Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why? Why why why why?

Why is the average quality of f/f out there so LAME?

Okay, perhaps I'm being needlessly bitchy, but I recently purchased two books by Publisher Who Shall Not Be Named, one an f/f/m and the other an f/f/f. They were shorter works sold in the erotica section of an online bookstore, there was a sale going on that took a nice chunk off the cover price (which was more than I was willing to pay for works of that length) and being a glutton for punishment, I figured what the hey? Why not give them a whirl?

I mean, I'd stumbled across another short from PWSNBN (by a different author) during a giveaway recently, and it was damn good. Not everyone's cuppa, for sure, being a brother/sister story--not usually my cuppa, either, to be honest, but the story was well-written enough that the taboo of a brother and sister getting it on felt titillating and naughty and just dirty enough to jive with my mood when I read it. In fact, it was one of the better-crafted short erotica works I've read in a while.

And I'm pretty much open to anything if it's competently written--you know, with basic things like comprehensible grammar and proper word usage, as well as more advanced things like good character development, recognizable conflict, understandable motivation and a little thing called a plot, however simple it might be. I could not only accept the possibility that such a thing could happen between these two characters, I could envision it happening exactly the way it did, and despite the questionable nature of the sexual relationship, the sex itself was tender and evocative, as well as taboo and a little nasty because of that.

So being the brave soul that I am, I gave these two f/f books a try. And I want my $4 back.

The first--a contemporary f/f/m menage? Well, I'd like to tell you the f/f action was smoking hot--and maybe it was. But I don't know, because I couldn't force myself to read past page 3. Yes, page 3. I couldn't even make it to the first sex scene.

The first off-putter was the weakness of the writing: passive voice galore, too many adjectives, purple prose (when you're sitting there thinking the author used a thesaurus ten times for every page, it's too much. Not every verb needs to be a strong one, not every adjective needs to be unusual, and "salivated" is not--repeat, NOT--a dialog tag), POV issues (like when a character thinks of him/herself in ways people just don't--like the color of their hair or whether they're handsome), chronological problems (are we in a flashback? Hell if I know), and headhopping. The descriptive focus was...interesting. If I hadn't read the author bio, I'd have sworn the author was male. The last time I found such a detailed description of a woman's physical appearance (from her lip-gloss right down to the color of her toenail polish) without any description of WHO she is as a PERSON, was in a Penthouse letter.

I couldn't read any further. I just couldn't do it. There could have been scorching, down-and-dirty, girl on girl on guy scenes every page for the rest of the book, but it wasn't worth the pain of reading them. It just wasn't. Sigh.

The second book, an f/f/f, was hardly better. The writing was no more technically competent, though the lack of purple prose made it easier to read, and the descriptive focus was more non-existent than irritating. Plus, it was shorter. I managed to get all the way through. Still, I had to wonder if the author had even a basic (grade three?) grasp of grammar, and there were word-usage issues that were not simply typos (I can understand the breath/breathe thing, or the effect/affect thing, but when you have errors like perpetrate/perpetuate or palpable/pliable or whatever, it reminds me of an episode of Jerry Springer I watched once where one of the guests used the word "pensive" completely incorrectly, and then in the next ten minutes, four other guests used it in the exact same, incorrect way. Stupidity, it is contagious).

There was a little character development--just enough to make me not like any of the characters. One was an opportunistic sociopath who was happy to take sexual advantage of her friend's drunken state, the other was a passive wimp, and the "villain?" was little more than a dildo strapped to a mannequin. Again, I don't need to like every MC--some of my favorite MCs in books I've read have been total douchebags with almost no attractive traits to convey any sense of humanity. In fact, I adore the anti-heroes that abound in fantasy novels, like those written by Stephen Donaldson or George RR Martin, protagonists who are driven by their weaknesses and self-hate. But when you can't even tell who the protagonist of the story is, even after you're done, you know there's a problem.

There was no goal, motivation or realistic internal conflict to speak of--other than getting laid. The story had all the compelling drama of a really lame porn movie--like the kind where the pizza guy arrives and the housewife says, "oh, I don't have any money on me, whatever shall I do?" only without the bow-chicka-wow-wow to distract you from the bad acting.

The sex scenes were full of continuity problems (whaaa? How the hell can she put her mouth there when they're in this position? Wait a minute, I thought she was bent over the desk), pronoun confusion (who's doing the what now?), and a complete focus on physicality over emotion. I mean, things don't have to be all lovey-dovey--I'm a board-certified dirty old man, ffs, it's not like I need every sex scene to be a love scene--but for sex scenes to work there needs to at least be lust, even if it's of the unwholesome, dirty, nasty, leave a bad taste in your mouth variety. For an example of non-lovey-dovey, nasty f/f/m erotica that's emotionally gorgeous, I'd suggest The Dinner Party by Remittance Girl--I believe the theme of that was perfectly conveyed in the phrase "the corruption of innocence" and damn was it ever hot.

But nope. Nothing. No emotion, just lots of licking, fingering, dildo usage and orgasms. And with zero sexual tension, the orgasms fall flat. I mean, I suppose I could rub myself off to images of myself folding laundry and I'd get off eventually, but I'd rather think of things that make me feel emotions like, um...desire, maybe? Lust? Naughty titillation? Horrid, nasty humiliation? Shame? Shit, gimme something.

Sigh. So why is it that you can find a brother/sister incest story that's competently and engagingly written, yet the f/f stories put out by the same damn publisher have all the literary flair of the sex journal entries of a 14-year-old, illiterate boy with a bloodstream full of THC and fixation with boobies? Why?

I mean, PWSNBN has a whole list of "editorial staff", and yet I can't imagine either of these stories would have made it out of the slush-pile at my own beloved Samhain. If they had, by the time they'd endured the indignity of multiple content and line edits, they'd have been honed like soldiers, stripped of all their wannabe pride by repeated and focussed calling out of their inadequacies--"you call that a dialog tag, private!?? My six-year-old daughter could come up with a better euphemism for fucking! Drop and give me twenty words for pussy, move move move!!!"--and rebuilt into the perfect instruments for one-handed reading.

If this is the editorial offered at PWSNBN, well, I have to say I'm unimpressed. I'm guessing that the author of the incest story is rather like me--my manuscripts don't require much effort from my editor (one reason why she likes me so much)--and the book was mostly publishable right out of the slush pile.

But it's a common problem with f/f. The money, it isn't so great. Not compared to, say, m/m/f. It's largely a labor of love, and I'd imagine most writers who know their craft and have dabbled in it simply move onto more lucrative things.

But at the same time, I have to wonder if publishers who put out this kind of dreck aren't shooting f/f in the foot. I mean, I can see readers who don't think about the technical aspects of writing reading stories like this and assuming it's not the shitty craft turning them off, but the nature of the content, and not trying another f/f. More is not necessarily better, not if it's just more crap.


LVLM said...

Amen Sistah! snort

You are so preaching to the choir in my case. And I think I'm even more tolerant than you, not knowing writerly offenses like more complex grammar issues and so on.

But I've noticed that the quality of f/f out there just sucks pigs butt compared to m/f, m/m, which could be a case of lack of material to begin with. But the ratio of suck pigs butt to wow, that was effing fantastic is high on the suck pigs butt side. Ugh.

Scarlett Parrish said...

God, I love this post.

(Hi, by the way - just discovered your blog the other day while pootling around the blogosphere).

Sent the link to a friend who's in the middle of writing a F/F novel.

Haven't read much F/F myself because I just can't find it - M/M and M/M/F seems to be the hot thing right now.

Hopefully that'll change - not to knock manlove off the bookshelves, but more F/F is needed in my opinion!

M. A. said...

Oh darn. I'm sorry. I know how it feels to invest time/money in a book and find it lacking in professional quality.

But nope. Nothing. No emotion, just lots of licking, fingering, dildo usage and orgasms. And with zero sexual tension, the orgasms fall flat. I mean, I suppose I could rub myself off to images of myself folding laundry and I'd get off eventually, but I'd rather think of things that make me feel emotions like, um...desire, maybe? Lust? Naughty titillation? Horrid, nasty humiliation? Shame? Shit, gimme something.

I think "porn with plot" sex scenes are a hallmark of inexperience. I know my earliest erotica efforts were "wrong" because they put ME off when I'd re-read and edit them. But I could never figure out WHY they were wrong, and I was just very lucky that a mentor demonstrated to me the importance of weaving emotion and sensation into erotic description.

I recently read a disappointment where the dichotomy between the erotica and the non-erotica flabbergasted me. The non-erotic writing was very good. VERY good. In the opening chapters I got a good sense of the characters, scene and setting, purpose and motive.

When the erotica occured, I honestly wondered if a different author wrote it. The scenes were rife with typos and poor editorial, the characters lost ALL individuality and personality, they were like cardboard figures or something. Much of the erotica didn't make sense, either.

I think some authors interested into tapping into the erotica market don't understand that writing good erotica ain't easy. Erotica is an art form, its purpose is to titillate the reader, but it must also engage the reader's senses and emotions.

This kind of poor writing isn't exclusive to F/F. The book I'm citing was a M/F erotic novella.

I think several factors are responsible for lower-quality books. Authors who want to earn a living writing are churning manuscripts out faster. I'm not claiming prolific writers write poorly, but I've followed two former favorite authors who release a novel or a novella every 4-8 weeks, and I've noticed declining quality. Things like repetitive storylines, less complexity and originality in plot and characterization. This month's book reads pretty much like last month's book with adjustments to pertinent details (i.e. character names and physical descriptions, new setting.)

I also see a lot of style over substance or "bullsh*t writing." Some writers with a competent grasp of the craft are producing books with lots of florid, ultraviolet prose and overdone description as a substitute for storytelling. When the opening paragraph to a new release is a florid, overdone description to a character's eye color or eyelashes, I can't help thinking the author is "tired" or has "run out of steam" and needs a break. They've got no story to tell, but they want another book on the market, so they substitute well-written non-storytelling for a novel.

Finds like this actually peeve me MORE than amateur, underdeveloped writing. When I come across a "dud" book where the writer is obviously not at a competency to meet professional standards, I feel bad for the writer and my ire is more directed to the publisher and/or editorial team. When I read a "dud" by a proven, capable writer, I feel intense personal anger toward the writer for not caring enough about readers to offer them their money's worth.

kirsten saell said...

Well, Leah, I think grammar issues can and do really stand out even to non-writers. Same with goal/motivation/conflict and character development. Readers often know there's a problem, they just don't always quite know exactly what it is. They just know the story isn't working for them.

And it sucks that great writers and great publishers so often can't be bothered with f/f. Because there's so little of it out there, if you want to read any amount of it, you're going to have to take what you can get. And because the really good publishers don't put out much of it, it falls to the less competent houses to publish it. Those houses probably put out a lot of horrible m/f and m/m books, but no one has to buy them because those kinds of books are everywhere.

And the ratio of shit to shiny might be no better for other kinds of books, either. If there are a thousand m/f books released each year, even if the ratio is 1 great:10 good:100 shitty, if you're careful you can read for a year without having to read any crap. With 1/10 of that number (or less) of f/f released, the ratio of good to bad has to be a lot higher if you want to read more than one decent book a year.

I hate it. I really do. And I should really get writing again. Be the change, man!

kirsten saell said...

Hi, Scarlett, and welcome. Obviously, pootling around the blogosphere is something more people should do if it leads them here. And thanks for spreading the word about our little blog!

I don't knock manlove, either. I don't quite get why it's so popular, or understand the headspace of some of its most avid fangirls, but as an equal opportunity reader and writer, I've read it and written it and enjoy it when it's done well.

And I hear you on not being able to find f/f. There's so little of it published, and publishers often kind of hide it among a morass of m/m. And they don't always label it properly--I once did a search for a specific book on a pub's site, and despite the fact that the book was f/f/m menage where one heroine was basically straight and the other bi, the only search term that spit it out was "lesbian". I tried f/f, f/f/m, m/f/f, f/m/f, bisexual, bi-female, menage, and nothing. Way to kill a book--make it so the people looking for it won't find it, and people looking for lesbian romance find a f/f/m with nary a lesbian in it.

That said, there are good f/f books out there, and that's why we started this blog. To help give readers some guidance in finding decent reads, and hopefully get publishers to start marketing their f/f properly, even if they don't put out any more of it.

kirsten saell said...

Hey, Mia,

In the author's defence, that f/f/m was her debut book. And I think it was supposed to be humorous as well, but if it was, the humor fell really flat.

And I hear you on authors falling into the success trap. I don't know that there are enough stories in me to be able to consistently write five books a year, even if I had the time. And I won't take the short-cut of writing the same book over and over again. Maybe it's because I'm a pantser rather than a plotter--I can't write to an outline, so it follows that I don't write to a formula, either.

These books, well, I'm not mad at the authors. I'm mad at PWSNBN. They're supposed to be the gatekeepers, they're supposed to vet what gets published so we readers aren't all stuck wading through the slushpile. What good are they if they can't tell shit from decent, and if they can't be bothered to polish something to the point where it's half-decent before they release it?


M. A. said...

They're supposed to be the gatekeepers, they're supposed to vet what gets published so we readers aren't all stuck wading through the slushpile. What good are they if they can't tell shit from decent, and if they can't be bothered to polish something to the point where it's half-decent before they release it?

I think the problem is more evident with f/f due to it's being a niche market, but I don't think it's exclusive.

Editors can only do so much. A poor manuscript can't be "polished and perfected" to a good manuscript. Although I applaud epublishing for opening doors to talented authors who had little opportunity in the more restrictive print publishing market, I don't think it would hurt epubs to be more selective and discriminating. A competent publisher should be able to read a partial and determine if the writing is professional in quality. If it's not, but the publisher still likes the story, the publisher can always send it back with requests for the author to polish things up. Editors can't fix bad writing or substandard writing.

I just don't know. I've bought more than my share of substandard books despite very careful sleuthing and shopping on my part. And some books I consider true garbage are raved about on review sites. It's hard to gage what the reading public really wants.

Jill Sorenson said...

I hear ya! I really can't enjoy writing that isn't polished. I think we need an f/f Josh Lanyon. A female crime-solving couple or quality series of some sort to give the subgenre a much-needed boost.

Part of the popularity of m/m is that it appeals to (some) gay men and (many) straight women--big audiences. Romantic f/f doesn't seem to be a hit with lesbians or straight men. Small audience, low sales, few enticements for good authors.

M. A. said...

Part of the popularity of m/m is that it appeals to (some) gay men and (many) straight women--big audiences. Romantic f/f doesn't seem to be a hit with lesbians or straight men. Small audience, low sales, few enticements for good authors.

I guess what I don't understand is why M/M romance is "in" but F/F romance is "out" with the romance genre's main consumer (women.)

A good romance is a good romance is a good romance. I'm not sure what makes F/F so "taboo" compared to other romance.

LVLM said...

Romantic f/f doesn't seem to be a hit with lesbians or straight men.

Yes, it seems that many lesbians prefer to read m/f or m/m than f/f. One girl explained that on a thread on DA about romance and the double standard for heroines. She said that she's more critical of f/f because if it's not written right, she hates it. Kind of like how in that thread straight women were bitching about heroines that don't represent them.

I think she had a point on that. I'm more critical of heroines in m/f romance. Although I've bitched quite a bit about f/f in which the characters do nothing but emo all over the place.

And I can see that most of the people coming and commenting on this blog are straight or bi women. No lesbians are really coming here or commenting I think because f/f is not their thing. Either they want pure lesbian content, which reflects who they are and they can feel comfortable knowing that the reviewers or blog is supportive of their life, which doesn't include men. Or they read stuff that they can relax and enjoy without having to be confronted with their reality with, like m/f or m/m.

I like f/f because it is a nice fantasy. So far, it's not my reality so I'm a lot more forgiving of it or more interested in it because it's something attractive but unknown to me. So i can see it from the other end

So I think you are right Jill, there's not much of a market unfortunately.

M.A.- I hear ya. It doesn't make sense to me. You'd think that being a woman, you'd get another women and fall in love easily. But then also from that DA thread, I get that women are their own worst enemies and keep perpetuating the negative stereotypes of women in romance heroines.

It follows that women would not want to read about women in love then if you not all about promoting the better aspects of your own sex.