March 26, 2012

Selling the sizzle (not the mistakes)

Maohden (my current project) is the first in the "Demon City Blues" series, published before Yashakiden. It's half the length and moves a brisker clip than the latter, which clocks in at about half a million words. Yashakiden is Kikuchi's Moby Dick, and like Melville he writes a Wikipedia entry for every parenthetical and plot tangent.

(That world building is a fantastic accomplishment, but I wish that instead of a gory, erotic vampire thriller, he'd written a novel focusing on the Chicago-style politics of Demon City's mayor.)

Once you get past the info-dumps, Kikuchi rewards the reader of his adult novels (Demon City Shinjuku is safely Y/A) with plenty of BDSM kink and rape porn. These novels were originally serialized, and in Maohden, I could swear Kikuchi's editor gave him a list of fetishes and a quota.

It's not exactly my cup of tea, so I have to wonder about the market. Because it's sure there. This is hardly unique to Japan. Consider a far more successful literary import. From Steve Sailer's review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

I was at the local art-house cinema in 2010 when the third thriller [of the original Swedish trilogy] debuted, and it looked like Twilight for the elderly. The lobby was jammed with shuffling octogenarians. The restroom lines were moving so slowly that I fear many Larsson fans may have missed their favorite sexual-torture and sadistic-revenge scenes.

But what really caught my attention is the romance trilogy Fifty Shades (that started out as Twilight fan fiction). It's gotten gushy write-ups in the New York Post and the requisite handwringing from David Goldman in the Asia Times. To be clear, the sex scenes are garnering all this attention, certainly not the writing.

And yet if the sizzle was all that selling the steak required, then Hideyuki Kikuchi and E.L. James could have saved themselves a whole lot of work (and words). Not to mention all the competition from the near-infinite number of free offerings when it comes to sizzle-only entertainment.

I encourage everybody to go to Amazon and download the sample chapters for the first book. There's no sex in the sample. There is a by-the-numbers hypergamous romance formula on full display, "fifty cringingly cheesy pages of exposition before getting to the explicit sex scenes," as Chiara Atik describes it.

To be sure, I've got no beef with by-the-numbers (or, for that matter, sex scenes). Do a monomyth actioner right and I don't care how many times it's been done before. Scanning the sample chapters for books two and three, the plot of Fifty Shades apparently boils down to our alpha male corporate wonderboy having "issues."

Nobody in Kikuchi's novels has "issues." Or, rather, everybody's got issues, just of the zombie apocalypse sort, usually solved Buffy-style, with a stake through the heart.

But just as the readers of Fifty Shades-type fiction must want the kink cluttered up with "issues" and angst, so Kikuchi's readers want it couched in geeky science fiction and blood & gore action (with a hint of yaoi). This raises interesting questions about the necessary and sufficient conditions required for popular story creation.

Life in the real world is about aspiring to perfection but compromising with reality. We constantly negotiate how much of X we're willing to put up with to get Y. But I think something more subtle is involved with our entertainment choices. It's a threshold effect. Up to a certain point, it's not that we "put up with" X, we don't even notice it.

Given a good story, for example, I can forgive a lot of bad science in my science fiction. However, if I don't buy into the premise, it doesn't matter how golden the prose, high-minded the philosophy, or pristine the cinematography. Nor are these static standards, but shift from genre to genre and book to book, even chapter to chapter.

As Orson Scott Card puts it, "The stories and characters that endure do so for reasons having almost nothing to do with the talent of the writer."

Which is why the quality argument constantly thrown at fan fiction and self-publishing in particular misses the point. And why criticizing the literary quality of (and political and economic plot holes in) Harry Potter and The Hunger Games arouses such ire among their fans. You're messing with those thresholds.

Seth Roberts provides a good personal example. Wondering why he enjoyed reading The Hunger Games when Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings bored him silly, he concludes that

Sentence by sentence, even scene by scene, The Hunger Games is mediocre. It is not quotable. There is no vivid writing. The characters are barely interesting. It is not Jonathan Franzen, much less Vladimir Nabokov. But it does a wonderful job of supplying the four basic elements of a good story: a hero, a villain, making you care about the hero, and putting the hero in jeopardy.

Says Philip Pullman, "We need stories so much that we're willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them." At the end of the day, writing a "good" book won't satisfy your readers if what they really want is in the "bad" ones. In other words, if you want to get read a lot, write what a lot of people want to read.

Easy to say. A lot harder to actually do. I'm still working on it. But I'm sure it begins with disentangling what we wish about an audience's tastes from what they are actually looking for (which, of course, doesn't preclude providing a little something more on the side).

Related posts

Abstinence porn
Demon City libertarianism
The Business Rusch: Quality

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