By Letitia Coyne
Posted July 19, 2012
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I was ready to write about reviewers and the need to balance literary markers in a story against the specific guidelines that define a genre, so a meaningful review is more than just ‘I liked this book’ or not. Seeing ‘this was a romance and I hate romance so I gave it two stars’ bugs me.
But while I was looking at reviews, I found a one star review of the series of books popularly known as ‘mommy porn’ and I got sidetracked. You will find the review virally all over the social media networks or at Goodreads if you want to search for it. It’s detailed and funny and a bit crass, with lots of moving pictures – [praise be the free use of images on the net. If anyone is watching film copyright, that review is packing an invoice for thousands of dollars in use and breach.] I’m not going to link to it and I’ll tell you why.
Since I intend to leave the uber-popular series unnamed, no press is bad press, I’ll leave it to your imagination and when I need an example I’ll drag out poor Stephenie Meyer and use her fine work.
I read an interesting article about the books being a catalyst for discussion on the role of pain in the modern world, but in truth, I have not seen such meaningful subjects drawn from its pages. I have seen a replay of the Twilight rants, with basically two sides: one – I love it, it’s hot; and the other – boo, hiss, crap, badly written etc.
The only time I have heard anyone try to determine why it has swept the world was a brief rant in New Statesman on the theory that it is criticised because it is porn, porn for women of a certain age, and mums aren’t supposed to read porn. All porn is badly written, it is argued, so what? This is titillation and fun for the taboo read – especially in ebooks where no one can see the cover.
I can’t agree with that. The digital fiction world is filled to brimming with erotica of all kinds, much of it written by authors who know the genre and who understand the specifics and appeal of various fetishes. Even the simple category romances on supermarket shelves, usually the ones with scarlet on the covers, are racy to a greater or lesser degree. Romance, especially erotic romance, has always sold well. Rarely however, do we see a single title raised across all marketing divides to claim the world’s, read media’s, attention.
When Twilight was released, as I have pointed out before, it emerged in a flood of positive press and raving reviews in newspapers and journals of repute. It had been established as the must-read before it began to draw the fierce criticisms it is now so well known for. Once those criticisms began, rather than losing impetus, the Twilight saga flared brighter by the day, with negative press only serving to fuel the fires. In a short space of time readers were given to believe they were the only living soul who had not read the books, and consequently were unable to join the debates on its merits or otherwise.
Readers of any publishing phenomenon must fall into two categories: those who have read and those who have not read. Have not read is no barrier to criticism and comment in today’s free range broadcast arenas. Those who have will have formed their own opinion and will, honestly or not, discuss that with their groups depending on what they consider to be the consensus. Those who have not will fall into three other categories. Those who want to read, those who will not read, and those who might but are undecided. Those who want to read have already been affected by the raging hype, those who will not have also been affected, and both groups will only read reviews to ensure they are supported by like minded individuals.
The undecideds are the only group who matter. They are as likely to be moved to read by negative hype as by positive. Many will say, ‘I have to read this for myself to know how I feel’ rather than being put off by savage attacks. Multiple one star reviews on Joe Blog’s latest KDP epic are likely to have him languish unread, but once the tinder is lit under these huge marketing locomotives, no press is bad press. Once the spark has made them viral and they are ripping up the internet chat sites and forums and facebook and G+ and youtube etc, every word about them stokes the blaze.
The brilliant one star review I mentioned first will not deter many at all. It might well prompt a whole group of will not reads to join the ranks of the have reads if only to see if it really is that bad.
The goal is to have everyone feel like they must be involved in the discussion. Virality and the need to be involved are not rare. Everyone knows the sneezing panda, the cynical kid, and the Boromir ‘one does not simply …’ memes. But these are 24hr fevers. They flash up, run amok, and disappear. They have no fuel under them.
Twilight emerged from a vast pool of supernatural romance which began, if I recall, with Silhouette Shadows and its like in about 1992. It was by no means unique; neither did it bring any literary excellence, nor did it bring any more adolescent angst than many other books, nor did it draw on any fabulous sensual tension. It was not outstanding in any way. Neither is this newly phenomenal title outstanding among erotica titles.
It is often pointed out that our failing education system and declining literacy is to blame, especially when our less literate YAs are consuming an enormous amount of written material from sites like Wattpad. Young people on the net are reading and writing more, if not correctly, than ever before and they no longer recognise quality, it is said. More importantly, however, our education system has failed to teach us all to think critically about and to question what is driving our thoughts and reactions.
Why do we keep trudging around the millwheel of arguments about the merits of these phenomena instead of asking why, or who decides which books, bands, movies, etc will get the big splash of gold?
The unnamed series appears to me to be a marketer’s ideal – as if someone in sales said, erotica is popular, [just as they once said, YA supernatural romance is popular] – and they looked for an author to fit. MMF, LGBT and BDSM are the most popular erotica subjects out there now, and BDSM is least likely to alienate any part of the market. Rape fantasy is still considered, rightly or wrongly, to be the number one female erotic fantasy. If their chosen author did not know anything about erotica or BDSM or narcissism or misogyny, well, who’ll care? Marketers do not know about them either; it’s about shifting units and mass market manipulation, not literature. If the author knows nothing about literary techniques and 101 rules for writing, again, who’ll care?
In the end, no one.
Because the more people talk about the title, and argue and ridicule or rave about and recommend, the more they willingly do the work of an army of Mad Men. And no doubt those Mad Men have Google stats to monitor just how often the title is mentioned out here in the ether.
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