Erotica often generates its emotional and physical charge by pushing the envelope—focusing on sexual activities that are popularly viewed as wicked, sinful or forbidden. Erotic fiction allows readers to experience the naughty thrill associated with breaking taboos, without any personal or societal consequences.
On the other hand, writing stories that address prohibited topics can be dangerous for an author, at least if you want to sell your work. The line between publishable erotica and unacceptable smut is both narrow and blurry. One misstep can see you tumbling into the adult dungeon, or even banned outright.
What, then, constitutes the most extreme possible transgression? Is it incest? Bestiality? Necrophilia? Scat? These days, what’s the riskiest thing an erotic author can write? What story element is most likely to kill your chances that readers will see and buy your work?
You may be surprised by my answer.
Based on my observations, the ultimate taboo in erotica is an unhappy ending.
You can write a story that’s dripping with sensuality, sizzling with heat, full of outrageous sex acts. You can bring your readers to the edge of climax, even push them over. If your characters don’t end up satisfied, though, it’s likely your readers will not be either.
Every now and then, I run afoul of this taboo. The thing is, my reasons for writing erotica are not necessarily the same as the reasons my audience has for reading it. I started writing sexually explicit fiction in order to explore the frontiers of desire. I wanted to take my fantasies and bring them into the light, to vicariously experience situations I’d imagined but lacked the opportunity (or the courage) to make real. Furthermore, I was curious about the deep-seated entanglement of sexuality with other aspects of our psyche. This includes not just positive emotions like love, joy, pride, and pleasure, but also darker elements: shame, guilt, anger, obsession, self-doubt and fear.
My readers, on the other hand, are mostly looking for a tale that will arouse and entertain them. I like to think that the quality of my writing makes a difference, but I suspect that the most important criterion for a story’s popularity is the extent to which it turns the readers on. Obviously the erotic effect of a story depends somewhat on the skill with which it is told. Still, I suspect most readers do not share my fascination in the deeper or more abstract themes that sometimes pop up in my work.
Readers identify with the characters. Hence an ending where the characters do not get what they want—an ending that is ambiguous, ironic or even tragic—can spoil their enjoyment.
Unfortunately, sometimes I break this taboo against unhappy endings. I can’t help it; my premise leads me in a certain direction and I have to follow. I’m not going to force the narrative toward an unbelievable conclusion. I know that distorting the flow would be a mistake, at least from an artistic perspective. From a marketing perspective... well, that’s a different matter.
I have one story (“Trespass”), a science fiction retelling of Romeo and Juliet that ends with the death of both protagonists. That was rejected from a record five anthologies, before it finally found a home in a Coming Together collection. More recently, I wrote a lesbian tale called “Countertransference”, about the attraction between a psychiatrist and her young, psychotic patient. As you might expect, this taboo relationship does not end well. I’ve received three rejections for this one so far. I’ve considered self-publishing it, but I doubt that the effort would be worthwhile.
For some reason, my paranormal tales particularly tend toward darkness. None of the seven stories in my paranormal collection Fourth World offers an unequivocally happy ending. Need I mention that sales for that book have been abysmal?
Most of my novels end happily, but Exposure has an emotionally ambiguous conclusion. Though that novel features one of my strongest and most vivid heroines, I doubt it has sold more than half a dozen copies.
Why do I keep violating this taboo? Why don’t I just write sunny, sex-positive smut that will arouse my readers without making them suffer—or think?
I guess the answer is that I don’t control my inspirations. I don’t believe I have a muse, but I know that my stories arise at least partly from my subconscious. And there are some dark things buried there.
Dark, but true. I can ignore those truths. Or I can incorporate them into my fiction, and pay the price for my transgression.