Book review

Representing kink: Fringe sexuality and textuality in literature, digital narrative, and popular culture, edited by Sara K. Howe and Susan E. Cook

Maria K. Alberto

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan fiction; Kink; Popular Culture; Publishing; Textuality

Alberto, Maria K. 2023. Representing Kink: Fringe Sexuality and Textuality in Literature, Digital Narrative, and Popular Culture, edited by Sara K. Howe and Susan E. Cook [book review]. In "Trans Fandom," edited by Jennifer Duggan and Angie Fazekas, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 39.

Sara K. Howe and Susan E. Cook, editors, Representing kink: Fringe sexuality and textuality in literature, digital narrative, and popular culture. Washington, DC: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, paperback, $39.99 (194p), ISBN 9781498590877; hardcover, $95 (194p), ISBN 9781498590853.

[1] Kink is far from straightforward: the term has many definitions, it is often used differently within distinct communities, and even today, it faces pervasive misconceptions among audiences beyond knowledgeable in-groups. Given these realities, Sara K. Howe and Susan E. Cook have set an ambitious project for themselves with the 2019 edited collection Representing Kink: Fringe Sexuality and Textuality in Literature, Digital Narrative, and Popular Culture. As Howe and Cook (2019) state in their introduction, this collection seeks to treat kink as "both a set of practices as well as a category of texts" (2). By focusing on a wide range of texts through various disciplinary lenses, Representing Kink attempts to push scholarly conversations on the topic "out of dichotomous frameworks (e.g., good/bad, normal/deviant, subversive/normative) and into new, theoretically rigorous, and flexible directions" (3). Ultimately, Howe and Cook maintain, this volume "is about kink as much as it is an exercise in kink"—a twofold approach that they hope initiates "a larger conversation" about the norms of textuality, sexuality, and their intersections, both material and cultural (5).

[2] Given the sheer scope of these objectives, Representing Kink balances its dual goals of being kinky and investigating kink with varying degrees of success. Certain chapters are more theoretically sound and in keeping with the collection's focus on flexibility and inclusivity than others. Even more notably, the collection suffers from several significant shortfalls in its theoretical framings, which I discuss in more detail momentarily. Hopefully, though, the presence of these issues will prompt some of the "larger conversation" that Howe and Cook hope for in their introduction. Despite these shortcomings, Representing Kink does address a welcome range of subjects and makes a persuasive case for the ongoing necessity of open, inclusive scholarly approaches to kink.

[3] One of the first noteworthy features of Representing Kink is the spotlight that Howe and Cook shine on fan fiction. After emphasizing that kink is at once "twisted, curling, and non-normative" (6), Howe and Cook (2019) point to fan fiction as both a site and an example of this multiplicity. As they maintain, fan fiction both exists at a removal from mainstream media—comparable to the "fringe" textuality they also find indicative of kink—while likewise serving as "an exemplary space for the exploration and discussion of kink, both in subject and form" (5). Because of these markers, fan fiction becomes a common thread and a shared topic of interest throughout this collection. Multiple chapters take fan fiction as their principal subject, while others discuss it as an important complement to modes such as self-published erotica, erotic art, fanzines, or fan communities. Such ongoing treatment of fan fiction is unusual in a collection that is not first and foremost about transformative fan works and thus is worth noting, even though at times Representing Kink seems to veer toward the sort of "fandom is beautiful" mentality more indicative of early fan studies work (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017, 3–4). Still, this exciting focus on fan fiction gets somewhat lost at times, as multiple chapters use "erotica"—sometimes with "self-published" appended, sometimes not—as an interchangeable synonym, which collapses several important distinctions between these two types of writing.

[4] Following the introduction, Representing Kink offers readers nine chapters, which Howe and Cook (2019) assert are included for their "nuanced and layered" approaches, their prioritization of multiple foci, and the way "most investigate both kinky content and kinky form, many across multiple texts" (5). Early chapters include Howe writing about rape roleplay in erotic romances and readers' engagement with systems of power through these texts (chapter 1), Jane M. Kubiesa investigating Twilight fan fiction "as" rape fantasy (chapter 2), and Fe Lorraine Reyes considering textual and readerly disorientation in Kathy Acker's polemical Blood and Guts in High School (chapter 3). From here, Brian Watson and Bobby Derie trace a lineage from early fanzines through changes in American science fiction at large—heralded by works such as Phillip Jose Farmer's controversial A Feast Unknown—to Rule 34, or the colloquial "if it exists, there's porn of it" (chapter 4). Sean Shannon then looks at the Danger Girl archetype prominent in both kink and pop culture art (chapter 5); Susan E. Cook reads Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith and Park Chan-wook's film The Handmaiden as texts that "kink the canon" (chapter 6); Whitney S. May explores the femslash incest pairing Elsanna drawn from Disney's Frozen (chapter 7); and Jonathan Rose considers the fat male body in Supernatural and Harry Potter fan fiction (chapter 8). Finally, Josh Zimmerman and Antonnet Johnson close out Representing Kink with the chapter that actually alerted me to this collection's existence: an exploration of fan fiction inspired by tabletop roleplaying games (TRPGs), particularly as drawn from the actual play shows Critical Role and The Adventure Zone.

[5] However, this noteworthy focus on fan fiction and the exciting range of chapters are somewhat offset by certain issues evident throughout Representing Kink that detract significantly from this exciting project. First of all, this collection depends rather too heavily on Henry Jenkins's framework of fan fiction, as laid out in his Textual Poachers. As savvy readers will know, many other scholars have theorized fan fiction more recently with a more critical eye, drawing on more recent and robust methods. Given this, any project that returns to Jenkins as its primary framework should be clear about why it does so, rather than leave its reasons unstated and thus foster the impression—whether inadvertently or not—that Textual Poachers remains the benchmark scholarly work on fan fiction.

[6] A second issue is that Representing Kink does not engage much with the term queer. In a purely linguistic sense, the adjectival and verbal forms of queer overlap considerably with how Howe, Cook, and contributors seem to be using the term kink to discuss marginality and non-normativity, but the collection's introduction does not discuss these intersections, distinguish between the two terms, or discuss fan fiction as queer practice. Likewise, only a few chapters, such as Rose's on fat male bodies, even grapple with the queering of texts and textuality using that specific term. Beyond these linguistic overlaps between queer and kink, there are also considerable commonalities between kinky and queer practice. With all of this in mind, it seems remarkable that Representing Kink does not engage with the terms and practices of queerness more extensively.

[7] In terms of shortcomings, it is also important to point out Representing Kink's treatment—or, really, non-treatment—of race, which becomes evident in two striking ways. First, neither the collection as a whole nor its individual chapters truly acknowledge race as an axis of identity that systems of power often come down against with particular brutality. Leaving out this crucial point strips away a great deal of specific consequence from claims such as Howe's in chapter 1 that "fantasies—sexuality in general—are surveilled and regulated through various social, cultural, and political systems of power" (Howe and Cook 2019, 22). A second way in which the lack of discussion about race becomes jarring begins with the introduction, which cites several scholars whose work—and, often, lived experience—concerns race, but without ever acknowledging or engaging with that fact. For instance, the introduction frames kink as "a layered and polyvocal exercise in what Adela Licona, drawing heavily on Chela Sandoval, calls 'borderlands' rhetoric" (6). Then, just sentences later, Howe and Cook draw from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2009 Ted Talk to suggest that "there is no single story about these kinky texts or their readers" (6). However, Licona, Sandoval, and Adichie are writing specifically about the experiences, narratives, and works of women of color. Sandoval (2000) theorizes borderlands rhetoric to write about Chicana literature, and Licona (2012) adopts this framework when discussing zines created by queer authors of color. Meanwhile, Adichie's Ted Talk discusses cultural voice(s), and her larger corpus deals with the experience of Black women grappling with race, class, and "post"-colonialism in contemporary African and diasporic contexts (note 1). Indeed, when working with borderlands rhetoric herself, Licona (2012) specifically provides a history of critical conversations about "works that risk merely appropriating Anzaldúan concepts, conflating differences, and erasing specificity" about the US-Mexican borderlands and lived experience situated there before grappling with how and why she uses the term to describe zines (4). Thus, for Howe and Cooke to adopt these terms to discuss kink without acknowledging or engaging with the specific contexts they stem from becomes a substantial problem. Decontextualizing these authors' words and simply applying them to kink excises race from a conversation where it was always present. Moreover, that decontextualizing constructs whiteness as an invisible default for the book's conversations about power, transgression, subversion, and more. Beyond these two specific issues, the collection's celebration of kink also could have grappled further with the ways that white kyriarchy has historically grouped race and non-normativity. In particular, I was struck by the way that there is no mention of how kinky has also been used to describe Black hair types, though a quick peek at the OED ( confirms that this description predates the term's sexual connotations by some ninety years.

[8] The fourth and final concern I have with Representing Kink concerns how various contributors approach specific works of fan fiction. While such texts are analyzed throughout, individual chapters offer little explanation regarding how or why these works have been selected for analysis, beyond the fact that they exemplify the chapter's particular concerns. Likewise, I am concerned by how little discussion there is here of the potential ethical issues underlying these choices. As many fan studies scholars have pointed out, most fan fiction is, technically, accessible to anyone with internet access and, in some cases, a site account. However, that openness does not mean that fan fiction authors publish their work for audiences or scrutiny beyond their own fandom. (I often turn to Busse and Hellekson's (2012, 38–39) work on "layered publics" to clarify this.) And while there is no one agreed-upon way or set of best practices for discussing/citing specific works of fan fiction, I did find it notable that for the most part, Representing Kink did not even grapple with this question at all—especially when dealing with so much highly explicit, kinky fic. This seems like a particularly concerning gap given the collection's interest in boundaries and consent.

[9] These four items—overt dependence on Jenkins's early frameworks and absent discussions of queerness/queering, race, and methodological ethics—are substantial issues, but they impact specific chapters to differing degrees. Stronger chapters, such as Rose's on fat male bodies in fan fiction or May's on Elsanna shipper communities, might evidence only one, such as the writers not mentioning how they regard or mitigate the potential ethical issues of bringing these sensitive, even taboo topics to wider attention with their original posters' pseudonyms still attached. Less robust chapters often evidence more than one of these issues, though: Kubiesa's chapter on Twilight fan fiction in particular feels like a tremendous weak spot in the entire collection.

[10] If this review seems like a mixed bag that leaves its readers with conflicting feelings about Representing Kink, then I will take that as a sign that I have done my job. On the one hand, this collection certainly meets its stated goals of covering diverse texts, both explicitly kinky ones and those that can be read as/through kinky practice in ways that could "[begin] a larger conversation" (Howe and Cook 2019, 5). On the other, some of the ways that Representing Kink might elicit such conversations stem from its own substantial thematic and methodological shortcomings. Regardless, I imagine that much of the work being done in Representing Kink could be of interest both to fan studies scholars specifically and to those researching popular culture media more generally. In my mind, the broader, volume-wide shortcomings that I have identified may detract from parts of this project, but they do not preclude its interest and significance fully. For instance, I will certainly be returning to Zimmerman and Johnson's readings of TRPG-driven fan fiction, even though I do have concerns about the dependence on Jenkins and the missing discussion of the works' initial contexts.

[11] All things considered, I would recommend Representing Kink along much the same lines that Howe and Cook lay out regarding their collection's focus on kink: in terms of practice, to learn from its shortcomings, and in terms of text, to prompt ongoing conversation about a dynamic and significant topic.

12. Note

1. Future continuations of this work would also need to address Adichie's transphobic comments of the last few years, should they adopt her work as a frame of analysis.

13. References

Busse, Kristina, and Karen Hellekson. 2012. "Identity, Ethics, and Fan Privacy." In Fan Culture: Theory/Practice, edited by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, 38–56. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. 2017. "Why Study Fans?" Introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, 1–17. New York: NYU Press.

Licona, Adela C. 2012. Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric. New York: SUNY Press.

Sandoval, Chela. 2000. Methodology of the Oppressed: Theory Out of Bounds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.