence.

In contrast, RPF allows both asking of the question and a particular sort of processing of evidence to answer it. RPF is not simply or only wish fulfillment, with an author building an Armitage with all of the features he or s/he prefers. Rather, RPF also has evidential features, insofar as authors build the character of Richard Armitage that they write based on their confrontation with information that they have gathered about him. Like biographers, authors of RPF are sifting through (sometimes contradictory, often fragmentary) evidence and processing it ways that gel together to form a complete personality. They use this information, and their impressions of him, to build the RPF Armitage written into their stories. In turn, readers evaluate that character in light of evidence they have assembled in their own reading.

Not all RPF Armitage stories are created equal, then, insofar as each of them may not be equally plausible to the reader based on what s/he knows or believes about Armitage based on his or her own confrontation with that evidence. What I once called “the iconic moment” in fanfic, that moment when the fanfic author captures something about the character this is so sympathetic and “right” as to be irresistible to me as reader becomes, in RPF, that moment of truth when, as reader, one sees Armitage the character in a light that corresponds, however briefly, to my own preferred construction of Armitage the person. When I talk about RPF with friends who read it, a repeated conversation concerns the point at which we decide as readers that the author is building an Armitage that we don’t find plausible from our perspectives (at which point we often abandon the story).

Or, on the contrary, we discover some insight that we consider so strongly correct and effective that it compels us to keep reading. I’ll give as an example of the latter moment the author’s depiction of her RPF Armitage character in “Poldark and Handsome” as someone who cares how things look when he knows that other people are watching him. (In the story, then, to fall in love with an OFC who is regularly the object of paparazzi attention, he has to find a way to surmount that reservation and/or resolve its conflict with his extreme attraction to Claire.)

I could not make a claim like that in biography — it’s a bit like the intuitive case of evidence interpretation I described for Richlee realism, and the genre of formal biography, while it permits of some speculation, requires that the author amass large amounts of evidence for such steps. When I write, for instance, that I believe Richard Armitage to have been highly (though not openly) ambitious from a young age, I label that as a speculation but I provide a great deal of evidence for my case. When I read “Poldark and Handsome” as a musing on Armitage’s personality, I find myself nodding in response to that particular drawing of the Armitage character and thinking about the fragmentary evidence I have for that position about his response to being watched, which is, however, mostly an intuitive case. Biography requires that the author avoid such highly intuitive leaps.

So to summarize: among its many potential attractions, RPF can be attractive because of its generic conventions and the ways that it allows us to ask and answer questions. It can be a way of writing a speculative, intuitive character sketch, a fragmentary biography, and of exploring, at length, a perception that one has about the object of one’s crush that may be mostly intuitive. One of the many factors in its success is the comfort the reader feels in joining in the speculation, and if the reader has bought into the genre, the extent to which s/he has made, or is willing to make, the same intuitive jumps about the character as the author has made and the extent to which she finds this kind of “biography by other means” plausible, realistic, or sympathetic.

~ by Servetus on February 14, 2014.

2 Responses to “Generic convention, generic invention, or: RPF as biography by other means”

  1. Thanks for directing me to Poldark and Handsome, Servetus, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I think your observations above are spot on – I’m sure I enjoyed it so much because it really seemed to be in character, or rather in my idea of what RA’s character is.


    • Yes — so if you believed him to be different than that Armitage in significant ways, that particular kind of fiction wouldn’t work for you, i think. This is part of why RPF ends up being so contentious — because it’s hard to bear the possibility that our crush might be different than we imagine him to be.


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