By Light Unseen Media
BLU~Media Blog

April 4, 2012

Is that sex in that book or are you just glad to see me?

Two recent spicy tales in the book world are giving me some thoughts about where readers’ attention and purchasing power is currently headed.

As all alert book professionals know, the “self-publishing” field is disproportionately occupied by so-called “erotica” (let’s not be prissy about it. That means soft- to hard-core pornography). This is especially obvious on Smashwords, where all you need to do is turn off the “Adult Filter” to see several new porn titles on the main page every time you visit. That’s one of the major reasons that I’ve retreated from Smashwords: the neighborhood has gotten pretty run-down, even for “self-publishing.” Sure, there are plenty of writers putting up books there about growing tomatoes or adjusting to new fatherhood, or ordinary genre fiction, or memoirs and poetry. But with that “Adult Filter” in place (it’s on by default, thankfully), I guarantee that you’re missing about a third of Smashwords’ most colorful offerings.

Being acutely aware of this, and also being aware of how virulently prudish, repressive and anti-sex America has become politically, I wasn’t at all surprised when Smashwords [finally] ran into some blowback.

In mid-February, Smashwords was informed that PayPal would stop serving their clients if Smashwords continued to sell books dealing with “rape, incest and bestiality.” PayPal claimed this actually came from the credit card companies they work with, and that seems to be true. Other vendors and “self-publishing” platforms were given similar ultimatums, by PayPal and by credit card companies.

Smashwords CEO Mark Coker sent an email out to Smashwords users, asking them to take down titles dealing with these themes: rape, incest and bestiality. All hell broke loose. Mark spent several weeks of what must have been agony placating angry writers and negotiating with PayPal, and finally, on March 13, PayPal caved in and moderated its policies. Smashwords clients were lucky. Other venues, such as Amazon, simply yanked the books, and one of them, Bookstrand, deleted all “indie” titles on any topic from its catalog, just to be on the safe side.

What interested me about this whole kerfluffle, however, was how many people were infuriated and threatened by the banning of these specific themes. There was no blanket purging of “erotica” per se. Only three admittedly fringe sub-themes were mentioned. Rape, especially if it’s presented as titillating or gratuitous, is almost universally condemned and rejected by editors, reviewers, agents, and most readers who say they won’t read or consider any fiction that includes it. Along with this taboo, you would think, if not hope, that incest and bestiality would be minority recreational tastes even among readers of erotic fiction.

But apparently not. Attempting to restrict fiction about “rape, incest and bestiality” seems to have rocked Smashwords to its foundations and, at least according to Mark Coker, sent most of its 30,000 writers into a foaming rage. It seems that stories about rape, bestiality and incest (chiefly non-blood-related incest such as stepfathers and daughters) must be very popular, and essential to the artistic expression of one heck of a lot of “self-published” writers.

I’m sorry, but that just strikes me as…weird. Mark Coker crows about championing “legal fiction.” But “legal” is merely a technicality and says absolutely nothing about merit, value, ethics or even the potential harm that something might do. Many proscribed things have no business being “illegal” at all, while many things are “legal” which are pernicious, toxic and downright evil. The porn industry has always waved the “legal” flag almost as a taunt, with descriptors like “barely legal” (which means, “kids who are technically over the age of consent but look young enough to indulge your pedophile fantasies”).

Of course, having won this very public battle for “legal fiction” and “free speech” (cue the Sousa marches and waving flags), Smashwords has now established itself as the number one porn-friendly “self-publishing” platform and is publishing even more “hot sex with stepdaddy” stories than ever. So if rape, incest and bestiality float your boat, you now know where to find them.

As the “self-publishing” world was dealing with this crisis, traditional publishing was dealt a similar thunderbolt by a trilogy snarkily labelled “Mommy porn” (and not in the sense of MILF, apparently). A British author using the name E L James wrote an extremely popular Twilight fan fiction story titled Master of the Universe, and adapted the story into an “original” trilogy of books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed). Initially published by a small Australian press, the trilogy was picked up in a bidding war by Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, for a 7-figure advance. The film rights immediately were sold to Universal for something over $5 million. The eager anticipation, pre-sales and general “buzz” around the first book’s release rival that for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As the New York Observer complained, everyone is talking about the newest blockbuster–and about its origin in fan fiction.

It’s not that unusual for fan fiction writers to transpose their plotlines into an original fictional universe for publication. You’d be surprised how many romance and erotica series, in particular, started out that way. Most of the writers go to greater lengths to disguise their stories’ roots and distinguish them from the source material than did James, who apparently changed very little except the characters’ names and the hero’s body temperature. It’s also not a bit surprising that a book with fan fiction origins is all about sex, because that’s pretty much what fan fiction is for. The vast majority of fan fiction has no other function than to imagine fervent relationships, torrid love affairs or just context-free erotic interludes among various characters, the more unlikely the better. (Sirius and Buckbeak? I know it’s out there somewhere. After all, bestiality is okay, Smashwords says so!)

But what I find somewhat disturbing is the phenomenal, mainstream enthusiasm for books dealing with a humble, submissive, youthful female being seduced and dominated by an older, extremely powerful and wealthy male. The Twilight Saga has been under attack for years about the “bad message it gives to teen girls,” the disparity of power and privilege in Bella’s relationship with Edward, and the fact that all of Bella’s self-worth and reason for existing depend on being accepted by a man. Now these same dynamics have been translated to a slightly more grown-up and very sexual relationship, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone at all.

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times, “what is shameful about “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t the submissive sex, it’s the Cinderella story. One reason the books sold so well over the Internet is that that this kind of riches-and-rescue tale isn’t easy to find outside Harlequin novels…it’s harder to find story lines that reward helplessness outside the bedroom — or off the rack.” Of course, “rewarding helplessness,” and fantasies of winning the adoration of an all-powerful male who will take care of the heroine so she never has to worry about responsibilities is a core attraction of romance for its female readers, and always has been.

You hear a lot these days about “rape culture” and “triggers” (topics that can reactivate trauma for survivors of abuse), often from the same individuals who fiercely defend their own tastes in erotica, and their right to free speech. It seems, however, that many people forget just how ubiquitous the “rape fantasy” once was in literature–and not just romance books, which weren’t called “bodice rippers” for nothing.

As part of my research for The Longer the Fall, I read a number of popular 1950s novels, including Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place. I was mildly surprised to find that Peyton Place doesn’t live up to its reputation. It’s a dismal, bleak, unpleasant book without that much sex in it, and the sex it has is no more exciting or positive than the rest of the story. But the really off-putting thing for me is that the hero of Peyton Place is a flat-out rapist, and apparently both Metalious and her huge audience found that perfectly okay.

I’m not talking about the infamous subplot, based on an actual incident, in which a stepdad molests his daughter, who has an illegal abortion and finally kills him. I’m referring to the virile Greek school principal who “cures” the older heroine’s frigidity (the result of a tragic affair with a married man and an illegitimate child) by brutally forcing himself on her.

The whole scene made me cringe, even though it was identical to the scene in Gone With the Wind in which a drunken Rhett carries a struggling Scarlett upstairs and rapes her all night. Like Metalious’ heroine, Scarlett awakens the next morning neither outraged nor traumatized, but awash in post-coital bliss. We all know how successful Gone With the Wind was, so clearly this dynamic, at least in the recent past, had considerable appeal for women readers. A masterful male sweeps a timid or repressed female off her feet and fires up her forbidden passions–that formula has earned countless authors and filmmakers their fortunes, and with Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s doing it again.

Alma Katsu asks, on Huffington Post, whether the monster success of E L James’ trilogy heralds a new era for acceptance of fan fiction. It’s certainly going to raise awareness of the massive volume of free, fan-written derivative work being produced and read, but what I see is the possibility of mainstream acceptance of very explicitly erotic books. Unless Fifty Shades of Grey breaks out of the gate only to fall flat on its face, I suspect we’re seeing the new wave in fiction publishing as a whole: lots and lots and lots of sex with just enough plot to justify it: basically sex for its own sake rather than serving a larger story.

I’m rather ambivalent about this. I like a well-written steamy bedroom scene, myself, but I prefer to see fictional sex play the same role it does in real life: dessert, not the whole meal. I also think that sex in fiction, like everything else, should serve the characters and story, not the other way around. But it’s starting to look like mine will be the real minority point of view when it comes to sex in books.

October 18, 2010

Remembering a passion for reading

Filed under: publishing,reading,writers,writing — Tags: , , , — admin @ 2:07 am

I have no conscious memory of a time when books, and reading, were not the reigning passions of my life.

I probably owe a lot to my parents for that. My mom read aloud to us from the earliest age that we could sit still and listen. I don’t recall my dad reading to us, but my dad loves books. In every house we lived in, he outfitted a complete library with walls of built-in bookcases, all of them packed with books. My dad’s “man caves” were full of dark varnished wood shelves lined with hundreds of mysterious, multicolored, enticing spines, from the tattered cardboard of the pulp “big little books” he collected, to gilt-embossed leather.

I was reading by the time I was four, without the benefit of preschool, Sesame Street or any coaching at all from my stunned parents. My folks didn’t buy their first TV until I was nearly three. Television never became more than a colorful, but ultimately boring novelty for me. The world inside of my own imagination was always infinitely more engaging.

When I was in grade school, my reading was an intensely private activity. These were the days when being The Fat Kid made you a freak, not just one of the obese 30% of your class like now, and I was bullied relentlessly for that and other things. Books were my sanctuary, and I would read my favorites over and over. The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Black Beauty. Beautiful Joe. Every Black Stallion and Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on (I still have some vintage Nancy Drews that are probably collectibles now–not that I’m ever giving them up). Gone with the Wind. The Yearling. Lassie Come Home. The Borrowers books. The Wind in the Willows. The Two Jungle Books. A Wrinkle in Time (which my sixth grade teacher read aloud to us) and later, the rest of L’Engle’s series. Fantasy by Lloyd Alexander, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Susan Cooper, Peter Dickinson, Alan Garner, Carol Kendall, J.R.R. Tolkien. As I got a little older, I inhaled whole new genres by the stack. Every Gothic romance paperback the local library branch owned; all of Zane Grey (not a word of which I can now remember). Horse stories by the dozen, and anything with a touch of fantasy, magic or science-fiction.

At the age of twelve, I plunged into vampires and the paranormal, beginning an obsession that has never once flagged. Besides reading Dracula in one sitting, this led to an interest in tracking down esoterica: obscure books, articles and information. In my spare time, I pored through The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, card catalog Subject headings, the back page ads of dubious magazines, the footnotes and bibliographies of books…anything that could lead me to More Of What I Liked.

It wasn’t until high school that I realized there were other people as fiercely passionate about books and reading and the arcane as I was. I thought I was the only one! By then I was hoovering up fantasy and science-fiction, and I attended my first science-fiction convention in 1973, when I was sixteen. I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, John Bellairs (whom I met at a convention), and I joined The Mythopoeic Society.

But my family wasn’t affluent. I can vividly recall when my definition of unattainable wealth consisted of being able to spend an entire $100 on nothing but books–because when I was in high school, that was almost unimaginable for me. I found lots of sources for inexpensive books. A big one was the catalogs for Publishers Central Bureau, which I now know was a brokerage for remaindered titles, but which I saw then as a repository for rare and unusual gems just waiting for the patient (and keen-eyed–the catalogs were set in 4-point type). I could spend hours in used book stores. My avidity led, inevitably, to a few disillusioning rip-offs: some of you may recall an erstwhile little company named T.K. Graphics, a science fiction and fantasy mail order house that folded owing lots of people a lot of money for back-ordered books.

I found a number of equally book-devouring friends and we passed tips and leads and titles back and forth. “Bibliomaniacs,” we called ourselves. We thought we’d made the word up.

As I got older, I had less time to read–but, at least for a few years, more money to spend. There was a decade or so during which I could not walk into Barnes & Noble without dropping at least $80. Those days ended when I went back to graduate school, and now I read less than ever. But it’s not merely the time or money factors. I’ve heard other writers talk about this. As my creative talents evolved and deepened, they demanded more and more of my energy. Now, I’m far more invested in creating my own works of art and fiction than in passively consuming the work of others. I still enjoy reading immensely, but usually I find that it stimulates my muse more than relaxes me. I do most of my reading just before bedtime. But I can still spend hours immersed in a book–or a series of them!–when I’m in the right mood, and I still spend far more leisure time reading than I do watching movies or television.

But I recognize my younger self in the legions of book bloggers, and if I was a twenty-something now, I’d be one of them. There are still millions of people who live to read, who network and share recommendations and search–no, forage, hungrily, incessantly, for More Of What They Like. We can’t get enough of it, we readers. An author sweats and slaves and labors over a book for a year and we stay up all night to finish it in one long, dripping, literary chug-a-lug, wipe the foam off our noses and ask when the author’s next book will be released. We are insatiable.

Notice that I’m referring to “reading,” not “books” in any one form. Yes, I love bound, paper books–old, new, hardcover, paperback, large, small, any kind of books. But for me, the content of the book was the key to its appeal. A physical book was simply a vehicle for the thoughts and soul of an author, and what mattered to me was the communion, the meeting of minds, that the book facilitated. I find that same communion in ebooks and audiobooks, in books read on a website or serialized in a magazine, books read as typescript or galleys or mass market paperbacks or bound between boards so heavy the book has to rest on a table to be read. Reading is a one-on-one transaction. There’s the author, and there’s me. The rest is details.

This is why I became a publisher. This is why merely being “a writer” wasn’t enough. Writing, for me, is like breathing–I do it every day, I write compulsively and obsessively, when I stop writing, you can bury me, I’ll be dead. But it’s only one side of the bridge–the connecting miracle between the author and the reader. I wanted to build the whole bridge. I wanted to master the means by which two minds co-create a work of the imagination or intellect by sharing it. Publishing is the process of collecting the raw creative output, shaping it into a form that can be transferred, and making it available for others to experience. I wanted to understand and do all of that–not just for my own work, but for the work of others.

I wanted it because I remember so poignantly what it is to have a passion for reading, to be endlessly searching for just the right story, just the right book. I wanted to help many kinds of authors and readers find each other, not just the readers who would enjoy what I happen to write.

It seems to me that many of my fellow publishers have forgotten who is at the off-ramp end of their bridge. In all the interminable pontificating and punditry I read about “the future of publishing” and “changes in the industry” and “what new publishing models mean for authors,” very few publishers seem to understand their readers’ point of view. Do publishers nowadays remember what it was like to be a passionate reader? Were publishers actually readers, ever?

I think there was a time, before 1970 or so, when most publishing houses were owned and run by serious readers, people who had a genuine love of literature. If that didn’t describe the CEOs, it certainly applied to the editors, and the editors had real power and influence in their companies. But I don’t think that’s true now. The old publishing houses have all been bought up by media conglomerates, reduced to “divisions” and “imprints,” and their editorial staff are overworked, committee-fied, stripped of decision-making power and expected to focus entirely on fast profits. Even small publishers are intent on “marketing,” and “building networks” and “branding” and “creating tribes.” They don’t see themselves as having readers. They’re competing for “consumers” or even just “eyeballs.”

This, I think, is the biggest problem the publishing industry faces right now. Not digital media, not piracy, not a falling interest in reading–publishers have forgotten how important their readers are. They’ve forgotten the one and only reason that publishers exist at all. We exist for our readers. Not authors: readers. Our readers are everything to us. When publishers lose track of what readers want, they’re floundering around in a desperate world of half-baked experiments and hysterical speculations. It’s because publishers have lost touch with their readers that ebooks are obscenely overpriced and retailers like Amazon, who do know what readers want, are shaking the industry to its foundation.

Authors write to be read, and publishers publish so that authors can be read. Without readers, we are nothing. I will never, ever forget that. I’m afraid that a great many of my fellow publishers have forgotten it–if they ever knew in the first place.

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