That Elusive Thrill

by | October 26, 2013 | General | 12 comments

by Jean Roberta

Synchronicity (defined as “the coincidence of events that seem related, but are not obviously caused one by the other”) usually seems to be at work in my life. Lately, I’ve noticed that several bloggers have written about the factors that change writing (especially sex-writing) from a thrill into a chore or a duty.

Once a writer has managed to fight off the inner censor for long enough to write a few sexually-explicit stories or even a novel, this work is usually posted in a public place where readers can comment on it. When the writing goes public, the writer is advised to promote herself/himself as well as the work, to write something new, to follow current trends in order to find and expand an audience. The advice (or the pressure) never ends. If zombie romances are currently fashionable, why doesn’t the writer pose in full zombie drag, including fake oozing wounds, and post their portrait on Youtube, with links on Twitter and Facebook? Why doesn’t the writer write a series of zombie romances? Doesn’t s/he want to be successful?

As a reviewer as well as a writer, I can see a difference between erotica which seems commercial (written for a specific market) and erotica which seems like amateur work in the original sense: written for the love of it. Some commercial stuff is written with great skill, and so is some amateur work. The difference in tone doesn’t necessarily have to do with sloppy grammar or unbelievable sexual gymnastics.

To give an example of commercial erotica, I have reviewed several anthologies from Cleis Press and have been proud to see my own stories in several others. There is nothing wrong with Cleis productions; au contraire. The paperbacks always have slick covers with eye-catching, tasteful photographs on them. The stories inside all seem carefully copy-edited. By now, there are dozens of these books, usually on specific themes. As a reviewer, I know I will always enjoy most of the stories in a Cleis antho, especially if they are written by contributors I recognize. These writers are professionals. When I see the name of Erotic Writer X in the umpteenth Cleis anthology in the past five years, I hope that s/he is not approaching burnout.

Some of the novels and anthologies I have reviewed have been put together by on-line groups that first gathered as amateurs, lovers of the genre and the craft. After much on-line discussion and mutual critiquing, the group decided to produce a book for the wider world to read. Sapphic Planet, an anthology of lesbian stories self-published in 2012 by a writers’ group of the same name, is a case in point. As a contributor, I couldn’t review this book myself, but I loved several of the stories by my fellow-contributors when I first saw them. Several of these writers are fairly prolific; they could be defined as both amateur and professional in different contexts.

An example of amateur work which I could and did review is the anthology Literotica (2002), a gathering of stories from the website of the same name. Both the group and the anthology have been dismissed as rank amateurs, but IMO, this is exactly why some of the stories in this book are unusual, intense, quirky and brilliant. I was taken aback by a few of the pen names in this volume and the 2009 sequel, Literotica 2 (“Dirty Old Man” “Whiff,” “KillerMuffin,” “jfinn”) and I can only hope these writers went on to write under more professional names, for lack of a clearer term.

Here in the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, probably the best-known amateur member (in the best sense) is Remittance Girl, who has openly stated that her goal is not to make a profit from her writing. Her invulnerability to market forces is exactly what gives her work a certain integrity which seems rare in any genre.

And of course, ERWA itself gave rise to an anthology, Cream, edited by Lisabet Sarai and published by Running Press in 2006.

Here are some questions I have been chewing on for some time: how is it possible for a writer to keep the enthusiasm and the recklessness of an amateur even after crossing over into the ranks of professionals? And where is the boundary between amateurs and professionals? (For instance, I have at least 100 stories in anthologies, not including two out-of-print single-author collections and one that just came out on September 1. However, my writing time still has to be stolen from the time I spend on my teaching job in a university as well as the “free time” I have to spend with family and friends. Does this mean I am a writer who teaches on the side or a teacher with a writing hobby?)

Judging from current laments, becoming a published writer often begins a long slide into conformity, numbness, distraction, and eventual writing burnout. I really don’t want to get there, and I am alarmed when fellow-writers I admire send distress signals from a place further down that road. Writing about sex, in particular, seems to require a certain continuing amateurism to retain its authenticity.

My own way of trying to recover the thrill of the sport is to withdraw temporarily from the world of published work, including the latest on-line piracy and the latest decision by a major book distributor to “disappear” any title that might be defined as “obscene” according to deliberately-vague legal standards. For a limited time, I don’t care about any of that.

For a few precious minutes in “the zone,” I care only about the characters who show up in my mind when I clear some space for them and ask them what they want. Inevitably, they want pleasure in some form. In most cases, their feelings about each other are complex and ambivalent. Their feelings are a catalyst that suggests the beginning of a plot. Will the characters (at least the one who speaks to me the loudest) get what they want? I need to find out.

The rest of the world can wait.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Kathleen Bradean

    I always wonder if other genres have the burn out rate we do.

    • Jean Roberta

      Kathleen, I wonder too.

    • Annabeth Leong

      I formerly wrote in a couple other genres and got very burned out very quickly. I have yet to feel burned out on erotica (though, as you say, it scares me when I see distress signals coming from those I admire).

      I have thought a lot about what the difference might be, but I'm really not sure. I do know, however, that in those other cases, I lost all interest in reading the genre as an early warning sign, quite some time before I burned out on writing.

      At this point, I feel that continuing to enthusiastically read erotica means I'm far from burnout. Of course, this may prove false over time.

      I like what you say about pulling back sometimes, also. I used to be a member, under a different name, of the National Association of Science Writers, and eventually pulled back because it was a depressing experience to read the newsletter (and not true to my experience as well). It is funny to me that being around other writers can sometimes feel extremely harmful and other times can feel extremely fulfilling, but my reactions have always split between these two.

  2. Ashley R Lister

    Thank you for voicing these worries. Great post. And I wish I had a sage response to post in this comments box 😉

  3. Renee Rose

    Hmm, I've been thinking about this issue for a while, too. Not sure I've chewed on it enough to give an answer. I was the director and choreographer of a dance company for 10 years and during that time I shied away from anything "commercial," wanting instead to to be always true to my art. And yet, I think when the art is really good, it is successful commercially. I guess you're on the right track with staying fresh an original for yourself…

  4. Adriana

    I'm glad to hear you talking about pulling back and finding the zone where characters and story are fresh and compelling – That's where the good stuff comes from. I co-author with my husband. I think if what we're writing isn't exciting for us, that's the day we'll stop.

  5. Rachel Green

    I write in multiple genres. I thought I'd burned out on erotica but find myself now plotting erotic bdsm agaim. Cycles, I think, but it also coincides with losing 5 stones and becoming uber fit again.

    • Jean Roberta

      5 stones! (In North American terms, this would be 5 x 14 pounds = 70 pounds of weight.) Cyclical inspiration makes sense, esp. in a genre as visceral as erotic bdsm and esp. in connection with big physical changes.

  6. Donna

    I think you've got it–we have to withdraw from the restrictions of the market and get back into the zone, a place where the characters take on a life of their own. Perhaps this road to burn out is the result of an attempt to hold on to the "power" of positive attention, and we lose perspective and find ourselves in a place we don't want to be. I think we can all get back to the source of inspiration and passion, but it does involve saying no to zombies (unless that's your passion).

    Good question about amateur versus professional. There are probably as many answers as to the erotica vs. porn question. At this particular moment, though, I'd say one difference is that by the time you get to the final draft, the professional is fully aware of what she is doing with the language, plot, characters. It might not be a masterpiece, but she writes and edits with intent, whereas an amateur is more caught up in the thrill of storytelling (not that this means the result is bad).

  7. Lisabet Sarai

    Excellent post, Jean. Thanks for mentioning CREAM. However, if you want an even more poignant example, consider the other commercial anthology I edited (with S.F. Mayfair), SACRED EXCHANGE. That book focuses on the spiritual or transcendent aspects of BDSM, and I personally think it's one of the best written and most moving collections I have ever read.

    I met S.F. Mayfair on the ERWA Storytime list. The idea for the anthology grew out of our off-list discussions about our respective BDSM experiences and their profound emotional and spiritual effects. The theme of the anthology was very personal for us both. The effort was truly "amateur" in the sense that this post posits.

    The book didn't sell at all well. At least one review suggested that it wasn't "sexy enough". I beg to differ – but different readers look for different things.

    And to respond to Donna's proposed distinction, I think that I stopped being an "amateur" (alas?) when I set myself the goal of writing about erotic encounters that didn't overtly reflect my own kinks.

  8. Jean Roberta

    I think Sacred Exchange is a classic, and it crosses genres. The stories in it are haunting. What a shame that it hasn't sold well. I suppose all writers and editors should always be braced for disappointment.

  9. Jean Roberta

    Thank you for commenting, all. This kind of feedback is a great consolation prize for the unpredictable nature of 1) inspiration or ability to produce publishable work, and 2) the book biz itself.

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