Thursday, November 10, 2016

Fiction Intended to Titillate

by Giselle Renarde

I just started reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, and because I'm not too far into it I don't have much to say yet. But diving into literary fiction after reading a bunch of mystery novels got me thinking about the tears authors so often shed defending the integrity of genre fiction against those big bad litfic bullies.

A couple weeks ago someone found my Donuts and Desires blog by googling "erotica is for morons" and it made me laugh so hard. I laughed because I thought of all you guys, of how ridiculously intelligent you are. I'm not saying every erotica writer is an evil genius, but pretty much all the ones I know are. And some aren't even evil. Just really educated, well-read individuals.

To be honest, I don't feel much need to defend erotica anymore. I'm not sure I ever did, but after writing erotic fiction for 10+ years I really don't care if people think I'm a moron for writing sex. People can think whatever they want about me--doesn't seem to stop them from buying my smut.
But here's the thing: not every book I write is smut. My most recent novel, In Shadow, includes some suggestive content. There's sex it in. But the sex scenes aren't written the way I write sex in my erotica. In fact, I find the sex in In Shadow uncomfortable to read. That's how I intended it, but I know full well that one of the many things that drew me to literary fiction as a young reader was the suggestive piquancy of taboo sexuality.

My main character from In Shadow has repressed a lot of dark shit, and it comes back to bite her in the ass. Actually, it comes back to fuck her up the ass. But no sense splitting hairs.

Ebook retailers that refuse to carry erotica classify it as "fiction intended to titillate," and I guess that's fair... but when automated content reviews flag erotica as such, they're searching the text for keywords. They're looking for pussies and cocks. What if you write a book like In Shadow that's written using suggestive rather than blatant language? Is it erotica? Is it... not erotica?

I didn't classify my new novel as erotica, and now I kind of wish I had. I knew it would be harder to sell literary fiction than erotic fiction, but I figured my regular readers would find In Shadow lacking in erotic content. Most of the book is not about sex. But at the same time most of the book is completely about sex! It's about denying the sexual beast that resides inside the virgin. It's about the dangers of projecting one's sexuality onto another individual, and the even more inglorious dangers about projecting collective sexuality onto a marginalized population.

There's a lot going on in this book.

Ultimately I didn't classify In Shadow as erotica because I worried it wouldn't be blatant enough for a lot of my readers. And then I worried mainstream readers would pick it up and be like... Holy Anal Rape, Batman! (That's my favourite scene. Can you tell?)

Anyway, looks like I've got nothing to worry about. Turns out it's much easier to sell erotica than psychological fiction with a supernatural twist. I don't need to worry about readers accidentally stumbling across this one.


Giselle Renarde is an award-winning queer Canadian writer. Nominated Toronto’s Best Author in NOW Magazine’s 2015 Readers’ Choice Awards, her fiction has appeared in well over 100 short story anthologies, including prestigious collections like Best Lesbian Romance, Best Women’s Erotica, and the Lambda Award-winning collection Take Me There, edited by Tristan Taormino. Giselle's juicy novels include Anonymous, Cherry, Seven Kisses, and The Other Side of Ruth.


  1. My take? Sex that's too explicit, too much in-your-face, can actually detract from eroticism.

    Erotica and smut are related, but don't overlap completely.

    And I definitely want to read this!

  2. Anais Nin had a way with the subtle anticipatory build.

  3. "There's a lot going on in this book."

    That's the best kind of book. And definitely not written by a moron. I like stories where there's more going on than sex, especially when even the sex is about more than sex. Labeling is power, in a way, and the "erotica is for morons" crowd likes to choose the worst examples and claim that they represent the entire genre. This happens with romance and science fiction/fantasy, too; "If I like it it isn't science fiction, it's literature." Granted, I haven't heard of anyone saying that, exactly, about erotica, but the "I don't like erotica, but this book is different!" reviews are all over the place.

    I've had writers ask me how much sex there has to be in a story for it to be erotica. I have no good answer for that, except that if I like it and sex is in some way essential to the story as a whole, I'll consider it eligible to be in an anthology labelled erotica. So far I've got away with it.

  4. "fiction intended to titillate"

    As a person who can get turned on by some stuff that's not "supposed" to turn people on, I've thought a lot about this phrase. I think torture is reprehensible and am deeply opposed to its use, and I am likely to get turned on reading about it. If I were to write about it, I think I'd have a bunch of mixed feelings. What would my intention be? It's weird to me that the "standard" used to define erotica calls upon intention, as if that could be known.

    I've looked at In Shadow because I think the cover is gorgeous, but it was your description above that really sold me on the book. The way you talk about it (not about sex/totally about sex; projection of sexuality; marginalized identities...), I know now that I have to read it. Make of that what you will...

  5. This book sounds fascinating, Giselle, and your nomination as Toronto's best author (ha! I know Toronto's best best author! At least on-line) seems like a great compensation for running across the "erotica is for morons" argument.


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