fantasy literature

Reading as Studying

by Jean Roberta

Reading other people’s writing is a good way to see how many different ways there are to approach the same subject. And even if you specialize in erotica, reading outside your genre can show you various ways to get readers engaged with your characters, to reveal character and advance a plot through dialogue, to set up suspense (“foreplay”), to use imagery sparingly or generously, to pace the action in a way that feels natural, and to write a convincing climax (!).

I sometimes read in spurts because I’ve been asked to review someone else’s work, or I’ve offered to write a review for a specific publication. Sometimes I need to read several books quickly in order to choose one as a textbook for one of the university English classes I teach. Reading with the intention of writing a review, a summary, or a critique is a good way to remember details I might miss if I were only reading for pleasure.

Here is a list of my recent summer reading: very different books I’ve read recently for different reasons (in alphabetical order of authors’ last names):

The Marrow-Thieves (YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic Canada) by Cherie Dimaline (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2017)

So Lucky (slim book with autobiographical elements about the progress of an incurable disease, Multiple Schlerosis) by Nicola Griffiths (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

Does It Show? (quirky novel in a magic-realist style, second in a series about a set of working-class characters in northern England) by Paul Magrs (Massachusetts: Lethe Press, forthcoming in August 2018)

Perennial: A Garden Romance (slim book about second chances in love and flowers that return in spring) by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Lethe Press, forthcoming)

Warlight (historical novel set in WW2) by Michael Ondaatje, revered Canadian writer and academic (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).

Forget the Sleepless Shores (collection of poetically-written stories, most with supernatural elements) by Sonya Taaffe (Lethe Press, forthcoming).

Read by Strangers (stories in an American realist style) by Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press, forthcoming).

Even the spate of books by one publisher (Lethe, which originally specialized in LGBTQ speculative fiction) shows a wide range of styles and subject-matter.

As a reader/reviewer, I keep a set of questions in mind as I read:

1. What is the author’s aim, as far as I can figure it out?
2. Does the style seem to suit the subject-matter? (And if the style looks inappropriate, is that a sign of satirical intent?)
3. Do the characters come to life, even in a fantasy plot? (And there is a difference between fantasy elements in a narrative set in a very realistic or even gritty real-world setting, and “High Fantasy,” a story set in the Land of Faery, or Planet X, or some other completely invented realm.)
4. Am I tempted to keep turning the page? Are the mysteries and the tension eventually resolved?

Regarding the recent stack of books, I can honestly say that they all deliver what they promise.

None of these books are sagas of High Fantasy, but the stories with fantasy elements (The Marrow-Thieves, Does It Show? and most of the individual pieces in Forget the Sleepless Shores) seem no more far-fetched or implausible, in their way, than the narratives that reveal the strangeness of reality (So Lucky, Perennial, Warlight, and Read by Strangers).

The following are some of my impressions from my recent spate of reading, all of which can be applied to writing erotic fiction.

The same-sex attraction in several of these narratives (The Marrow-Thieves, So Lucky, Does It Show? several stories in Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) is presented in a plausible, matter-of-fact way that invites readers of all sexual orientations to care about the characters. Luckily, the current literary zeitgeist seems to have moved beyond the “coming-out” story as well as the interracial romance as something shockingly transgressive. In The Marrow-Thieves, each member of a makeshift “family” of survivors has a “coming-to” story about how they survived and found others like themselves, but these stories are not about wrestling with forbidden desires.

Characters who disguise their biological gender appear in Does It Show? and “The Creeping Influences” in Forget the Sleepless Shores. Whether such characters are cross-dressers, transfolk, or women just trying to survive in a men’s world (as in several Shakespeare comedies), they can easily come across as offensive stereotypes in current fiction.

In the human comedy of Does It Show? all the characters crave more glamour, excitement and love than they are likely to find in a small English town in the 1980s, but a supernatural realm is almost tangible beyond the illusions of “reality.” A transwoman in this context doesn’t seem more bizarre than anyone else.

In “The Creeping Influences,” a female character doing a man’s job seems downright mundane compared to the discovery of two well-preserved bodies in an Irish bog, both apparently murdered in different centuries.

Several of the authors of these books are widely known to be lesbians or gay men. In other cases, I simply don’t know anything about the authors’ love-lives. In all cases, though, same-sex attraction is simply presented as a fact. The worm in the apple is not internalized homophobia or the wrath of God, but miscommunication, or persecution in some form. This approach could be applied to more explicitly erotic plots.

Imagery (the description of anything which can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, touched or felt) is sensual by definition, and therefore erotic. Imagery is the heart and soul of both horror fiction and sex-stories. The two collections of single-author stories (Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) include both spine-tingling creepiness and realistic sex scenes.

Perennial, the one book defined as a “romance,” has no explicit sex, but this could have been added without detracting from the sweetness of a story about two lonely strangers getting to know each other, and supporting each other through hard times.

In Warlight, the eventual revelation of hidden truths on a personal and collective level is both jaw-dropping and characteristic of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. (The narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy when we first meet him.) There are no explicit sex scenes in the novel, but erotic attraction is shown to be a major motivator of human behaviour which might otherwise be hard to explain.

In short, reading and writing go together like – well, you can think of an appropriately raunchy set of pleasures. It’s probably no coincidence that when I haven’t been reading, I’ve written several stories this summer, and I have plans for several more.

Fireworks of Yore

by Jean Roberta

Erotica, fantasy and historical fiction seem to overlap in all sorts of delicious ways. If there is a fairy tale left in any of the traditional collections that has not yet been rewritten in a sexually-explicit version – or several – it must be fairly obscure. Greek and Roman mythology have also been heavily mined for modern-day erotic plots, and so have famous works of fantasy by known authors. The calls-for-submissions on this site usually include at least one that calls for stories about sex in the land of Faerie or on Mount Olympus.

So far, so good. However, much of the sex that occurred in Western culture in the actual past was necessarily forced or forbidden due to Christian laws. Any couplings that did not involve a husband and a wife had to be hidden, and were likely to result in drastic punishment for at least one partner if discovered. Marital sex was based on a husband’s legal ownership of his wife, who had no recognized right to refuse sex or pregnancy.

In short, what we know about traditional attitudes toward sex in the past few centuries is quite a bummer. (And on that note, laws against anal sex were widespread.)

Of course, fantasy literature doesn’t have to be based on historical reality. Authors and their characters can grow wings and fly away from anything that kills the buzz. But what if a certain authentic flavor is called for?

Ancient Greek and Roman myths and legends involve quite a bit of sex, even as written by contemporary Greek and Roman authors (Homer, Aristophanes, Ovid). However, the “affairs” of male gods, especially Zeus, tend to involve the capture and rape of mortal maidens, followed by further abuse by other deities (e.g. Zeus’s wife Hera) or mortal relatives. Attraction that is really mutual is likely to be illicit and therefore doomed.

Traditional British and European ballads, as recorded in a literate era (1700s-1900s), tend to be more violent than I remembered from having studied this material in the 1970s. I recently skimmed through one of my old textbooks, The Ballad Book, for inspiration, and found plots dealing with incest, with illegitimate, murdered babies, with the murders of women by the men who had seduced them, and of husbands by their wives, as well as a few lighthearted accounts of rape as a joke and abduction as a plot device. At one time, ballads were like tabloid newspapers for the common folk who couldn’t read or write. And as they say, no news is good news.

Then there are early written versions of older stories such as the Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory of the 1400s, about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. I recently skimmed through my old copy of this book after reading a call-for-submissions for “Arthurian” erotica.

The story of Arthur’s mother is intriguing in Mallory’s very brief version as well as in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s doorstop of an “Arthurian” novel, The Mists of Avalon. Igraine, before she becomes Arthur’s mother, is married to the Duke of Cornwall. He and the King of England, Uther Pendragon, wage war. Uther, aided by his court magician, Merlin, appears to Igraine disguised as her husband, “lies” with her, gets her pregnant, and then marries her after it is revealed that her husband was killed by the King’s forces before the crucial act in which Arthur was conceived. In due course, Arthur is able to establish his legitimacy as the rightful heir to King Uther.

Igraine’s feelings about all this are not recorded by Mallory. Does she ever love her husband, the Duke of Cornwall? If so, how does she feel after discovering that she has been deceived? Does she welcome her child by the imposter? (In Mallory’s version, Igraine has borne at least one earlier child, Arthur’s half-sister.)

In my version of the story, young Igraine is married to the much older Duke of Cornwall for diplomatic reasons, but King Uther has the “right of the first night” with the new bride. She finds him attractive, but she is still taken aback to discover that she is not to be deflowered by the man she has just wed. And then there is the siege in which the two men in Igraine’s life square off. Whatever the outcome, it will be bad news for at least one of them. Then there is the scene in which the King appears under a “glamor,” shouting a medieval version of “Honey, I’m home!” Does Igraine believe this man is really the Duke, her husband, or does something about him seem off? How does she react?

I sent my first version of this story to an editor, who responded by saying gracious things about my writing style, which she found suitable to the period. However, as she pointed out, the sex was not sexy enough. I saw the editor’s point. The problem seemed to be Igraine’s ambivalence. She needed to be more enthusiastic in the sex scenes with at least one of the men in her life. She couldn’t just be shown submitting to the inevitable.

Mutual orgasms – fireworks of the flesh – were required.

I did a substantial rewrite after getting the editor’s permission to ignore the original maximum word-count. I tried to show more ecstasy in the scenes of Igraine with the King, who is much more of a dream lover than one might expect because he is under a curse: a witch has ensured that if he ever ravishes an unwilling woman, he will die. To live long enough to beget an heir, he must become an accomplished seducer, and he must stop the moment his partner is really turned off. He has come to enjoy the challenge that this curse presents, and therefore he is in no hurry to be released from it.

Since the witch has placed her curse on King Uther’s whole army, an Age of Chivalry is born. Is this detail suitable to the historical period? Not on your life.

Like the inhabitant of a castle under siege, I am waiting for news about whether my story is now fit to survive the editor’s weeding-out process. I can only hope that the fantasy elements – specifically the female-centered sexual pleasure – don’t cancel out the period flavor.

Writing about Days of Yore appeals to me, but some aspects of the past simply don’t mesh with modern concepts of equality and consent. A touch of glamor seems necessary.

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