Don’t read this, don’t write that

Like every indie writer, I’m hoping that my efforts to self-publish will someday be enough that I can pay a bill or two. I have no fantasies of big J.K. Rowling bucks (ok, not realistic fantasies), but I’m always looking for ways to knock down my car loan a bit. 

So when an indie publishing company sent me YouTube testimonials from their best-selling authors, I eagerly watched to see what the grand secret is to making money.

Turns out, it’s writing smut.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t watch every last testimonial, but after the third one I began to see a distinct pattern, and it made me very uncomfortable.

The videos were well done, predictably following around the authors as they walked in grass, or along a beach, and maybe sniffed a flower or two, while the voice-over discussed how frustrating their former lives were (interestingly, most were school teachers) and how after independently publishing they had enough cash flowing in each month to not only take care of their children and pay their bills, but to quit their former jobs and take exotic vacations.

At some point I began to feel like I was watching an infomercial, so I wrote down the authors’ names and looked them up.

And my jaw dropped. 

Women’s porn.
That was what each of them was writing (one even with her husband; I wasn’t sure if that made things better or worse). Now, I realize that genre of books goes under tamer titles, such as “graphic romance” or “erotica,” but the snippets I read in the previews—before I looked away after only a few lines—fit my definition of porn.

Not only did the subject matter shock and disappoint me, so did the books themselves. Many weren’t even 50 pages long and priced at over $5 for the e-book, which is hardly a bargain.

There were dozens of titles from the authors, all on the same themes of lonely women finding unrealistic men who are obsessed with, well . . . you know.
And the reviews were also disturbingly the same. I’ll spare you the details, but it was obvious by the hundreds of reviews that not one of the gushers cared about literary merit. 

Occasionally I ran across a one-star review, and it was filled with dismay. “What a piece of trash! I can’t believe people are writing—and buying—this crap that reads like the notes we passed in 7th grade. Write the word ‘boobies’ and everyone gets all in a titter. Is no one noticing this?! What’s happening to books?”

I don’t know, but I agree—literature is taking a nosedive.  I’m sorry—I shouldn’t even call this literature. Let’s stick with “smut.”

These books are in the same vein as Fifty Shades of Gray, which is all about a woman repeatedly “achieving” something, and sold more copies than the Harry Potter series.

Really.

Our society is fond of believing that reading is good. Hey, it’s better than (fill in the blank yourself). In fact, it’s quite difficult to find anything that encourages against reading (I know—I’ve been looking). Because . . .

Reading is empowering!
Reading let’s you escape!
Reading improves your mind!

Not always.

What you read changes you, for good or bad. And novel reading hasn’t always been held in great esteem. For many generations, calling someone a “bookworm” was an insult; you should be out working, laboring for your family, instead of lazing about the house with your nose in a book.

We’re all influenced by the books we read, some more than others. I can tell what kind of stories my children are reading based on their behavior that day. It’s not rocket science; it’s human nature. If we weren’t influenced by what we read, why would we bother?

There is something sacred, I think, about a great library because it represents the preservation of the wisdom, the learning, the pondering, of men and women of all the ages accumulated together under one roof to which we can have access as our needs require.  ~Gordon B. Hinckley (emphasis added)

Books can uplift and motivate us, but they can also send our thoughts into despair and fear, and everywhere else in between. There’s a certain magic there; but according to every fantasy book out there, magic is temperamental, and can go in any direction.

I’m anxious when I see how many sexually explicit and graphic books are now being written by women and for women. I can’t help but wonder, what does such an adolescent fixation on sex do to a person’s psyche and relationships? 

There’s been truckloads of research done on the negative effects of porn on men, but I’m beginning to think we need to start evaluating women as well. According to the book reviews I marveled at,  some of these readers do little else than indulge in these pubescent stories. I personally know of two marriages that suffered when the wives became too obsessed with a particular book series dealing with vampires and werewolves; so what’s happening in the lives of those who read books that are far more explicit and unrealistic?

Now, I’m sure there are those who will say I shouldn’t judge books and their contents. But to that I say, why not? Look at the reviews for any item on Amazon—those are judgments. Any time you think about reading a book or going to a movie, you ask for other people’s opinions (judgments) about it.

But what those who play the “don’t judge” card really mean is, Hey—you’re hitting a bit too close to home, and I don’t want to think about that right now. I’ve got another novelette about fat girls and their “achievements” to read.
The “don’t judge” argument is usually a front for, “stop making me feel guilty.”

This post is certainly not to say that all indie writers fall into this hole of smut. I’m acquainted with many self-published authors who create marvelous pieces of fiction and fantasy, who enjoy controlling their own work, and have written books that earn the title of “literature.”

In fact, I’m writing this rant in defense of the rest of us indie writers—the majority of us laboring to develop stories with character and purpose—to demonstrate we’re not all out to make a buck off of “low-achieving” women.

Our books are as different from these smut-o-grams as homemade, hand-breaded chicken fingers are from Chicken McNuggets. They may have similar names, but one is carefully prepared, finely balanced, and tastes marvelous, while the other is nasty chicken sludge boiled in oil.

That’s why I promise, right here and right now, that I will never make nasty chicken sludge, or write smut just to pay the bills. Some time ago a beta reader suggested that if I made my books more “interesting” (i.e. add some salacious details in the first chapters), I could really “make something of myself.”

That left a horrible taste in my mouth, and I told the reader I didn’t need them as a reader anymore.

Because how you feel after consuming something I created is far more important to me than my paying off my student loan debt. (And if you knew how big that is, you’d be even more impressed.)

“An author is speaking clearly and silently in your head, directly to you.”

Until I read this beautiful quote from Carl Sagan (thank you, Grammarly), I didn’t know how to articulate the sensation I’ve felt that I’ve snuck into a writer’s mind, and was welcomed there. But as I thought about it, I realized I’ve “experienced” a variety of authors in such a manner. Tell me if you’ve had similar impressions with these or other authors:

Plato: I approached his writing hesitantly, researching background about ancient civilizations, when about two paragraphs into the chapter I felt as if Plato himself had come into the room to have a chat. In my mind he was a small, narrow-bodied man wearing a white tunic and sitting on plain stool. He smiled as if glad to see someone else was coming “in” for a visit, and he wanted to help. He pointed out sections, waved for me to skip other parts, and cheerfully gestured to a chapter he knew I’d particularly enjoy. Then he sat back and smiled as I read, waiting to answer questions he’s known the answers to for thousands of years.

 J.K. Rowling: Reading her feels like a group activity, a sense of sitting on the floor on comfy cushions (a la the Room of Requirement) with about a dozen others of all ages and sizes—and no one cares that we seem too old to do this—while our friend Jo sits on a soft chair, but at the very edge of it, reading to us her stories and getting all of the voices just right.

James Joyce: I’ve wandered a few times into Mrs. Dalloway to find Mr. Joyce sitting in the corner rattling on and on, only distantly recognizing I was there as he gestured to the wall and talked to the ceiling, until I quietly slinked out again and closed the door. I don’t think he ever noticed.

Hugh Nibley: This scholar and philosopher stands at a podium in a lecture hall, while I sit near the back frantically taking notes as he reads his words at break-neck speed. But I have a remote control, and every minute I zap him to pause his lecture, rewind, listen, then flip to the extensive footnotes while Professor Nibley waits, just on this side of patient. I bite my lip as I read the footnote, realize it introduces yet more names and archaic traditions I’ve never heard before, so I shrug, occasionally write down a reference to Google later, then hit “play” again, pretending all the while that even though I just sit on the surface of his topic, I understand the depths to which he’s diving. We both know I can barely tread water.

Flannery O’Connor: She tells me her stories as we wash dishes in the back kitchen of a large southern plantation home, and we snigger when the ladies with fancy hats walk past the window.

Shannon Hale: She tells me her stories as we drove up through the canyons in a big SUV to take the teenage girls from our church on a camping trip, because I met her at a book signing where she told me she also loves Terry Pratchett, and I knew right then we could be great friends.

J.R.R. Tolkien: He sits behind a grand desk, leaning back leisurely and gestures to maps on his walls and charts on the desk, while talking in an oddly lilting monotone about details and histories and peoples I’m not quite following until I fall asleep. Guiltily I shake myself awake a moment later, only to realize he never noticed I nodded off—he’s enjoying himself far too much. My daughters, however, glare at me in disgust.

Stephen King: Because he starts his stories by turning out all the lights, then shining a flashlight in his face, I slam shut the book just as he opens his mouth to speak, and I move on.

Lao Tzu: He’s a sweet, gentle man, forcing me to sit in an expanse of sand while he teaches me his verses of philosophy. Much like Oogway in “Kung Fu Panda,” he speaks slowly and repeats himself until he sees a light of understanding come in my eyes. Then he hands me a peach, and recites me another couplet about war, and fighting, and peace, and knowing.

Jane Austen: We sit primly in her parlor, with arms folded just so and skirts adjusted in just this way, and glance furtively at the door for someone wonderful or dreadful to come through it, while she tells me all the news of the town as quickly as she can before either of our mothers can interrupt us.

Jessica Day George: We sit in the back of some dull meeting gossiping quietly and giggling, hoping no one hears us, but knowing the speaker is glaring right at us.

Orson Scott Card: I actually sat in two meetings with him! At a small private college in Virginia! But I never spoke to him! And he never noticed me! And when I finally read Ender’s Game, I felt as if I was huddled in the corner of that classroom with his book, and he was watching me out of the corner of his eye as if to say, “It’s about time.”

PHOTO MISSING,

TO PROTECT THESE  NEXT TWO AUTHORS FROM SCORN                               

(because I’m sure they’re both just as lovely as can be, but create utter drivel)

Authors who will remain anonymous, but have a fondness for writing about males that turn into animals and woo silly teenage females: I gritted my teeth and cringed through these authors first books, as if I was stuck on a long bus ride behind two chatting women telling each other far too many details about their fantasy love lives. I closed my eyes periodically hoping to avoid gooey passages, only to run into other sections that not only made my eyes roll but caused me involuntary gagging. I got off the bus at the earliest possible moment.

Terry Pratchett: My all-time favorite author who I visit frequently. He lets me right into his mind, which is most intimidating and most marvelous. Every time I want to turn left, he shifts me to go right; I look down, he points me up, and I sigh and wish I could think of such turns. He takes characters, sets them in front of me, then describes them in such terms that I despair, because I’ll never come close to writing like that. But he just chuckles, grabs my arm, and drags me to yet another amazing place until suddenly I stop and say, “I just had an idea . . .” To which he smiles and waves good-bye until I come back again, because it’s not about being better than him, or even as good as him, but about discovering what I want to say.