Book review

Boys' love manga: Essays on the sexual ambiguity and cross-cultural fandom of the genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti

Nele Noppe

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

[0.1] Keywords—Fan fiction; Gender; Sexuality; Slash

Noppe, Nele. 2011. Boys' Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti [book review]. In "Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," edited by Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6.

Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti, eds. Boys' love manga: Essays on the sexual ambiguity and cross-cultural fandom of the genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Paperback, $39.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0786441952.

[1] Editors Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti describe this collection, the first English-language academic volume to focus exclusively on boys' love manga, as follows: "Boys' love, a male-male homoerotic genre written primarily by women for women, enjoys global popularity and is one of the most rapidly growing publishing niches in the United States. It is found in manga, anime, novels, movies, electronic games, and fan-created fiction, artwork, and video. This collection of 14 essays addresses boys' love as it has been received and modified by fans outside Japan as a commodity, controversy, and culture."

[2] The book begins with a dedication to Yonezawa Yoshihiro, cofounder and president of Japan's largest dōjinshi (fan comic) convention, who died in 2006. Antonia Levi's introduction gives a succinct and clear explanation of boys' love manga and emphasizes the pivotal role of fans in shaping not just boys' love fan works, but also the commercial genre of boys' love manga that thrives inside and outside Japan. From there, the focus of the book remains squarely on the fans of boys' love manga, which makes it relevant to anyone interested in fan studies. The majority of the book's chapters concern themselves at least in part with fannish involvement with and creation of boys' love material. Several chapters do not focus on organized fandom but rather concentrate on reader involvement with boys' love manga. With a few exceptions, the bibliographies attached to the chapters don't reveal a close affinity with the English-language fan studies readers of Transformative Works and Cultures may be familiar with, but many of the recurring themes in the anthology align with recent concerns voiced in English-language fan studies. For readers more familiar with manga studies, the volume's intense focus on fans and fannish activities will be informative and perhaps quite novel, although the lack of analysis of actual boys' love manga may disappoint.

[3] The book occasionally seems to lack focus. This is not surprising, given its broad topic base. Nevertheless, there are several themes that recur, sometimes with an emphasis that is quite enlightening. In her introduction, for instance, Levi briefly contrasts slash fan works with yaoi fan works. Comparisons between slash and yaoi remain similarly brief throughout the book, but several chapters that discuss slash do so in a way that will be new to fan studies researchers not familiar with boys' love. In one of the most interesting chapters in the volume, "Better than Romance? Japanese BL Manga and the Subgenre of Male/Male Romantic Fiction," Dru Pagliassotti offers a comparison of boys' love manga with male/male romantic fiction. Quoting extensively from survey responses from boys' love fans, Pagliassotti identifies a number of similarities and differences between reader experiences of and expectations toward boys' love manga and Western romantic fiction. In "Yaoi and Slash Fiction: Women Writing, Reading, and Getting Off?," Mark John Isola raises the difficult and important question of how slash and yaoi can and should be compared, as genres that originated in different cultural environments and that tend to occur in different media—slash as text, yaoi as manga. He offers an interesting discussion of the yaoi ronsō, a critical debate on yaoi that occurred in Japan in the 1990s but is virtually unknown among fan studies researchers.

[4] Another example of a recurring theme is the question of boys' love and appropriation, touched upon by Isola, Neal K. Akatsuka, and several others. Questions concerning the gender makeup and sexual identity of the audience are raised by many of the contributors. Several mention explicitly that a significant portion of the boys' love fan community identifies as queer, and the community includes a sizable minority of men. The old notion that boys' love is by and for heterosexual women is thankfully absent from the book. Three chapters tackle the relationship between fannish activities and commercial boys' love manga publishing from very different angles. There is a basic but solid introduction to the concept of the gift economy (Hope Donovan's "The Gift of Anime: Cooperative Distribution of Boys Love Anime and Manga in the US") and how it operates in North American anime and manga fandom, and an equally basic but conceptually interesting description of boys' love manga production in Indonesia (Yamila Abraham's "Boys' Love Thrives in Conservative Indonesia"). In "From BRAVO to to Export: Capitalizing on German Boys' Love Fandom, Culturally, Socially, and Economically," Paul Malone offers a useful analysis of how the online dōjinshi forum is used by both boys' love manga fans and industry professionals in Germany. His account of how several dōjinshi artists came to be recruited by commercial publishers through the forum invites comparisons with the Japanese dōjinshi market, where such recruiting of fan creators happens on a much larger scale.

[5] Numerous contributors revisit the well-worn question, "Why do readers like BL [boys' love]/yaoi/slash?" Some make this the central question of their chapters. In "Uttering the Absurd, Revaluing the Abject: Femininity and the Disavowal of Homosexuality in Transnational Boys' Love Manga," Neal K. Akatsuka attempts to explain the cross-cultural appeal of boys' love manga by locating possibilities for subversiveness in the multiple viewpoints that readers of boys' love can adopt—for instance, by identifying with the uke (submissive partner), seme (dominant partner), or both. It is notable that other contributors, such as Akatsuka and Uli Meyer in "Hidden in Straight Sight: Trans*gressing Gender and Sexuality via BL," also take pains to emphasize that readers of boys' love seem to identify almost as much with the seme as with the uke. The book clearly departs from older assumptions that female readers identify primarily with uke characters. In "Raping Apollo: Sexual Difference and the Yaoi Phenomenon," Alan Williams approaches the topic from a different angle, and discusses the possibility that boys' love manga "speak to aspects of human desire that are, in fact, beyond a single gender and culture"—mainly by examining boys' love manga as possible sites of feminist theory making.

[6] At times, such scholarly attempts at teasing out the functions of boys' love manga in readers' lives feel like a more benign version of the older pathologization of boys' love fans. While this sort of abstract theorizing has its own uses, it fails to acknowledge how readers of boys' love manga consciously experience their fascination with boys' love. Fortunately, a fresher look is provided by several contributors who focus heavily on readers' voices and quote extensively from reader responses to surveys, such as M. M. Blair, Pagliassotti, and Alexis Hall. (Blair devotes a long paragraph to listing reasons given by readers as to why they like boy's love, and drily identifies the most commonly cited reason as "it's hot.") In "Gay or Gei? Reading 'Realness' in Japanese Yaoi Manga," Hall uses survey research to explore a different question: how culturally defined notions of homosexuality influence the way Western readers experience the fictional male-male relationship as "real"—or, as it turns out, not very real at all. This chapter is the only one to touch upon the issue of Western experiences and expectations being privileged over Japanese, a topic that is too rarely addressed in studies on manga. Hall makes an interesting analysis of responses by Western readers but does not attempt to speculate on how different notions of homosexuality in Japan influence the way Japanese readers of boys' love experience the relationships on the pages.

[7] As mentioned, this book concentrates on the fan community rather than on content research. However, given the very large variety of boys' love manga available to fans, there are some risks in focusing solely on "fans of boys' love manga" without clarifying and considering exactly which works these readers call themselves fans of. It may not be a coincidence that two of the most informative chapters of the collection combine analysis of fannish interactions with analysis of the actual content fans are interacting with and about. In "'She Should Just Die in a Ditch': Fan Reactions to Female Characters in Boys' Love Manga," M. M. Blair gives a fairly extensive description of several manga works before quoting readers' reactions to various female characters in the stories. Not surprisingly, it turns out that differences in the works' portrayal of female characters cause readers' reactions to these characters to differ. This sort of basic acknowledgement of the differences between individual works that are grouped together as "boys' love manga" is mostly absent from the rest of the book. Marni Stanley, in "101 Uses for Boys: Communing with the Reader in Yaoi and Slash," describes how creators of boys' love manga interact with their readers through author's notes, inviting them to develop their imaginations through toying with the manga. Stanley's conclusion that reader involvement with boys' love material is much better characterized as "play" than as an attempt to "resolve sexual or gender-based anxieties" will not sound surprising to many fan creators. However, it contrasts sharply and pleasantly with the more traditional way other chapters in the book approach the "why readers like BL/yaoi/slash" question.

[8] In conclusion, I can say that although Boys' Love Manga contains a few weaker chapters, most offer interesting ideas and viewpoints that should appeal to a readership beyond manga or fan studies. Perhaps the most timely and therefore interesting aspect of the book is its emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons. Isola, Pagliassotti, Akatsuka, and Hall in particular succeed in focusing on the cross-cultural aspect of boys' love manga fandom and suggesting promising possibilities. Indeed, insistence on the importance of cross-cultural approaches is so strong throughout the book that it is surprising and perhaps unfortunate that the anthology contains no contributions from Japanese researchers. Isola's description of the yaoi ronsō debate gives a tantalizing glimpse into the vast amount of Japanese research on boys' love that currently remains inaccessible for fan studies scholars who do not read Japanese. However, most of the contributors do rely on Japanese scholarship on boys' love manga, some extensively. With a conference on the transcultural fandom of boys' love scheduled to take place next year in Fukuoka, and with other recent bilingual conferences in Kyoto and Cologne focusing expressly on cross-cultural research of manga, it appears manga studies, insofar as there is such a field—the term is subject to debate—is attempting to become more global and inclusive. This volume, with its cross-cultural approach combined with a strong focus on fannish activities, is certainly a valuable contribution to that movement.