“I Know It When I See It” and Other Random Thoughts

Blogging Update

First, thanks to everyone who commented here and elsewhere on my last post, and who tweeted the link. The first three days it was up were by far the busiest my blog has seen (an average of 150 views a day, which isn’t very busy by many people’s standards). I started blogging because I wanted to talk to all the cool people I’d “met” online about books and reading, and that conversation has been bigger and more rewarding than I’d ever imagined. I think of a lot of my posts as throwing up an idea to see what sticks, and so I really appreciate all of you who challenge me to think and rethink about my own reading experiences and the relationships between romance and feminism.

In case you missed it, Maria Bustillos, author of The Awl piece that started it all, left a nice comment about the discussion. Somehow it ended up in spam, where I found it by accident days later. I e-mailed to tell her what had happened to her comment and how much I had enjoyed her lovely reflections on being a romance reader. Also great are responses from Sunita and Lily Daniels/Janine Ballard on their blogs.

PayPal and the “Porn Wars”

The big news in Romancelandia this week (aside from more plagiarism) was the takedown orders issued by e-book stores such as All Romance, Bookstrand, and Smashwords in response to pressure from PayPal to comply with their terms of service, which many books classified as “erotica” may violate. [It’s not clear to me how much of this is a simple business decision (porn/erotic material apparently has a higher rate of credit card chargebacks, and thus is costly for PayPal) and how much of it is moral judgment; this comment from someone describing him/herself as “a sometime online adult worker” on the latest Dear Author thread seems plausible and illuminating.] The news prompted the Porn Wars thread on Dear Author, in which people hurled dictionaries and other things at each other in attempts to define erotica, porn, censorship, and incest. (There are follow-up discussions in the subsequent daily news posts).

The upshot of the debate seemed to be that everyone agreed with US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously opined that while hard-core pornography is hard to define, “I know it when I see it.” The problem at Dear Author (and it’s a problem with his pragmatic “definition” that Stewart himself eventually acknowledged)  is that everyone saw different things. If I think it’s gross, it’s porn; if I write it myself, it’s erotica and how dare they judge it? A stepfather/grown stepdaughter “pseudo-incest” book is eww, but two brothers having sex with the same woman at the same time is not incest if they don’t touch, because it’s in popular books by New York Times best-sellers.

Some of the logical contortions are rather funny, but serious questions underlie them. Technically, a corporation like PayPal is not engaging in censorship, but given their reach, the effect on certain kinds of perfectly legal stories and their authors is undeniably chilling. And as many people have pointed out, there is plenty of hypocrisy at work here: “erotica” is being targeted, while the same material in other works is given a pass (I don’t necessarily agree with the Smashwords Terms of Service that rape in erotica is by definition presented for titillation, for instance, and I’ve read such scenes in other genres which I think are presented that way). Application of the guidelines by both PayPal and vendors appears to be quite inconsistent.

The discussion highlights for me the fact that bright lines between romance, erotic romance, erotica, and porn are difficult (probably impossible) to draw, and that people will draw them in different places. I find the lines particularly blurry with the kind of erotica I enjoy, which I’d describe as “romantic erotica.” It’s often written by romance writers (openly or otherwise). While it doesn’t have a romance plot arc, it does pay attention to emotional/character arcs, not just to bodies. I think I have more to say about the relationship, for me as a reader, between romance and erotica, and about what sex scenes in romance and erotica both do and don’t include. I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately, but some of my thinking is about books I haven’t read yet, and I’m also not quite sure what I want to say and how much of it I want to say in public. So this is just a tease, I guess.

Reading Update

You may have noticed that I haven’t had much to say about specific books at all lately. That’s because I haven’t been reading much. In February I finished four short books: Nicole Kimberling’s Bellingham Mysteries (which also have an m/m romance) and Liz Fielding’s Flirting with Italian. I enjoyed them all, but don’t have much to say about them. According to Goodreads, I’m “currently reading” six books, which says something about my lack of focus.

Partly in response to this problem, but also because I need to give my work more attention, I’ve instituted a dawn-to-dusk “cyberfast” for Lent. I haven’t exactly been perfect, but it is helping. I hope this means more reviews/book commentary during Lent!

Some preliminary thoughts on those books I’m “currently reading”:

  • Bayou Moon by Ilona Andrews. I am really enjoying the Edge series on audio, partly because of Reneé Raudman’s excellent narration. The authors have described the books as “rustic fantasy” or “redneck romance;” they have the dark, violent world that often characterizes urban fantasy, but are set in a fantasy version of the rural South. I really like the romance in this one, because William and Cerise’s strengths and vulnerabilities are so complementary, but am mulling over a scene in which he beats her in a fight. My first feeling was, “so even when the heroine is skilled in an ancient form of magical sword-fighting, the hero has to be just a little bit better? really?” In the end, I thought the scene made sense: Cerise doesn’t want to kill him, after all, so she doesn’t use her magic; she’s also struggling to be her family’s leader, and I think needed to feel she had someone strong enough to share that burden. I am conflicted about such scenes. It’s unfair to criticize the Andrews for a decision that makes sense in the context of their story, but I feel like I read an awful lot of stories where the hero is just a little bit stronger and more skilled than the heroine. If people have examples of the contrary, I’d like to hear about them!
  • The Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks. A friend gave me this book for Christmas. It’s fascinating, particularly because it was written before 2001 and thus not colored by the events of September 11. Because I have it in paperback, it’s mostly a bathtub book; the cognitive dissonance of reading about veiling while naked is interesting.
  • The Sleeping Partner by Madeleine E. Robins. Third in the wonderful Sarah Tolerance mystery series, set in a slightly alternate Regency world. Sarah is a Fallen Woman who chooses to become an inquiry agent rather than a whore. The books reflect in interesting ways on the sexual mores and gender roles of Sarah’s world (and by implication of ours). The opening pages recount Miss Tolerance’s history and how female virtue is important to a family’s honor. I was instantly reminded of Brooks’ statement that “In most Muslim countries women are the custodians of their male relatives’ honor.” I don’t think all this is irrelevant to the birth control controversies haunting US politics at the moment.
  • The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett I had to set this aside when Sarah Tolerance came in at the library. And just when I was getting the hang of Dunnett’s style! I am looking forward to getting back to it, though, because Lymond is such an intriguing (in all senses!) character.

Want to tell me about porn, erotica, or something (else?) you’re reading? Have at it!

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4 Responses to “I Know It When I See It” and Other Random Thoughts

  1. Lynn Pauley says:

    Jumping up and down with joy — I did not realize that there was another Sarah Tolerance book out — off to Amazon to purchase

  2. Pingback: Erotica Book Banning Roundup – Part 2, and Smashwords Bows Under Pressure | S. V. Rowle

  3. Pingback: Writers & Publishers Blogs: A link List #censorship #paypal #erotica | Banned Writers

  4. I’ve just realized i’ve read three of the four books on your current reading list! All of them except The Sleeping Partner.

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