Monday, March 24, 2014

Negative Reviews and Me

We have Anne Rice to thank for the latest flap over negative reader reviews. The grandmother of all things paranormal waded into the author vs. reader cess-pool on the author’s end, publicizing her support for a petition to Amazon to force reviewers to post under their own name—her cure for the plague of “parasites” and “anti-author gangsters” who are “gratuitously destructive to the creative community.”

Instead of wasting time expounding why I think this is a horrible idea I’ll just refer you to K. J. Charles' terrific blog post, along with a hearty, “WHAT SHE SAID!” For those who haven’t read my earlier posts, suffice it to say that I am totally on the reader’s side of this conflict: reader reviews are a fact of life and assuming they don’t violate the law or the terms of service of the sites where they are posted, no one should have the right to dictate what counts as legitimate in other people’s reviews. (Credit goes to Debbie Spurts for this tidy formulation.)

That being said, it was inevitable after all the brouhaha (which I have contributed to with my own posts), that I would eventually train my finely-honed critical mind on my own reviewing practices, and take note of the irony that my personal policy has long been not to review books I hate.

I decided on this long before the current controversy, immediately after I joined Goodreads in the summer of 2012. From the beginning, I had two primary reasons for my policy. The first is that I almost never finish books I dislike and arguably it’s unfair to rate or review books I don’t finish. The other reason is Karma. Despite reading infinitely more than I write, I still think of myself as an author and I feel a camaraderie with authors’ struggles to write and publish and sell books. A lot of authors whose names I no longer remember helped me with advice and encouragement when I first published The Heartwood Box, and it just doesn’t sit well with me that I might go crap on their efforts. As I explain on my Goodreads author page: “Unless the book is very popular and my views won't make a difference, I avoid trashing stuff since I now appreciate how hard it is to publish a novel.”

I think my reasons are legitimate as far as they go, and other novelists I respect, including the great Heidi Cullinan, have argued forcefully that authors should be extremely cautious about what they say online, and especially avoid any kind of trashing.  (Though for what it's worth, I have author friends I respect just as much who write extremely scathing, brutal reviews.)

But as I was researching material for my essay series, I came across a piece on the blog, Three Rs, “Why I Write Negative Reviews,” which included the following:
Thinking about it that way, those people who refuse to write negative reviews are real bastards, aren’t they? They’d rather let countless other customers be duped the same way they were than say an “unkind” word in a review.
I’ll admit that one stung. One of my most filthy, disreputable secrets is that I am a natural-born wuss who’s prone to panicking when I think I’ve hurt someone’s feelings. I speak from experience when I say this kind of personality trait can easily become a pathology. And no question, scathing reviews hurt. (I needed a few stiff drinks after an Amazon reviewer labeled The Heartwood Box “sleaze” and had to delete it from her Kindle due to its apparently unprecedented awfulness. Which, by the way, is emphatically not an invitation to my legions of rabid fans to go harass this reviewer.)

The problem is that none of my considerations has a thing to do with the books themselves or what I’m doing as a reader. I probably start 300 books a year and finish roughly 250 of them, virtually all of them in erotic romance, specifically the subgenre M/M. I just posted my 200th review on Goodreads. Beyond the sheer amount of time and mental labor this represents, the simple fact is that I care about books, I care about this genre. Without indulging in grandiose notions of my own importance, I think it’s worth taking a little bit of time to figure out what I’m doing when I read and review.

Part of what impressed me with Three R’s essay and the blog itself is that the author has a very clear idea of what she’s doing when she reviews. As she says in her “About” section:
I think that readers today are too easy to please, and have been conned into believing that’s a virtue… We, collectively, need to raise our standards as consumers.  Give me a little time, and I’ll show you what I mean.
She is understandably troubled by the disappearance of any kind of quality control or editorial standards that has been one of the consequences of the self-publishing revolution, and is angry about authors who con readers with sock-puppets or glowing fake reviews.

I don’t agree with everything she writes. For one thing, I read M/M and erotica not YA, and the last thing I want is some Big Six publisher deciding what falls within the bounds of propriety or what is too risky or dirty. (Indies apply this pressure too, by the way, leading authors like Lisa Henry to self-publish or tone down their more risky offerings) And though I would always urge authors to painstakingly proofread their books, some of my favorite authors have lousy copyediting and I’ve just had to learn to live with it.

Most of all what I admire about Three R’s blog is that reading and reviewing for her is a thoughtful, active process. She has an agenda, not in the bad sense of a bias but in the good sense of a purpose. The word I would normally use for this sense of purpose and awareness is “critic,” though I mean it here to represent a mental attitude rather than some sort of professional credential.

Unfortunately for my wimpy nerves, it’s pretty hard to be a critic if you refuse to criticize. I’ve been putting boatloads of time into writing these blog pieces on erotica because I think the genre itself, not just specific books or authors, is important. It matters when it is misrepresented or misunderstood or undervalued. And I strongly believe that critical reviewing, including negative reviews, are essential if the genre is going to develop healthily. We need a community of thoughtful critics who take their roles seriously and are willing to do the hard work of developing critical concepts and standards for evaluation.

Whether I embark on a campaign of writing scathing reviews has yet to be decided, though I’m planning to bring it up with my therapist. Fortunately for my self-esteem, I have far fewer inhibitions writing about negative reviewing itself so stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Winner Takes All: Master/Slave Fantasies by Christopher Pierce


Every now and then I read something that reminds me that M/M romance and gay erotica are seriously different genres. I dislike essentialist sounding explanations, but there are times (most often after I've spent more than four and a half minutes watching pornography) when I just feel like shouting out: men and women are turned on by very different kinds of stories!

I enjoyed reading these stories--they are well-written and inventive–but I liked them more because they gave me a window into a world that felt truly exotic and weird than because I felt they got at the heart of my own experience. (The only chapter I can say that about was David Stein’s smart and incisive Editor's Note, “Value-Added Porn,” on the difference between porn and erotica, which I plan on quoting in some blog post if I ever get my act together.)

For me, the world of the stories was interesting but not appealing. It wasn't just the dog bowls and the piss play. I found the mentality of the slaves impossible to identify with.
"I felt full and complete being used by this totally hot stud, used like the dog slave I am, used to bring him pleasure."

"Worshipping men like him and my Master is why I was born."

“My pain or pleasure wasn’t important. All that mattered was serving him.”
That level of abjection and selflessness is just too much for me. I find it alienating. However, I think my distaste is exactly that, a matter of taste: I don’t usually like most “Club” novels that purport to depict people in the BDSM lifestyle. Any story in which characters eagerly adopt an established role leaves out most of the inner conflict and ambivalence that is the most erotically charged part of D/s for me. (As slave fics go, I find Yhalen’s inner torments over his attraction to his master? lover? rapist? both fascinating and intensely erotic, though in other ways Bloodraven is far too brutally sadistic for my taste).

The genre of Winner Takes All doesn’t help matters. With a few notable exceptions, the book offers erotic teases, ficlets, which are little more than a hot scenario or exchange in a fantasy version of gay slave life. Some stories are better than others–hotter than others–but there was not enough characterization or complexity for them to truly be erotic for me. Every character in this collection is essentially interchangeable and virtually all of them wholeheartedly embrace their situation. And that I think is the key difference. It's not enough that a book describes a kinky scenario; unless I feel involved with the characters, and to some extent challenged by what they are experiencing, then it's not very different than watching porn or looking at explicit photos, neither of which I find particularly arousing.

There were a few exceptions: I really admired "The Executioner's Boy.” It was imaginative and moody and dark. It also surprised me: usually I can't tolerate any erotic fiction that includes serious threats of death as part of the domination, but this one made that work. The title story, the last in the collection, was the longest and the most developed, with a strong story arc and compelling character development, though the narrator’s personality and mentality didn’t differ noticeably from that of the slaves in the other stories.

As I said above, I was very interested reading this. In some instances, you can learn more about yourself—your imagination and your desires–from well-written fictions that don’t quite work for you than from ones that fit your kinks dead-on. I suspect that M/M romance will always have a somewhat uneasy relationship with gay erotica and speaking from the M/M camp, I think it’s worthwhile to be both aware and respectful of how these genres—and their authors and audiences–differ. There’s no question that these stories are arousing for the right audience, and echoing editor David Stein, I am firmly of the opinion that such fiction has value—drastically underrated value. I admire Pierce for his achievement, even when I can’t totally experience it as it was intended.

Rating: Four Stars  

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon

Monday, March 17, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Glitterland by Alexis Hall

The universe is a glitterball I hold in the palm of my hand.

Once the golden boy of the English literary scene, now a clinically depressed writer of pulp crime fiction, Ash Winters has given up on love, hope, happiness, and—most of all—himself. He lives his life between the cycles of his illness, haunted by the ghosts of other people’s expectations.

Then a chance encounter at a stag party throws him into the arms of Essex boy Darian Taylor, an aspiring model who lives in a world of hair gel, fake tans, and fashion shows. By his own admission, Darian isn’t the crispest lettuce in the fridge, but he cooks a mean cottage pie and makes Ash laugh, reminding him of what it’s like to step beyond the boundaries of anxiety.

But Ash has been living in his own shadow for so long that he can’t see past the glitter to the light. Can a man who doesn’t trust himself ever trust in happiness? And how can a man who doesn’t believe in happiness ever fight for his own?

This is more a set of scattered impressions than a review. I admired the book tremendously. The characterizations here are very strong--Ash's portrait of his depression was grueling to the point of being hard to read, but the book is extremely funny most of the time, so it (mostly) doesn't become too much. The writing of the Essex--dialect I'll have to call it-- was also brilliant, probably some of the best dialect writing I've come across.

Hall is an incredibly gifted writer--the closest comparison in M/M I can think of is Harper Fox. He has a gift for gorgeous metaphors and memorable phrases. Within the context of the story it makes sense; Ash is a writer, an Oxbridge type and Scrabble player, with a strongly literary temperament. But the "good writing" is also almost too much. There's a relentlessness to the impressiveness, where instead of one incredibly felicitous simile, Hall--or Ash--persistently gives us three or four. The effect ends up feeling neurotic, a symptom (and reinforcement) of Ash's endless self-absorption rather than straightforward impressive writing. The self-absorption is often charming and witty and brilliant, but it is also almost too much as well.

SPOILER WARNING: I was on the fence over whether Ash's actions at the rehearsal dinner, and then the months and months it takes him to get his shit together and apologize, weren't totally unforgivable. The problem was reinforced by the narration. We do only ever get Ash's perspective, and much as I love Darian, and I really did love him, the narrative is structured so that he remains alien--a creature of spray-on tans, Nan's cottage pie, and Essex Fashion Week. We don't ever end up finding out that much about him. 

Ash's mental illness, like his snobbery, were familiar--too familiar--my background is similar enough to his that I felt implicated in his flaws. I had no choice but to view Darian through Ash's eyes, and of course I wanted them to get back together, but without access to Darian's perspective or a real way of identifying with him, it was hard not to distrust Ash's logic, Ash's version of events as too self-serving. Even when he's in the depths of self-loathing and castigation, it still feels solipsistic. I realize it's a trap--he can't win because no matter how sorry Ash really is, he's the one doing the protesting.

But asking Darian to forgive that much risks making us think that either Hall is stacking the deck in Ash's favor, or that he secretly thinks that Darian should feel lucky that Ash is in love with him since (when all is said and done) Ash is so much smarter and classier. I don't really think Hall thinks that--and he made great use of the tattoo scene as a very unexpected but successful redemption moment for his flawed hero. But he took a big risk making Ash such an incredible wank, and it would have ruined the book if there was even the slightest hint that Darian should feel lucky that Ash came back for him. END SPOILER

But there was the tattoo scene. I gave the book five stars because I think Hall succeeded. That I found these issues can be taken as a measure of my engagement, not just with the characters and romance, but with the narration, with the writing, with Hall's sheer talent. I truly loved reading this book, even with the pain and the uncertainty. Hall took risks in making his hero such a bloody mess, but people are messy and Ash knows better than anyone that no amount of gorgeous art can tidy them up.

Rating: Five Stars

Post Script: According to a note from Hall, Darian's character was loosely inspired by X-factor contestant Rylan Clark. For Americans like me who had no previous associations with the word "Essex" and had never heard its apparently quite distinctive accent, I highly recommend checking out this footage of Clark, who really does come off as a sweet, irrepressible guy:

(Originally Posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Ethan Who Loved Carter

By twenty-four, Carter Stevenson has stuttered and ticced his way to debilitating shyness. Although his friends accuse him of letting his Tourette's dictate his life, Carter moves from Los Angeles to a quiet California town. He'll keep his head down and avoid people. He doesn't anticipate his new neighbor, Ethan Hart, crashing into his solitude and forcing him to get out and live.

From the beginning, Ethan makes his love for Carter clear. But he fears Carter won't see past Ethan's damaged brain, even though it makes Ethan more attuned to his emotions than most people. For Carter, there's a bigger issue: he's been burned by so-called "perfect" matches, and he won't risk his heart again.

One way or another, Ethan's determined to show Carter they belong together. Then Ethan receives tragic news. Suddenly he must turn to Carter for strength and support. Will Carter come through when Ethan needs him most?

My Review:
Loved it. I understand people's hesitations with the subject matter, but I thought the author handled them beautifully--with respect and compassion and a great deal of subtle insight. Though I did cry, I did not find the book overly sentimental at all. Understandably, there is not much in the way of irony to offset the sweet or emotional elements, but for once instead of being manipulative or cheap, I found those elements deeply true to the story--in fact, though I'm sort of shocked to be saying this, I found that the sentimental aspects of this book were those that most challenged me.

Ethan's mother describes his world as black and white." I would probably use the word "literal"--subtle or inferred meanings, sarcasm, nuances, things outside his own experience are almost impossible for Ethan to understand. There is definitely an innocence to him, and he requires help and reassurance with tasks that most adults perform independently. It's understandable to feel conflicted about Ethan's relationships because these are qualities that we often describe as "childlike" (though in my own experience few if any children are actually like that at all unless they have special circumstances like Ethan's). In any case, I really appreciated how the book forced me to think through the problems with applying the word "childlike" to Ethan. Our discomfort with his sexuality is real but also needed to be faced: as his mother says, Ethan is an adult male, with adult urges. Denying him this central and joyful part of human experience just feels wrong, especially since Ethan's own desires are very strong. Too many other things were taken away from him because of his injuries.

To this end, I think the author made a good choice having Ethan be 18 when he was hurt. Judging from his family's attitudes and Ethan's own confidence, it's a safe guess that he was already sexually active "Before." There are clearly risks to sexual activity since he can be taken advantage of and he has trouble remembering the rules of appropriate behavior, but I think his parents were right to treat his sexuality like they do his troubles washing his hair or finding a job that works for him--as part of the process of his carving out a new life for himself after his injuries.

I was really impressed with how Loveless handled the family part. Obviously, Ethan's parents are two very admirable people, but they did not feel unreasonably wishful to me--maybe the better word is hopeful. They're hippies to begin with and they've had ten years to come to terms with what happened to their son. She also avoided the tendency to hyper-articulate, therapeutic monologuing that too often accompanies stories where characters are recovering from traumatic events; those speeches too often cross the line into moralizing and they always kill the realism for me. If Liz and Nolan sounded a little pat when discussing Ethan's situation, it makes sense since they've obviously had to explain it many times.

That leaves Carter, who was trickiest, but I thought Loveless totally succeeded in making me understand and accept his choices. I've read several other books in the last year where the MC's occupy what I'll call radically different mental spaces (Glitterland and Muscling Through to name two), and to my surprise, I found Ethan and Carter's relationship made the most sense to me. There was something very complementary in their challenges. Ethan has real limitations but thanks to his personality he is able to push through them to the greatest extent possible.

Carter is the exact opposite: far more than any physical problem, his emotional response to his condition is what cripples him. He desperately needs acceptance; Ethan comes as close as is humanly possible to offering Carter a life where his Tourette's is simply a non-issue. Though Carter might have to take care of Ethan in more ways than is usual, in exchange Ethan can give Carter a much fuller existence than he has been able to have so far. (I'd just add it's easy to forget the myriad private ways spouses and lovers take care of each other. People can be far more dysfunctional than their friends realize--unable to take a shower or eat or leave the house, and they depend on their partners to help them through it.)

Like the timing of Ethan's catastrophe, I think it made a big difference to my acceptance that Carter is so isolated. Almost the entire context for his relationship with Ethan is provided by Ethan's family and friends, who are understandably encouraging. Ethan already has a place with them, and it makes sense that they would easily accept Carter's differences. Ethan obviously does much better with people who are familiar with him and his quirks. It's easy to imagine it being a disaster if Ethan had been thrown into uncontrolled situations with people he didn't know--and without really knowing Ethan and seeing the nuances of his situation (in other words, by reading this book) most people wouldn't be able to accept his relationship with Carter. As things stood, Carter only had to win over Alice, who like Ethan's family has strong reasons for wanting Carter to find love and happiness.

I'm probably not focusing enough on the downsides to it, and I honestly can't imagine being in a relationship like this myself, but the issues did not trouble me while I was reading. I'm enough of a romantic to cleave to the idea that true love comes in a multitude of forms, and I'm deeply grateful to Ryan Loveless for creating such an unusual and beautiful example here.

Rating: Five Stars 

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Love Lessons by Heidi Cullinan

Love doesn’t come with a syllabus.

Kelly Davidson has waited what seems like forever to graduate high school and get out of his small-minded, small town. But when he arrives at Hope University, he quickly realizes finding his Prince Charming isn’t so easy. Everyone here is already out. In fact, Kelly could be the only virgin on campus.

Worst of all, he’s landed the charming, handsome, gay campus Casanova as a roommate, whose bed might as well be equipped with a revolving door.

Walter Lucas doesn’t believe in storybook love. Everyone is better off having as much fun as possible with as many people as possible…except his shy, sad little sack of a roommate is seriously screwing up his world view.

As Walter sets out to lure Kelly out of his shell, staying just friends is harder than he anticipated. He discovers love is a crash course in determination. To make the grade, he’ll have to finally show up for class…and overcome his own private fear that love was never meant to last.
The Case of Tangled v. Fight Club

This book was yet another reminder of why Heidi Cullinan is one of my favorite M/M authors. I read it right after reading Special Delivery, which is deliciously filthy, so I was a bit worried by the college setting and the “warning” that Love Lessons would be less, shall we say, sexplicit, than her other books. The anxiety ramped up a bit during the opening chapters because of the rom/com friendly set-up: shy, freshman virgin is forced to room with the “campus Casanova,” which struck me as something far more likely to happen in a movie than reality.

It’s pretty easy to imagine a quite generic plotline springing from that set up, but that’s not what we got here. The book surprised me over and over again, never going quite where I predicted. Far more than I expected, this is a story about family. Americans hold to a cherished myth of college as a/the major period of self-discovery, more personal than professional, with emphasis on the self. Families, if they appear at all, tend to be treated as encumbrances to shucked off in the pursuit of self-fulfillment. We rarely see stories that take family obligations seriously, whether they are healthy or destructive.

To that end, the raunchy "virgin meets Casanova" tale is a non-starter. As the book unfolds, you come to realize that the crucial backstory is not the (insert a number) dozen men Walter Lucas has seduced since he got to Hope College, but the two years he took off before he even started. We only start to appreciate that after he goes home for Thanksgiving:
   “Mom? What’s wrong?”
   “Nothing,” she said, her voice very full of something. Yearning, mostly, if he had to guess, and loneliness. As usual, it tore at Walter’s heart. Especially as she added, “I shouldn’t bother you with my problems.”
   She said this almost petulantly, as if she knew they were the right words but hated them for being so. Those were Walter’s cues to countermand her, to assure her that no, he wanted to hear why she was upset. It was a game they’d played for a long time, a game many people had tried to get him to stop playing, but he’d never been able to successfully manage it….
   He didn’t want Kelly to see his mom in one of her fits. If Walter wasn’t supposed to hear what was bothering her, then she should keep it to herself. Otherwise she should just tell him because she didn’t care if she upset him or not. She shouldn’t make him give her permission to ruin his day with whatever had upset her this time.
I’ve seen books and movies try, but I’ve never seen one succeed this well at capturing an authentically soul-sucking holiday. The raw shame of it, the guilt towards his younger sister who’s stuck at home while he’s at college, the mixture of guilt and bitterness towards his mother, the exhaustion, the helplessness when nothing he does helps, the resentment and hostility that others might pity him, and the sense that holidays like Thanksgiving are a kind of cosmic sick joke.

In contrast, Kelly’s family feels like a millennial Norman Rockwell, with the Scrabble games and the vegan holiday dinner. In the face of their wholesomeness, there is a huge temptation to treat Walter as the conventional tragi-boy in need of rescue by the good-hearted Davidsons. It makes for an uplifting, Disney-ready story, but yet it’s so condescending and judgmental. But as always, Cullinan avoids the easy route, and her character is far too large a presence to be boxed into anything so trite.

For better and for worse—and it really is both—Walter’s dismal family experience has made him who he is. It gives him insights, empathy, and a certain cynical wisdom. Walter is someone who can explain why Fight Club is a great movie, and in a really agonized moment, can almost be unmade by the tender family reunion at the end of Disney's Tangled. Kelly is incredibly lovable, but that moment simply doesn’t resonate for him because he’s never known anything but a loving, supportive family.

The best part is that Kelly isn’t wrong to love Disney, or to care who he sleeps with, or to want sex to be special. There are ways in which his fantasies are unhealthy and selfish, and then there are ways in which they are fresh and brave—arguably on most college campuses today, it takes way more guts for a gay man to defend such a romantic view of sex than to “come out.”

In this book, in this relationship, there is room for Davidsons and Lucases, for Fight Club and Tangled, for Walter and Kelly. Neither is privileged, neither rescues the other. They are two very different boys, and thankfully they find each other and fall in love. And it’s beautiful.

Rating: Five Stars

(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Goodreads Reviews: Concubine of a Space Conqueror! by Charlotte Mistry

Forget it: you don't really need the blurb--the title tells it all.

Basically alien uber-alpha meets human super-slut. Usually I find the device of the sub wrapping the big, tough alpha around his little finger to be cutesy and tiresome, but here it works beautifully. Elliot's supposed "pleas" not to touch him are beyond hilarious and provide a new twist on a depressingly stale genre. Typical Example:
  "Now you listen to me, impudent whelp," Kastya snarled, "this is no game. If you don't start adopting your proper place I'll tie you to the bed and do what I like--"
  "Not that," Elliot said breathily, "that would be just awful."
It's impossible not to admire Elliot's sheer confidence that sex with him will be so mind-boggling that Katsya will no longer feel the urge to conquer more planets.

Finally, extra kudos for the sublime title: Concubine of a Space Conqueror! is second only to Gay Tentacles From Space! in the Mistry canon.

Rating: Five Stars

(First posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why is it so hard to review smut?

(This is the fourth essay in a series that argues for considering erotic romance as an "emerging genre," and explores how the genre connects to the larger changes currently roiling the publishing world.)

My last essay in this series took some easy pot shots at two-year-old reviews of a book I don’t want to review myself since that would mean I’d feel obligated to reread it.

Confession’s good for the soul and all that. Now that’s off my chest, excuse me as I load up for my next round of shots.

I’ll make one claim for Fifty Shades of Grey. The book was important. That’s why critics were writing about it in the first place. The book was never important because it was 2012’s answer to Ulysses, but because it represented a confluence of trends that had been going on under the radar for several years, and got shoved into the wider public consciousness by the book’s stupendous sales.

What trends were those? Well, thank you for asking. I’ll name four: the rise of self- and indie- publishing, their rapidly increasing share of total book sales, the growing popularity of erotica, the new importance of non-traditional routes to publication such as pulled-to-publish fan fiction.

In effect, the reviews I looked at were protests against the book’s importance. They drip with annoyance that a piece of hack fiction, only liked by stupid, undiscerning people, could sell this many copies. Worse, thanks to those absurd sales, FSoG actually garnered reviews in prestigious journals by smart critics who should not have to write about stupid trash. Perhaps running under the surface for some critics was the recognition that self-published garbage, far from being recognized as the joke it should be, is instead garnering a larger share of the sales pie every year and in doing so is disrupting the economics of the part of the publishing world responsible for producing actual good books.

I get it and I really do sympathize. A lot of people who adore erotica and had been reading it for years were horrified that Fifty Shades of Grey became the defining text of the genre. The sales don’t make any sense under any system of justice or merit, and personally I'm jealous as hell. After all, my own erotic masterpiece, The Heartwood Box (currently on sale at Amazon for 2.99!!!!) inexplicably has not sold nearly as well as Fifty Shades of Grey! Even though I THINK IT’S JUST AS GOOD! Like, just check out the bodacious cover:

Shameless self-promotion aside, the critics I was taking on read and review some of the best contemporary writers of our age. It is hard to spend a career watching extremely talented authors struggle to find an audience, while a book you consider a total POS becomes one of the best selling books of the decade. To add insult to injury, these critics must be aware that their own reviews are only fueling this infuriating “phenomenon.”

Ultimately, I think we’re better off looking to Malcolm Gladwell for answers on the phenomenon of FSoG than to the book itself. Critics’ anger over that phenomenon is understandable, but it’s also petty and represented a disgraceful failure of imagination and critical engagement.  (For an example of what I mean by “critical engagement,” see Emily Eakin’s review in The New York Review of Books, which gives an excellent analysis of the book’s status as fan fiction while avoiding the hostility and condescension that most critics indulged in.)

For the umpteenth time, the reason I’m writing this, the reason I think it’s important, is that FSoG is only the most well-known example of what I am calling an “emerging genre.” Almost by definition, emerging genres have trouble in their early days with mainstream criticism. I would also posit that new genres like hip-hop or erotica which deal with particularly fraught parts of our culture such as race, sexuality, or gender will always pose greater problems with reception. If we are going to get past these barriers to what I think would be a true critical engagement with erotica, we need to get out in the open the reasons why erotica poses such problems even for very smart critics.

The first and obvious answer is sex, though I have to say that with qualifications. The reviewers I targeted in my last piece were all liberal intellectuals who would be the first to denounce religious or traditional injunctions against sexual freedom and sexual pleasure. Still, as everyone in the galaxy knows, FSoG isn’t just graphic, it’s kinky, with all that BDSM stuff, the Red Room of Pain, spankings, and those silver bead thingies! Critics’ responses to this aspect divided. Some (probably more honest) critics were horrified by the political implications of BDSM and just denounced it. Those who didn’t want to come off as uptight tried to play it cool, adopting a tone of knowing mockery and comfort with kinkery.

I find the latter attitude especially unfortunate, because in truth there is nothing simple or comfortable about BDSM erotica. We are talking about a very fraught area of human desire, and material that is at the very least politically problematic when it’s not downright disturbing and objectionable. I am suspicious of those who claim to be blasé about depictions of BDSM, especially when it’s obvious (as it was with every mainstream critic that I surveyed) that the critic is totally unfamiliar with the erotic romance genre. (And just to be clear: BDSM erotica has little or nothing to do with real-world BDSM; this cannot be reiterated often enough).

That is not to say that I am satisfied with the kneejerk condemnation typical of many feminists. Whether we love BDSM erotica or find it offensive, making sense of our reactions to it requires a lot of hard thinking about our fantasy life. Why are some women so turned on by submission or rape fantasies? For those who are appalled by them, what are their fantasies like and why might they be so different? What is the moral status of our fantasies? To what extent do private sexual fantasies actually impact the “real world”? What does it mean when our fantasies oppose our moral values? Is there anything we can or should do about it? Is it acceptable to sit in judgment on, condemn, or mock other people’s fantasies?

These types of questions are not the usual domain of literary criticism, but I think such introspection is necessary if we are going to engage on any meaningful level with erotica. What we got instead was a nearly hysterical attack on E. L. James’ prose. Katie Roiphe discerned intimations of the apocalypse in women’s willingness to tolerate it, and Salman Rushdie needed only two pages to conclude, "I've never read anything so badly written that got published. It made 'Twilight' look like 'War and Peace.'"

Now, for anyone who reads a lot of self-published erotica that’s just crazy talk. It’s not a myth: plenty of self-published writers don’t know basic grammar. I speak from experience when I say reading them feels a lot like reading essays from the bottom third of the grade pool in a freshman comp class. Fifty Shades of Grey drastically needed cutting, but the worst that can be said about the prose is that it’s mostly pedestrian with occasional flourishes of cleverness. The idea that it is egregiously worse than a lot of genre fiction is just silly. I have my own pretty severe problems with it, but I’d still rather reread the whole trilogy twice than read anything by Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, or Nicholas Sparks.

I suspect that a lot the aggressive trashing of the prose style served as a helpful cover for less permissible anxiety about the book’s depiction of sex. But I also think it reflects the assumption by most critics that “good book” equals “literary.” At earlier points in my life I would have passionately agreed with that, but nowadays I find it rather quaint and Arnoldian. I don’t find it a helpful standard for dealing with erotica or any other example of genre fiction. There are some erotica writers capable of gorgeous or stylish prose (Alexis Hall and Harper Fox to name two), and some readers who are really appreciative of those qualities, but the majority of authors and readers are mostly focused on other, ahem, values. I hope to deal in a later essay with some of the different values we might look for, and also how readers, fans and critics go about working out standards of quality for an emerging genre like erotica.

Ultimately, the most striking aspect of the mainstream reaction to FSoG was the sheer amount of hostility it aroused, which raises the question why? Why get so angry? Why so much hysteria over the book’s style? It’s not like the US is experiencing a deficit in trashy, poorly written books or TV shows. American men spend millions of hours watching online porn, and yet it does not arouse anything like this outrage among mainstream cultural critics, despite its quite questionable cinematic quality. Are bad wank-reads really so much worse than bad porno videos?

And here I think the answer is depressingly straightforward: the readers were women. When the news hit that all those bland-looking Kindles were actually hiding some pretty explicit smut, people who should know better suddenly began ravening about horrible writing, morality, and the dangers of Cinderella complexes, as if the average woman you know isn’t capable of deciding what turns her on or distinguishing between a juicy one-handed read and War and Peace. Think about it: there is simply no way mainstream cultural critics for organs like The New York Times or Newsweek would have written with such condescension or hostility about FSoG if the target audience had been, say, Gay or African American or working class.

I will close by reiterating a point I have made elsewhere: there is absolutely nothing new in efforts to police popular forms mostly enjoyed by women. Before my career writing smut, I was a scholar of 18th and 19th century English fiction. For almost all of its history, the novel has been the major popular form written and consumed mostly by women. And at every stage of that history, we have seen efforts by critics to use canons of taste, artistry, and morality to dismiss the genre and the women who enjoy it.

Critics, parents, and clerics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century worried obsessively about teenaged girls’ love of novels. Romances were blamed for the decline in morality and virtue, and critics didn’t hesitate to prognosticate the end of marriages, families, and civilization itself because of women’s propensity to indulge in dangerous fantasies promoted by novels. (I admit to experiencing a certain giddy elation at the sight of a gadfly critic like Katie Roiphe taking on the role of the 18th century cleric thundering about the apocalyptic implications of trashy female reading.)

Cultural paranoia about female fantasy is so persistent and reappears in so many guises it's hard not to suspect it is some inherent part of our species, better explained by anthropologists or psychologists than historians. Interesting as I consider this point, you will have to go off to academia to find a really adequate treatment of it. I no longer frequent that establishment, thank goodness, so instead of perusing social science journals, I think I’ll reread Concubine of a Space Conqueror! Elliot, the hero of that little gem, possesses the unshakeable conviction that sex with him will be scorching enough to distract his glowering alien lover from invading Planet Earth. More power to him.