I’ve been stewing over an issue for a few days. I write, as I hope y’all know by now, in a variety of genres: homoerotic lit, M/M contemporary, paranormal, suspense… Hells bells, I write het romance and historical when the mood strikes. Some are even in the mainstream romance categories, HEA and all.
And then there are the transgressive titles: noirish, gritty, employing a challenging narrative structure or pushing boundaries, setting off trigger alarms right and left. That’s my speculative fiction. It’s dark, dangerous and unpredictable.
I distribute through a variety of channels (ARe, Smashwords, D2D, and Amazon of course) and so far I’ve avoided the periodic pogroms Apple, Amazon and others use against content deemed “erotica”. During one of those dust-ups, ARe dichotomized titles into erotic romance and erotica, shuffling titles into different listing categories and labels depending on the track selected. Their reasoning: help a reader chose content, knowing ahead of time if there are specific types of “triggers” (incest, abuse, dubious consent) in that story.
I do not want to get into that brouhaha about triggers and coddling readers and kowtowing to delicate sensibilities. I also don’t want to redefine erotic romance, erotica and porn (you know it when you see it), nor do I want to pass judgment on dinosaurs and billionaires and God-knows how many other long-suffering characters are out there taking one for the titillation team.
What I want to share with you today is one specific example of how ridiculous (and dangerous) this landscape has become for those of us who write scenes of affection, graphic or otherwise, in service to a plot and enhancing a character’s growth and development within the constraints of that storyline.
The two transgressive novels (The Wrong Side of Right and Good Boy Bad) are related in that a character moves in the periphery of the first and takes center stage in the second, though both exist independently in terms of story arc, tone and the kind of closure one expects from homoerotic lit.
The other day I received an email from one of the aggregators that a user review was required for Good Boy Bad. Instead of me paraphrasing, here are the pertinent bits of text:
Our sales channels have asked us not to send certain material to them. Our automated content review has detected some of this material in your book, Good Boy Bad (book ID: XYZ). As a result, we cannot send this book to the following sales channel until you have corrected the matter:
XXX (names the channel)
The types of material at issue include:
Miscategorized BISAC Subjects: The selected BISAC Categories do not accurately reflect the content of the book (i.e., the subject category needs to be “Erotica”).
Sales channels not listed above continue to receive this material at this time.
To proceed with publication, please correct these issues in the source document and resubmit it for publication. If you need assistance, you can contact Customer Support by replying to this email.
Please note the bold text and the “automated content review” in particular. A BOT has decided that “certain content” was detected, but my question is: what content, how was the bot programmed to identify said content, and exactly what words, phrases, intent, tone, voice set off alarms?
In short: what made the BOT decide Good Boy Bad is erotica and not “homoerotic literature” or any of the other equally valid descriptors? I categorize this book as contemporary gay, homoerotic, or even erotica depending upon the sales channel and what categories and tags are available. Nowhere is it labelled a romance. The one channel that allows its true category (transgressive) is Smashwords.
In point of fact, one of the many categories selected was “erotica,” so I fulfilled that mandate, yet it was still flagged and refused. Oh, BTW, it had already been accepted into all those channels and was offered for sale or as part of a subscription service long before the BOT had a go at it.
Also, as a side note, one of my Crow Creek Series titles was relegated to “purchase only” in Scribd because of questionable content. Sorting Will is a gay western romance and no more erotic than any of Andrew Gray’s books (all of which are available there). It was singled out from a series of 5 titles, all with similar themes and heat levels.
I am not trying to hide the book’s theme or the graphic nature of some of the scenes. I actually label it “erotica” when no other label fits as per the selections supplied by a particular sales channel. ARe, as an example, has subcategories (BDSM, gay contemporary) to help direct readers to preferred genres.
I also have this caveat in the product description (aka blurb):
ADULT CONTENT: This is homoerotic lit, intense and dark, employing adult language and adult, often challenging, themes. If you are easily offended, if you require trigger warnings, Good Boy Bad may not be appropriate for you. This is speculative fiction: Outré, out there, challenging, complex, disturbing, mind-bending, exploring boundaries…
Taking you to the edge of your comfort zone … and into mine.
Breaching the wall of your preconceptions.
It’s a journey of discovery, ends and beginnings, and that line in the sand doesn’t just move, it’s smeared, smashed, obliterated.
Here’s the deal: I object to slapping a single term—erotica—on a book and then having it either denied entry into an ebookseller’s catalog, or accepted but ghettoized to the point where discovery becomes problematic, if not downright impossible.
There are lines being drawn here that are capricious and have little to do with reality.
Fr’instance: The Wrong Side of Right is categorized as “transgressive” and it was accepted into the three sales channels that refuse “certain content” without any issues. TWSoR has non-con scenes, and it has similar trigger/adult content warnings and explores BDSM kink you don’t usually find in current M/M offerings. It raised a ruckus on Goodreads with readers taking sides (it went rather heavy on the “people should behave this way, not that” scale, or the “people never make the same mistake twice” adage…).
Good Boy Bad is transgressive also, but it’s not erotica. This story explores the dynamic between two severely damaged souls, one trodding the path of violence and revenge, the other teetering on the edge of survival with no lifeline. When their lives tangle, neither man will ever be the same again. It’s a story that has resonated with reviewers: here, here and here.
Good Boy Bad is a work I am very proud of. For me it opened up a new kind of storytelling, one that spoke to me intimately, one that released a new level for understanding the human condition and the depths and heights to which those on the fringes of society can reach. It is not dinoporn nor prurient nor subservient to unrelenting graphic sex scenes. If anything, it is more literary than erotic, more suspense than a shopping list of couplings, and no way does it fit in the current romance trope.
But a robot program scanned the content and found objectionable terms, objectionable enough to deny stocking this title on virtual shelves. If I categorize Good Boy Bad as “erotica”, it’s rejected out of hand, or it’s tucked away in some inaccessible back room with the dinoporn and the lascivious and the prurient.
Good Boy Bad deserves better than that. I, as an author, have taken all the steps necessary to properly alert readers to the content, yet a robot gets to make the ultimate choice.
So, bottom line: what did I do? Probably what I should have done from the get-go: put the title in Smashwords (and risk pirating), tag it as transgressive and re-submit to those channels currently denying erotica. Then I shall re-evaluate all the titles and see what adjustments might be necessary. Hopefully, at some point I will find the humor in this situation, but for now I am hanging with insulted and annoyed.
If you are a reviewer specializing in transgressive or homoerotic lit and would like a copy for review, leave a comment. If you are just curious, you can find all my Amazon titles HERE and my ARe/OmniLit titles HERE.
And I’d love to hear your opinions and to have you share your experiences.
I am SO pissed off about this. I understand having a bot scan for certain phrases or words and flag that work for review *by a fucking human being*, but no bot should be able to kick a work out. I mean, my god, have you looked at what Word flags as ‘wrong’ grammatically? Have you seen the results of allowing the grammar checker to dictate where, your commas, are? And don’t tell me that the algorithms can be refined enough to *detect* specific things to a very fine granularity. I know this. But no algorithm can imbue lines of code with human judgement, and none can emulate the varying tastes of humans. That’s why we’re not computers. We’re people. Granted, again, the volume of words out there make it impossible for humans to review everything (that would surely eliminate some of the unedited swill that gets dumped into Amazon and other sites), but a human— several humans—can indeed review the flagged files and make the judgement call about categorization.
You’re right, if dinoporn slides by, then WTF are they doing flagging *your* magnificent works????
I would celebrate the fringes were it not for some of the company one is forced to keep (yes, I just said that, and no I am not repentant).
What I object to is not having an option for developing a conversation about the merits of a system that is clearly capricious. I accept that a bookseller has the right to stock only those items it feels comfortable with, but this blanket rejection of “erotica” assumes that everyone is on the same page as to what erotica is. That is clearly not the case, so why paint all work with erotic content with the same brush when no one can come up with a decent definition that will stand the test of time? And WTH is the difference between erotic romance and erotica anyway?
LikeLiked by 1 person
I know what ARe says the difference is. In erotic romance, it’s the relationship between the people that drives the story, not the sex. Erotica is, according to them, focused on the sex with relationships taking a back seat. (And we all know what they’re doing in the back seat.)