Interviewing just over 130 authors of erotic fiction, I asked what the future holds for our genre.
As ever, this article is intended as a starting point for discussion. All comments are welcome.
For writers and readers seeking access to an online community, where ideas may be further debated, and professional expertise shared, you may like to visit the Erotica Writers and Readers Association, or The Erotic Literature Salon.
In her inspiring and uplifting article, On Writing Erotica, Remittance Girl describes the act of passionate creation: ‘Do you remember falling in love with someone and being so addicted to them that it almost made you sick? You could not leave them alone, and when you had to, they were like a huge, dark cloud that blocked out half your horizon, so that everything you did was in a half-dream?… You felt the ghost of their hands on you hours afterwards? Some of my pieces have been like that…The story, the characters haunt me. Those stories are like insatiable, brutal lovers…When it’s like that, I am in ecstasy. And when it’s over, I feel emptied of everything, but not abandoned. Because the story is there and finished and lives. I often wonder if my readers can tell which stories were like that for me. Part of me hopes they can’t. Part of me thinks they can smell the ones that were.’
Lily Harlem notes that skill is required to keep a reader ‘invested’ and ‘in the moment’. She muses, “Some only want to be thrilled. Some want only to be horrified. Erotica is for readers who want to be Horrified but Thrilled!”
With the explosion in self-publishing, many e-editions appear hastily written and, as such, are often felt to muddy the reputation of the genre, so that many readers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, apt to denigrate erotic fiction as no more than ‘poorly written filth’.
Kay Jaybee tells us, “I fear a continued dilution of quality as more unedited self-pubs hit the e-shelves (across all genres).” She believes that the publishing system may adapt in some way to compensate. Zander Vyne underlines, “The market is flooded with crap. I sometimes wonder if I’m like a high-class call girl who doesn’t want to be lumped in with crack-whores giving $5 blow-jobs in alleys. Maybe, this explains why I’m gradually moving myself out of the ‘erotic fiction’ classification.” Elizabeth Black adds, “People are uploading poorly written porn and presenting it as erotica. Not only is it poorly written, it is a grammatical mess. The covers are ugly. There are misspellings and formatting problems. The whole mess is giving legitimate erotic fiction writers a bad reputation.”
LN Bey notes, “The influence of 50 Shades of Grey, combined with the self-publishing revolution, has produced an awful lot of junk to be waded through to find the jewels.” Making suggestions as to how we ‘solve’ this, LN urges writers, and readers, to ‘buy with discernment and promote work you love by leaving reviews on your blog and on various platforms… and promote great blogs!’
Catherine Mazur urges that we write sex so that it is integral to the unfolding story, rather than dropped into narrative ‘like cookie-cutter homogenized porn cheese chunks’. She asserts, “I’d like sex writing to be taken seriously, as part of culture and as an art. Writing an erotic story to what most would consider to be a high literary standard is very difficult, and this pervasive cultural idea that just anyone can do it, without years of practice and hard work, is insulting.”
Dee Maselle voices a common view that authors need to invest in their craft, including through editing “I‘d like to see better editing, with consumer dollars following the well-groomed and thoughtful written word.”
Meanwhile, Molly Synthia urges writers of fiction using erotic elements to avoid creating internal hierarchies of one style or sub-genre being superior to another. She explains that authors have a tendency ‘to celebrate all of the freedom in the genre while subtly (and sometimes not subtly at all) looking down on those who choose to write differently’. She’d like to see authors more readily ‘admit that they write some things just to help housewives get off… and not be ashamed of it’. She continues, “Sometimes we want a candlelight dinner, roses, wine, an incredible bath, and hours of sensual lovemaking. Sometimes we just want to be bent over a chair and fucked quickly. We need writers to accept that either is valid. In any other genre we’d accept a richly detailed world in one story and sparse writing in another.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Califia adds, “Writing erotica for the sake of getting off quickly becomes predictable. I hope erotica can continue to develop as literature, with multiple layers of significance and drive.”
Kathleen Bradean states, “I’d like to see literary erotica get it’s due. Writers talk about some mythical golden age. Maybe it was when Anaïs Nin was writing, or George Bataille, but it seems to me that really good literary erotica is a rare thing. Commercially viable literary erotica even less so.”
Very Different Beasts
Erotic romance is enjoyed by millions of readers worldwide, providing inspiration and catharsis. Its authors weave emotional journeys and it is for this that fans return over and again.
For those who pursue the writing of ‘pure’ erotica, in which love is not the main focus, the rise in popularity of erotic romance is often perceived as a serious challenge, since readers are thought to now widely associate the entire erotic genre with love themes. They can be disappointed on coming across a book labelled as ‘erotica’, which does not meet their expectations for romantic elements. Meanwhile, erotic fiction authors may be ‘judged’ (and reviewed critically) against criteria they have never attempted to meet.
A significant share of authors surveyed recognize that traditional erotica, in its exploration of our humanity through the sexual lens, is a very different beast to ‘steamy romance’, in which sex scenes support the development of a love story.
IG Frederick voices a common view in stating, “I’d very much like to see a differentiation between erotic romance and erotica and see literary erotica come into its own as a separate genre. I don’t have any objections to writing, reading, and/or enjoying erotic romance. But, when people acquire one of my works (especially from Korin Dushayl) and expect a romance purely because it’s listed in the erotica genre, it does a disservice to the reader and to me as the author.”
Writers regularly express their desire to see greater recognition of the division between traditional, pure forms of erotic fiction, and erotic romance.
Jane Gilbert comments, “Erotic romance, as a genre, seems to have taken over the erotica label post Fifty Shades of Grey. Erotica and erotic romance are two very distinct categories. That is not a value judgement of either but more an observation that the two categories are trying to achieve, in the main, quite different things. They need to be distinguished.”
How cruel it is for a writer of erotic fiction to be flayed for failing to meet ‘romance’ criteria they have never claimed as their own.
Kristina Lloyd asserts a desire ‘to see the erotic liberated from the shackles of romance conventions’. She believes it has a far more diverse role to play in literature, saying, “I’d like to see erotic elements appear more widely in mainstream fiction. The erotic disrupts, destabilizes and threatens order, both personal and social, and its power is widespread and pervasive.”
Jacqui Greaves adds, “When I tell people that I write erotica they either think I write bodice rippers or Shades of Grey. There doesn’t seem to be an appreciation of the full spectrum of the erotic sub-genres.” Raziel Moore also asserts the need to ‘break free of the current constraints of romance’, stating his belief that the post 50-Shades era has popularized erotica, but ‘within particular confines only’. He stresses, “Unfettered explorations of desire have taken a hit. I’d like to see that change.”
Elizabeth Black states that men’s writing on the topics of relationships and sex is more often respected, being lauded for insight into human nature and named as literary fiction, while women’s work on the same topics is more generally dismissed. She states, “Romance has a bad reputation as being sub-par… as if what women choose to read isn’t as respectable or reputable as what men choose. The aggravating thing is that when women write about relationships and sex (romance novels), their books are viewed by some with disdain or disinterest. But when a man writes about the same topics, his books are viewed with great respect. He’s said to have great insight into human nature. His books are often lifted out of the romance genre and placed in literary fiction, which some view as having more clout. Women’s voices and insights matter.”
There is no doubt that erotic fiction is dominated by women writers, as well as by women readers. As to its lack of literary recognition, we cannot help but muse on whether the genre would gain greater respect were men to write more prominently within it…
Sue MacNichol tells us, “So many books in this genre transcend merely the romance aspect and actually have other important messages to give around the social aspects of life, being part of a community and promoting equality and diversity across colour, sexuality, gender, disabilities and ethnicity.”
Trapped in a Maze of Repeating Tropes
A great many authors note frustration at publishers and, seemingly, readers desiring a repetitive meal of the same ingredients, rather than seeking out innovative works. Of course, authors must also bear some responsibility for this, where they are commercially risk-averse, serving up what they believe audiences wish to consume. The situation has become, largely, a self-perpetuating loop, of authors creating works within a ‘safe’ and market-proven zone.
Adrea Kore notes her desire ‘to see more unique voices in contemporary erotica’. Nya Rawlyns declares, “I’d love for erotica to become acceptable as part of our creative lexicon. I think there is room for the careful and circumspect, which is where we are now, but I’d love to see the genre expand to accept the truly transgressive, the type of story that redefines how we see ourselves and our society.”
Justine Elyot voices her frustration that the erotic genre appears so ‘trend-driven’. Zak Jane Keir emphasizes, “I’d like to see a moratorium on vacant virgins and bastard billionaires. We also need more diversity of theme and plot. I dislike stories detailing abuse of women. To me, it’s not daring or innovative to write a story about a woman learning to love her rapist, or to write an even-more-graphic-than-the-last-one story of erotically dismembering women.” CA Bell declares, “I’d like to see sexy, real, and honest writing: no billionaires who can shag for hours and come five times a night.”
Many writers would like to see a broader range of people represented, of all ages, sizes, abilities and sexual orientations. Krissy Kneen expresses a desire for more ‘gender fluidity’. She comments, “The masculine/feminine divide is boring and needs to be retired. Manly men and femme women is a cliché that really must go.”
Cecilia Tan asserts, “I’d like to see the genre embrace greater diversity, both in types of character and of types of sexuality and sexual expression.” Lee Savino also states a desire for ‘more diversity’, and access to ‘fans for your niche’. She muses on being able to ‘write dragon dinosaur menage ageplay and find a market for it’.
Adrea Kore reminds us that erotica ‘permits the exploration of alternative sexualities, such as polyamory, kink, gay, queer and open relationships’. She emphasizes, “What I love about the erotica genre is that there is so much scope. Human sexuality is vast, varied, and complex. The spectrum of people’s turn-ons and kinks is almost verging on infinite. And so is writing about it. As authors, we don’t all have to be covering the same ground… there is room for diversity.” (more here)
Kristina Lloyd notes, “My current focus is on writing outside of the genre by placing more emphasis on the psychological suspense elements in my work and less on the erotic elements. I always want to grow as a writer and to not write on repeat. Right now, I feel as if I’ve exhausted erotica – or it has exhausted me! Saying that, I continue to believe that erotic desire is a key driver for many people, and therefore for characters in fiction too.”
Delving the Psyche
Susan St. Aubin voices a common yearning for stories exploring ‘unfulfilling’ sexual encounters, and others delving into darker corners of the sexual psyche, including loss (an area she finds relevant especially when writing older protagonists). IG Frederick notes similar frustration at the fact that ‘it’s perfectly acceptable to use sex to sell anything from cars to beer, but we are discouraged from examining the impact of sex on relationships in works of fiction’.
Sessha Batto notes that she’d love to see ‘more realistic, nuanced, portrayals of the place sex holds in our lives and how it shapes our thoughts’. Siri Ousdahl states, “I’d like there to be a larger place for high-quality, graphic sex writing: fiction that is not coy, does not romanticize or trivialize, and is psychologically realistic.”
Patrick Califia tells us, “My intent is to understand events from my own lifetime. The spiral of life takes you around a few bends, and you find that you are a different person and you have new questions to ask about the past. The past and the future are the same, really, it’s all my life, it comes from me, but I know a lot more about the past than I do about the future. By standing on the edge of the well of memories and throwing a pebble into the darkness, then counting to see how long it takes to fall, I can create an oracle for myself, for my own death, and for the unknown years I have between this breath and the last.”
Smut to be Tittered Over
Writers believe that there is still some way to go for erotic fiction to become socially accepted (more here – on Hidden Identities) and yearn to see it recognized by the wider literary community, by retailers, and by the media, for its merit.
Terrance Aldon Shaw notes, “I’d like to see erotica inspire serious discussion and thoughtful critique, with the best of the genre being recognized for the great literature it is, and the authors who write it to receive the recognition and financial reward they so clearly deserve.”
KD Grace underlines that she’d like to see erotic fiction ‘stop being treated like the bastard stepchild of the literary world’. Lucy Felthouse notes that much stigma remains attached to the genre, saying, “Local newspapers are reluctant to cover stories about erotica authors, and local bookshops soon lose interest when you mention the genre. It can be disheartening.” RV Raiment adds, “I’d like to see erotic fiction gain a place in the broader media. There is still too much guilt, too much prudery and too much persecution.”
As Remittance Girl asserts, “I hope that I can play some small role in the evolution of erotic writing and help, if only in a tiny way, to push it into the light and towards being recognized as a fertile and unconstrained form of critically recognized literature.”
Ina Morata comments that she has been on the receiving end of disapproval from authors who write outside of the erotic genre. She states, “There is still such an ‘under the counter’ mentality about buying and reading erotica.” Meg Amor tells us, “I’m irritated by the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ attitude and puerile labels like ‘pervy’ and ‘dirty’. It reminds me of pimply schoolboys giggling behind the school bike sheds with a couple of girly magazine and some pilfered cigarettes. Sex is part of life. Why shouldn’t it be written about?”
Brantwijn Serrah is saddened that erotica is ‘dismissed as dirty, smutty, or cheap’. Donna George Storey adds, “There seems to be a need to demean it as pathetic fantasy fodder for bored housewives or horny bachelors.” Victoria Blisse is tired of the ‘tee hee, have you read this saucy book?’ attitude, wishing to see the genre accepted, as any other.
JD Lexx states, “I’d like to see it framed as less guilty pleasure and more the mark of a mature and adventurous mind.” Cate Ellnik comments, “It beats me why crime fiction is something people discuss so readily, yet erotic fiction is sniggered over or hidden.” Vinnie Tesla adds, “So long as the rhetoric around erotic writing embraces the notion that the sexual has to be ‘redeemed’ by other elements, it will be mired in shame and double-think.”
Meanwhile, Sylvia Storm notes, “I would love a closer connection between adult film-makers and the writers of erotica.”
Eroding Sexual Stigma
Many authors believe that writing the erotic has a valuable role to play in eroding sexual stigma. Felicity Brandon comments, “If my writing can help to contribute to this evolution, then that would be amazing!”
Rose Caraway tells us, “I want to bring a wide range of stories to listeners, so that they feel not only inspired but comfortable, and so that they feel encouraged to communicate and be fulfilled. Foremost I want to break down notions of sex being ‘bad’. We mustn’t be afraid or ashamed.” Brantwijn Serrah adds that erotica can ‘communicate new ideas, draw people closer and improve intimacies, and inspire readers to discover new aspects of themselves’.
Terrance Aldon Shaw notes, “Sex is neither dirty nor shameful. There must be a way of describing this universal, beautiful, multifaceted, complex activity in language that is neither overtly vulgar nor detached from feeling altogether. I believe that an unexamined life is no life at all. Ignorance and innocence are not the same thing, and society needs desperately to grow up.”
Tilly Andrews adds, “I’d like to see less judgement about the genre. It bothers me that books about murder can be promoted freely, yet books that contain sex cannot.”
Meanwhile, the popularity of BDSM themes inspires Alexis Alvarez to say, “I’d like to see a move towards female-centric views of BDSM and sexuality. Most stories, for all of their modern settings and vocabulary, remain stuck in a patriarchal mind-set. I’d like to see a new wave, showing how feminism can coexist with BDSM and D/s and erotica.”
Madeleine Moore adds, “I fear, post FSOG, that a heterosexual girl who doesn’t like a good spanking is ‘no fun’. If she’s pressured to succumb to a beating to appear ‘cool’, what the fuck has been accomplished? It might be better all-around if we focus on zero tolerance for sexual abuse and allow the BDSM crowd to find each other, rather than pushing to make BDSM some sort of cultural norm. Nothing is ever going to be acceptable to everyone.”
Greater Recognition and Visibility
Thanks to social media, writers in the erotic genre are showing more unity than ever; through collaboration, they are forming their own brand of literary collective. In working together, and offering mutual support, we may more easily make our voices heard, across so many platforms.
The UK’s ‘Eroticon’ convention, for writers in the genre (being next held in London in 2017), is a great example of authors and bloggers coming together to network and to share their professional expertise.
Authors are eager to see the genre gain greater visibility, not only via media recognition, but through prominence on sales platforms, online and ‘on the high street’. Visibility of e-books is particularly problematic, due to the proliferation of titles (in the erotic genre above all others). That the genre is capable of so much more remains unrecognised largely because even the ‘best’ examples lack sufficient visibility.
Authors feel frustration at being unable to advertise their titles through the Amazon programme, and books being hidden behind walls within the search engine. Cecilia Tan laments that Amazon and the other major retailers ‘treat their biggest money-maker like a dirty secret’. Laura Antoniou echoes this, saying that she’d like to see Amazon ‘get over the weird way they have of hiding and downplaying erotica’. As Elizabeth Safleur puts it, “It’d be nice if Amazon didn’t bury our titles.”
Ashe Barker adds, “I’d like to see a lot more of our books on sale in major outlets – supermarkets, high street booksellers, airports. Amazon’s stranglehold over our distribution worries me, especially as Amazon is not exactly author-friendly. Their near-monopoly gives them too much power and influence and, ultimately, they are not on our side. Similarly the dominance of Facebook over our promo and communications leaves us very vulnerable. I’ve taken care to build a newsletter list over the last year or so and I continue to invest in my website, just to make sure I have alternatives. I don’t trust either Facebook or Amazon, not really.”
Rose Caraway tells us, “I want to put erotica on the map much more boldly, and make it easier to find. You have to jump through hoops to find it on retail platforms. The more writers out there using erotic elements effectively, the more visible it should become.”
Noting that readers have the choice to exercise discernment, Ria Restrepo asserts, “Let the market decide.”
Our Battle Cry
Erotic fiction has the ability to hold a mirror to society, and to speak where other genres do not. Shanna Germain underlines, “Out of all the genres, I think erotica (and horror) are ones that reflect a lot of the mores of our current culture. Sci-fi looks ahead, fantasy looks back, literary fiction looks askance. But erotica looks right at the now and says, ‘This is happening, in the streets, in the bedrooms, in the bars.’ Where will erotica, as a genre go? It will go where the culture goes. I hope it goes somewhere open-minded, joyous, and hot as fuck.”
Remittance Girl, in her article, On Writing Erotica, tells us, “To articulate the conflict within ourselves, to make sense of it, and then to reach out to others via the page: this is the path of the writer. As we look to what comes next, our only true desire can be to write freely and honestly, to write what refuses to lie quietly, to write what thrills us, emotionally, intellectually and viscerally. If we achieve this, then our stories will be worth telling, and worth reading. We are adventurers. We are explorers. Be brave. Dare to write what frightens and unsettles us, as well as what delights us. In doing so, we may write words worth remembrance.”
- Authors’ Recommended Reads
- Women Writing Erotic Fiction
- Writing Craft
My thanks go to the following authors for giving their time and for their candid answers; my thanks also to authors who contributed their views anonymously.
Tobsha Learner, Laura Antoniou, Susan St. Aubin, Shanna Germain, Remittance Girl, Malin James, Janine Ashbless, Adrea Kore, Kristina Lloyd, Jonathan Kemp, Patrick Califia, Maxim Jakubowski, Cecilia Tan, Donna George Storey, Kathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Raziel Moore, Will Crimson, Sorcha Black, Cari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, L.N. Bey, Zander Vane, Tamsin Flowers, Krissy Kneen, Zak Jane Kier, Jade A Waters, Ashley Lister, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya Rawlyns, Terrance Aldon Shaw, Sessha Batto, Rose Caraway, Allen Dusk, Tabitha Rayne, Marc Angel, Elizabeth Safleur, Jeremy Edwards, Spencer Dryden, Devi Ansevi, Nicholas Tanek, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina Morata, Finn Marlowe, Elsa Holland, Elizabeth Schechter, Aleksandr Voinov, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis Alvarez, R.V. Raiment, J.D. Lexx, Lily Harlem, Thomas Roche, Madeline Moore, Ria Restrepo, Scarlet Darkwood, Wade Esley, Victoria Bliss, Jane Gilbert, Jim Lyon, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Chase Morgan, Lee Savino, C.P. McClennan, Elizabeth Black, C.J. Czelling, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette Hugo, Frank Noir, Amelia Smarts, Nobilis Reed, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra Shaw, Ardent Rose, Sylvia Storm, Renee Rose, Rachel de Vine, Cherry Wild, Patient Lee, Pandora Spocks, Suzette Bohne’ Sommers, Molly Synthia, Charlie Bee, Meg Amor, Lizzie Ashworth, Cara Bristol, Finn Marlowe, C.A. Bell, Brantwijn Serrah, Aubrey Cara, Kathleen Bradean, Jay Willowbay, Stormchase, Lisa Fox, Allyson Young, Vinnie Tesla, Emma Jaye, Dennis Cardiff, Dee Maselle, Frank Lee, Christina Mandara, Big Ed Magussun, Sue Lyndon, T.J. Vermillion, David Flint, Delores Swallows, Vanessa Wu, Ian Smith, Rebecca Branch, Jaye Peaches, Molly Moore, Ashe Barker, Tilly Andrews and Catherine Mazur.