You’re probably familiar with the old joke about humor in the penitentiary. The convicts are taking their daily exercise in the prison yard under the watchful eye of the warden, when someone shouts out “Twenty two”. Everyone convulses with laughter. A few minutes later, another guy calls “Sixteen”. More hilarity ensues. Someone else counters with “Thirty seven”. Guffaws and catcalls ring out through the yard.
The punch line doesn’t matter. The point is that everyone is so familiar with all the funny stories, it’s not even necessary to spell them out anymore. Just the number, the label, is enough.
Erotica these days reminds me of that joke. Cuckold. Hot-wife. M-preg. MILF. First-timers. Hu-cow. Futa. Swinging. Femdom. Reverse harem. Billionaire. Breeding. Wolf-shifter. Bear-shifter. Polar-bear shifter. (Just saw one of those today…) Everything’s explicitly labeled. Titles leave nothing to the imagination, and just in case there’s some ambiguity about exactly the box in which a book belongs, there’s the always the subtitle to make things crystal clear.
Tell me the label, and I can predict what you’ll find in the story. Indeed, that’s the purpose of all these kink and genre categories. Given that thousands of erotica titles are published daily, people want a fast way to find the reads that will push their particular buttons. In today’s world of instant communication and information overload, it seems that readers don’t have the time or the patience to browse or to experiment. They think they already know what they want. Labels and keywords are intended to make sure they get it. In fact I know from painful personal experience that if a book doesn’t fulfill the expectations associated with its labels, readers will voice their displeasure.
Erotica has become predictable, compartmentalized and homogenized. Today’s insta-culture tags on-line stories with phrases like “10 minute read”, as well as the inevitable keywords. Erotica is something to consume, like gossip or popcorn. (See my post last month about serialized fiction for more about this.) And orgasms are absolutely required. A story in which the characters have some sexual interactions but don’t climax violates the requirements of today’s readers.
Most erotica I encounter now barely revs my engines. It’s too obvious, too stereotyped, too manufactured. I like my sex veiled in a bit of mystery. I appreciate a tale that keeps me in suspense. The build-up of erotic tension can be as pleasurable as its release, and an unexpected twist can be deeply satisfying, even when that tension is unresolved by orgasm.
When I started writing and publishing erotica, more than twenty years ago, things were very different. Variety was given far more emphasis. A single erotic novel could include all sorts of sexual scenarios: ménage, BDSM, exhibitionism, cross-dressing, same-sex interactions, toys and taboos. You couldn’t sum it up in a couple of keywords. Cleis published themed anthologies, but within the flexible boundaries of the theme, the challenge was to write the most original, surprising and arousing tale one could manage.
If you’d like a glimpse of the amazing richness available in erotica ten to fifteen years ago, grab one of the volumes from Maxim Jakubowski’s Mammoth Book of Best Erotica series. Or take a look at Cream (https://www.amazon.com/Cream-Erotica-Readers-Writers-Association/dp/1560259256), the anthology of ERWA authors I edited in 2006. (The reviews of this book on Amazon show a lot of disparity; the more recent the review, the lower the rating!) Or if you’re looking for arousing novels, consider K.D. Grace’s The Initiation of Ms Holly (2011) or Portia da Costa’s Gemini Heat (1995/2008).
It seems that thematic complexity, narrative sophistication and sexual creativity have gone out of style. I mourn their loss. I miss the stories that inspired me to tell my own, full of yearning, dripping with desire.
At the same time, I try to adapt to the current market of meticulously enumerated genres and key phrases. Every book I’ve published recently has a sub-title. What else can I do, if I want anyone to read my lascivious imaginings?
I’m not very good at it, though. I keep wanting to tear down the walls, shatter the boxes, break the rules. I long for the sensuousness and subtlety of two decades ago. Which is probably why my stories don’t sell nearly as well as Hot Erotica Short Stories – 32 Explicit and Forbidden Erotic Taboo Hot Sex Stories Naughty Adult Women: Filthy Milfs, First Time Lesbian, Dirty Talking Position for Couples, Horny Bisexual Threesomes (Amazon rank 11 in erotica anthologies today) or Erotic Sex-Story: Daddy Dom, Menage Explicit Adult Couple: Wife Ganged Bi-Strangers Hard Husband Forced Watching Gay (Amazon rank 237 in bisexual erotica) or our own Larry Archer’s House Party 4: Swingers Swap More Than Their Partners at Hot Erotica Sex Parties with cuckolds and Hotwives.
No surprises here. But I guess that’s what today’s readers want.