My brother and I stroll along Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, whipped by the chill April wind. My decision to live overseas and his aversion to travel don't leave us many chances to talk face to face. Every visit becomes a massive attempt at catching up.
“You're such a great writer,” he comments. I glow at the praise, coming from someone so massively creative. He makes his living as a songwriter and musician, leaving me in something like awe.
“So I don't know why you don't write a serious book, instead of this—this erotic stuff.” He doesn't say it, but I hear “porn” in his tone of voice. My spirits crash land, though it's hardly news that he feels this way. I really want him to be proud of me and my accomplishments in the world of publishing. Instead, he fundamentally disapproves of my work. The graphic sexuality embarrasses and disturbs him. (“I don't want to get turned on when I read,” he told me once.) Despite all my explanations about power exchange, trust and consent, he still believes that M/f dominance and submission is sexist and abusive. In addition, I strongly suspect he views any sort of genre fiction as something less than worthy. We are obliquely related to a very famous literary author whose long shadow falls over all our artistic endeavors.
“My books are serious,” I protest. “Sex and desire are serious topics. We can't understand the human condition without exploring our sexuality.” I don't know why I bother arguing, though. I'm not going to change his mind. And after all, he's hardly alone in harboring these opinions. Scads of people would label what I write “trash”. Some of them would go further, calling my novels “obscene filth”, even “the work of Satan”.
I shouldn't listen. But it's tough to avoid being influenced by negative evaluations, especially when they come from people close to you. My sister is more polite and less extreme than my brother. Still, she's only read one or two of my books (which didn't include BDSM), and shows no interest in reading more.
They're both intelligent, thoughtful people. If they view my work as “not serious”, maybe they're right.
I didn't choose my genre, though. It chose me. Despite my illustrious relative (by marriage), I never imagined myself making a career out of being an author. (Lucky thing...) Still, I've been writing all my life. Nobody showed me how, or particularly encouraged me, yet I created poems and stories from the time I was six or seven. Writing seemed a natural extension of reading, which was an activity in which I indulged at every opportunity. Stories to read, stories to write: one catalyzed the other.
Meanwhile, as I matured, love and desire became my mirror for understanding life. My early sexual and romantic experiences, especially my first (and thus far only) BDSM relationship, profoundly affected my view of the world, my philosophy, my spirituality and my sense of self. I was writing about desire, love and sex long before I ever considered publishing my tales.
My husband is less judgmental than my siblings. He enjoys erotica, though he has no tolerance for kink or for homoerotic content. Still, every now and then, he suggests I should switch to a more mainstream genre. “Why not write a mystery?”, he asks. “Or a science fiction novel?” I love both these genres, when done well, but I know already that if I turned my hand to either, I wouldn't be able to avoid adding at least some sexual content.
What about so called “literary fiction”? That's what my brother means by “serious”, I'm quite sure. I'd love to have the talent and vision of Barbara Kingsolver, or Sarah Waters, or Haruki Murakami, but I have no illusions. I don't think I have the necessary depth. Mostly I just like to tell stories. Most of my stories have at least a passing concern with sex and desire.
So I guess that means I'm not “serious”, but I'm not sure I want to be either. I just finished reading Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. The main character Meg has a contract to write a literary novel. Over the past three years, she has written, and then deleted, about 500,000 words. Every time she has a new idea, she builds it into the book. When she picks up the manuscript again, though, she finds she has lost all confidence in her original inspiration, and deletes it all.
Meanwhile, she supports herself writing science fiction books so successful that they've been optioned for a TV show, as well as a wildly popular young adult adventure series that has turned into a franchise. Every year she runs training workshops for other authors who want to ghost-write “Zeb Ross” books.
Because she can't seem to finish her “serious” novel, however, Meg considers herself a failure as an author.
I write books that make my sister blush and my brother squirm, books that Amazon bans, books that mean I have to hide my true identity and can't share my publishing accomplishments with many people. I'd love to get some recognition, but I'm not willing to twist my creativity into unnatural directions. I'm willing to sacrifice possible fame and fortune—or at least the respect of my family—for artistic integrity. If that's not serious, I don't know what is.
Ooo - work of Satan. I can get behind that. What I admire about you (and some of us) is that we were doing this stuff when it was dangerous. Before 50 Shades of Grey. Now,I don;t know. Its in supermarkets. Just not the same anymore.
It's still not respectable, though. Or even acceptable in most company.Delete
I was really close to my dad--we shared a lot of books--but I never dared give him a copy of Raw Silk, though I was sorely tempted.
I've gotten the same response from my husband's relatives. They claim discomfort when they read my stuff. I try to explain that it's called fiction because it's not true, but they roll their eyes and tell me they can't help picturing me with their brother, so no, they won't read my stuff.ReplyDelete
If you can't get support from your own family, who can you get it from? I guess from groups like this, where like-minded souls gather to discuss our mutual peccadilloes. I feel boringly vanilla here, but at least my erotic scenes garner me a seat at the table. And no one here is shocked by any revelations. That's why I come here (heh, heh!) so often!
Ah, Fiona.... You *are* among family here. (Thanks for your recent visits to Beyond Romance, too...)Delete
To some extent I was attracted to writing erotica BECAUSE it was seen as transgressive, rather than in spite of that. I felt like an outsider much of my life, certainly in high school, but my reaction was more or less "Fuck 'em! Why should I want to be like everybody else?" (Which might have had a good deal to do with why I was an outsider.)ReplyDelete
Gotta agree with you, Sacchi. That and a pronounced interest in the subject. :>)Delete
Me, I was innocent. Sort of. I didn't know anything about erotica, except that I wrote it.Delete
Back then I wouldn't have deliberately chosen to be transgressive, even though I actually WAS. Strange.
I went through the "Why don't you write something serious?" phase when I began writing relatively non-erotic (or non-explicit) lesbian stories. Relatives and "friends" told me I had the talent to write real literature about "normal" people. (Before I even ventured into queer territory, my boyfriend in high school wanted me to focus more on men than women because women are boring.) So then when I began writing openly about sex of various kinds, I was used to the reaction.ReplyDelete
"Normal"? (snort!) How incredibly offensive!Delete
Glad you didn't listen to their advice!
It's hard not to internalize these beliefs, but I think they're so harmful. I assume most of us are here writing erotica because that's what comes out of us when we sit down to write. There's only so much we can change that. I used to try to write SF, and it was always about sex and relationships. Now my SF is for Circlet, and I write erotica in general. I found what was natural to me.ReplyDelete
And I have to say the trope you describe in Our Tragic Universe annoys the hell out of me. Some people seem to believe it's easy to make a ton of cash writing science fiction or romance, and that's a form of disparagement, too. Some people do make lots of money this way, but they've worked for it. I don't think it's common for it to be an accident while someone gets about their "real" writing.
Maybe I misrepresented Our Tragic Universe. Meg is not rolling in money from her genre fiction, but she has no trouble writing it. It's only when she's working on being "literary" that she can't seem to make progress.
Meanwhile, I definitely have had the same experience writing scifi. What interests me most is sex and relationships in speculative futures or other cultures.