Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Obtuse Angles of Desire: Disorienting the Reader

Photo: Alejandro Hernandez
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

Writing erotica is something of a paradox. Unlike mystery, horror, or sci-fi, erotica seldom takes the reader to wholly alien places. Unless you're writing extreme BDSM, or Queer erotica aimed at a hetero reader, the sexual core of a story is something the reader has usually already experienced. At the very least, it's something they've fantasized about. In a way, this is why so many people who haven't written fiction before opt for writing erotica. Desire is something we're all pretty familiar with. That should make it easy to write. But for that very reason, it's also why a lot of erotica can seem stale and recycled. How many new ways are there to get your characters into bed? And how extreme do you have to make the sex to come up with something that doesn't read like a thousand other stories out there? At some point, it can feel like diminishing returns on your efforts - as a writer or as a reader.

I'd like to talk about voice and narrators. When we start off writing, we tend to pick narrators who are very familiar to us. Often they are, at least partly, us. I have ceased to read much erotica these days, and I think partly it is because I seldom come across startling narrators or fresh voices or invitations to look at the erotic in new ways. I thought it might be helpful to look at a few strategies writers have used to pick up a reader and set them down in a truly unfamiliar narrative space.

Despite all the criticisms of Fifty Shade of Grey's main character Anna, I think one of the reasons the story was so successful is that she is, improbably, a 22 year old virgin who never masturbated, never orgasmed, and never owned a laptop. For all the suspension of disbelief that demanded off the reader, it did allow James to frame the protagonist's experiences as wholly new. And, I suspect, for a lot of readers, it allowed them to revisit a kind of innocence most of us, at least in my generation, lost around the age of 16.

I recently finished a zombie apocalypse novel binge. I was trying to figure out what the allure of the meme was. By accident, I ran across an extraordinary novel called "The Reapers are the Angels." It's going to sound insane, but it's a cross between William Faulkner and George A. Romero. Part horror novel, part mystical road-trip, part literary masterpiece, the book tells the story of a young woman who has spent all her life in the post-apocalyptic world. She's had no formal education and is completely illiterate. This allows the reader, through her narrative, to interpret reality in an incredibly different way.  She is a strange mix of innocent savant and pragmatic brutalist. Consequently, what should be a very run of the mill zombie apocalypse novel is transformed into a poetic and deeply philosophical literary text that uses the genre to probe questions of history, memory, human relationships and guilt.

A narrator's ignorance (hopefully more skillfully established than Anna Steele's) offers the reader a new way in to familiar spaces. And crafting a unique and somewhat difficult voice with which to lead the reader in also helps to destabilize their assumptions.

Beloved is another breathtaking novel that presents the reader with a history they think they know, but purposefully uses disorienting narrative voices to force the reader to reconsider what they think they know. On the surface, Toni Morrison's Beloved is a horror story. It has ghosts and terrible secrets, supernatural events and eerie synchronicities. But beneath the clever structure and the lyrical language is a deeply serious examination of how we construct identity and how the tragedy of belonging to someone other than oneself puts all relationships under erasure. There are many narrators and many voices in Beloved, but they all have one thing in common. They are all haunted by the past. This fundamentally changes the way they read the present and, consequently forces the reader to also do the same.

It doesn't matter whether you set your story in the past, the present or the future, as long as you create narrators who navigate the world differently to the way we normally do. Give them a believable reason to have to use a different interior map, and you create radically alien points of view. It gives you the opportunity to examine the familiar with new eyes, from strange tangents. To deconstruct commonly held assumptions of the way the world works - especially when it comes to experiences we believe we feel at home with like sex and desire - and offer them to your readers as almost unnatural experiences.

Language can also play a big role in disorienting your reader. It seems counter-intuitive - to make your writing harder to read - but when done well, it's a devastatingly effective device for taking your reader to a familiar place and making it feel like somewhere new. Novels like Trainspotting, The Road and Beloved all use challenging dialects and really strange turns of phrase to immerse the reader in what feels like a new world.

Even something as simple as going through your text and consciously tweaking every adjective, adverb or metaphor into one you've never read or used before can have a radical effect. You might end up with jarring, uncomfortable language, but if your plot is strong enough, you can pull the reader through it. Much like stroking a cat backwards, you may not produce a comfortable piece for your reader, but I promise you, you'll produce something different to anything you've written before and take your reader on an unexpected adventure.

11 comments:

  1. Terrific insight and suggestions for fresh erotica. I'd especially love to see more stories that play with language. I'm not as big a fan of innocence ;-)

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  2. I'm not a big fan of sexual innocence either, but there are other forms of innocence. There are really strange kinds, in fact. There's a very curious form of innocence in narcissism.

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  3. Great article. I loved the part about language. It is something I do often. All of it was well thought and holds merit in all genre.

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    1. Yes, I didn't mean to suggest that these strategies could only be limited to erotica, by any means. But I think it is rare to find in erotica, and a shame that it isn't tried more often, because, as I said, erotic often requires us to write about things with which the reader is already very familiar. So how can we make that new for them, and invite them to look at the familiar as if it were a foreign land?

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  4. Thanks for articulating an intuition I've had for a long time, but never really worked out. There is indeed a strong correlation, for me, between the pleasure I derive from a story (aesthetic pleasure and sometimes, sensual pleasure as well) and the degree to which it deviates from the known and the expected. However, as an author, it's quite difficult to create characters whose background and knowledge are radically different from one's own. The heroine of my first novel is a software engineer with a master's degree. The heroine of my second is a PhD student in literature. I had no idea how to write people from the street, people from other cultures (other than the Asian cultures I'd experienced), elderly people, people with gender dysphoria, psychopaths, narcissists....

    I've grown over the years and expanded my repertoire regarding voice, but it's still hard to know whether my "different" characters come across as genuine. For instance, I'd have no idea how to write a "stupid" main character.

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    1. Well, that's lucky, because I don't think I'd want to read a stupid main character. heheh.

      I spent a while writing male characters, using the writing process like an exploration, investigative tool, augmenting it with research. And you do have to trust your instincts a bit, and kind of feel your way - does this seem plausible, does that world-view force different choices? Reactions? Fears?

      It's a bit like a very wild game of 'what if'? What if your character were deaf, visibly scarred, had grown up in a very small village, felt they were born in the wrong body, etc. What I like about this approach is that the plot and the conflicts kind of reveal themselves - you don't need to consciously construct them. As if they are there, waiting.

      One I've never dared to try is a mother. I've never written a main character who had children. I think what scares me about trying this is the ubiquitous mythologies surrounding what it is to be a mother. I tend to stay away from trying to create characters that are too heavily stereotyped in our culture because it's so hard to know where the real lies.

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    2. Funny, I have written one character who's a mother - a single mother of a 13 year old boy. Though I've never even come close to motherhood myself, I had no trouble at all imagining her feelings - and her conflicts, as she tried to get her blues club going and to satisfy her sexual urges.

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    3. Fascinating article, especially as it happens I'm writing a story about someone who longs to travel for adventure, but is finding new discoveries right at home. I do have experience as a mother, but for some reason have not tackled that in fiction yet either. Perhaps when I have more distance from the dailiness?

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  5. With regard to using uncommon language -- oh, that's a slippery slope! Done well, using surprising structures or words can be a delight. But it's so hard to do well! When the author misses the mark in this regard, the book can be a) incomprehensible and b) so self-consciously literary as to invite scorn.

    I am currently reading Hillary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies. She uses odd linguistic constructions, a third person POV that nevertheless has is stream-of-consciousness. At first I found it really irritating. I've gotten used to it now, but I'm still not convinced that a more straightforward linguistic approach wouldn't have been better.

    Every time she wants to clarify the next paragraph, she begins: "He, Cromwell..." It seems affected to me.

    However, it is hard to argue with two Man Booker prizes!

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  6. I agree with you on uncommon language. It is a slippery slope. But, and this is where I have a marvelous secondary supervisor for my PhD who has an uncanny way of getting right to the core of the hurdle, the trick is to find a mode of language that you, as a storyteller, enjoy performing.

    Admittedly, this is probably not a good thing to try before you feel confident about just constructing a readable story. But once you've arrived at that level, it does free you to go back and play with that upper layer of the writing act, which is to conceive of the theatre of storytelling.

    We were talking the other day. I said I was disturbed by how contracted and condensed all my stories were coming out. She said: remember the fun, the joy, the excitement of sitting across from someone and telling them a story? That exchange, and the way you perform the role of storyteller, taking on the character of a teller of the story?

    I admit I hate the b) you refer to - the self-consciously literary mode. It does invite scorn - or should - because it's inauthentic. But I've also read things that were 'literary' because the author was simply having fun with language - playing with it to make you aware of the invisible character who tells the story (in 3rd person). And that really can be lovely.

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  7. I also wanted to add that Ana's virginity does situate FSOG in an "alien" place because for both her and Christian, sex is now meaningful and significant, not just another bonk in a series of many, as with a lot of sexually-explicit writing.

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