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.