By Lisabet Sarai

What would it take to get some respect
for erotic fiction? To transform erotica from its current scorned
status as pornography with a fancy vocabulary into a legitimate
branch of literature? Earlier this month, Remittance Girl addressed this issue, suggesting that “critical engagement” might help. In
critiquing and reviewing erotica, we need to consider the non-sexual
aspects of the erotic fiction we read, focusing on premise, plot,
pacing, characterization, thematic depth and language instead of, or
at least in addition to, whether the story gets us hot and bothered.

I wholeheartedly agree with her thesis,
which she expanded into a fantastic treatise on appropriate
objectives and approaches for critiques and reviews. I’d like to
offer another, complementary suggestion. To convince readers (and
critics) to take our genre seriously, we need to take risks.

What do I mean by that? Am I talking
about moving beyond portrayals of vanilla sex to incorporate edgier
and more controversial sexual practices? That’s one kind of risk,
certainly; there’s some likelihood we’ll alienate or “squick”
some segment of our readership. However, the risk to which I’m
referring is more fundamental. To have our work considered as
something more than gussied-up stroke stories, we need to risk
breaking the rules of the genre.

Of course, erotica already tends to be
less formulaic than genres such as mystery or romance. Nevertheless,
readers have some unspoken expectations:

  • An erotic story will include
    physical sex acts, with some expectation that the more explicit and
    varied the sex acts, the better.
  • Characters in erotic stories will
    experience at least one orgasm (each).
  • Characters in erotic stories will
    experience physical pleasure on the way to orgasm.
  • Characters in erotic stories tend
    to be at least somewhat attractive.
  • The story will end happily, in the
    sense that the participants get what they want (sexual release).

These expectations are not equally
strong. In particular, the “happy ending” rule can be waived, in
so called “dark erotica”. However, as erotic romance becomes an
increasingly powerful force in the market, it has become more
difficult to publish erotic stories with tragic or otherwise negative

Stories that satisfy the expectations
above are likely to sell well. To some extent, readers are lazy (we
all are) and want experiences that offer familiar satisfactions, as
opposed to experiences that challenge them to think or feel something
different. If we write according to expectations, delivering what
readers are buying now, we’ll likely increase the size of our monthly
royalty checks. However, we may be undermining the reputation of the
genre as a whole.

I’ve been writing, publishing, reading
and reviewing erotica for more than a decade. Lately, the majority of
the stories I read have a depressing sameness. Even more alarming, I
find that I myself am reluctant to write stories that violate popular
expectations. I know that choosing to write an ugly or nasty
character, or to include only a minimal amount of actual sex, or to
leave a character frustrated, may interfere with my selling the story
– to publishers and to readers.

Great fiction takes risks. It stands
out from the crowd. The books and stories that most impress me tend
to be original, surprising, outrageous, even disturbing. If I aspire
to more than hack status, I must be willing to risk following my
intuitions instead of the rules.

At the moment, I’m working on an erotic
vampire story for the charitable anthology I’m editing, Coming
Together: In Vein
. In my initial notions about the
conclusion, the main character does not get what he wants. He’s
desperate to be taken by the vampires, to be ravished, used, drained
dry. He wants to sacrifice himself to them, because he loves them so
deeply. However, his master and mistress refuse to grant his wish.
Instead, he’s left in the same state of unrelieved desire as when the
story opens.

As I considered this, I found myself
thinking, “Oh-oh. Readers won’t like that. They want everyone to
get off. They crave satisfaction. Maybe I’d better change the
ending.” I was tempted to transform the tale into a more familiar
model, to hew more closely to the unspoken rules.

All at once, I realized I was
subverting my own creativity in order to be “safe”. I decided to
stick with my original concept. Of course, I don’t need to worry
about whether this story will be accepted, since I know the editor
well. The experience made me realize, though, how often I do choose
the well-trodden path, opting for sales and money as opposed to

I’m fascinated by the idea of purely
psychological dominance in D/s. I have another story concept stewing
at the back of my mind, a BDSM novel in which the master is a
quadriplegic. He cannot directly exert any power over the submissive.
Instead, he relies on surrogates and on the sub’s willingness to
surrender and obey. In particular, I have a scene in mind where he
completely immobilizes the sub so that she’ll have some understanding
of his personal experience.

This story premise breaks most of the
genre rules. Still, because this scenario intrigues me personally, I
suspect that I could make the tale erotic. However, I’ll probably
never write it, because I’m convinced that no publisher would accept
it (and I don’t have the time or energy to take the self-publishing
route). I’m basically holding back from taking the risks that might
produce something of serious literary merit.

How many of us are falling into the
same trap?

On the other hand, the most exquisite
prose, the most amazing literary insights, mean nothing if they’re
unread. If our fantastically creative erotic books never see the
light of day, we will accomplish nothing.

I continue to ponder this conundrum,
trying to decide if there’s a way to create outstanding erotic
fiction that takes risks and still gets read.