My Response: A Writer’s View

After attempting to edit an anthology myself and failing miserably, I have a deep appreciation and respect for anthology editors and the work they do to compile a cohesive yet varied collection of stories that will be salable and, to one extent or another, feature something to everyone’s taste.

They often have to cull through hundreds of stories on a single call. And sometimes, when they make those calls, their choices are over-ridden by the publisher’s editors.  They don’t always have the final say over the cover, and yet are expected to be responsible for the sales of that book, most of its promotion, etc.  It’s a hefty undertaking and many anthology editors have a day job, too, which means that making their choices is, by necessity, a slow process.

Yesterday, both Alison Tyler (Writers Fucking Writers) and Sommer Marsden (Don’t Shit Where You Eat) posted blogs about the difficulties of editing anthologies and how much grief some  writers have caused them.

And yes, you might say: ‘hey, that’s the job. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.’ But that would be a genre slitting its own throat. As Alison says – editors are human. If you expect an editor to be sensitive and empathic enough to recognize a good story when she or he reads one, then why would you expect them to be insensitive about being publicly insulted or privately harassed? These aren’t optimal working conditions for ANY editor. Cut them some slack. Otherwise, no one will be publishing any short erotica that has gone through a thorough editing process at all. And the plethora of unedited crap coming out under the banner of ‘erotica’ is not doing our genre any favours at all. These people are saving our communal genre butts.

Okay, now, from the writer’s viewpoint:

I’m honestly stunned to hear that editors get nasty letters from writers whose stories have not been included in a book. I’ve had my fair share of rejection emails and I always take them as a blessing.

Honestly, do you really want a piece of your not so good writing immortalized in print? Once it’s out there, there’s no retracting it. There’s only cringing over it as the years go by and you improve and recognize its flaws. Personally, I have a couple of stories I’ve heartily regretted having published. There’s no taking them back. They eat away at my pride.

Sometimes your piece just doesn’t fit the editor’s concept of the theme call. You’re submitting one piece of a puzzle, but readers consume the book as a cohesive work.  And, believe me, you don’t want your piece sticking out like an irrelevant sore thumb in an antho. It feels like shit. So be grateful for the near miss and find a better fit for your story. I submitted a piece last year and was almost fucking relieved when I got the rejection letter, because on consideration, it just wasn’t good for the antho. She saved my butt. Truth.

On the other hand:

The length of time it is now taking anthology editors to accept or reject stories is edging, to my mind, on the ridiculous. I absolutely understand their workload. I do. And yet having a piece tied up without word for a year (which has happened more than once to me) is growing increasingly untenable.  This isn’t a threat, but I write to be read. It’s my primary motivation. The kind of money being paid per story on erotic anthologies simply isn’t enough to buy a year in the ‘maybe’ pokey. I recently submitted a story to an anthology and was later informed that it would take 10 months to find out if it would be accepted. I decided that was too long for me. I wrote back to the editor and very politely asked them to pull it from the submissions pile.

I really don’t know what the solution is to this one, but the self-pubbing revolution (especially the ability to pub shorter work and novellas)  is going to take a considerable toll on the amount of good writing going into editors’ submission piles. It is commonly assumed that the major motivation for this is financial, but I’d guess the spectre of a protracted waiting period is also playing a significant part in the decision.

Even when you get accepted, you’re not always accepted. I once got an acceptance letter to an anthology I very much wanted to be in, only to find, when it was published, that my story wasn’t included. A simple ‘ack, sorry, not this time’ letter, would have been polite. I know editors are busy, but they’re busy with our material. A modicum of mutual respect is not too much to ask for.

Sadly, there is a midset that sometimes emerges with some editors. Being the gatekeepers to publication, especially in print, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that raw material they are working with is someone else’s labour of love (it certainly isn’t a labour of money).  The power dynamic can get out of hand.

Witness Alison’s “How to make Me Want to Fuck You” post. I have nothing but respect for Ms. Tyler and she is both a wonderful erotica writer and an exceptional anthologist. However, I won’t agree to having my pen name changed and I’m no less busy than she is, so my bio is probably not going to arrive in five minutes. Although it is not a concern for me, some writers cannot accept certain forms of payment, so unless an editor wants to risk a writer turning around and requesting that their story be withdrawn, it may be smart to state, up-front, how you pay for them.

If I have to be honest, that post is why I have never submitted anything to any of her calls. There are many far, far better writers submitting to her anthologies; my work will not be missed by her or the readers of her anthologies. But for me, it’s an issue of personal principle: I only engage in that sort of power imbalance with lovers.

(Alison Tyler also wrote a post from the POV of the writer here: http://alisontyler.blogspot.com/2008/03/how-to-get-me-wet.html)

So, as Sommer would say, I am one of those awful writers that Shit Where They Live. Or rather, I care about the environment of where I live. I care, very passionately, about the genre as a whole and I like to see it kept respectful.

Meanwhile, although it boggles my mind why anyone would give a bad review or star rating to an anthology they were accepted in, I think it’s pretty unethical to review or rate an anthology you appear it at all. Alison’s generalized complaint that erotica writers shouldn’t ‘tear each other down’ with a bad review needs to be explored a little further. Because I don’t think we are doing ourselves or our genre any favours by failing to point out really awful writing when it occurs. In fact, I would say that, if this genre needs anything, it needs a good deal more critique than it’s had in the past. Most good writers of erotica are voracious readers and fairly decent critics, too. By suggesting that no one should ever give a fellow writer a bad review, we’re condemning our genre to permanent ridicule.  I’m not certain that’s what she meant, but that’s what it read like to me.

I do think, however, that we need to be skilled critics. If you’re going to pan a novel, for god’s sake discuss its structure, its character development, its lack of good descriptive writing or implausible conflicts, its reliance on cliche or formula. What we need in this genre is genuine literary critique, not vicious, bitchy infighting.

Anthology editors are the engine of this genre. They do a bloody hard job and they do it well. For the most part, the job is pretty thankless and yields little in the way of significant remuneration. So, Sommer Marsden, Alison Tyler, Rachel Kramer Bussel, D.L. King, Alessia Brio, M. Christian, Maxim Jakubowski, Violet Blue, (and all the others I’ve been too braindead to remember), I salute you and I thank you for your amazing work.

Stories are the raw material of this genre. Writers deserve to be treated as an essential part of it. They deserve  your respect even when they send you pieces that don’t fit your call, because they can’t read minds anymore than you can. Just because you’re working with bronze instead of marble today, doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate a nice chunk of marble.  And you may need some at a later date.

The goal, ultimately, is to publish excellent work within our genre. That should be a single aim we can all agree on. And for that to be sustainable, mutual respect and an acknowledgement of the value each party brings to the table is essential.

  27 comments for “My Response: A Writer’s View

  1. Forrest Franks
    September 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Well spoken er’ I mean written :) To be a critic with a little bit of class ;)

  2. September 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    I have to say, as an idiot newbie I found, and, well, as a slightly less newbie idiot, still find, Alison a very generous editor to work with, especially in terms of deadline patience.

    Yeah, long wait time tends to be an issue with everyone, I guess. But I think your point is very valid.

    I’m reluctant to admit that I’ve shared anthos with stories that have just made me wonder WHAT the editor could see in them – but I don’t see any value in shouting about that because a) I feel at an instinctive level it’s just plain embarrassing bad manners and b) I’m very much aware that if I feel like that about one of the other stories, sure as hell other people will be thinking the same about mine. And I don’t really want to hear about that.

    I haven’t read the original review but yes – of course there’s a difference between a critical review and bitchery. It’s always worth a long consider before we publish something critical. I just don’t know about all of us being self appointed quality police though. I’ve bought books on the strength of rave reviews by my respected peers, and then really just thought, meh, not for me. It works the same way for the negative ones. It’s a fine line between usefulness and subjectiveness, maybe, though a really good, educated critical review is invaluable, true.

    • September 2, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      I understand your sentiments, Vida. But I have to ask why you think literary criticism is somehow ‘quality policing’? What other genre feels this way? I’ve bought lots of books that turned out, as you say, to be ‘meh, not for me’ books. And just because a book doesn’t strike a chord with me on a personal level is no reason to give it a bad review. But when it is plain old awful writing, it deserves to be critiqued as such.

      I can’t think of any other genre in which a critical review of a work that is simply poorly written, is somehow a betrayal. It says something about the mixed messages we send to have our genre taken seriously that we fear critical review. Are we writers or are we just having a pajama party.

      That being said, no – I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would give an anthology they were pubbed in a bad review. On principle, I NEVER review anthologies in which I have a story. It’s just unethical. It’s a conflict of interest to purport to be an objective reviewer when you have a piece in the book.

      • Kathleen Bradean
        September 2, 2012 at 11:32 pm

        I absolutely agree that it’s unethical to review an anthology that you’re in. Need we add that it’s unethical to review your own novels? Okay, then I’m saying it.

  3. September 2, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    I don’t feel it’s to do with genre. Not for me anyway, I’d feel the same about whatever I was writing. I don’t think I fear negative criticism (ok, well, sure, of course I FEAR it, but that’s not to say I think it shouldn’t happen), but I do have a comfort level about writing ‘this is awful’ reviews. Someone sent me a book once that I just couldn’t read, in terms of writing and .. .everything. But I’ve no great interest in saying that publicly, it just makes me cringe a bit. This is what editors should be for, I think.

    I know someone whose first work got torn down in review by another, more successful writer of the genre, and it was years before she wrote again – and in my opinion, the less experienced writer is by far the more talented – no one reviews reviewers. I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s as much worth in excoriating something as we think. Better to give it no attention and let it gently die. Review the stuff that’s worth considering? I’m not saying this should be the Rule, I’m not advocating censorship, no. Just – there’s a lot of really poor, substandard stuff out there, I think our energies are better spent bigging up the good stuff than putting down the bad stuff when it does that job on its own quite nicely.

    However, I don’t feel this strongly enough to be suggesting we should never review bad books or say what we think about them. So I’m not really arguing your point with any great intensity. It’s the bitchy infighting point that I think is important – perhaps because the genre is small, people know each other – it makes it much harder to give negative reviews without things getting … messy.

    • September 2, 2012 at 7:20 pm

      Look, The New York Review of Books and the Times Review invite and pay writers within a genre to write a review of a work by a fellow writer in the same genre. Why? Because writers are expected to be critical readers, especially in their own genre. They have a firm understanding of the conventions of the genre. They can point out and give insight into where, for instance, a certain work challenges and pushes forward the boundaries of the genre. The reviews usually highlight the best of the piece and point out where its flaws are.

      If you don’t care to be a reviewer, then Vida, no one compels you to be. If you simply walk away from a badly written book, that’s fine.

      I pay for the books I read and review. As a reader, I don’t have a right to expect a book to be perfect, or to fulfill all my expectations, but I do have a right to expect a certain level of competence of craft. And when it is not there, I feel I should say something about that. Because I care very deeply about the fact that my genre is a standing joke for a lot of literary critics. And not because the sex is explicit – there is a lot of explicit sex in mainstream novels – but because we have a very poor critical tradition.

      Meanwhile, I assume we’d like a glowing review. Yes?

      What kind of infantilism are we perpetuating if we can’t take a bad one? At some point, it just starts to look like cronyism if all we do is give our fellow authors glowing reviews to keep their feelings intact. I am not speaking her of personal, or highly subjective responses. I have read reviews where people simply complain because they think BDSM is abhorrent on principle, and I have to ask myself why the hell they bought the book then? You can’t blame an author for delivering subject matter you disliked in the first place. However, there is a level of literary criticism that is far less subjective.

      I have to tell you, I’ve had ONE really strong review in my life. It was on Dear Author, for Gaijin. And it wasn’t a wholly positive review by any means. The reviewer rightly pointed out some major flaws in the book. She also reflected on what she felt to be the strengths of it. It was the most validating experience of my life. Because that woman took my work SERIOUSLY. Seriously enough to really critique it eloquently and intelligently. I don’t think it lost me a single sale. Not one I deserved, anyway.

      • September 2, 2012 at 11:28 pm

        I know, I’m not arguing with any of that. I mean I know I was, sort of, sorry to frustrate you. I would totally accept bad reviews myself, and take note of the useful criticism. I certainly wouldn’t expect that no one should critique my work. I’m still envious of the one Janine got saying hers was the most disturbing book the reviewer had ever read, and that the author needed psychological help :)

        As you say, it does come down to the professionalism of the reviewer – and whether it’s based on the book itself rather than our own subjective opinion.

        • September 2, 2012 at 11:32 pm

          I read that one and thought it was offensive as hell. I don’t see how attacking a writer’s sanity is ever a legitimate piece of literary criticism.

        • September 3, 2012 at 1:16 am

          It’s not, it’s mental, absurdly so – if you can’t laugh at that sort of thing, you’re sunk. In my opinion.

          • September 3, 2012 at 1:22 am

            Then I think I might be sunk. I have an historic sensitivity to seeing women accused of mental instability for expressing their sexuality. For me, for some reason, that strays way over into the political.

  4. September 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I find myself in overall general agreement with you.

    First, I think it really needs emphasis that we need more good critical reviews. A good review makes clear the reviewer’s biases and is extremely professional in both its examination of the work and its tone. Snark has no place in a critical review.

    Now I do happen to understand Vida’s point about new writers needing encouragement. I quit writing for a decade due to snark on alt.sex.stories after all. But that’s why I emphasize the difference between snark and professional criticism.

    Second, the number one reason I hear from people who are self-publishing is that they don’t like the treatment they’re getting from traditional publishers and editors. Mostly this ill treatment comes from the big publishers and so is largely an issue for genres other than ours, but still. A year in the “maybe” pokey is too much.

    • September 2, 2012 at 10:25 pm

      I think part of the problem is that we have a very concentrated and unstaggered ‘public sphere’ in erotica. There aren’t any tier-two magazines where new writers can publisher their stuff and have several different levels of expectation when it comes it publishing.

      But, I’m afraid that when it comes to the crush between any given writer’s feelings and the respect of the genre as a whole, I’m going to side with the genre.

      This is why anthologies and competent editors are SO important. Because they don’t let bad writing get through, generally. They don’t just act as doorkeeper, they act as arbiters of quality standards. And we sorely need that.

      When new writers publish themselves, they take a chance that they are just not ready for publication and do it anyway. And if they do take that chance, they are going to have to live with the consequences of it.

      • September 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm

        We’re both calling for the same thing–greater professionalism all around. I’ve seen a lot of unprofessionalism from big publishers and some editors and Alison reminds us that it’s true for a lot of submitting writers too (how can you not follow the Call’s instructions?).

        • September 2, 2012 at 11:25 pm

          No idea, but in the only call I ever made, I’d guess 75% of them were not submitted as per the call. And I think it’s a great culling tool. The problem is, it’s probably too good. And that’s why I could never have the patience to be an anthology editor.

          There are altogether too many people in this genre who use it to stoke their egos and indulge in a little literary exhibitionism, and can’t be fucked to format a submission properly. It’s part of the problem.

  5. September 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Dear RemittanceGirl,

    I appreciate your comments.

    “I do think, however, that we need to be skilled critics. If you’re going to pan a novel, for god’s sake discuss its structure, its character development, its lack of good descriptive writing or implausible conflicts, its reliance on cliche or formula. What we need in this genre is genuine literary critique, not vicious, bitchy infighting.”

    I find this true when critiquing any artistic work. It is more helpful to the artist and to the audience if the critic discusses what the work is and what it is not. After this discussion, then the critic can go into “I like…” or “I don’t like…”. It then makes it easier for all parties involved to make decisions in whether or not to consume that work.

    • September 2, 2012 at 11:42 pm

      The best reviews I have read were really more a matter of contextualizing the work either within the body of the writer’s oeuvre or in terms of where it sits in the genre. It’s far more helpful to readers to reveal that, for instance, Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending’ takes its title from Frank Kermode’s literary criticism on the use of time, memory and recollection in fiction, than to tear it apart. Because it gives the reader a framework with which to approach the book when they read it. It helps them orient themselves.

      Good reviews of Gaijin let the reader know it is a story that deals with the subject of non-consensuality, and that this is a very controversial issue within the genre of erotica. But it also deals with the issue of how cultures simplify each other. Then people can go on to say that the book spoke to them, or left them cold, or left them with unanswered questions. But at least NOW a reader knows a) is this a book I want to read and b) this is how I need to orient myself to get the most out of it.

      There are a lot of things to talk about in any given book that are fairly free of personal subjectivity. And sure, it’s important to acknowledge one’s personal reaction to a book, because books are meant to incite a personal reaction. But it’s going to be different for every reader. Way before that, there’s the basic stuff.

  6. September 2, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you for continuing the conversation. I have to say, my “How to Make Me Want to Fuck You” was written slightly tongue-in-cheek. My “respond in 5 minutes” for your bio request is something I’m aware of doing and I was poking fun at myself—but I will also say, I tend to ask people for their bios up front. So really, I’m often chasing something I already wanted. You should see how many people simply paste a story into an email and send it. No note. No nothing.

    The payment part is the implied arrogance (to me) that comes with a letter along the lines of, “When you take my brilliant story, I don’t want my money in Canada dimes…” or whatever. But I do try to state up front now that I pay via Paypal or Money Order.

    A lot of the time lag for authors occurs because of the big publishers. I have no idea why, but for my final Harlequin book, all involved had to wait 13 months for acceptances. (This was on a contracted project.) I hate tying people’s stories up for so long. Luckily, 95% of the pieces were accepted. Cleis has a much quicker response.

    The pen name incident was a specific issue where a newbie used the exact pen name as a very established writer, and the new writer had no idea the other existed. (It wasn’t a Kristina.) I was giving a writer a first-time writing credit—and she had told me she was looking for pen names and had landed on that one. If she’d subbed the piece to me saying, “I’m using Remittance Girl,” I would have done the same thing—pointed out that there already is one. Obviously people can choose whatever name they want—witness “Alison Tyler” the porn star, who had a different nom de porn at first, and then swapped for AT.

    The other instances have been one-word handles with #s on the end. In my experience, most publishers are not going to publish a HankiePankie3000 as the author.

    I have received full page-long rants from writers I’ve nicely turned down. It is part of the job. I totally accept that. I won’t work with people who badmouth me, unless I do so accidentally. (Which has happened.)

    I’m not sure if you saw this post, but I also wrote one from a writer’s POV called How to Get Me Wet: http://alisontyler.blogspot.com/2008/03/how-to-get-me-wet.html

    I do play four roles from time to time (and often all in one day): writer, editor, reader, and publisher. You should see my hat collection!

    XXX,
    Alison

    • September 2, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      Hi Alison, I’m sorry that I didn’t know the “How to Make Me Want to Fuck You” post was tongue in cheek. I just remember, years back, coming across it and thinking… okay…yikes. I don’t want to have to change my pen name. I live in Southeast Asia so, chances are, I can’t respond in 5 minutes because emails arrive in the middle of my night and I can’t accept a check. I take editors’ guidelines absolutely seriously and completely to the letter. And I took your blog post the same.

      I am most definitely aware of just how lacking in courtesy and plain good manners many submitters can be, and I don’t envy you your job at all. And, as I mentioned, I do know what often an anthology’s editor is utterly at the whim of a publisher on timelines and covers and many other issues. At the moment, it seems like an insoluble problem. And I do fervently hope something changes because it is a serious problem and not only for me.

      I will post your link at the end of the review to ensure that people read your post on a writer’s point of view of the issue.

  7. September 2, 2012 at 10:16 pm

    For me, the whole shebang is one big learning curve. When I put out my very first call for submissions, I didn’t know to list taboos the publisher wouldn’t accept. I’d focused on what I *was* looking for, and it hadn’t occurred to me to write down what I couldn’t take.

    So the very first story I received featured sex between a mother and a son. (A no-no for this particular publisher.) I added the taboo to the call and resent it to Erotica Readers and Writers. In three minutes, I received 25 stories from one author. I hadn’t known to put a maximum number of stories per writer. I updated again. Then I got a piece about shit. Didn’t know I had to say “no scat play.”

    I can’t tell you how many times I wrote to Adrienne that day. My no-nos got longer and longer: no underage, no incest, no animals…. And all based on what was falling into my in box.

    I’ve also written extensively about why stories haven’t worked for me:

    http://alisontyler.blogspot.com/2008/01/j-is-for.html

    But I do want to say that I do feel like an advocate for writers. When a piece has been cut from one book, I’ve often been able to find a new home for the story somewhere else.

    XXX,
    Alison

    P.S. Rambling a bit. Hope this makes sense!

    • September 2, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      You’re not rambling at all, and what you say makes a great deal of sense. And honestly, Alison, I don’t think you need to offer any explanations for what you do or how you conduct yourself. It works well for you and you produce exceptional anthologies which are standards to aspire to in the genre.

  8. September 2, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    I did want to comment on the editors as “doorkeepers.” It’s really important for writers to remember that editors are only looking at what works for them as individuals—or for their specific projects. One of my best stories (in my humble opinion) is “Boilermaker.” It was rejected twice before being accepted.

    http://alisontyler.blogspot.com/2009/11/third-times-charm.html

    The piece just didn’t work for the first two places. I get it. I hope writers understand that when I turn down a piece, all I’m saying is that “your story didn’t work for me” or “your story didn’t work for this collection.” Rarely (if ever), am I saying, “your story is subpar.”

    XXX,
    AT

    • September 2, 2012 at 11:14 pm

      Really? I’ve read a lot of sub-par stories. You’re a far nicer woman than I am, Alison.

      Actually, the theme thing is an interesting one, because, as I mentioned, you really DON’T want to get accepted for a themed antho and then stick out like a sore thumb. The times I’ve been rejected, the editor was doing me as big a favour as they were doing themselves. That book is going to be around for a LONG time.

  9. September 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    Can’t loop to reply above.

    In my day job, we submit multi-million dollar proposals all the time. Proposals that miss a single one of the call for proposal requirements are immediately rejected. They asked for 100 pages and you wrote 101? You had 0.5″ margin when they asked for 1.0″ margin? It doesn’t matter how brilliant your idea is, it’s rejected.

    The justification is that they don’t want to waste their time working with people who cannot follow clear directions. I don’t see why that would be different for writing. I haven’t been an anthology editor, but I suspect I’d just send those all back with “rejected due to failure to follow the call for submission directions.”

    • September 3, 2012 at 12:22 am

      Same goes for any academic submission I make. But it is also just a matter of respect and courtesy. Because reformatting 30 submissions is seriously time consuming and frustrating as hell. The time editors spend doing that is time they don’t get to spend doing their actual job.

  10. September 3, 2012 at 1:04 am

    It is a thankless job.

    • September 3, 2012 at 1:13 am

      See? I KNEW I my aging brain would forget to mention someone I adore. Gah… Yes, I think it must be!

  11. September 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Ah… thank you. I couldn’t agree more with you about feeling relieved when receiving rejections. If an anthology/publisher doesn’t want my work, then I don’t want to be published there. Clearly it isn’t good enough or it simply doesn’t fit. It would be like persuading someone who wasn’t attracted to me to date me anyway. Pointless and it does me more harm than good.

    As for the rest of this article, as someone who’s keen to edit, it’s really interesting to read. Definitely food for thought.

    And more respect in general would be a damn good thing.

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