An article by Maggie Bullock on Elle's website caught my attention this week. It's titled "How Women Are Getting Rich By Writing Down Their Fantasies." Feel free to read the article here, in its entirety --- it's a long one.
Bullock summarizes the movement of women, beginning with and perhaps inspired by E.L. James and her success with the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, who have begun to write their own erotic romances and self-publish them, whether on Amazon or elsewhere.
There are even conventions where readers of that genre and its like can meet the authors, get their books signed, and trade personal stories of their experiences with what Bullock calls "unapologetically adult-rated tales in which the love story --- still an essential ingredient --- serves mostly as string on which to collect the real pearls: raunchy, graphic, exceedingly adventurous sex scenes."
And something about that angers me.
Sex in Fiction
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with sex in fiction.
I happen to be one of the small minority of authors who identify as Christian and still think it's okay to include sex in their books. There's nothing "un-Christian" about sex. There's nothing bad or evil about sex. Even Christians have sex. (That might come as a shock to some people.)
In this post, I'm not going to go into my definition of a sexual relationship, since I suspect I'll offend an assortment of readers if I do so.
I'm also not going to address the sexual content of the average erotic romance, insofar as it usually ventures outside the norms of what was once called "vanilla sex" and tries on sexuality under the guise of the BDSM-threesomes-group sex-voyeurism (and more) culture.
What I do want to discuss is the decline of literary standards in published books, directly affiliated with the impassioned determination of women who weren't previously writers to appropriate for themselves a slice of the same successful pie that E.L. James has been enjoying.
Believe it or not, books used to sell because they were well-written and entertaining or informative, and because the author had slaved over six or ten or twenty-eight drafts and rewrites of the manuscript before getting it published, and because the author worked closely with an editor and a proofreader and perhaps an agent and a marketing person and everybody else at the publishing company to ensure that the book lived up to the standards of its predecessors.
Granted --- the publishing industry takes a while to work. From contracting a book to its publication can take months or years. The self-publishing industry is certainly (becoming) a viable option for authors to take matters into their own hands and get their works out to a waiting readership within mere hours of finishing the manuscript.
But I think we've sacrificed standards for content. In this case, that content happens to be hyper-sexual, which, in today's culture, should surprise exactly no one. Sex sells, and that's that, whether or not you think that's good for society (and I don't happen to).
That aside ...
Some people will suggest that the standards of literature are outdated. (Sort of like the Bible.) Or that musical composers first learn the rules of seventeenth-century counterpoint according to Johann Sebastian Bach only just to be able to break those same rules in their own contemporary, atonal compositions.
Some people will probably say that nobody reads literature anymore, and that classics are boring, and that the only exposure Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, or Nathaniel Hawthorne (remember them?) have in today's society is to unsuspecting high school and college students who are required to slog through such dusty tomes to pass their respective English and literature classes and move on with life.
I won't argue that society's tastes have changed since the eighteen hundreds or nineteen hundreds. I also won't argue that not many people read literature anymore. And I won't argue that sometimes, it makes more sense to modernize things in order to keep new generations interested and entertained.
But what are we achieving as a society --- as a formerly literate and educated society, in particular --- when books written only with attention paid to the super-sexual content and no attention at all paid to grammar or punctuation are published and sold by the thousands?
Self-Published Erotic Romance
In her article, Bullock spoke with relatively new erotic romance author Alessandra Torre, who, by her own admission, knew absolutely nothing about writing when she started and only chose to become a writer in the first place because "'E.L. James was making a gazillion dollars, and I was like, "Well, shoot, if I get one percent of the sales she did, I'll make $10 million a year, so that's cool!"'" (Bullock).
Torre, author of Sex Love Repeat and the Innocence trilogy, among other works available from Amazon, found Stephen King's memoir and how-to writing book, On Writing. She read half its contents and set the book, and all other learning about writing, aside. In six weeks, she'd drafted the first book in her Innocence trilogy, and within another hour, the book was available on Amazon, having been "published" with the click of a mouse.
Authors who go the traditional route to get published, and even authors who self-publish but really take their time to get their works edited and proofread before publication, should be offended by the fact that Torre has been selling enough books to make $60,000 a month (Bullock) with just her first, unedited, un-revised novel.
What's the point of an author going the distance, writing and rewriting a dozen drafts of a work to get it to "just so" perfection for publication, when anybody at all can sit down, throw sex scenes together into a rough manuscript, upload it to Amazon, and sell thousands of copies?
Recent examples of erotic romance tend to be flat, with two-dimensional characters and no attention to setting or sensual description (except in bed ... or on the kitchen table ... or the living room floor ... or wherever else the characters happen to be having sex in this chapter). Many novels in the genre are filled with cliches, inconsistencies, awkward imagery, predictable story lines, and enough errors in grammar, punctuation, and syntax to rattle a reader's concentration.
Bullock acknowledges the loss of literary standards in her article: " ... the literary goalposts have been ripped out of the ground and replanted in a whole different part of the field. Stereotype, platitude, and cliche rule; formulaic and familiar sells."
Why is this okay?
Readers should also be highly offended that such self-publishing authors as these see no need to appeal to a reader intelligence level barely beyond that of your average animal with its mindless carnal desires.
The question is, why do readers continue to buy that kind of badly written nonsense? Millions of people purchased E.L. James's Fifty Shades trilogy. Why?
I read James's trilogy (checked out from the local library). There's nothing spectacular about any of them, and there's certainly nothing memorable about the characters, the setting, the subplots, the tone, the pacing, the dialogue, or any of the other elements of story a writer normally takes into consideration. (Remember the "inner goddess"?)
It's like people today look around at the average readership; see a bunch of sex-maniac suckers who will read the most poorly written excuse for "literature" in the world as long as Harry and Sally take 93% of the book to screw on every available surface, flat or not, within a ten-mile radius; decide to write that kind of a book; self-publish it without consulting an editor or publishing house or agent or beta reader or (God forbid) a proofreader; and then rinse and repeat the entire cycle.
Yes, readers should be grossly offended by the level to which literary standards have dropped to keep the masses happy.
It's truly an atrocity that we've reached a point at which a book is defined as successful by how many sex scenes it contains (and how graphically they are rendered) and not by whether it's well-written, entertaining (beyond the titillation factor of reading about sex every which way) and has been painstakingly edited and proofread prior to its publication.