|Photo: Alejandro Hernandez|
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust
Writing erotica is something of a paradox. Unlike mystery, horror, or sci-fi, erotica seldom takes the reader to wholly alien places. Unless you’re writing extreme BDSM, or Queer erotica aimed at a hetero reader, the sexual core of a story is something the reader has usually already experienced. At the very least, it’s something they’ve fantasized about. In a way, this is why so many people who haven’t written fiction before opt for writing erotica. Desire is something we’re all pretty familiar with. That should make it easy to write. But for that very reason, it’s also why a lot of erotica can seem stale and recycled. How many new ways are there to get your characters into bed? And how extreme do you have to make the sex to come up with something that doesn’t read like a thousand other stories out there? At some point, it can feel like diminishing returns on your efforts – as a writer or as a reader.
I’d like to talk about voice and narrators. When we start off writing, we tend to pick narrators who are very familiar to us. Often they are, at least partly, us. I have ceased to read much erotica these days, and I think partly it is because I seldom come across startling narrators or fresh voices or invitations to look at the erotic in new ways. I thought it might be helpful to look at a few strategies writers have used to pick up a reader and set them down in a truly unfamiliar narrative space.
Despite all the criticisms of Fifty Shade of Grey’s main character Anna, I think one of the reasons the story was so successful is that she is, improbably, a 22 year old virgin who never masturbated, never orgasmed, and never owned a laptop. For all the suspension of disbelief that demanded off the reader, it did allow James to frame the protagonist’s experiences as wholly new. And, I suspect, for a lot of readers, it allowed them to revisit a kind of innocence most of us, at least in my generation, lost around the age of 16.
I recently finished a zombie apocalypse novel binge. I was trying to figure out what the allure of the meme was. By accident, I ran across an extraordinary novel called “The Reapers are the Angels.” It’s going to sound insane, but it’s a cross between William Faulkner and George A. Romero. Part horror novel, part mystical road-trip, part literary masterpiece, the book tells the story of a young woman who has spent all her life in the post-apocalyptic world. She’s had no formal education and is completely illiterate. This allows the reader, through her narrative, to interpret reality in an incredibly different way. She is a strange mix of innocent savant and pragmatic brutalist. Consequently, what should be a very run of the mill zombie apocalypse novel is transformed into a poetic and deeply philosophical literary text that uses the genre to probe questions of history, memory, human relationships and guilt.
A narrator’s ignorance (hopefully more skillfully established than Anna Steele’s) offers the reader a new way in to familiar spaces. And crafting a unique and somewhat difficult voice with which to lead the reader in also helps to destabilize their assumptions.
Beloved is another breathtaking novel that presents the reader with a history they think they know, but purposefully uses disorienting narrative voices to force the reader to reconsider what they think they know. On the surface, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a horror story. It has ghosts and terrible secrets, supernatural events and eerie synchronicities. But beneath the clever structure and the lyrical language is a deeply serious examination of how we construct identity and how the tragedy of belonging to someone other than oneself puts all relationships under erasure. There are many narrators and many voices in Beloved, but they all have one thing in common. They are all haunted by the past. This fundamentally changes the way they read the present and, consequently forces the reader to also do the same.
It doesn’t matter whether you set your story in the past, the present or the future, as long as you create narrators who navigate the world differently to the way we normally do. Give them a believable reason to have to use a different interior map, and you create radically alien points of view. It gives you the opportunity to examine the familiar with new eyes, from strange tangents. To deconstruct commonly held assumptions of the way the world works – especially when it comes to experiences we believe we feel at home with like sex and desire – and offer them to your readers as almost unnatural experiences.
Language can also play a big role in disorienting your reader. It seems counter-intuitive – to make your writing harder to read – but when done well, it’s a devastatingly effective device for taking your reader to a familiar place and making it feel like somewhere new. Novels like Trainspotting, The Road and Beloved all use challenging dialects and really strange turns of phrase to immerse the reader in what feels like a new world.
Even something as simple as going through your text and consciously tweaking every adjective, adverb or metaphor into one you’ve never read or used before can have a radical effect. You might end up with jarring, uncomfortable language, but if your plot is strong enough, you can pull the reader through it. Much like stroking a cat backwards, you may not produce a comfortable piece for your reader, but I promise you, you’ll produce something different to anything you’ve written before and take your reader on an unexpected adventure.