What is literature? And where am I in the mix?
The art of crafting the next ‘Great American Novel.’
So here’s the deal: Angels of Mercy is something I’ve been blogging about for a while now. It is a very long and involved work that when I first visualized it seemed like it was something I could crank out in little over a month.
Yeah, let me restate that so you get the fullest brunt of what I (now laughingly) thought:
A TRILOGY I could crank out in little over a month. Yeah, I’d set the bar way too high it seemed and had little common sense (at the time) about practicality and the effort it takes in this thing called writing or worse yet, even the audacity of remotely calling myself an “author.”
The thing is, I am unequivocally, an author. Writing is my game. But what kind of author does that make me?
For the record, here’s my signature from any email you would receive from me. I only present it here as ‘Exhibit A‘ as we examine this topic I am rather passionate about today:
SA CollinsAuthor of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres
w. | www.sacollins.comt. | @sacollinsauthorkik | sacollinsauthor
“When I was born I was so surprised I didn’t speak for a whole year…” – Gracie Allen
“Literature is using words to artistically and expressively convey an intimate and probing look at the human condition and of human nature. It poses just as many questions as it attempts to answer that leaves each reader with their own take on what it all meant. By it’s very nature, it promotes discussion, debate and analysis because it is open-ended in what it is. It may attempt to leave you with an experience you might not ever have had, but it will do so in a very profound and engaging way. It is lasting and stands the test of time because it does one thing that will outstrip any marketed fluff work because it addresses the core of who we are as humans, regardless of the setting or the situation posed in it. The reader can transcend that character’s bindings and circumstances and evaluate what they would do or how they would feel in that situation – using all of their own life experiences to sort out what the character may or may not be able to do. That is what literature does beautifully. And it invites that level of deep examination.”
You see, Angels does pose many questions that it never attempts to answer than your average generalized fiction. My works, by their very nature, don’t adhere to genre type tropes or “rules.”
As a sidebar: rules, for me, yeah, I tend to not like them. Let the story be what it needs to be, dammit!
Make no mistake: with Angels I put my boys through literal hell. Oh, they do get a big ol Ever After, Happily (my nod to my musical muse Jay Brannan who inspired the work with his brilliant and seminal album, Rob Me Blind), but not without going through some very traumatic and epic trials along the way – proving to themselves and to the reader, that they truly understand the meaning of what love is, what love ought to be, how love can get you past anything that comes your collective way.
Marco Sforza, the high profile jock at Mercy High, never wavers as the boyfriend of artsy out but terminally shy gay Elliot Donahey. Indeed, it is Elliot who constantly questions if what he has with Marco is real – despite how many times Marco proves to Elliot that he will never waver in his devotion to all things Elliot. That was an important distinction I had to make in the work. I was tired of the old trope that the “straight-acting” jock was the weak one. Marco is nothing if not strong and diligent in his devotion of Elliot. And gayboys constantly poll and reevaluate our worlds. I know I did as a teenaged boy. I constantly was throwing shit up on the wall of – is this right or not? Is this real or not? Constantly. There wasn’t a day in my hellish four years of high school that I wasn’t doing that.
Angels dives deep into these boys minds (each volume is told from their perspective) and is 70-80% inner-monologue, you hear every nuanced thought that they go through to establish where they are in what I throw at them. For Marco, it is the script that all jock boys have memorized of how to be, and who to date and what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. But Marco isn’t like all the other teammates. He’s in love with a boy. And that boy is social toxin for a popular guy like Marco. Elliot even warns Marco away when Marco tries to befriend him (for reference sake in this scene I show below, the girl named Cindy is the head cheerleader in the class who warns Marco in a very biting way that Elliot is the “resident fag on campus.” And while not the most prosaic example, it does clue you into how Marco is starting to have his inner-monologue moments as he begins to embrace the boy who will fast become the love of his life) – Here is Exhibit B:
He sighed, and rolled his eyes.
“Look, I get that you’re still sorta new and need to make even more friends. Popularity at this school is a full-time business. Sadly, some of us aren’t allowed to open up shop, but that’s my shit, not yours. So let me spare you the angst that will rain down on you just by talking to me. I’m the resident fag on campus.”
His eyes roved over me again, bringing a new round of blush to my face, watching if those words would push me away all by themselves. Nothing doing, buddy. But keep talking. I just love listening to you.
I just shrugged. His eyes narrowed, unconvinced of my acceptance of who he was.
“Yeah, well, you’re not from around here, not really – a year’s time just doesn’t give you the historical context, so I get that you don’t understand what a catastrophic mistake you’re taking just standing here listening to me. Seriously, your school cred is bleeding out your backside while you just stand there. Misguided, if incredibly hot guy, that you are.”
I felt my face flush just at those words alone. He thinks I’m hot! Inside I was doing a happy dance! Fuck me, say it again – Please Elliot!
But he continued, “You should really listen to Cindy. She hates me. The feeling’s mutual. Thanks for trying, but it just won’t work. And I couldn’t take the pressure – or the additional torment.”
His eye scanned the length of me bringing a new round of blood coursing along my skin.
“So let’s do us both a favor and end it here while we’re still young and can bounce back from the emotional shock, shall we?”
I couldn’t think of anything more absurd. But his eyes… yes, I even got to see the other one at this point, just under the fringe of his bangs. Double the sensation of his watching me. I couldn’t say anything. I was speechless. He completely robbed me of my voice. I’d never felt this way about anyone I’d ever met. He stared at me. I wanted to say something, I did. Part of me was screaming to say something to refute what he’d mistakenly thought about me. But instead, I just stood there, probably just blinking at him. Cue the Bugs Bunny cricket soundtrack – such a fucking moron. What a fucktard.
“Oh-kay… yeah, weeeell, see ya,” and he skirted around the table. “Or not… “ he said over his shoulder and he was gone.
Only then did I move, shocked that I even found the wherewithal to begin to breathe again. I scrambled after him into the throng of students milling about, a thousand conversations adding to the din that was raging both inside and out of me. I tried to find him in the hall, no dice. Fuck!
I barely had two minutes to get to my locker, grab my next textbook and make it to class.
– Angels of Mercy – Volume Two: Marco (Chapter 2, Scene 2)
Before we get to the foul language thing in literature (a point I will most definitely come to because it was the first thing I raised when my hubby labeled my stuff “literature”), I just want to draw a line here that Marco already is trying to eschew his responsibility of that precious script the jock boys are supposed to follow. All he knows is that he is totally smitten with Elliot. He doesn’t know why at this point, but it just is. That much he is aware of. Now to be clear: Marco has experimented with another boy in his past (but the reader doesn’t know this at this point in the book – this is only chapter 2 of Marco’s take on things). But it’s something Marco has attributed to hero worship and nothing more.
Now for the foul language and literature thing. When my husband first said that my work was nothing short of literature, my first rebuttal were two points I didn’t think he could get around:
The language and the sex. You see, they are hormonally charged teenage boys (they’re eighteen so heads out of the gutters now, ’cause they’re legal).
My husband had two works for me: Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Catcher in the Rye.
Good points, that.
Because while I want my boys to examine their lives and their choices with inner-monologue, I also did not pull any punches with the sex or, as in the example above, the language. The sex and the language are what, for me, make the work actually, you know, work.
I recently got into a discussion about this very topic with other authors on LinkedIn. This was in regards to a YA work, but I thought as I was writing in that vein of New Adult (which is the logical extension of YA as those youngsters evolve into more mature themes) I thought I should chime in on the topic. My take? That language (whether foul or not) should only be used when it supports the nature and narrative of the story. The character and the situation has to support it. That is why it appears in Angels. It is indicative of how the teens are in the world today. My argument for swearing in books is that teens want to see the world as they see it reflected back to them so they don’t feel so out of it. As a parent, and a grandparent, I know that we do what we can to mitigate what our children are exposed to in life. We want to protect them. But as I said to these other authors – to what end? It was a fool’s paradise to think that by limiting it in our works we were somehow keeping it all from them. The simple truth is, we can’t be there to protect them every moment of the day. Shit is going to slip by us and they will be exposed to it. Often by their peers. The whole argument was balderdash in my mind. Didn’t mean the work had to be literally dripping with foul language to make its case either. As with all things, a judicious application of that kind of prose was called for. But to eschew it simply because it was vulgar language? Not on your fucking life!
Or as the hubby puts it: Do you think back in the day when their parents or grandparents had sex in their small home in the mid-west that the kids didn’t know what was going on? Or that curse words or swearing wasn’t prevalent in the public discourse? It was. It has been that way. To deny it’s existence and to hold the truth from the printed page (whether in ink or in pixels on an electronic device of the day) I think is absolutely ludicrous. Ultimately, it serves no purpose and says more about the pent up Judeo-Christian guilt complex we as adults have over these types of words rather than anything a teen or tween would put on them. Make no mistake, they hear the shit every damned day.
But I knew my experiences were vastly different from those boys around me. As a gay teenaged boy, I found, quite by happenstance, John Rechy’s bold soul-exposing The Sexual Outlaw. I needed men like Rechy because I CRAVED another gay man’s voice to instruct me (even in a fictional or quasi-fictional narrative) on the nature of homosexual intimacy. I fucking literally – Ate. That. Shit. Up!
John Rechy became GOD to me. At least in the literary sense. I owe that man because he helped keep me sane and focused as I navigated the torrential and often unstable waters of high school in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when being gay was definitely NOT the thing that was done easily or safely.
I needed Rechy. I needed him so fucking badly that I burned with it. For most of my high school years I burned for his words to soothe me. I needed him to calm my fears and show me that there was something out there beyond the hellish life of high school. Even if it was fraught with new dangers and hidden meanings, there was still something other than fear, death and abuse that was so prevalent in the media where gay characters were concerned.
His works also led me to Gordon Merrick. While Rechy is definitely a literary writer, Merrick was pure romantic fluff. One gave me confidence and knowledge, the other took care of my heart. These two men keep me going in those hellish years of high school. When the bullying became too much I’d pull those paper bag covered books (to hide what they were to others) and read them with tears on my face, licking wounds and letting these men soothe my battered soul. They were my bibles. I had them in my backpack every damned day over those four long years in high school. I didn’t feel safe if they weren’t with me.
I put on a good face for my school mates and my family, but inside there was nothing but fear going on.
That is what I weave into Angels. I wanted to play with those tropes that I actually lived through. I also am weaving the collected experiences of not only myself but my husband and other gay brothers I knew out there who have shared their experiences. Angels is a massive work that addresses what it means to be a gay man. Now admittedly, it isn’t every gay man because no narrative could successfully capture that. But what I attempt to do is put to complete opposites together and watch explore how their choices, both good and bad, effect what comes out in the long run.
I hold up a mirror to gay men at their prime of youth as they step into their adult lives. It examines how the choices they’ve made in the past that seemed to make sense back then can have horrifying repercussions down the road that the character had no way of foretelling would come their way. It explores the societal roles and mores that are often foisted on men (both in general and on gay men in particular) that make nearly any decision problematic. I ask a great many questions of which my boys only answer a few – leaving the reader with making up the difference in their own mind about homophobia, it’s cause (in the case of my novel), the missteps or foibles my boys stumble into without intention of doing so, the family dynamics that are in play – even when they are the most supportive family around, how you as a gay man can feel so utterly alone in a sea of support.
Angels is not a simple work. I didn’t really know that going in. I see it now. And while it was always intended to be an unflinching intimate look at a young gay man’s psyche as he makes his way to find happiness, it was also meant to be an ensemble piece. I like ensemble pieces. It’s those complex relationships that provide the color and texture that my boys play against. They have to be real, they have to be just as multi-faceted. No cardboard cut-outs in my worlds. My dramatic training won’t allow it. I’ve read other works that moved in this type of vein.
Look Homeward, Angel (if you haven’t read it) is a massive work as well. Indeed, the main character doesn’t make his entrance for nearly the first quarter of the book. Instead you are informed and become intimately acquainted with the members of his family in the turn of the twentieth century North Carolina. On the onset you keep asking yourself (as a reader) who the main character is because the ensemble is vast but deeply engaging. I fell in love with Wolfe’s prose. Where Forster (my other literary love) was concise and eloquent, Wolfe was expressive and brilliant in extended and well-crafted words and artistic phrasing that bordered on if it didn’t outright succeed on genius. I often had a notebook nearby just so I could jot down and capture those brilliant words or phrases because they moved me so when I was reading the work.
To be honest, it would’ve been a book I would’ve hated as a teen. I am glad my husband introduced me to it as an adult. I can appreciate it now without any literary baggage from my youth.
In a very real way, I can see how Marco, Elliot and the boys from Mercy, California are in the same vein as Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel or Gore Vidal’s Burr, or Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Those works have numerous sub-text going on. My work does too. There have been very long discussions with both my husband (who edits my work – I trust no one else regarding the preservation of my voice in literature than him) and the beta readers who preview the work as I write, regarding how my boys progress in the story and how the secondary characters support the narrative.
I am constantly responding (when beta-readers prompt me when previewing the work (as it is unpublished at this juncture)) when asked by them: What do you want to know from me? What feedback do you want me to give?
For me it is simply this –
- Are the characters believable? (I think this is a given from any author in any genre or work)
- Is the progression of the story organic in nature?
- Does the character ever seem to go “off the rails” without cause?
- Is the main character (MC) engaging? Do you root for him?
- Are the supporting characters engaging?
- Do you find the MC likable? Do you identify with him (for any reason)?
- Is the character study narrative (which often breaks the fourth wall) of concern or does it detract from the overall story?
Now, granted, most of those questions would come from any author working on any piece. I’d have to concede that point. But, herein is the critical difference for me: whatever the reader says in return goes through very careful analysis by myself and my husband. A round of talks on the pros and cons of what came back is distilled and weighed against the full arc of the story (because only we know the entire story) and sometimes the nature of what is given back to us may indicate initially that there is confusion in certain areas – but those are probably intentional on my part and any confusion response would only serve to underscore that type of approach.
My husband did offer one critique in defense of my waving away that my work was literature. It came from my cousin. A mother of a gay son. A woman who had read many things but never read anything like I had written. Certainly, nothing with a gay protagonist. Amazingly (well, to me at any rate) she said that she identified with Elliot (the out, but shy, gay kid) because she too had been bullied by the popular girls in school and knew all too well what that felt like. She came to root for him because of that inward alliance she felt with him as a character. She also told me that the struggle that I have Elliot go through with his “nothing but supportive” parents was revelatory in that as a mother to a gay son, she always took on the mantle when they didn’t connect that she was doing something that made that happen. It wasn’t until she read how Elliot struggled to give his mother the proper credit for the absolute unwavering love and devotion she has for him – even if he ultimately doesn’t know how to connect with it. That is what my cousin took away from Elliot.
IT WAS EPIC to hear that! As an author you have no idea if your work will ever connect with anyone. You just don’t. You think that you’re the only person who will ever find the work of value.
And to be clear – when I say value, I mean value more than the money that I collected from the effort. I’ve often said I would trade 10K five star reviews if I get ONE gay boy who finds my work meaningful. ‘Cause I am writing for him and guys like him. Guys like me at that age (or any other). Doesn’t mean I won’t be appreciative for any of my readers because I will be humbled by them all, but it is to those boys like me that will always tug upon my heart. I will always make time for them.
Before I wrap this up I have two more points to quickly make – even when I attempted to write fluff stuff for a “fan” of mine (my first real fan actually beyond family and friends – though now I consider him family) I found I couldn’t do it. Well, I mean I could write it – but it’s also heady and rife with inner-monologue.
“It’s a fucking WEREWOLF story!” I kept saying to myself. Fantasy, right? Yeah, as it turns out – even werewolves can be literary-esque. Who knew? I sure as hell didn’t, I can tell ya that!
Even then, Hank O’Malley and Riley Raintree and my other wolf boys of the Sparrow’s Hollow wolf pack are very literary too, it seems. I can’t seem to escape the heady prose of inner-monologue even when I am expounding on the trials and tribulations of being a shape-shifting man in the wilds of Appalachian West Virginia. It’s my style, I suppose. My author voice.
It’s as if that quote from Gore Vidal keeps ringing in my ear regarding an author’s style (as opposed to craft):
Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.
– Gore Vidal
Now THERE’S a man with style. I gained my love for Gore Vidal through my husband. And I relish the hell out of that man’s glorious body of work.
And here’s another little side trip that was recently posed to me by author pal, Jayne Lockwood (the inserted commentary is mine):
First off – I LOVE your cover as it is. It pops when on thumbnail, and is instantly recognisable.BUTYour cover hides a literary work. At first glance, it could be a book about American football. Would that alienate some of the readership you are trying to woo?At second glance, it could be a piece of fun fiction. The depth of the book isn’t hinted at.Look at other novels of literature that you admire. Do you see anything that links them? (Genuine question – I haven’t looked either.) John Rechy’s City of Night has a cool nighttime cityscape cover.Angels of Mercy is about beautiful young men. First love. What goes on teenagers’ heads. School social dilemmas. Coming out. Prejudice and homophobia. Family dynamics.American football? Nope. <— (I disagree and I’ll come to this anon)I’m playing devil’s advocate here, just making you think about it….
It was something to seriously consider. And better to do it now rather than after I had launched any marketing campaign.
Before I get into my take with what Jayne poses to me to reconsider my current novel cover iterations, but let’s take that with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel throughout the years since it’s first publication, shall we?
Here is the cover my husband read in the mid-1950s (he’s commented that this picture from a Google Images search could just have easily been his dog-eared copy):
But this wasn’t the only version of the book cover through the years (as a matter of reference the very first picture in this blog post is what is the current edition – which my husband says is now his favorite):
From the 1940’s through 1990’s (though I will withhold one cover to make my counter-point to Jayne’s quoted comment above):
Or how about this one?
Or what about this take from 1929? Modernist much? Art Deco gone awry? How does this cover possibly relate a family in the mountains of North Carolina?
Now here’s the kicker to all of this book cover stuff – the PULP fiction cover from the 1950s:
My husband laughed at this one because there is NOTHING remotely reminiscent with regards to the actual story. As a matter of reference, it was originally published in 1929. He said the current iteration has elements that tie back to the metaphors in the story. That is what makes it a great cover.
So back to Jayne’s point and question, and even her thought on the potential to short change my literary work with the covers I’d designed myself.
My husband’s take on it (which I hadn’t considered) is born out of Jayne’s second sentence in what I’ve quoted above (emphasis is mine):
First off – I LOVE your cover as it is. It pops when on thumbnail, and is instantly recognisable.
His point being that my cover does pop, it does what it is intended to do. And the elements do tie back to the metaphors of my story in a very direct way as well. It does garner attention on a grid of other books on Amazon or Barns and Noble. And as for the “is it about American Football?”
The answer is a resounding YES.
And here’s why: While the story does not deal with the machinations and the ins and outs of the actual game, what it does do is that it uses the arena of competitive sports as the premise for these boys to deal with the dark topic of homophobia and the like.
So my counter is that the story does deal with football in a very real way – even if it isn’t deluged with play-by-play analysis. Indeed, my other author pal, Brad Vance wrote a masterfully brilliant novel that I fast-tracked onto my Desert Island Book List (meaning: a book I can’t do without). It too had football and competitive sports as the backdrop in how that field messes with men’s minds and hearts. That work is Given the Circumstances. If you haven’t read it, I highly encourage you to do so – post haste!
In fact, this work is what brought me to Brad himself. I began a correspondence with him that has happened on and off to this day. Indeed when I had a mini-melt down over this whole writing mess, he was very quick to swoop in and offer words of encouragement. Something I am deeply grateful for to this day. Brad is one of my absolute favorite people. Brad’s cover hints at the football connection but the work isn’t about the game directly but the mental and emotive things that swirl around the protags of his story. Like Angels, he uses the gridiron and the diamond (football and baseball, respectively) as backdrops to address the deeper psychological drama that plays out in men’s minds and hearts in these circumstances (see how I tied it back to your title, Brad?).
So in a very real way, my covers do EXACTLY what I want them to do. To get a reader to see them in a grid of other titles. They do look different, they do pop. They only serve the purpose to have someone pick it up to READ the synopsis blurb where I get to “pitch” the story to a potential reader. That is what the cover should do. Will some not bother, perhaps. No more than those who didn’t pick up Brad’s work either.
Now, having said that, my cousin (Remember her? The mother with the gay son?) did say that she probably wouldn’t have thought to pick up the novel to read it based on the cover. But she did say it was eye catching. So yeah, there is a balance to consider.
I’ll think about it. But really, if the whole “I’m searching for a literary agent to pick this up and sell it,” then it is really out of my hands at that point because a publisher will be making the marketing determination in addition to the cover artwork. So it all may be for naught.
So yeah, literary works. They’re definitely a tricky monster – whether you’re writing about geeky artsy gay boys (like I was) or their uber-cool and popular jock stud boyfriends (like my hubby did in high school and at Clemson), or they are werewolves roaming the forests outside a fictitious town in West Virginia circa 1956, you can still write literary oriented works. The topic at hand, the situation your characters go through are merely the vehicle. My takeaway from all of this is that what I do within my works are that I don’t shy away from very tough questions I want to reflect back to society. Especially those with a decidedly queer perspective like I write.
My hubby has the right of it. It isn’t the volume of what you write. It isn’t the prose you use (though it does help elevate it quite a bit), but rather it is the manner in which you tell the story. The voice you use and how you work with the questions you are addressing and giving an unflinching voice to walk a reader through those tough calls in life. Allowing them to answer questions your characters often can’t – even if it ultimately comes from their own experiences rather than anything you as an author have put down.
It begs discussion and analysis, because it ultimately holds up a mirror to ourselves. Even if the main character is a shy gay boy and you happen to be a 50 year old heterosexual female mother of a gay son. If you can see yourself as that main character, if you can draw some sort of conclusion to those questions that you as an author pose but never fully answer, then you just might have true literature.
But let’s be clear: Just slapping the word literature (whether in regards to your work or in a group you create on Facebook or in the social strata) on something doesn’t make it so. And I embrace that. It really isn’t for me to say what the work is. That’s for others to put on it. But I do know one thing: It needs to have a lasting commentary on the social structure before us. It needs to encapsulate unequivocally the human condition and nature with all of our faults and foibles as well as our joyous and tremendous gifts life has given us. It needs to be bold and unflinching and most importantly – it needs to have NO guarantees. This is where I think that general genre fiction fails to make the final step into true literature. Any guarantee in a given trope or genre impedes to a great degree anything that can cross over and become both timeless and timely all at the same time.
That is what I’ve come to learn is true literature. In that case, given what I know I’ve done with Angels of Mercy, I think my husband just might have something there when he says that’s what it is.
Even if I never started out to do that in the first place…
Until next time…
With a plate full of fluff, where do I put my literature?
Stream of Consciousness Time Here:
This one is a pure rant. I accept any bullshit flung my way from this vomit of “where’s the fucking art” in writing that I am about to sling your way.
This past year I woke up after toying for (literally) years with story ideas that I’d always wanted to put down. Mostly for my own amusement, with the odd thought that maybe, just maybe, someone else out there might find them of interest. And maybe with an eye to posterity (of some sort) that I was leaving behind that “I was here.” A stake in the proverbial literary catalog, of sorts.
So I started this website, started to post my WIPs (Works In Progress), started to blog about the craft of writing (which I take VERY seriously), started to cultivate getting to know other authors out there. I’ve gotten to know a few. I’ve chatted with some at length. Mostly I try to keep away from it all because to a great degree it’s been rather demoralizing as I write very differently from what they do. I know I am the oddball out. I know that my works don’t fit their often myopic mold.
I grouse at my poor husband about it all the time. I do pity him having to listen to me carry on about this. And I do, and I know it might sound like my little choo-choo has gone completely ’round the bend at times.
My issue? Most of what I read now doesn’t have any real depth to it. It’s all fucking fluff. Fluff is what’s selling. Literally I have close to 1200 books on my nook alone and I’ll start several of them in tandem, trying to find something with which to hang my literary hat on and say – “Now we have something here, boys and girls.”
But I suppose that in this day and age of rapid information, of stories in television that must be told quickly, that our society has gotten used to a steady diet of sugary and thinly written prose as if it were the real thing: true literature. How do I come to this? Because there are Facebook groups set up by authors with LITERATURE in their title. As if using that word alone will elevate the level of their writing.
I see reviews of works I’ve picked up (primarily, because of those reviews) where the author is lauded with “powerful writing” or “story that moved me to tears” and read the damned thing and went – WHAT THE BLOODY FUCK??! I didn’t even bother to review it online. It wasn’t even worth my responding to it. More often than not it was better spent lining the bottom of my cat box (if I’d bothered to buy the actual paperback). Thankfully, 98% of my library is now digital so the death of trees is not a consideration for me.
I don’t write genre fiction. If my works tend to lean into some specific genre then it is a prop no more than the dress I may put a character in. Why? Because I deal in character studies. I deal in diving deeply into the psyche of a given protag with all of their inner-monologues. I want you to know who they are – unequivocally.
Oh, I know I have that in my signature line in my email: SA Collins, Author of Gay Literature Fiction across multiple sub-genres. So I try to be honest about what I do. It is the LITERATURE part of that signature that means the most to me.
The question I keep coming back to is: Why can’t the writing be better? Jesus, sometimes I feel like I have ants crawling all over me as I read something that got five stars when I’d rather piss all over the work. And it’s not limited to just M/M Romance here (though to a great degree that genre hovers barely above the fan fic it was recently born out of). I used to remind the women who have made it into an industry on its own that it had roots in the MALE writers of the previous century. That their iteration of it only came into fruition during the gaieties of the 1990’s. Now I am not so sure. Why? Because those men – John Rechy, Gordon Merrick, to even EM Forster, Langston Hughes and the great Oscar Wilde – those men wrote real blood and bones literature. It truly isn’t the same as the M/M fluff that is out there masquerading as powerful prose.
And to be clear, I’m not saying I am the next Forster or Rechy. I am still working at my craft. But I am not about the sales. Jesus, was there ever a fucking cop out than to be totally capitalistic about it? Does the success of the work not speak for itself without it having to translate into dollars/pounds/pesos or the like?
I get that we all want to pay bills. I get that making a living doing the thing we love most is important to us. But how many great stories have been modified, quelled, softened or outright killed by their own author because there is the fear that “oh, this one won’t be as popular as that fangless disco sparkly vampire shit that’s all the rage right now?”
I know not everyone is up to the task of writing real literature. I get that. Jesus, what a bland fucking world that would be if we all were the Wildes of our times? It would be a pretty bitchy crowd as well.
But it doesn’t end with these self-pubbed or god forbid, small publishing boutique houses, who think they’ve become the barometer of what’s acceptable and can qualify as real literature or even proper storytelling.
And just what the fuck happened to real literature?
That’s what I’d like to know. Even the “NYT Best-Seller” list has questionable material out there.
50 Shades of SHIT, much? (I mean, have you read it?!)
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Harper Lee is about to have her sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird (a book I adored as a teen) published after some 40+ years. My first thought – who cares if it’s shit? It’s gonna be much better written than the crap people are slinging around now.
And it isn’t limited to books either.
Let’s take television writing, for example –
Two character driven shows I am currently caught up with (that I was certain were going to get cancelled) have somehow miraculously survived (to my absolute shock):
and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful
The first (Looking) has come under a lot of fire from the gay community as well as the mainstream audiences. The first complaint lodged at it – it was an unrealistic portrayal of the gay community. Okay, perhaps for some of you. Yet, living in the SF Bay Area as I do (and yeah, even in the goddamned city itself) I gotta tell ya, I was more pleased than not by their first season voyage. So how did I come by to give them a pass when so many of my community seemed to shit-can it?
They said it was boring, it moved too slow.
I love slow.
I love the unveiling or unraveling of a character as they spiral out of control or try like hell just to hold onto what they think will work for them even when every indication is that it won’t. And can I stop and just laud Raul Castillo for a moment? His Ritchie completely slays me. His character is so to the core of who Latinos in the gay context are (don’t let the nom de plume fool ya, I am half-Latino). He doesn’t represent every gay Latino – who could? – but what he does brilliantly is that he encapsulates the culture so well that you feel his family roots in every scene he’s in. I get giddy as a school girl when he’s on the screen. And Lauren Weedman‘s Doris is one of the BEST written women’s roles out there. I am literally on pins and needles when she’s on screen. Her Doris is a knock-it-out of the park performance that can’t be missed.
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The push against slow reveal? Hmm, sound familiar from my argument above? Rapid information age, much?
What I liked about Looking was exactly that – it was a slow reveal of these guys lives. And yeah not all races were equally represented. I get that. But hey, news flash – neither is the other hit on HBO’s roster – GIRLS. No one seems to be bagging on that show about it’s lack of inclusion. Yet, Looking got hammered (both comedically by a trashy assed group out of LA who did their rather pedestrian attempt at a comedy spoof which I found wholly un-funny, and by several critics of the show who blogged (rather poorly worded rambles, I might add) about what didn’t work for them). Fine. I accept that Looking may not be for everyone. BUT what I do rail against it the fucking notion that you have to have all your shit answered in the first five minutes of the goddamned show or you label it BORING. Give the writers a fucking chance to flesh them out, will ya before saying – eh, it’s boring!!
News flash, all of our lives to a great degree are. Maybe that was the fucking point of the show – a little realism rather than heightened drama from the first minute of an ep to the last?
Guess what: You’re boring, fucktard for thinking that slow reveal is boring. (I know, I know – not very prosaic of me, is it? Can’t help it – I’m at the end of my tether with this shit).
Characters are getting more and more stifled because of rapid writing and thinly dressed paper doll characters. I would think it safe to say that 95% of what’s out there in genre fiction is barely fleshed out. Some of it is appalling that it past muster on someone’s – ‘ooh, let’s get that one out there for the masses‘ with the desire to get them to drink the damned poorly written, thinly flavored Kool-aid.
Also, sidebar: what’s with the tiny assed novels (which are more like wordy brochures/pamphlets in my book) lately? Angels V1 is 207K words and V2 is topping out at a whopping 752K (and I ain’t done with it yet)! My work is epically big. And those that have read it have commented that it’s all pretty damned relevant – not much to cut there. Not that length is any measure of what is literature. I know that. It is the quality of the writing that elevates it to that level.
(Puts soap box away on this little side rant.)
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In the case of Showtime’s brilliant Penny Dreadful, I am overwhelmed by the writing style of that show. Gay writer and creator John Logan is a brilliant craftsman of the modern age in my book. I am a fanboy for life with this guy.
To have the brilliance of tackling most of the great gothic horror monsters in one show and of diving deeply into their strive to hold onto some small thread of their humanity is nothing short of a brilliant take on the work. I love that this show doesn’t go from one ep to the next where you think it will go. No, Mr. Logan gives us sweet and well written bon monts, gently peeling back layer upon layer of the character as we dive into their core. Characters that are desperate to hold onto that humanity at all costs, when they know their darker monsters are what make them truly strong enough to survive in their harsh world.
One episode sticks out most for me. It was a complete diversion from the main story arc but was at the root of why the whole series was being revealed in the first place. It’s focus was on the backstory of Eva Green’s character of Miss Ives and her past history with Mina. It went way out of the scope of the current arc, but it informed us of why we were where we were in the main storyline.
THAT, my friends, is brilliant and well-crafted prose. I nearly, literarily speaking, creamed in my jeans over this type of work. Only then to have a sudden fear creep over me that – “No, this is too good. It’ll get shit-canned for sure. The masses won’t keep watching this type of character driven period drama.” But apparently, Showtime was invested enough that Mr. Logan and crew were given not only a renewal part way into the first season, but also that they’ve bought into how Logan is revealing these iconic and well loved characters for a new audience. And they increased the number of episodes for the second season! Bang on brilliant in my book!
And I get that some people don’t like high prose writing. Not everyone finds Anne Rice’s works to their liking. I happen to love her writing style. As I do with her son, Christopher. Though I find his gushy blog ramble on M/M romance of late to be a bit out there.
I know fluff sells, because most of us live those boring damned lives and want some escapism to give us some much needed pent up steam release. I get it. But we’ve become dangerously weened off the good stuff in favor of this steady diet of fluff. Are we in peril of becoming literary diabetic from all this sugary coated ramble that we’re passing of as “5 star” writing?
Jesus, has the bar become that low now?
And for a guy like me who actually is trying to write the real literature stuff (and no, my NaNoWriMo HO’M,O wasn’t an attempt to do that – though I did try to elevate the prose a bit – it was more of my feeble attempt at fluff for a fan of mine since he loves werewolves so much – I wanted to have a bit of fun with his topic of choice) where do I fit in on the personal library plate? And I constantly hone my craft to look at the actual prose, to see if what I’ve worded serves the character to the best possible degree.
Not that everyone gets it, either. I mistakenly passed off Angels of Mercy to a small boutique house who simply didn’t get what the work was about – why? Because they don’t have anything like it in their roster. How do I know ? Well, a decent sized chunk of what I have on my nook was bought from that house. I think after I’ve perused that much of their catalog I get what they deem to be publishable. The response from my submittal – your character repeats what he says in his head a lot. It is what teenagers do to solidify that what they perceive is indeed real or not. They are constantly pulse checking where they are with others and with themselves. But the acquisitions person who picked up the work couldn’t get past their formula for the books they were churning out. And the size of the work was an issue.
To which I nearly laughed out loud – “Uh, do you remember what your youth was like? Cause the character is a teenaged boy who is living in fear of each day being ‘the day’ he will be beaten to a pulp. He is constantly checking and re-checking his world. It is a psychological element to his character. How do I know this? BECAUSE it is from my own journals and notes AS A GAY YOUNG BOY IN HIGH SCHOOL. The shit was REAL.” But hey, I am sorry that it didn’t fit into your formulaic and myopic view of what was “selling.”
I’ve decided that Angels is too great a work to go through the foibles of boutique publishing or even self-pubbing. It may mean that it ultimately sits on the shelf in my house and on a computer until it can find a proper home (probably via an actual literary agent shopping it around for me – so there’s that battle to wage down he road). And even with that sort of backing, it is an extreme long shot that it would do well. I get that. There’s simply too much white noise fluff out there to weed through.
The hubby swears it will find a home with a proper publisher and it WILL get read by the masses. I wish I had his confidence. I don’t.
What I do know, is that Angels captures that waffling of youth quite well (and I am not tooting my own horn here – I’ve had several people read the work in its current form and all unilaterally have said it isn’t genre fiction – what I’ve got is real literature and that it’s pretty bang on the money with how I did it).
I just don’t know if my work will ultimately sell, mostly because I am caught up with writing about inner struggles that are 70% or more inner-monologue. Think of Rice’s Louis or Lestat on steroids and you’ll get the picture.
That’s my worry. I write what I write, but ultimately to what end? I don’t have an answer for that. All I see is five star ratings for stuff that I just can’t see the value in it. And I have to cop to the fact that it is selling hands-down. But I think that is because they’ve (the mainstream buying audience) been fed a steady diet of pedestrian prose, both in book and media form, that is passing itself off as great (and powerfully moving) writing. But is being a best-selling author truly the only barometer of a well-crafted work? Let’s be honest, I don’t think much of the fluff being passed around here will be remembered seventy years or so down the line. It’s written for immediacy in selling and the in the moment hype. It has no lasting purpose, not really. Let’s be honest.
Maybe that’s why I keep reading the classics. I need to be reminded why Look Homeward Angel was a brilliant piece of fiction. Or my favorite, Maurice. There is one paragraph in Maurice that I still read many times over when I come to it. It is the description Forster gives about Penge that is simply a few sentences but so beautifully structured that I am caught it the absolute brilliance of the concise prose Forster employs to completely paint the picture of this crumbling British estate. But most of the book is like that. His prose is so well-crafted in the piece that it became a bit of a hallmark for me. I want to write, not necessarily in that style, but to that sort of structure. Only from a first-person perspective, because I think they are the most revealing. I’ve also recently picked up the un-abridged edition of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray – which is decidedly far more homoerotic than the original publisher would allow in his day.
Okay, I’m spent.
I’ve done my bit of a rant now. Not that it does anyone any good (me included).
And to be clear – though I know I will be taken to task on it (as a sidebar in case you’re wondering: I don’t care) – I think there is room for the fluff; I am just saying that can we all aspire to write to a higher purpose at times? Or is the all mighty buck the be all/end all now?
That’s my worry. I think I may be a dying breed or a breed that has already passed. Too late to the actual literary party.
Eh, maybe I’ll just give it all up at the end of the year.
If only my boys in my head who have stories to tell would let me get away with that. But I know they won’t.
So I tinker away at it while others laud and applaud themselves for being “yay this, and yay that.”
My take on it? I think, if Angels sells by some odd miracle of fate, I would be so humbled by it I think I might go into seclusion. Which is rather odd for me, because I am a child of the theatre – I’ve been performing in front of large houses (several thousand seats) since I was a child (under a different name). Yet, success in the literary world would scare the bejesus out of me. Perhaps because maybe that would lead me to think that my work would be in the pantheon of Vidal, Forster, Wilde and the like.
To be clear, I don’t think I am in their league. Not yet, at any rate.
But I press on.
Until next time …
Guest Blog on LadyJ’s Site – Hooray!
Guest blog on author pal, Lady J (Jayne Lockwood)’s blog site and her erotica website SavannahSmythe.com regarding the release of my new work – HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega A Sparrows Hollow Lycanthropic Adventure.
I encourage you to check it out and also to take note of a cracking hot story coming your way from the Lady writer herself – Lexington Black. Looks to be one helluva read and I can’t wait to sink in.
Thanks for the shout out, Lady J. Big hugs to ya for highlighting my recent release.
Check out the book that was too much for Amazon –
For every reader who buys the “watered down” abridged version (The Shrill of Sparrows) on Amazon they’ll find a email address to reach out to me and I’ll send them the controversial version of the work free of charge!
Banned By Association
Okay, maybe it was my fault.
So I hit a BIG learning curve here. Epically so. Why, you might ask? Because my first work, a novel that was released to the world from several selling platforms, Amazon being just one of them, got BANNED! But since it all took place this past week I didn’t want to do a knee-jerk blog post about it. I wanted some distance from it to sort it out. I’m like that. I can be wordy and preachy when my ire is provoked, but at times, like this time, I was able to quell that rash desire to lash out and opted instead to think things through.
I’m glad I did. And while I might not like Amazon’s decision, I recognize it was theirs to make.
I mean, they’re the big guns in the literary world, like it or not. Even the big publishing houses have to play ball with them. So a little guy like me doesn’t have much pull. I haven’t brought enough money to the table. And I know that it is all about the money.
I mean, I think it is interesting that my book, with a rough sex scene (the hero in the story is raped physically by the bad guy in the series) near the end of the book, could be blocked/banned because of that scene when say EL James 50 Shades (of crap, if you ask me) gets a pass. Though to be fair, I guess rape wasn’t in the cards for that drivel. But what about the Bible? It has rape, pillaging and all sorts of violence spread throughout the work.
TO BE CLEAR: I don’t consider the Bible (or any other religious text, for that matter) to be holy or sacred. They are books like any other – written BY MAN. So yeah, I so won’t get into that debate ’cause to my way of thinking that’s just messing with 9 bags of cray-cray (as my granddaughter says).
But as a newbie author, doing the self-pub thing on my own, I know I have a learning curve ahead of me. I know that my works will stumble and I might make some epically bad moves. I get that it’s part of the process. I don’t expect to be “the next BIG thing” when it comes to literary works. Though to be honest, I do write literature. I write character studies. I find them infinitely fascinating to write from. I want to immerse the reader into the psyche of the character who is telling you the story. All of the inner monologue that we all have in our day to day lives that never gets said to the outside world.
Those monologues are deeply fascinating to me. At times I listen to my own mental ramblings as I interact with others. Not that there are voices in my head – well, okay there are, but they are my characters working out their upcoming scenarios that I need to get sorted before I write them down – I SWEAR!
Anyway, so my first work was out there on all platforms –
- It was meant to be a fluff, fun and slightly scary read as part of my NaNoWriMo 2014 writer’s challenge project that I won last November -writing the bulk in what made it into the published work within 26 days out of the 30 for the challenge. The werewolves have this ease with themselves where sex comes into it because that is how pack life is for them. The sex keeps them rooted to their human existence.
- It was meant to be a story for my very first fan, Michael, who has a penchant for sexy guys and werewolves. I wanted to do some thing for him. I even made him one of my wolves IN the story. He loves it and I couldn’t be happier. The hot and heavy man action was a nod to him.
- Sex within my packs of werewolves (which are ONLY male, btw) is a way of exchanging power. It is a metaphor I am using in that submissiveness doesn’t equate weakness. Sometimes, it actually takes far more courage to be there for another in that way. I wanted to play with that dynamic. My wolves keep telling Hank (Henry) that, as the pack’s new Omega, he doesn’t belong to them – they belong to him!
We’re contacting you regarding the following book:HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega: A Sparrows Hollow Lycanthropic Adventure by Collins, SA (AUTHOR) (ID:5629640)During our review process, we found that this content is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale. If we identify additional submissions with similar content that violates our guidelines, we may terminate your account or you may lose access to optional KDP services.
To learn more about our content guidelines, please visit our Kindle Direct Publishing Help page at:
Kindle Direct Publishing
Since the work was classified as Erotica, I assumed that the first two sections of this lack of direction was the Pornography and the Offensive Content areas of this little policy write up. But how was I supposed to work with that?
It could’ve meant that ANY of my sex scenes were objectionable, right? I had to question it all. So I went out and offered a “hey, I’m new – what do I do to address this so I can learn from it and not repeat it?” I just wanted something or someone to direct me to what was in violation of the policy.
All I got was this (the bolding and underlining of the email content are mine as I am just drawing attention to what stood out for me when I read it):
We’re contacting you regarding the following title:
HO’M,O – Henry O’Malley, Omega: A Sparrows Hollow Lycanthropic Adventure by Collins, SA (AUTHOR) (ID:5629640)
We’ve confirmed that your book(s) contains content that is in violation of our content guidelines and we will not be offering this title for sale in the Kindle Store. As stated in our guidelines, we reserve the right to determine what we consider to be appropriate, which includes cover images and content within the book.
If you wish to re-publish your book(s) with content that meets our guidelines, it will need to be submitted as an entirely new ASIN and go through our standard review process. Previous customer reviews, tags, and sales rank information are not transferable because the title will essentially be a different product.
Our content guidelines are published on the Kindle Direct Publishing website.
To learn more, please see: https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A2TOZW0SV7IR1U
We appreciate your understanding.
Quick! The Stork Done Took My Baby!
Okay, not really freaking out too much here. I mean, there was no stork, even if there was a baby (of sorts).
What happened was, I bit the bullet. I grinned and bear(ed) it. I took a leap of faith…
I published my first work.
I’m happy with it. Even if it isn’t the type of work I normally do. Part of me was concerned with that — perceptions and all. You see this work is a silly piece of fluff. Well, not silly, more sentimental and erotically charged. And while I am not about censorship when it comes to gay men and our sexuality, it is rather strange that I have a very sexual book out there that my mother can read!
Okay, I should stop worrying about that. I am gonna write what I’m gonna write. It is what it is. Right?
Yeah, well, I ain’t so sure now. Only because the next work I am putting out there is the important one. It’s the series that I feel the strongest about.
Hank and my boys of West Virginia are great. I love them and they’ve given me a spark of interest in writing about werewolves that I didn’t know I had. I sort of love my furry beastie guys. And Hank’s a rather pretty boy in their midst. I mean, the picture I have of him as an inspiration says nothing but pretty (if decidedly, beefy) boy.
Oh, that ain’t the only picture of him, neither (as he’d no doubt say):
So yeah, pretty and beefy. Just look at them arms and them pecs, will ya? And I am not so much for blond guys – but, uh, yeah. He’d do — no kicking to the curb with that purdy boy! #jussayin
And Hank’s a lovely boy to write about. He’s caring, un-obsessed with his own good looks, genial and easy to get along with. Completely unassuming. And who’da thunk he’d be in the middle of a werewolf war that was about to break loose? Or that his mama and closest thing to a grandma he’s got are a pair of powerful witches? I know he sure didn’t.
Hank and his boys are near and dear to my heart. Which was sort of a revelation. I mean, as an author, you are deeply involved with your characters and your worlds that you create. That’s fairly a given — unless your completely dispassionate about the work then, why bother? But even if you are deeply in bed with them, it doesn’t always mean you have to like them much.
But with Hank, Riley, Tanner, Mike, Toby, Darby, Dylan, Maynard, and Spike – I am really already rooting for these boys to triumph over the likes of Cade Bowen/Talbot.
Don’t know who he is?
Yeah, well, go pick up the book, dammit!