Coincidence, Imitation, or Theft

by | July 27, 2017 | General | 4 comments

by Jean Roberta

This past month, I’ve been thinking about similar book titles, among other things.

My erotic novel, Prairie Gothic (set on the Canadian prairies, where I live) was first written in 1998, when I had more enthusiasm for the game than knowledge of how to write a book-length narrative. During my year away from the classroom, I decided that I had to do something with the file, which had been gathering virtual dust in my Documents since 2006, when the only “publisher” (of the ebook) went bust. After rereading the novel, as though for the first time, I decided to rewrite and expand it rather than delete it.

I sent a proposal and the first three chapters of the revised, 2017 version to a publisher who has always treated me well (Steve Berman of Lethe Press), and he accepted the novel for publication. 

I didn’t consider changing the title, partly because no one advised me to do that. The “Gothicism” of local culture, IMO, is based on contradictions: Canadian politeness and co-operation on the surface, with an underlying history of violence toward the local indigenous population, and hostility to non-English immigrants. As in other parts of North America, rural culture has been characterized by a certain Protestant prudery combined with a roaring sex business on the “wrong side” of town and a secretive queer community. I tried to show all of this in my novel.

The new version of Prairie Gothic won’t be available for awhile. Meanwhile, the amazingly prolific and versatile Mitzi Szereto has launched a series of novels with “gothic” in the titles.  The first one, Florida Gothic, is scary, gruesome, and hard to put down. The local culture includes old Cuban refugees from Castro’s 1959 revolution, a variety of bugs, a variety of drugs (mostly illegal, and very lucrative for the sellers), retirees from other states, poor people with no access to health care, humid heat, and prowling alligators. And a zombie who might have been blessed or cursed by a Haitian trickster god, Papa Legba.

Reading this book, I noticed how differently gothic drama plays out in different environments, as well as in different genres. Mitzi Szereto’s series will examine it in different states; the next novel is titled New Mexico Gothic.  Apparently no book in the series will be named after a region (e.g. the prairies, the mountains, the coasts, etc.).

Mitzi’s series is categorized as horror fiction, and the sex in it doesn’t seem intended to be especially arousing. My novel is categorized as erotica, and the hypocrisy in it is not intended to distract a reader from the sex.

Readers probably won’t be confused by the word “gothic” in titles if they read the blurbs carefully. I just hope no reviewer claims to have been misled.

On a similar note, a fantasy story of mine (set in a desert where a local priesthood tries to appease a dragon-god who supposedly punishes humans for their sins by causing wildfires) has been accepted for a fire-themed anthology, tentatively titled “On Fire.” Meanwhile, writer/editor Rachel Kramer Bussel has been promoting an anthology she edited, On Fire: Erotic Romance Stories (Cleis Press).

I’m sure the editors of both books chose the same prepositional phrase as a title by coincidence, and because it sounds catchy. I suspect the two anthologies have very little in common. I hope the title of one of them can be changed enough to prevent misunderstandings.

I remember when two writers I admire (both fairly brilliant in the genre of m/m erotic romance) both named their novels Personal Demons, and the two books were released at approximately the same time. I’ve only read one, but from what I know of the other author’s work, that novel is probably a whole other saga, not part of a paranormal series.

These coincidences lead me to consider deliberate imitations, borrowing, theft, and misappropriation. Fan-fiction still seems to be a popular genre, and many recent books have been set in the fictional worlds of earlier writers: Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, George Martin. No one seems offended by this, unless I’m missing something.

On the other hand, cultural appropriation is an ongoing source of conflict. Here is a definition that seems fairly standard: “cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own.” This practice seems especially problematic when a member of a dominant culture (e.g. a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) “adopts” aspects of an oppressed culture: e.g, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, writing about the “history of magic” in North America before the mass arrival of white Christians.

This subject-matter necessarily involves writing about spiritual practices among indigenous peoples (and there were/are many cultures, not just one).  Even though Rowling is known as a writer of fantasy, the people she wrote about have actually existed for centuries, and many have responded to her work by tweeting:  1) We’re still here in the real world, like our ancestors, and 2) Our “magic” was/is as real as the “magic” of pre-Christian Europeans (vilified as “witchcraft” by church and secular rulers), and you got it wrong.

I feel some sympathy for those on all sides.

K. Tempest Bradford describes herself on Twitter as a “Science Fiction and Fantasy writer, media critic, and professional harsher of squee.” She has written a much more reasonable essay on cultural appropriation than I could hope to do. You can find it here:

K. Tempest Bradford

In my rambling through Twitter, I also ran across the link to an older interview in Slate magazine with the cosmopolitan writer Zadie Smith, daughter of Jamaican and English  parents, raised in London but currently living in the U.S.

Zadie Smith

In her article, Smith touches on “cultural appropriation,” and the false assumption that peaceful coexistence requires cultural homogeneity. She claims:

“My husband is from Northern Ireland, which is a completely racially homogeneous place, and was for hundreds of years, and they still managed to find the difference between which way you faced an altar, and then kill each other for at least 600 of those years.”

She has a point. Peace and solidarity usually appear somewhere else, or in imaginary societies.

Smith claims that cultural borrowing and mixing appear to be a subversive plot to some, while she simply regards these processes as a fact of life. She doesn’t seem especially concerned about cultural appropriation, and has no interest in trying to police it.

I offer all this material as food for thought. Do you believe there should be no limits on any artist’s imagination? Or does basic respect for other human beings require more self-control than some artists seem to have? Are certain words, titles or trends simply part of the general zeitgeist? Comments welcome.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    It’s nearly impossible these days to come up with a unique title. I don’t think anyone is likely to accuse you of theft… or even imitation.

    And I was thinking about the two “Personal Demons” novels before you mentioned them, by Jay Lygon and James Buchanan. I actually did a joint review of both books. Except for their high quality writing and steamy sex, they could hardly be more different.

    • Jean

      I’m sure! I reviewed Jay Lygon’s novel as part of the “Chaos Magic” series. The appearance of “personal demons” (or minor gods) as actual characters in that series is hilarious, but I can hardly imagine them in a novel by James Buchanan, which would probably have more realistic detail.

      True enough that many titles are similar. I probably shouldn’t worry about it.

  2. Shiloh

    “Cultural appropriation” is a bullshit concept. People can be legitimately criticized for getting it wrong (eg: Wicca has nothing to do with Celtic culture and there’s nothing historically authentic about it, try again) but it’s fine to be “Irish for a day” on March 17, or write a book with an Irish protagonist even if you yourself are not Irish.

    • Jean Roberta

      Maybe “cultural appropriation” is a bullshit concept which some of the Politically Correct have carried to an extreme, but cultural exploitation is a thing. Some of the complaints I’ve heard (& history I’ve read) about oppressed people being exploited for their culture as well as their labour and the natural resources in their homeland seem legit. I probably shouldn’t worry about being completely boycotted and ostracized for “writing the Other” until/unless I become filthy wealthy from doing so. I probably have nothing to fear. 🙁

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