Taking Risks

by | September 21, 2012 | General | 26 comments

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.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. shannonsdreams

    Lisabet I miss Freaky Fountain so much. They published one of my nonpunishable erotic stories. For me if I can't sell a story I'll put it out myself. It might not be read by the enormous masses but over the years I've found that people who like my work to begin with will find it and share it.

    No it won't ever make me a literary wunderkind who sells ALL the things but it does satisfy me in a deep way that I unfortunately can't really get from mainstream erotic presses/zines.

  2. Neale Sourna

    This makes me sad, up there with authors who don't read their own writings for pleasure.

    Write what pleases you, excites you, scares you.

    Put it away. Submit it. Author publish it. Preferably Author Pub it.

    If you don't take your own stories and loves and hates and perplexing excitements seriously, who cares if anyone else does.

    Validation is lovely. Got one the other day, and curiously its the same one another business fellow acknowledged as mind-blowing.

    Publish to your website AND publish the short story, novella, novel yourself if you must. SOMEONE WANTS IT, SOMEONE WANTS TO READ IT.

    They may email or tell you face to face. But they will vote for you by online traffic and private purchases of your wicked, wicked works.

    deSade lives on. As does Hardy, and that lovely DH's Lady. And so will many of us, if for no other reason than it's kind of impossible to really delete anything from the Net. 🙂

    Write it, love it, send it out into the world. They imprisoned deSade, the laughed at DH, and disrespected Anais; but, their intelligence and humor and respect for real humans and real human fantasies lives on.

    Respect your craft, write and publish.

    Oh, and that character who go me two unsolicited approvals of my writing? Dia a cheerleader, who seduces the team coach, and then has a bang on the team bus with the entire team.

    We reach people in the "oddest" and "deepest" places.

  3. Neale Sourna

    Also…"They" think anyone and everyone can write what we do, as well as we do, "they" can't.

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    @ Jean – Would you rather write a wildly popular best seller, or a novel that will be hailed as a magnificent work of art – after you're dead? What a conundrum!

    @ shannon – I'm reading "This is the Way the World Ends" right now. Fabulous. Perhaps someone else will step in and create a new press for those "unpublishable" tales. Actually, Stiff Rain Press, established by Carol Lynne, does take taboo erotica. You might check them out.

    @ Neale – as always, you're fearless! Thanks!

  5. Amanda Earl

    thanks for your excellent post, Lisabet. my preference as a reader is actually for dark. i don't find HEA to be satisfying in any way. i'd love to read an anthology of dark endings as per Kathleen's idea. when i started writing erotic fiction i was all about sex positivity. while i still find that important, i would like to be able to write complex characters & conflict. an editor once told me that a BDSM story i wrote which portrayed the Dom negatively would give the community a bad name. this is the sort of frustration we contend with. an editor & publisher open to darker, more conflicted erotica would attract readers, i believe.

  6. Essemoh Teepee

    I have to agree with the comment about writing what you feel you need to and putting it out there for others to read or not as they choose.
    Earning a living from my writing and audio work has become more important recently, so I do look at the sales figures more closely and deliberately schedule my time to create some work in the more lucrative areas. But I still write what comes to me, and much of that is not in the HEA or HFN zone.
    I try and slip in a darker story when I am putting together an Anthology, as a counterpoint, or palate cleanser to the rest. I also have begun to use different pen names for some types of work that I want to have a different feel.
    Macdonalds sells a lot of burgers, but some of us enjoy a Michelin star or two when we eat out. Finding the niche and doing it well, will sometimes work the magic.

    I think we forget sometimes how hard it is to get to where we are, how many dream of writing and getting their work accepted. We who have become publishable, now agonize over is our work valid, worthy and worthwhile.

    It is possibly about balance, write what sells but write it well and stretch the reader in some way with each tale. Introduce something challenging, edgy or unexpected.

    Keep writing.

Hot Chilli Erotica

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