Are You Really Doing It Wrong?

I love how the setting sun is exactly cradled between these two peaks of the Jemez mountain range. Useful to know, in case my calendar breaks.

So, you all know that one of the genres I write is erotica, particularly BDSM. I get asked a fair amount why I chose that brand of kink and I have to say that I didn’t. It chose me. I’ve noticed, in fact, that even when I’m not writing BDSM, the essential elements of it do creep in. Power exchange, intimacy, vulnerability, giving up control. When writers talk about voice, they often give the advice to pay attention to your themes, that your stories will tend to cluster around certain ideas. I almost always write about transformation of some kind and the elements of power and control usually play into that.

Since I’ve published some of this work, especially the more explicit BDSM, I’ve noticed that there’s a contingent of authors and readers who want to critique the writing in terms of verisimilitude. I’ve seen reviews and comments that people who aren’t “in the lifestyle” shouldn’t, or can’t, write about it. I see authors proudly discussing their participation in BDSM activities and citing these credentials. I’ve seen them criticizing other authors for not having, or not displaying, their credentials.

Now, this is not something I talk about. Just as in my stories, I’m a believer in privacy and intimacy. What goes on in my personal sex life is not relevant to my writing. I see no reason to discuss what I may have or have not done. Really, I don’t see why any of you would care. The characters in my stories are much more interesting – and look better naked.

I find it disconcerting then, to see other BDSM authors trotting out their credentials and saying that, unless an author has done these things – and is willing to openly discuss their own sex lives – they can’t write about it. This is patently absurd reasoning. By this line of thinking, only people who have been serial killers can write about those villians. Only master spies can write espionage novels. It totally screws all the historical and speculative fiction authors – we might as well eliminate those genres altogether.

Dan Savage, whose column I read faithfully and who I greatly admire, says that the BDSM community tends to be particularly bad about the You’re Doing It Wrong syndrome. He says in this column (scroll down to the second letter):

YDIW is a social-skills disorder that members of the BDSM community are at particular risk of acquiring. (Others at heightened risk: religious conservatives, sports fans, advice columnists.) BDSMers with YDIW feel they have a right to inform other BDSMers that they’re doing it wrong—whatever it might be—even if the “it” being done wrong poses no risk to the YDIW sufferer or anyone else.

I don’t know why this attitude flourishes in the community so much, but it does seem to. The most insidious part is, the YDIW finger pointers claim that they “can tell” whether someone has experienced something personally or not. This seems to fly in the face of the whole concept of becoming a good writer. If you hone your craft and are faithful to the story, the author should become invisible. There should never be a sense of the author intruding into the character’s lives. When reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the reader doesn’t speculate on whether the author has been a male Victorian poet. We all know that Jane Austen died a spinster and never experienced the love affairs she wrote about so compellingly.

When that invidious advice gets circulated, to “write what you know,” nobody ever means that you should write only those things you’ve directly experienced. That would pretty much pull the plug on all fiction. No, instead it means to draw on those themes you understand in your heart. Human experience is universal. We know how we feel in x situation; we can take that understanding and draw on it to imagine how another situation would feel.

This is what people refer to as art.

Otherwise we might as well just videotape our lives and send those out as stories instead.

Oh wait. People already do that.

At any rate, that’s my take. Unless an author is providing a how-to guide, a “Learn to Bake an Angel-Food Cake Just Like I Do!” guide, then it’s just not relevant to question how good their angel-food cake is. There’s a good chance the cake is just a metaphor anyway.

Which is nice, because you can both have and eat a metaphorical cake. And you’re not even doing it wrong.

15 Replies to “Are You Really Doing It Wrong?”

  1. YES. THIS! A thousand times THIS. I also write BDSM and have gotten those reviews speculating on my own sex life (which I will never talk about publicly, that’s my business.) And it seems the harshest critics are those who want to wear their kink status like a tattoo on their forehead. It’s fine if some people want to be open about it–more power to them. But many seem to think if something isn’t “hardcore” it’s “you’re doing it wrong.” I write the books I want to write. Perhaps that means they are “mainstream” romantic BDSM. But does it mean it’s wrong? Does it mean that those who practice power exchange in a less hardcore way are less “official” somehow?

    It irritates the heck out of me. The whole tenet of the kink community is supposed to be about acceptance–your kink is not my kink, etc. But it seems there are a lot of people climbing up on their high horses and pulling the YDIW card.

    1. I’m glad it’s not just me seeing this, Roni. I do have a big problem with the YDIW attitude, especially with sex. I like you you put it, “your kink is not my kink.” I can’t think of much that’s more personal, more an outgrowth of who we are deep inside that how we express ourselves sexually. There simply is no YDIW. Get everyone’s consent and do what makes you happy.

      1. Sing it sister friends!

        I’ve been on a rant about this for days around my house so much so that my husband is encouraging me to write a screed about it just so that I’ll shut up.

        Unfortunately, this kind of attitude is not unusual in marginalized communities. In order to take pride in their own hard-won identity, people in almost any kind of minority group will start to fracture, exclude, and otherwise create tests for authenticity. It can be very destructive, especially when used to tell someone who has done a lot of soul searching to accept their own sexual identity–that they are not, in fact, who they think they are.

        I would hate to see that kind of destructive attitude enshrined into literary convention.

        1. What a well-articulated insight, Stephanie. You *have* been thinking about this! I think you’re right, this once-taboo topic now has a lot of interest from people who haven’t been part of the “underground.” A “test for authenticity” is exactly what it is. And what shouldn’t be happening.

      1. Time for a longer reply:
        I’ve done my fair share of Vampier Live Action Roleplay and have been Told I wasn’t serious as I wasn’t living the livestyle, just roleplaying. Ehm.. yeah, so I should drink blood daily before I’m allowed to dress up and pretend for One evening a month?

          1. For me and my friends it was just theater, nothing more. But there are people out there who think it should be a lifestyle. A reporter who wanted to interview us for a newspaper was actually disappointed we only dressed up and acted the part of vampires and weren’t actually drinking blood and sleeping in coffins. Turned out we were too boring and normal for her :-p

          2. That is so funny, Carien. Because, of course, pretending to be a fictional creature is a “lifestyle.” And drinking blood is really not healthy. I’m glad you were too boring for that silly reporter!

  2. Great post, Jeffe. I haven’t experienced this personally, but I’m constantly amazed how writers of any genre get down on other writers for the weirdest things. I write dystopian, suspense and urban fantasy. I haven’t experienced any of those things (and can’t in most cases – thank god), but I can still write about them. It’s fiction, for petesakes. And thank goodness writers don’t have to have a background in what they write about, or people like Thomas Harris would’ve been locked up years ago.

    1. LOL – I was thinking of Thomas Harris, too. He has an uncanny ability to channel serial killers. *shiver* And you’re right – there are writers in all genres, probably people in all fields of work, who like to pump themselves up by criticizing how someone else does it. A sad fact of human nature, I suppose.

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