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Day: October 5, 2013

The Stigmatizing Terminology of “Clean” and “Dirty” Fiction

Posted in Uncategorized

This is a long story. Stick with me, it really is going somewhere.

Today, I was cleaning out my mudroom. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the mudroom is the room at the back door of a house, where you keep your boots and your coats and your umbrellas and literally every object you’ve cared enough about to bring in from the car, but not quite important enough to make it into the house.

One of the things I came across was a box of paper promo from a past conference I had helped set up. When we sent out our call for promo, we asked for a small amount and told authors that we wouldn’t be shipping promo back. My idea– which was “ambitious, but rubbish”– was that we would hold on to the paper promo and just stick it into the bags at the next conference. But now, it’s been sitting, twenty bookmarks here, thirteen postcards there, for the past year. Yikes.

I decided I would sort the promo out; anything that was touting a current release, I would pitch (it’s a sad but true fact that 97% of all paper promo ends up in the trash, either at the conference it was intended for or at home when the conference goer looks through their goodie bag), and anything that was just author branded, I would keep for the next conference.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled out postcards advertising a release with a small press who prides themselves on “clean” fiction, and the author they were promoting is now a blockbuster bestseller in the New Adult genre.

Now, I’m not suggesting that all New Adult books have sex in them (this author’s books do) or that there’s something wrong with authors writing at different heat levels for different publisher requirements. But this author was practically unknown three years ago, and now she’s inspiring the squees of dedicated New Adult readers, making them long for her heroes as “book boyfriends,” and raking in the dough with #1 New York Times bestselling novels.

This gave me pause. Let me explain why.

A few weeks ago, a writer whom I absolutely adore personally, had a book released with this same small press. It became a bestseller on Amazon, and I was so, so proud of her. But when she posted the good news to her Facebook, another author associated with the “clean” publisher posted a response to the effect of, “I’m so glad people are waking up and recognizing that clean books are better!”

Since it was Facebook, I wrote up a lengthy reply about why her comment pissed me off so much– and immediately deleted it. Because I’ve had enough experience with Facebook to know that anything, literally any critical comment, no matter how carefully expressed so as not to cause offense, is going to be labelled “bullying.”

So, I had a lot of pent-up anger when I saw this New Adult superstar’s name splashed across a book cover from a press whose publisher once explained patiently to me that romance is actually hotter when it doesn’t go past the bedroom door. I was absolutely furious. Who did this fraud think she was, jumping from “clean” fiction to sexually explicit fiction, and making an extraordinary leap of success? She must view sex as the magic key to cash, and she had no problem turning that key when she was calling it “smut” before! How dare she pride herself on her lily white, virginal fiction, then come into my genre and have greater success than I have!

Obviously, there was a lot of emotional thinking involved there. In the first place, I have no idea if this author thought books with sexual content were “smut” or not. For all I knew, she wrote a Regency and decided this was the best publisher to approach about it. Maybe she had no opinion at all on her publisher’s policy, because it didn’t affect her work. Nobody has to put sex in their stories, and sometimes it doesn’t fit [that’s what she said]. And this author really didn’t write in my genre. From what I could tell, she wrote Regencies before (which I have never written) and now she writes New Adult (which I have never published… but more on that at a later date). Throw on my mantra of “the success of others does not invalidate my own success” at the professional jealousy aspect, and I had a long afternoon of thinking to do.

When I examined the reason for my initial reaction, I realized why I had felt such a strong sense of betrayal. It was because there has been a strangely passive-aggressive war between “clean” and “dirty” fiction for years. And it’s all tied into our culturally nurtured feelings and ideas about sex.

My first series was about vampires. It was just your standard Urban Fantasy/Kick Butt Heroine 00’s vampire story. I had no idea at the time that vampires were even controversial anymore. I thought they were an accepted part of life or whatever. So I was shocked at how many people– readers and authors both– would scold me for what I was writing. They couldn’t read it because they were Christians and they didn’t like the occult and they thought paranormal books filled your head with “dark thoughts” and blah blah blah. I would come away from these encounters thinking, “Jesus Christ, it’s a fucking book, not a portal to the Netherworld.” And if it was an author saying something like this, it would always, and I mean without fail, lead into a lecture about how the Christian Inspirational Romance genre was going to be the next big thing and vampires were dead anyway (wtf, why do people say that? OF COURSE THEY’RE DEAD) and I should look into changing what I write because I was destined to never sell another book. Because readers preferred “nice” stories.

This directly parallels my experience with “clean” vs. “dirty” fiction. Every conversation I’ve ever had on the subject has involved some shaming aspect, equating chastity with “clean” and labeling anyone who wanted to read about sexual activities– no matter how mild; this could apply to a Harlequin Presents– “dirty.” I’ve had “clean” authors tell me that I “don’t need to lower yourself to writing erotica,” or that they would “read your books, but I don’t like all that trashy stuff.”

I have a problem with this. First of all, are we all on the same page when I say that, at their core and before any proud reclamation of meaning, “clean” and “dirty” are positive and negative words, respectively? Everyone likes “clean,” at least as an adjective. We like crisp, clean sheets. When choosing a restaurant, we want to eat at the one that looks clean. Clean is a desirable enough commodity that we hire people to clean our house, our clothes, our teeth. If clean wasn’t a big deal to us, then there wouldn’t be at-home butthole bleaching kits, right?

But dirty, oh… dirty is bad. I’m not talking about the fun way, the way that applies to fiction. Dirty is a smelly diaper. Dirty is a subway pole still warm and slightly damp from a stranger’s hand. Dirty feels bad, looks gross, and it’s even dangerous; a mother’s frantic, “don’t eat that!” when her child picks a sucker up off the floor. “That’s dirty!” We hear about “dirty money” and “dirty cops.” “Dirty deeds” describes crime. The message is pretty clear: dirty is bad.

And obviously, this all applies to our sexuality. I’m sure this is not news to you. Sex is “dirty” and no sex is “clean.”

There are readers out there who want fiction without sex, and publishers certainly have a right to sell and market their product to those readers. And I’m not going to judge an author because their artistic vision didn’t include sweaty humping times. But what I am going to suggest is that we stop referring to fiction as “clean” and “dirty.” It devalues the work of the authors and the interest of the readership.

I respectfully ask that the readers and authors who are proud to call their books “smut” or “dirty” really consider what kind of message those words are sending. I understand that it’s supposed to be a cheeky, fun reclamation of the terms, but is it really? It’s a negative word that bolsters the argument of people who want to vocally reject “dirty” fiction as undesirable and harmful. And before anyone argues that “dirty” actually has a positive, fun meaning when applied to sexuality, answer this real quick: what do we call it, colloquially, when a person is free from sexually transmitted disease?


After a long, hard think this afternoon, I decided that I’m not going to call my books “dirty books” anymore. I’m not going to say I write “smut” or that my books are “raunchy.” Because I feel like I’m reinforcing a message that I don’t agree with; that sexuality is dirty, and therefore less preferable, to the clean absence of sex.

I would also like to see a decline in the number of “clean” authors, publishers, bloggers, and readers insisting that the market is oversexed and soon everyone will be reading “clean” stories instead of “dirty.” That’s a really arrogant attitude, and it smacks of malicious willful thinking. Do you really want other authors to fail, just because they include sexuality in their stories? Do you really want authors to gain their readerships through disillusionment, rather than by finding their own niche and making readers happy?

There are books about space, books about cowboys, books about vampires, baseball players, elves and doctors, and there is a readership for each of these varied tastes, not just in the bookstore but specifically within the romance genre itself. Why can’t there be room for readers who prefer sexually explicit and non-sexually explicit material? Why does it have to be a competition to see who is better, of sturdier moral fabric, or who is a real writer and who’s just a pervert with a keyboard? Do we have to label readers as prudes or wild women based on what they want to spend their book buying dollars on?

The short answer is, no. Writing or reading sex doesn’t make you morally loose and automatically cool and free-spirited, any more than not writing or reading sex makes you a superior person with a pure soul. So why are we bothering to assign positive/negative symbolism to either? Why not just accept that some books have sex in them, and some don’t?

I’m interested to read Troutnation’s thoughts on the matter.