Guest Blogger: Sarah F

My particular “expertise” in BDSM is not in a particular kinky activity (although I have a few under my belt). Nor is it that I’m a fiction writer, like James’ last few guest bloggers. I’m more of a general expert on BDSM literature and romance for two reasons: (1). I’m a reviewer for Dear Author; and (2). I’m an academic whose general field is popular romance fiction and whose specialty is erotic, BDSM, and m/m romance (and yes, I’m the President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance. So I’ve read a lot of romances in general and a lot of BDSM romances in particular and I’ve come to some conclusions. I’d love some feedback on these conclusions, especially since I’m going to write a paper about them at some point. :)

My first conclusion is that there’s two different factors in how good a BDSM romance is going to be: (1). How good a writer the author is, and (2). How experienced the writer is with BDSM. These can interact in fascinating ways on a number of different levels.

Of course, if the author is brilliant and has wide BDSM experience, the book’s going to be wonderful. James’ work is in that category for me. I adored her Hard Fall and I’m very much looking forward to reviewing all of Nicki and Brandon’s books when #3 comes out. Anah Crow also falls into that category (I think—don’t personally know about her experience, so good research by a great author can really equal experience in some ways, I guess). Her Uneven is one of the most sublime books I’ve ever read.

If the author is brilliant with no experience in BDSM, she (let’s assume she for the ease of use, okay?) can still write a brilliant book. Victoria Dahl’s The Wicked West and Ann Somerville’s Remastering Jerna are both in this category. I’m pretty sure from personal conversation that neither author is BDSM-identified, but they’re amazing authors with writerly imaginations who can put themselves into the mind of people very different from themselves and WHO DO THEIR RESEARCH (sorry, didn’t mean to shout, but really, research is so important). And so their books *get* BDSM and are so so good.

Alternately, if the author sucks but either has BDSM experience and/or does her research very well, the book is still going to suck, no matter the BDSM experience. (Case in point, the Ashling book I review last in this post.)

It’s the middle ground that’s the issue. Where the author is a good author (but not brilliant) or enjoys a little slap with her tickle and thinks that’s kinky enough so doesn’t bother to do much or any research: that’s where things turn sticky, and not in a good way.

Breaking it down a little more, there’s two things one can get wrong with BDSM writing: (1). The physical aspect of it, and (2). The mental and emotional aspect. I’ve discovered that I prefer someone to fuck up the physical side of things, as long as the mental/emotional aspect of it is done well. I’ve got a review in the pipeline, for example, of A.M. Riley’s brilliant The Elegant Corpse in which she completely confuses single-tail whips, floggers, and cat-o’-nine-tails. Anyone with some pretty basic real-life BDSM experience isn’t likely to mess up the distinction between those rather different tools, but I didn’t mind, because her characters *get* BDSM. They live it, breathe it, feel it. It’s who they are, rather than what they do. (Then again, some physical mistakes are more egregious than others because they’re just plain dangerous. As in, please, do NOT hang your character from his wrists for half an hour with no other support and then have someone climb on him to have sex.)

But what about the books that get the physical aspect of it right but not so much the mental or emotional? Or get both of them wrong (“Pink Buttercream Frosting” review), but still use BDSM as an integral part of the book? What about the books (“Bondage Betrayal” review) that seem to be using BDSM as just another way to get off, to make the story stand out from the crowd, but see BDSM as a series of acts, not as an identity? Or those books who see it as identity but just use stereotype after stereotype and don’t *get* what BDSM IS, what it feels like inside?

Those books? I hate those books. Those books objectify BDSM-identified people. They fetishize us, make us something to poke at in the zoo, without trying to understand us at all. We’re exotic and different, so they can get off on the subversiveness of thinking we’re “cool” but they seem secretly to despise us. These are the books in which the resolution often repudiates BDSM: the characters have had their fun tying each other up and spanking each other, or playing with “slavery,” but at the end, all they need is their One Twu Wuv and good missionary-position fucking. They’ll make us perform for some masturbatory material, but then they put us back in the Freak Cage when they’re done with us. ::shudder::

So, that’s what I’ve discovered in reading BDSM romance. I hope I’ve recommended some really great ones here, but, really, you can’t go wrong if you stick with James’ books. :)

Sarah F is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance–and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her official specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

6 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Sarah F

  1. I just linked here from Teach Me Tonight and (given that I find Georgette Heyer’s ‘Bath Tangle’ a little bit too rough for my tastes) this genre probably isn’t for me but I found your article very interesting and liked the bit in your biog about beating your TBR pile into submission!

  2. Well your post made me think, so we’re even! I have read a number of romances recently where there’s at least some of that play, and sometimes I think it works pretty well. It seems to be a device some authors use to explore trust: one partner has urges that he/she isn’t sure the other partner can handle. Other authors seem to be using it just to put some variety in multiple sex scenes. Which is how some couples I know use it, with no comment intended on those for whom it’s more than that.

    I’m a lot more sensitive about it since reading your reviews, too!

  3. I get most of what you’re saying here, and I agree. As a non-BDSM identified person, I am intrigued by good BDSM romance. As a reader I enjoy characters with a variety of sexual identities; although I’m not necessarily going to know whether a sexuality different from my own is being depicted correctly, there are some that “work” and some that don’t, especially when it comes to romance.

    But isn’t there a spectrum to consider, rather than distinct boxes/categories? Aren’t there some people who might engage in light BDSM-style “play” in addition to “good missionary-position fucking” with their love partner? I know there are real people like that, so is there a way to depict that in fiction without objectifying BDSM-identified people?

    • Yes, absolutely! K.A. Mitchell does it brilliantly. Collision Course is one of the best BDSM *scenes* I’ve ever read, without Joey and Aaron being particularly or necessarily BDSM-identified. Ditto, tbh, a scene in that awful “Bondage Betrayal” I link to above–brilliant BDSM scene, but then there’s the whole repudiation thing at the end, the “Oh, we’re not really kinky, we just love each other and that’s all we’ll ever need! That kinky shit is too kinky for us! Anyone who does that must be a murderer.”

      I think Susan Johnson’s older romances did some great role-play/power-play scenes that didn’t identify as BDSM at all. And anytime anyone uses a blindfold or ties their lover up, they’re playing with BDSM in a fun, good, healthy way without having to adopt the full “lifestyle” (hate that word).

      So I suppose my categories are the ends of each spectrum, with a lot of room in the middle to play around with. It’s when authors, ironically enough, fetishize BDSM itself that I object. It’s when they’re using it without WANTING to understand it, or thinking that it’s something that needs to be understood, that’s when I object. :)

      Thanks for the clarification! Made me think, which is always good.

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