Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, September 21, 2012

Taking Risks

By Lisabet Sarai

What would it take to get some respect for erotic fiction? To transform erotica from its current scorned status as pornography with a fancy vocabulary into a legitimate branch of literature? Earlier this month, Remittance Girl addressed this issue, suggesting that “critical engagement” might help. In critiquing and reviewing erotica, we need to consider the non-sexual aspects of the erotic fiction we read, focusing on premise, plot, pacing, characterization, thematic depth and language instead of, or at least in addition to, whether the story gets us hot and bothered.

I wholeheartedly agree with her thesis, which she expanded into a fantastic treatise on appropriate objectives and approaches for critiques and reviews. I'd like to offer another, complementary suggestion. To convince readers (and critics) to take our genre seriously, we need to take risks.

What do I mean by that? Am I talking about moving beyond portrayals of vanilla sex to incorporate edgier and more controversial sexual practices? That's one kind of risk, certainly; there's some likelihood we'll alienate or “squick” some segment of our readership. However, the risk to which I'm referring is more fundamental. To have our work considered as something more than gussied-up stroke stories, we need to risk breaking the rules of the genre.
Of course, erotica already tends to be less formulaic than genres such as mystery or romance. Nevertheless, readers have some unspoken expectations:


  • An erotic story will include physical sex acts, with some expectation that the more explicit and varied the sex acts, the better.
  • Characters in erotic stories will experience at least one orgasm (each).
  • Characters in erotic stories will experience physical pleasure on the way to orgasm.
  • Characters in erotic stories tend to be at least somewhat attractive.
  • The story will end happily, in the sense that the participants get what they want (sexual release).

These expectations are not equally strong. In particular, the “happy ending” rule can be waived, in so called “dark erotica”. However, as erotic romance becomes an increasingly powerful force in the market, it has become more difficult to publish erotic stories with tragic or otherwise negative conclusions.

Stories that satisfy the expectations above are likely to sell well. To some extent, readers are lazy (we all are) and want experiences that offer familiar satisfactions, as opposed to experiences that challenge them to think or feel something different. If we write according to expectations, delivering what readers are buying now, we'll likely increase the size of our monthly royalty checks. However, we may be undermining the reputation of the genre as a whole.

I've been writing, publishing, reading and reviewing erotica for more than a decade. Lately, the majority of the stories I read have a depressing sameness. Even more alarming, I find that I myself am reluctant to write stories that violate popular expectations. I know that choosing to write an ugly or nasty character, or to include only a minimal amount of actual sex, or to leave a character frustrated, may interfere with my selling the story - to publishers and to readers.

Great fiction takes risks. It stands out from the crowd. The books and stories that most impress me tend to be original, surprising, outrageous, even disturbing. If I aspire to more than hack status, I must be willing to risk following my intuitions instead of the rules.

At the moment, I'm working on an erotic vampire story for the charitable anthology I'm editing, Coming Together: In Vein. In my initial notions about the conclusion, the main character does not get what he wants. He's desperate to be taken by the vampires, to be ravished, used, drained dry. He wants to sacrifice himself to them, because he loves them so deeply. However, his master and mistress refuse to grant his wish. Instead, he's left in the same state of unrelieved desire as when the story opens.

As I considered this, I found myself thinking, “Oh-oh. Readers won't like that. They want everyone to get off. They crave satisfaction. Maybe I'd better change the ending.” I was tempted to transform the tale into a more familiar model, to hew more closely to the unspoken rules.

All at once, I realized I was subverting my own creativity in order to be “safe”. I decided to stick with my original concept. Of course, I don't need to worry about whether this story will be accepted, since I know the editor well. The experience made me realize, though, how often I do choose the well-trodden path, opting for sales and money as opposed to originality.

I'm fascinated by the idea of purely psychological dominance in D/s. I have another story concept stewing at the back of my mind, a BDSM novel in which the master is a quadriplegic. He cannot directly exert any power over the submissive. Instead, he relies on surrogates and on the sub's willingness to surrender and obey. In particular, I have a scene in mind where he completely immobilizes the sub so that she'll have some understanding of his personal experience.

This story premise breaks most of the genre rules. Still, because this scenario intrigues me personally, I suspect that I could make the tale erotic. However, I'll probably never write it, because I'm convinced that no publisher would accept it (and I don't have the time or energy to take the self-publishing route). I'm basically holding back from taking the risks that might produce something of serious literary merit.

How many of us are falling into the same trap?

On the other hand, the most exquisite prose, the most amazing literary insights, mean nothing if they're unread. If our fantastically creative erotic books never see the light of day, we will accomplish nothing.

I continue to ponder this conundrum, trying to decide if there's a way to create outstanding erotic fiction that takes risks and still gets read.

26 comments:

  1. Excellent! I couldn't agree with this more- I am certainly guilty of having more literary ideas, but not having the guts to write them. I mean, I write erotica- who would take me seriously?
    If only people could see that I (and so many of my fellows)actually write beginning to end stories that happen to include a lot of sex, and not just sex for the sake of it.
    Having said that- I am about to take a writing risk- I am not brave enough to say what that will be though- but if I even hint at it here, maybe I won't chicken out!!
    Great post- Kay Jaybee x

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  2. Fantastic post, Lisabeth!

    You touch on the very thorny topic of reader expectations. This is brave and controversial territory. But I think that it is essential to broach it if we are to have a thriving, growing and fertile genre.

    The last 20 years have seen literature of all kinds commoditized to the point where some kinds of fiction are discussed by readers in the same way as they would discuss a box of washing powder. They feel 'ripped off' when they don't get what they expect. The days of 'the adventure of reading' are pretty well over. Instead, you get readers debating whether the 2.99 they just spent on their last erotic romance was 'worth it' or not.

    It has been the commercialization of all parts of our lives that has led to this state of affairs. It is the publishing world's determination to play the same trick over and over again for a guaranteed return (how many erotica books released in the past 6 months have been marketed with the FSOG descriptor?).

    It behooves us as writers to resist the lure of delivering predictable work in order to slowly but surely acclimatize readers to a broader scope of fictional possibilities.

    Because otherwise, it's going to devolve into a case of chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner all day everyday.

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  3. I hope that my story for In Vein achieves that... the main character gets a "happy" ending, but it's not the kind of happy she wants...

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  4. I agree entirely, but with one additional opinion. I do think that there are many readers who find intense, extended sexual tension even more "worth it" than orgasms (in fiction, at least.) Wpmen may be more prone than men to appreciate this aspect, but maybe not.

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  5. I'm in exactly the same place, Lisabet. I know I have a good chance of being published if I follow my usual path. I always try to insert something I care about and that is not cliche in every story, but I'm also so familiar with the expectations, they're second nature. I have been criticized for making people think when they just want to lie back and enjoy, but the next project I'd like to do would go even farther. Your post is very inspiring, because it adds a more convincing voice to my own rather timid desires. Oh, and I do hope you write your quadriplegic story! I truly believe readers are hungry for something different, even while we all cling to the familiar.

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  6. Most if not all of the erotica I've written in the last say two years has not been appropriate for the market as they are now. Over the years I find that I'm less interested in writing what's simply sexy and I need more.

    I don't consciously break the rules but, what turns me on and the stories I want to tell are not nice/expected or pretty. For me the expectations of what is supposed to be erotic has somewhat driven me out of the genre as a whole for the most part.

    A lot of what the market is serving up doesn't turn me on and I don't want to read or write it. I was really conflicted about this for about five minutes and then I started writing again.

    I've taken the attitude of keeping them handy for when (if) the market turns or the edgier bloodier markets open back up.

    In the end I don't try to write what'll sell anymore because I know that for my writing that isn't really feasible and it wouldn't be good.

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  7. I think we're back to the genre definition argument again. Porn is sold under the erotica label. Your unspoken expectations are the current genre definition, as well as the definition of Gang Bang Slut XXI. I think literary erotica has to be recognized as a subgenre if not a separate genre in order to be remotely marketable. I suspect there's an audience there, but they have trouble wading through the non-literary stuff to find it.

    I happen to like writing stories that break the rules. Heck, I doubted whether my story in this month's ERWA ("The Fix") even counted as erotica because there's no consummation or sex act at all. RG and some others tell me it is, though. ;-)

    But making money is why I'm on the edge of splitting my work into two pen names. This one can write the stories where explicit sex is necessary, but not the point. The other will write the stroke stories. Then maybe when the 'literary erotica subgenre' comes into existence, Big Ed can be part of it.

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  8. Thanks to all for your excellent comments!

    @ Kay - I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when take that risk.

    I don't categorize my ideas as "literary" versus "non-literary". However, I do find myself far too influenced by the question of what might sell.

    @ RG - Commoditization - that's exactly the right word for it. I think the commercial success of ebooks has encouraged this trend. I hate to say this (especially since so much of my own work is now available only in electronic form) but ebooks have a "use them up and throw them away quality". They're like potato chips, for snacking but not really satisfying.

    At the same time, ebooks have liberated authors from the tyranny of just a few powerful publishing companies.

    @ Nobilis - Don't worry! Your In Vein story is easily the weirdest I've received! (I love it.)

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  9. @ Sacchi - I think you're right about the tension, but will these readers be satisfied if the characters are not?

    @ Donna - It's a conundrum. On the one hand I have to believe that being able to target one's work to a particular market is the mark of a skilled professional. On the other hand, when does marketability begin to suppress originality.

    Thanks for the encouragement regarding my quadriplegic story. I'm actually chicken to do that story for another reason. I've been thinking about it purely from an erotic perspective. However, when I broached this on the ERWA Writers list, people focused on the notion of writing a character with disabilities who is still a sexual being. This actually wasn't my take on the story at all, but now I realize that if I were to portray my character without considering this aspect, I'd be considered insensitive (AND politically incorrect).

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  10. @ nudemuse - " what turns me on and the stories I want to tell are not nice/expected or pretty." I can identify. It's really too bad that Freaky Fountain closed its doors. On the other hand, their lack of success selling edgy, dark, incredibly original but not necessarily happy erotic fiction just reinforces my point.

    @ Ed - I'm not sure that I agree with you. I don't think anyone would label (for example) Rachel Kramer Bussel's collections as porn. There's a big emphasis on character and to some extent plot. However, just try to sell her a story without a happy ending...

    And as for me, I don't want to be a Jekyll/Hyde author. I have enough trouble managing one alternative identity.

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  11. This is near and dear to my heart, Lisabet. I started in erotica with a story where the protag gets his rocks off and loses his car to a thief, and another where the protag gets his rocks off and loses his life! But, to get into print anthologies, I had to temper my tone. My first three submissions to print antho calls were roundly rejected, so I learned.

    I recently have come back around to writing just for my own vision. But, along the way, I have managed to slip some less-than-HEA stories into collections. "Ownership," in RKB's Peep Show, ends with a guy lying on top of his hard on in his Army bed, having never reached orgasm during the story.

    I don't consider myself to fall into the literary realm, nor the romantic, I just write what I write. Naively, I started out thinking that it would fall into erotica, and to a degree, it has. But in the end, it seems erotica is closer to erotic romance.

    I'm glad to be back writing to my own vision, though I don't know how many stories will be making it into tables of contents. Maybe that will make getting in all the sweeter, like "Ownership" was.

    Anyway, I don't suppose I made a point with this comment, but I do like taking chances, and I did enjoy and relate to your post.

    Oh, and I'd love to read your quadriplegic D/s story also. Sounds absolutely intriguing, and I know it would be amazing. Just write it and send it to some of your friends.

    We promise not to judge. :-)

    Craig

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  12. I haven't written much by way of erotica and am not trying to establish a career (or make a living) of it, but I've always approached writing erotic stories the same way I've approached any other story - everything has to serve the story. And perhaps we linger a bit overlong on the sex, but the sex still needs to serve the story, not the other way around.

    I worried at one point about whether to bother submitting a story, asking my first reader, "Do you think it has too much plot?" Which turned out to be a dumb question.

    So much of what's out there story-wise is simply a generic shell upon which to serve up our smut. This isn't isolated to the erotica genre - much of SF/F is a generic shell in which to serve up MY REALLY COOL DRAGON, or MY REALLY COOL AIRSHIP, or... And there's a big heap of readers who are happy with that. Commodification happens in all genres, and many readers are satisfied. But there are also a lot of readers who hunger for more. People who aren't interested in having a guilty pleasure, but in reading a great story.

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  13. Thanks Lisabet- I am excited and yet terrified- we will see!! And you are quite right- it isn't so much literay and non-literary- it's what people will buy from us.Kay x

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  14. You know what this means. Someone should put together an anthology of dark endings.

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  15. Hello, Craig,

    I'd call your fiction literary. No question about it. So keep doing what you're doing.

    It's pretty terrible, however, if we have to choose between honesty to our visions and being published.

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  16. Hello, Bernie,

    "too much plot" LOL. But I know what you're saying. And you're quite correct, sci fi has some of the same problems. However, the genre as a whole gets a good deal more respect than we do.

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  17. Hi, Kathleen,

    Alas, this is exactly what Freaky Fountain did. They put out several incredibly good anthologies, but they didn't sell enough copies to stay in business (even though the imprint was a labor of love).

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  18. We just need to find someone fabulously rich to continue the work of Freaky Fountain. I love a dark ending now and then, and had fun with the story I submitted to Coming Together: In Vein, though it may not be chosen for that reason. Great post!

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  19. Excellent post, Lisabet.

    Unfortunately, I lost a fairly long reply. Blogger seems to be acting up!

    - Jean Roberta

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  20. I'll try again. It occurs to me that there are various ways to help promote erotic writing that we consider good, not just as an exchange of favours among friends.
    This could help balance out the tyranny of "what sells" this month.
    In the long run, risk-taking sometimes pays off amazingly, but some writers have to wait until they're dead to acquire a cult following. :(
    But please write what's in your mind, Lisabet & everyone else here. Beyond immediate word-of-mouth, rule-bending work may have a longer shelf-life than the various spinoffs of FSOG.

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  21. Lisabet I miss Freaky Fountain so much. They published one of my nonpunishable erotic stories. For me if I can't sell a story I'll put it out myself. It might not be read by the enormous masses but over the years I've found that people who like my work to begin with will find it and share it.

    No it won't ever make me a literary wunderkind who sells ALL the things but it does satisfy me in a deep way that I unfortunately can't really get from mainstream erotic presses/zines.

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  22. This makes me sad, up there with authors who don't read their own writings for pleasure.

    Write what pleases you, excites you, scares you.

    Put it away. Submit it. Author publish it. Preferably Author Pub it.

    If you don't take your own stories and loves and hates and perplexing excitements seriously, who cares if anyone else does.

    Validation is lovely. Got one the other day, and curiously its the same one another business fellow acknowledged as mind-blowing.

    Publish to your website AND publish the short story, novella, novel yourself if you must. SOMEONE WANTS IT, SOMEONE WANTS TO READ IT.

    They may email or tell you face to face. But they will vote for you by online traffic and private purchases of your wicked, wicked works.

    deSade lives on. As does Hardy, and that lovely DH's Lady. And so will many of us, if for no other reason than it's kind of impossible to really delete anything from the Net. :-)

    Write it, love it, send it out into the world. They imprisoned deSade, the laughed at DH, and disrespected Anais; but, their intelligence and humor and respect for real humans and real human fantasies lives on.

    Respect your craft, write and publish.

    Oh, and that character who go me two unsolicited approvals of my writing? Dia a cheerleader, who seduces the team coach, and then has a bang on the team bus with the entire team.

    We reach people in the "oddest" and "deepest" places.

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  23. Also..."They" think anyone and everyone can write what we do, as well as we do, "they" can't.

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  24. @ Jean - Would you rather write a wildly popular best seller, or a novel that will be hailed as a magnificent work of art - after you're dead? What a conundrum!

    @ shannon - I'm reading "This is the Way the World Ends" right now. Fabulous. Perhaps someone else will step in and create a new press for those "unpublishable" tales. Actually, Stiff Rain Press, established by Carol Lynne, does take taboo erotica. You might check them out.

    @ Neale - as always, you're fearless! Thanks!

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  25. thanks for your excellent post, Lisabet. my preference as a reader is actually for dark. i don't find HEA to be satisfying in any way. i'd love to read an anthology of dark endings as per Kathleen's idea. when i started writing erotic fiction i was all about sex positivity. while i still find that important, i would like to be able to write complex characters & conflict. an editor once told me that a BDSM story i wrote which portrayed the Dom negatively would give the community a bad name. this is the sort of frustration we contend with. an editor & publisher open to darker, more conflicted erotica would attract readers, i believe.

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  26. I have to agree with the comment about writing what you feel you need to and putting it out there for others to read or not as they choose.
    Earning a living from my writing and audio work has become more important recently, so I do look at the sales figures more closely and deliberately schedule my time to create some work in the more lucrative areas. But I still write what comes to me, and much of that is not in the HEA or HFN zone.
    I try and slip in a darker story when I am putting together an Anthology, as a counterpoint, or palate cleanser to the rest. I also have begun to use different pen names for some types of work that I want to have a different feel.
    Macdonalds sells a lot of burgers, but some of us enjoy a Michelin star or two when we eat out. Finding the niche and doing it well, will sometimes work the magic.

    I think we forget sometimes how hard it is to get to where we are, how many dream of writing and getting their work accepted. We who have become publishable, now agonize over is our work valid, worthy and worthwhile.

    It is possibly about balance, write what sells but write it well and stretch the reader in some way with each tale. Introduce something challenging, edgy or unexpected.

    Keep writing.

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