Fetishism in writing

Here’s an area for improvement by literary critics as well as authors: fetishism. Not only do authors need to rein it in, but reviewers need to start calling it out.

Fetishism occurs when the author displays a pattern of preoccupation with some otherwise normally hidden or forbidden aspect of life. There are reasons the author would not want to do that:

Privacy. Maybe W.E.B. Griffin really shouldn’t have so openly advertised his fascination with the young, virtuous, occupied-with-life virgin who suddenly presents the story’s rake with her ‘pearl of great price’ (WEB’s favorite term), then immediately drops everything else in life and now desires to play house and begin spawning infants. What does that say about him? His perception of women? I wouldn’t wish to speculate too much. However, if that were my kink, I’d sure as hell be unwilling to broadcast it on the endcaps. To give Griffin credit, he has seemingly heard the critics and taken action. (To give him discredit, he’s now mostly letting his son ride his coattails, and the son is not the author the father is. Brian Herbert, take note.)

Predictability. When I pick up a J.T. Edson western, I know for sure that I’ll get some British culture superimposed on the old American West, and that’s one thing. It’s minor, but it’s part of his approach, and kind of novel to be on the receiving side of cultural ignorance. I also know that, before a certain point in the book, two women will start a physical fight. And yes, bodices/blouses/etc. will be ripped. His women will care more for baring each others’ bouncy dairy tackle than for kicking their adversaries’ butts. Not only does it give us a not-necessarily-wanted view into what sharpens J.T.’s pencil, it’s predictable. Thus, when you come to it, unless that’s your own personal kink and the whole reason you bought the book, perhaps you just roll your eyes and scan through it, eager to get back to the story. Or, if it offends you–and I can think of women who would get real tired of reading a man’s descriptions of relatively uncommon and unrealistic female behavior–you might just stop buying the books. Once you are onto an author’s pet themes, and you can tell in advance a certain amount of what you are going to get, some of the discovery is certainly pre-done.

Boredom. The trouble with any fetish, in writing or acted out for real, is keeping it fresh. Suppose you continue writing. You’ve decided you don’t need editors. Your friend’s critique just didn’t grasp what was cool about your style, so what does she know anyway? And throughout all your writing, you keep coming back to the trope of restraint. Your reader knows, because you write your most evocative wording when you take her into the mind of someone who cannot move. The problem is not just that every reader with a sixth grade diploma knows that you’re drawing deep upon your own fantasies. The problem is: how do you keep tying them up tighter, more elaborately, to keep it interesting for the fans? There is a creeping human tendency to freshen by intensity. Your reader expects some new kink every time, and is bored with the old tired ones. If you keep going this direction, you’ll contract what I call Hamilton’s Syndrome. It may bring you wealth, but it won’t create good books.

Hamilton’s Syndrome is my newly coined term for fetishism ratcheted up to the point where it overshadows the story. When Hamilton first began the Anita Blake series, she was brilliant. An appealing heroine, edgy motif, interesting and credible internal conflict for the protagonist–a heel-wearing, Schnauzerlike tough gal seeking to hold onto her humanity and beliefs. The fetishism was always around the edges of the story, but was sustainable; at least, I thought so. Then, some seven books in, Hamilton cut her heroine loose from humanity, slipped all those anchor cables. Eventually the story became secondary; the main focus was on monster hurts and wounds and problems, all of which could only be remedied by increasingly kinky and elaborate forms of sex with Anita. I recall one book in which the initial monster sex crisis took up the first third of the volume. Oh, and lust became a physical hunger for her, the fifth food group. The story is no longer even the point; the question posed by Hamilton’s Syndrome is, how can the kink-o-meter continue to ratchet up? How long can Hamilton top herself?

In my own writing, I watch for fetishism with great care. For one thing, I am intensely private. Consider that since this blog began, I have experienced serious life and health problems involving crippling pain, trauma and serious psychological shock and distress from which it may take me years, even the rest of my life, to recover. I never shared them here. Some may have leaked through, but not on purpose. It’s not that I’m ashamed; it’s that I believe I’m here to entertain, provoke thought, educate, and otherwise be fun to read. I am not here to back up the personal issues dump truck on you, fishing for support. Were I diagnosed with terminal cancer (for the record, I am not), I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t blog about it. This blog is part of my work (which is why, with regret, I can’t post the video of some Texans eating surströmming–too crude for work). I go other places to pour out my real troubles. Even alluding to them in this paragraph is an uncommon show of vulnerability for me. Well, I don’t think many writers compartmentalize as well, and some I believe lack compartments to begin with: a filing cabinet consisting of a large heap of papers.

So I guess the question the writer faces with fetishism is at least twofold: just how far are you willing to invite random people to analyze your mind (as I have done to Hamilton…she asked for it), and how are you going to keep people from either being bored with you, or poking fun at your blatant fetish? The ‘I’m a badass bitch, screw everyone, I do it my way, if you don’t like me and my writing, go to hell’ reflex answer is, of course: “Who cares what they think? I am after all a complete badass! And I post at least three times a day on Facebook trying to convince myself of it!” Well, here’s the problem: if you are writing to get paid, people have to want to buy your book. Thus, while you can’t let yourself obsess about what everyone thinks, you cannot ignore and dismiss your reader’s preference. Yeah, if you get paid, you do care what your reader thinks–and you aren’t such a badass.

Such are the paths down which fetishism leads in writing. Have I convinced you that you really would rather not be there? I would be especially glad for commentary on this topic. Am I treating fetishism too harshly? Is there an effective, sustainable way to work it in? We’re always told to ‘be ourselves,’ and here I am challenging that to a degree. Can you counter my stance?

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8 thoughts on “Fetishism in writing”

  1. Really interesting and certainly has me examining what I write through this perspective. As you are aware, I am much less private than you, but I still have to consider what is appropriate and what is “too much.”
    Some writers seem to be somewhat skilled in letting this ebb and flow throughout their careers. I’d be interested, for instance, what you thought of Robert A. Heinlein’s world and political view and the way it pervaded his work to a greater (Starship Troopers, Number of the Beast) and lesser (The Door Into Summer, Time Enough for Love) degrees.

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    1. Thank you, Shawn. I liked Starship Troopers because it posed some Herbert-level challenges to our basic social assumptions. History and Moral Philosophy as a hard science? Can’t vote unless you serve? Very thought-provoking. The other two Heinlein books I have read both showed a lot of fetishism, though artfully done: Friday, and I Will Fear No Evil. With Heinlein, I found, the biggest obstacle is his handling of women. One can tell immediately that some will love it, some will throw the book in disgust. But whatever the reaction, it provokes thought, which is one of my own boundaries for the juncture between writing and literature.

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      1. When I saw your essay was fetishism in writing, my first thought was Heinlein, because so much of his strong philosophy comes through so many of his books. Not in the same league as Rand, but… I had almost forgotten about I Will Fear No Evil. I didn’t much care for it at the time I read it and consider it one of his lesser works. He was my favorite writer as a teen, but I went back and tried to re-read The Number of the Beast several months ago and had to give it up as a bad bit of business. Somewhere between 1981 and 2013, the way I perceive things has changed in a fundamental way. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  2. Hmmmm. Interesting. Gave me something to think about.

    I’m not at all familiar with the authors you cited: Griffin, Edson & Hamilton. Could it be because I am culturally illiterate? I do have a vague sense that Hamilton may be associated with vampires, but could easily be wrong. In my defense, I’ve read several of Jacqueline Carey’s KUSHIEL series, but can’t take ’em any more. Boredom? Sqeamishness? Probably both.

    Heinlein, I am familiar with. TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, despite its imperfections (and there are many), really made me think. However, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the incestuous relationships (and there were many). Granted, one purpose of speculative fiction is to push the reader past his comfort zone, and in new directions — but I just couldn’t make this one work….perhaps proving your essay’s point?

    (FWIW, I discussed my unease with Carolyn. She posited that Heinlein’s health had declined so far by the time he penned TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE that his compass point was badly skewed, thus affecting his writing adversely. )

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    1. Interesting thoughts, OSG, thank you. The reason you aren’t familiar with those authors is that their genres (military fiction, pulp western and paranormal thriller) may not be what you read.

      As usual, I’m pretty sure Carolyn is right. We’ve seen issues like that with a number of authors still writing in periods of decline.

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    2. I only comment here because of my love of 1960s-70s Heinlein. He wrote Time Enough for Love in 1972 and published it in 1973. Although he had some health issues starting in the very early 70s, I don’t think he was really in decline that early on. I can see how the case could be made, certainly – of his novels that followed TEFL, I really only loved Job: A Comedy of Justice – but Friday and, to a lesser extent, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls were both well-crafted books as well,.

      I agree that the degree of incestuousness that ran through TEFL and To Sail Beyond the Sunset can make for slightly squeamish reading, but he was so forward-thinking in his treatments of racism and anticipating the free love movement of the 60s that I was somehow able to just skip over that.

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