by Jean Roberta
On Saturday, January 23, I attended an annual event in the university where I teach: the Creative Writing Open House. In theory, everyone on earth is welcome to show up, free of charge (and sample the free tea, coffee and muffins), to hear half-hour talks on aspects of writing by faculty members who teach this subject at various levels. Questions are not only allowed, they are encouraged. In reality, this event is attended by a sprinkling of undergraduates who are thinking of taking a class in creative writing and want to know what they could expect. So far, no one has discussed grading standards, but I suspect this would be of great interest to most of the audience.
I gave my usual talk about “niche publishing.” As usual, I found this topic so inspiring that, at some point, I ignored my notes and spun off into the various niches that an aspiring writer can find, and I raised the question of whether literary erotica has been completely swallowed by erotic romance because of a constantly-changing, profit-driven publishing biz that tries to ride the crest of every wave, even though trends are hard to predict and dangerous to follow because they start to recede even while they’re peaking.
I had just been introduced by the current head of the Creative Writing Committee as probably the most-published person in the room. OMG! I’m far from being an expert on what works, and in fact, several of my colleagues have won more awards than I have (or probably ever will) for writing relatively “mainstream” fiction and poetry. (Dramatists seem scarce in these parts, although one of them was formerly head of the English Department here.)
One of the niches I discussed was non-fiction, loosely speaking: blog posts and reviews. It’s something we’re all encouraged to write for the purpose of promoting our “real” writing (erotica, romance, spec-fic, whatever), but when/if we write more words of on-line non-fiction than anything else, we’re either letting the cart pull the horse, or we’ve discovered a delightful new niche in which to express ourselves. (I prefer the latter theory.)
Re literary erotica, I said I would not rehash a tired debate about how this differs from “porn,” but I would attempt a definition: literary erotica is simply literature (fiction, poetry, even drama) that includes explicit sex scenes. One of my male colleagues seemed so impressed by this concept that he said he didn’t see why any reader would object to this type of writing, or why any writer would avoid writing it. I explained the project of British publisher Totally Bound to publish new versions of classic novels (Pride and Prejudice, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wuthering Heights) with sex explicitly included. I also mentioned James Lear’s novels, which come close to being parodies of well-known novels of the past (Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped) as m/m erotic mysteries. My colleague seemed so delighted to hear that sex can appear on the page outside the context of “porn,” strictly speaking (films and magazines marketed as masturbation fantasies) that I could imagine him hard at work on an erotic poem or story.
This colleague is primarily a poet. For the sake of politeness, I avoided suggesting that Canadian poetry is a niche in itself, far from the kind of writing that appears on bestseller lists. (The poet showed the audience his latest royalty cheque, for $4 Canadian.)
The focus of the whole event definitely seemed to be on writing as self-expression and as communication with other writers rather than as a way of making money. Nonetheless, I pointed out that both literary erotica and writers who write about gay men or lesbians (Sarah Waters, Jeannette Winterson) seem to get more mainstream acceptance in Britain than in North America. The reasons for this are subject to speculation. Could the Puritan roots of North American culture still be keeping sex in general, and especially non-heterosexual, non-monogamous sex, in the margins?
A traditional relationship between the literary margins and the mainstream seems to me to be represented by the odd but moving friendship of John Preston and Anne Rice in San Francisco in the 1970s, before she became famous for bringing new life to vampire fiction. Preston was never even close to being mainstream: he proudly identified himself as a writer of gay-male BDSM “porn” before explicit sex, kink of any kind, or male-on-male lust could be mentioned outside of certain ghettoes, and he was a social/political organizer because he needed to help create the kind of community he wanted to live in. Like many pioneers, he died before he could see his efforts bearing much fruit.
Anne Rice has always admitted how much inspiration she got from John Preston’s writing as well as from his more personal conversations with her. However, I’m often reminded that most of the readers who love the gothic lushness of her novels about vaguely homoerotic vampires (who all have a kinky blood fetish by definition) have never heard of John Preston and probably wouldn’t think of him as her Muse even if they knew who he was. The margins nourish the mainstream, but this process usually seems invisible to everyone who hasn’t deliberately researched it.
If I continue to talk about “niche publishing” next year, and the year after that, I suspect my examples of what is “niche” will have to change with the times. I would love to see Canadian poetry outgrow the half-shelf it occupies (at most) in the brick-and-mortar bookstores that still exist. I would also love to see literary erotica marketed simply as “literature.” I’m not holding my breath until a miracle occurs. The one thing I know about “mainstream” culture in general is that the stream is always moving.
[The cover of an upcoming anthology of steampunk erotica (a niche within a niche?) in which I have a story]