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Sunday, June 19, 2016 - 22:30
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This will be the first time when I publish a new LHMP entry directly to the new website. Maybe next week I’ll experiment with setting up a post-dated publication date. Exciting adventures!

Full citation: 

Lardinois, André. “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” in Bremmer, Jan. 1989. From Sappho to de Sade: Moments in the HIstory of Sexuality. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02089-1

The association of the name Sappho and the word Lesbian with female homoeroticism is so well entrenched that the question is rarely asked: what evidence do we have that Sappho was a lesbian (in the orientation sense, rather than the geographic one)? And how would such an orientation have been understood in her age and culture? Lardinois addresses these questions from empirical (if scanty) evidence.

Lardinois notes that the first use of the word “lesbian” in the sexual orientation sense in English dates to 1890 (although other authors have noted much earlier uses in other languages, with the earliest examples dating to the Middle Ages). The question of whether the connection between the isle of Lesbos and female homoeroticism has historic roots in Sappho’s time has been long debated, beginning in Antiquity.

The earliest source materials for Sappho’s life are: the remnants of her poetry (mostly fragments quoted by later writers); an assortment of fiction, gossip, and facts about Sappho and her poetry found in the works of Classical authors; and circumstantial evidence regarding the socio-historic context in which she lived.

Sappho’s body of work includes songs celebrating the beauty of young girls, ceremonial songs (cultic hymns, wedding songs), satires, and songs about members of her immediate famliy. There is also a fragment of an epic. It is the songs in praise of girls that form the primary evidence for Sappho’s erotic interests, but the ceremonial songs provide important evidence regarding the social context. Sappho’s authorship of cultic hymns demonstrates that she was an established and respected member of her community. Therefore if her songs in praise of girls are evidence of sexual interest, then that interest must have been acceptable to her community. Similarly, the satirical works that speak of rivalries and jealousies indicate that whatever relationships were involved, they were known and accepted by the community.

Lardinois discusses clues in Sappho’s poems regarding social and political relationships on Lesbos and the respectable position that both she and the girls she addressed held. And yet there is a pattern of references to named girls leaving Sappho, either with her consent or to her regret. The personal and individual nature of these references suggests they were works written for specific occasions. In contrast, her praise verses tend to be generic, not mentioning names either of the speaker or the subject. (Though it should be noted that most of what survives is fragmentary and we can’t know what was in the parts not preserved.)

If one takes the content of these poems at face value, they suggest a context of female pederasty (in the technical, classical Greek sense), and one which was compatible with respected social standing. Over the centuries, these two observations have often been interpreted according to the prejudices of the interpreter.

Although Sappho’s poetry never touches explicitly on sexual activity (with the possible exception of one fragmentary reference to a dildo, insufficient to determine the context), it does use the forms and tropes of erotic love poetry, and details activities associated with courtship (making flower wreaths) or that are suggestive of physical expression (”on soft would satisfy your longing”). For context, these themes should be compared to poems written in the context of male pederasty, which similarly avoid mention of sexual acts (but where no one doubts their existence).

Songs praising the beauty and attractiveness of girls--even when Sappho notes her own response to it--must also be understood in the context of their performance, often as part of marriage ceremonies. Themes of praise may be conventional rather than personal. Turning the argument around again, later male poets such as Catullus had no qualms about quoting Sappho’s work to express their own erotic response to a woman.

Among the later “testimonia” regarding Sappho’s life, the story used most prominently to argue against her homoeroticism (or at least to argue for her eventual and inevitable “conversion” to heterosexualtiy) concerns Phaon, the man for home she is said to have made a suicidal jump from the Leucadian rock. (The earliest surviving source for this is from Ovid, taking the form of a letter purportedly in Sappho’s voice.) Sappho’s work also refers to a daughter, and it is unlikely that she could have held the social position she did without being married (to a man). Can all these elements be compatible with homoerotic desire? References to that desire (albeit, often disapproving ones) are rife in later classical commentaries. Athenian comedies sometimes caricatured her, but never for homoeroticism, rather for heterosexual promiscuity. It can reasonably be supposed, however, that these authors were as unfamiliar with the historic context of 6th century BC Lesbos as more modern authors are. The only difference is that they most likely had a much larger corpus of Sappho’s work available to them.

So, for example, when classical authors assert that Sappho had a daughter named Cleis, a certain amount of confidence can be placed on this (the name appears in fragments of her work, and she wrote about other family members) even though the fact could not be confirmed from what survives of her work today.

What, then, are we to make of the story of Phaon and the Leucadian rock? Lardinois suggests this is a mythic reference and a poetic trope. Phaon was one of the legendary beloveds of Aphrodite (who figures prominently in Sappho’s songs), and it is possible that the story arose from a poem that was intended to be understood in the voice of the goddess. A near-contemporary poet of Sappho, Anacreon, mentions a “leap from the Leucadian rock” as a proverbial remedy against the pain of love. As love-pangs feature regularly in Sappho’s work, it is not unlikely that she, too, may have made use of it as a rhetorical device. From such references, a later legend of Sappho’s leap of despair for the love of Phaon could have been constructed by someone not familiar with the literary motifs.

Could Sappho’s reputation for loving women also have originated in a mis-reading of poetic tropes? For this, such tropes would need to exist. And if they existed, then they would reflect prevalent and accepted practices. Did such practices exist? (And if they did, would they not be support for the historic plausibility of homoeroticism being compatible with Sappho’s professional reputation?)

Sappho’s sexual reputation in pop culture changed radically over time. Sappho flourished around the early 6th century BC. In Athenian comedies of the 4th century BC, she was satirized as excessively heterosexual. Snide references by Roman writers to her “disgraceful friendships” with women began appearing around the 1st century CE. Slang uses of the term “lesbian” (lesbis, lesbia) underwent similar shifts. It always had a primary sense of “a female inhabitant of Lesbos”, but picked up a variety of erotic connotations. Aristophanes (5th c BC) used a verb with the same root to mean “to practice fellatio” and this sense continued through late antiquity. The first known explicit association of “lesbian” with female homosexuality comes from Lucian (2nd century CE) who writes, “They say there are women in Lesbos with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men.” And there are Byzantine references to “lesbia” explicitly meaning a female homosexual.

Were the shifts in Sappho’s sexual reputation a result, or a cause, of shifts in the senses associated with “lesbian”? Or is it entirely the wrong question to ask whether Sappho was homosexual, given that a categorical distinction and division between homosexual and heterosexual eroticism post-dates her era?

The final part of Lardinois’ paper turns to evidence for that historical context. The first consideration is the social institutions that brought young girls together in groups for the sort of education in song, dance, and other activities referenced in Sappho’s works. The second consideration is the evidence in other parts of Greece of that era for institutions of female pederasty, in parallel with the more familiar male institutions.

There is copious evidence for organized institutions of young women who learned music, singing, dance, and other activities to “serve the Muses.” In addition to serving as education for the girls, they would participate in religious and social rituals. This organization and these activities are perfectly compatible with the many references in Sappho’s poetry, including references to beautiful clothing and other adornments. Therefore the context of Sappho’s interactions with the subjects of her poetry could easily be in one of these institutions.

Although later Roman authors generally treated the subject of female homoeroticism with distaste and disapproval, they provide occasional references suggesting that earlier Greek attitudes were different. Plutarch describes a Spartan custom whereby “distinguished ladies” had sexual relationships with younger women/girls, in direct parallel to the pederastic relationships between adult men and youths. This claim is corroborated by other authors as early as the 4th century BC. The Greek poet Alcman, who wrote songs for Spartan “maiden choirs” in the 7th century BC (i.e., slightly earlier than Sappho) used the word “aïtis” for a girl in a sexual relationship, as a direct parallel to male “aïtas”, which was the official term for a boy in a pederastic relationship. Alcman’s songs for the maiden choirs include language that suggests erotic interactions (or at least desires) between the girls themselves. A vase from the Greek island of Thera ca. 600 BC shows two women in a stylized interaction similar to depictions of male erotic couples.

From all this, we can envision a scenario where a married female poet of high social status and impeccable reputation could enjoy and openly celebrate erotic relationships with the young women under her guidance. Such relationships could even have been an important part of extensive social and political networks. Only with the loss of that institution were later writers left with the need to try to make sense of Sappho’s erotic expressions in the context of her life and times.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016 - 02:45

Quite some time ago (nearly two years, I think), I decided I needed a more professional looking website for my writing activities. And it could have all sorts of bells and whistles! Book reviews! Forthcoming publications! Future convention schedules! I could not only move the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to the new site, but I could make it the primary home of my blog. And then it could push content automatically to LiveJournal and Twitter and Facebook. And the LHMP could have improved functionality, with better tagging, and a dynamic index page, and...and everything!

Bells and whistles take a while to build. And there are a few important steps to get from, “So what would you like it to look like?” to “Go live!” But thanks to the folks at SK+ (Sharon Krossa Consulting), I have a lovely new web home. Some of the back-end bells and whistles are still under construction, but the front end is ready to go.

Check out the site. Explore the new LHMP interface. Kick the tires. Let me know if you spot any problems. (And old links to content at the site should roll over to the new equivalents.) And when I’ve had a chance to breath a little, I’ll probably do some sort of fun thing to celebrate the launch (and drive traffic to the site).


(Note: A variety of older blog entries have been imported for testing purposes, but I won’t be systematically migrating older LiveJournal entries to the new blog.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016 - 11:00

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

I suspect that the structure of Chapter 8 (In the Attic) is affected by the expansion of the original story. (This is one of those places where I'm curious to look at the original shorter version.) The first half is something of a brisk summary of at least the first several months (maybe longer) of Sara's new life. But then the chapter returns to the morning after Sara first moves to the attic and begins a more detailed look at her new relationships. I'll cover the first part in this blog.

I feel that the first several paragraphs capture the trauma of Sara's sudden transition vividly: the physical discomfort, the emotional distress, the sense of being removed from herself and looking for something to hang on to, even if only the painful truth, "My papa is dead!" We get some foreshadowing of Melchizidec in the scampering noises she hears in the night. And then, the next day, it's as if her life as a student has been erased. Her belongings have disappeared from her old suite of rooms. Lavinia has reclaimed the position of honor closest to Miss Minchin. And Sara is assigned a task that actually suits her abilities perfectly: a sort of teaching assistant to watch over and coach the youngest students.

But beyond that, she is turned into something of a maid-of-all-work: cleaning, and shopping, and running errands, and anything else that the rest of the staff can dump on her. Anyone who has experienced a sudden change of occupation, and especially when the new one involves physical labor, can easily imagine how time would blur together as Sara simply tried to make it through each day. And yet she made time to continue studying on her own and she connects education with class very directly. If she doesn't hold on to the things she has learned, she fears that she will "be like poor Becky" and lose her upper class speech mannerisms.

Behavior is one of the few things Sara has control over. She now wears plain, shabby clothing that she is always outgrowing and that becomes an object of ridicule. And there is now an enormous social distance between her and the other students, even when she is interacting with them. Those interactions become more constrained when Sara is told to take her meals with the other servants. (For all of Miss Minchin's instruction that Sara's transition is to be immediate and complete, there does seem to be a more gradual withdrawal in some areas.)

In combination with Sara's decision to set the best, most hardworking example that she can, she survives emotionally through her role-playing. At first, she sees herself as a soldier like her papa. "Soldiers don't complain. I will pretend this is part of a war." It will be some time before she returns to the role of princess.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 11:00

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

Sara’s reaction to the news of her father’s death feels like one of the most emotionally real passages in the story. (And this isn’t meant to disparage the rest of the story!) Her shock, her desperate self-control in public, and then her retreat to privacy and nearly incoherent attempts to reconcile herself to the news feel both utterly in character and entirely realistic. For all Sara’s popularity, she is an intensely private and self-contained person. And, as Becky later notes, sometimes it’s best that people in trouble should be left alone. (It might not be true of all people, but it’s certainly true of Sara. And once again, Becky is spot-on in her emotional reactions.)

When Sara emerges again to face Miss Minchin, she is subdued, but self-controlled and determined. This reaction might almost be designed to set Miss Minchin off. Miss Minchin wants to be the one in control, the one who causes others to react. For the rest of the story, she will view Sara’s self-possession as a personal affront—as a challenge to her authority. The more self-control Sara shows, the more out of control Miss Minchin becomes.

Miss Minchin verbally strips Sara of every scrap and vestige of her previous luxury and privilege, failing only when Sara refuses to give up the doll, Emily, who represents her emotional bond with her father. And when Miss Minchin thinks she’s putting the last nail in the coffin of Sara’s pride, by telling her she will need to work for a living, Sara subverts the situation by seizing on this as a positive. She will earn her living and prove her worth. And she will keep her self-possession and dignity, symbolized by her refusal to thank Miss Minchin for her “kindness”.

But it isn’t until she is shown to her new room up in the attic that she lets down her guard once more and feels the full weight of the transition in her life. And it is only there—when Becky comes in to comfort her—that Sara comes close to crying. When she first met Becky, she observed that they were alike—both two little girls. And now she repeats that observation: that there is no difference between them now. Becky, however is wiser. “Whatever happens to you—whatsoever—you’d be a princess all the same. And nothing couldn’t make you nothing different.” She recognizes the deepest truth to the story, that Sara’s “princess nature” is an inherent characteristic and not something that can be taken away.

But it will be a while before Sara rediscovers how to use that “princess nature” in her new situation, and first she needs to renegotiate her relationship to the world around her.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 - 09:15

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

In the second part of Chapter 7, we see the depths of nastiness that the adult characters are capable of. Captain Crewe’s soliciter comes to tell Miss Minchin the news that Crewe has died--and died a pauper after the diamond mines failed. The soliciter does get one rather delicious line in this conversation. In the initial conversation where he is railing against the fantasies spawned by the diamond mines, he notes, “When a man is in the hands of a very dear friend and is not a businessman himself, he had better steer clear of the dear friend’s diamond mines, or gold mines, or any other kind of mines dear friends want his money to put into.” After dropping the bomb that the Captain has died from a combination of jungle fever and business troubles, Miss Minchin asks exactly what the business troubles were. “Diamond mines,” answered Mr. Barrow, “and dear friends--and ruin.”

But the shock of the thought of Crewe’s fortune having evaporated (and Miss Minchin being on the hook for the funds she’d fronted for Sara’s party, as well as ordinary expenses), seems to drive a number of things out of both their minds. It seems implausible to me that neither of them thinks to try to locate someone who will stand in loco parentis for Sara. The soliciter presumably had the means to follow up with Captain Crewe’s military superiors, who might have ideas about what arrangements might be made--even assuming that Sara truly has no remaining living relatives. (Whatever did happen to her mother’s family?) For that matter, he is quite aware of the existence of Captain Crewe's "dear friend" who--though presumably equally bankrupt from the mine debacle--might well be expected to feel some responsibility for Sara (as, indeed, we later see he does), and might very well have relatives of his own in England who could step in and provide assistance.

But even Miss Minchin is aware of Sara having at least one potential sponsor, because she knows that Crewe chose her school on the personal recommendation of Lady Meredith. And there’s a clear indication in Chapter 1 that Miss Minchin had personal correspondence with Lady Meredith regarding Sara’s suitability for the school. So why doesn’t it occur to her to contact Lady Meredith and let her know that her dear friend Captain Crewe’s daughter is now friendless and destitute? At the very least, Sara might be taken off her hands. At the most, Lady Meredith might feel a moral obligation to pay Sara’s debt at the school as well.

This aspect has always troubled me. There is no reason other than plot logistics for Sara to be considered genuinely alone and friendless in the world.

Miss Minchin is so personally affronted by the loss of Sara’s fortune that she leaps to the decision to throw her into the street, rather than considering following up on any of these possibilities. It is noted that this is an indiscreet intention to voice. But the soliciter, rather than chiding her for her hard-heartedness, only points out that it would reflect badly on the school and that it would be more practical to exploit Sara as an unpaid servant. If nothing else, this is one more piece of evidence that Captain Crewe was extremely incompetent in his business decisions. One might think that when he chose an agent to look out for his daughter’s interests in England, he would have chosen someone capable of empathy and compassion.

But, no.

So Miss Minchin calls her sister in to do the dirty work and devises a way of informing Sara of her father’s death designed for maximum trauma. In this chapter, any sympathy one might have had for Minchin’s position vis a vis her pampered pupil is trampled into the dirt.

It’s left to Becky--who has been hiding under the table while all these conversations have gone on--to think what all this will mean for Sara herself, and to beg for permission to help soften the blow and assist Sara in the transition. And it’s Becky who sees the tragedy as a story arc: “It’s exactly like the ones in the stories--them poor princess ones that was drove into the world.”

Next week, we’ll finish Chapter 7 with Sara’s reaction to the news.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 07:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

It was pointed out in comments last week that one thing that may be behind the very uneven time-flow of the story is its origins in a much shorter work. So now I'm curious to what extent that shorter work focused primarily on the two time-periods that take up such a disproportionate amount of the page: the day of Sara's 11th birthday party, and the day of Mr. Carmichael's return from Russia. In any event, today's discussion continues with the fateful birthday party with Chapter 7 "The Diamond Mines Again".

We begin with a detailed re-emphasis of Sara's wealth, in reviewing the presents her father has arranged for her. His lack of sense with regard to spending is only emphasized by her reception of those gifts: she seems most delighted with the books, and while she philosophizes over "the last doll", it's clear that dolls themselves--with all their opulent accessories--aren't particularly important to her. The doll Emily is important as a story-telling locus and an emotional focus (as sort of an object-diary to whom she tells her inmost thoughts), but not quite so much as an object for play-manipulation. So the "last doll" with its elaborate clothing and accessories serves as the ideal symbol of excess and waste: important to Captain Crewe to represent wealth, unimportant emotionally to Sara (witness how little regret is involved when she eventually disclaims ownership of the doll, compared to how she clings to Emily), and a thorn in the side of Miss Minchin who has had to front the money for the gifts and will be left holding the bag.

But the beginning of the birthday part also has two key emotional scenes. Sara's request that Becky be allowed to stay to witness the opening of the presents is both a kindness and an imposition. A kindness, in that she publicly acknowledges not only Becky's basic humanity, but her right to "be a little girl" and enjoy girlish pleasures like dolls. Mind you, at the age of 16, a working class girl like Becky is the farthest thing from "a little girl" in this sense. And Sara's inclusion of her in the party is, in some ways, the farthest thing from a "kindness", as it brings her to the disapproving attention of Miss Minchin and--as we will see--ends up trapping her in a location where her accidental eavesdropping could have severe consequences. It's one thing to feed Becky stories and meat pies in the privacy of Sara's rooms, and another to single her out on a public setting. But Sara isn't always wise when her sense of justice is riled up, as we see on other occasions. And I don't see this as a flaw in her, but rather a consistent aspect of her realistic complexity.

The other key emotional scene is the foreshadowing when Lavinia asks how easy it would be for Sara to pretend to be a princess if she were a beggar and lived in a garret. The scene is a bit clumsy only for the fact that it occurs immediately before the announcement of the arrival of Captain Crewe's solicitor who (as it happens) is bringing news of his death and ruin. But it gives us a chance to glimpse how Sara thinks her imaginings would function if she were destitute, before she has to deal with the reality. (And, as we'll see, the reality is that using imagination to fight immediate physical and emotional hardship is not quite as easy as one might think.)

So we will leave this week's discussion in the same way that Sara leaves the schoolroom with the presents: with "the Last Doll sitting upon a chair with the glories of her wardrobe scattered about her; dresses and coats hung upon chair backs, piles of lace-frilled petticoats lying upon their seats." And, like Becky, we will linger just long enough to need to duck into hiding when Miss Minchin returns with the solicitor, so that we can listen in on their conversation...

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 06:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

(Starting this while waiting to board my flight to Chicago, but I see people lining up, so I'm guessing I won't post it until the other end of the flight. Maybe not until I get to the hotel this evening.)

I have a tendency to create timelines and genealogies and whatnot when analyzing books. There are no genealogical puzzles to sort out here, but I had to draw up a detailed timeline to figure out exactly when various things occur, how old various people are at the time, and how long certain situations are in place. A Little Princess contains 19 chapters. The first six take Sara from her arrival at the school at age 7 to the eve of her 11th birthday. Chapters 7-12 take her from the day of her disastrous 11th birthday to The Day of The Magic, which by my best evaluation appears to be about one and a half years later. Chapters 13-15 all take place on a single day (The Day of the Magic). Chapter 16 seems to cover several months., then 17-18 occur on a single day (the day of Mr. Carmichael's return from Russia), and the final chapter covers an unspecified period of at least several months. The passage of time is vague and only tentatively anchored by references to weather and sometimes general mentions of "holidays". It doesn't help that the text often ranges ahead and then circles back, making it hard to pin down the chronology of the individual events.

Plotting out a timeline also points up several places where the static nature of the background characters borders on absurdity. So let's lay out both the chronology of the chapters and the estimated ages of some of the girls.

Chapters 1-3: We are told explicitly that, at the beginning of the book, when Sara first arrives at the school, she is 7 years old, Lavinia is "nearly 13", and Lottie is "just 4 and the baby". Ermengarde's age is never specified, but it's implied that she's been at the school for at least one year previous, and if we take the age of 7 as the typical age of entrance, then she must be at least 8.

Chapter 4: The story does one of the "ranging ahead and circling back" things, talking about "the next few years" of Sara being at the school, but then returning to her first interactions with Lottie when Lottie is still identified as being 4.

Chapter 5: We are told explicitly that Sara has been at the school for "about 2 years" when Becky is hired and that Becky is 14. If we take "2 years" in absolute terms, then Sara is now 9, Lavinia is nearly 15, Lottie is 6, and Ermengarde is at least 10.

Chapter 6-7: Chapter 6 must cover a period of about 2 years, because it takes us up to Sara's 11th birthday. So at the end of this chapter, Sara is 11, Lavinia must be ca. 16-17, Lottie is 7, Ermengarde perhaps 12, and Becky 16.

Chapter 8-9: The chronology of these chapters is very confused. First we get a description of Sara's life for "the first month or two" after the disaster. Then we circle back to her first night in the attic. Then we get mention of Ermengarde being called home for "a few weeks" (presumably right after the party) and then after her return it's several more weeks before she gets desperate enough to venture up to the attic to confront Sara. In chapter 9 we circle back to scenes with Lottie right after the party and Lottie's eventual visit to the attic, and then up through the taming of the rat, Melchisidec and a few weeks later to Ermengarde's introduction to the rat. It's impossible to sort through this to figure out exactly how much time has passed. Certainly several months, possibly more.

Chapter 10: We get bits of language indicating the passage of time. Sara is out-growing her clothes. The weather is turning toward winter. And we get one clear date reference in the encounter with young Donald and the incident of the Christmas Sixpence. At some later date Mr. Carrisford moves in next door. It seems likely that several months have passed, perhaps even nearly half a year...

Chapter 11-12: ...because Sara's encounter with Ram Dass occurs in a weather context that suggests high summer. Chapter 12 discusses the Carmichael children getting to know Mr. Carrisford, among other events, and must take us up to wintertime again.

Chapter 13-15: These chapters cover the Dreadful Day that ended in The Magic. The weather definitely indicates winter, and Ermengarde's reference to presents from her father and to the coming holidays suggests that we're shortly before Christmas. But this is also the day that Mr. Carmichael leaves for Moscow, and given the description of his stay there (as well as the range of events that have to happen during his absence), the fact that "it had been snowing all day" on the day he returns suggests that either the author has lost track of her own timeline, or it was a very very late winter that year.

Chapter 16: This chapter covers the entire period between The Magic and the day of Mr. Carmichael's return. It's long enough for Sara and Becky to lose their half-starved look under the benefits of Mr. Carrisford's secret charity. I can't seem to make it longer than about 3 months, which may be just barely both long and short enough for everything to make sense.

Chapter 17-18: When Sara's identity is finally revealed to Mr. Carrisford, he claims to have been looking for her for two years. There's an implication that there was some delay after Captain Crewe's death before Carrisford had his act together enough to start searching. But even if he started searching the day of Crewe's death, I can't make the elapsed time into two years without a certain generous rounding up. But if we take it as a reference point that this is exactly two years after Sara's 11th birthday, then Sara is 13, Lottie is 9 (and yet still with the emotional behavior she had at age 4), Ermengarde is perhaps 14, and Becky is 18. Curiously, Lavinia is ca. 18-19 which seems a dreadfully advanced age at which to still be attending the school. And yet Lavinia is still there, still playing Mean Girl, and still caring about Sara's relative place and status rather than eagerly looking forward to getting out into the world and being treated as a grown-up woman. This is what I mean by the curious unchanging nature of the secondary characters.

Chapter 19: And we conclude with an interlude of an unspecified several months after Sara is adopted by Mr. Carrisford before she decides to return to the bakery that figured prominently in The Dreadful Day, and to set up her charitable program to distribute bread to hungry children.

There, that's out of the way. Later, I'll make a similar digression into linguistic issues, covering clues spread out across the book.

Thursday, May 5, 2016 - 08:00

Today is even more random than usual, as any possibility of applying my brain to a new creative topic is toast. It looks like I'm finally circling down to being able to close the investigation that I've been working on the last two months. And I set up my new laptop last night and have yet to go through and do a complete functionality verification regarding programs and data-transfer, so I don't dare do anything on either the old or new machine that involves changing files yet. But fortunately I can do some more nattering on the question of what sorts of useful meaning can be squeezed from Amazon and Goodreads book ranking data.

I've had a delightful amount of engagement on this topic, and somewhat unusually it's come from a lot of different intersections of my online life. People are popping over from the LesFic mailing lists to comment, and Tuesday's blog got a mention on File 770, which resulted in pointers to some other similar data-crunching that ties in to the topic.

[Note: these two posts were originally posted on LiveJournal then migrated to Dreamwidth. Comments on the May 3, 2016 post can be found in DW here, and those on the DW version of this post can be found here.]

Correlation of Rating Volume and Sales

A commenter on File 770 pointed me to a fascinating analysis by SFF author Mark Lawrence that looks at the correlation between the number (but not magnitude) of Goodreads ratings and book sales. He used his own sales data plus data provided from colleagues writing in similar genres who were willing to provide numbers. (Note that book contracts sometimes explicitly prohibit authors from discussing income or sales numbers in public.) Lawrence's conclusions are stated as:

[T]here is a pretty close relationship between the number of Goodreads ratings a book has and its total sales. PROVIDING that the books are of a similar age and the same genre.

(A rough squint at his graph suggests that the correlation for his specific dataset works out to around $7-8 per Goodreads rating.)

Correlation of Goodreads Rating Volume and Average Rating

(This originally appeared in slightly different form as a comment I made at File 770.)

Having poked around a bit on Goodreads, I’ve pulled a data set from a list entitled “Best Historical Fantasy” (the genre chosen to be thematically comparable to one of the sets I pulled from Amazon) and I took the top 100 titles from that list. Goodreads lists (in contrast to the sales-based Amazon Top 100 lists) are created by reader/reviewers and books are added and up-voted by other reader/reviewers. Internal ranking in the list is dependent on some combination of the average rating and the number of different people recommending the book for the list.

Overall, the results confirmed my analysis from Amazon with a couple of interesting details.

The first interesting detail is that the Goodreads correlation (at least for this dataset) continues roughly linear throughout the ranking scale, rather than losing linearity toward the bottom of the scale. My knee-jerk hypothesis is that this relates to the ability to leave a ranking on Goodreads without leaving a review. This may suppress the number of lower rankings on Amazon because someone who doesn't care for a book may be less motivated to say so if they have to do it in a text review rather than a one-click star ranking.

The second interesting detail is something that most people who pay attention already know anecdotally, which is that Goodreads rankings have a wider spread. This may be simply a consequence of the "suppression of lower rankings" effect on Amazon noted above. (To be clear: I'm not saying that Amazon actively suppresses lower rankings, only that the structure of the interface may have that as an effect.)

The lowest ranking in the Amazon Historical Fantasy Top 100 was 4.0, while Goodreads rankings (though obviously not for the same exact books) went down to 3.1 In addition to the abovementioned suppression effect, the suggested interpretations for Goodreads ratings are also shifted down from Amazon ratings. If you go by the suggested interpretations, an Amazon 4* is a Goodreads 3*. Amazon rating distributions are more likely to descend from a maximum at 5-stars, while Goodreads distributions--even for popular books--are more likely to have a maximum at 4-starts, indicating an overall shift of the curve. More on this below.

The third interesting observation is more particular. As I was entering the rating/# of reviews data, I started noticing a particular name standing out as an outlier. Not an outlier in terms of matching the average-rating/no.-of-ratings trend, but a set of books–all by the same author–who fell high in the list (based on the number of people voting them for the list) while having surprisingly few ratings. So although I wasn’t tracking author or title in general, I flagged every time that author came up in the list: a total of 11 times (out of 100 books). When the books were sorted in descending order of average rating, that author occupied 7 of the top 10 slots (average ratings of 4.7 or more) and completely followed the overall correlation of having relatively few reviews. (In a dataset where a handful of titles had rating entries in the 6 figures, all but one of those 7 had been rated fewer than 100 times.) Having taken a look at the author’s bibliography on wikipedia (and I’m not going to name names because that’s not the point), the best hypothesis seems to be that this is someone with a small but extremely dedicated readership. That dedication extended to ensuring the authors position on the list by voting for the books there, but reflects the general conclusion that the average rating must be understood in the context of the overall number of ratings.

(A commenter on File 770 suggested an alternate interpretation than "small group of enthusiastic fans", noting that some Goodreads authors engage in list-vote trading to move each others' books higher in lists. I have no speculations on this particular author's situation.)

Correlation Between Average Amazon Rating and Average Goodreads Rating for Popular Books

While it's an easy anecdotal observation that average Amazon ratings tend to be higher than average Goodreads ratings, I wanted to confirm this impression with data. So I started with Amazon's Top 100 Historical Fantasy books, looking only at Kindle sales this time (for consistency), and stripping out omnibus editions (to avoid redundancy). I used Amazon data as the starting point because I figured sales figures were harder to game than Goodreads lists.

Because I was going to have to search on each book individually in Goodreads, I only took the top 40 from the Amazon list, which trimmed down to 33 when omnibus editions and not-yet-released titles were excluded. I then calculated the Amazon:Goodreads ratio, as well as the absolute difference. I played around with these results in several ways, plotting them as a curve distribution and running a mean and standard deviation.

At a very rough approximation, the absolute difference in reviews seems to follow a standard curve: average = 0.4 stars, standard deviation = 0.2 stars. In fact, roughly 90% of the data fell within one standard deviation of the mean.

The ratio of reviews isn't quite as pretty a distribution, but has an average ratio of 1.09 with a standard deviation of 0.06. Here only 80% of the data fell within one StDev.

I leave it to a better statistician than I to say something meaningful. I expect that differences in average rating may be much more variable for books with smaller distributions, due to the larger effects of individual choice (both in what rating to give and in which rating site to participate in).

Only one book in the set had a higher average ranking in Goodreads than in Amazon. It's a pre-release listing and has relatively few reviews, which may account for its position as an outlier. Its position on the Amazon Top 100 list seems to be due entirely to the fact that it's a 47 North publication (i.e., an Amazon imprint) and "sales" are probably artificially inflated by internal promotion activities, such as making it available to "book club" arrangements (based on comments in the reviews). Some of the text reviews on Amazon

Some Random Overall Conclusions

Mark Lawrence’s sales correlation is very interesting. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that the average rating number by itself isn’t meaningful. I suspect that comparing the combined average rating + number of ratings data to the overall trend line for the relevant genre will tell you more than the absolute average rating alone, in terms of whether the reading community likes or doesn’t like the book. But all of that may be irrelevant to sales.

Just for fun, what does all this say about my books?

Daughter of Mystery has an average Amazon rating 0.5 stars higher than for Goodreads. Plotting the cumulative average Amazon Rating against total ratings over time, I'd say the average rating more or less settled in to a relatively stable number around the 15-20 review mark, but is still highly subject to single inputs. The first 5 reviews were all 5-star.

The Mystic Marriage has an average Amazon rating 0.7 stars higher than for Goodreads. The average Amazon ranking doesn't seem to have stabilized yet and the first 6 reviews were all 5-star. This book is still at the stage where the ratings are artificially high due to low numbers of readers. (Excuse me while I go sob in a corner for a while.)

Both books fall pretty solidly on the normal trendline for Lesbian Romance, but don't have enough data points to compare meaningfully to the Top 100 Historical Fantasy data. As for sales data...let's just say, "Inadequate data for meaningful analysis." (The next related phenomenon I examine may be changes in rating patterns for series books. My knee-jerk hypothesis is that later books in a series will tend to have increasingly higher average ratings because readers will typically continue with the series only if they liked it.)

It's very important to keep in mind that these comparisons and correlations are only meaningful when looking at sets of books with similar potential distribution. A lesbian romance with 200 Amazon ratings isn't comparable to a blockbuster best-seller with 200 Amazon ratings. The latter is only starting to scratch the surface of its most dedicated readership while the former may well have already saturated the market.

In conclusion, much as it pains me to admit it, I do myself no favors in begging my readers and fans to leave reviews if they weren't already inclined to do so. Strongarming existing readers into leaving ratings/reviews does not necessarily generate new readers. It certainly doesn't directly generate additional income. And to the extent that looking at the average rating + # of ratings provides useful data, artificially inflating one's average rating by solicitation to existing fans isn't meaningful.

Instead, the only useful thing to do is beg people to encourage other people to read my books. And the rating stats will fall out of that on their own.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016 - 08:00

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

A milestone: one of my tweets about last week's Little Princess blog picked up a troll! Not a very amusing one; it's only the fact of it that's amusing.

The last part of Chapter 6 brings strong foreshadowing of disaster, and provides some useful data regarding the source and nature of Captain Crewe's money. In an earlier entry, I already noted that Crewe's occupation as an army officer seems unlikely to have been the source of his wealth, and now it's confirmed that if it came from his parents being wildly successful in business, he inherited none of their talents in that direction.

As he writes to Sara, there are financial problems with the diamond mines, but "your daddy is not a businessman at all, and figures and documents bother him. He does not really understand them, and all this seems so enormous." Now, allowing for some hyperbole when writing to an eleven-year-old girl, we can easily see how precarious the family fortunes have always been. Crewe spends money extravagantly, admits he has no business sense, and invests what turns out to be his entire fortune in a risky speculation on nothing but the word of a boyhood friend. While Sara certainly doesn't deserve to become destitute, one can't help concluding that perhaps Captain Crewe does deserve it. And yet, in the midst of these financial troubles, he arranges for an extravagant party for Sara's 11th birthday, including a number of expensive presents, for which Miss Minchin is expected to front the money. He knew he was in financial difficulties and he went ahead and asked Miss Minchin to front a large sum for a non-essential purpose.

It's details like this that allow for at least some sympathy in Miss Minchin's response to the impending disaster. It isn't fair of her to take out her anger and disappointment on Sara, but it isn't as if she can take them out on Crewe himself. He will have conveniently died. Touching back to the "moral accounting" theme, the financial disaster is "earned" by Crewe (although not deserved by Sara).

The chapter ends up with another episode showing the special friendship between Sara and Becky. Sara's school-fellows will be delighted to share in enjoying Sara's birthday presents, but Becky is the only one of the girls who thinks to actually give Sara a present herself: a pincushion made with her own hands, from scraps and remnants. And Sara responds to both the thought and the effort with gratitude and love, somewhat to Becky's startlement. "It ain't good enough for that!" she says, but I think we know better. As I mentioned in an earlier installment, Becky is the only one of the girls that gives back to Sara rather than only taking. I don't think Sara would characterize it that way--after her fall, she certainly values the willingness of Ermingard and Lottie to continue associating with her. But that's a more passive support than what Becky will give.

In many ways, Becky's "moral accounting" arc is as strong as Sara's, which is why the difference in their eventual rewards will seem a bit unfair. But I get ahead of myself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - 08:00

Usually I like to focus this blog on the creative part of the writing process, but I'm in an unusual pause at the moment so I thought I'd talk about the analytic end. I know the common wisdom in mainstream publishing is that an author should pay no mind to reviews and ratings. At most, we should do comic readings of our one-star reviews to show how little we care. (Only cry in private behind locked doors.) So this essay isn't really for anyone whose book came out from a major publisher. But I have this weird bi-cultural existence, suspended between what I consider my "home" writing community (mainstream SFF) and the community in which I was published (small-press/self-published lesbian fiction), so I get a lot of opportunities to compare and contrast. This essay is for people who don't have mainstream publication and for people who may be bewildered by some of those cultural differences.

There is major anxiety within the LesFic community (quite possibly within all marginal publishing communities) around the crowd-sourced rating-and-review sites like Amazon and Goodreads. A big reason for this anxiety is that it's what they (we) have: they don't get a big publicity blitz, they don't get bookstore placement, they don't get advance reviews in all the highly-respected sites. What they do get is an aggregate of individual reader opinions when those readers are motivated enough to post them.

In my experience, this anxiety is expressed in two major ways. There is a strong community pressure that readers--that is, readers "within the community"--should only ever review and rate books that they absolutely love, and therefore that they will rate highly. This philosophical position is expressed explicitly by many LGBT review sites, and in social media forums for LGBT book communities. This anxiety walks hand in hand with the second: the tendency to react to less-than-perfect reviews as a personal attack. Given a supposed "community standard" of only reviewing/rating books you love, there is an interpretation that to rate a book badly (where "badly" is anything less than a four-star review…or sometimes less than a five-star one) must have been done out of personal malice against the author. That either the reviewer is deliberately giving a false opinion (because, of course, the book must be objectively excellent!), or that, even if they genuinely didn't care for it, the act of publicly expressing that opinion could only come from personal malice.

Viewed from within the community (and it is very much an expression of the assumption that the reader/writer/publisher nexus is a community whose purpose is to support each other against the world) this can look a lot more reasonable than it does from outside the community--where it tends to look fairly toxic.

But beyond the damage to the usefulness of ratings/reviews when only glowing opinions are authorized, there is a damage to authors' perceptions of their own work. Express skepticism of the usefulness of all-five-star ratings and some authors will loudly proclaim that their book is so great that of course it earned all those five-star ratings.

No. I believe that almost every book can earn some genuine and sincere five-star ratings. But no book is universally beloved. Let me repeat that with emphasis: NO BOOK IS UNIVERSALLY BELOVED.

Because I wanted to throw some data at this essay, I took a look at Amazon for the top 100 sellers in Historical Fantasy and the top 100 sellers in Lesbian Romance. You know who has spent a very long time in the top 10 books sold in Historical Fantasy? Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Do you know how many one-star reviews Outlander has on Amazon? 749. Seven hundred and forty-fucking-nine one-star reviews (4% of the total). No book is universally beloved.

Do you know what unfavorable reviews and ratings mean? They mean that your book is engaging readers who are outside your narrow inner-core target audience. Not just that it's reaching them, but it's engaging them sufficiently to express their opinion in public. And up to a certain point (I'll talk about that point later) the more reviews you get, the lower your average rating is. Because the more people you engage, the more likely you are to engage people who may have liked your book but didn't absolutely love it. Sure, that hurts. It would be nice to be universally beloved. NO BOOK IS UNIVERSALLY BELOVED.

Ah, but I'm a data person, so I ask myself, is it possible to quantify to what extent a less-than-perfect average rating reflects getting your book in the hands of people outside your core target audience? Let's see.

I went through the top 100 Amazon sellers in the Historical Fantasy category and recorded the number of reviews and the average star rating. Then I calculated the average number of reviews at each rating. I mention Diana Gabaldon above because I ended up pulling her out as her own little category for the analysis. And then I plotted those pairs of data.

graph of ratings vs number of reviews for historic fantasy

I had to put Diana Gabaldon on a separate y-axis that differed by nearly an order of magnitude from the rest of the data. But here's the take-away: from around an average rating of around 4.3 on up, a lower rating correlates with a larger engagement (expressed as overall number of reviews). This holds true for the overall average of that top 100 and it holds true in the specific case of Diana Gabaldon. The books that had only five-star reviews? (And keep in mind, these are ones that are currently in the top 100 sellers of the category.) None of them had more than four (4) reviews. Your first, most engaged reviewers are quite naturally going to be people from your core target audience. But an extremely high average is a sign that you haven't expanded far beyond that (yet).

Now let's take a look at the same sort of data for the Amazon category of lesbian romance. (In this case, I looked specifically at Kindle sales because for small press books the dynamics of e-book versus paper are peculiar.) I also cut the data off at a rating of 4.0, not only to compare better with the historical fantasy data (for which that was the lowest average rating) but because the values below that represented only one or two books each and so are less reliable for trending purposes.

graph of ratings vs number of reviews for lesbian fiction

And what do we find? Pretty much the same thing. In this case, a rating of 4.4 and up correlates very closely with the average number of reviews at that rating. No book that had an average five-star rating had more than five (5) reviews. Interestingly, if you look at the plot for the maximum number of reviews at each average-rating point, you get the same effect: a very strong correlation between number of reviews and a lower average rating.

Now, of course, at some point this effect breaks down. At some point a lower average rating does start to reflect people's opinion of the specific book, even in the aggregate. And that seems to start somewhere in the lower 4's depending on the data set. And these trends are looking at aggregate behavior. It doesn't mean that there's no difference at all between a 4.4 rating and a 5.0 rating. What it means is that the meaningful difference between a book that has a 5.0 rating with X number of reviews, and a book in the same marketing category with a 4.4 rating and 50X number of reviews is not necessarily one of quality. What it means is that the second book is reaching outside its core audience. And is engaging them.

As someone who has been working very hard to reach outside what my publisher believes to be my core target audience, this is what I keep reminding myself when I get a "meh" rating or review. It means that I've succeeded.

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