Monday, May 27, 2013

The Optimist's Apology

By Lisabet Sarai


In 1999, I published my first erotic novel. I had no idea what I was doing, no literary context for either erotica or romance. I'd read The Story of O, Anne Rice's Beauty books, and some Victorian smut, plus the one Black Lace book that inspired me to write Raw Silk, but I'd never read any Romance with a capital R – my idea of romance was tragic tales like Wuthering Heights - and overall I was woefully innocent of such issues as genre conventions.

Raw Silk had a happy ending – that is, if you would assign the description “happy” to a sexual contest among the heroine's three lovers, which leads her to reject her wholesome but virile hometown guy and an omnisexual Thai prince for an emotionally-constipated Dom with attitude.

My second novel (Incognito) had an equally positive conclusion, in which the heroine commits to the bookish colleague who has proved to her that sex doesn't have to be anonymous to be hot – though there are intimations that their bound-to-be-exciting future relationship will include encounters with Mark's cousin Marla as well.

My third novel (Nasty Business)? Yup, you guessed it. A happy ending, in the sense that the business rivals acknowledge that their mutual attraction may be the basis for some sort of longer term relationship. The heroine does reject the hero's proposal of marriage - he proposes as she's tied to the mast of his sailing yacht, after he has screwed her with a champagne bottle... Needless to say, that is not why she refuses!

Not until my fourth novel, an erotic noir, did I fashion a more ambiguous conclusion. Exposure ends with a massive question mark. Stella has suffered violence and betrayal. She has lost her home, her family memories, and very nearly her life. Two lovers, one male and one female, both want her, but she's not at all certain which, if either, she'll choose. Mainly she needs to heal herself. There's a suggestion that the best way for her to do this is to distance herself from anyone associated with the events that have scarred her. However, I don't offer any answers.

Since then I've published four additional novels, all deliberately targeted at the erotic romance market, so of course they all end at least “happily for now”. Although I sometimes complain about the constraints of the romance genre, I have to admit that winding these books up in a manner acceptable to romance readers was not that difficult. Usually, I had the conclusion in mind when I began the tale; it was in some sense inevitable (because of the story, not because of the genre).

The thing is, I'm basically an optimist. I've lived a fortunate life, and I tend to expect good things to happen. To me, a happy ending doesn't necessarily seem forced or implausible (though I've certainly read plenty of stories where the sudden crumbling of every barrier to happiness really galled me). Happiness isn't necessarily assured, in my view, but it's certainly possible.

What's important to me is that the conclusion make sense – that it flow from the premise and the characters. Furthermore, the characters must change over the course of the tale, and often, this change will be triggered by trauma or loss. In Quarantine, for instance, one of the heroes is horrifically wounded – almost killed – in an anti-authority riot. He loses his hand and his entire face must be reconstructed. Quite literally, he becomes someone else, and this experience both matures and embitters him.

Although I often write happy endings, I'm definitely concerned about the “romancing” of erotica. I have no problem with love, you understand. I just worry because it seems to be getting harder and harder to find publishing venues for stories without it, stories with darker themes or less-than-rosy endings. Optimist though I am, I've written a few of those myself. “Trespass”, a science-fiction treatment of Romeo and Juliet, ends with the death of both protagonists. That story was rejected by three editors before I found a home for it.

I suspect I'd never have succeeded in publishing “Fleshpot” (in which the narrator perishes in the tentacled embrace of a seductive monster) if I'd tried to submit it to one of the mainstream erotic publishers like Cleis, Xcite or Mischief. (It appeared in Nobilis' charity anthology of tentacle porn, Coming Together Arm in Arm in Arm.) And I'd guess that nowadays I'd be hard pressed to get anyone to accept two of my earliest (and I think, among my best) stories, “Higher Power” and “Communion”. The former ends with the narrator/heroine paralyzed from a BDSM stunt gone wrong while in the latter, the narrator is burned at the stake as a witch.

Still, the vast majority of my fiction, even the tales that clearly deserve to be labeled erotica, have happy or at worst bittersweet endings. (I've a particular fondness for tales of transcendent chance encounters, after which the participants part, forever transformed.) And here at the Grip, surrounded by some authors (Amanda, Daddy, Garce and Jean, at least) who write gritty, serious, intense, even painful erotica, I sometimes feel moved to apologize for my sunny view of the world. Sorry – I'm not trying to make things worse! I really do believe the world needs all kinds of stories, with all kinds of endings.

My worry about the market trend toward ignoring anything without a HE is pushing me to write darker erotica, though that does not come naturally to an optimist like me. We need some balance, I think. I welcome the advent of Burning Book Press (http://burningbookpress.com/) and Stiff Rain Press (http://www.stiffrainpress.blogspot.com/), independent e-presses who emphasize the erotic rather than the romantic elements in their offerings, and who pull no punches when it comes to taboos and darkness. I'm working on a story for the recently announced Burning Book anthology Written on Skin, which will end with the hero's death and the heroine's flaying him. Not exactly HEA.

Of course, the past few years have seen the demise of several publishers, like Freaky Fountain and Republic Press, pioneers who bucked the happily-ever-after-everywhere trend. (Freaky Fountain's Bad Romance deserved to become a classic.) I only hope that these newcomers don't suffer the same fate.

Given my generally positive perspective, I'm hoping for the best and looking forward to a literary renaissance on the darker side of sex.


32 comments:

  1. great post, Lisabet. i hadn't heard of Stiff Rain, good to know. i aspire to write grittier than i have been writing. at the same time, i also enjoy writing & reading stories of redemption, so that's my inner conflict as a writer ;) i'm looking forward to reading everyone's take on this subject.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Stiff Rain is the brain child of Carol Lynne, a phenomenally successful author of M/M erotic romance. She's a great gal. Her goal, I think, is to provide an outlet for well-written erotic fiction that might not get published elsewhere due to its taboo content. Not necessarily "gritty" or "dark", though I'm sure those characteristics won't rule you out of consideration.

      Delete
    2. thanks. i took a wee look. not exactly a match, but good to see nonetheless.

      Delete
  2. I wish I could embrace your optimistic outlook, Lisbet. Alas, my bent is more towards the dark and I always say I write love stories, not romance and not porn ;) My personal opinion is that the HEA causes more real life unhappiness - women are raised from birth waiting for that HEA, for the prince to come and sweep her away . . . and they miss all the small goodnesses that do actually come to us in life. But . . . that's just me, I've never been known for my sunny outlook!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Sessha,

      From what I have found, "talking" to romance readers, they don't expect a HEA and never did. They recognize that HEA is mostly a fantasy, but enjoy it anyway, as a way of escaping from the harder aspects of real life.

      Delete
  3. Hi Lisabet,
    Great blog. It is a shame when the innovative small publisher goes out of business. I have to say I don't mind plenty of hot sex in stories, but I do like a HEA ending. Must be the romantic in me coming out.

    Cheers

    Margaret

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Margaret,

      There's definitely a special satisfaction that comes from a well-written and well-motivated happy ending, especially if you identify with the characters!

      Delete
  4. I think everyone has a different idea about what HEA means. I would love to write a story where the woman doesn't necessarily end up with the man or gets to enjoy him but they don't get married, and that's happy for her. I guess that's not really considered romance though, and would be rejected by strictly romance publishers. Well, I may just write it anyway! Nice post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Naomi,

      Definitely write it anyway!!

      I'm working on a story idea where the female protagonist wants to submit to the male protagonist, but he's not interested. He tells her she's not really submissive and that there's no chemistry (although there is on her side). Unrequited D/s - probably more common than you'd ever think from "the literature"!

      Delete
  5. I think it's a mistake to view HFN (which is all any ending can really promise, even romance) as an automatic marker for romance in erotica. HFNs happen all the time (HEA happens never), so it's reasonable to expect a story to end on one more often than not, since you've already put your characters through the negative paces. Of course, a HFN isn't promised, but I wouldn't assign an erotica story with a romance label just because it ends happily.

    I think the stuff in the middle, how much love vs. lust is involved, how much a certain amount of commitment is involved, and how dark the characters get is more of a marker between erotica vs. erotic romance.

    Naomi, just because it doesn't end in a marriage or in the pairing you expect or is the most exciting or the most healthy doesn't mean it's not erotic romance. :) I've written erotic romance that didn't end quite that way and was still HFN.

    Edna Mode voice: "Bah, all these labels are useless!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Aurelia,

      I agree with you - romance demands more than just a HFN. But would you agree with me that it CAN'T be called romance without a happy ending?

      I also think the labels are useless. My first three novels neatly straddle the erotica/erotic romance divide, with features of both genres.

      Delete
  6. Hi Lisabet- Fine post!
    What you say about the importance of depending on the flow of the story to determine the ending rings here. I don't work from an outline, and rather try and start with interesting characters who take on enough intelligence to lead me.

    I'm also an optimist, but I understand that there's often not-so-good times we must go through. IMO a happy person may or may not have as many bad things happen to them, but they've realized how to recognize the good times for what they are.

    As for the publishing business, and HEA, I'm gonna go to my go-to excuse (which is probably cover for inadequacy). But I don't really submit much for publishing. I'm kinda content with not having to worry about things like that. If a sub call comes up for a story of mine that I think fits (often I'm the only one, apparently) I'll send it in, but giving me an assignment topic is the shortest path for me to 'writer's block'. This blog is helping me to overcome some of that.

    Sessha- Yes, as I said above. We must recognize when we have it good. There's lots of bs in between to tell us otherwise, but things do change, especially if we want them to.

    Aurelia- Spot on! HEA only happens in fantasy. Same for life in general. When we write HFN, it's as close as we're gonna come to reality. But hey- whats the acronym for Happy Never?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Daddy - if you submitted more often, you'd get accepted more often... I find that a CFS often acts as a stimulus, getting me to dream up a story I'd never even considered before. (The Written on Skin story is an example. I desperately want to be in an antho edited by RG and her colleagues, even for a measly $25!)

      Of course, happiness is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Once or twice I've had someone say to me, "You've had it so hard" - quite seriously. And sure, I've had some rough times in my life, as does everyone. But when I get that kind of comment from someone, I feel totally bewildered. The good just seems to so completely outweigh the bad when I look back.

      Delete
  7. HEA doesn't necessarily mean it will last. I read a lot and have put my Anna Karenina days of viewing romance with a fatal ending. When I try in my stories is to fina a hopefully happy ever after by matching my hero and heroine as best as I can, akso remembering that there are problems in any relationship. I just want to end on the upbeat in my stories. Though my erotic romances aren't dark at all and most end in the promise of a marriage.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, J.L.,

      Thank you for dropping by.

      I really enjoy a romance that recognizes how complicated relationships really are. And I have a lot of trouble with stories where all of a sudden the characters' histories and hang-ups just don't seem to matter anymore. That's not the way things work.

      Someday, I should write a romance based on my sister's relationship with her (now) husband. They broke up at least three times over the course of five years before they finally figured out how to work with their differences and emphasize their commonalities (which were many). At times they make each other miserable - but they would be far more unhappy apart.


      Delete
  8. Intriguing post, Lisabet. I agree that even though HEA isn't realistic and HFN can be found in fiction that isn't exactly "romance," there is a difference between literary erotica and romance, whether or not it includes explicit sex. I hope erotica doesn't completely disappear under the blanket of romance. My big, big concern about romance as it was traditionally written (by Shakespeare, for instance) is that a) it had to involve a man and a woman, 2) the HEA had to be represented by a wedding, and 3) women had no rights in English-speaking culture until the 20th century (& it's still an evolving process), especially as wives. I just can't reconcile the fantasy of living "happily ever after" with the reality of living as someone else's property, yet this conflict never seems to be addressed in traditional romance, erotic or not.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jean -

      How much "traditional" romance have you read lately? I think the "property" aspect has definitely gone out the window. And of course there's an extremely healthy sub-genre of M/M romance as well as polyamorous romance. (F/F romance has a market too, but it's a bit of a read-headed stepchild from what I can see.)

      On the other hand, the popularity of erotic romance does have the potential to smother erotica, or at least some flavors thereof. It's interesting, because I believe that many readers of erotic romance might come to enjoy literary erotica as well.

      Delete
  9. Property no. Belonging with one another is a far different thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Belonging is sexy. Actually in the D/s world, property can be sexy, too. But that's a very different deal from literal chattel.

      Delete
  10. True, but under the nineteenth-century laws of "coverture" (in which a wife's legal identity was "covered" by that of her husband), legal marriage was not an individually-negotiated commitment. And according to Christian tradition, the husband was considered the spiritual "head" of the wife as Christ was "head" of the church. According to a standard script, men promised to love and protect their wives, while women promised to love and obey their husbands. Wife-beating was not only allowed but encouraged. This covenant (unequal commitment) wasn't simply about a mutual sense of belonging together. Religious and secular rules re marriage have changed over time, but only because of social pressure. "Romance" plots set in the past that imply equal status in marriage are simply unrealistic. (Fantasy plots don't need to be realistic, but if the aren't, they shouldn't be presented as historically accurate.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suspect that even in historical times, some women managed to create more equality than the norm in their relationships. Though perhaps such women ended up as social outcasts.

      Delete
  11. I'm the COMPLETE opposite of most bloggers on here. I hope romantic erotica isn't erased due to this modern push on dark erotica. I wouldn't have anything to read anymore!!! And I definitely wouldn't write erotica anymore if darker erotica became the new standard (as it feels like people are pushing it to be sometimes).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Kim,

      I don't think you need to worry. Nobody is suggesting that darker erotica will or should supplant the sunnier version. I think that is highly unlikely, as much due to our human desire for closure as due to market forces.

      We're worried about the latter - that publishers will no longer be interested in stories that end in a less than happy way. Believe me, I have been publishing erotica for fourteen years, and there is definitely a trend in that direction.

      Delete
  12. Great post, Lisabet, and intriguing & diverse comments & conversation. I write erotic romance and have just found homes for a couple of my erotica stories. My one story coming from Cleis Press is actually a very bittersweet one - no HEA at all, as the protagonist's Master is dead. Another has no HEA either as the protagonist leaves the scene of a hot stranger-in-the-night encounter altogether (as he is a felon on the run). So perhaps I have embraced the non-HEA or HFN erotica concept. As a romance author and now erotic romance author my stories all have definitive happy endings. I do want to interject that while real life certainly doesn't promise happy endings, I've read a number of articles and pieces on the issue of storytelling, itself, and that the predominant desire of humans is to have stories with happy endings. Whether it is love, or whether it is a good person vanquishing evil, or a worthy person getting their due, it appears that the positive story is preferred by the human psyche. Additionally, science articles bolster the issue of the human response to love and endorphins, satisfaction, including a lowered response to pain when subjects were in the company of their loved one (versus pain stimulous applied when they were alone). So perhaps the desire for HE is a human thing; and those of us who have a darker side, or a desire to push the envelope of erotica will have to strive a bit harder to find homes for those stories (& thanks for providing a few). But I must say I am thrilled at the growth and diversity of erotic romance for the very reason that the stories I write have been (in at least 1 case) rejected by all "romance" writers who read it because it was too far out of the box of "romance" for them (i.e., futuristic erotic tale of women used as sex slaves & the hero was a "training Master"). So we have a breadth of reader preferences, as well as a breadth of writer preferences, and I think that all in all, that is the best place we could all hope to be. No? Anyway. Great discussin!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Kim,

      I agree completely that there are deep, even biologically-based, reasons why happy endings are so popular.

      And I love to read out of the box tales.

      Delete
  13. Jean- We're on the same page here. In the future, you're gonna see rant after rant from me on just the conventions you mention. Fr'instance, when Momma and I first got together, I was guilty of statutory rape; I was 18, she 16. When we were ready to get married two years later, we had to go out of state because I couldn't get parental permission and I wasn't 21. In Pennsylvania, a woman can make that decision on her own @ 18. WTF?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Flayed?? Wow. That's pretty different. Interesting too.

    I guess when we read a romantic story we're cheering for the lovers to come through it all,to sort of beat the odds. But its always stories like "Communion" that stick in my memory.

    Garce

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Garce. I know. That's the kind of story YOU write.

      Delete
  15. Happiness is such a subjective matter that it's too bad it gets so formulary in relationship fiction. If both parties get what they wanted, that should be a happy ending, even if what they wanted was a swift roll in the hay. But most of us are hardwired (or maybe softwired) to yearn for a sense of relationship security.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wonder if, in a world where everyone was happily coupled, we'd see lots of fiction about adultery...

      Delete