Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cross-Fertilization

by Jean Roberta

We erotic writers have not yet been completely accepted into the literary or social mainstream. From time to time, someone in this blog points out that we Don’t Get No Respect, or at least not enough. This claim is hard to refute.

The good news is that the solid wall between Literature (which sometimes wins prestigious awards) and Porn (which was largely illegal in the recent past) seems to have been crumbling for years.

The genre called erotica can now be mixed with any other genre, not only romance. Much has been said here about the uneasy relationship between erotica (fiction that focuses on sex as a means of transformation, or the focal point of a plot) and romance (fiction about the development of a relationship, usually heterosexual, usually with a happy ending). There have been laments about the ways in which Romance, as the elephant of the publishing biz, has steamrolled over literary erotica so that brilliantly well-written, poetic, hot-yet-philosophical works on sex per se are now harder to find than ever before. There is clearly some truth in this claim.

However, if explicit sex scenes are the hallmark of erotica, these can be included in works of fantasy (e.g. rewritten fairy tales or ancient myths), science fiction and its various subgenres (e.g. steampunk), historical fiction, murder mysteries or detective stories, social satire, and every other genre one can think of. Sex is so central to human life that sex scenes don’t have to be forced into a supposedly non-sexual plot. They can now be included in a kind of organic way, so that they serve the plot and the development of the characters.

Circlet Press was founded in 1992 to publish fiction that combines explicit sex (often queer in some sense) with fantasy elements, and this combination has since been taken up by other publishers. It’s even possible to find novels that combine more than two genres.

To give an example, I recently had to replace a fantasy novel in my “Sympathy for the Devil” English course (four fantasy novels by women, all with male protagonists). Unfortunately, a novel by Tanith Lee about an immortal kind of devil was suddenly unavailable. I replaced it with Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold (Lethe Press, 2013), a double-authored steampunk murder mystery with double (human) protagonists who must clear away a London fog of interpersonal misunderstanding while eliminating suspects in a complicated murder investigation.

I introduced this novel to the class by inviting my colleague, the local expert in the history of detective fiction, to discuss the genre. I suspect that his colourful, student-friendly, 75-minute talk was the condensed version.

If I knew any local experts in m/m romance as a genre (with its contested origins in Kirk/Spock fanfiction or slash, based on the original Star Trek as a television space opera), I would have invited her/him/them to speak. I would have given the same invitation to an expert in steampunk if I knew of any in my town. (I can easily imagine the English Department of the university where I teach acquiring a specialist to teach steampunk classes in the future, possibly as an offshoot of speculative fiction or Victorian studies.)

Death by Silver actually features a primary relationship which is sexual from the beginning, but IMO, the novel doesn’t qualify as erotica because the sex is dealt with in a traditionally British way, behind closed doors (usually in one line of coy dialogue or a short paragraph at the end of a chapter). None of my students seem shocked, and several have told me they enjoyed reading, despite the complexity of the plot. (This, rather than the frequent hints of “unmentionable” sex, seems to be the only thing that slowed them down.)

It is easy to imagine a sexually-explicit version of a similar novel, and m/m erotic romance is definitely a thing.

Cross-genre fiction seems to me to be the way out of the impasse created by the economic and cultural dominance of mainstream romance novels. (Not to mention the cultural dominance of Romantic Comedy as a popular film genre, i.e. “date movies.”)
Not only can descriptions of sex be smuggled into literary genres that are generally more respected than erotica, the importance of sex can be shown in work that can find its way out of a literary ghetto.

Rewriting “classic” novels to include explicit sex scenes is only one way to cross-breed genres. Those of us who started out as erotic writers, and who aren’t willing to ditch the sex for the sake of respectability, might not achieve critical respect any time soon, but we can have fun spreading our wings.
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5 comments:

  1. Excellent point. I ought to try rewriting Faust.

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  2. An excellent post, Jean, but I'm not interested in "smuggling" sex into other genres. I agree completely that mystery, fantasy, steam punk or pretty much any other genre can incorporate sexual content these days (witness the Bad Sex Awards). However, surreptitious insertion of sex in a mystery does not make that book into erotica. And to be honest, I don't just want to write "about" sex - I want to write stories in which desire is central theme. Well, let me rephrase that. It's not a question of "want" so much as those are the stories I have in my head.

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  3. Rachel, I definitely think you should rewrite Faust! (A whole cast of demons from your other work could be there too.)

    Lisabet, I see your point. However, the standard old complaint about erotica from those who don't understand it is that it has no plot. So sexual desire (which moves the plot of an erotic story/novel) can be intertwined with desire for something else (resolution of a mystery, justice, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). I know that explicit sex would still offend some readers of other genres, but writing cross-genre narratives can be an interesting experiment. IMO, Mitzi Szereto's rewriting of Pride and Prejudice works surprisingly well -- all the characters want the kind of sex one could imagine from reading the original. (For example, Lady Catherine de Burgh is a domme -- who would have guessed?)
    If we're already a marginalized group of writers, we have nothing to lose, IMO. :(

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  4. You could rewrite "The Motorcycle Diaries" and make it about two lesbian revolutionaries traveling across South America, righting wrongs and having naughty sex in various locales and combinations.

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  5. True. (But before I do that, I need to send a private email or 2.)

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