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
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
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,
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.