I heard on an egroup yesterday that Steampunk is the new big thing, publishers are asking for it. Assorted rom-erotica authors commented on it seeming interesting, and pondered if it was worth trying to get in on the action. I buried my face in my hands. (And then I wrote a somewhat shorter version of what I’m going to post here. It was grumpier as well.)
I remember a few years back, when everyone seemed to be doing pagan deities, things stolen from Greek mythology (satyrs, dryads etc) and there were a lot of druid and witchy characters turning up in excerpts posted to egroups. No doubt a few publishers had decided that paranormal was the new buzzy thing, and that writers should be encouraged to cash in.
My partner Tom recently did a panel at the Steampunk’s World Fair, where he was talking about paranormal. He told me he pointed out to people to tread carefully, that one person’s ‘paranormal’ is another person’s belief.
As a pagan, it’s painful, irritating and depressing watching our deities, myths and superficial contemporary practice being appropriated by people who really don’t know the first thing about our lives, but who have heard that paranormal sells like hot cakes. I can usually tell from a book blurb if the author is a pagan or not. It’s exactly the same for the BDSM crowd, I gather from friends. The frustration of getting books where the writers clearly don’t have the first clue what a genuine BDSM lifestyle looks like. There are huge and hungry niche audiences for kink. The thing is, they don’t want kink written by people who haven’t got the first clue how it actually works. It’s not just about having the right slang and knowing who ought to put what where. This is a lifestyle choice, these are subcultures, just as paganism is.
The same is true of Steampunk. I know enough to know that currently I do not know enough to write it. Steampunk is not just a fiction genre, it embraces art, music, clothing and innovation in all kinds of ways, and it has a growing community. Steampunk enthusiasts can and do have complex heated debates about what is, and isn’t, proper Steampunk. A person who is outside that, would struggle to catch the attention of true Steampunk fans.
I’d be the first person to say that writers shouldn’t restrict themselves to purely writing from firsthand experience. However, if you want to write in a niche and for a specific market (whatever that is) you can’t just appropriate some surface details and imagine that people will lap it up. They won’t. At the very least, you need to know your niche, read other writers who are part of it, go where the communities of real enthusiasts are, get involved, find out what it actually is and how it actually works.
I’ll offer an example – British author Phil Rickman is not a pagan. He’s said as much, being interviewed in pagan magazines. His occult mysteries, with a central character who is an Anglican exorcist vicar, who has a pagan daughter, are hugely popular with pagans. Why? Because he’s done his research well and writes things that are good representations of us, and the kinds of world views we hold and experiences we have.
Just as setting your erotic fiction on a spaceship doesn’t make it science fiction that sf readers will lap up, so giving a girl a corset and goggles does not make your book and instant hit with steampunks. It is not ok to exploit communities, ripping off what you can of their culture, with no respect for who they actually are, just to make a quick buck out of the next buzzy genre. Like most ‘get rich quick’ schemes it doesn’t work anyway. There is money to be made catering to niche audiences, but it tends to go to the folk who give those niches what they actually want, not dodgy pastiches.