The Tantalizing Unknown

by | October 26, 2017 | General | 1 comment

by Jean Roberta

Who is the handsome stranger, really? (Anyone who has watched Game of Thrones understands the importance of identity, or birth-status, especially if it has been deliberately disguised.) Why does the tough young woman on a barren planet in the latest series of Star Wars movies have an impressive amount of The Force? Could she be descended from any of the major characters from a generation before?

Mystery, suspense, and ambiguity are the stuff of fiction. Depending on the genre, certain important questions hang over a narrative from the first scene: who are they (or he or she), really? Who committed the murder, and why? Who stole the treasure? Who will fuck whom? How will they do it? Will the seasoned Dom(me) seduce the relatively inexperienced but curious hottie?

Unfortunately, ambiguity and uncertainty are not fashionable these days, at least among editors. When I get editorial advice about a story that has been accepted, but won’t be published until it has been revised to the satisfaction of the editor/publisher, the advice falls into predictable patterns. “You’ve used ‘seems’ three times in this story. It makes your narrator sound weak. Replace it with ‘is.’ Instead of saying ‘She looked worried,’ say ‘She was worried.’”

At some point, I am tempted to declare myself a devout agnostic: someone who doesn’t know whether there is a God or not (or what form that being might take), because there simply isn’t enough proof. I’m also not willing to assume that everyone who has an addiction or a pattern of unfortunate sexual relationships was sexually abused as a child, though some adults definitely were. Even in the real world, I think it’s important to say “I don’t know” if I don’t, and not to clutch at reckless beliefs to make myself sound knowledgeable, or assertive, or confident.

The omniscient third-person viewpoint in literature is artificial. Writing from that lofty perspective, a writer can function as a puppeteer who knows all the characters, inside and out, and can state with confidence that “She was worried,” or “She turned him down because the pleasure she got from manipulating men was like a drug to her.” A seemingly omniscient author can invent characters from other genders or communities that readers from those communities can’t recognize as real. At least the omniscient narrator doesn’t sound weak.

I prefer to write from a viewpoint that feels more natural, which is usually first-person or limited third-person (in which the narrator can only get inside one character’s head or psyche). If the viewpoint character is a servant-girl, she doesn’t have access to the long-term plans of her employers, since they are unlikely to share them with her. If the viewpoint character is a foot-soldier, he can’t know in advance who will win the battle, or even why the general gave an apparently irrational, suicidal order. (For a real-life example of this read “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.) Viewpoint characters can observe what they see and speculate on what it means, but appearances are often deceiving.

I like the words “seems,” “appears,” and “looks.” (In one case, when an editor asked me to change the word “seemed,” I changed it to “appeared.”) I also enjoy showing that a narrator’s assumptions are unjustified. In one case, an editor vaguely advised me to “be careful” when writing fiction that might be interpreted as racist. The narrator of my story was modelled on the kind of garden-variety local racists I’ve known all my life, and she learns in due course that her assumption about who is most likely to be a thief and a liar is completely wrong. An author’s world-view is more likely to be embedded in a plot than in the words of an untrustworthy narrator.

I’ll probably continue to write about the way things look or seem, regardless of how many editors advise me to eliminate “weak,” speculative words from my vocabulary. In some plots, the whole truth is revealed in ways that it rarely is in life. In other plots, truth remains elusive. Maybe the butler committed the murder, but maybe he was framed. A second investigation might be required, and this might involve a sequel, or a series of novels. And the ultimate conclusion might not be completely conclusive.

In the real world, our questions aren’t always answered. Even the questions that seemed so pressing in our youth tend to change as we age. Part of the reason why adulthood is often more satisfying than adolescence is because we’re more likely to find a Significant Other and a compatible group of friends once we’ve moved beyond the limited milieu of parents, siblings, and high school. Another reason why independent adulthood often comes as a relief is that we’re less likely to spend sleepless nights wondering if certain other people like us or not. Suspense, ambiguity, and doubt in a Young Adult novel are bound to be different from those qualities in a mystery, a fantasy epic, a dystopian tale of the coming Apocalypse, or an erotic story (or an erotic thread in any of those other genres).

If you, as a writer, have ever used the offensive word “seems,” rest assured that you’ll get no complaints from me. Narratives about what seems—as distinct from what is known beyond a doubt– were popular in the past, and they still are. And the need for speculative language in unclear situations is one thing I consider as solid as a rock.

Of course, rocks change and erode over time, just like beliefs and writing styles that seem permanent. To stay upright, we all need to resist being too rigid.

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 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Ah, editors!

    For one thing, most of them are much younger than we are, Jean. They don’t necessarily know what we know. ;^)

    If your character avoids “seems”, that says something about him or her. There are indeed many people who are totally sure their view of the world is “right”. Sometimes, they learn that’s not the case…other times they go to their grave believing in their mistaken perspectives.

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