Reading as Studying
by Jean Roberta
Reading other people’s writing is a good way to see how many different ways there are to approach the same subject. And even if you specialize in erotica, reading outside your genre can show you various ways to get readers engaged with your characters, to reveal character and advance a plot through dialogue, to set up suspense (“foreplay”), to use imagery sparingly or generously, to pace the action in a way that feels natural, and to write a convincing climax (!).
I sometimes read in spurts because I’ve been asked to review someone else’s work, or I’ve offered to write a review for a specific publication. Sometimes I need to read several books quickly in order to choose one as a textbook for one of the university English classes I teach. Reading with the intention of writing a review, a summary, or a critique is a good way to remember details I might miss if I were only reading for pleasure.
Here is a list of my recent summer reading: very different books I’ve read recently for different reasons (in alphabetical order of authors’ last names):
The Marrow-Thieves (YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic Canada) by Cherie Dimaline (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2017)
So Lucky (slim book with autobiographical elements about the progress of an incurable disease, Multiple Schlerosis) by Nicola Griffiths (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)
Does It Show? (quirky novel in a magic-realist style, second in a series about a set of working-class characters in northern England) by Paul Magrs (Massachusetts: Lethe Press, forthcoming in August 2018)
Perennial: A Garden Romance (slim book about second chances in love and flowers that return in spring) by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Lethe Press, forthcoming)
Warlight (historical novel set in WW2) by Michael Ondaatje, revered Canadian writer and academic (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).
Forget the Sleepless Shores (collection of poetically-written stories, most with supernatural elements) by Sonya Taaffe (Lethe Press, forthcoming).
Read by Strangers (stories in an American realist style) by Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press, forthcoming).
Even the spate of books by one publisher (Lethe, which originally specialized in LGBTQ speculative fiction) shows a wide range of styles and subject-matter.
As a reader/reviewer, I keep a set of questions in mind as I read:
1. What is the author’s aim, as far as I can figure it out?
2. Does the style seem to suit the subject-matter? (And if the style looks inappropriate, is that a sign of satirical intent?)
3. Do the characters come to life, even in a fantasy plot? (And there is a difference between fantasy elements in a narrative set in a very realistic or even gritty real-world setting, and “High Fantasy,” a story set in the Land of Faery, or Planet X, or some other completely invented realm.)
4. Am I tempted to keep turning the page? Are the mysteries and the tension eventually resolved?
Regarding the recent stack of books, I can honestly say that they all deliver what they promise.
None of these books are sagas of High Fantasy, but the stories with fantasy elements (The Marrow-Thieves, Does It Show? and most of the individual pieces in Forget the Sleepless Shores) seem no more far-fetched or implausible, in their way, than the narratives that reveal the strangeness of reality (So Lucky, Perennial, Warlight, and Read by Strangers).
The following are some of my impressions from my recent spate of reading, all of which can be applied to writing erotic fiction.
The same-sex attraction in several of these narratives (The Marrow-Thieves, So Lucky, Does It Show? several stories in Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) is presented in a plausible, matter-of-fact way that invites readers of all sexual orientations to care about the characters. Luckily, the current literary zeitgeist seems to have moved beyond the “coming-out” story as well as the interracial romance as something shockingly transgressive. In The Marrow-Thieves, each member of a makeshift “family” of survivors has a “coming-to” story about how they survived and found others like themselves, but these stories are not about wrestling with forbidden desires.
Characters who disguise their biological gender appear in Does It Show? and “The Creeping Influences” in Forget the Sleepless Shores. Whether such characters are cross-dressers, transfolk, or women just trying to survive in a men’s world (as in several Shakespeare comedies), they can easily come across as offensive stereotypes in current fiction.
In the human comedy of Does It Show? all the characters crave more glamour, excitement and love than they are likely to find in a small English town in the 1980s, but a supernatural realm is almost tangible beyond the illusions of “reality.” A transwoman in this context doesn’t seem more bizarre than anyone else.
In “The Creeping Influences,” a female character doing a man’s job seems downright mundane compared to the discovery of two well-preserved bodies in an Irish bog, both apparently murdered in different centuries.
Several of the authors of these books are widely known to be lesbians or gay men. In other cases, I simply don’t know anything about the authors’ love-lives. In all cases, though, same-sex attraction is simply presented as a fact. The worm in the apple is not internalized homophobia or the wrath of God, but miscommunication, or persecution in some form. This approach could be applied to more explicitly erotic plots.
Imagery (the description of anything which can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, touched or felt) is sensual by definition, and therefore erotic. Imagery is the heart and soul of both horror fiction and sex-stories. The two collections of single-author stories (Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) include both spine-tingling creepiness and realistic sex scenes.
Perennial, the one book defined as a “romance,” has no explicit sex, but this could have been added without detracting from the sweetness of a story about two lonely strangers getting to know each other, and supporting each other through hard times.
In Warlight, the eventual revelation of hidden truths on a personal and collective level is both jaw-dropping and characteristic of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. (The narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy when we first meet him.) There are no explicit sex scenes in the novel, but erotic attraction is shown to be a major motivator of human behaviour which might otherwise be hard to explain.
In short, reading and writing go together like – well, you can think of an appropriately raunchy set of pleasures. It’s probably no coincidence that when I haven’t been reading, I’ve written several stories this summer, and I have plans for several more.