Friday, June 26, 2015

Purloined Experience (The Stories We Are Entitled to Tell, Part 2)

Folks, this is a long piece (about 2,500 words in total). I'd thought seriously about breaking it up into two discrete posts, but I feel that the first section dovetails aptly enough with the second to justify leaving the whole thing intact. If you find it too long for one sitting, please, by all means, bookmark the page. I've numbered the two main sections, so that you can easily find your place when you return. Also, you can read the first article in this series hereTAS


Some time ago I received a heated communication from a person—let’s just say, someone fairly well-known in the erotica community whom we shall refer to here only as X—demanding that I take down a review I’d posted of a book by an author we’ll call Y. (Be aware that I will be employing gender-neutral pronouns in parts of this piece.)

X insisted that Y was deceiving readers by not being honest about who Y was in real life, and should therefore “not be supported.” X even went so far as to “out” Y to me, revealing the supposed real-world identity of the person behind the literary double (which I myself shall NEVER reveal).

When I invited X to post their complaints (sans the outing) to the comments section of my blog, they demurred—which told me pretty much everything I needed to know about X’s motives.  

Nonetheless, I took some time to analyze and ponder what X had written, doing my best to separate X’s obvious extreme, personal, and deeply visceral dislike of Y from X’s professionally-couched objections, which ultimately boiled down to this: X claims that Y is a middle-aged man masquerading as a much-younger woman in order to sell erotica, and doing so (in X’s view) is tantamount to an insult to honest, hard-working women authors who struggle to have their authentic voices heard and taken seriously.

Not denigrating X’s broader feminist concerns in the least, but I still had to ask myself: (1) does knowing this (or hearing it alleged) alter my opinion about the quality of Y’s writing? No. The writing is still demonstrably very good, regardless of whether it came from a man or a woman.  (2) Did Y plagiarize or steal another writer’s work? No. (3) Did Y tell a good, compelling, original, authentic-feeling story? Yes. (4) Have other writers—especially writers of erotica—assumed diverse personae and alternate identities over the centuries? Yes. Of course! (5) Is such a practice considered irregular, dishonest, deceptive, or malicious in the literary world? No, of course not! (6) Is Y assuming a pseudonym for the purpose of cheating or deceiving readers? It does not seem so. (7) Would X have a similar problem with, say, a younger woman writing as an older man? Or an older woman assuming the guise of an adolescent boy? (It’s been done, probably more often than you think!) What about a straight woman writing m/m romance (quite common), a het man writing f/f porn (also fairly common, if almost always awful), or a gay man writing het erotica? A straight cis-male telling genderqueer stories from the POV of a bisexual transwoman? What about a drag queen, for that matter—don’t drag queens compete with honest, hard-working cis-female performers? (Of course they don’t!)

In fact, I suspect X would probably cringe at being accused of such blatant intolerance. I can’t imagine that X wasn’t at the forefront of protest when that snarky little turd of a blogger outed E.L. James a year or so ago. (Whatever you may think about Ms. James and her writing—and I try to think about both as little as possible—you have to admit, that was a pretty shitty thing to do.)

First, let me say this: my problem is not with the author Y. My problem  is squarely with X.

Could X conceivably be jealous or resentful of Y? Possibly, but that is irrelevant and in no way excuses behavior that was childish, petulant, petty, unprofessional, and patently unethical. In erotica authors assume literary doubles or choose to work under pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, whether because of professional or commercial considerations, or, sometimes, to protect themselves and their loved ones from the very real possibility of retribution, which may include threats of violence, prosecution, imprisonment, or even death in extremis. Occasionally, authors may adopt a writing persona or avatar that reflects the way they truly perceive themselves; for example, a cis-male who has quite honestly come to regard themself as female; or some broken or marginalized person who must project wholeness and confidence in order to be taken seriously by the world.

But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter why. If, as a community, we adhere to no other collective ethical tenet, it is that an author’s chosen pen name is inviolate. The only person who has the right to reveal the “real name” behind a nom de plume is the owner of that nom de plume—period. The only possible exceptions to this would be in the case of incontrovertible evidence of plagiarism, the proven violation of intellectual property rights, intentional identity theft, or the real, imminent endangerment of a minor.

I want to say one more thing before we move on. I personally do not believe that authors are in competition with each other. Competition, like jealousy, is a rather childish, and mostly useless concept, which, nonetheless, the purveyors of “bread and circuses” skillfully employ to divide and conquer the masses, artificially choosing “winners and losers”.  I believe that, as creatives, we can challenge and stimulate each other to do better and greater work, but the idea that one author making a sale somehow robs another author of a sale is nonsense. I am the last person on earth anyone would ever accuse of being a free-market fundamentalist; but I do believe that readers of erotica—who are, after all, the market—really will sort things out—not necessarily in a way most of us will always like, but, truthfully, is there a better way?   


This whole distasteful affair does conveniently dovetail with the discussion we’ve been having here about “other-ness” in erotica. In my last post, I wrote about experience, imagination, and authenticity in erotic fiction, specifically, what roles do experience and imagination play in the creation of authentic characters who are nonetheless not always “like us”? Do writers’ experience—their direct empirical knowledge—limit them to draw on “what they know” alone? Or is experience refracted and expanded through imagination? Can we write authentically about something we have not actually experienced, but have only been told about, witnessed from afar or done a spot of research on? Experience is not merely the sum of “what physically happens to us” after all, nor is imagination only “what we are able to think up” on our own. Consider those early vivid dreams that the memory often cannot distinguish from waking reality. Did this really happen to me? one wonders, and the mystery itself is fascinating enough to inspire a whole genre of its own. 

(Please note, I’m not here to run down the whole history of  the philosophical Idea of Experience from Locke (“the mind is a blank slate upon which experience writes”) to Ward’s tripartite concept of mental experience, or William James’ notion of “pure experience”. For the purposes of this piece, the concepts and terminology are my own.)

The human imagination is uniquely suited to what composers call variation form, that is,
taking a pre-existing idea and riffing on it, improvising, transforming or transmogrifying, expanding or compacting, grafting or pruning, remodeling or reshaping, sometimes producing an end product virtually unrecognizable from the original germ of an idea that inspired it. Stravinsky once quipped that “great composers don’t borrow, they steal . . .” and it could be argued that the subtle stealing and distilling of vicarious experience is the work of a great writer as well. Where this process of distillation and refinement is skillful and empathetic, it can result in fiction that resonates with the ring of truth—feels, in other words, authentic. Where such theft is blatant, and, especially, where creative and technical rigor are wanting, the storytelling will reek of dishonesty, coming off as little more than a cynical mercenary endeavor.

A good deal of contemporary genre fiction is based on what I call synthetic experience—think the classic “if a Martian were going to write an erotic romance” hypothetical. Synthetic experience consists of things a sheltered aspiring author might pick up from reading a general encyclopedia, or every title in the romance or mystery or historical fiction sections, watching cop shows or legal dramas on TV, or playing intense first-person-shooter video games. (I always think of the late Father Andrew Greeley trying to write steamy sex scenes in those sickly self-righteous sacerdotal soap-operas of his, which always felt forced and artificial.) Still, there’s nothing technically dishonest or even “wrong” with an author drawing from what is in effect a shared cultural wellspring, and such stories, when well researched and plotted, can be quite entertaining. A deliberate, critical reading of this type of fiction is generally not what I would consider a deeply rewarding endeavor, however. The author is simply too detached, too glibly dispassionate to strike a deeply resonant chord--the language seems "borrowed".  (Personally, very little pisses me off faster than stilted, coyly-written historical fiction, though desiccated-BS techno-thrillers by jingoist wannabe-soldiers and armchair martinets run a close second.)

Observed experience is what so many writers rely upon for their ideas. Shy people with sharp, insatiably curious minds, sitting in corners, listening and watching, soaking in the scene. Writing based on this kind of acute, sometimes brutally honest third-person observation can have the electric thrill of voyeurism, it can be revelatory, startlingly perceptive, trenchant, deeply enlightening. But there is a fine line between other lives honestly observed and stolen experience, that is, simply co-opting another person’s story without permission and telling it from a first-person point of view as if it were one’s own—like a baroquely fictionalized serial killer wearing their victim’s face for a mask. In effect a writer “plagiarizes” another person’s life-narrative, if not their literal words. Technically this may not be illegal, but it certainly raises—or ought to arouse—a number of heavily-charged ethical conundra. The question that concerns us here is this: Are writers being dishonest or stealing experience when they write from the POV of a different gender, or sexual orientation, or culture, or race other than their own, or are they merely—more or less innocently—relating synthetic or observed experience?

One of the most attractive and compelling aspects of working in the erotica genre is the license writers are granted as a matter of course to explore all manner of diverse points-of-view. It is not at all uncommon for authors to assume the guise of the other in this genre. It is practically expected of an author who would be regarded as particularly talented or versatile. To be sure, this “mask-changing” is such an accepted practice that we are sometimes taken aback when reminded that, for example, a man writing a female character is “writing the other”, or a woman writing a male character is also “writing the other”, just as surely as a middle-aged white male Midwesterner writing a young African-American woman from the deep south would be writing (and no doubt wronging!) the other.

As a public person, I have never pretended to be anything other than a visually-impaired middle-aged white male Midwesterner (though, thankfully, as an author not so monumentally, insufferably arrogant as to try anything like the last hypothetical example cited above). When writing about observed experience, approaching characters who are not like me in one way or another, I generally try to maintain a respectful distance by employing the third person—even though my point-of-view characters may be young, or female, or a person of color, or of another culture or ethnicity, or “unquestioningly-straight” or gay, or “abled”. Occasionally—however briefly—I’ve tried getting into the heads of “other-ly” characters, and I don’t know—because no one has thus far ever offered constructive feedback about it—if I’ve come off as authentic or phony, sincere or merely silly. All I know is that the story wanted to be told. The imagination, like the wind, takes me where it will, and I can choose to come along for the ride or not. The worst thing to be is afraid. I am never compelled to publish what I write after all—but  to self-censor before I even start writing would be the equivalent of creative suicide.

I frequently write in third person with female POV characters. The novel I’m currently working on with the aim of distilling some of my experience as an ex-Catholic and monastic postulent, is told from the POV of a young woman from rural Nebraska who becomes a nun, all the while struggling with her natural hyper-sexual drives against the rigid demands of her family and her faith. I feel that I know Gretchen, her people and her place well enough to tell my story through her. Catholicism is a shared ethos, and we have breathed the same cultural air. I have struggled with the same spiritual and sexual demons (physically manifested in the novel), the same cognitive disonances where natural desire and the expectations of celibacy are concerned, and I have been an unwelcome outsider in the stuffy, insular world of clerical culture. She and I have spoken the same language, and I think I may have some insight into how she feels, too. I believe I can write this character honestly because, in many ways, she is me. Where a non-fiction account of my real experience would simply put people to sleep, by employing Gretchen as “a metaphor for myself” (to borrow an idea from author Emily Tilton), I can add layers of imagination, richness, and vibrant color to what is, in essence, a true story.

Then too,  once in a great while, as in my story Becoming Roxanne I try my hand (or head) at female first-person. I would not dare to do this with just any female character. The 17-year-old girl of the title is from a place I know fairly well, and the sort of cultural and socio-economic mileau with which I am reasonably conversant. I’ve met and talked to lots of young woman like Lois/Roxanne;  I have at least a little insight into their thinking, their backstories and their hopes for the future, their dreams and desires. In this story, as in A Girl From White City (from the same collection), I wanted to capture something of the breathless, overwhelming desire a young woman feels (very different from the way a young man experiences desire, at least based on my observations). My curiosity to know what Roxanne’s feelings “feel like” spurs me to take a risk with this story. I have tried my best to be honest, even if I cannot guarantee that what is on the page will always strike the reader as authentic. In any case, I could not—and would not—try something similar with characters who were too far removed from my understanding and experience.

In the end, I say be bold! Write what you know in the broadest possible sense, but never fear to let the imagination soar!


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