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.