Abberant Romances and the Rise of Erotic Fiction as a Self-Help Guide

by | July 13, 2014 | General | 9 comments

I’ve got a confession to make. I’m addicted to House of Cards.  I remember being equally addicted to the original 1990’s UK series, but the US Netflix adaptation is, surprisingly, even better than the British original.

Yes, the writing is excellent and the characterizations are superb, but what I most like about House of Cards is that it represents a very realistic but seldom written-about form of relationship.

The relationship between Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, is a strange one.  On the surface it appears to be a marriage of convenience – neither is sexually faithful and there appears to be nothing but a cool sort of companionship of purpose between them – but as the series goes on, we get glimpses into something more complex.

This is a portrait of two people who feed each other’s jouissance. Leaving the moral aspects of their individual actions and aspirations aside, this is love at its most powerful and revolutionary. 

In her amazing TED Talk on the secret to desire in long-term relationships, Esther Perel points out that distance is essential to desire. Being able to see your partner from a distance, doing what drives and impassions them, allows you to maintain the stance of an admirer. It allows for the preservation of a certain level of mystery and of uncertainty, which keeps the embers of desire burning hot. 

As married characters, Frank and Claire Underwood watch each other pursue their ambitions, execute their nefarious plans, as if they were each secret admirers of the other, aroused by their individual acts of ruthlessness.

When they finally come together, there’s an amazing erotic tension between them. It is never a ‘dutiful’ performance of marital obligation. They come together to give each other a sort of carte blanche absolution for being the reprehensible creatures they are.  It’s a bit like watching scorpions mate.

After the never-ending parade of superficially written, poorly characterized and formulaic love-bonds that seem to be the norm in almost all narratives these days, it is refreshing and exciting to see a well-wrought portrait of something that isn’t pabulum.

Another interesting and complex relationship I have stumbled across recently is the novelized version of Macbeth by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson. They’ve done a magnificent job of digging into and expositing the compelling power dynamics between Lord and Lady Macbeth. Again, ambition definitely comes into it, but so does desperation, mania and regret. In this case, although Lady Macbeth is the instigator who gets the transgression ball rolling, there is a clever portrayal of how one hideous act leads inevitably to another, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

So many modern fictional romantic narratives are offered and consumed as models to aspire to, especially in erotic fiction.  In this I see a tragic loss of  the potential of fiction to examine the places we should never go in real life. This current need to make all kinky scenes safe, sane and consensual; this obligation to never represent negative, abusive relationships without clearly condemning them within the fiction, places all our fictions within the genre of YA or as thinly disguised self-help paperbacks.

It is as if we have decided that adults have no capacity to distinguish between fiction and reality and must be guided in their fictional adventures by an overbearing, authoritarian hand whose job it is to constantly nudge the reader towards a post-modern sort of ‘right thinking’.

This might be tolerable if most contemporary fictional love relationships were represented with any realism and complexity, but they’re not.  Consequently, we are encouraged to judge our own relationships in the light of those that are not only fictional, but ones that aren’t realistic and revel in their own formulaic qualities. 

In her book, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers and Society, Eva Illouz breaks down the phenomena of the erotic novel as self-help guide:

“some narratives are not only symbolic rehearsals of social dilemmas and of the solution to these dilemmas: they are also performative structures offering ways of acting and doing.”

To me, this is the anathema of contemporary erotic fiction. It is a closing off of the possibilities of using fiction as a refuge from the rules of social reality. Instead, it has become a place where we are schooled, counseled and given exemplars of how to ‘do it right.’

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Valentine Bonnaire

    Fabulous piece RG. xxoo!


    I love House of Cards too, but I wonder about the difference between intent and result. Did the writers create this interesting sexual life because it fit the complexity of their characters, or did they mean it as another nail in the "these people are terrible" coffin? I suppose intent doesn't matter, because (as we writers well know) once it's out in the world, we have no control over audience interpretation. So there will be people who decide their open marriage is a sign of their debauchery and those who will recognize it as the only sensible way for these two characters to exist.

  3. Remittance Girl

    It's an interesting question, Kathleen. I think in this case, the narrative would be unsustainable if the audience didn't have very mixed feelings about the couple. If it was simply meant to be two seasons of 'look how awful these people are' I don't think it would have gained the popularity it has. I think they set out to offer an intimate and interior look (note the soliloquies) of morally problematic people who are intriguing, erotic and, of course, quite evil. I think that on the whole, their sexual lives add to the humanizing factor in the character development.

  4. Kristina Lloyd

    Super piece! I don’t know HoC but I’m right with you on the frustrations of erotic fic being a genre that isn’t allowed its full fictionality. Have you read Greta Christina’s ‘Bending’? In the intro she makes a neat distinction between stories of hers which portray what BDSM practitioners do; and stories of hers which attempt to convey what BDSMers think about. And she champions our right to explore the latter, both in terms of our individual sexual imaginations and our literature.

    It strikes me as bizarre that we have non-fic collections of erotic fantasy; and yet many of those fantasies can’t be narrated in contemporary fiction. They have to be made fictional within the fiction eg via characters acting out their fantasies or via BDSM play or via high-fantasy/other worldly narratives.

    I’m personally hugely frustrated by the increasing expectation that erotic fic aimed at women must conclude with a happy partnership. Surely erotic fic should be a space where we, as readers and writers, can safely explore danger, socially unacceptable behaviour, sexual taboos etc without that being reined in or rejected by a narrative heading towards redemption and order?

    • Remittance Girl

      It is bizarre, but not wholly unexpected. Readers have been conditioned to believe that the experience of reading fiction is a consumerist one in which they are entitled to exactly what they expect – kind of like McDonald's. And you can see why this has evolved. We're in a culture awash with non-sugar sugar, decaf coffee, and low fat butter. We're being taught that our consumptions are consequentless because people sell more stuff that way. So here we have no-moral risk erotica: at it's very straightforward to sell, from a retailer's point of view.

      Personally, I've always agreed with those sexist Victorian gentlemen: gothic novels were morally perilous. All good fiction puts the reader in moral peril. That's the glory of it.

      But it's not as easy to justify why you produce it or sell it. It's not harmless. It prompts people to question how they live in the world and how they perceive it. That's a harder sell, even as it is a more fertile adventure.

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    I see the germ for an anthology idea here: morally risky erotica.

    I don't watch TV, but now I rather wish I did, RG.

  6. Remittance Girl

    You'd LOVE the US House of Cards.

  7. Jean Roberta

    Thought-provoking, as usual, RG. I've never been completely convinced that villains are always the most interesting characters in a work of imagination (depending on how villains are defined), but I think I see your point.

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