by Jean Roberta
Is erotica a genre unto itself, or does the term just refer to sex scenes that could appear in any work of fiction? Most book-length works of “erotica” can also be classified as something else, and since words that refer to sex can result in books being sold only in an on-line version of under-the-counter, all of us who write about sex have a motive to define our work as romance, or contemporary fiction, or paranormal suspense, or dark fantasy, or some other thing.
When I was invited to co-edit an annual anthology, Heiresses of Russ: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, I wondered how much sex, if any, could be allowed in an anthology that was not designated as “erotica.” Steve Berman, publisher and co-editor, told me that sex was fine as long as the stories fit the mandate of the series (speculative and lesbian in some sense, which I interpreted to mean that female characters had to have primary relationships with other girls/women). Several of the stories were chosen from erotic anthologies, and the fantasy elements fit in well with the fantasy elements in the less-explicit stories.
While choosing stories, I realized once again that there is really no such thing as a completely non-erotic story. Any situation in which sentient beings interact is potentially erotic. Human beings (not to mention shapeshifters, strange hybrids, androids, and extraterrestrials) tend to have sexual feelings, and these often form a subtext or a kind of bass line under the melody of plot.
Some calls-for-submissions that don’t appear here on the Erotic Readers and Writers site include a paragraph stating that “gratuitous” sex and/or violence is not welcome, but explicit sex scenes are okay if they fit the context, help to show character and further the plot. Well, duh.
So the question a writer must consider is not whether sexual explicitness would be accepted by an editor and a publisher, but whether it would fit a particular story – which it could, depending on how it is approached. In a way, calls for “erotica” per se are easier to respond to, because they require plots on a particular theme (e.g. men in uniform, women in college dorms) in which sex is the goal and the climax.
I have sometimes surprised myself by passing up a chance to include a sex scene in order to focus on other aspects of the relationship, or of the social context. Back in the 1980s, when I was not yet writing “erotica,” I wrote a collection of lesbian stories, including one with the working title “Love and Death in the Canadian Novel.” (My better judgment led me to rename it “Winter Break.”) I was trying to show why two women are attracted to each other, yet too divided in various ways to spend their lives together. The story includes the steamiest scene I had ever written (literally – it is set in winter, when outdoor breath becomes steam). The sex is followed by mutual accusations based on misunderstandings, which lead the pair to realize that moving in together would not be a good plan. Ironically, this is their most serious agreement.
The one-woman publisher put the steamy scene on the back cover as a teaser, although there was no more where that came from. A friend of mine who read the book asked me why I didn’t “come to the point.” Clearly, the point she wanted to come to was not exactly the one I wanted to make.
Do I plan to rewrite that old story and try to resell it? No. It was based on an actual relationship that didn’t last long, and I could hardly give it a Happy-for-Now ending (let alone a Happy-Ever-After) without changing the characters to make them more compatible. I might as well write a new story.
More recently, I wrote a story set in the imaginary world of H.P. Lovecraft, in which the central character is a young woman attending normal school in the 1920s,and enjoying sex with her fiancé, who wants to speed up the wedding date so their pleasure can be legal, respectable, and reproductive. This relationship is also doomed, but I absolutely believed what both characters told me about how much they enjoy their hard-won privacy. I was tempted to spend a page on their joy, which is destined to end because she, newly privileged with income-earning skills and the right to vote, wants a more exciting future than marriage, children and church. He, as a man of his time, thinks she is like a skittish colt who needs to have her first baby in order to “settle down.”
Ultimately, though, I wanted to go somewhere else with the story, which needed to stay within a limited word-count. So although it includes a sexual relationship, it doesn’t really qualify as “erotica.” If anything, the heroine’s first away-from-home adventure is anti-erotic for her, although she recognizes the value of expanding her horizons and calmly respecting other beings whose strangeness terrifies her until she controls her fear.
Years ago in the ERWA lists, someone posted a discussion of percentages (percentage of sexual description vs. percentage of narration and dialogue) as a way of determining whether a piece of writing qualifies as “erotica.” I’m sure some of the best-known novels we think of that way would fail the test. Yearning and sensuality can be expressed even when no one is having “sex,” as it is generally understood. And sometimes a fuck isn’t what is needed most, at least in the moment.
Am I trying to escape from the erotic writers’ ghetto altogether, so as to get more respect? I can’t absolutely deny it, since the persistent myth that erotic writing is sub-literary tends to be hard on one’s Muse. Yet the pressure of a story that wants to be written – or the voice of the character who wants to tell it – feels sexual in a broad sense.
The amount of sexual description in a story or a novel ultimately has to conform to the nature of the story. Whose story is it, and what does the narrator want the reader to know? One good way of finding answers would be to write a story with passing references to sex, then to expand the sex scenes to see if they fit the general tone of the piece. Or conversely, a sex scene could be written first, and then the backstory and the logical aftermath could be added to see if they form a coherent whole. If not, something needs to change.
The best stories, of course, don’t come only from one’s conscious mind. The writing process is more visceral than that, and characters sometimes need to take over.
What do yours tell you?
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
by Jean Roberta