by Donna George Storey
Remittance Girl’s farewell column this month got me thinking—as always and sadly for the last time here at the ERWA blog. What effect has the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon had upon erotica writers? When the tidal wave first hit back in 2012, there was hope expressed that the novels’ huge readership would seek out the works of other erotica writers now that they’d been exposed to the pleasures of sexually explicit stories. I also hoped we’d all rise together, but didn’t really believe it would happen.
All signs suggest it has not happened.
Not that Fifty Shades is the only oppressive factor in the radically changing publishing world, but it’s certainly played a role. I appreciate that this may be a romantic recasting of history, but my exposure to erotica began with the mainstream publication of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus in 1977. Of course I’d read Penthouse and more avidly its sister publication Viva, which was supposedly aimed at women, but Nin’s work showed that erotic stories could be beautifully written and gain some respect, or at least a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. That erotic writing could be intelligent and literary was a revolutionary concept for our society.
A decade later, literary erotica, especially that written by women, was much more widely available and I’d even say the variety and quality of writing was celebrated. In the mid-1990’s I was personally inspired to write erotica by Maxim Jakubowski’s 1996 edition of The Mammoth Book of International Erotica and Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica 1997. I was particularly taken with a piece in the latter entitled “Lunch” about a man who pays for a private luncheon show involving spinach dressed in the female lubricant of a woman who is aroused by a dwarf rubbing a scarf between her legs. Pretty creative as it goes, but the real draw for me was the friend who introduced the narrator to the show—a guy named Drew who was shamelessly intimate with his own sexual desires. I wanted to be Drew. Writing erotica promised a path to that self-knowledge.
After a lot of labor and the requisite callous rejections, I eventually began to be published by the erotica webzines like Clean Sheets, Scarlet Letters, Fishnet, Oysters and Chocolate and The Erotic Woman. Eventually my original inspirations, Maxim Jakubowski and Susie Bright, published my work, as well as great editors like Violet Blue, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Alison Tyler with publishers like Cleis and Seal. My work even got me checks from places I’d never dreamed I’d penetrate like Penthouse and the Playboy Cyber Club.
None of this ever made me rich. In fact, the day I got my Penthouse check, I was pulled over for running a “red light” while making a left turn (I swear it was yellow, but the cop didn’t buy it) and the generous fine ate up the entire payment for my story. Crime does not pay, obviously. However, I did enjoy being part of a vibrant community of writers, many of whom write columns here today.
Then, somehow, the webzines, the publishers, the interest in a variety of well-written erotic tales, it’s all disappeared.
Can we lay the blame on the Fifty Shades phenomenon? I think so. Certainly we can blame the publishing industry, which has seen that “erotic writing” can make tons of money, so therefore the only kind worth publishing is that which will make as much as Fifty Shades. Of course, since no one really knows why a certain work catches fire, publishers play it safe and back projects that are like Fifty Shades at the expense of other kinds of stories, ignoring the lesson of history that the real next big thing will not be a copycat, but will come from a different direction. Most importantly, we must remember that commercial publishing has never been about giving the public high-quality writing. It’s about making money with as little risk as possible.
In his column this month, Garce reminds artists that if we focus on being rock stars rather than musicians, we’ll lose our creative souls. There are some writers who genuinely love to create the kinds of stories that are seen as marketable today, and these people have found their time in the wake of Fifty Shades. For those of us who feel more inspired by stories about X-rated salad dressing, well, let me put my own cock-eyed optimism out there. The urge for erotic expression is always with us, no matter whether the official culture is Puritanism, Victorianism, Freudianism or FiftyShadesofGreyism. I believe our time will come again or at the very least, there are readers out there who will appreciate our stories.
Writing makes me feel more alive. It enriches my world in ways money never can. In certain moods I do despair that Fifty Shades has placed expectations on our genre that few if any can meet. But that’s only when I’m not writing what I love.
And writing what we love, what we were born to write, is always the answer.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com