Thursday, March 18, 2010

Research Assistant Required – apply below

by Ashley Lister

“It’s better to stay silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

The above truism has been ascribed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. Regardless of who originally said it, I think it’s without doubt one of the sagest pieces of advice that could ever be given.

The words came back to me a year ago when I was attending a university lecture. The guest lecturer was an eminent linguist and the author of more texts, journals and academic books than most of us have ever read. He discussed phonemics and phonetics and their relation to prosodic features (including phatic communion). He talked about the development of specialist areas of semantics and pragmatics in relation to the contemporary phenomena of text messages. I was particularly impressed to hear him talk about the identified differences and similarities noted in communication between British Sign Language (BSL), American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken language.

I mention all of this not just to make this blog full of long words or to make myself sound particularly clever. I’m sure everyone reading this already knows I’m as dumb as a sausage. I’m trying to impress here that it was a fairly heavy and intense lecture. By the time he asked if any of us had any questions I was not sure I could say anything that would be construed as sensible in the face of such a flood of high-level knowledge.

“I have a question.”

The raised hand was close to me. I recognised a colleague of mine sitting upright in her seat, snapping her fingers for the lecturer’s attention.

“I have a question,” she said again.

The lecturer smiled kindly in her direction. “Please,” he encouraged.

The room was momentarily silent as everyone strained to hear what was going to be asked. I sat more rigid in my chair, wondering if my colleague had spotted a flaw in the logical progression of the speaker’s argument. I was genuinely curious to find out what vital piece of information hadn’t been imparted in the extensive and exhaustive lecture we’d just enjoyed.

“My question,” she said proudly. “What’s your favourite book?”

I mention this because, when I think about the lecturer’s face following that question, I wonder if I wear a similar expression when people ask me, “Have you done all those things you write about?”

The lecturer was polite and struggled to answer the question, but it was obvious his thoughts were still tied up with the nuances of advanced linguistics. When someone else quickly chimed in with a question about contemporary studies throwing doubt on long-held theories of linguistic determinism, his relief was almost palpable.

As a writer of erotic fiction, I do get asked, “Have you done all those things you write about?” At times it does become predictable, but I’ve got no real issues with predictability. My wristwatch and calendar are both predictable and I never have issues with either of those useful accessories.

And, whenever I’m asked the question, it reminds me I’m talking to someone who has taken the time to read one of my books. Considering there are so many wonderful authors out there, it’s humbling to think that someone has spent time reading my meagre attempts at literature. I certainly don’t have such a sufficiently large readership so I can pretend to be bored with their questions.

As a writer, if a reader asks me a question about my writing, my head automatically goes into ‘technical mode.’ If we’re talking about characters my thoughts are involved with the way I constructed the individual and shaped them into the events of the narrative. A reader might be more concerned with why the character drove a convertible, or picked one brand of lubricating jelly over another.

Consequently, when my colleague asked the lecturer, “What’s your favourite book?” I could sympathise with what she was doing. She didn’t care what his favourite book was, just like no one cares whether or not I’ve done all those things I’ve written about. She was simply trying to instigate a conversation and show that she had a grasp on some of the things that had been said. He’d been talking about words in books.

I’m not saying this is the case every time. Some people are genuinely curious about the nocturnal habits of erotic fiction writers. Others are just too nosey for their own damned good. But, oftentimes, this familiar question is simply a convenient way for readers to approach their favourite writers and instigate a dialogue. So, if you are reading this and wondering, ‘Has he done all those things he’s written about?’ let me answer with another question: ‘Would you like to help me research my next erotic scene?’


  1. Hello, Ashley,

    Do you really think that this is true? That the motivation behind these questions is so innocent? I'm not sure, myself. I mean, Steven King doesn't get that kind of question. Garce, you didn't ask Charlaine Harris that kind of question. It is only we purveyors of sexually explicit prose who excite the prurient interests of our readers in this regard.

    Just my impression. Meanwhile your description of the linguistics lecture is flawless. You should use it one of your books!


  2. Along the lines of what you're describing in the lecture scenario ... when I've been an audience member, from time to time, at events where the speaker/entertainer was some kind of minor celebrity, I've experience the desire to ask a question—because, you know, it would be kind of a thrill to have Minor Celebrity Person answer my question. The problem, of course, would generally be that I didn't have anything worth asking, and I'd end up spending the entire Q&A period feverishly (and fruitlessly) struggling to come up with something. : )

  3. Ash - I think you hit it on the head. It's an icebreaker. We've touched an intimate area of their lives, so they feel it's okay to touch back. I can't tell you how many times I've been cornered by people so that they could confess their sex life to me. It isn't that they're bragging. They're really asking: "Am I normal?" "Is this okay?" It's an awkward topic for most people. We shouldn't be surprised that they broach it with a lack of grace.

  4. This is one of those topics I've dealt with for a few years and wondered about all that time. Why do people feel it's okay to confess their kinks and quirks to a complete stranger rather than their significant other?

    The question: Do you do all of those things you write about? Well, of course not. I'm a woman, how could I be a guy doing the nasty with some other guy? That one kind of goes by the wayside. Or not. I once had a publisher tell me my name was too masculine and suggested I change it so people didn't think I was a man. Gulp!

    I digress.

    The genre we write in has got to make people uncomfortable. I agree with that, so possibly that question sort of can be the ice breaker. But what's with the other?

    Can I be your sex slave?

    Do you have slaves? Do you have room for one more?

    I always respond as kindly as I can manage, but it really does make me wonder.

    Great post Ash!


  5. Lisabet,

    People don't ask Stephen King if he's ever murdered someone. But they regularly question him about whether or not he's seen/believes in ghosts. In a way I'd say that was a similar kind of icebreaker.

    Garce didn't ask Charlene Harris if she's seen or believes in vampires. However, I'd bet money that someone at the signing asked her that question.

    And I think I might have a linguistics lecture in my next title. I love the look of those clever words, which all describe things we do and say every day :-)



  6. Jeremy,

    I know what you're saying. In some ways I'm jealous that my colleague got to talk to the linguist - and have him respond to her question. In other ways, I'm relieved that I didn't ask a question that was so comically inappropriate.

    There's a hilarious Family Guy clip where Stewie is in the audience at a Stark Trek convention, desperate to ask a question to the TV show's crew, and they're picking everyone else in the audience.

    I can see myself being in that situation should I ever have the brains to come up with a decent question at such an event.



  7. Kathleen,

    I agree. One of the cool things about writing in this genre is that we're exploding myths about a very secretive part of people's lives. I'm not trying to make out that we're pioneers or social workers: but we do give people an insight into aspects of life that most haven't considered, or only encounter vicarously.

    It's empowering to think that someone might read one of my novels, and come away from the experience thinking, 'Hey! That character did the same thing I've always wanted to do - I'm not the only one who fantasises about such things!'



  8. Jude,

    Hello stranger! I've missed you!

    I don't mind people confessing their kinks to me - as long as they don't mind that my next novel might bear a suspicious similarity to some of the scenes in my next work ;-)

    And I love the idea that you get slaves hurling themselves through your email box.

    Some days writing does seem to have a glamorous allure, don't you think?


  9. And what, pray tell, am I supposed to tell my husband?

    Get in line, perhaps?

    Oh, it's only snoggins, he's new. Now get in your place?



  10. Hi Ashley!

    Actually I remember an interview with Stephen King where someone asked him "Ever 'et raw meat?" I guess they figured he did.

    At least people read your stuff and wonder about you. That's a gift.

    If I ever ran into a reader I think she'd take one look at me and think "Naw. . . "


  11. Garce,

    The first time I ever met a reader (outside my immediate family) she stared at me for a full minute and then asked, 'How do you know so much about lesbians?'

    I didn't know what to say, so I jut signed her book.


  12. I was once asked for sex tips. I said, "I can only help you if you are a shapeshifter."

  13. Treva,

    This is a good idea for a title: The Shapeshifter's Guide to Better Sex. ;-)



  14. Ashley,

    I'm absolutely positive you've done all those things you write about!

    I think there's something to Jeremy's idea about wanting to ask a question and have it answered by the celebrity in the room. At a reading I once raised my hand and was called upon by Terry Pratchett. "Do you think you and Neil Gaiman will write another book together?" Hey, I thought it was a good, or at least reasonable question. It garnered laughter and the great man finally said, "Someone's always got to ask that question at every reading!" I never got an answer. I think it was "no." I could have asked about the Death of rats...


  15. Diane,

    That's exactly the same question I would have asked Terry Pratchett! Good Omens is a phenomenal title.



  16. Great post, Lisabet. I've never been asked, but then again only have one erotic story out so far. I can see the look in people's eyes and sense their thoughts.

    Keela in Hot Chocolate Kiss has some of my personality traits, and the story is heavily based on personal experiences on the slopes. But her erotic adventures are pure fantasy. All I want after skiing all day is some sleep.

    I did write a particularly disturbing horror story (not erotic) about a psychopathic witch. Two friends called after they read it to see if I was okay. Guess they thought I was going to fly my broomstick off the balcony or something!


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