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.