Friday, September 12, 2014

Viewpoint: A "Sex Sells" Hive Mind ... Er, Society

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.

Literary Standards

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 ... 

Against Literature

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?

Reader Response

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.

Final Thoughts

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.



  1. Agreed. I don't identify myself as Christian, but I find sex for the sake of sex in a novel distasteful. I am an aspiring author, recently self-published my first novel after writing and rewriting and editing and more editing and hiring a number of people in the industry to help me on the way. I agree that it's offensive that these books are selling like gangbusters where a well-crafted novel struggles. (Not saying mine is well crafted, although I like to think it's good!) All I can say is that it's more of a commentary on society than the writers. True writers write for the love of it, not the money. Money is and always should be, secondary.

    1. Hi Rose,

      So nice to find a like-minded person on this topic. I read that original article and was almost as horrified as I could possibly have been. It's amazing that what gets published today passes as "literature" and how much it cheapens the hard work that the rest of us are trying to accomplish. And motivation is absolutely key --- you're a writer when you can't NOT write, not when you can write well (badly) enough to make a lot of money.

      Thanks for your comments and for stopping by!

  2. Hi Eleanor! Ouch, I wrote a long comment and it didn’t register, so I lost it!

    In short, what I meant to say is the romance genre nowadays is primarily associated with escapism rather than with literature. Robert McKee (if I’m not mistaken) once stated that many of the commercial books you have out there are not literature but mere stories.

    Romance readers look mainly for plot and thrills (or sex for that matter) in detriment of literary quality and depth. However, when they find quality, originality and depth, they appreciate it. That’s what I’ve noticed while randomly reading reviews for romance novels.

    Their level of expectation is really low. I’ve seen readers commenting this or that author wrote well because he/she could put two sentences together, plus his/her book didn’t have typos.

    Since when writing a grammatically correct sentence and avoiding typos became synonym to god writing? That’s the least you’d expect from a writer, the same way you’d expect a singer to know how to sing and a cook to know how to cook.

    It’s very frustrating to authors who sweat to come up with a well-crafted piece of work, while so many people, professional or not, are writing only for the money or simply for fun, and being successful while serious authors flop. That doesn’t really come as a surprise though. We live in a world where quality promotion is as important—if not more important—than quality writing it.

    1. Hi Nicole!

      Delighted to hear from you ... sorry about the comment being "eaten," I've heard that before and had it happen to me, too. But I appreciate your tenacity!

      I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with picking up a novel, in any genre, for the sake of an escape from the world. All you have to do these days is pick up a newspaper or turn on a news station on the radio or TV and get just the headlines --- there isn't a lot of laudable, praiseworthy, positive news out there. It isn't surprising that one of the reasons we read fiction is to get away from all the devastation.

      At the same time, there's really something to be said for allowing well-written fiction to transport us to another world, another time. I just don't get the appeal, really, that all of these poorly written, grammatically incorrect, self-published books are getting all the hype and attention.

      Did you know that the average level of a work of fiction these days is eighth grade? Any vocabulary or ideas beyond that level are frowned upon for most fiction published today. And THAT'S another travesty. Every single published author, publishing author, writer, and reader, for that matter, should be up in arms angry and offended by that statistic. What are we gaining by "dumbing down" our writing? What are our readers gaining?


  3. Oh my… thoughts? How about a deluge of them?

    I used to work as a content editor for a large Internet company and learned that the average education level of Web users was 13. That meant I should keep it simple so to cater to the average user. Take a leap to books and I think we get the same mentality.

    I think romance readers (specially) plunge into romance novels with a different frame of mind, or “escapism” if you will. They’re not after quality writing as much as they crave for a story that thrills them with romance/emotion/steam. Style and depth are secondary. It doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate it, but in this case it’s just not their main focus when choosing to read a romance book.

    I didn’t know about that statistic in the publishing industry. It saddens me. I was recently called pretentious by a reviewer. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I love words, that’s all. I vary them as much as possible when I write not because I want to show off (who cares about the extent of my vocabulary?) but because when words are not used they virtually DIE. They become pathetic memories trapped in dictionaries. In my lifetime, I’ve watched several words in Portuguese, my mother tongue, turn into fossils due to lack of use. I myself can’t use them anymore without sounding weird—perfectly good words gone to waste!

    And last but not least: the broader your vocabulary, the broader your repertoire of abstractions—your internal horizons expand. I’ve learned that in my college Linguistics course and never forgot it.

    PS: Speaking of typos, my last comment has a few, so sorry about that! :)


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