Thursday, January 6, 2011

Word Whores: A Look at the Courtesan

I touched on the concept earlier this week of why books are like sex…and why writers are like whores. But let me be a bit more specific, for just as there are different levels of writers (NY Times Bestsellers vs. midlist, for example), there are different levels of whores. From a historical (Victorian) perspective you had the street-walkers and the prostitutes – the women who *had* to do it, simply because they had no other choice when it came to supporting themselves. For whatever reasons, their options were severely limited and so the acts in which they participated were born of desperation.

And then you had the lorette – which was a sort of kept woman (particularly in France). Her lovers were of the upperclass, but she was not flouted publicly. The term “respectable mistress” has been used to describe her, for she was certainly above the streetwalkers, and could often slide between the upper and lowerclass worlds, but she never really fit into either.

And of course, the royalty of whores would be known as the courtesans. Although providing sex to the extremely wealthy clientele was one of their services, a courtesan was often in an unusual position for women during this time frame. For one thing, they were usually highly educated (and oddly enough, proper women were discouraged from any sort of higher learning. They were supposed to be wives, housekeepers, baby-makers and well-versed in social niceties. And um. That’s it.). Many courtesans may have started as actresses or dancers, singers or poets…something considered respectable by society, but it was their ability to fascinate the men of their time that was of the most value. Many of them played cards, ran salons, were fabulous horsewomen or provided music or witty conversation or music.

More to the point, a courtesan knew her own value. She commanded a high price from her suitors and often lived in a style of extreme luxury. When a chosen patron could no longer afford her, she simply moved on to another one. And there was rarely a shortage of potential suitors – to be able to afford a courtesan was a massive status booster, even if somewhat scandalous.  I’ve got to admit that it’s really rather fascinating that “proper” women were kept within such strict sets of protocol…and yet the men flocked to the very women society frowned upon.

On the other hand, if you compare that to books – which did you prefer growing up? The required reading of school? Or the secret stash of pervy romances your mom kept under her bed? The forbidden has always been sought, often gaining a certain amount of accepted notoriety as a result.

Truly though, the courtesan was able to supersede society boundaries. By making herself (and accepting that she was) a commodity, she ensured her place was secure.

In many ways, this is very similar to authors. It’s not enough to just sit back and write these days. We’re expected to network – twitter, facebook, blogging, interviews, workshops – anything and everything we can do to get our names and our writing out there. We keep up on the latest news in the industry, our ears to the ground for those things under behind closed doors – which agent is open for submissions, who’s paying out the highest royalties, what editors *really* want.

In the end, it should be about the writing, but don’t underestimate the power of placing value upon your work. If you don’t, then who will?

Real life example? Go check out Amanda Hocking. She’s self pubbed since April of 2010…and sold over 185,000 books this year alone, driven simply by word of mouth and social networking. *That*, my friends, is a courtesan of publishing.

At the moment, I sort of see myself as a lorette. I’ve got a publisher, but I haven’t quite mastered all the ins and outs of this new world. I’m still learning the subtle intricacies and with my first book about to be released in a few weeks, I’ll admit it’s a bit nerve-wracking. Thus far I’ve skirted between the no-man’s land of published author and aspiring writer…accepted into the upper echelon, but without having to prove myself to the public.


Will A Brush of Darkness find itself a pariah, outcast on the streets, throwing its pages open wide in the vain hopes that someone will read it? Or will flocks of readers clamor for more, lifting me to the shoulders of literary greatness? (Or at least borderline recognition. I’ll take that too.)

Only time will tell. And as a brief plug for myself, there’s a first chapter excerpt up on my website today. Go read it! J


  1. Wonderfully interesting post, Allison! I think you're spot on with the comparative levels--it's funny how life is full of so many parallels.

    I also love the Amanda Hocking example. I was actually just doing research on her yesterday. Do you by chance know what all she did to get the word out? Or did it literally just spread like wildfire sans match?

  2. @Danielle - actually, no, I don't. I'm trying to find out though, because if it that sort of success can be replicated it would be very, very cool. :) It sounds like it was all word of mouth, though.

  3. That does bring up the thing that vexes writers to no much time does one devote to walking the street (promo) versus actually putting out (writing)? I know that there must be a balance, but I wonder if it depends on whether or not one has achieved full-blown courtesan status?

    Because...damn, promo is fun but it can make your feet hurt. ;-)

  4. I must say that walking the street does work in selling your book. I've seen lots of books get big promos and sell big time while they weren't that great in my opinion.

    And if you want foreign sales you need promo as most books I read I have to order as the selection of English books is very limited in stores over here. And to order a book I have to know of it's existence.

    Today's the first time I've heard about 'A Brush of Darkness' I must confess, but it sounds promising and will go on my wishlist.

  5. Fantastic post, Allison. I second Jeffe's comment! :)

  6. @Sullivan - Thank you! :D And good thoughts about the foreign sales - hadn't thought about that.

    @Suzie - Always nice to have my lovely agent stop by. ;-) I think I'm going to have to use "courtesan" in a title somewhere. It has a nice ring to it.

  7. Sullivan! Sparky says hello. :-)

    And I third Jeffe's comment.

  8. It's a bit tragic that even in modern times girls are chastised to be "proper ladies," when, as you point out, Allison, a lady had fewer rights, opportunities, and personal aspirations than the women of the common classes.

    Cheers to debunking the "Lady" myth!

  9. Great post, Allison. I think all writers probably start off as street-walkers, wouldn't you say? We start writing because we HAVE to, then if we're lucky, we catch the eye of an agent which would make us lorettes, and then if we catch the eye of a publisher...well, the beer should flow like wine (I'm not crazy about champagne) and the world should be at our feet. Or something like that.

    I think you're going to be fine, you courtesan!

  10. "Truly though, the courtesan was able to supersede society boundaries. By making herself (and accepting that she was) a commodity, she ensured her place was secure."

    I think you hit a great point there, especially the part in the parentheses. MAKING HERSELF A COMMODITY and ACCEPTING that she was one.

    I suppose that the courtesans had a concrete understanding of their position when being "kept" by a man meant he paid for the place she lived (and it was not the place where he kept his wife). They woke up to four walls every afternoon and knew they were doing their job because no one was there to evict them.

    As women authors, we want to be adored and wooed (read: to be read and have our work liked). Hopefully, our readers are numerous and though some may drift by for a one-book-stand, we want most to cling for a series. Until the readership has grown to something akin to Nora Roberts' fanbase, it's not as easy to see if the commodity we are providing is as enduring. Mostly because of the middleman. No matter how many John's drive by and comment on the word whore's previous work, they have to purchase another bit o' time with her. Sales drive the contracts actually that "keep" us.

    So the only way to secure a place, is to be good at what is asked of us...because it comes down to that commodity. Fanbase = satisfied customers. To be a kept woman is to provide for the customer's needs and desires.

  11. Wow, I'd not heard about Hocking -- that's an impressive number of books sold! Looks like she has something like 8 different titles out, so I have to think she tried hitting traditional houses first before deciding to release everything she'd completed independently. (If Danielle knows more from the research she's been doing, I admit, I'm curious about this story!)

  12. Courtesans have always fascinated me. Right back to the Venetian renaissance theyhave commanded men often controlling them and wielding great power. And yet it was a fleeting life, and the men stillhad the power to break them. And they were so reliant on looks too.
    Another option though. The wife who in spite of all the restrictions, controls her own destiny. And gets the man as a partner. An idyll perhaps, but I want to throw that in as another option for writers. One who works with - and sometimes plays - the publisher - and gets the best of it all.

    Good luck with the book. Having dipped into your blog I can tell I will like it.