Monday, November 25, 2013

Just Read it and Thank Me Later: A Review of J. Fally's Bone Rider


So I've been goofing off this past week instead of pulling together another piece of stupefying brilliance for my article series, so I thought instead I'd give you a little Thanksgiving gift in the form of a book recommendation, a new book by a new author,  Bone Rider by J. Fally.  Here's a copy of my Goodreads Gushfest... er, Review.  

What's the word I want? Fantastic? Stupendous? Expialadocious? None of them will do this justice. I'm not sure I'm up to a full review on this, so I'll stick to a few of the things I most admired about this book:

It is totally original. The premise and the development toss every cliche out the truck window. I've never read a story like this.

It is a total thrill ride--the plotting is just unfuckingbelievably awesome. The reference to Die Hard is no exaggeration: J. Fally can write an action sequence--make that about 19 action sequences. It's a roller coaster thrill ride, without, I'm not kidding, a single lame or dull moment in it.

The Capital H's: Hilarious and Hot.

It has... I really don't have a word here for the characters. The book features a good half dozen major perspectives and a host of secondary characters, EACH AND EVERY ONE OF WHICH is treated with respect. There are no cheap shots, cheap stereotypes, cheap villains. Strictly speaking, there are no villains at all, though there is plenty of conflict and there are adversaries. I used the word "respect": this is an author who respects her characters enough to look at why they act the way they do, treating their choices with what I'll have to call compassionate understanding--that sounds too sentimental for the actual effect, but it's the best I can do. When you realize that this is a story about government special-ops soldiers in hot pursuit of an alien they are desperately trying to kill, you will realize how goddamn many cliches Fally does not fall into here. The closest comparison I have is to Dani Alexander, another author who avoids villains, even when her characters do evil things.

Bottom line: Christmas has come early. This is a far better gift than anything you'll find on Black Friday. You've been given a great gift here, people, so read it and enjoy it, and then read it again. That's my plan for the holiday weekend.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fifty Shades of Boneheaded or WTF is Wrong with Erotica Reviewing?

So this summer, one of those dear, article-sending friends we all have, knowing of my interest in erotica, forwarded me a review from The New Republic of Alicia Nutting's novel, Tampa, entitled, “The Phony Transgressiveness of Tampa” which caused a bit of a personal kerfuffle. Here is the author, Maggie Shipstead’s, opening paragraph:

What makes a piece of fiction erotica? I’d say that erotic fiction is defined by explicit sexual content included for its own sake (not necessarily in service of a story) and an intent to arouse. Since as far back as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (published in England in 1748), erotic fiction has tended to have a cyclical, masturbation-friendly structure. Flimsy, ostensibly plot-advancing sequences segue into sexual encounters much in the way pizza deliveries and doctor appointments perfunctorily frame pornographic movies, providing a bit of context and loosely situating the observed participants.

Shipstead then goes on to muse about books by Philip Roth or Nabokov that “transcend” the genre with their stunning literary style, and conclusively demonstrates why Tampa fails to do that.

I spent several hours composing a comment, which I imagined was so magisterial it would generate lots of responses and debate. Ha Ha. Anyway, not able to let its stupendous brilliance rest in obscurity, I will reprint it here:

Obviously Shipstead is perfectly free to define “erotica” using the same criteria usually used for pornography. However, for those who actually read and write in this genre, “erotica” is fully a subgenre of romance, but without the old publishers’ injunctions against explicit terms and descriptions. Shipstead’s general dismissiveness towards the genre is only reinforced by her use of Lolita, one of the most acclaimed novels of the twentieth-century, as her standard. I heartily concede most erotica published (at any time in history) does not “transcend” the genre like Nabokov’s masterpiece does. But could we find a more loaded comparison? Do we usually evaluate Tom Clancy novels by the same standards as Joseph Conrad’s? Romance, erotic or not, is genre fiction, just like thrillers, mysteries, or sword-and-sorcery novels. It’s not trying to transcend anything, but that does not make it the same as pornography in either content or purpose.

Based on Shipstead’s review and the blurb, I would characterize Tampa (like American Psycho) completely as satire, specifically of the most aggressive Swiftian mode that pulls readers in with its shocking material in order to leave them feeling compromised and implicated. Any arousal you feel reading Tampa is designed to make you feel guilty and filthy, which is a legitimate authorial goal, but could not be further from the governing logic of romance, no matter how much sex is depicted.

Obviously, erotica is supposed to be hot, but it’s about fantasy and wish-fulfillment and cutting loose your inhibitions. Above all it’s about pleasure. Sometimes that pleasure can feel quite transgressive, or at least forbidden, but most romance writers and readers would agree that the sole unifying convention of romance is the Happily Ever After (HEA). The HEA almost by definition precludes a story featuring a sociopathic pedophile as its heroine. For those interested in reading books that show more of the range of erotica today, I would recommend the hilarious and intelligent Control by Charlotte Stein or Out of the Woods by Syd McGinley (click here for my review), a genuinely transgressive and sometimes disturbing book, but one that ultimately falls within the conventions of romance.

Rereading my comment now, I don’t find it particularly harsh, but I fully admit to being in a full-on conniption when I wrote it. Shipstead’s piece raised some bad memories from the “reviews” of Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) that journals like the New York Times and Newsweek felt obliged to publish when the trilogy sold 70 MILLION EFFING COPIES. Needless to say, major journals that cover culture do not usually review romance, but I was still pretty appalled at what they managed to say about the book. Here is a run-down of what I see as the main problems.

1. Endless condescension towards people (the vast majority of whom are women) who liked the book, commonly epitomized by references to mothers—mommy-porn, mom-friendly, etc. Here is a typical quote from an early piece on the “phenomenon” from the Times:

“Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic novel by an obscure author that has been described as “Mommy porn” and “Twilight” for grown-ups, has electrified women across the country, who have spread the word like gospel on Facebook pages, at school functions and in spin classes.

2. The discussion of the sex itself, usually either winking references to the book’s naughty pictures of nekkid girls—in handcuffs! or patronizing dismissals on the grounds that the books aren’t depicting authentic hard-core kink. Here’s Newsweek:

To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than, say, shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys.

3. Appalled indignation at the book’s anti-feminist relationship dynamics. Typical example: “Women Falling For Fifty Shades Of Degradation”  from The Courant, or "Shades of Red" in The Huffington Post.

4. And finally, endless, ENDLESS complaints about how horrible the writing is. Here’s the Tribune:

The book is classified as erotic fiction, where I am sure the word ‘erotic’ is used in the loosest sense of the word. If erotic passages are meant to induce an almost impossible combination of disbelief, cringing and inadvertent hilarity then, by all means, Fifty Shades of Grey is the most erotic novel ever written. Frankly, until now, I did not think it was possible to wince, laugh, and grind my teeth at same time.

Here’s Vulture on the "Thinking Woman's Guide To Fifty Shades of Grey":

So even though I'm late to the phenomenon, I felt compelled to pick it up. After reading it, there are just a few things I don't understand. Namely, how it's possible that anybody is turned on by this.

I'm sorry. I know, it's soft porn, and it's not there to better us. But the advantage of erotic fiction over a DVD of I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Team is that books will always at least FEEL more high-minded than movies.

I'm not going to spend more time on the fundamental problem with assuming that millions of women who liked FSoG somehow can't think, but the Vulture example is helpful in that the writer explicitly states what is obviously true of all of the reviews: that the critic would never have read the book if it hadn’t become the focus of a media storm. A lot of them admit to forcing themselves to finish it. The other thing they all have in common is that none of them read contemporary romance or erotica—why else would they pepper their reviews with references to Philip Roth, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or Lolita? (Fanny Hill? Seriously WTF!). They know nothing at all about it.

None of these reactions are surprising when you ask a critic who spends his or her life writing scintillating essays assessing the latest candidates for the Booker Prize to read Fifty Shades of Grey. But they expose the fallacy that expertise in contemporary literary fiction somehow confers competence to review any contemporary novel. Discussing an influential work of genre fiction requires at a bare minimum familiarity with that genre. I would also argue that it requires a basic appreciation of that genre, including the capacity to enjoy works in it. Here is a critic from the London Review of Books:

When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh. Erotic writing is said to have a noble pedigree: the goings-on in Ovid, the whipping in Sade, the bare-arsed wrestling in Lawrence, the garter-snapping in Anaïs Nin, the wife-swapping in Updike, the arcs of semen hither and yon. But it’s so much sexier when people don’t have sex on the page.

Do I have to point out the inherent limitations of a critic attempting to assess the significance of FSoG who admits in the first paragraph that he does not find written descriptions of sex to be the least arousing?

Ultimately, my problem is not really with the critics, who are just stating their opinions. But I cannot let the journals themselves off the hook. Why on earth can’t the Times farm that review out to someone who reads hundreds of erotic novels, and preferably dozens of fan-fics also, who is familiar with the conventions, politics, levels of sexual intensity, anything at all about this genre?

Please be clear: we do not see this in other aspects of popular culture reviewing. The New York Times does not send their opera guy who can’t stand Rap to review Jay-Z. My generation (X) does not respect lines between high- and low-brow culture. We watch Jersey Shore and then write about it for the Times Magazine. We have “experts” on Manga and Anime and X-Box games who are capable of writing lucid, engaging, and persuasively authoritative essays on specific examples. (I will discuss in another essay why I think why organs like the Times are guilty of this staggering incompetence with erotica when they would never be guilty of it with Rap.)

I am not trying with this to defend FSoG. But as I said in Part 1 of this series, if you wish to understand changes in the publishing industry, you need to make sense of what is happening in romance and erotica. You need critics of the genrethoughtful, articulate, knowledgeable readers who are familiar with its conventions and thus capable of evaluating specific examples. The problem is that editors and literary critics who are already dismissive of the genre will have to face the uncomfortable fact that these potential critics are first and foremost fans—this is true of Manga and it’s true of erotica. Reading through the reactions to FSoG, it will be a huge step for many of them to admit that such critical, intelligent reader/fans of erotica can even exist.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Goodreads Spawns Depraved Tentacle Monsters! Yippee!


This series explores how the recent censorship episodes at Goodreads and booksellers in England represent symptoms of the larger upheavals roiling the publishing world. In particular I am looking at how they each relate to what I will call ‘emerging genres,’ genres whose standards and conventions, critical reception, distribution and a host of other aspects are being actively negotiated and contested by a community of “stakeholders”: authors, fans, reviewers, critics, publishers, etc. Since I am both a writer and heavy reader of erotica and its subgenre, M/M romance, I will use those as my primary lens for analyzing the implications of these scandals.

As I said in my first piece, erotica’s connection to the British scandal is self-evident. The connection to Goodreads is less direct, but I think in the end more important. There is nothing unexpected that booksellers stung by criticism that they sell pornography would react impulsively by attempting to purge it from their shelves. The Goodreads episode was not concerned with erotica at all, and superficially the types of material censored seem quite narrow in scope, but in fact its implications for those who care about erotica or any emerging genre are far more sinister, and unlike the British scandal there was nothing inevitable about it.

Controversy at Goodreads

With longstanding, ugly quarrels it can be very difficult for outsiders to get past the he said/she said aspects. The conflict that spawned this debacle is polarized enough by now that any pretense to impartiality is impossible, and I am not going to spend time arguing "my side." Though I have had no role whatsoever in this quarrel, I do think the reviewers have the right of it. (For those interested in immersing themselves in the details, I refer you to an excellent series of posts on the blog Soapboxing as well as the book Off-Topic, discussed below.)

For the purposes of my own argument, it is enough to know that a very vitriolic conflict between authors and readers over negative reviews mostly of YA books has been escalating for more than a year, drawing negative press and the kind of attention social networking sites most fear.

It is not chance that this conflict erupted over YA, which along with erotica is one of the genres that has been most popular with self-publishing authors. One of the fundamental facts of life for those of us who self-publish is that reader reviews and word-of-mouth are everything.

Now authors getting a wee verklempt about bad reviews is nothing new (though brownies help—as do tequila shots). What is new is how crucial reader reviews are to sales, and how visible they are. The moment a Goodreads review is posted, it is accessible worldwide by the site's 20 million users. As if that weren't enough, booksellers like Kobo (and now Amazon on certain Kindles) also post Goodreads reviews on the book page for buyers to see.

Goodreads' Author Guidelines strongly warn authors never to respond to negative reviews, but authors don’t always realize or don’t care, and some have gone after “bully” reviewers for sabotaging their careers, even resorting to tactics like "doxing," tracking down and posting real names and addresses for hostile adversaries to see. Readers on Goodreads began keeping track of these authors and slapping with the “Badly Behaving Author” label, which can be very damaging since the tag tends to go viral on the site, and many Goodreads users make a point of never buying any book by a BBA.

Goodreads' Response

Given the publicity and acrimony surrounding these fights and their threat to the reputation and actual functioning of Goodreads, it was not surprising that the site’s management felt they had to intervene—which they did on September 20 with the following announcement:

[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

There are a lot of reasons this was a problem. The policy itself as worded is nonsensical. As people have pointed out, does the prohibition on discussing “author behavior” apply to reviews of Mein Kampf? Does their insistence that "books should stand on their own merit" mean we cannot discuss Orson Scott Card’s very public anti-gay statements when reviewing Ender’s Game? (For an excellent survey of how banning discussion of author behavior "ignores all of postmodern literary criticism," see Emma Sea's Why Goodreads New Review Rules Are Censorship.)

Far more baffling was that Goodreads would come down so decidedly on the authors’ side, when according to their own guidelines any author involved in a conflict with a reviewer is de facto guilty of inappropriate conduct. Because management has said nothing about their thinking, users have been left to fear the worst: that the decision represents the first stage in a larger shift by Goodreads, which is now owned by Amazon, away from reviewing and the free exchange of ideas towards a bottom-line prioritizing of selling books and advertising.

Whether those fears are grounded or not, it simply staggers that a site devoted to book lovers could conclude that the best way to quell rancor and controversy was through censorship of one side.  It is no surprise that the result was an explosion of anger and protests that has drawn in users who would never be at risk of having a shelf or review deleted, and risks yet more attention from the media. And here’s where I’d like to back up my claim in the previous essay on how management’s decision represents a serious failure to understand the mentality of the site’s users.

A Community of Stakeholders

As far as the economics of publishing today goes, there are two crucial types of reader: the first is the old-style consumer whose book purchases are based on the best-seller lists or recommendations by mass-media organs of varying degrees of prestige. It is no stretch to say that these buyers pay the salaries of traditional establishment publishing.

Then there is our second type of reader, the one who is driving the new publishing paradigm. This reader is a passionate and voracious consumer of an emerging genre dominated by self- and indie publishing. Because there are no professional reviews, and often no agents, editors, or publishers to decide on a book’s merits, that role falls to the readers. Many of them read 100, 200, 500 books a year in their genre. They are not just fans, but taste-makers, and ultimately authorities—because there aren’t any others. Most heavy readers of erotica and M/M fall into this category—as do many of Goodreads’ most active reviewers.

When you first join Goodreads, the site appears to work like Facebook—indeed, it invites you again and again to duplicate your FB friend list on the site. That suggests the creators conceived of it as a place for actual, real-world friends to exchange book recs and post the occasional review. And for our first type of reader, that is probably all that is needed or wanted.

But for the second type of reader, Goodreads serves as the primary meeting place for what I earlier termed the stakeholders of an emerging genre. To take a conspicuous example, the M/M Romance reader group, one of the largest on the site with more than 12,000 members, justly advertises itself as “The #1 resource on the web for M/M fiction.” Beyond providing dozens of fora for readers to talk books or meet authors, the group also organizes innovative publishing events including an incredibly popular one where readers suggest a story line which any author is free to take up. Readers get hundreds of free stories that they had a hand in creating, while authors get exposure, a chance to experiment, and the good will of the community. The M/M group organizers are powerful players in their own right, and work tirelessly along with bloggers, authors, and readers to help develop this genre.

For these users, Goodreads is infinitely more than Facebook-with-books-instead-of-pictures-of-the-kids. It is a professional and creative space, and the key meeting place for their community. For them, the autocratic and boneheaded nature of management’s decision is deeply disturbing, especially in the light of Amazon’s acquisition of the site. Management’s move seems geared towards casting users more in the passive role of our first type of reader. It is not paranoid to say that this familiar type of reader is infinitely preferred by the traditional publishing establishment. It is the second type who is revolutionizing the industry, rendering obsolete all the old axioms on who matters, what succeeds, and how you make money.

The Part with the Tentacles The Hydra fighting Heracles | Paestan black figure hydra C6th B.C. | J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu

Goodreads has itself in part to thank that this second type of reader has found her voice. After the site’s managers announced the new policy on September 20, users immediately organized protests, dubbed hydra reviews, which went viral. When those were censored, the protesters put together a collection of essays, Off Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt, which was published on November 3 with no restrictions on distribution. In the four days since it went live, hundreds of users have shelved or reviewed the book, and a write-in campaign has started to nominate the book for the Goodreads Choice Award.

Whether this new reader will continue to find a home on Goodreads is impossible to know. What is clear is that she will never again be satisfied with the role of passive consumer of other people’s taste.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Goodreads Kobo Censorship Debacle Gives Birth to Depraved Tentacle Monster Filth!

In the past month there have been two big censorship scandals, first on Goodreads and then at a variety of English booksellers over the selling of pornographic “filth.” 

The Goodreads issue is a bit more complicated and harder to understand without a lot of back story. Since this has been exhaustively and brilliantly covered on the blog Soapboxing, I will stick only to the barest facts: on September 20 a “customer care” rep for Goodreads announced on a discussion thread that the site would no longer allow reviews or shelf lists that deal with something they called “author behavior.” It then came out that they had already begun deleting reviews without giving any notice to the members. Though they have apologized for deleting without notice, they are aggressively enforcing the policy itself, including deleting an undisclosed number of reviews and even banning some members who have been trying to circumvent the policy.

The other scandal is much simpler. On October 11, a gadfly English tech journal called The Kernel published an article entitled “An Epidemic of Filth,” with the rather impressively indignant subtitle: "How Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, Waterstones and Foyles profit from breathtakingly obscene amateur paperbacks, e-books and audiobooks about rape, incest, bestiality and child abuse."

The article prompted a media storm in the British press that led two days later to Kobo Books, a Canadian e-book site which is big in England (and which I sell through), to pull all of its self-published titles, erotic or not, for review and the “venerable” WHSmith to shut down online sales entirely until, as an LA Times article quoted, “we are totally sure that there are no offending titles available.”

A gazillion unlucky pixels have probably been sacrificed to the latter controversy, with critics mostly following fairly predictable approaches: rehashes of the usual debates over the censorship of pornography; handwringing, winking, or mocking recaps of the various smutty titles—a la Forced to Fit (taboo sex stories)—along with their oh-so-titillating covers; equally handwringing, winking, or mocking speculations on the amount of money Amazon actually makes selling porn. 

So now it's my turn to massacre some pixels, and I'll start with a little (indecent?) disclosure: I have a concrete stake, both economic and personal, in how these scandals play out.

1. I’m a self-published author of erotica that features such potential censor-bait as ménage, brothers sharing a wife, explicit erotic scenes between men, master/slave dynamics, non-consent and dubious consent.

2. I’m a book-a-day reader of erotica, most of it edgy and most of it self- or Indie-published. I've not read Forced to Fit (yet) but I've read plenty of stuff even I find questionable.

3. I spend huge amounts of time on Goodreads, mostly as a reader searching out recommendations to feed my reading habit and posting reviews for like-minded souls, and to a much lesser degree as an author pimping my books.

I think the very first and very obvious point to make is that both scandals are symptoms and indicators of the astonishing changes wracking the publishing world. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: we are where music was a decade ago. All of the rules and most of the economics are changing at a blistering speed.  

There are two points that are not as obvious but I think are very important to understanding these industry changes and hence the scandals they spawned.

1. Romance in general and erotica specifically are key harbingers and drivers of these changes in the industry.

2. What we might call “establishment publishing”—big-time editors and agents, executives at the Big Six houses, executives at major retailers like Amazon, reviewers at esteemed journals like The Times or The New Yorker, even bestselling authors—despite being deservedly regarded as “experts” on publishing, for the most part know almost nothing about erotica and what they do “know,” they don’t understand.

The connection of my two points to the scandal in Britain is obvious; the connection to the Goodreads controversy much less so.  It is important to state clearly that I have no reason to think that the reviews targeted by Goodreads were of erotica, though many were of self-published authors.  (I'll refer you here to an excellent article by Ceridwen on the blog Soapboxing on what we can infer from the reviews and the reviewers Goodreads targeted in the initial purge.)  

However, the scandal speaks to the staggering disconnect between executives at Goodreads (and by extension Amazon which now owns it) and the site's users, who produce nearly all of its content and are thus responsible for nearly all of its value.  (Salon has an excellent article on this.)

Fundamental to this disconnect is the way self-publishing has changed and is daily changing the relationship between reader, author, and bookseller. I am not trying to make the argument that erotica is somehow the cause of the traditional publishing establishment’s difficulties understanding the new culture, as if that was something I could ever prove. What I can say is that establishment publishing has a longstanding habit of dismissing romance readers as ignorant, uneducated, dumb, conservative, female, and a long list of other cliches.

This would be offensive and annoying at all times, but when it's directed towards a group of readers who are heavy and reliable book buyers, to the tune of $1.4 billion in book sales a year, it becomes unbelievably myopic. No surprise, these readers are moving in massive numbers to self- and indie-published titles—including erotica that has not been prescreened and sanitized by unsympathetic or snobbish editors, agents, and publishers worried about propriety.

The publishing establishment’s problems with erotica and romance readers are symptomatic of their general inability to cope with the threat self-publishing poses to their business. I would also argue those problems are not fundamentally different from Goodreads’ problems with its reviewers. Goodreads reviewers are non-professional; they generally couldn’t care less about the world of establishment publishing—what confers prestige or makes it money. But top reviewers and group organizers have a lot of power to turn books into hits. Many of them are in frequent contact with authors, and especially through groups like M/M Romance they are quite literally driving innovations in publishing. Unlike many of their establishment peers, they understand the new publishing world very, very well.

And they are fucking angry about this. To quote Ceridwen, a blogger who is a top reviewer and librarian and who is now deleting her account:

Our anger at high-handed and vague policy decisions is not off-topic at all. It is the heart of a dispute about a database and a social network that is largely user-built, from the millions of hours Goodreads Librarians have put in correcting the database, to millions of reviews people have added to this site. It absolutely burns me that Goodreads can turn around and wave this changed terms of service at me like I’m some unruly child who needs to be checked. I’m not your product, or an idiot. I can see what you’re doing with these deletions, and I can tell you, Goodreads, it’s not going to work. I’m still fighting for a community I believe in.

So that’s the background and this post has cost the lives of more pixels than I'd intended.  The hope and plan here is to take up some of the implications of these controversies in separate, shorter pieces, which are provisionally titled:  

A Goodreads primer: or why everyone especially industry types should care about censorship here. 

Why the fuck aren’t there any professional reviewers of erotica or romance?

Is Tentacle Sex “filth,” and am I depraved for writing and reading it? 

Perhaps I can time my Tentacle-Sex blog piece with the publication of my upcoming masterpiece, Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!  If I'm going down for publishing filth, I might as well get in a little shameless self-promotion while I'm at it.  I can't promise it will be the equal of Forced to Fit since I've not read the book. On the other hand,  I have been meaning to check out some dinosaur porn. If I find anything good, I will definitely post it on my tentacles-monsters shelf on Goodreads.