Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Resisting Homogenization

By Lisabet Sarai

At the moment I'm in the throes of editing stories for my upcoming charity anthology Coming Together: In Vein. Despite my hatred of all things Microsoft, I've decided that using Word's Track Changes functionality (as all my publishers do) is the most efficient way to communicate my suggested modifications to my authors. Anyway, last week I was working on a submission from a well-known and respected writer and found myself breaking up her sentences: deleting conjunctions, inserting periods, and adding initial caps. My intuition (which I rely on at least as much as more analytical processes when I'm editing) told me her sentences were too long. Paragraph after paragraph, she would string three or four or even five independent clauses together with various conjunctions.

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 na├»ve 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.




20 comments:

  1. Great post Lisabet! I totally agree.

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  2. Thanks, Keziah!

    Sometimes I wonder whether it's my advancing age, or I've always been a curmudgeon!

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  3. I love variety and finding something "new" to read and play with. Though, I ended up going *way* beyond the norm into the "pretty much unpublishable" realm, so I can only hope that some day, people will find my stuff tame enough to read.

    When I was in high school, I used to love writing about vampires. And then, one day, I realized, so was everyone else. That soured it for me because I wanted something different. I wanted werewolves when people liked vampires, mummys when werewolves got too popular. Tentacles were awesome, right up to the point I started seeing hentai... no, tentacles are still just awesome.

    I do know that I *love* rich characters. As I got older, I found that I cared less about the window dressing (sparkles, shirt-ripping, or tentacles) and more about the character inside. They could be plain as could be, but if I feel for them, I'll love them no matter what they do or what they turn into.

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  4. I am sick of homogenization - tired of reading the same plot over and over - that's why I started writing in the first place, to get the stories I wanted to read that no one was publishing. After having two very open minded small presses fold under me I've stopped submitting, I'd rather self publish my stories my way than churn out more of the same old same old ;)

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  5. Thank you so much for this post, Lisabet. You've articulated a lot of what I've been feeling recently, perhaps in conjunction with the "acceptance" of erotica in the mainstream.

    Market forces are very powerful. They even sink inside a writer's imagination. I'm aware that I often write my stories with two not totally conflicting goals--to "give 'em what they want" and at the same time slip in some things that fascinate me personally and make it worthwhile. Now giving the reader what they want is fundamentally giving them a good story to read, but the market is making this into the same old plot and characters with a new accessory or two. It depresses my imagination for sure.

    As I'm figuring this out myself, I'm coming to the same conclusion as your post. I have to really let go of the traditional forms of validation (not that I was ever rich or famous, lol) and have the courage to write something meaningful to me. One benefit of the current system is that it will find some readers who may appreciate the risks I've taken. Now if a bestselling writer truly loves what he does, that is great, but to crank things out to please others definitely takes its toll.

    Celebrity may come with mastering your art, but when a writer and his publishers are focused on fame and the market from the get-go, the result is just product.

    Thanks again for this mind and heart-provoking post!

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  6. This is why self-publishing may be the salvation of non-homoginzed writers.

    I'm in it for the love of the pursuit of deep edges. I'll find a very small audience. I'll adore them for appreciating my obsession.

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  7. Thank you for writing this, Lisabet! You hit the nail on the head.

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  8. Hey, t'Sade,

    I definitely agree. It's the depth and complexity of the characters that marks great fiction.

    I also sympathize with your contrariness. My approach is to take a popular genre and then twist it totally beyond recognition.

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  9. Greetings, Sessha,

    I don't think I "know" you - but I applaud your independence.

    If you're looking for a publisher who is willing to tackle taboo themes, check out Stiff Rain Press. They're very new, but dedicated to printing stuff other places will reject for its content.

    http://www.stiffrainpress.com/

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  10. Donna,

    You've put your finger on a central conflict. A "professional" author knows how to write for a specific audience. That's the key to success and sales. And I can do that. However, when that means writing the same thing over and over again, or shying away from some character or plot decisions that seem right because of concern that the twist will reduce the story's publication chances, I start to feel as though I'm betraying something important.

    All of us have the same dream - to have our work read and appreciated. I guess the real question, as you've noted, is "by whom?"

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  11. Hey, Kathleen,

    "I'm in it for the love of the pursuit of deep edges"

    I love this. But you may be braver or more stubborn than I am. Despite all my talk, I find myself waffling.

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  12. Thanks for dropping by, Janine,

    And by the way, I thought your author feature on the main ERWA site was fantastic!

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  13. The first part of your post reminds me of my own worries when beta reading - the fear of imposing my own style on someone else. I've been helping someone over the past year of so with writing, and I do hope I've not simply tried to make her write like I do!

    With regards to the meat of your post though - the sameness is what makes me so wary about the genres, both erotic romance and erotica. I know I should read more in both genres (as a writer who claims to be at least somewhat part of both), but I find myself far less compelled to so often because of the sameness of so much of it. That said I often find myself pleasantly surprised when I do start reading more, but the way it's presented tends to be off-putting too...

    I think I'm rambling now. Great post!

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  14. Hear, hear on all of the things you have tackled in this post, Lisabet.

    I know exactly what you are talking about with publishers. Add to that, many of the epubs that are out there set a low standard by putting out large quantities of books to replace selling a good quantity of one book with small sales on a number of books. Combine this with bloating the market with books that rehash the same themes, and the net result is frustration.

    And regarding style and editing, I've encountered some heavy hands there too. I tire of the "modern rules" like elimination of semicolons and passive voice, and even the standard of creating a "tight" story. I like to read work that grabs me and takes me away, and adherence to a strict set of standards like these runs counter to that, by bleeding the originality of the author's voice.

    Maybe self publishing is the answer, but for me, it doesn't work because I don't have the time to dedicate to it.

    Anyway, enough said. Great post.

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  15. Hello, Jacqueline,

    I think if you're aware of the tendency to push your crit partners toward your own style, you can combat it.

    Meanwhile, if you'd like some suggestions for erotica authors with varying styles, just contact me! You could start with some of the Coming Together Presents collections, each a different author. So far we have C. Sanchez-Garcia, M. Christian, Bob Buckley, Remittance Girl and Teresa Lamai. And let me assure you, they are very different from one another - but all spectacular writers!

    http://www.eroticanthology.com

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  16. Hi, Craig,

    I know people have suggested that epublishing is the answer to this dilemma, but I am in the same boat as you are. If you don't want to be Amazon exclusive, you have to format, submit, monitor, etc. for multiple sites and stores. I don't have the time for that.

    I'm happy to give up a portion of my writing income in return for someone else handling the preparation, formatting and selling. As long as they don't force me into a single mold!

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  17. Brilliant post, Lisabet.

    But then, you know, I feel exactly the same.

    Truth be told, I hardly ever pick up erotica anymore.

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  18. I so completely agree! And what's worse is that even as aware of it as I am, I still fall into the trap when I start planning a story. I catch it - I think but it is so ingrained. Something that needs to be unlearned, I think.

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  19. Like Sessha, I started writing and illustrating because I couldn't find authors giving me what I wanted.

    I've seen a change in certain markets, like lesbian romance, which is growing. I wonder now if this is a result of a certain homogenization; the plot, pacing, expectations make the partner's gender less meaningful. In other words, a romance is a romance is a romance. No difference in such relationships. And perhaps the "glut" of straight romance, for example, gives more power to a "new" romantic obstacle to overcome for readers: gender.

    I'm glad to see more lesbian romance but can't say I find much inspiring. I prefer erotica and just wish I could find more fantasy violence that doesn't include a penis. Maybe that will be a taboo left for the future.

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  20. Great post, Lisabet. And as you say, self-publishing might be the only antidote to market forces.

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