Cream doesn’t rise: the state of UK erotica

Publishing has a reputation for being pretty cushy: reasonable working hours, long, boozy lunches, fannying around with the press releases…

Last week, I took my full lunch break twice. I went out with colleagues, and had wine with my meal. Why? Because a new Carluccio’s had opened round the corner and you could eat on the house while they trained their staff. And who wouldn’t say yes to free pasta, right?

It’s not the done thing. I have colleagues who never take lunch. Most people stay late. Publishing is, in theory, as commercial and competitive as any other industry.

Why ‘in theory?’ Because it’s also astonishingly reactive. And not in a good way.

Of course, things move forward. But god, they move slowly. We’d been listening to music on portable devices, using digital cameras and buying increasingly sophisticated mobile phones for years before the Kindle came along. Many publishing companies are struggling to come up with a long-term digital strategy: those that have are often big companies buying up smaller companies with both the entrepreneurship and the agility to push the envelope. The rest wait and see what they do and then follow in their footsteps.

Why is this? Honestly, I don’t know. Perhaps because people in the industry – myself included – often have a deeply romantic view of books. We do what we do, partly at least, for the satisfaction of advance copies landing on our desks – that fresh off the press smell, those uncracked spines, that sense that you’re still part of something that makes something tangible, something precious.

I wish, in fiction publishing, that that translated into the right books being published, the right books making it to the top of the bestseller lists. It doesn’t seem to, sadly. Fifty Shades of Grey (which was obviously where this post was going), is a very good example of increasingly commercial publishing: Vintage acquired the rights in March 2012, and the book was released for sale a month later. Given the hype around it at the time, the speed with which they turned it round makes much better business sense than what most people wish they’d done with it: given it a decent edit.

When I first started thinking about this post, a few weeks back, I was planning a different angle. I was planning to defend FSoG.   Because so much of the backlash against it is aimed not at the publisher, nor at the retailers who gave it prime position in their stores, but at the women who chose to read it. When a film comes out and the whole world goes to see it, you don’t hear people saying, for example, ‘Oh, God, you went to see Bridesmaids?!’ The same can’t be said of books. Those of us who wrote FSoG off as both poor fiction and poor erotica, have often been guilty of shaming those who genuinely enjoyed it.

In the autumn after it came out, a friend and I went to a panel discussion at Cheltenham Literature Festival called Fifty Shades of Blue. The session was billed as follows:

Join Brooke Magnanti, author of the Belle de Jour books and The Sex Myth, poet Ruth Padel, author Bel Mooney and journalist Bidisha as they discuss the Fifty Shades phenomenon and each choose their own favourite erotica. Which pieces of erotic fiction do our panel rate and which do they hate?

I don’t recall a lot of what was said during that hour, but I do remember that the bit where the panel discussed their favourite erotica was pushed to the very end. And all but one of the panelists cited a ‘classic’ as their favourite: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O… Even the one person who didn’t pick something literary (and I honestly can’t remember who said what) chose a Jilly Cooper novel.

Granted, by that point Black Lace had shut up shop and, I think, was yet to reopen for business. But I was still buying and reading good BL titles that I found in service stations and online, and it felt shortsighted of the panel to completely dismiss anything that classed itself as pure erotica. It was literary snobbery – a reluctance to admit that you got off to anything that you wouldn’t happily have on display in your living room. I felt, and I still feel, that attitudes like that are as harmful to the genre as low quality, high volume titles like FSoG.

Recently, similar discussions have been popping up again. Many erotica writers are being shoehorned towards a particular model designed to mirror FSoG: if they’re not writing erotic romance, it’s hard for them to place their book with a traditional publisher. Which is crazy. It’s been over 2 years: when will longer erotic fiction start to reflect the fact that erotica doesn’t have to ≠ BDSM-themed romance? I like my erotica BDSM-flavoured, and it still drives me crazy!

When I first started learning to write, one of the things my writing teacher was keen to emphasise was that it’s hard to sell a book which classifies itself purely as contemporary fiction. A book is easier to market if you can compare it to something else: whose work is it like? What genre is it? Is it the new Fifty Shades, the new Gone Girl, the new Twilight? It bothered me, and it still does, a bit, not so much in relation to my own writing, but in relation to my own reading: how would I ever discover truly original new authors if everyone was being forced to compare themselves to someone else?

Part of the problem with erotica, perhaps, is that it hasn’t yet learnt to compare itself with books which, while not erotic, nonetheless share a sub-genre. Last Christmas, Kristina Lloyd recommended Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner to me as a holiday read. I loved it, and when I came back I told her that, via Twitter. The author, copied into the tweets, joined the conversation.

Then, a few months later, she followed and DMed me to say she liked my blog. Obviously, I was thrilled: the author of a bestselling novel was enjoying stuff that I’d written. We had a couple of conversations and I ended up recommending Kristina’s second novel, Asking for Trouble, as I do to anyone who bothers to ask me what my favourite books are. A few weeks later, she tweeted the following:

It is, as Kristina said at the time, pretty unusual for someone outside of the genre to lavish praise on an erotic novel, no matter how good it is. But to me, this is how it should be: authors and reviewers of genre-fiction (and non-genre fiction) recognising erotica as they would any other genre, erotic novels being sold on the shelves alongside all other fiction, rather than squirrelled away in a dusty corner under the escalators (no matter how much that dusty corner turns me on), being part of the 3 for 2s, not having their designated shelf space slowly eroded over time. Only then will things start to change.

Cream doesn’t rise, said someone (non-euphemistically!) in a discussion about erotica the other day. No, perhaps not. But I sure as hell hope we find a way to make it float.

List posts: are they *ever* sex positive?

Wow, I’ve been AWOL for a while, haven’t I? So much so, in fact, that the last post on my blog is still a topless picture of me, and while I’m very, very proud of that photo, it might be time to move on from it now…

Anyway. While I’ve been away, Exhibit A and Em at AnyGirlFriday wrote this response to this piece posted on the Metro website by a blogger called Hannah Gale. And mostly, it’s a very, very good response.

But I’ve read the comments on their post too, and a couple of people seemed to be suggesting that they’d got a little too personal in places; that the post at times became less critical of Hannah’s points, and more critical of Hannah herself. And it occurred to me that the problem with Hannah’s piece is probably only part Hannah: more likely, the real party at fault is the Metro.

Magazines/newspapers are notoriously bad for this kind of stuff – a brief look at the Metro’s blog page this morning yielded this:

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OK, bottom right is positive, I guess, and to be fair, the one cut off on the top right is about not slutshaming Magaluf Girl. 10 things all London women know about dating is pretty neutral. But I don’t think you could claim that this selection suggests that the Metro is in any way sex positive. And it’s not just them. A few days back, I caused a bit of a stir on Twitter by sharing this awful Cosmo post called. ‘18 Reasons Not to Give Him a Blowjob.’ Generally, my followers felt there was only one reason not to give a guy a blow job: because you didn’t want to. Stretching it out to 18 increasingly dubious points including one about not wanting to ruin your matte lipstick is unnecessary, patronising and, I think, a completely inaccurate representation of most women’s attitudes towards (oral) sex.

But Hannah’s piece, I think, suffers from the exact opposite problem: while Cosmo desperately tries to stretch a single point out to fill a whole column, Hannah’s entire post, based on some fairly crude calculations, is around the 500 word mark. How many words did Em and Exhibit A use to respond? Well, if you deduct Hannah’s words, which they reproduced, I think it’s around 3000.

The Metro will have asked Hannah to write around 20 points, and probably that 500 words is a limit they set, too. There’s no room within that for Hannah to be nuanced in the way that the response post is. It’s total clickbait, and the Metro *know* that. They probably gave her the title, too and I challenge anyone to put a positive spin on something called ‘The 21 unsexiest things about sex.’

Yes, she doesn’t have to write for them – but the opportunity to write somewhere where you know your writing will be seen, which you could potentially spin as a fairly good gig on your CV might well be difficult to turn down. I don’t think the blame lies with her essentially – I think it lies with the paper and with the list post format. It *is* possible to be nuanced and positive in under 500 words (I try to do just that in most of what I write here) but while we keep clicking on these pathetic posts, we’re not giving the media any reason to change. Seek out independent bloggers instead, and share stuff you like – it’s a much better use of your time than the Metro’s bullshit…

20 things all men should know about sex

I know, I know, I’m not Buzzfeed. But bear with me. Someone asked if I would guest write a post about 25 things all men should know about sex and I turned them down. Which, retrospectively, was probably an error. It was a good opportunity. But a) I don’t think list posts are generally that interesting and b) I wasn’t that keen on the ‘all men’ part, so instead I asked Twitter what answer they’d give to that question. Three bloggers (if you count Bangs & Whimpers as a unit) kindly offered to contribute their top 5 and here they are, along with mine.

Horny Geek Girl

While everything HGG has to say here is a great point, I’m particularly with her on point #3. Just because someone says yes to something on one occasion doesn’t mean they’d say yes tonight. Check in – regularly. And check out Horny Geek Girl if you like sex blogging, food porn, geekery or great tits. You’ll find her here and here.

1) Sex isn’t just about penetration. It’s not about getting us wet enough that you can ‘slip’ inside. Lots of ladies can’t come from penetration alone. Sex is about mutual pleasure. Which leads nicely to my next point.

2) Sex doesn’t have to stop just because YOU came. As I said before, it’s about mutual pleasure – ladies can multiple orgasm much more easily than you men, and for some even if they don’t come it’s still a pleasure. Communicate with your partner, is she enjoying it? Is she wanting more?

3) Just because a woman has shared her body with you doesn’t mean you now own it. I don’t care where your cock, hands, tongue etc. have been, my body is MINE. Yesterday, today and forever. I may choose to share it with you again, multiple times, or exclusively, this still doesn’t mean you own it. It is MINE.

4) Yes, women can enjoy sex, yes, we can enjoy multiple partners, yes, we can sleep with whoever we want whenever we want. No this doesn’t mean you can call us slut, slag, easy, tramp, etc. unless we ask you to. Mutual respect. If you get a high five for ‘banging’ the hot chick from the bar, I want one for fucking the hot guy from the gym.

5) Sex is messy. If you’re getting busy and there’s blood, please don’t freak out. This can mean we’re on our period but often it just means you were a bit enthusiastic and your nail scratched the delicate tissue and it’s bleeding a lot because when we’re aroused blood cause the area to ‘engorge’ and swell. A rinse with cool water usually fixes it. Freaking out over it makes things awkward. Please don’t freak.

Bangs & Whimpers

Bangs & Whimpers write lots of seriously hot little vignettes about their escapades on their Tumblr, which comes highly recommended. You can also find them on Twitter. Here are their top 5:

1) It isn’t a race
Sex shouldn’t be rushed. The quicker you thrust the less likely the person you’re fucking is going to relax. Yes, okay, thrusting quickly IS going to give someone an orgasm but you need to vary the pace, switch things around a little. Slow, long, deep strokes varied with quick ones. We’re not saying quickies aren’t great and don’t have their place – we are saying you have to have variation. Speed isn’t sexy. Sex should be viewed as a good meal with at least three courses – starter, main and dessert. Not a KFC or McDonalds.

2) Communicate
We aren’t saying talk all the goddamn way through with a running commentary. Or indulge in ridiculous clichéd sexy talk. Or even anywhere in between the two. Letting the person know what she’s doing is feeling good and you’re about to come is always useful. Generally encouragement on either side is great, although we said earlier it isn’t a race, cheering each other on is just lovely.

3) Make sure you’re clean
It sounds obvious but the woman you are about to fuck has probably a) shaved her legs b) trimmed her bush c) moisturised, buffed, trimmed and perfumed herself in anticipation of this moment. We aren’t saying you need to do exactly the same but decorum dictates your dong should be clean. We’re probably going to put it in our mouth so make sure it doesn’t smell like days old washing (yes, this did happen to one of us)

4) Saying you don’t wear condoms just isn’t cool.
There is no exception here. You just can’t be too careful. Even if your partner is on birth control you are both at risk of STIs etc. it sounds boring and oh yes it feels different and better without one – sorry sunshine – no bag no shag.

5) Oral sex is the gateway to an orgasm
Well, it is in our book anyway. So its worth spending a little time down ‘there’ even if its to get a small precursor of what is to come. Likewise, she will want to spend some time getting to know your cock, after all you’re going to put it inside her, right? And if you can make her come with your tongue you are in for a really good time. Hell, she might want to marry you!

Any Girl Friday

Em, aka Any Girl Friday, writes a beautifully fun, thoughtful and discursive blog. She was also good enough not only to contribute her top 5, but to expand on her thoughts here. You can find her on Twitter, too:

1) Wet, wet, wet. Nothing is worse than a guy thinking that a quick nipple flick and some half hearted neck nuzzling is enough to get the engine running. It’s not. Guys who rush straight in, fingers ready, like horny 14 year olds, need to know that we probably won’t appreciate the friction burns. Lube it up, suck your fingers first or get her to suck them before you start exploring.

2) A WOMAN IS MORE THAN JUST HER BOOBS. Sure, it feels awesome when you treat them to some time but other parts exist bro; don’t ignore her shoulders, collar bone, back, inner thighs, neck or stomach. Also, that area above the knicker line feels incredible when lightly kissed or if you run your fingertips across it.

3) Kissing – this is my number one bugbear. As teens, snogging for hours was the hobby of choice but as we’ve gotten older it seems to have fallen by the wayside. Now, a bit of kissing at the start is the most you can expect. Nothing is hotter than kissing combined with some heavy petting though so don’t rush past this step. Kiss her lots!

4) TEASE. Good foreplay and build up will do wonders for the get her wet situation. This includes oral, clit play, kissing, exploring each other’s bodies and spending the time it takes for her to be turned on.

5) Don’t buy into the media bullshit about women and sex. Our orgasm isn’t an elusive holy grail that is only possible on the third Tuesday of a leap year, so don’t believe for a second that leaving her hanging is acceptable. A women is entitled to sexual pleasure, to enjoy sex and to do what she wants in the bedroom without being judged or being held accountable to society’s warped standards of femininity.

And here are mine:

1) Trust is paramount, and not just in the bedroom. The sex, and the general mood, will be a hell of a lot better if you’re reliable, make cancelling on me a once in a blue moon exception rather than the rule, and are honest about stuff from the get-go, even if it might upset me. If you’re seeing multiple people, I deserve to know that – only then can I make an informed decision about whether I want to sleep with you or not.

2) Intimacy is best served as a sandwich – even if you’re absolutely amazing at making me feel like I have your full attention before the act: not checking your phone, asking interesting questions, lots of kissing and slow build up, it’s a waste if as soon as we’ve fucked you’re up and off the bed disposing of the condom and generally not letting me savour the moment. Cuddles aren’t obligatory: lying with me for a bit while I bask in the glow is.

3) Don’t forget to tell me that you think I’m beautiful/hot. I feel like this gets lost sometimes, especially when you’ve been fucking someone for a while, but it makes my day to hear you say it.

4) Don’t be afraid to suggest trying new stuff. Obviously, no means no, but if I say ‘maybe,’ or my current favourite, ‘No… Er, yes?’ it means I probably am up for trying what you’re proposing, I’m just nervous about it and might need some coaxing. Point #1 above should help with this.

5) It’s not all about my clit. I suspect this is a little bit my wildcard, and some (many?) women might disagree with me, but I’m not a huge fan of you rubbing my clit when you’re fucking me. It’s true that I probably won’t come from penetration alone – it’s happened a few times, but it’s the exception rather than the rule – but penetration is a pleasure in its own right and playing with my clit, whether it’s me or you doing it, just makes me feel like I’m trying to pat my head and rub my tummy all at the same time. I’d rather just focus on that wonderful sense of fullness, if it’s all the same to you…

So there we have it – 20 things all men should know about sex. If you disagree or think there are other key ones we’ve missed, feel free to add them in the comments.

You took the words right out of my –

I hate women who don’t know how to be on their own. You know the ones – the girls who say, ‘God, I don’t know how you cope with being single!’ when their longest period of being out of a relationship is 2 weeks, or, worse still, the ones who say, ‘Oh, I love being single,’ when really, they never are.

But often I think strong feelings like that towards a particular group of people are born out of something uncomfortable that that group reflects back at you. It’s similar, in a way, to what I was getting at when I wrote this.

I’ve been single literally my whole life. It makes me uneasy when, on shows like ‘Take me out,’ girls say ‘I’ve been single for 3 years,’ and everyone gasps. Because if I talked about being single in terms of years, what would I say? When do you start counting? From birth? Sixteen? After uni?

I’ve been single my whole life, but I’ve never truly been without a man. Since my teens I’ve slipped effortlessly from one infatuation to another. The thought of being truly alone, without even a crush to provide that rush of emotions, that sense of being alive, scares me.

In the past I’ve used the word ‘love’ pretty indiscriminately to describe how I felt about those crushes. I grew up in a family where the word is used freely – I tell my parents and sister that I love them pretty much every time we speak – partly through force of habit, partly because it’s true, and I want them to know it.

It’s not a word I’m afraid of, essentially. But when the boy said, during an argument, something along the lines of ‘I was talking to a friend about this and in her view the problem is … that you’re in love with me and I’m not in love with you,’ it really jarred. It felt like a cheap shot, and I told him so.

The bit that bothers me isn’t the bit you’d perhaps expect. He doesn’t love me, I know that, and so it doesn’t come as a particular surprise to hear him say it. Sure, it stings a bit, because no one likes to hear stuff like that, but that’s all.

Being told that I love him, though? That I’m much less comfortable with. While I’m aware that if you read this blog regularly you might well have come to that conclusion, I’m still uncomfortable with someone else telling him that that’s how I feel. ‘I love you,’ is a pretty powerful phrase and I felt like they were my words to choose to say or not to say, as and when I felt ready.

I don’t feel ready. In this relationship (or whatever you want to call it) I can’t imagine I ever will be. Not that I haven’t conjured up its spirit on occasion: a few weeks back I was having drinks with a friend and she challenged my claim that I’m happy enough with the way things stand.

‘You don’t get it though,’ I countered, ‘I love him.’

She smiled sadly. ‘I don’t think you do,’ she said. ‘You talk about him like he’s the enemy or a battle to be fought and won. That’s not love.’

And you know what? She’s right. If you love someone, there shouldn’t be that much conflict, with yourself or with them. Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, loving someone doesn’t mean having to fight for them, or waging a constant battle against incompatibility. Of course, it is possible to love someone and for it not to come up roses, but if that really is how you feel, what should be coming across is affection, not aggression.

The other thing I think you realise as you get older is that love should be less about you than it is about the other person. Yes, that’s trite. Yes, it’s cliché, but it is essentially true. Most of what I get from him is still about me, selfish though that is – it’s about my sexual confidence, my thrills, my needs. If I’m brutally honest, my attitude to his needs is more often than not that if he doesn’t like what he’s getting from me, he should end it and get it elsewhere. Because I’m compromising so heavily on the open relationship side, I tend to think that all other compromises should be his.

I’ve never been a big fan of the line ‘You have to love yourself before somebody else can love you,’ – hey, we’ve all fallen for people with flaws – but I do think it’s easier to love someone else if you already love yourself. If you believe in what they see in you, it’s easier to look outwards and focus on them. If you don’t, love is just a line you’re feeding yourself to keep fear and loneliness at bay, and that can’t be healthy.

With all that said, I’d be gutted if, when it ends, I, or anyone else who knows about us, writes the whole thing off as pointless because we didn’t love each other. I think society still has a tendency to gloss over situations that don’t fit a standard narrative – especially the media. It’s bullshit. Love isn’t the only thing that can change you; it’s not the only thing you can learn from. It’s just one potential happy ending in amongst a whole heap of others.

Fight me for it

Sometimes, when the boy has me on my knees in broad daylight, his hands wrapped in my hair, his fly wide open, his cock in my mouth, I think:

Could we do this in reverse?

I don’t see it, somehow. I can’t imagine assuming the authority to force him to kneel in front of me, push my knickers to one side and to lick me until I scream. What would I say?

It’s not that his kink isn’t my kink. His kink is precisely my kink. I just don’t want to share it.

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Nice boyfriend and babies

Oh, that Kirstie. She does talk some crap. True fact: I once emailed a woman’s mag and moaned about how, in an article on ‘The Perfect Christmas’ she’d suggested that it was a good idea to keep £60 (£60!) Urban Outfitters vouchers in a drawer in case guests with teenage children dropped in unexpectedly and you needed emergency gifts. She was, I wrote, completely out of touch with the real world. They never emailed back.

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How nice is too nice?

Twitter is having a moment. It feels like *everyone* is talking about bitchiness, or trolling. Not just the sex/relationship bloggers either, but more widely than that – beauty bloggers, lifestyle columnists…

I’ve witnessed a bit of it, but nothing like on the scale it’s apparently happening. I don’t really get nasty tweets, or cruel emails, but other bloggers clearly do – Laurie at MyPOTL wrote this this week on the subject.

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It’s not my intention to give you blue balls

Last night, Laurie over at My Potential One True Love wrote this, about dating and being single. I liked it and it resonated, so I shared it on Twitter. Since setting this blog up, I don’t think anything I’ve tweeted has been retweeted so quickly and so widely. Clearly it’s not just me for whom it rings true.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I don’t really date. I say I’m going to date, but in reality my patience levels with OKCupid are similar to those of an eleven-year-old boy with ADHD.

And here’s why.

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Red or white?

There are two questions the boy knows there’s little point in asking me. The first is ‘Do you want to suck my cock?’ and the second is ‘What are you drinking?’

Red, white, sparkling or Rescue Remedy, if it’s grape-alcohol based, I’ll drink it. I have my preferences, obviously, but, I’m not, y’know, what you’d call fussy.

While thinking about this post, I did a bit of research into how often I mention wine. It gets some kind of reference in just under a quarter of my posts. So, yeah, it features heavily in my life, both as a single girl, and within my relationship with the boy.

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