Limits of the Absurd
By Lisabet Sarai
Imagine that you’re the publicist for a company that makes laundry detergent. Your employer has just released a new version of their top-selling product. It’s your job to get the word out, design and schedule advertising, create a buzz and find ways to hook new customers.
However, the most influential advertising venues have placed significant restrictions on the ads they’ll accept. Specifically, you can’t use the words “laundry” or any of its derivatives. “Detergent”, and “clothes washing” are also banned. Furthermore, the guidelines state that visuals may not include pictures of washing machines or articles hanging on a clothesline.
How in the world are you going get anyone to buy your product if you can’t tell them what it is you’re selling?
As it happens, bath soap is not subject to the same rules. Hence, you can opt to call your product “soap”, hoping people will understand it’s really detergent. This approach entails a serious risk, though. People who really don’t want detergent may buy your product, and be seriously annoyed about being misled.
Sound like a silly scenario? These days, authors of erotica face exactly this situation.
Suppose I’ve written a new erotica novel, featuring BDSM and multiple partners. (Hardly a far-fetched supposition, as I’ve written many such books.) I really need to publish it on Amazon because, let’s face it, that’s where the vast majority of readers buy their books. If I want my book to be visible to those masses of potential customers, rather than relegated to the so-called “adult dungeon” where nobody will see it without specifically selecting adult content, there’s a long list of words I have to avoid in the title, blurb, and increasingly, in the keywords. In addition, I need to be extremely careful about the cover imagery. I mustn’t include even a hint of bare breast or bottom. I’m not allowed to show a hand holding a whip. Even a tastefully shadowed, artistic snippet of nude flesh may get my book banished.
Indeed, it has gotten to the point where you cannot be honest about the genre of your book. Categorize your opus as erotica (because that’s what it is) and off to the dungeon you’ll go. If you plead and grovel, maybe—just maybe—they’ll reconsider. The chances are slim, though, especially if you’re an indie author who’s self-publishing your inspired smut.
The rules aren’t nearly as specific as the ones I cited for detergent, though, and they’re not consistently enforced. Some titles may slip by the censors while others will get a red flag. Some covers that scream “sex” nevertheless remain visible to six year olds, while many less blatant images end up hidden behind the X-rated wall. Best selling authors seem to get more lenient treatment than newcomers. The Excessica executive assistant says the people who vet publication submissions on weekends are pickier than those on weekdays.
Maybe they’re in a bad mood because they have to spend Saturday or Sunday working. Is it really fair that they take it out on us poor, struggling authors?
One strategy for adapting to these ridiculous restrictions involves labeling your writing as erotic romance rather than erotica. Sometimes this works. In fact there’s not any sort of hard line between erotic romance and erotica. My own stories often include romantic elements. Much of the time I don’t feel too uncomfortable selecting the accepted instead of the proscribed genre. For some of my books, though, it’s just too much of a stretch. A happy ending is the sine qua non of romance. If I publish a story that lacks the traditional HEA or HFN but claim it is romance, I’m going to have seriously pissed off readers, and one-star reviews. They wanted soap, but they got detergent. In fact, they’re justified in being upset.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been busy editing and formatting the first ERWA anthology, Unearthly Delights. I had to ditch the original subtitle, “Paranormal Erotica”, because Selena advised that might land us in the dungeon. Okay, that’s not a big thing. I actually like our new subtitle better: “Tales of Paranormal Desire”. I’d suggested “Paranormal Lust”, but someone suggested that “lust” might grab the censor’s attention.
Got to be careful, don’t we?
We went over the blurb with a fine-toothed comb, eliminating anything even slightly contentious. I think we still managed to capture the feeling of the book—hopefully without triggering any objections—but it galls me to have to waste time on these considerations.
The ultimate absurdity, though, is the fact that we apparently cannot say that this is an “Erotica Readers & Writers Association Anthology”. Selena thinks this might guarantee a trip to the dungeon. We’re limited to using the acronym “ERWA”, even though many readers won’t know what this stands for. That’s right. We can’t get the full benefit of our brand because it includes the word “erotica”.
I’m both astounded and furious.
How did one company ever get so much power?
What can we do about it?
Should we really accept, with utter meekness, these increasingly absurd constraints?
Contrarian that I am, my reaction is to start writing the filthiest smut I can imagine. Because you and I both know there’s a market for that kind of thing.
I just need to find those readers. Somehow.