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.