The Marketing of Slave Fantasy: A Bridge Too Far?
If you’ve been on Twitter the past couple of days, you may have seen the minor skirmish over Riptide’s Belongingverse, a website created in 2011 by Rachel Haimowitz and presented via Riptide Publishing, which straddled the line between book promotion and slave fantasy content like classified ads for the purchase of human slaves and stories written about slave-master relationships.
We’ve had a number of discussions here at Dear Author about hard limits and reader consent in Romance for fantasy scenarios. I may be the most expansive about boundaries when it comes to Dear Author reviewers, and even I was a little freaked out when I saw the original Belongingverse website up a couple of weeks ago.
At the time, I put the whole issue aside to think about and work through. In general, I absolutely believe that taboo fantasies are often those that need the most protection from censorship and moral condemnation for those who enjoy them. But my own lines tend to get bright and hard around the fetishization and eroticization of slavery – the erotic-exotic connotations, the US historical context, the common Orientalist implications, and myriad issues around subjugation and dehumanization.
And beyond all that, I was having difficulty with the ambiguity in the term Belongingverse, especially in trying to figure out whether I thought the whole thing was even intellectually coherent (e.g. using the concept of belonging in terms of ownership/property v. community membership and participation). I still haven’t fully unpacked my own thoughts and feelings about a world called Belonging, but clearly the concept and its execution have reached a flashpoint, providing a good opportunity to talk about some of the more controversial issues and implications, especially around how the books were being marketed via the website (which, as of yesterday, has been taken down).
To provide some background, author and co-owner of Riptide, Aleksandr Voinov, who also has a book in the mix, described Belongingverse as “the same as our world, just slavery was never abolished.” According to Voinov, Riptide co-owner and Managing Editor Rachel Haimowitz originally conceptualized this alternate world, which included books published by several houses, including Noble Romance. Among the fiction is what has been described as Anderson Cooper RPF/FF, including a website that provided backstory for news anchor and slave Daniel Halstrom. One book featuring Halstrom’s character, Anchored, by Rachel Haimowitz, was reviewed at Dear Author by now-Riptide Senior Editor Sarah Frantz and included the following commentary:
It’s not racially-based slavery; it’s just that there’s modern society…with slaves. And no one questions that. While the main character Daniel questions some things he’s told to do, he never questions that he should be punished for not doing them. I sometimes enjoy stories set in slave universes, but that’s when they’re obviously fantasies, and I still prefer for there to be some indication that the narrative disapproves of the slavery. This book was, honestly, an excuse for non-consensual torture porn — Daniel is viciously beaten and gang raped as punishment, two scenes which comprise the bulk of the narrative — with the implicit narrative understanding that readers are supposed to see that this is acceptable and can be overcome emotionally by a caring sexual partner (who was stupid enough in the first place to send you to be gang-raped because he didn’t seem to understand how his own damn world worked).
Additionally, there were “testimonials” from those in “voluntary conscription.” For example, 20-year-old Wendy Chen:
“I know I’m not the smartest girl in the world, but everyone’s always told me how pretty and talented I am. I dropped out of high school to look for work in New York, but in eighteen months, all I found was two modeling shoots and a short-run musical. I started getting high to get through the long days. I was nineteen and thought my life was over. But Brooklyn Beauties saw something in me, bought me out and cleaned me up. Now I’ve got more modeling offers than I can handle, and rich men take me to fancy parties every week. I’m six months clean, and I’ve never been happier. Thank you, Brooklyn Beauties!”
Another section, “Slaves for Sale,” was formatted as a classifieds page, and offered entries like this:
Perfect for Your Darker Desires
Male, age 24, 5’11, 170 lbs of lean muscle. Blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin that reddens well. Companion trained at Nevada Arts, w/same owner since graduation. Good w/men, women, couples, large groups. Specialties inc. dancing, tumbling, classical literature, art history, drawing/painting. Impeccably obedient. Suffers beautifully. Photos avail. w/credit check, inc. bondage nudes. Truly a gem among gems—don’t let him get away! Taking offers from $995K and up.
From ownership to voluntary and forced “service,” Belonging was clearly designed to be an ongoing project, with facets of the society to be explored through related books.
Because most of the pages have been removed, it’s difficult to experience the Belongingverse in the way it was originally imagined, but what makes it even more difficult is that in place of the main page, Riptide has provided an extensive explanation of the site’s intent to be an “immersive website . . . to heighten a reader’s experience of the oppression of slavery by showcasing the horrifying reality of it.” The statement goes on to assert:
Regarding the books, it is of vital importance to note that they are not erotica. Anchored is not even a romance. Though the original release of Anchored through Noble Romance was irresponsible in several ways, the book has been heavily revised to reflect the depths of the problems with slavery. Anchored’s editor, Sarah Frantz, who reviewed the original release for Dear Author (and flunked it), would not allow the book to be published through Riptide without the narrative shining a very clear light on how ugly and broken the Belonging world is. Neither Riptide Publishing nor the authors of the Belonging universe romanticize slavery in any way. In fact, the narratives are highly critical of the institution and focus relentlessly on its ugliness.
So here’s the thing: if this entire world has been constructed as a critique of slavery, why a) publish any of its books under a Romance imprint, b) sexualize the slavery, or c) blur the lines between, say, BDSM (“Perfect for your Darker Desires”) and what Sarah Frantz referred to as “torture porn.” At an even more fundamental level, I have a difficult time reconciling Anderson Cooper RPF with a serious critique of slavery.
Riptide’s statement blames some of the backlash on a difference of familiarity with and context for the Belonging universe. And this may, indeed, be true. But one of the first things that struck me about the site when I first saw it a couple of weeks ago was how little there was (read: nothing) to even suggest that the books were meant to investigate or criticize slavery. In fact, one of the first things to strike me about the website was a strong erotic ethos, which was reinforced by the association with Riptide.
The marketing element was also very strong for me, which heightened, rather than diminished, the perception that these books were offering a sexual fantasy. Which makes Riptide’s statement confounding to me, because it takes me back to my original set of questions around why the authors and publisher(s) would endeavor to provide a staunch critique of slavery by employing tropes, language, imagery, and themes that cross over so readily and commonly to fetish fiction, erotic non-con and dub-con fantasy, and even Romance, despite the protestations otherwise (would anyone expect a book published by Noble Romance to be an intellectual critique of slavery?).
I can’t judge the books themselves, but if the site was part of the campaign to invite readers to buy the books, then that campaign seemed very deliberate in the way it was playing with erotic fantasy scenarios. And if I take at face value Riptide’s statement about showing the horrors of slavery, I guess I’m still trying to figure out which readers they were going for there. For example, the description for Voinov’s book Counterpunch, starts this way: “Brooklyn Marshall is just one example of how a criminal and convict can be redeemed through slavery and good ownership.” And, of course, Marshall’s nickname, “Mean Machine” is intended to reflect his “staying power” in and out of the bedroom.
Understanding the kind of reader a book is aimed at goes a long way to understanding the genre(s) in which it perceives its story to fit. There are several clues in that book description pointing to erotic fiction that I think undermine Riptide’s insistence that they were not trying to erotically or romantically charge the slavery in Belonging. Which doesn’t preclude a critique of slavery, but if that critique is couched in stories that will invite the reader who enjoys the slave fantasy, then those books are either critiquing the reader (which doesn’t seem like smart marketing) or serving two masters, so to speak.
And I think it’s that second option that I have the most difficulty with. Because even if I apply my own reader consent theory to the slave fantasy, I think we’re dealing with a lot of content that is beyond the text itself and endemic to the marketing. And there reside a lot of issues entwined with commercial fiction, publishing for commercial success, capitalizing on those niches where the money is, and the kind of economic manipulations that businesses make to maximize their profit. And for me, that’s where things get really sticky, because despite the amorality of many of these economic manipulations, the moral and ethical minefield of slavery within a fantasy context ultimately factors in. Especially when the publisher has attempted to distance itself from the project, even as its owners and executives are among the authors who created it.
I know that for some readers, the very concept of the slave fantasy is problematic, and maybe some who have read the books in question can comment. As I noted earlier, I have difficulties with this fantasy scenario myself, but within my own theoretical framework of reader consent, I don’t want to condemn taboo fantasies or the readers who enjoy them. Still, I’d love to hear what you all think about this, both in terms of the concept and its execution. Did you get the “horrors of slavery” angle, and if so, where did you see the cues? Does it matter more what the nature of a book is, who the publisher is (e.g. one that traffics primarily in Romance and/or erotica) or how it’s marketed? And what kind of responsibility — if any — does a publisher have to its readers when it publishes and markets its books?