Wednesday, August 20, 2014

50 Shades of .. What?: What Will Your Writing Legacy Be?

For a few years, many writers have kept silent about the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Gray, by E.L. James. The phenomenon is baffling on many levels, and frightening on several. While the general public obsesses, many in the writing world silently shake their heads and go about their own business; after all, criticizing another published writer is a tricky business - one doesn't want to look like an ass. But sometimes, a book is so bad, and its success such an interesting contradiction to logic, that one feels more comfortable discreetly expressing misgivings. And sometimes, some brilliant non-writer says what we are all thinking.

Consider a review of Fifty Shades that I read today. The reader who left this review on Amazon should really look into comic writing herself. She makes her points concisely, with examples, and finishes with a flourish of humor that Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde would have envied. I offer it here, because it touches on some excellent points, and can lead to some interesting discussion.

First I'd like to make the point that, regardless of the questionable literary merit of this book, the author is laughing all the way to the bank - as the feature film is finally in production. She wrote two books as sequels to this one. From a marketing standpoint, the entire thing - from the writing of a fairly badly-penned book, to its pre-sales publicity and continued marketing - has been a stroke of genius. I assume it was a sort of perfect storm of the ripe time for the subject matter from a sociological standpoint, the right literary agent who knew it would be sold, the right publisher who knew how to market it.

But various groups have raised ethical concerns about the book. Those who work for women's rights point out that it takes us backward. Those who advocate for victims of sexual violence decry its celebration of violent sex. Those who participate in the real BDSM culture worry that their ideology is grossly misrepresented in the hands of an author who apparently understood little about it (not to mention little about real human psychology). All of these are valid concerns. As a writer and former journalist, I had to take the position that the ethical tone of a controversial book should always be fodder for discussion (and I certainly was happy to see that happen when I released Gentlemen's Game) - one may criticize the way the writing was executed, but not the writer's thoughts. (Although perhaps we might point out her obvious inadequate research.)  So . . . I'd like to address the book's execution, in the interest of pointing out for my readers what she did wrong, and why it matters.  

I struggled through the book rolling my eyes, for many of the same reasons the review's author cites. It is structurally a mess (this despite the fact that the publisher's editors likely took a turn at spiffing it up for publication - you can't make a diamond out of mud). The author of the review above makes the point that the tone is very adolescent: this is a pet peeve of mine in "romance" and erotic romance. Writers, if you want your characters to feel like adults, you have to be narrating in an adult frame of mind. If you are uncomfortable in writing sexuality in an adult way, it shows. Be honest with yourself about your comfort level. When you shy away from real, adult sexual relationships, you might do what is common, and fall back upon speaking in an adolescent way as you narrate, tiptoeing around the subject, wincing. Readers will know it. And they won't respect the narrator's voice, or the story. 

Your characters, when you write romantic scenes, must be behaving according to their age group. Teens have a specific way of socializing with those to whom they are physically attracted; they have specific social activities, specific ways of flirting, specific ways of using language to relate to one another.  Adults do it all differently, due to a better sense of themselves and what they want, and more sexual confidence. Make sure that your characters as adults behave like adults, use words and phrases that adults would use.  

The writer of the review grew impatient with the many instances of the heroine's pointedly childishly coy behavior: blushing, batting eyes, biting lips, juvenile language. It was not only terribly repetitive (showing lack of creativity in the author) but it was something we have all seen before. Besides making the heroine play like a teen (and the reader subconsciously respects the teen less than an adult, simply by virtue of a teen having less of the kind of wisdom that only comes from having the time to mature), and a rather silly one at that, these behaviors should not be written because they are blatant clichés - we have heard them a million times in other badly-written books over decades.  What happens with clichés is that, as they are used again and again and again over decades, they lose meaning. The reader's mind skims over them, because they convey nothing new or interesting. Think of clichés as the murder of creativity, the evidence of lazy writing. As an editor, I'm tough about them - I recommend to a client that they rewrite the passage or chapter and lose the clichés and make an effort to use original language when describing a character's behavior. The result is inevitably a much more interesting scene. You want a character to be unique and interesting to the reader, and they just can't be if they are always aping some old behavior cliché. Someone should have told E.L.James all of this, and encouraged her to put originality into her portraits of characters - it would have added much more (badly needed) depth. 

The same would apply to clichés in descriptions of scenes. People tend to fall back on clichés when they are uncomfortable - as when writing violence, sex, or romantic scenes. (A client will giggle, "I just didn't know how else to say it!")  Part of learning to write well is to learn to call original imagery into your mind and put it on the page in words and phrases that are original. Some of the best scenes I have read that were sexual or scenes of intense violence, were not just descriptions of what went down, but rather passages in which the writer used original imagery (a curtain at the window wafting in the wind, a scent in the air, unusual words spoken), and/or metaphor to make the scene unforgettable. As a reader, which sticks in your mind long after you put a book down? - a scene with a simple description of the usual events in a sex act, or a scene like this one, a glorious sex scene by LAMBA-award winning writer, Erasmo Guerra? This is from his novel Between Dances:

Tonight, however, he felt the words rise from his tongue like spontaneous hymns and they gathered at the roof of his mouth. The words were as delicate and pure as pale Eucharistic wafers. Marco became Sunday School boy, make the signs of the cross, holy water and old marking head, heart and lips. He felt the heat of Jaime's breath evaporating his own, drawing it from out of his lungs and leaving him gasping, mouth dilating like that of a fish out of water.
Jaime lay under him, his face pressed hard against the pillow, moaning sweet sounds like a call to prayer. Marco came on bloodied knees, chest pounding under beating fists, fears burning away like incense. 

Now, Guerra could have written this scene with straight description - which no doubt would have resorted to clichés: one lover talking dirty to the other, the other face down on the bed. It would not have been near as interesting; it would have taken the reader to a place they had been a thousand times. Yawn. But this... this is written so originally, that not only is the language itself as lovely as a song, but it stretches the reader's imagination, and conveys an image of the scene that stretches the reader's mind into a place he has not yet traveled in a book. That is the mark of an experienced, sensitive, and gifted writer. That is what all great writers strive to be able to do. 

E. L. James has made and will make, a helluva lot of money. But that is the end of the legacy. She won't be remembered as an exceptional writer, and may in many quarters be remembered as a very bad one. The book won't be quoted in years to come in literary discussion. It won't be used in classrooms. It will end when something else more daring comes along - one cultural fad inevitably replacing another. The likes of daytime talk show hosts proclaim it as the instigator of new discussions about sexuality. I would point out that erotica has been written for years - and much better. Surely we already have discussions about sexuality born of better sources. Maybe the biggest lesson is that many women (and some men) just need to get out more - and read a wider range of books. Or that erotic romance needs to break into mainstream book retail outlets more than it has. 

My point is, each of us must decide what sort of writer we want to be, and what we want the legacy of our hard work to be. Well-written books have the power to move the imagination in ways that E.L. James cannot understand. If Fifty Shades had been well-written, imagine what it could have meant to the future of erotic literature. And how many more readers would have enjoyed it, and how much longer it would last, long after the feature film is old news. Imagine what a better reader experience it could have offered.