Anal, WHY???: On contemporary, literary, semi-autobiographical, women’s mainstream (erotic) fiction

And I told you that the main reason I didn’t see you, was because I was lost in my thoughts of you. This pleased you immensely. You had guessed as much. You could tell, you said, by the way my eyes stared, the thoughtful set of my mouth, that I was thinking about what we had done in the Chapel in the Crypt. The arrogance of this assumption annoyed me then and I rolled on my back on the bed, away from you, and tried to back-track, claiming I wasn’t thinking about you that day in the cafe after all, that I was thinking about the introduction I had to write to a new university textbook, a collection of essays taking a wide-ranging approach to molecular biology. You knew I was lying. You rolled on top of me, pinned my arms above my head with one hand and dug your fingers into the soft part of my waist with the other until I admitted I had been thinking about you, you, you …

Louise Doughty, Apple Tree Yard

What have I read so far this year? Lots, I think, or certainly more than in the last few years. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve read more that has stuck with me. Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty, Hausfrau by Jill Essbaum, The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall, In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume.

All have sex scenes. None are erotica. Truth be told, I’ve never really *read* erotica, I skip to the good bits and use them purely to get off. These days I might read more erotic short stories from end to end, as a way of learning the craft, but full (novel) length erotic fiction that holds my attention and brings me to orgasm? It’s harder and harder to find.

My earliest memory of getting off to words is not tied in with erotica, or even with a classic erotic scene such as the ones you find in anthologies like this. My earliest memory is of being aged around twelve, and of being allowed to stay up in my parents hotel room while they went for dinner and my sister slept in our shared room. I can’t remember what the book was called: it was a typical holiday paperback belonging to my mum – white glossy cover, ridiculously middle class protagonists – and the bit that I remember most is that when the FMC had her first child, a girl, her husband bought her pearls, when she had her second, a boy, she got diamonds. It was a sexist, dated, pretty crappy read, no doubt. None of the details of its (one) sex scene have stayed with me. But I do remember lying on the bed on my stomach, reading it over and over again. Of course, you could argue that what gets a twelve year old girl off is unlikely to titillate a grown woman. I think there’s some truth in that, although there have been plenty of mainstream novels with sex that both drives the plot and tries to be sexy. Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong; Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I’ve not wanked over either of these, but if I wanted something to wank over, I could just go to Literotica.

I class my own work as erotica because it has sex in almost every chapter. But it has sex in almost every chapter because endless publishers’ guidelines and other successful erotic novels have led me to believe that that’s what the reader wants. My natural inclination would probably be to include more sex than in the average non-erotic novel, but less than in the erotic fiction that’s out there on the shelves. I didn’t start out writing erotica, but I did start out writing sex: my first novel, which currently lies abandoned, opens like this:

Hope turns her head, hoping for a kiss. Her lips part eagerly and in the puddle of milky light from the street lights outside he can see her pupils are huge with desire.  He traces a tender finger across her lips and over her soft cheek and then bends to kiss the delicate valley of her collarbone, breathing in the faint scent of patchouli and rose oil that lingers on her skin.

He loves how everything about her feels so familiar.  Her breasts, small and pert enough to fit exactly into the palms of his hands, her tiny waist, the way the silver ankle bracelet that she always wears jangles as she moves.  Coaxed by his fingers, she grows wetter and wetter for him, but for the first time in their relationship, he feels nothing but cool detachment as her knuckles whiten, grasping the sheet as the heel of his palm presses firmly against her clitoris.

I’m a big believer in the school of thought that says that sex can reveal a lot about character, that it can change the relationship between people, that it can drive the plot forward. I’ve never wanted to write sex for the sake of sex, and I’ve never thought that my own writing was particularly hot. As a result, I agonise over what each sex scene is *telling* the reader about the characters, rather than whether I think it will turn them on. Right now, I have a post-it stuck to my desk which says ‘Anal. WHY???’ Not because I don’t enjoy anal sex, but because it’s currently in the story purely because I *do* enjoy it – it doesn’t develop or change the relationship between the characters or move the plot forward in any way. I, as a writer, think that’s a problem. Judging by the mood among erotica writers, the average reader doesn’t.

Like Malin James, I write to understand the human (or at least my own) experience. And because in RL, sex has taught me a lot about human experience, I write about sex. I’m struggling with my current novel for a number of reasons. Firstly, because like the other writers who’ve written on this topic – Tamsin FlowersRemittance GirlSessha Batto – I struggle to see where my work slots in to the market. Secondly, because it’s so strongly autobiographical – it’s me trying to understand the relationships I’ve had and the sex I’ve had within them. On my blog, that seems to work for people. Whether it would work for them in print is a whole other matter. The third reason is the one I gave above – that I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to structure and build a satisfying novel and that’s not a hallmark of most erotic fiction out there at the moment. And lastly because I’m wondering if I only started writing erotica because I’m lazy.

What do I mean by that? Obviously it’s an over-exaggeration – I care about plot, about character, about language – so I can’t be *that* lazy. Or maybe by ‘lazy’ I mean under-ambitious or just plain scared. I’ve always wanted to have at least one book published and when I started writing, Black Lace were still commissioning the old-style way: with a page at the back of their books inviting potential authors to send off for their submission guidelines and to submit their work. They made it sound easy, especially in a world where for almost every other genre (category romance aside) submitting direct to the publisher was a no-no: you’d need an agent first and finding that sounded hard enough, without even contemplating the fact that they’d then have to sell your novel on.

I think I was also scared off by the limitations (or not) of other genres: the book world seemed a true Goldilocks arena. Writing literary fiction allowed me to write the way I wanted to write, but I worried that it wasn’t intelligent enough, or conversely that it was too intelligent and therefore self-indulgent. Women’s fiction, when I started out, meant chick-lit, which I’d grown to hate, and although I think things have improved a bit, I still hear authors like Helen Walsh complaining that the publisher slapped a ‘chick-lit cover’ on their work, against their wishes, because it allows them to target the right audience. Chick lit, erotica, and romance all want the HEA. I don’t write HEA. Mainstream, contemporary fiction, which is probably where I should be aiming, just seems impossible: everyone, whether they’ve been published or not, seems to be talking about how ‘no one is buying anything right now.’

The benefits of erotica not requiring an agent have been totally lost: submission guidelines are no longer guidelines in anything but name: they’re requirements, and strict ones at that. Erotica has gone the same way as category romance: there’s undoubtedly a skill in being able to write to a tight brief, but building that skill is my day job, not the reason why I write fiction.

I’ve been contemplating these questions for weeks now and the more I contemplate them, the more the writers’ block sets in: I don’t know who I’m writing for any more, or what they want: we’re all taught that convincing plot and well-rounded characters are what matter to the reader, and I think we’re all trying to do our best for them, but honestly? That’s not what they want any more, or not from smut, at least.

And so for now, I’m trying to get back to writing for me. I like hanging out in the erotica community, so that’s where I’ll stay, but I doubt it’s where I’ll publish. But essentially, I think we need to stop worrying: there is a (big) market for well-written fiction with the bedroom door open, we just need to stop thinking we’re not good, or mainstream, enough to be part of it.

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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.