By Lisabet Sarai
Literary erotica is a niche genre. Even the most renowned authors in this genre are virtually unknown outside that small circle of aficionados for whom the manner of expression matters as much as the mechanisms of coupling described. Secretly, we erotica writers may dream of seducing millions of readers with our tales, but most of us recognize the tiny likelihood that this will ever occur.
However, it appears that the world's indifference to my writing has turned me into something of a snob.
I care deeply about language. When I read, an author's ability to fashion graceful and evocative prose is as important to me as the plot or the characters. Perhaps as a consequence of my own focus on literary craft, I'm frequently disappointed by the quality of the writing in the books I read. As I've become more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses as an author, the foibles of others have become painfully obvious.
There's nothing wrong with being a discriminating reader. However, I recently realized that I've come to expect an inverse relationship between mass popularity and literary quality. This elitist attitude is partially supported by examples such as the Trilogy That Shall Not Be Named, but a bit of soul-searching reveals that sour grapes plays a role too. I write well (I believe) but my books remain obscure. Ergo, quality writing must be the antithesis of popular success. According to this logic, best sellers, especially best selling series, enjoy a huge market because they're poorly written. They stick to stereotypes, follow formulas, fulfill expectations, and employ simple language that doesn't tax their readers too much. If I were willing to compromise on quality for the sake of popularity (I tell myself sometimes), I could send my books to the top of the New York Times list.
Some recent reading, though, has convinced me that this is a fallacy. Several months ago, my husband and I bought a new load of used books at a library sale. When DH showed me his selections, I'm sure my eyebrows shot up. His stack included several titles by Janet Evanovich, creator of best selling Stephanie Plum mystery series: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly... you get the idea, right? At this point, she's up to number twenty. We bought number five (High Five) and number eighteen (Explosive Eighteen). DH dove right into both novels, and obviously found them entertaining, but I was skeptical. How could anyone so popular be any good?
I resisted for quite a while, but one evening when I was too tired to tackle any of the more “serious” titles I'd been working on, I picked up High Five. In ten minutes I was laughing out loud. In twenty I was apologizing to my husband for impugning his taste. High Five might not be the great American novel, but it is a near-masterpiece of craft.
Ms. Evanovich's characters are quirky (to the point of being bizarre) and yet totally believable. They inhabit the ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Trenton, New Jersey, a place I've never visited but which felt concrete and plausible despite the outrageous events that take place there. Stephanie – twenty-something native of Trenton, a perennially broke lingerie salesgirl turned bail bounty hunter – jumps off the pages. Her wry, self-deprecating first person narrative draws you into her world of unpaid bills and doughnut dinners, car bombs and church bingo, smothering family and sexy guys with hidden agendas.
What I admired most about the book, though, was the dialogue. I'd consider selling my soul to be able to create such vivid, lively, hilarious conversations. Ms. Evanovich has an expert grasp of dialect as well as an enviable capability for giving each speaker a totally distinctive voice. More than once I had to stop and share some snippet with my husband, full of admiration – even though he'd already read the book, had in fact been the one who chose it over my reservations. He very generously refrained from gloating.
By the time I'd finished, I had to admit it: popular, mass-market fiction though it might be, High Five showed signs of true artistry, albeit employed for the sole purpose of entertainment. My elitist beliefs had been crushed. I can't dismiss best selling authors purely because of their success. They may write as well, or better, than I do. Genre and market do not pre-determine quality. And I can't use a focus on craft as an excuse for my own poor sales, either.
It's a bit of a hard lesson, but hopefully one I won't forget. After all, there are a lot of books out there that I might not have considered reading previously – but that I now understand might be worth a try.