Monday, April 24, 2017

Writing on the Edge (#risk #darkness #amwriting)

On the edge

By Lisabet Sarai

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” ~ Cesar A. Cruz

I saw the above quotation on a bag at the Strand Bookstore last week. To be honest, I’m not sure my writing deserves the label “art”. For the most part, I write to explore my own fantasies and to entertain my readers (and myself), not to either comfort or to disturb.

The majority of my stories reflect the fact that I’m a sex-positive optimist and an incurable romantic. My characters tend to enjoy themselves and each other. In my tales, erotic pleasure often morphs into love. Even when it does not, sexual experience rarely leaves a bitter aftertaste. I don’t always write unambiguously happy endings, but my protagonists usually learn something valuable about themselves and the world.

Every so often, though, I get the urge to write something darker—a story fueled by the disruptive power of intense desire. I’ll create a scenario full of risks, with characters who have unacceptable but irresistible needs. In these stories, sexual obsession leads to blind desperation. The raw force of the libido overwhelms rationality and morality.

These occasional dark stories that emerge from my unconscious definitely do disturb readersto the point that the tales are almost impossible to publish. A case in point is my short piece Unforgivable, originally written for the Grip on the theme of “Confession”. I included this dark story, which features rape and worse, in the manuscript for my lesbian collection Her Own Devices. The publisher politely asked me to remove it.

Then there’s “Renfield’s Lament”, about a henchman so overcome with desire for his vampiric master and mistress that he arranges for his own murder in order to attract their attention. I eventually self-published this bloody tale, as part of my paranormal collection Fourth World. Nobody else would touch it.

Fleshpot” also fits into this mold. That horrific story of sexual addiction did make it into an anthology—a collection of tentacle porn! I guarantee it will make you squirm.

Now I’m sitting on a new piece that seems too edgy to be publishable. “Countertransference”, a story about a psychiatrist who’s erotically obsessed with her teenage patient, has so far been rejected three times.

Here’s a snippet from this unpopular work:

Watching Alisha Al-Maghribi is not part of my job.

True, her chart reads “Under observation; potentially dangerous to herself and to others”, an appropriate notation given that she slashed her father’s (thankfully empty) mattress to ribbons with a butcher knife, then set fire to his multi-million dollar beach house. However, the orderlies and shift nurses are responsible for monitoring her, not I. It’s assumed the clinical director of a prestigious psychiatric facility like The Elms will have more important tasks than keeping an eye on one particular “guest”.

As indeed I do. I should be reviewing my notes for this afternoon’s therapy sessions, tackling the endless paperwork my job entails, or perusing the clinical journals stacked neatly on the corner of my desk. Instead I spend my time riveted to the computer screen, unable to resist my fascination with my exquisite and disturbed patient.

She’s calm today. Her back to the me, she hums to herself as she bends over her drawing. Her honey-colored curls are clipped into a casual knot atop her skull, exposing her slender neck. The high resolution surveillance camera—best on the market, like everything at The Elms—reveal tiny blond hairs that dust the tawny skin of her nape. An undeniable heaviness settles in my pelvis as I gaze at that graceful, vulnerable curve. I swallow the saliva pooling in my mouth. It’s easy to imagine stepping up behind her, clasping those smooth, bare shoulders in my palms and running my tongue up her spine. I can taste the salt I’d lick from her downy flesh, sense the shiver that runs through her at my touch. She’s taut, fragile, ready to bolt like a frightened fawn, but there’s a melting in her, too, a tiny core of trust in me, her doctor.

Gradual, gentle, careful not to startle her, I trail my fingers down her sides and across her rib cage, then reach forward to cup her girlish tits. Alisha sighs and lets her head fall back against my more ample breasts. I fill my lungs with her scent of cinnamon and roses. A slick tightness coils between my legs, urging me to move faster, to take her before I lose my nerve. I bury that urgency, willing myself to a slow but inexorable advance, like an incoming tide claiming the beach.

A knock on my office door drags me back to the present. “Dr. Gardner? Are you there?”

I stab the off button on my monitor, shaking my head to dispel my lustful fantasies. The images scatter, but the shame and the wetness remain.

~ ~ ~

I’m not really surprised this tale has been so difficult to place. I knew when the premise occurred to me that it would be a hard sell. It violates all sorts of taboos, including the trust inherent in the doctor-patient relationship. Technically Alisha is of age, but any reader can tell how much of the attraction lies in her youth. Finally, the ending is anything but happy. Perhaps there are lessons learned, but there is also irremediable damage done.

Despite the knowledge that this story might be unpublishable, I couldn’t stop myself from creating it. When I feel the temptation to write along the edges of what’s acceptable, I almost always give in, partly as an antidote to the sunny perspective in most of my work. Everyone needs a change, right?

Sometimes I feel that these shadow-drenched tales are better written than my more popular fiction, if only because they explore more intense emotions. I guess that in some sense, they are closer to being art.


  1. I'm sad that it's so hard to publish these stories. I know we've talked about this at the Grip before, but when I got into erotica writing, I naively thought I was freeing myself from censorship. Now I know I was stepping into a different sort of censorship. I want writers to be able to explore experiences and emotions associated with sex, positive or negative. I'm glad you've been able to share your darker stories somehow, and that self-publishing opens that option. There's definitely an audience for stuff like that. (There's the category "darkfic" on fan fiction sites, so I know there are other writers and readers exploring this). But beyond whether or not an audience exists, I feel like it's important to be able to write what moves you. I think we exist in an uncomfortable middle ground between art and product. But the way I see it these days, given how poor the pay often is, what do we have if we can't express ourselves artistically?

    1. I was thinking about your work, after I put this post up, especially your story about Icarus. That's one of the most gorgeous, yet most painful, erotic tales I ever read. So I somehow believe it's worth writing this sort of thing, even if only a few people ever read it.

    2. Thank you! The Icarus story very much fits what you're describing. I really needed to write that one—it started coming to me line by line. And I know that it's had some very appreciative readers, who I'm grateful for. There's a place for this sort of work, and it's important.

  2. I like the sound of this story I don't know why it's hard to place. Personally I've always liked best those stories where you've walked that edge, exploring your kinks. Especially your story collection"Fire" that was published by Black Lace. Maybe they were more daring in those days. Since erotica became legit you'd think it would be more . . . Edgy.

    1. Hi, Garce,

      I think erotica has become more mainstream, and in the process, more homogenized. It has also been somewhat unfortunately influenced by romance, a genre with a wider readership and more commercial potential. For instance, Black Lace used to call itself "Erotica for women". Now it's romance, which immediately strips away some of the edginess (at least in terms of requiring a happy ending, and love).

      Oh, and Fire was published by Blue Moon, not Black Lace. In fact that story will be included in the Sexy Little Pages antho edited by Zak Jane Keir, about fetishes.

  3. I do sometimes see markets for very dark stories, but they usually want some aspect of speculative fiction, like fantasy or horror. In fact I know a publisher who's very much into dark specfic. There are certainly readers who appreciate well-written darkness, and there ought to be books for those readers. But a book aimed at readers who expect sex-positive stories is likely to be in trouble if it shoots down those expectations dramatically.

    1. Oh, I agree completely.

      Do you remember Freaky Fountain Press? They specialized in dark, edgy books. They published a couple of amazing anthologies.

      (Read my review here

      Of course, they went out of business after a year or two... sigh.

  4. As a retired art dealer, I'll opine that there's no question about creating art with scenes such as this excerpt. The very process of arranging disassociated nouns, verbs and descriptors into a effective picture, not only of the visual scene, but of inner workings that make us human, the package holds all the prerequisites for art.

    I think the problem was addressed by Annabeth in that art is now assessed not by power or finesse, but mainly by if it will sell. That means touching a lot of people. But if we take that route exclusively, the art will suffer for its homogenization.

    1. Of course if you want to touch people with your art, it's important that it DOES sell.

      If your message makes people uncomfortable, though, the public will generally avoid your work.

  5. I agree that the beautifully written excerpt here should not be a cause for rejection. The "irremediable damage done" at the end shouldn't be, either, in terms of literary excellence, but it's no secret (dirty or otherwise) that there are contexts in which that degree of darkness won't appeal to some publishers.

  6. For the most part, I write to explore my own fantasies and to entertain my readers (and myself)

    I concur with the opinion that this counts as "art." I think art and entertainment overlap generously, though that's not a fashionable opinion these days. I have no patience for dogma that says art must always do this or be that. Bleh. There are all sorts of ways art can be and things art can do.

    1. And isn't it ironic that the arts community is so vocal about free expression and being true to artistic vision and not letting the powers that be dictate what artists can or can't do... and yet there's such a tendency for artists to constrain and oppress themselves and each other with dogmatic dictates that art must be this or do that, you're not a "real" writer if you don't x y and z, etc.?

    2. Being commercially unsuccessful anyway, I have the freedom to experiment!

  7. Lisabet, its interesting that even a fantasy within a work of fiction (a fantasy within a fantasy) which breaks 2 taboos (professional and client plus generation-gap)can be considered very dark in the current cultural climate. Girls in various eras and cultures used to be married off as soon as they had reached puberty (or before), and in very hierarchical cultures, those in positions of authority usually have sexual access to underlings and even patients, in practice if not in theory. Its hard to imagine a sexual scenario that has never actually taken place somewhere at some time, unless (like Annabeths Icarus story) it involves surgical procedures that arent possible in this world (though I cant be sure no one has ever tried). Conceptions of dark or unpublishable fiction seem very subject to changing trends.

    1. Well, it does go beyond fantasy later in the story...


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