*Sotto Voce* White Elephants

by | November 24, 2013 | General | 12 comments

by Kathleen Bradean

I’ve sold about seventy to a hundred short stories so far. I stopped keeping track several years ago, so I have no idea what the real number is. It doesn’t matter though because all that’s important here is that I’m somewhere between none and zillions and have some experience with the art form. Yes, experience, both as a reader and a writer, but I still think I barely know anything.

While reading an anthology last week, a short story that took place over a span of time– let’s say a week although I don’t remember– didn’t work for me. As I set the anthology aside, I decided the reason why was that short stories work best when confined to a short period of time, say over an hour or so.  Hills Like White Elephants, I thought. But that’s just stupid thinking because A Good Man is Hard to Find.

It isn’t just short stories that send me into long bouts of contemplation. I frequently muddle over the problem of the erotic novel. Many readers want sex in every chapter. Pages and pages of sex each chapter, with more and more partners thrown into the mix and some kink as well, and oh what the heck, lets fall on our swords with that old trope that sex equals love, shall we? The problem with erotic novels like that is that the sex scenes tend to become skimmable.  They’re wank fodder and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the characters in those sorts of stories tend to have as much depth as a hologram.The plot, what there is of one, is a thin excuse to string together sex scenes. To be mean about it, they simply aren’t good writing. Damn it people, erotica can be well written! We deserve better quality. 

I look for something more contemplative and literary in erotica than a wankfest. Although, of course, I love to be aroused by a story. But because most published erotica tends toward a standard ‘let’s go on a sexcapade’ escapist fantasy, I often think erotica is at its best in short form where, strangely enough, writers seem to do a better job of addressing deeper issues and building dimensional characters than in long form.

But then I think of Donna George Storey’s Amorous Woman and Remittance Girl’s Beautiful Losers and change my mind. And oh, I wish the incredibly talented Teresa Lamai’s (ERWA veterans will correct her name for me) story set in Venice with the Russian dancer and American painter was available to readers because it was such an amazing work. It is possible to produce an erotic novel that’s literary, that’s art, that transcends. It’s just that they’re rare and don’t tend to find publishers because they are sensualist fiction rather then sexual.

This isn’t a terribly coherent post because this is one of those hamster on a wheel debates I have with myself. My thoughts run and run but only end up going in circles. Are short stories best confined to a short time frame? My thinking now is that confined, rather than time, is the operative word. Everything in a short story must be confined to the pertinent data. The story may occur over a long period but we only get the glimpses of things that matter, delivered in tightly written paragraphs where every word pulls its weight. The same is true maybe of erotic fiction in the novel form. No matter how long the work is, there’s no room for gratuitous sex scenes.

But you know, I’m not set on that. I could be easily convinced that I’m concentrating on the wrong things, that confined writing is the opposite of what’s needed, and that erotic novels work on a literary level more often than I think. Convince me. Give me examples.

Meanwhile, I’ll be puttering around inside my brain muttering “Hills Like White Elephants” and wondering how much I can leave off the page, as if writers can adopt the zen philosophy of art where we could make as much use of white space between as we do with words. Which is a different topic. Maybe.

Kathleen Bradean

Kathleen Bradean’s stories can be found in The Best Women’s Erotica 2007, Haunted Hearths, Garden of the Perverse, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 6, and She’s On Top in print. Clean Sheets and The Erotica Readers and Writer’s Association websites have also featured her stories. Writing as Jay Lygon, her stories can be found in Inside Him, Blue Collar Taste Tests, Toy Box: Floggers, and the novels Chaos Magic, Love Runes, and Personal Demons. Read more about Kathleen Bradean at: KathleenBradean.Blogspot.com www.JayLygonWrites.com


  1. Donna

    I really appreciate this post because it addresses issues of recent concern to me as well. First, I agree that concentration and focus are critical to a good short story. One might be able to have it take place over a long period of time, but there would have to be a different kind of focus and paring down. That's what a short story writer offers, something good in a small package. There's a reason family sagas are suited to the novel! I don't really do public criticism, but as a writer, like you, I read with an eye to what is working well for me and what is not, so it's always a learning experience. Except now, I do allow myself to skim, sometimes finishing a novel that doesn't grab me in 20 minutes. And yes, the sex scenes are often the most skimmable parts of all. Because unless I care about the characters and have been drawn into their story, it's all just bumping body parts and I've read it before. I've read about threesomes and orgies and BDSM and all that before a gazillion times, too. Perhaps there is an audience who finds it all shocking and mind-expanding, but for me the pleasure is not a new fetish involving yo-yo's an elephants, it's going deeper into the mysteries of an erotic relationship. The ebook revolution really seems to have shifted the focus from the writing and the story to the volume produced and the promotion. It's hard to find a space of quiet contemplation to think about good storytelling and good writing. That's a kind of fertile empty space in itself.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      I'd invite you into my head for a discussion, but the hamsters get cranky when they're crowded. 🙂

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Personally, I can't wank without ideas.

      Bodies don't turn me on. Minds do.

  2. Nicole Gaskill

    I would like to attempt a guest writing spot. I am relatively new to writing as such. Could you offer me a chance to try?

    • Kathleen Bradean

      are you a member of ERWA's writer's list? If so, contact Lisabet Sari since she coordinates guest spots here. If you aren't a member, then please join the most supportive writer's community on the internet.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Nicole, contact me offlist, please.


  3. Remittance Girl

    I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I'm constructing a paper on it.

    I think erotica suffers from two main problems. One of them is cultural and the other critical.

    The cultural problem is that everything that contains graphic descriptions of sex tends to get shoved into the same box. Even though the type of erotica you are talking about, that you like, has a completely different aim than the type that just strings sex scenes together with a flimsy plot. The second's only aim is as an aide to masturbation. There's nothing illegitimate about that aim, but I'm going to say it – it's porn. And really, depth of character development, believable conflict, etc. gets in the way of a good wank. Who wants it?

    The first type of erotica aims to reflect the human experience as a whole through an erotic lens. We're talking about eroticism in the wider, genital-cerebral sense. I don't want to call it literary fiction with a focus on erotic experiences, because frankly, most contemporary literary fiction is pretty bleak. But we are talking eroticism here, not sex.

    The problem is there really is no home, currently, for this category of writing. It does, in places, set out to engage the reader's erotic response, but it also and just as importantly, demands considerable reflection on the part of the reader. If it is about sex, then it is about the complexity of sex.

    A reader out for good wank material is going to hate this, and a literary reader, looking for something erotic but meaty will never stumble across it.

    It would be wonderful if we could just call the wank material textual porn and market it that way, but there is still a significant level of shame and guilt, especially for older women, associated with the consumption of porn. So 'erotica' for them, is a coded word for textual porn without the social stigma (real or imagined) attached.

    The second problem is a critical one. Because, for the most part, any text that sets out to arouse the reader sexually is considered 'low art,' erotica has not benefited from years of robust literary criticism in the way that, say, sci-fi or mysteries have. Of course, there is still formulaic, badly written sci-fi and cookie cutter mysteries, but those genres do have their current literary rock stars. We don't.

    This means that there has really been almost no pressure on erotica, as a genre, to improve its mean standard of writing craft. And the genre has suffered, I think, greatly from this.

    Populist ranking doesn't really cut it. People are as likely to give something five stars because they got three good wanks out of it and rate it based on literary merit. And the rise in populist ranking has really put pressure on erotica to 'pornify'; it's much easier to assess something based on the number of orgasms you got out of it.

    As to length of story, I have to admit to liking the short story form more. I think that really good erotic fiction has a kind of claustrophobia to it that all psychologically based fiction has. Yes, you can pull it off in long-form, but it's harder and one of my own criticisms of Beautiful Losers is that there is no respite from that intense focus on how the sexuality carves the characters. I'm glad I didn't try to make it longer. Frankly, I think it's too long already.

    My best stories, the ones I'm proudest of, are really quite short and sharp. They take a reader into the murk of the psychosexual drama, play out the story, and then end. For me, about 10,000 words works best.

    • Kathleen Bradean

      RG, we are of the same thought on this. We'd make excellent drinking companions.Although now I feel remiss in not mention The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the 'stuff I like' category, and Story of the Eye in 'still haven't decided' although both work as long form fiction without becoming porn (using your definition)

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I'll agree, RG, that Beautiful Losers is unrelenting in its intensity. But that's one of its virtues, in my opinion. It's actually quite different from your shorter work, though. Your characters seem far less clear about what they want.

  4. Jeremy Edwards

    Some thoughts…

    I do think the "story" challenge of a full-length erotic work requires something that's less demanding (qualitatively, not just quantitatively) at the short-form level. A short story can relate one tightly knit chain of events (whether or not they happen with complete chronological continuity), and thus can be mostly just about the development of a sexual attraction and/or interaction (with, of course, all the psychological and emotional detail and character development a given writer wants to bring to it). A very short piece can even be just a vignette, or a beautifully evocative literary description of a sexual experience, with no "plot" beyond the sexual acts.

    At the novel level, unless one is being very experimental indeed, there may be a need for a plot beyond the "sex." Why do I say "may be," and put "sex" in quotation marks? Because sometimes, I think, a full-length story can just be a saga of a complex sexual situation or history: chapter after chapter of attraction, desire, fixations, misgivings, incomplete encounters, gratification… I'm not talking about romance, but I'm also not talking about a mindless string of generic sex scenes merely intended for masturbation. I mean a distinctively and exquisitely written, psychologically compelling account of a sexual trajectory. Alternatively, one could write a more episodic novel-length work that was something like a series of well-written, sex-focused erotic stories, with a little more continuity. So I think sometimes the "sex" might be the only plot, or almost the only plot, in a high-quality erotic novel. And the reader might get masturbatory experiences out of it, but not without getting a literary experience as well.

    But if, as an author, you're not choosing to do something on the order of what I've described above, then I think you're probably going to have to draw at least some of your plot action from outside the strictly sexual. So you write an erotic novel that's also a romance, or an erotic novel that's also a horror novel, or an erotic novel that's also a comic novel (my personal approach), or an erotic novel that's also an SF adventure, or an erotic novel that's also a novel of cultural discovery (such as Amorous Woman), and so on. If it's well-conceived and well-executed and the sexual story and the "other" story are well integrated, the two elements don't have to be at odds: on the contrary, they will be interdependent, and the narrative would be grossly incomplete without either element.

  5. Jeremy Edwards

    It is to be noted, though, that the story of cultural discovery in Amorous Woman is, to a large extent, about sexual culture (in all its complex ramifications). So one could argue that AW is an excellent example of how a novel—a fine erotic novel of "literary fiction" level quality and depth—can build its plot largely on its sexual trajectories—and, moreover, do so with only a minority percentage of the narrative devoted to actual "sex scenes."

  6. Kathleen Bradean

    The beauty of the short form is the ability to focus on minute detail. You'd exhaust a reader (and the writer) doing that in long form, but in short form you can dispense with plot (sort of) and get extremely literary in the sense that you write about an internal struggle.

    I agree that Amorous Woman is a story of cultural discovery from a sexual vantage, but where else are you going to find the real personality of a culture? It's more honest than "discovering" it by writing The Mikado. (although I love that operetta).

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