Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Her sentences weren't exactly what I'd label “run-on”. Normally there was a close logical relationship among the clauses. However, they were certainly much longer than what I'd write, especially lately. (My earlier work tends to be a good deal more prolix.) Before long the pages of her story were a mess of red and blue, cross-outs and insertions.
I worked at this for a while, then went back to read over the edited text. When I did so, I realized my changes had done some violence to the rhythm of the author's prose. Much as the long sentences bothered me, they were part of her personal style. If she followed my suggestions and hacked the long sentences into pieces, that might make the story “better” in some formal, grammatical sense, or at least more readable. However, it would be less distinctive – more like my own work, and probably more like the other stories in the collection.
I went back and used “undo” to reverse most of the edits. In my opinion, variety as one of the most critical attributes of a successful anthology.
The experience started me thinking about all the other pressures toward homogenization we authors face. Genre conventions, for instance. Readers select a book in a particular genre with strong expectations about its plot, characters, and even its style. A murder mystery that ended without revealing the identity of the killer would generate a lot of reader complaints. Indeed, one could question whether the genre label even applied.
The conventions for erotic romance are equally if not more stringent, as I've discovered over the past six years writing in the genre. The main characters must be appealing individuals who are at least somewhat attractive physically. The narrative must focus on their relationship; the protagonists should not have emotional or sexual attachments to other parties. The story must hinge on some barrier, internal or external, to the characters' mutual love, and ultimately that barrier must be removed, so that the story ends happily.
I've got nothing against love, but I don't read many romance books, because honestly, I find too little diversity for my taste. (There are, of course, exceptions.)
Unfortunately, I feel that erotica has also become more homogenized over the past half decade. Genre conventions aren't so strict for erotica, but there are other forces reducing originality and variety in the genre. One problem is the fact that relatively few publishers command most of the market. Several of the more adventurous and controversial erotica publishing companies (e.g. Freaky Fountain, Republica) have folded. To the extent that new companies have arisen, they seem to be trying to imitate the few imprints that have remained solvent. I suppose this is a rational business decision, but it reduces the diversity of the erotica gene pool.
Naturally a particular publisher will produce books with commonalities of style and content. Thus, a limited set of publishers tends to push the genre in the direction of sameness.
Now, you may be jumping up and down right now, because it seems as though a new epublisher opens its virtual doors every week. So how can I say that the number of erotica publishers is limited? If you check the fine print, you'll discover that about ninety percent of these new companies publish exclusively or primarily erotic romance, with all the attendant literary strings.
Furthermore, rather ironically, this flood of new publishers seems to reduce rather than enhance diversity. Many are founded by refugees from other publishing houses. They bring with them the preferences, assumptions and house styles of their former companies, and tend to be rather heavy-handed in enforcing these styles, sometimes with limited understanding. I've had editors strike out every single use of “that” to introduce a subordinate clause; replace every single one of my semi-colons with an em-dash; insist on the total elimination of passive voice; require that I rewrite a first-person story in third-person. Sometimes I resist these changes, but many authors will not, especially the thousands of brand new writers who are joining the authorial ranks every month to feed the public's massive hunger for romance.
Market forces are perhaps the most powerful homogenizing agent. When a particular book succeeds, for whatever reason, publishers (naturally, I suppose) look for other, similar works. I remember the first couple of spanking anthologies, which were wildly popular. How many spanking collections have hit the shelves since then? I don't even bother to pick them up anymore, unless I'm working on a review. Give me something different!
But instead we see a flood of vampire books, or a slew of BDSM romances featuring naïve heroines and sadistic, damaged heroes. I encounter volume after volume of gay erotic romance, featuring well-hung young hunks who seem to live in a world where there are no heterosexuals and there's always lube close at hand. The same well-thumbed plots and characters appear again and again. I started posting a shape-shifter romance serial on my web site last year. After a couple of chapters, as an experiment, I asked my readers to tell me what should happen next. Reader after reader outlined essentially the same plot – the same story they've read in a hundred other books about were-wolves, were-tigers, were-bears, were-stallions...
Do I sound like I'm whining? If you think you detect a note of frustration, you're correct. I don't want to read the same thing over and over. And I don't want to write it, either. These days, though, sameness sells.
I know my work has some distinctive stylistic properties, but I consciously try to produce something new every time I sit down in front of my keyboard. I've written a lot of BDSM, yes – because that's what interests and arouses me – but I've also written gay and lesbian stories, menage and polyamory, science fiction, paranormal, historical, steampunk, fairy tales, even a bit of horror. I've never written a sequel or tried a series, at least partly because I don't want to revisit the same characters, setting or theme. I want to try something different.
Originality lies close to the top in my hierarchy of literary values. Nothing thrills me like a story with an uncommon premise or an unusual point of view. My favorite authors are the ones who surprise me, with their fertile and outrageous imaginations. And I dream that there are at least a few readers out there who pick up my books because they're looking for something new and different.
I'll continue to resist the pressures toward homogeneity to the extent that I can.
It's certainly a good thing I don't dream about being rich and famous.