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LiliaFord

LiliaFord

Mostly Cross Posts from my blog, Readings From the Dark Side

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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.

 

 

(First published on my blog: http://liliafordromance.blogspot.com/2014/03/why-is-it-so-hard-to-review-smut.html)

Source: http://liliafordromance.blogspot.com/2014/03/why-is-it-so-hard-to-review-smut.html