July 19, 2015

Talking Shop: Why Can't Erotica Be a Real Genre?

Recently I read this article by one of my favorite erotic authors, Tamsin Flowers. In it, she raises some very good questions about the state of erotica, and the struggles erotic authors face. Mainly, (to summarize), that our fiction, no matter how well-written, carries with it the stigma of being little more than trashy, literary porn.

No matter how well-written. This is a sticking point for me, because I honestly adore some very, very talented erotic authors (many of the same ones Tamsin discusses, including Remittance Girl, Malin James, Erzabet Bishop), and—speaking from the point of view of a woman who has studied English Language and Literature and has one hell of a nerdy hard-on for analyzing narrative—they write some gorgeous stuff.  It’s beautiful not just for its eroticism but its skillful writing, and provocative subjects. I don’t just mean graphic sexual content, but realms of idea, identity, kink, and relationships that don’t see much exploration outside the realms of “smut”.

Remittance Girl, for example, has written an intriguing novella about a polyamorous trio, titled Beautiful Losers. The description for this book calls it “a love story but not a romance… contains explicit depictions of sex in which gender and orientation matter less than desire.”

I find that last part—“in which gender and orientation matter less than desire”—to be particularly fascinating. Here we have a story examining some very deep themes about friendships and relationships, sexual orientation and the expectations thereof, and the possibilities (and consequences) that open up when one embraces an alternative to the expectations and definitions surrounding them. And this is not a romance, and it is not a lofty work of literary fiction masquerading as something “hot”: this book is graphic, it is sexual, it is brutally, beautifully intimate. It is also the book which inspired me to finally find and explore a character concept I’ve been toying with since seventh grade: a “perfect love triangle”. Beautiful Losers—though again, not a romance—inspired the trio of Finn, Ninevah and Nerissa, from Goblin Fires and the upcoming sequel, Elvyn Nights, which focuses specifically on this polyamorous romance.

Beautiful Losers—and, in fact, most of the very good and very talented erotica that I read in books like the Mammoth Collections of erotic themes—makes me curious. Besides being pleasing to my sensual mind, it sparks feelings and questions and new thought.

And why should that be strange at all? Why can’t we have erotic content that contains complex deeper themes as well as being sexually exciting or exploratory?

Tamsin’s post reminds us what we are to mainstream readers: what my good friend refers to as “fap fodder”.  Tamsin calls it “a masturbatory aid”.  I like the phrase “a one-handed read”.

And frankly, there’s nothing wrong with writing material that arouses people and gets them off. I’d be thrilled to know my readers consider any of my pure erotica, or my erotic romance, hot enough to “inspire”.

But why can’t erotica be both hot, and well-written? Well, actually, the better question is, why can’t it be hot, well-written, and appreciated for being both?

I’ll take a minute to point out again that my published works fall more into the realm of erotic romance than pure erotica, and because of that I have it a little easier than some of the authors I’m mentioning today. I get a little more room to play in my worlds than most authors of erotica, because as Tamsin points out, in erotica you are pressured to get to the sexual parts of your story right the fuck now, whereas in romance you are expected to draw the story out and develop relationships, love bonds, etc.  It’s tougher to write and be recognized for more long-form erotica. That being said, I have mad love for authors who do it anyway.

Because one thing I love and admire about erotic material is its innate Fuck You to status quo. I love to read stories about women defying convention and being unabashedly sexual. I love to read about couples who get off on bedroom games most of the romance-reading crowd hasn’t even considered yet. I love stories about public sex, creative sex, multi-partner sex, scandalous sex, greedy sex, transgressive sex. I love to read about alternative lifestyles and new expressions of sexual identity. I love speculative sexual fiction.

And even though my books get to sneak by as romance, this is the kind of sex I like to write about, too. I love writing graphic and shameless sex; this is why Rhiannon in LotusPetals uses words like fuck, cunt, and pussy, and why she’ll be venturing into a threesome in Satin and Steel as well; this is why Reagan from GoblinFires is an unabashed Cassanova, having four different sexual partners over the course of her love story (and yes, it is also a love story, a story about unrequited, beautiful, pure love, despite the several other conquests of the lead character); this is why His Cemetery Doll features graphic sex including external cumshots and solo masturbation, even amid what I hope is a very sweet romance. This is why my current work-in-progress, Lady in Chains, will include scenes of anal sex, breast play, knife play, spanking, whipping, and homoerotic experimentation, and still be about a romantic connection. These are all things I find compelling, sweet, beautiful, kinky, and moving. These are what I like in a one-handed read, but also what I want out of a novel-length adventure. I don’t see any reason they can’t be interwoven together (as might be obvious, since I’ve already published three novel-length books with a fourth on the way, employing these methods).

I don’t believe erotica deserves the sort of dismissal and condescension we seem to get from the mainstream. We’re seen as writing pornography and smut.  I’d say that’s not fair, but then again, I also want to ask what the hell is wrong with pornography and smut?

Erotica goes a hell of a long way to helping bring issues of sexual identity and community to light. It opens the doors for conversations and openness about homosexuality and bisexuality, BDSM and polyamorous pursuit, sex play and creative romance. Truth time: reading erotica significantly improved my early married life, in opening my mind and opening my mouth to discuss fantasy, desires, and kink with my husband. It helped me to come out to him as bisexual, and helped him to discuss with me fantasies he previously wasn’t comfortable verbalizing.

So let’s not let erotica get shuffled into the toy chest, under the bed, behind the pillows, and be called ‘trash’. Let’s accept that erotica is powerful and thematic, that it goes beyond fap fodder, and that it’s not only okay to read it but good to read it: it opens up conversation about important human situations. Let’s legitimize and discuss what it says and what it means, and let’s recognize it as real fiction instead of reducing it to nothing more than smut, trash, or porn.

Consider this a Part 1 of a 2-part discussion, though.  Because in order for erotica authors to be taken seriously, we need to take ourselves seriously, and that means writing good material. Come back next week and we’ll talk about writing material that deserves to be taken seriously.

In the meantime, here are some wonderful blog posts from erotic authors I admire, on why they write erotica:


  1. Thank you so much for your very kind compliment about my book.

    You ask why literature cannot be recognized as both sexually arousing AND have intellectual and literary merit. As far as I can tell, this can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, who in part 7 of his Nicomachean Ethics, said that man could not engage his ability to think rationally and critically while he was sexually excited. The problem is that we really have no idea what he meant by sexually excited. For all we know, he meant that you can't think straight while you're orgasming - which for the most part is true. Later thinkers and philosophers - not being Greek and a lot more inhibited - read it to mean that any level of erotic arousal precluded rational thought. And this belief has stuck. Even though we seem to be able to stop and think rationally enough to put a condom on all the time.

    1. I love Beautiful Losers. :) It's a shame to think one can't enjoy sexually exciting work on both a sexually arousing level and a level of thoughtful or aesthetic appreciation. But I suppose that's part of the point of writing good erotic material...to bring readers to a place of both? And to show how one can lead to and even inform the other, I think, as sexuality doesn't exist in a vacuum from our other emotions and thoughts. These are all some interesting things...lots of material for an analytic paper!

  2. I think it goes back to the same endemically fucked up part of society that still clings to the Madonna/whore complex. Anything openly embracing sexuality is automatically considered lesser. And people who openly embrace their sexuality--especialy women but many men also--get tarred with that old brush "Leper! Leper! Unclean! Unclean!"

    Hell, it was only, what 3 years ago? that a US surgeon general was forced to resign for making a positive statement about masturbation. And while it's perfectly acceptable to show someone being tortured to death in mainstream media, god forbid a woman's nipple appears on screen anywhere but HBO and Showtime!

    Every other genre has it's equivalent of a dimestore novel and no one judges the whole genre by the worst writing in it. But until we can fix this seriously broken approach to sex and sexuality, eroctica, and to a lesser extent even pure romance, will always be subject to this stupid stigma.

    Which sucks because, as you say, there is some seriously awesome writing in erotica.

    1. Excellent observations, and I think you've got it right. One of the reasons I support legitimizing the genre, actually! Erotica isn't just enjoyable... it can be informative and educational, in many ways, or at least eye-opening. The more we talk about these subjects, bring them into conversation, the more we challenge these precepts of Madonna/whore and sexuality as immoral.

      We can even examine and challenge these stigmas IN our erotic works. Makes for some excellent themes I think. Thanks for our comment!

  3. What would happen if we said FUCK YOU to the "erotica" label with all of its baggage, and published our erotic literature as literature, our erotic science fiction as science fiction, and our erotic romance as romance?

    Especially with novels.

    Look at what Jacqueline Carey was able to do without anyone ever shoving her into the "erotica" label.

    We put the label "erotica" on ourselves; nobody forces us to do it.

    1. I've been tempted to do this with His Cemetery Doll, actually, re-labeling it as just horror and avoiding the erotica label. I have a few inhibitions about this, though. The sex scenes won't get past as just being "extra steamy", they are absolutely NC-17, and I wonder at the likelihood of readers responding badly to paying for a horror story and finding themselves in the middle of many explicit sex scenes. I've considered relabeling it anyway and adding some sort of disclaimer, but haven't decided for sure.

      Additionally, though, I kind of like the erotica label, I just don't like the associations that are put on it. My preference would be to work towards legitimizing it, just like other "escapist" genres have been legitimized over time. Time will tell whether this is possible...but I don't see why it wouldn't be.


What do you think?