Surveying the current state of the publishing world, one might conclude that language and literary craft are not important in determining success. Even the biggest fans of E.L. James or Dan Brown admit that these authors will win no prizes for the quality of their writing. I've had my own readers tell me that what they really care about is the characters and “the story.” They're willing to forgive awkward sentences, head hopping and even the occasional grammatical faux pas as long as these problems don't interfere too much with their immersion in the story and their identification with the hero and heroine. Lost in the story world, these readers might not even notice the language problems.
At best, many top-selling authors produce prose designed to vanish into the background: simple, direct, concrete and explicit. We've left behind the days in which the language in which a story was told mattered as much as the story itself.
I guess I'm a throwback to that earlier age. I can't read without being aware of an author's language. A felicitous turn of phrase or a vivid image delight me as much as a fascinating protagonist or a clever plot device. Conversely, poorly written prose will destroy the pleasure of reading for me, even when a book is one I'm predisposed to enjoy.
Rebecca Symmon's self-published opus Seventy Three offers an interesting and moderately original take on the tropes of dominance and submission. Her heroine Kate is no innocent virgin, but a professional woman in her forties, owner of an upscale art gallery and spouse of a technology entrepreneur who spends a lot of time traveling. Kate and Richard enjoy a lively sex life – at least when he is in town - but Kate knows something is missing. She has fantasized for as long as she can remember about giving up control and being forced to perform shameful and degrading sex acts on strangers. When she confesses her desires to her husband, Richard tries to fulfill her fantasies, but he just can't bring himself to be nasty enough to satisfy the woman he loves. Then Kate discovers that one of the artists she represents lives the life of a slave, bound by contract to a mysterious organization known as Oakham. Painter Elizabeth and her master Robin recommend Kate to the administration of Oakham. Kate and Richard complete lengthy applications full of intimate details. Eventually, Kate is accepted for training as slave number 73.
Most of the three hundred seventy odd pages of the novel detail the ordeals Kate must face and her reaction to them. There are whippings, canings, cock sucking, cunnilingus, public humiliation, forced exhibitionism, and lots of unlubricated anal penetration. I liked the fact that, through all of this, Ms. Symmons focuses on the psychological impacts of her heroine's experience. Unlike some fantastical BDSM tales, the severe beatings in Seventy Three really hurt and the Oakham members who use slave 73 are sometimes brutal, callous, or unattractive to the point of engendering disgust. Brave and proud, Kate takes it all. The author emphasizes over and over that her heroine doesn't crave pain or humiliation, per se. What Kate loves is the knowledge, after the fact, that she has successfully endured whatever trials her owners have meted out.
Kate's understanding of her own needs and the true nature of submission evolve over the course of the book. Perhaps even more intriguing, though, is the way Richard changes. He can't dominate Kate himself but, somewhat to his own surprise, he finds turning her over to the members of Oakham to be infinitely arousing. Gradually he becomes complicit in his wife's utter debasement, setting up tests for her and then reveling in her helplessness as she attempts to perfect her identity as a slave.
Anyone who knows me, and my tastes, might guess that I'd love the story above. Unfortunately, although the book has a lot of promise, the terrible writing prevented me from enjoying it. Ms. Symmons' prose abounds in run-on sentences, with three or four independent clauses comma-spliced. The point of view wanders freely from one character to another without any warning. The dialog feels stiff and artificial. Misspellings, malapropisms, and misplaced modifiers pop up on almost every page. Possibly the most annoying aspect of her prose is her tendency to shift from one tense to another, sometimes within a single paragraph.
Here's a typical example:
The two say their goodbyes, kiss and leave the cafe. Kate returns to the gallery to find the electricians near to the completion of their task. By two-o-clock Harry and Keith had finished work, tested the new lighting, cleaned up their mess and left. Helen was up to date with her list of jobs and Kate was hungry. Maybe it was turning out to be a good day after all. “Shall we close up and go to lunch, Helen?”
“I thought you'd never ask, come on.”
“But are you sure it's fun for you Kate, it sounds like pretty heavy stuff?” They both knew Melissa was fishing for more information without asking direct questions.
“It's not as bad as it sounds. The thrill is, that I don't know what's going to happen to me or to be done to me, I've given my permission beforehand for them to do whatever they want, even if I don't agree at the time. But strange as it sounds, I'm still in control, I can say no and end it.”
“Wow, sorry Helen. I mean fancy going out and not knowing what will happen by the time you come home.”
“Yes, I don't make any of the decisions so I'm not to blame for doing things, no guilt see.”
Having arrived at the gym early it was still very quiet, office workers not yet finished with their days toil Once in the changing room Kate prepares to shower, removing her sweat top as she always did in front of Helen.
The meal was a joyous affair, good wine, excellent food and friendly banter. After finishing a generous helping of desert [sic] the liqueurs were passed around the table. The festive atmosphere and copious amounts of drink began to take their toll as the dancing took priority. Returning to the table to relax Richard's roaming hand came to rest on Kate's thigh.
One has to wonder whether the liqueurs enjoyed their dessert, and where Richard's hand had been roaming before it returned to the table.
It's hard to resist the urge to ridicule this sort of error. However, that would be doing Ms. Symmons a disservice. I believe that she put her heart and soul into this book. It has the intensity (and the occasional didactic quality) of a personal quest explored in fiction. I recognize the signs; my first novel was the same way. The dedication reads “To those still living with hope.…” Perhaps I'm wrong, but I suspect that throughout the writing of this novel, Ms. Symmons imagined herself in her heroine's shoes (or bonds), as she hoped her readers would.
Hence, I don't blame Ms. Symmons for this book, as poorly written as it is. She clearly didn't know any better. I blame the current system, which makes it possible for someone sincere to embarrass herself by offering the world the cherished fruits of her imagination, wrapped in such a poor package. Before the advent of self-publishing and the ebook Gold Rush, this book would never have seen the light of day in its current form – and that, in my opinion, would have been a blessing. Although perhaps the story of Seventy Three deserves to be told, I found the process of reading it to be painful.
I gather from Amazon that this tome is the first of a trilogy about Oakham. I strongly recommend that the author hire a skilled editor – or maybe even a writing tutor – before bringing out her next volume.