Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

All About Pleasure: Beyond the “Wet Test”

The topic of how erotica is reviewed has actually been on my mind for a while, but I was inspired to write about it here at the ERWA blog after reading Lisabet Sarai’s post at her author blog on dealing with negative reviews, “You Are Not Your Book.”  Lisabet makes some excellent points based on her experience as both an author and reviewer, and negative reviews are definitely a challenge for any writer.

However, over the years, I’ve noticed another aspect of the popular approach to reviewing erotica—the primacy of the “wet test,” or using personal arousal to evaluate the quality of a story.  Go to any Amazon page for an erotic anthology, and you’ll see that a good portion of the reviewers makes a point to list their favorite stories.  A few will also finger the stories they don’t like (pun intended).  It’s almost as if someone passed out a template on “how to review erotica anthologies,” with a final exhortation: “Don’t forget to mention at least three stories that got you tingly/hard!”

For a while, I took enthusiastic recommendations to heart as the opinion of the erotica-reading public and would be sure to read the stories that were deemed the standouts for both market research and my own education in good writing.  However, I quickly discovered that I did not always agree with the reviewer, that in fact my favorite stories would be completely different titles.  (Although, in some cases, I did agree and was guided to some perennial favorites!)

So, you might ask, what’s the problem?  People have different tastes in the kind of writing they like and the scenarios and dynamics that arouse them.  One could see this standard pattern as a way for the reviewer to reassure the potential buyer that the book “works” as erotica, which is clearly the main reason one buys a book of sexually explicit stories.  And yet, unless this buyer shares the reviewer’s particular hot buttons, the book might not “work” at all.  Again, there’s nothing really wrong with this kind of review.  I did a check of reviews for Best American Short Stories and found that those reviewers also feel compelled to list their favorite and least favorite stories as a way to validate their critical acumen.  Maybe this is simply an inevitable way to evaluate a selection of stories by different authors.

And yet, part of me wishes that erotica would be viewed through many different lenses, not merely whether it arouses a reader.  This might take a lot more analysis, or it might just involve viewing erotica as an experience which touches the reader emotionally, intellectually, and artistically as well as sexually.  Erotica can inspire us to unzip and relieve our red-hot carnal lust on the spot.  Or it can simmer in our imaginations for a while and invigorate our next lovemaking in a very unexpected way a few days later.  An erotic story can also surprise us, make us sad or even angry, make us see love and sex in a new way, disturb us, show us a new side of our own desire.  Certain stories can be sensual and erotic without having much sex in them at all.  One of my favorite erotic stories--“Seduction” by Anonymous in Mitzi Szereto’s Wicked: Sexy Tales of Legendary Lovers--did not result in my yanking down my pants and diddling myself to a frenzy.  But it did enthrall me with its formal daring, sharp humor, and brilliant insight into the sex appeal of Warren Beatty and the nature of celebrity in general.  “Seduction” was a total turn-on for the social critic in me, and yet, like the narrator, I also found myself being drawn into Beatty’s magic web almost against my will. 

But perhaps another reader might disagree with my opinion.

I’m not pretending that I have any right to instruct other people how to react to a book, but I think we’d all benefit if reviewers considered giving us a little more than just the titles they liked and the heat level of their response.  With the advent of online booksellers, we all get to be critics, and I’m the last person to bemoan the breakdown of the literary industrial complex.  However, it would be helpful to other readers and writers if reviewers gave more context for their opinions.  Tell us why a story turns you on or intrigues you or disturbs you or lingers on after you put the book down.  Treat erotica as a crafted tale as well as a masturbation aid.  This would involve a little more time, but there are some great benefits to the reviewer as well.  I’ve found that when I’ve delved deeper into why I like a story and why it turns me on, I’ve learned a lot about the workings of my imagination--to the benefit of my sex life and the quality of my writing.

Perhaps it is a far-fetched fantasy to think erotica could be considered and reviewed as literature in a sex-negative society, where anything that touches on sexuality is considered cheapened and base.  But, hey, I have an imagination--and in that magical realm we all know anything is possible.

8 comments:

  1. I loved your post. It was insightful and very helpful.

    Next time I review something, I will take a little more time to tell my reasons.

    You are right on the target. Pleasure starts in the mind and works outward. At times it can take moments or what we have read blended into fantasies of our own for it to work.

    I think for most the reason sex is viewed in negative way is because a lot of times writers show no love involved in it in the mainstream and most don't even know what erotica is all about until they read one. Then most are hooked with the stuff we write.

    Just my opinion.

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  2. You don't happen to be the "Anonymous" who wrote "Seduction" are you? If so, great story ;-).

    Thanks so much for your comment. I totally agree that there is a blending of the author's story and our own fantasy when a story "works." I also know for me, a favorite story might not be the "hottest," and yet words and images linger on, which for me is the real gold standard for writing.

    As for your last point--I keep reading in the endless articles about Fifty Shades of Grey that some readers who've never dared to read erotica are not necessarily impressed with the prose, but were surprised the story aroused them. While I tend to regard fads and "phenomena" with a doubtful eye, this may indeed lead to a new group of readers discovering a broader range of erotica writers. And there's nothing but good in that!

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  3. What an excellent post, Donna! It is wonderfully refreshing to see someone petition for a wider-lensed approach to reviewing erotic fiction.

    If I look back at my reading over the last 10 years, there are three stories that stand out, haunt me and have done more to inform my writing than any others: Nadica, by Mike Kimera, An Early Winter Train, by C. Garcia-Sanchez and a brilliant story by Kathleen Bradean about a strange sort of angel in the post-apocalyptic badlands of America (I can't remember the title).

    None of the stories caused me to unzip. And yet all of them were fundamentally and deeply sexual. There are erotic stories that touch you at groin level, and there are those that touch the core of where eroticism and identity are interwoven.

    As a masturbatory aide, I find written erotica of any kind a poor substitute for porn. And I often wonder whether the problem with many reviewers of erotic fiction is that they are bringing porn-like expectations to their reading.

    Anyone who has been writing erotic fiction long enough knows how to 'ring' the arousal bell when it comes to descriptions of sex. We all know the words to use, the perennially successful images to evoke in the reader's mind to pass the 'wet' test. But achieving that doesn't necessarily make a meaningful reading experience or, as you rightly point out, give the reader something powerful enough to endure past the last page.

    I was actually quite glad to see the reactions to 50 Shades of Grey. Because, although it presents standard scenarios within the erotica diorama, the writing is really is dreadfully mediocre.

    I, like you, hope that it will encourage more readers to delve into the genre and find gems, but I fear it will act as an example to point to for critics who keep saying that all erotica is poorly written, and is nothing more than porn for people who can't admit that's what they want.

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  4. Hello, Donna,

    When I review erotica (which I do regularly at Erotica Revealed as well as elsewhere), the "wetness test" has little to do with my reactions. Although I often do list my favorite stories, my criteria are 1) originality; 2) quality of expression; and 3) what I'll loosely call "heart", for lack of a better term.

    A story with "heart" goes beyond the physical aspects of sex to consider what an encounter really means, emotionally and spiritually, to the individuals involved. Garce's story mentioned by RG is a fantastic example. Almost every story I've read by Shanna Germain has this quality. Mike Kimera tales are often full of heart, as are yours and RG's, too. In fact, the authors I most admire are those who are interested in how sex moves us and changes us - not just in what makes us come.

    About reviews - I've received several reviews of my short story collection Body Electric along the lines you note. Not enough sex to be erotica - but not well enough written to be literature...

    Sigh.

    In any case, we each do what we can to define the genre in our own terms - by what we write and by what we choose to read.

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  5. Thank you for an insightful post :-)

    I totally agree - the arousal starts in the mind with the prose first. Anyone can throw a few dirty words or images around but that doesn't make for good prose.

    Having said that, when I write I like to think that if I'm not aroused by the writing, then no one else will be. But the story comes first, because without the story and believable characters, the arousal wears off and leaves you feeling empty.

    Maggie

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  6. I'm glad Lisabet mentioned Erotica Revealed. As I read Donna's post, the central mission of Erotica Revealed circled my brain. Intelligent reviews of erotic literature was always the central premise of ER and I think we've done it quite well for five years now. But then, professional writer/reviewers tend to look at erotica differently than the general Amazon readership.

    But I think that's the way it should be. I think there's room for both types of reviews. I like to read a considered, possibly intellectual approach to a book, but also like to see what the "man on the street" thinks about it, so I tend to read both.

    Is erotica's higher purpose the wetness quotient? I think it depends on the story. The beauty and style of a Germain, Kimera, RG, etc. story can transport me without necessarily getting me hot and bothered, but that doesn't mean that the story designed specifically to get me wet, if also well written, doesn't have as much merit.

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  7. Thanks so much for your comments, everyone!

    RG--I think many people definitely bring porn-like expectations to erotica, and thus are disappointed one way or the other. Also for me, it's often just an interesting image or turn of phrase that can really grab me (within the context of a story) rather than a full-bore sex scene. I realize this is another form of pushing my personal buttons, but it's usually a result of a careful, out-of-the-ordinary sensibility. I also agree that while "50 Shades" might at least do some good in that many more people will be "allowed" to read sexually explicit writing to be part of the happening, a lot of people are going to use it as proof erotic writing is bad or that people want bad writing when it comes to sex, because good writing distracts them from the real purpose. Sigh.

    Lisabet and D.L.--I probably should have explicitly mentioned the difference between "professional" reviewers and casual reviewers. I once called Erotica Revealed "The New Yorker of erotica reviews" but at this point I'm rather disenchanted with the NY'er, so I won't insult ER! Also, I remember that Ashley Lister defined the reviewer's mission in an interesting way--not necessarily to say thumbs up or down but to help readers get a sense of whether they would want to read this book. By which I mean to say, the professional has a broader responsibility!

    And it is good to have all kinds of reviews and all kinds of stories, I just think we could use a little nudging to get out of the rut :-).

    Maggie, actually, I also approach a story with the idea that I "owe" my readers enough engagement in the story that it "works" for me on some level. Maybe something more subtle than red-hot lust, but something moves me. I like Lisabet's term "heart." That is what touches us and lingers.

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  8. Great post Donna.

    You bring up so many good points, but at the heart of it is that the value of a review goes up significantly when the reviewer delves into the why.

    Reviews are, by nature, subjective, but what makes a review valuable is understanding the why the reader did or didn't like the story. A negative review can be a positive, depending on the reader of the review's point of view.

    And while this is a general truth, I think it is even more so when we start talking erotica, where the ages old argument of erotica versus porn enters the equation.

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