Thursday, September 19, 2013

You Can't Write That

by Giselle Renarde

My first ebook was published by Dark Eden Press.  They went out of business a year later, but I learned a hell of a lot in that time.  They published quite a bit of M/M and menage fiction, including a phenomenon that was new to me: twincest.  Incest, with twins.

People wrote that?  Oh mercy, won't someone fetch me the smelling salts!  I was scandalized.

But I forgot about that pretty fast.

Years passed when I wasn't scandalized by anything. And then last year I realized the market was changing in a way that shocked even my hardened smutter's heart.  Suddenly, it seemed like the only erotic ebooks that were selling were... gross.  When I was granted access to a publisher's back end (no comment), the only books flying off the shelves had titles like (I'm going to try to make these up, but they might be real) "Fucking My Family" and "Daddy Spank Me Good" and "Sucking Mommy's Tits."

I remember having a phone conversation with my mother at that time.  She asked me, "How's the writing going?"  Dangerous question, because the answer's never glowingly positive.  I told her, "My work all stopped selling, all at once.  Nothing sells now, except this... stuff...  It turns my stomach.  I could never, NEVER write that."

Should we fast-forward to the part of this story where I eat my words?

Yes, let's do that.  

One afternoon, I took a hot shower and then crashed on my bed, in a weird sideways fetal position.  I don't think I was asleep.  I don't think I was dreaming.  It was more like watching a movie in my mind, remaining conscious all the while.

That movie followed a brother and sister as they gave in to forbidden temptation at Gramma's remote cottage.  Ultimately, it became my novella Adam and Sheree's Family Vacation.  We're talking serious hardcore incest erotica. Exactly the stuff that used to turn my stomach.  Exactly the stuff I said I'd never write.

And you know what?  Adam Sheree's Family Vacation is probably the best erotica I've ever written.  On that hazy afternoon, when my hip joint locked so badly I actually cried trying to squirm off the bed, I asked myself if there was any way I could write this book a little more... mainstream?

Nope.  Couldn't be done.  Well, sure it could, but I didn't WANT to write it differently.  Something shifted in me.  I don't know what changed, but I went from being grossed out by taboo erotica to actively wanting to write it... just like that.

Since then, I've written a sequel, Adam and Sheree's Family Business, and two more taboo books that haven't hit the market.  I'm very lucky to have ties with a publisher that accepts well-written taboo content, but that's not common.

Those of us who submit a lot of stories to anthologies can probably name the "no-no"s without even looking them up.  Let's see... no underage characters, no sex with animals or dead bodies (but undead are okay), no scat, no incest, no... what am I forgetting?

I've seen some publishers with "no infidelity" on that list.  If I see that, I don't submit.  Infidelity is kind of a staple, for me.

But back to taboo: even if your work is embraced by a kindly publisher, that's only Stage 1.  There's no getting around the fact that Amazon doesn't sell incest erotica.  They're the giant of the e-publishing world, and they won't carry your work. Nope. Censored. Sorry!

Same goes for sites like All Romance and BookStrand.  Thank goodness for Barnes & Noble or I'd be screwed.

But your book's available for sale.  So what?  How are you going to tell people about it?  You think your go-to marketing spots want their sites cluttered with shameful, embarrassing incest sex?  Maybe some are cool with it, but not all.  And do you want to burn bridges by trying to showcase your taboo work there if you're really not sure?

Taboo erotica used to squick me, big time.  I don't know why it doesn't anymore.  I don't know what changed, but suddenly my favourite topic is forbidden love between consenting adults.  I'm lucky to have a supportive publisher, but there are readers out there who want this type of fiction and will have a hell of a time finding it.

If it were easier to purchase taboo fiction, would we authors write more of it?

Hey, maybe that's Amazon's trick: stem demand by cutting off the supply.  Yeah. That'll work. Because people never want what they can't have...


  1. actually you can get incest erotica for the Kindle.
    i always remember the taboos this way: bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia, rape.i know why publishers can't publish such work but the idea that readers are going to take fiction literally is disheartening to me. i don't believe any subject should be off limits for writers; in literary fiction incest & rape are written about quite often. actually incest is a very common topic in Canadian literary erotica...that & winter. interesting post, Giselle.

    1. Amanda, my books have been BANNED by Amazon. Like, "You can't sell that here" banned.

    2. They seem to apply the rule unevenly.

  2. Regardless of how one feels about the corporate censorship of any particular theme, I think it's important for us to understand that it isn't the topic per se that's the issue, it's the book's attitude and orientation toward the topic. So, to take the case of consenting-adults incest: Amazon presumably doesn't censor it in lit fic, even if it's given a sexually explicit treatment, because it's not perceived as celebrating the incest. The incest is just part of a story (and is generally, I'm guessing, shown in a negative light). By contrast, erotica with a consenting-adults-incest theme ultimately relishes it as a centrally joyful, positive experience for the characters (that, after all, is the main point of the book's existence)—and that, presumably, is the issue for the people who think consenting-adults-incest erotica should be "beyond the pale" in the literary marketplace. I don't agree with them, but I don't think the fact that non-erotica genres cover this same topic—and I'm not picking on you Amanda; this is a talking point I've seen repeatedly—is an argument that really acknowledges what's at issue. (And I imagine a non-erotic, completely non-explicit HEA romance about adult siblings in love might also be banned.) Not to compare consenting-adults-incest to hate crimes—obviously!—but if someone wanted to ban a novel whose author seemed to be rejoicing in the racial hate crimes depicted in the book, that wouldn't mean the same person should logically want to ban all the novels in which hate crimes occurred in the course of the plot but were clearly intended to be seen as horrific events.

    And if Amazon's rule of thumb has to do with banning works that "glorify" acts that might technically be illegal in many parts of the United States, then an erotic celebration of consenting-adults incest—or, for that matter, a happy tale about twenty-year-olds responsibly drinking beer—might be banned, where unhappy fictional portrayals of those same topics would not be. Regardless of how one might feel about such a blanket rule of thumb for literature—or even some of the real-life laws themselves—I think it's important to recognize the implicit anatomy of a gatekeeper's criteria.

    1. Reminds me of a past topic at Oh Get A Grip! but can't recall exactly what it was... Sex and Punishment? Is it okay to be thoroughly bad if there are ramifications? (Not that Amazon's reads anything they ban)

  3. My characters do what they like, and often they'll be up to something that crosses a line somewhere, but I do find it challenging to toe that line. Although I've never written an incest piece (I will make sure it's third cousins) our early sexual experiments were often with friends and relatives who slept over for a night. These stories and experiences are perhaps our most poignant but we're hit with a double whammy with both age and incest restrictions. I guess we write these stories for ourselves until conventions evolve.

    Oh, I could go on and on about this, but I just now realized an idea for my own blog next Wednesday, and don't want to post it twice.

    And did love your tongue-in -cheek ending, Giselle.

  4. Jeremy has a good point. If we label our work as 'literary' or 'mainstream', we can actually get away with more than if we write 'erotica'. After all, Nicholson Baker got away with 17 year-olds having voyeuristic sex with an adult in The Fermata.

  5. That's no doubt true, Daddy X, though my point actually wasn't about labeling equivalent content differently, but about actual differences in content (i.e., the joyous erotica sex vs. the joyless lit-fic sex, to paint it in overly broad strokes).

  6. Taboo subjects have an appeal because of being taboo, and so many aspects of sex have emerged into the safe zone of acceptance that it gets harder and harder to write erotica that provides that transgressive "frisson" readers yearn for. "In olden days, a glimpse of stocking..." well, you know what I mean.

    I do find it ludicrous that Amazon will accept all those "milking" bits but draw the line at incest. I don't see incest as all that big a deal, or inherently more sexy than any other pairing, or tripling, or whatever--maybe I should read those books of yours, Giselle!-- but as long as it keeps on being taboo, it apparently fills a need. I really don't know what we erotica writers will do if society reaches a point where nothing about sex is a source of pleasurable guilt.

    1. Yup, you hit it on the head, there, Sacchi. I know I'm not the only erotica writer who has experienced increased perviness over the years. As readers' thresholds get higher, writers put out more explicit, kinkier, and more taboo work. It meets and external demand, but also an internal drive that comes from writing about sex every goddamn day. (God, it gets tiring! LOL)

  7. Got your point, JP. :>) Just wanted to present a tangential thought.

  8. Maybe V.C. Andrews Flowers in the attic would be banned today. I remember wanking to that book as a kid. You really can't control what people will find arousing. There is a non con incest scene in a Canadian literary novel that totally arouses me. It wasn't meant that way. For any corporate entity to try to censor or control cultural taste is abhorrent to me. Thankfully Bastille's Story of the Eye is still free online.

    1. Flowers in the Attic has been in the blogosphere-news lately because it has a new "New Adult"-style cover.

      Authorial intention is such an interesting topic... we'll have to blog about it some day. Like, if I were to say, "It was my intention for Adam and Sheree to DISGUST you, not arouse you," does that change the reading experience?

      When a novel is written in a literary tone, we say portrayals of incest and abuse inform the story, they're just facts and events, they're not titillating. But you're sooo right: the reader decides what's arousing, not the author.

    2. a post on author intention would be interesting. one person's disgust is another person's arousal. just ask Georges Bataille. he wrote about vomit, shit an erotic context. it was both disgusting & arousing for some. ;)


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