7 X 7: Seven-Years of Herotica 7:
Writing, Publishing, Diversity and Political Correctness
Herotica 7, a collection of erotic fiction I edited in 2003, has suddenly and without fanfare finally been published. (The first print run of 2000 sold out, but a second printing is on the way.) Amazon shows it as a re-issue, but this is incorrect: the book was never previously issued. If this sounds strange, it is, but as any writer will attest, the world of publishing is exceedingly strange, and my experience with this particular book ranks as my own personal strangest.
As aficionadoes of erotica know, the Herotica series was initiated back in 1988 by Susie Bright and Joani Blank. One of the first in the genre ofwomen’s erotica, the book sold so well it grew into a series. After the third edition Bright moved on to new projects, and I took over as editor. But something funny happened on the way to Heroticas 4, 5, and 6: everyone and their Aunt Tillie—and Uncle Ned—had begun putting together erotic anthologies, creating a newly competitive field. So popular and accepted did erotica become, some readers didn’t even know that once upon a time such books were banned. The Herotica brand continued to outsell imitators, but by the turn of the century we were no longer a novelty. We decided that, to stay on top, we’d do something new for us and publish a collection of stories revolving around a single theme.
I suggested one of my lifelong obsessions—relationships between black and white lovers. Down There Press liked the concept, but wanted to expand it to be multi-cultural—stories in which the characters came from many diverse cultures and/or ethnicities.
To me this was very different: nothing is so fraught in America as black/white relationships, and stories about crossing the sexual color line are rich with potential for conflict, a mainstay of fiction. The people at DTP didn’t agree; they thought the multicultural theme was simply an expansion of my original idea. (Note: Down There Press is a subsidiary of Open Enterprises, which also oversees Good Vibrations; all three function co-operatively, with everyone having a say in business decisions.) I didn’t object to the theme of multiculturalism—I just had to let go of my original concept.
When we negotiated our contract, DTP informed me they were going to hire a co-editor to work with me. At first I objected, but when they suggested Mary Anne Mohanraj for the job, I felt a lot better.
(Backstory within this backstory: I adore Mary Anne and the creative, pioneering work she’s done in the field of erotica. I thoroughly enjoyed bouncing ideas around with her. What I did not adore or enjoy was the rationale for hiring a co-editor in the first place—basically, to serve as the book’s conscience. I had edited three erotica collections for DTP, but they did not trust that I, as a white woman, would have the broad ethnic perspective required to do the book myself. Why a Sri Lankan woman was automatically deemed more ethnically savvy than a Jewish New Yorker to evaluate stories about people from Africa, Japan, and, yes, New York, bewilders me to this day.)
As the stories poured in, I got increasingly excited: women were saying things that had never been said before. They were examining relationships between lovers from widely different backgrounds with the writer’s nuanced eye. They were going deep inside, wrestling with the conflicts and ambivalence that arise between lovers of different ethnicities. That might sound academic, but the stories are anything but: they’re still Herotica quality—hot, well-written, and entertaining. Thus, it didn’t take long for us to assemble a collection.
With one or two exceptions, Mary Anne and I agreed on our choices; the one or two we didn’t agree on we pulled. As far as I can recall, the subject of “insensitivity” towards any culture or ethnicity never came up during our phone calls and emails. I’d never worked with a co-editor, and I loved the experience—but I didn’t defer to her on matters of cultural diversity, nor did she behave like some kind of ethnic expert.
This intermission represents that painful, angst-ridden period of time between a writer’s submission and a publisher’s response. At first the writer—or in this case, the editor—eagerly waits for the powers that be to praise her work as magnificent. But a fallow manuscript is like a vegetable put in the refrigerator bin crisp and bright green: if not eaten in a few days it fades and wilts, and soon stinks up the place. Over time, a submitted manuscript devolves in the writer’s mind from magnificent to mediocre to dismal. A week of intermission equals a year of real time, and she soon fears the snarky, sarcastic critiques she imagines coming down the pike.Months go by, in some cases even years. In this case it was three or four months.
The notes I got on Herotica 7 were written by a range of Open Enterprises employees–managers, receptionists, buyers, shipping clerks. Reading them was a sobering experience. Several stories, including my own “White Lies,” were singled out as racist. It seemed like the ones most vilified were those that delved most deeply into the characters’ struggles to reconcile ingrained prejudices. Analyses of racism were interpreted as validations. In some cases, the meaning of behavior or dialogue was misinterpreted or distorted.
It is customary for publishers to ask editors or writers to make revisions, so there was nothing unusual or objectionable about DTP’s request for rewrites of my story and a few others. These were done, but DTP still wasn’t satisfied. Months went by without a word, until a letter finally arrived saying they’d decided not to publish the book. The writers and I had already been paid, so money wasn’t an issue.
There were issues, though, the main one being emotional—equal parts anger, disappointment, and disbelief—and not mine alone: many of the writers felt the same. Those who’d been contributing to Herotica for years were confused by the singular atmosphere of fear and scrutiny that surrounded this edition.
What bothered me most, and bothers me still, is this: What did these people expect when they asked me to edit a book on multicultural relationships? Did they think the stories would be the same, more or less, as any others, except the protagonists just happened to be South African or Asian or Hispanic?
I’d edited three books for DTP and contributed a story to almost every edition of Herotica, so they knew, or should have known, that I go for the dark and complicated more often than not. Is it possible they really hadn’t anticipated any complexities to emerge in stories of cross-cultural relationships? Were they unaware of the conflicts inherent in such relationships? Didn’t they know that most writers— particularly good writers, like those who regularly contributed to Herotica—weren’t likely to skim the surface? What were these people thinking when they asked me to edit this collection?
Had they expected a book they could promote like a poster for an ethnic food festival, a “celebration of diversity”? But of course! That is exactly, I realized with a sudden shock, what they had expected.
It has taken me all these years to come to terms with the essence of the situation: Herotica 7 was judged as being Politically Incorrect.
Post- rejection, I showed the manuscript to another small press, as well as to an agent, both of whom turned it down. I get too many rejections from my own mainstream fiction to put myself through more of the process for Herotica, so the book was relegated to some forgotten corner of my existence.
I edited a bunch of anthologies for Cleis Press. Down There Press was sold. Someone working for the buyer called me a few times and hinted at grand schemes for the future.
More time passed.
I joined Facebook and befriended a whole slew of writers and editors, many who work in the erotica genre. I wasn’t on Facebook a week before one of the Herotica 7 writers contacted me asking about the book’s “re-issue.” You couldda knocked me down with a feather. Soon another writer asked about it, and then a third.
Meanwhile I was frantically Amazoning and firing off emails in an attempt to discover WTF was going on. I felt I was in one of those dreams where I go to school partly undressed: caught with my panties down. Clueless. After all, who but a clueless jerk doesn’t know that her own book is being published (rhetorical question)?
According to Amazon, DTP was the publisher. Also according to Amazon, the book had been first published in 2003, edited by Susie Bright and Mary Anne Mohanraj. My name was on the cover, as an “author” afterthought. As a writer I am accustomed to insults and humiliation—still, picking at a scab can be as painful as a fresh injury.
It took a few days of emails and noise, but finally the manager of the company that had bought DTP called, very apologetic and gentlemanly. Like Amazon, he was under the impression that Herotica 7 had been previously published, and was shocked when I told him she was a print virgin. The “reissue” came about, he said, when his printer asked if he wanted the materials for the book sent back. Under ordinary circumstances, an editor wouldn’t be notified of a print run, so not informing me wasn’t disprespectful or negligent.
After the mystery was resolved, I began to enjoy the fact that my book was finally going to be published long after I’d given up on it. It occurred to me that I had work to do, for instance, contacting the writers…
…and then I remembered. I remembered that I wrote an introduction to this book more than nine years ago. A book of stories on multicultural sexual relationships. Nine years ago. Before terrorists crashed planes into buildings. Before America began torturing Arabs on an island in the Caribbean. Before we all had to remove our potentially lethal shoes at airports. Before the country divided itself into polarities of red and blue states. And before the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan raised partly in Indonesia became the first Black president of these un-united states. I tried to recall what I had written, and drew a blank. I started looking for it…
…Since writing that intro I’ve gone through two new computers and three system crashes, not to mention Apple changing the iMac to a pre-loaded Intel system. I’ve moved three times and purged my paper files once. If you think I can find the files or disks for a forsaken book…well, you’re a far more optimistic, or more organized, person. The one paper file I managed to locate was my contract.
Not only don’t I remember what I said in the introduction, I don’t remember all the stories or who wrote them, and I surely don’t know where to find the writers. Tracking down documents and people isn’t going to be easy.
But when has writing and publishing ever been easy? The quintessential story of my writing life is that, on the very same day I turned in a story about tension between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian women in the Bay Area—part of a struggle that up til then had chugged along without pause for 40 years—Rabin and Arafat shook hands. Naturally, the editor demanded a rewrite.
So yes, once again I’ll do the rewrite. Once again I’m up against two powerful forces: an ever changing political landscape and the quirky insane publishing industry. Once again I’ll jump the hoops, find the writers, chat up the book, steel myself for reviews calling it racist, and deal with whatever else follows in the wake of publication.
I’ll do it because that is what writers do in the service of the Great Literary Bitch Goddess.
Update March 11, 2010
After writing the above, I re-read the contracts for Herotica 7, and discovered they were null and void. I spoke to the publisher, who promised new contracts, a one-time payment to each of the writers as well as to me, and an opportunity for me to write a new Introduction. Seven months, three conversations and dozens of emails later I have received no contracts, no word, and certainly no money. As said publisher no doubt realizes, it’s not worth my fighting over anymore. End of saga. The publishing industry deserves to fail to digital technology: it’s been jerking around writers, its heart and soul and mainstay, long enough. Amen.