Friday, November 4, 2011

Legitimizing Erotica

Erotica is written to be sexually arousing. If a story is not sexually arousing, then it cannot be erotica. Right? But sexual arousal is in the eye of the beholder-- in this case, the reader. Regardless of what gets the author off, if the reader is left without a sexual reaction to the material, it isn't erotica.

And yet, there are many stories and books published that contain sexual scenes and are not classified as erotica by the publisher-- or by the author, in many cases. Are those stories and books erotica if they have not been labeled as such? Well, of course-- if the reader thinks so. And the publishers (and authors) seem to go to great lengths to make sure readers will not think certain stories and books are erotica.

I've noticed an interesting trend in literary fiction, both in novels and short fiction. Stories that are published by highbrow literary publishers often contain some extremely raunchy sex. I can't be the only reader who finds some of those sex scenes arousing, yet the stories and books aren't labeled erotica. Why not? Publishers choose labels and market the books accordingly--but what role do the authors play in keeping that erotica label off their stories?

Two writers can write essentially the same story and it will be labeled differently. Two writers can write a similar stories about, say, a woman who enjoys rough sex and seeks out sex partners on a kinky adult website. Both writers can describe the sex in graphic detail, along with how much she enjoys it physically and emotionally. The stories can be identical right down to the concluding scene-- and that one scene will make the difference between whether the story is considered "erotica" or "literary fiction."

What would the difference be? Do you know? Here it is: If author A closes the story with the woman sprawled in bed, sexually satiated and musing over how grateful she is her vanilla ex-husband left his laptop behind when he moved out, the story will be labeled erotica. If author B ends the story with the woman being beaten to death by the psychotic anonymous lover she chose from the website, the story will be labeled literary fiction.

In erotica, women enjoy the sex. In literary fiction, women enjoy the sex-- and are punished for it.

Does that seem too simplistic? Maybe it is, but I've noticed the lovely hardcover books that are labeled "Hot New Literary Voices" (or whatever they're called) in Barnes & Noble often have explicit sex scenes and women who suffer for enjoying that sex. Sometimes the men suffer, too, but most often it is the women who are punished for being unapologetic sexual creatures.

Not every piece of erotica is filled with sexually satisfied people and happy endings. But sexually explicit literary fiction often has a layer of subtle (or not-so-subtle) misogyny that is not found in erotica. And I wonder if inflicting emotional and physical trauma on a character who enjoys sex somehow legitimizes a piece of fiction and elevates it to the realm of literary fiction. If that is the case-- what does it mean?

Author A can defend her story as literary fiction until she's blue in the face, but at the end of the day people are going to say she wrote a piece of smut because her protagonist acted like a slut. Author B never has to defend her sexually explicit story because her slut gets what she deserves in the eyes of a sexually repressed culture. Both stories are erotic, but only one is erotica.

Asking if something is erotica is a loaded question because it assumes a general acceptance of erotica as a genre. And it's not. I've gone back and forth on the subject, trying to figure out what it would take to legitimize erotica. And by legitimize it, I mean to get it out there on the front shelves of Barnes & Noble with the other lovely hardcover books, to have it reviewed in Publisher's Weekly and featured in the New York Times. With degrees in English and Humanities, I've read enough literature to see a pattern in literary fiction that suggests sex is, was and will always be bad. As an erotica writer, I've heard enough snickers and snide comments to know that the perception of erotica is that it's easy to write, meant only to get you off and is not to be taken seriously as literature. It's disheartening.

Answering the question, "But is it erotica?" is on par with "But is it art?" And the answer is as simple--and as complicated-- as: it is if you think it is.


  1. Hi, Kristina,

    The distinction you draw is a generalization, but I think you could assemble a good deal of evidence to support it.

    And while we're on the topic, why don't men get punished, in a literary sense, for sexual indulgence?

  2. What an interesting insight ... I don't read that much hetro-ised lit fic to form an opinion ... but it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

  3. Wow. I'm startled by that comparison and definition. Very perceptive - and a brave observation.

  4. Right on, Kristina.

    I would say that erotica is literature that explores, honors, and celebrates sexual attraction, desire, and fulfillment, as a main element of its content. So if there is a tiny bit of "mainstream" or "literary" fiction out there that has truly sex-positive content somewhere within (i.e., not undone by Old Testament–style punitive author action later on), then in those rare cases all that would prevent it from qualifying as "erotica" (artistically, not marketingwise) might be the small proportion of the work devoted to eros. However, I'm sure you're right that this benign scenario would be the exception—the rule being that sex-negativity is largely a self-imposed requirement for literature aiming to achieve "respectability" in a culture whose puritanism, in one form or another, goes all the way from Fox News up to the New York Times. Especially where women's pleasure and fulfillment are concerned.

  5. Kristina - There's a lot of truth to what you say. You even see that in Brokeback Mountain. It's literary because one of the guys dies. The partner of an editor I work with is the author of several acclaimed literary novels. She ranted recently that she was warned not to make her sex scenes about good sex if she wanted to (still) be taken seriously as a writer.

  6. I think you're exactly right, Kristina. My impression is that "literary" fiction" has a tendency to be wary of positive endings of any sort, but when it comes to women's sexuality that wariness becomes an absolute taboo.

    On the positive side, we do have erotica as a place to explore the positive aspects of sex, which can be as layered and complex as anything in mainstream fiction. On the negative side, not enough people read our erotica because it gets such an bad rap.

  7. Lisabet, I knew I was generalizing as I pondered this topic, but I was loathe to name names and criticize other authors for not portraying sex in a positive light. I would like to think those authors are being true to their own stories and aren't being deliberately misogynistic or anti-sex, but it does feel that way sometimes.

    As with everything else-- men are able enjoy sex relatively unscathed in literary fiction because they are allowed to be sexual creatures who cannot help themselves. Boys will be boys, right? However, I do think male characters are punished more often when their sexual exploits transgress outside the accepted norms-- for example, infidelity is okay, bisexuality is not.

  8. widdershens~ Thanks for your comment. I don't read nearly as much literary fiction as I used to, but even a casual perusal at the bookstore is eye opening.

  9. Jo ~ Thank you! I don't know about brave, but thank you. :-)

  10. Jeremy ~ I should have asked you to write this column because you said it better than I did! Thank you for your thoughtful comments. (And I really should write my columns earlier in the day when I'm more coherent...)

  11. Kathleen, Thanks so much for the comment. It makes me sad that good sex in literature is seen as a negative.

  12. Sacchi~ You're exactly right-- we have erotica to explore all the wonderful things about positive sexual experiences, but we lack the readership and legitimacy. Sad. Sigh.

  13. Oh, KW, I thought your post was perfect in its coherence and eloquence! So I was, as they say, standing on the shoulder of a giant when I commented. : )

  14. Yes yes yes! I've been saying this for years - it's why I can't stand "literary erotica," because it's just so feckin miserable and negative about sex (portrayed as just a vain attempt to battle our essential existential angst and ennui) and the women always end up dead because that is what they "want". Yuck.

    Thank goodness for writers who actually like sex, say I.

  15. Jeremy, you are too kind. Thank you.

    Janine, I agree! The literary trope of the sexually satisfied woman as victim has been used so often it's become a cliche. And yet, no one bothers to point out the inherent misogyny to that kind of portrayal.

    And yes, thank goodness for writers who actually like sex. I love you al!!

  16. What the fuck is it about lit-fikers?

    This, in my inbox this morning ... a response to, " Glen Duncan's nerd-baiting book review in last Sunday's New York Times. The one that starts, "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star." And just goes downhill from there."

    Here's the URL ... speechless I am ...

  17. Kristina, you are so right. Years ago,there was a thread in one of the loops in Erotic Readers & Writers Ass'n about the ironic fact that nonconsensual torture, murder, etc., wouldn't be accepted by any sensible editor/publisher of "erotica," but there's a place for all that in lit-fic. And the writer who would end the story of the sexually-satisfied woman by describing her murder (hmm - sounds like that classic of the 1970s, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar") would be praised for his/her courage in dealing "honestly" with "modern violence," or some such.

  18. "A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star."

    Ha. An intellectual should get so lucky. Or a literary novelist, for that matter.

  19. ... perhaps a final word from Sir Terry Pratchett:

    "I've always liked the idea of a special Hugo to be awarded (by force, perhaps) to literary authors who write books dripping with themes filleted from mainstream SF and then deny that it's science fiction
    'because it's not about robots and spaceships'"

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  21. Hey Kristina, I left a comment yesterday, but apparently didn't press the right buttons for it to show up! Anyway, thank you so much for writing this. I've been noticing this phenomenon for quite some time myself, but hadn't been able to articulate it so powerfully and effectively as you have here.

    On the one hand, most people probably write off the "problem" of ghettoizing erotica and think it doesn't matter to their lives if we're unable to embrace the positive pleasures of sexuality in "serious" culture. But it does matter. Because what we're doing is distorting a vital aspect of the human experience, and if literature is supposed to be exploring the truth of our lives, then it's failing, because the serious books of our time are lying about pleasure.

    Controlling female sexuality is the foundation of civilization as we know it, or the patriarchy anyway, so I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that efforts to control it are still strong, whether in reproductive rights or the continuing subtle censorship of categorizing fiction. I agree with you that erotica is not a genre, but I would argue that literary fiction IS a genre. How else could we predict so successfully that the ending has to be uncomfortable, the sex has to be bad and at least one person has to die, either a toddler drowning in a swimming pool or a sexually active woman getting knifed? Your post showed this beautifully!

    It was also illuminating for me how you started off by pointing out how many readers decide the value of an erotic story by whether or not it "works" for them. This has always bothered me when reading reviews on Amazon, that everyone needs to list their "favorites" (wink, wink), even if mine is among the favorites. I suppose I wish that erotic stories would be judged first on their success as a good story, the use of language, the richness of imagery, etc, and not just whether it jived with a particular turn-on. But erotica is not legitimate in that way yet, we're judged by the wet test and apparently nothing else is worthy of notice.

    I hope we can change that and posts like this are a great way to tell it like it is and get the message out. Writing good erotic stories is of course another way to help the cause. Write on, everyone!

  22. widdershins ~ What a quote. As if literary fiction authors are too good to write genre fiction or that all genre writers aspire to be literary novelists. Bah. I hate labels. I happen to know some very intellectual people who also work in the sex industry. But I guess such a thing can't possibly exist...

  23. Jean ~ I was thinking of Looking for Mr. Goodbar as the film that started that trend of women with sexual agency being punished, but maybe it goes back before that? I'm sure someone could write their dissertation on it.

    I was also thinking about Thelma and Louise and how they take control their sexuality (refusing to submit to rape, enjoying sex with a young stranger) and must die for it. And not only die-- they have to commit suicide!

  24. Donna ~ Thank you so much for coming back and reposting your comment! What a thoughtful response-- and you're absolutely right, erotica is not yet judged for the quality of the work so much as for the response of the reader. However, I'd say the same is true of horror fiction, another genre that relies on a visceral response. The horror genre has all but disappeared from the bookstores and I often think it has a lot to do with how it is perceived.

    "...most people probably write off the "problem" of ghettoizing erotica and think it doesn't matter to their lives if we're unable to embrace the positive pleasures of sexuality in "serious" culture. But it does matter. Because what we're doing is distorting a vital aspect of the human experience..."

    I love this. I've tried to explain why I write erotica to people who simply don't get it. They have sex, they enjoy sex, they complain if they don't get sex-- but they have no interest in or respect for stories about sex. Talk about a fundamental disconnect.

  25. Hmm, interesting point about the horror genre in literature, Kristina, because it also evokes strong physical feelings that take you out of yourself. Maybe "real" literature has to be confined to the more polite emotions that make you shed a tear or two or shake your head in existential despair and nothing more?

    You are absolutely right that there's a disconnect about sex, one that mirrors the separation of good girl and bad girl, intellect and animal nature. Mixed in there is the idea a mature person shouldn't need or respond to arousing material because marital love is enough, and yet titillating material is used to manipulate us less honestly in the popular culture hundreds of times a day. I also wonder why the majority of articles you read about marriage focus on the boredom and lack of sex. Yet, many of my friends as well as myself feel that sex has gotten better as we age and feel more comfortable in a relationship. Who's talking about that? Of course, being happy tends to keep you from shopping or responding to fear-based manipulation by the politicians and media, so best to keep us all on edge.

    It has also struck me that the only respectable way to talk about pleasure is when it's framed as a scientific study, in suitably boring prose. Consider how Kinsey's books were bestsellers, but the same is true today. Bonk sold well, but you didn't have to be ashamed to read a journalistic study like that. And still I find a sense of shame and unease in these books as well. Any humor always hinges on how ridiculous sex is and there's a definite focus on pathological sexuality.

    Well, best to cap the spouting fountain here, but we really need a more balanced view here! Thanks for contributing to a very necessary dialogue!

  26. Hello Kristina,

    Well, you're probably going to guess that I'm going to disagree with you about several of the statements you have made. However, I also want to thank you because you raise so many questions that are fundamental to the discourse of erotica, it's marvelous.

    I think we can safely say that erotica is a genre. There are, although few, conventions that indicate something is erotica. But mostly the very existence of blogs like this one and mine, and categories in bookstores suggest that it is a genre.

    But I disagree that just because a piece doesn't arouse a certain reader, that it is not erotica. It's not erotic to them, but it still might accord with the conventions. It's a bit like a murder mystery reader who reads a murder mystery and finds it has, for them, an unsatisfying ending or an unengaging detective. It's still a murder mystery - it's just one that didn't resonate for them.

    You also make the statement that: "In erotica, women enjoy the sex. In literary fiction, women enjoy the sex-- and are punished for it."

    Okay, so perhaps this was meant to be humorous. But actually, it shows up one of the major dilemmas in all genre fiction.

    There isn't really that clear a delineation between many pieces of genre fiction and literary. There are most definitely works in sci-fi, murder mystery, spy novels, and erotica that DO accord with both the conventions of their own genre AND with literary fiction.

    As someone who writes erotica in which a)the woman doesn't always enjoy the sex or b) the woman enjoys the sex but gets punished for it c) the woman doesn't get any sex at all, but is forced to watch others have sex, d) there are no women at all in the story and the men want but get no sex or e) everyone has sex, and everyone find there are consequences - I feel that your definition of what qualifies as erotica limits and impoverishes the genre.

    By your definition, erotica would simply be a series of positive sexual accounts with little or no conflict at all with the primary aim of presenting the reader with unproblematic wank material. For me, that doesn't even qualify as a good story structure - much less erotica.

    I think erotica is more about desire than sex. Not necessarily satisfied, not necessarily wholesome, not necessarily without negative consequences, but desire is the lens through which the human experience is framed. And yes, that can indeed be literary or it can be just a really hot piece of stroke fiction - or both. But it's still erotica.

  27. To some extent the genrefication of erotica, at least insofar as it's shelved apart from other books physically and virtually, may be as much to "protect" people from accidentally getting too close to something they find abhorrent as to point the way for those who want it. I've been amazed and troubled when someone whose reading tastes are similar to mine wants assurance that a book isn't erotica before she'll try it. It may be our cultural hang-up about sex, or trauma from having read really bad erotica, or something else entirely, but some people just don't want to go there, so they miss out on all the other complex goodies we've included in our stories.

    I agree about desire being important, although I don't actually think of it separate from sex. In the context of a story, desire is both foreplay and foreshadowing.

  28. A question, RG: When you write a story in which "the woman enjoys the sex but gets punished for it," would you say it's because such an outcome is "right" for that particular story? If the answer is yes, then I think that's very different from a Hays Code–style punishment imposed gratuitously on a character by an authorial thunderbolt to satisfy a restrictive societal "morality." Good literature can go in all sorts of directions, and though personally I prefer happy stuff, I wouldn't dream of indicting any individual piece of literature just because it happened to be otherwise. But when one detects a pattern that seems to be symptomatic of social problems (e.g., institutionalized misogyny) rather than arising from artistic integrity...

    [Disclaimer: My familiarity with literary fiction is mostly in the area of older works. I believe Kristina and other authorities when they attest that not much has changed in the area we're discussing, but I cannot personally attest to that.]

  29. RG ~ Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for continuing this dialogue. My comments regarding erotica and literary fiction are based on the perceptions I see in society, among readers and friends and academics.

    "Literary fiction" is the code phrase for "respectable literature"-- the books we "should" read as told to us by professors and Oprah and the NYT bestseller list. For instance, Publisher's Weekly does not review "erotica." They do, however, review "literary fiction." The author does not get to decide what they write. Neither does the publisher, in some instances. So you can put forth the argument you have here about your own work-- but if your book is labeled erotica (either the actual book itself, or because the publisher is only known for publishing erotica or because of your reputation as an erotica writer), then your argument will fall on deaf ears and your book will be tossed. Period. There is no one sitting at PW or NYT saying, "Oh, look at this book with the sexy cover and the "Erotica" label. We don't review this stuff, but let me read it anyway and if the prose is beautiful and evocative and transcends my expectations for smut writing, I will review it."

    The comment I made-- that in erotica women enjoy sex while in literary fiction, women are punished for enjoying sex-- was a generality and not intended to be a definition of what I think erotica is. Please! I write and edit this genre and I do it for love, not money. But I *am* realistic and that was humor tinged with bitterness. I'm sorry if you read it as some sort of statement of personal opinion about the genre-- it was a comment about societal perceptions. The example I put forth of two writers and two stories is an accurate take on the current state of things. Are there exceptions? Maybe. I've yet to see one in this instance.

    The reality is that erotica is simply not recognized as literary fiction. It is not respected. It is not reviewed by respectable publications. It is not featured in respectable magazines. Erotica writers aren't raking in million dollar advances for writing erotica. Erotica writers are not asked to give commencement speeches at universities. These are generalities, but I think they're accurate. And again, exceptions exist, but rarely. I think Zane may be the only erotica writer commanding big advances. But I know a lot of libraries won't even order her books because they are "dirty."

    The general perception is that erotica is smut, it is not literary, it is not to be taken seriously. Do I feel that way? Obviously not. (I *hope* it's obvious I don't feel that way.) Just because I call it like I see it doesn't mean I'm denigrating (or impoverishing, as you suggest) the genre I write and love. I am frustrated by the state of things I hope the conversation goes on and on and on about how to change the perceptions, how to reach the readers who would love our work, how to garner the respect and attention of academics, the NYT, PW, etc.

    Interestingly, I used to have this argument about the romance genre when I first started writing romance fiction. Neither erotica nor romance gets much respect (perhaps because they are primarily written for and by women, but that's another discussion)-- not even from other writers. And there arel romance writers who are insulted to be called erotica writers and erotica writers who are insulted to be called romance writers. And so it goes...

  30. Sacchi ~ I think that's an interesting theory about shelving erotica separately to "protect" those who don't want to go there. There's probably some truth in that, though my Barnes & Noble doesn't have an erotica section and erotic fiction is shelved in about 4 different places. (Frustrating.) I also know people who refuse to read erotica, for whatever reason. I've had friends say they don't want to read *my* erotica because they don't want to think of me like that (as if my erotic fiction is autobiographical) and others who happily read other genre fiction but won't read erotica. For instance, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake vampire hunter series is *full* of sex and kink-- bondage, S&M, group sex, polyamorous relationships, etc., and I know many women who devour her books. However, put a book like D.L. King's The Sweetest Kiss vampire erotica anthology in front of them and they would reject it without thought. Why? LKH's books are labeled urban fantasy, DL's book is labeled erotica. The labels are everything, but yet those books could (and should) be shelved in the same section.

  31. Kristina - the discrimination against books written by and for women could be an interesting topic. Let's not forget "chick lit" when we talk about erotica and romance, because there's no such thing as "dude lit" for people to sneer at. (I would argue that most westerns are romances for men, but that's only because the few that I've read have been romances by any other name)

  32. BTW - on my personal blog, I just posted a review of 101 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written. According to the author, the Best Sex Scenes ever written were never shown on the page but only hinted at.

  33. Hi Kristina,
    I take your point about public, critical and academic perceptions of erotica.
    I see a lot of parallels between the erotica and romance genres and, to some extent, in the case of erotica, the content limitations, and in the case of romance, the HEA conventions, play a big part in why it is hard for literary critics to conceive of it as literature. In one case the restrictions artificially limit the subject matter that can be dealt with. (Consider a book like Portnoy's Complaint). In romance you have a hard plot structure constraint. You might have all the freedom in the world in the middle, but there's a full stop at the end.

    And I can see, beyond just the smut, how literary critics would say that these are externally imposed boundaries on where the text can go, on what the text can grapple with. If you look at the books of writers that are now tentatively considered to in the canon of erotica, Miller, Nin... they get to be considered literary because they didn't have those constraints on them. Their big social constraint was writing explicitly about sex at all. Once they stepped through that doorway, they were 'in for a penny - in for a pound'. They wrote wherever the stories took them.

    But then, those were the days of presses like Grove, who saw publishing as not just a business but a vital part of how our cultural landscape was being evolved.

    But Miller wasn't frightened of being 'outed' and Grove press actively courted lawsuits.

    To effect a shift in the landscape of culture, it requires a certain amount of bravery on the part of both writers and publishers to take considerable risks. And I just don't see that happening now. People want to be safe. Publishers want to be profitable above all else - in the short term. And the compromises they would have to make to get in the face of the public and the critics and the academy is such that very few are willing to do it.

    We should remember that our right to write even poorly worded smut was bought on the backs of people who were willing to be total social pariahs to get there.

    They were made of sterner stuff, I think.

  34. Kathleen, I agree that westerns are essentially romances for men. So are most of those adventure stories-- and the old pulp novels. When I first started writing romance, I would point out how every action movie was essentially a romance because no matter the number of car crashes, murders, weapons and fights, most of them end with the guy getting the girl. Romance!

  35. "We should remember that our right to write even poorly worded smut was bought on the backs of people who were willing to be total social pariahs to get there."

    I completely agree, RG. Virginia Woolf said, "For most of history, Anonymous was a woman." and that quote has always stayed with me. It's the reasons I write under my real name. Now, if only the NYT would be impressed by my audacity.


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