The Objective Correlative

by | April 26, 2015 | General | 5 comments

by Jean Roberta

Teaching creative writing to young adults (second-year university students) is an instructive experience for the instructor as well as the students. Lately, I’ve been reading stories and poems that overflow with passion: usually the frustration of rejected love, or a desperate need for someone who responds with indifference. For someone who has had this experience for the first time, it must feel as monumental as Hamlet’s dilemma when he asks himself, “To be or not to be? That is the question.”

Let me state here for the record that I haven’t become too old or jaded to feel moved by expressions of anguish by young writers. I remember being their age, and my life didn’t run smoothly either.

However, my current frustration with student writing is triggered by extreme expressions of emotion that seems way out of proportion to the situation, as set forth in the work itself. Readers can empathize with Hamlet because we know that he came home from university to find that his father had died under mysterious circumstances, and his uncle had suddenly married his mother. If such things happened in our own lives, we probably wouldn’t be happy.

The writer T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote a famous essay setting forth his theory that emotion expressed by characters in literature should always be based on an “objective correlative,” some circumstance that makes it seem logical and appropriate to the reader. (He complained that Shakespeare didn’t really succeed at that in Hamlet.)

Poetry by beginning writers often looks like a stream of consciousness, focusing on negative feelings. This semester, I’ve noticed a lot of screaming in student poems. (“I could have screamed, “Screaming, I cried.” “I screamed at the dark sky.”) In most cases, the cause of the screaming is briefly referred to, and it doesn’t seem to me to justify such an extreme reaction.

I’ve been looking for the objective correlative, often in vain. This can be a sensitive topic to bring up with student writers that I interact with in person. I don’t really want to know all the details of their lives, and some things are none of my business. I don’t care whether the events in their work have been made up; making up stuff is what creative writing is all about. However, I don’t want to read page after page of first-person descriptions of screaming that seem to be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I’ve read erotica that reads that way too. An attractive stranger walks into a room, and the first-person observer almost comes. I’m willing to let the writer take me into his/her imaginary world, but I need to be persuaded. If the observer woke up feeling horny, having dreamed about sex all night, her/his reaction to the attractive stranger would make sense, and I would probably accept it.

Maybe the attractive stranger looks exactly like a celebrity that the observer has admired for years, or maybe like an old crush. Maybe the “stranger” really is the old crush, and he/she has matured into a more glamorous, more successful person than before. All this could make the observer’s reaction not only logical, but almost inevitable. But the reader/voyeur needs to know the details.

Screaming in orgasm is likely to be a peak experience for the screamer. It’s probably something that doesn’t happen each time the person has sex. So if this happens in a sex scene on a page that I’m reading, I need to know what is unusual about this conjunction of bodies. The stars must have been aligned in just such a way that the friction feels exquisite.

I’m sure I’ve rushed into sex scenes in my own writing, especially when pressed for time. When the deadline for a call-for-submissions was last week and I’ve been given an extension by a generous editor, the characters need to get it on, fast. However, if a story or a poem doesn’t work for readers in general, or if the piece only makes sense to those who know the writer’s personal history, it just doesn’t work. I’m grateful to my students for reminding me of that.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Kathleen Bradean

    I'd argue that Romeo and Juliet's reaction to a little adversity was over the top, but what are you gonna do about these teens in mad love?

    As for erotica– I think it was Remittance Girl who pointed out that erotica is about desire.For me it's the seduction that turns me on, not the act of sex. But as a writer, I'm aware that sometimes, the reader just wants to read about people swept away by passion. Not so sure about the screaming part. 😉

  2. Jean Roberta

    I would just like to know what my students are screaming about. 🙂

  3. Remittance Girl

    I never thought I'd morn the death of the understated reaction and the stiff upper lip, but I admit it. I do. Great piece, Jean.

  4. Jean Roberta

    Thank you for commenting, both. I probably didn't fully explain why student work often makes ME feel like screaming. 🙂 Their poetry, in particular, is often based on a set of shaky assumptions that give rise to bad writing, e.g. a poem can mean anything a reader wants it to mean, the rules of grammar don't apply to poetry, and a series of unconnected statements ("I scream in the dawn, and Time goes on") can't be panned if they are True. To be fair, I can't remember reading any published erotica that is this groan-worthy.

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    It's rough being young. I recently went back to read some poems from the last edition of my high school's literary magazine before we all graduated. To a very large extent, anguish rules.

    In erotica,though, under statement is a good way to get my attention.

    And I'm at least one of the people who's constantly harping on the notion that erotica is about the experience of desire, not about sex.

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