Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Lesfic Boomtown Foretold: A Cautionary Tale by Salem West


We are here.
The Rainbow Reader is primarily a blog that features book reviews, but as the evil mastermind behind the Pretty, Witty & Gay brand, I like to think it serves a wider purpose: to get readers to think more critically about what they are reading, to get authors to write more readable books, and to get publishers to offer a higher quality of product.

It was not so many years ago that we, as lesbians, were thankful to have a whispered voice in literature. 

It came wrapped in brown butcher’s paper with no return address. It sat on the bottom bookshelf on the back wall of some small, nondescript bookstore somewhere. It rarely dared to view the bright light of day, much less dream of a life lived within the hallowed halls of small town libraries or college classrooms across the land.

With all due respect to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, “…time changes everything.”

Today, lesbian fiction is a thriving art and commerce, and it’s once whispered voice has become a full-throated warble—authors are bursting out of the proverbial closet, readers are gleefully buying books in bushel baskets, and publishers are releasing unprecedented volumes of titles in every size, shape, and flavor imaginable. Colleges and universities the world over are offering classes in queer literature, and companies like Follett Library Resources and Ingram Content Group are providing physical and digital lesbian content to more than 40,000 retailers, libraries, schools and distribution partners in 195 countries.

Heck, lesbian fiction has become such a hot commodity, that even straight writers are cashing in on the voracious appetite of the fiction-starved lesbian reader.

However, this is a cautionary tale…

Growth is a good thing. But too much growth too quickly can easily overwhelm an industry, and put it at high risk of collapsing (with all due credit to Eddie Izzard) like a flan in a cupboard.

Simply put, unchecked expansion can cause big problems. Think "too much change, too fast," the prophetic thesis set forth in the bestseller, Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. A huge rise in product demand combined with overly ambitious plans to forge new sales markets, expand production, and offer new product lines—can easily compromise or topple any number of entities within that expanding industry.  

Take for instance, the case of how mighty Toyota Motor's unchecked growth led to safety issues and massive recalls, which then resulted in a significant and ongoing loss of market share. Toyota had traditionally focused on safety, quality and volume, in that order. Yet, by their own admission, those priorities became skewed, and corporate decision-makers were not able to stop, think, and make improvements as much as they were able to before. In essence, they pursued growth over the speed at which the company was able to develop their people, their products, and their organizational structure. Toyota executives, like many at flourishing companies, lost sight of the mission that paved the way for initial success.

As an avid reader, I have been consuming lesbian fiction for the better part of my adult life.

However, as a reviewer, I have been focusing on the finer technical and editorial points of lesfic for the last two years. As much as I try, I can’t review every book that comes my way. Still, I read plenty of books that are never in contention for reviews—these are books that end up on my “readlist” for myriad reasons. On the one hand, I have witnessed an exciting explosion of talented authors flooding the landscape while the number of available and easily accessed titles has grown exponentially. And, on the other hand, I have slogged my way through more scarcely conceived, poorly written, barely edited pieces of flotsam than I can count.

That last line sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it?

It’s meant to be.

Regardless of which side you take in the great More Sex/Less Sex/No Sex Debate, story quality and readability are suffering. Grammar has become an option, idioms are horribly mangled, em and en dashes are used with reckless abandon, dangling participles have reached epidemic proportions, comma splices are enthusiastically embraced, spell check is nearing obsolescence, and perfectly good subjunctives are butchered for no plausible reason. Conflict is grossly contrived. Milquetoast characters populate a landscape that is far too often skewed toward unbalanced narrative, and then littered with choppy dialogue. And authors randomly violate the logic of their narrative points of view.

So it is perfectly clear, that this is (mostly) an industry-wide pandemic.

It affects not only self-published authors and micropublishers, but also the lesfic industry leaders. Authors and publishers who are too focused on swelling revenue, increased publicity, and pressing production rates run the risk of overlooking what made the readers flock to their books in the first place. And, as the novelty of the All You Can Read Lesfic Bar phenomena begins to wear off for the readers, it will be those few publishers and authors who have paid attention to detail, adopted sustainable publishing and writing practices, and emphasized quality that will survive.

Why?

Quality never goes out of style.

This is a cautionary tale.

22 comments:

  1. Brings back fond memories of the Emperor's New Clothes. This is a timely article, given the backyard conversations occurring within interweb communities and, I suspect, in many private conversations. As reader,writers, and publishers, we are fortunate to have a wealth of material from which we can choose. Books are available for almost every taste. It's unprecedented.
    I don't have a answer, but I think you've offered an opportunity for some thoughtful discussions. Thanks for caring about our collective legacy and the "signs we leave" --as Jewelle Gomez urged us to provide.
    Barrett

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    1. Ms. MacBean! Thanks for swinging by TRR and sitting a spell. I agree, if the answer were easy, some bright soul out there would have clued the rest of us in by now.

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  2. More than timely ... and as a frequent reader I can only agree and BTW if you dare to write a review and point out that some books might be not 5 stars worth you run the risk of being stoned to death. Lynne Pierce made a similar point not long ago: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2013/05/08/legislation-introduced-to-stop-va-executive-bonuses/?wprss=rss_politics

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for stopping by and making your voice heard. I read Lynne's great little piece, and fully support her opinions—it took a lot of courage for her to put that out. It's a fact that some books will just be better than others. However, I don't see the bar being raised so much as being discounted. If we take the time to listen to the voices of the consumers, they are talking about this very issue every day. Sometimes, less is more.

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  3. I've been having this same conversation publicly and privately for a while now. It's damn good to hear you saying it out loud, Salem. A little discernment from readers and writers in the lesfic genre would go a long way. Don't settle for less that well-written stories - there are enough writers now who are perfectly willing and able to deliver. Let the rest drop away so I, for one, can stop being so embarrassed.

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    1. Kate, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on the subject. How's the old saying go? "Admitting you have a problem is the first step." Well, this is our opportunity as an industry to take a hard look at ourselves, from the publishers to the authors, reviewers, and readers. We can all find ways to raise our expectations and our performances, and make what we have part of something truly special.

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  4. Michelle BrooksMay 9, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    I had to decide whether to stand and salute you, cheer loudly or give you a two thumbs up. I decided to go with the two thumbs up as it is the only option that allows me to continue typing, albeit much slower and will not wake my dog. I think he is dreaming about chasing rabbits and since he only has the opportunity to catch one in his dreams, I didn't want to disturb him. I have been involved in multiple discussions with other readers about the very subject you have raised. Many readers are thrilled with the increased availability of lesbian fiction but are frustrated with spending money for pablum filled pages. We have seen new writers emerge over the past few years who have provided readers with well written books and readers have responded by opening their wallets and purchasing these books in droves. There are also seasoned writers whose continued attention to quality has resulted in them maintaining a loyal fan base. The world of lesbian fiction is like a buffet. There is plenty that is tasty and satisfying and that which should come with a warning label. Readers discuss books with one another quite often and many times these discussions take place out of the earshot of authors. We have frank discussions about what we like and don't like. We may not always post our opinions in a public forum, but make no mistake, we are talking.

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  5. Hiya Michelle! You make a good point that a lot of reader discussions happen outside the earshot of authors and publishers. Hopefully this can help all the players find common ground in opening an honest dialogue that will, in turn, help us achieve that attention to detail, sustainable practices, and consistent quality that we all crave. Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. This is something that definitely needs consideration. Thanks for bringing it up. I just posted this link on my facebook with this comment: My to-read list keeps growing exponentially, but I think I'd rather have more 5-star books to reread than so many 2- or 3-star books.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Lisa. I think it's safe to say that we'd all like more top-notch books, but if it were easy, everyone would be a great author. We, as a group of women, are invested in the success of this business, and each of us, from the reader to the reviewer to the author and to the publisher, can all put forth the effort necessary to give ourselves the highest liklihood of greatest success years down the road.

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  7. Here, here, Salem. I've been raising the same issue on Lesfic_Unbound for years and now on my own blog. It's absolutely not fair to readers that they pay good money (I don't care if it's only 99 cents) and get a book that is full of mistakes and incomprehensible plot points. Finally, I'm starting to hear some voices saying the same thing. We should have an interesting panel at GCLS in June.

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    1. Lynne, I'm thrilled that you stopped by TRR, thanks. I've been aware of the many discussions over the years, and am hearing a cacophony of voices from top to bottom discussing the same points, over and over. When you hear hoofbeats, it's a good bet there is a horse nearby. Carleen's panel at GCLS should be a hot ticket. I look forward to it, as well.

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  8. Honest, thoughtful and kind critique goes a long way toward making our genre better. Thank you for what you do and know that there are lots of authors and readers alike who are listening to what you have to say. I try to learn something from every review so that I am able to improve every time I sit down to string some words together. Cheers to you and the lovely Ann.

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  9. Hi Bev, it's always a honor when you stop by TRR—thanks. Thanks also for your kind and thoughtful words. I believe it's safe to say that this industry means a lot to all of us, and that we all have a responsibility to carry our own share and see that the path is lighted for new readers and younger readers well into the future. Best to you and your lovely family, as well.

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  10. I enjoyed your last blog posting and following commentary. You are spot on, as usual and this does not just apply to the lesfic genre. I am an avid reader, bibliophage but not Nithling, of just about anything written. The advent of e-readers certainly entertains the pursuit of the written very well. However, it often leads to titles that leave one questioning not only the content but intent of the author. I am a storyteller, bard for wee kids, but not an author; I haven't the stones for it. I do try to give every book title a complete reading because the author placed him/herself into the thick of it and it only seems fair to not judge just read. Some titles are quite the slog, though. But as "just a reader", I do not necessarily feel I have the right to complain about less than 9th grade prose. I am also afraid to speak up at literary conventions for this same reason, so there is a history, sadly. Nonetheless, thank you for bringing up the point that as "just a reader", perhaps we SHOULD clamor more for quality than quantity. Cordially.

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  11. Hey SSL, thanks for stopping by TRR for a few minutes and weighing in on the subject matter. It's intimidating, especially in our small and closely knit literary community, to stand up with a dissenting voice. Still, every voice must be heard and acknowledged, it's the only way for us to grow stronger.

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  12. Hey Salem great comments, and I totally agree, as an author and as an avid reader, because let's face it we're all readers. For myself as an author I need feedback, I want to know what I'm doing right and where I'm missing the mark. Without honest respectful exchanges I'll never get better, and frankly I need to improve.

    You're a brave sole Salem, hats off to you.

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  13. Thanks for stopping by, Deej. Thanks too for joining in the dialogue.

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  14. Guilty as charged with The River Within. I edited and published it without going through a quality editor and in hindsight - take note all you indies - I would gladly have paid a good editor to weed out my numerous typos, mistakes and inconsistencies. It was not a quality work and I regret that I contributed to the glut of poorly written lesfic work out there. My own theory is that as long as genre fiction fulfills the requisite expectations of its given genre, its audience will accept it, even love it, no matter how poorly written. Kinda like how M & M's will satisfy a sweet-tooth craving but fresh baked brownies with home-made vanilla ice cream they ain't! Thanks for speaking out.

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    1. Baxter - thanks for swinging by and making me hungry! Susan Meagher said it well when she noted that no book, no matter how well and carefully edited, will be perfect—think the entropy of literature. Still, there are degrees of sin, and the first edition of TRW stands strong in spite of editing and formatting issues because of the risks you took as an author. There is no doubt that we can all do better—we just need to revise our professional punch lists to include items like "originality," "consistency," and "quality."

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  15. Excellent post as always, Ms. West. As the first lesbian audio book publisher, I am now seeing this same mad rush to jump on the bandwagon happening in our neck of the woods. Sadly, this push to get books out there as fast as possible is leaving quality in the dust. As one reviewer said of a poorly chosen narrator at another site, it sounded as though she "was reading a cookbook".
    'Pieces of flotsam' are starting to show up in our world, too. Quantity is not always better than quality.

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    1. Karen, it's easy to get seduced into believing that if a little is good, then a lot is better—that works with chocolate pudding and rubbing puppy bellies, but not much else. Stay strong, and make your brand the best it can be, it will pay off in the end. Thanks for stopping by!

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