Thursday, August 22, 2013

Pet Peeves and Problems in Lesbian Fiction

Lesbian fiction is not perfect, hampered by its limited audience, niche genre status and porn associations. This is a round up of thoughts about the problems and current status of lesbian fiction and lesbian book publishing, from typos to sex to Xena. Some of it is just general analysing, some of it is actually practical advice for writers, some of it is venting as a reader.


My Biggest Pet Peeves in Lesbian Fiction

1. Reused Plots

Predictable plots are rife in lesbian fiction; from the old coming out story to the super predictable romance to the poorly disguised Xena/Gabrielle characters, they make me grit my teeth and roll my eyes. Essentially, it's Mills & Boon writing.

Now, Mills & Boon writing has its place, mostly as filler and comfort reading, but that doesn't make it good. Nobody ever raved about "this book hit every predictable plot point, had no depth and I knew exactly what would happen next!" If you want to make a living doing this, you have to spit out an endless series of books, and make money because your readers know what they're getting and can just work their way through your backlog. But you're never going to be considered a great writer, and those of us that like reading with our brains turned on will pass you by in disgust.

It's not a problem restricted to lesbian fiction, but it's a pretty big problem within this genre. And true, not everyone can come up with something fantastically original, and these cliched storylines are reused for a reason - they work. So either take that predictable storyline and write it so well that nobody cares, or use it as a basic outline and build something new on the foundations of 'tried and true'.

2. Poor Writing/Editing

Terrible writing, execrable editing and a complete absence of proof reading are one of my greatest banes as a reviewer. Book after otherwise reasonably good book has been marred by dreadful sentence construction, awful grammar, weird typos and even weirder autocorrects. There are also the bigger issues of plot flow and contradictions and lack of research, all things that might be picked up by a decent proofreader.

Because lesbian fiction is an area with few publishers and editors (and because even a lot of the publishers will publish relatively crappy books, especially the predominantly F/F ones - Ravenous Romance, for example), standards are a lot lower. I refuse to be happy about this, however.

3. Terrible Characters

Thinly disguised Xena-Gabrielle pairings and awful, shallow characters are rife. While the bad characterisation is usually restricted to the books which also feature crappy plots and lazy writing, there are too many exceptions for me to ignore this.

If your character is badly written, I'm either going to dislike them, or just be thrown out of the story and fail to care about them, or believe in them. Worse, the events will seem forced, and the character will read like a puppet, acting out its part, rather than an individual who takes the actions that suit its character.

Now, as for uberXena fanfic, I have no inherent objections. It's a good pairing, with solid characterisation, that has understandably crept into the psyche of lesbian/bisexual fandom. Writing what is essentially fanfiction can give you a solid base to your story, and give you a premade, surefire, working combination of characters.

But please, please disguise it a bit. Once you have your story and your characters, make sure it's not just a thinly disguised cast of characters, and a checklist of events and themes straight out of Xena. Give your readers enough credit to notice what you are giving them, and do the extra work to make them your own characters.

For example, I would like you to compare None So Blind by LJ Maas and Jericho, by Ann McMan. Both started out as Xena fanfiction, and are relatively good books, but where the former features a checklist of issues, plot points and characters that can be matched up to the show (as well as bringing some original aspects to the story, which work much better), the Xena origins of the latter are only recognisable if you look hard, and the characters have evolved into something new.

4. F/F

More of a straight man or woman's sexy porn reading, this subset of the slash, gay sex genre is perfectly okay; it's predictable, sex normalising, escapist fantasy. Often, it's the more sexually diverse and explicit version of Mills & Boon writing, often spat out in similar numbers. But it's not written for, or about, or even by, lesbians, except as a shallow excuse to set up a sex scene or sexual tension. It is sexual escapism, that uses the word 'lesbian' to help set up the fantasy. Many of the stories are actually menange, threesome stories that are actually more about the guy in the middle.

The main reason it's on this list? Because it makes it so hard to find the real lesbian fiction! Not only do people read it and write off all lesbian fiction as this kind of writing, but it drowns out the other genres. If you search Amazon for 'lesbian' books, most of the top results will be for F/F "by the numbers" filler romance. And it turns people off looking for more lesbian fiction because it often hits ALL the other pet peeves on this list, from cliched storylines, shallow characters, bad editing, and terrible, terrible lesbian sex.

For example, the "Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event" that we took part in, back in 2012, ended up being mostly F/F writers.

5. Finding It

Unfortunately, between the shyness of authors and publishers and the predominance of F/F, just finding lesbian fiction in the first place is often ridiculously difficult. Either it's not labelled at all, or it's not even included (e.g. in your local library collection), or it's lost in a sea of F/F. Or, nearly as bad, it's recommended everywhere as a famous lesbian book, but turns out not to have much - or any - lesbian content at all, but was simply adopted because it was possible to read subtext in it, and it wasn't so lesbian that it scared mainstream publishers and reviewers away.

And some of it's just that mainstream novels are well known already, so it's easy to think of them; I can reel off a list of amazing authors that are also LGBTQIA friendly, like Terry Pratchett, Lois McMaster Bujold and Gail Simone, but none of them write 'lesbian fiction'. Lesbian friendly fiction is important too, but it tends to drown out the lesbian fiction sometimes.

There's not a lot that can be done about this, other than better Reader's Advisory type services (like this blog!) and more proactive descriptions from publishers, so that scanning the book description actually tells you that there are lesbians.

6. Sex Scenes

 I get that it's difficult to write sex without seeming either silly or crude or repetitive, but that doesn't mean we have to appreciate the failures. Also, SAFE SEX. It exists. Please, please, think about including it occasionally.

Don't write the same sex scenes every time. Don't write the same kinds of sex for completely different characters. The best sex scenes I have read usually involve the characters remaining themselves, having their location and mood and history and personality playing a part. Whether it's a kiss and run one night stand or two true lovers sharing their most vulnerable parts of themselves, a fumbling exploration for the first time, or a comfortable encounter between long term, experienced partners, this will make a difference. If your reader only reads the sex scene, they should be able to walk away knowing something about what kind of relationship the two women have. The only time the lovers should 'step out of their bodies' and get out of the way of the sex is if they're both prostitutes, or something. If they're acting a part.

Now, like any subject sex can be researched, which means anyone can write it. Read good sex scenes to figure out why they are sexy and fun to read. Read basic sex ed resources to figure out the proper names, where everything goes, and what real people actually need to think about when they have sex.

Writing Good Sex: Resources

Sex Ed (NSFW!)

Recommended reading of books that include sex scenes and do it well
 (all links to reviews on this site, so SFW)

7. Limited Variety

Another side effect of the limited number of books, the riskiness of niche writing and the excessive number of 'easy' romance and F/F is the neglect of other genres. There just isn't that much diversity in lesbian fiction. If you want decent fantasy, science fiction or humour, you better hope something new gets published this year, or you'll run out of reading very quickly.

There's also an overwhelming number of white American doctors, writers and lawyers, but hardly any librarians or blind women or Pacifika or seventy year olds.

Lesbian Publishing Issues

1. The genre and audience is still extremely niche. This comes along with a lot of associated issues.
  • A belief that there was no money or audience (so fewer books are written by professional authors, or at least, authors hoping to make a living, and fewer publishers are willing to take a chance)
  • Lack of decent editors (largely because of the above. There are some amazing books out there, but I've read plenty that really, really needed a good editor.)

2. Still not entirely acceptable/associated with porn, and any writing discussion has a heteronormative default
  • This turns people off from admitting that they write lesbian fiction, daring to publish any, or being proactive in publishing and getting it edited.
  • It also adds an extra 'barrier' to explaining your book to others and persuading them it's worth reading.

3. A rise in self publishing...
  • Allowed more extremely niche books to reach the shelves that publishers wouldn't risk time on
  • Allowed people to publish under pseudonyms and to publicise their work anonymously
  • Meant that some of the stuff getting published has never even been proofread
  • Also allows some amazing experiments to make it to an audience

Lesbian Fiction Types

Lesbian fiction has been dogged by bad writing and worse stereotypes for many years, and only recently spread its wings away into a variety of genres and styles. There are always exceptions, of course, but for the most part, lesbian fiction fell into one of these categories for many years:
  1. The coming out novel (fantastic if you're at that stage, but if you're well over coming out being a big deal, it's just tiresome)
  2. The serious, literary, historical novel (heavy and can be terribly boring. May also require reading a great deal of subtext and very little sex).
  3. Trashy pulp fiction/romance/mysteries (read with brain turned firmly to off position)
  4. The all female science fiction or fantasy society (interesting, but often more of a thought exercise than a story. And there are a dozen other ways to write fantasy and scifi).
  5. Erotica for the "male gaze" or F/F (...need I say more?)

Much more recently, we have seen new genres emerging, and older ones being expanded.
  1. The urban fantasy/paranormal romance (popular across the board, not just among lesbians)
  2. 'Normal' fantasy that just happens to feature lesbians
  3. Young adult books that aren't about coming out
  4. Erotica and erotic romance for women
  5. The non-serious historical novel (adventure romance)
  6. Greater acceptance and understanding of sexualities in mainstream writing, which usually shows through including more characters from across the spectrum (including bisexual, asexual and transgender characters)
Consistently good books in any of the above genres have also been increasing. Hurrah!

What bugs you the most when it comes to lesfic?

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  1. I couldn't agree more! Thankfully the genre is getting broader and self-published writers are realising that copy-editing and proofing are a must if you want an audience.

    I had a very non-serious crack at writing the first chapter of one of each lesbian genre here:


    1. Ha ha, fantastic. I'll add that link to the main post :D

  2. A sort of mix of points 1 & 3 on your list, I think - gender stereotyping. Not even in a butch/femme way (which, now that I think of it, almost never comes up) but I feel like one of two things happens in lesbian fiction: either one of the main couple is the Masculine Gender Role Actor and one of them is the Feminine Gender Role Actor or...or the characters are so very similar that it's difficult to tell them apart except by hair and eye colour. It is possible for two people to be different and to enjoy different things without relying on stereotypically gendered relationship dynamics.

    Also, just once I'd like to see an f/f/m menage in which the relationship between the two women is more than just an afterthought.

  3. Our Badass Brats stories are written by bi, not lesbian, authors. We love kink so it's not for everyone. M/f/f menage with BDSM.

    The women are not and never will be afterthoughts. I can tell women doing male centric reviews of my dark erotica book Bind and Keep Me because they moan about how the man is poorly done by despite the women being deeply in love. Funny and sad at the same time.

  4. Coming out of left field with the whole lesbian thing. Ash was a pretty good example of this.

    -Good book
    -Great characters
    -About half way through, she turns around and decides she's a lesbian

    There should be some sort of build up. Maybe the characters aren't in a romantic relationship, but have some hints about how they feel. For example, in my book the main characters have to hold hands early on. Raven's heart starts beating faster and she has no clue why. Little trick called foreshadowing.