Sunday, September 25, 2011

Benighted Colonial

By Lisabet Sarai

Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire

My first erotic work was published by a U.K. house, the late lamented Black Lace. Inspired by reading a Black Lace title by another author, I specifically targeted the book toward that trailblazing "erotica by and for women" imprint. Before I began, I made sure that I studied the extensive and somewhat shrill Black Lace guidelines, and I did my best to follow them. Single quotes around dialogue. No periods after honorifics like "Mr" and "Mrs". British spelling (no zeds allowed!) and vocabulary.

I tried, I really did. However, it's hard to reverse thirty odd years of writing habit. Kerri Sharp, the extremely activist Black Lace editor during this period, found errors on practically every page.

Correcting the spelling and punctuation issues didn't cause much difficulty. Vocabulary was a different story ("storey"? Maybe not!). I really hadn't realized (or should that be "realised"?) how many common concepts are addressed by different words in British versus American English. I particularly recall Ms. Sharp (i.e. "Ms Sharp") lamenting about my frequent use of "panties" to refer to my heroine's undergarments.

Apparently I employed the term quite frequently, often in juxtaposition with concepts of dampness. I just couldn't agree to replace all those references with "knickers". At the time, I could scarcely think the word "knickers" with a straight face. It reminded me of Monty Python (though as far as I can recall there's no MP sketch centered on ladies' underwear). My heroine is American, I protested via email. She'd never call her panties "knickers", any more than she'd refer to a sweater as a "jumper" or consider having sex in the "loo". And how could something called "knickers" ever be erotic?

We eventually compromised (hey! an American word that uses "ise"!), using "bikinis" in at least some of the instances where Kate's underwear is under consideration. As I recall, male clothing raised some issues, too. If I'm not mistaken, British men don't wear pants. They wear trousers. It didn't seem to matter that Gregory was also a Yank, albeit tempered by long years living in the Far East.

Ms. Sharp won most of the vocabulary battles - she was, after all, the editor, and I was seriously intimidated by the whole process of publication. Ironically, after Raw Silk went out of print and I reclaimed the rights, I sold it to the New York erotica imprint Blue Moon. They published it without a single edit - British spelling, punctuation and vocabulary intact.

The funny thing is that these days, a lot of my writing is once again being published by a company in the United Kingdom. Total-E-Bound is located in the historic town of Lincoln and I suspect that at least half of their authors are British. Fortunately, the editors at TEB sympathize (oh, I mean "sympathise") with their benighted colonial cousins. House style requires British spelling and verb forms, but vocabulary depends on where the story is set, and dialogue punctuation uses American conventions. In addition, they provide a Word template that highlights my errors when I unwittingly use a "z" instead of an "s" or fail to add the "u" in words like "colour" and "glamour".

I still have trouble with past tense verb forms. If I'm not thinking about it, I'll write "spilled" or "burned" or "kneeled" - given my penchant for BDSM, I use the latter a good deal! - only to have these corrected by my editor to "spilt", "burnt" and "knelt". Sometimes the template points out these issues but often it does not. Since I've learned (sorry - "learnt") to more or less ignore Word's grammar corrections, I won't usually notice anyway.

It's enough to give me a major headache. Sometimes, I wish I were a Brit. There's the food to consider, but I'm a decent cook, so I'd make do. Practically everything else about England appeals to me: its rich history; its extensive literary tradition; the knicker-dampening effects of a British accent, especially tripping off the tongue of Sean Connery or Michael Caine; the peculiarly British enthusiasm for corporal punishment...

If I were British, I'd be able to give TEB stories that required far less editing. And that's not all. I'd be able to use fabulous, emotionally evocative words like "whinge", "knackered", "posh", "bollocks" and "bloody", with authority and flair. When I sat down to pen this post, I had some notion that I'd adopt a British voice and pepper my essay with the colorful (excuse me, "colourful") slang that I find so appealing. I gave up on that idea pretty quickly - it was a far more difficult task than pretending to be Jane Austen - even if she was a Brit.

So I guess I have to accept the fact that I'm a Yank, unable to write the Queen's English with the same fluency and control as Charlotte and her compatriots. Indeed, one reason I adore Charlotte's work is the intensely English tone of her characters' thoughts and conversations.

You know, actually, the Brits put up this front of being all conservative and conformist, but I think they may have dirtier minds than anyone else. (Our Saturday guest, Jacqueline Applebee, agrees.)

Maybe I've got some Anglo-Saxon ancestors.


  1. Lisabet - It's funny how language drifts apart. With the global reach of American media though, I wonder how much influence the American version of English affects the rest of the world.

  2. Amusing post.

    "[...]the peculiarly British enthusiasm for corporal punishment..."

    There was a poll published just today by Yougov, commissioned by the Sunday Times, which asked whether corporal punishment should be reinstated with 53% supporting (pg. 10):

  3. Hi, Kathleen,

    I wonder how soon it was before the British and American versions began to diverge. When Ben Franklin went to London, was it obvious that he was a Yank?

  4. Hey Anonymous,

    I actually don't support corporal punishment for students. Just for consenting adults! ;^)

  5. I sympathise with your plight, Lisabet. I have to content with US publishers trying to eliminate my Britishness. It always seems to me the most obvious/everyday terms that they flag up.

  6. *sharpens claws*

    Another Brit weighing in ...

    It's always tempting to look 'over the fence' and think that the grass "looks greener" in your neighbour's garden. The difference in colour could just as easily be down to the green mould of decay, or the patina which develops on unpolished copper after a long period of neglect.

    Points to consider before packing a bag and buying a one-way ticket.

    1) The Economy. Yes, the whole world seems to be suffering similar problems at the moment: but are YOU paying anywhere NEAR the current c. £7/gallon charged at the pumps in GB(about $8.50, I think??)

    2) As established writers, you might not be too concerned at the Job Prospects in GB - but unemployment statistics suggest that life would not be easy for your partner/other family members.

    3) Although the BASIC rate of Income Tax sounds reasonable @ 25%, INDIRECT TAXES on almost EVERYTHING you buy (including services, not ONLY goods) means that effectively about 2/3rds of every penny you earn will find its way back to government coffers.

    4) I've been struggling to get my work noticed by a British publishing house for years. I haven't even managed to et onto an Agent's books yet - but this month I had my first MS accepted ... by a US Publisher!!

    I have a 'cunning plan' [any "Black Adder" fans will appreciate that one!]
    To avoid horrendous tax bills when the above novel starts flying off the shelves, I intend to buy a ONE-WAY ticket to Ireland and settle there!

    BTW: regarding spelling, grammar, etc.
    G.B. Shaw had it spot on: we are indeed "two countries separated by a common language" (Madelynne, I won't mind having to CONTEND with US publishers!)
    Paul McDermott

  7. I have exactly the reverse problem. I'm British, but all but one of my publishers is US based (the British one? Total E-Bound!)
    So I make the same mistakes in reverse. While the idea of a man wandering around the streets dressed in pants, a vest and suspenders makes my British sensibility laugh, I still write it. And my American editors are so patient with me. I've got ("gotten"!) better over the years, but I still make mistakes. My latest book for Loose-Id is set mainly in Wales, with Welsh main characters, so reaching a compromise, where they sounded British but could be easily understood was interesting, to say the least. Who'd have thought that Americans weren't familiar with the word "cafetiere"?

  8. I think in the beginning that may have been good discipline (an image dear to your heart)for a young author to have such a strict editor. it was probably a sign that she saw good things in you.


  9. Hello all!

    Hey, Paul, I live in Asia!! No way I'd want to live in either the U.S. or the U.K. these days.

    Madelynne and Lynne - of course I understand that you're going to have exactly the same difficulties. Not fun, is it?!

    Garce - Kerri Sharp lived up to her name! On the other hand, she was responsible for the golden days of Black Lace.

  10. Great post, Lisabet! My own experience with Kerri Sharpe was that she decided to let the "American" contributors to 2 anthologies (Wicked Words 3 & 8)--including me--keep their "own spellings." Ack! I used American spelling in my stories because my original plan was to submit them to U.S. publishers. Mainstream Canadian spelling (as used in the media) is partly British (colour, centre, travelled), partly U.S. (civilize, kneeled). However, I don't think British spelling is ever considered "wrong" in Canada (& I think it's prob. used in Hansard, the record of Parliamentary proceedings).
    I've learnt to be flexible! Had Kerri asked me, I could have applied Canadian Spell Check to my work(not the same as the cheque I received for my stories). I would have objected to "knickers" too, esp. in stories set where I live.
    Commonwealth writers need our own support group, IMO. :)


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