literary erotica

Mindless Smut

Image by Andrea Altini from Pixabay

When I started publishing erotica, more than two decades ago, my work tended toward the more literary end of the genre. Reflecting on my personal erotic adventures, I wanted to explore the nuances of desire, the ways in which lust challenges and transforms us. I was particularly fascinated by the emotional and spiritual dimensions of dominance and submission. Indeed, along with fellow ERWA member S.F. Mayfair, I edited a collection of BDSM short stories in 2003 entitled Sacred Exchange.

If you pick up any of the tales from my first decade as an erotica author, you’ll find an earnest focus on conflict, characterization and language. There’s sex, of course, but less than you might expect given the genre label. I was at least as interested in the experience of arousal as I was in its consummation.

Writing serious erotica was hard work. Furthermore, as time went on, I began to feel as though I was repeating myself, rehashing the same themes, especially when dealing with my first love, S/M. For recreation and relaxation, I started publishing what I would label as “mindless smut”: stories without any deep message in which all the characters are perpetually horny and gleefully eager to act on their carnal impulses.

Much to my astonishment, and somewhat to my embarrassment, I discovered these uninhibited and rather superficial tales sold fairly well. Furthermore, creating them was a blast. Once I’d decided to slip into smut-monger mode, the words just flowed. I’d never succeeded before in writing any sort of series, but my outrageous, somewhat silly novella Hot Brides in Vegas had barely hit the shelves when I started getting ideas for a sequel. Eventually the Vegas Babes series grew to five volumes of mindless smut.

In fact, writing this sort of fiction does require some craft. Although you (of course) need to include a lot of sex, you also need variety. If every scene involves the same activities, eventually even the most dedicated one-handed reader will get bored. I’ve noted in a previous post the importance of escalation. As the story unfolds, the sex scenes should become more intense and/or more taboo. Even porn needs a story arc, with a big climax (or ten!) and a happy ending for all. Every chapter should push the characters closer to the edge – or maybe I should say, pull them deeper into depravity!

I just published a brand new piece of unmitigated smut entitled Alex in Tittyland. It’s a loose (in several senses!) parody of Louis Carroll’s classic with a harem theme, inspired by discussions with a young male friend. In the process of penning this story I realized once again (1) how much fun it is to let my sexual imagination run wild and (2) how much thought is nevertheless required in order to create effective porn.

But it was still a lot easier than writing erotic romance or historically plausible steam punk.

I have to admit, however, that the prospect of producing nothing but mindless smut makes me uncomfortable. It feels too easy, and yes, a bit exploitative. In addition, I suspect that much of the audience doesn’t care in the least about premise, plot, characterization or even grammar. They’re just looking for the dirty parts. While I believe that my emphasis on craft makes my smut more readable, I’m not sure that my efforts constitute a competitive advantage when it comes to sales.

So I’ll probably continue to swing from one extreme of erotica to the other, delving into the emotional complexities of sexuality in one book, engaging in orgiastic fantasies in the next.

Adaptability is always a virtue, right?


Jekyll and Hyde

When I started in this business, more than twenty years ago, I wrote mostly literary erotica. Despite the sometimes extreme sexual situations in my tales, I tried for a sense of realism. My early novels spent a lot of time setting the scene and conveying atmosphere. They offered fairly complicated plots with a myriad of characters. In penning my short stories, I focused on original premises, character development and conflict. Given all the poetry I’d written before I started publishing prose, I guess it’s not surprising that I was very aware of linguistic choices, rhythm and prosody, connotations and allusions.

These days, I still write literary erotica – some of the time. I like to think that my Asian Adventures series, my speculative fiction (The Last Amanuensis, The Antidote) and my paranormal work (Underground, Fourth World) all offer some measure of “redeeming social value”.

Sometimes, though, I have the urge to write pure smut – stories where people get involved in all sorts of outrageous carnal activities, with only the most minimal motivation or conflict. My stroke stories make no pretense of realism. The male characters are capable of astounding numbers of erections. The multi-orgasmic females never get tired or sore. Nobody uses condoms. Nobody gets pregnant.

I offer only the faintest nod to social convention; it’s not at all unusual to find my characters getting it on with one another within five minutes of meeting. In public, even! Also, the people in my more pornographic works are incredibly open-minded, from a sexual perspective. They’re willing to try anything – partner swaps, multiple partners, same-sex encounters (both MM and FF), sex toys, spanking, dominance, submission, gang bangs, pegging, you name it. (Sometimes all in the same story!) To be honest, after writing inside the rigid box of traditional erotic romance, I love their experimental, gender-bending ways.

So I’ll spend a few weeks or months indulging myself, penning some absolutely filthy story that nobody could call “literary” (though I do try for readability and correct grammar). Then I start to feel embarrassed, even guilty. I’m pulled back to write something more traditional, something I wouldn’t be ashamed to show my real world friends (though most of them don’t know Lisabet Sarai exists).

Before long, though, I have get the itch again, the rampant, ungoverned Mr. Hyde of my imagination taking over, forcing the more refined and craft-conscious Dr. Jekyll into the shadows.

For instance, about a month ago, I decided I wanted to publish a holiday story for my fans, most of whom are romance readers. Cherry Pie and Mistletoe was the result, a sweet, hot, painfully realistic tale about the attraction between two sexagenarians.

No sooner had that book hit the virtual shelves, though, then Mr. Hyde reared his head. I got an idea for a stroke story entitled Santa, Baby!, about a nerdy young guy who’s hired by a dominant older woman to play Santa at a very naughty holiday party.

I hope to finish Santa, Baby! this weekend. (I’d better, because Christmas is next week!) But Mr. Hyde keeps pouring out the smut. The story’s already over 10K. I might not even announce it to my usual readers; they might find it too raw. That actually doesn’t seem to matter; my stroke fiction seems to sell much better than my more literary efforts.

Maybe after the book’s out, Mr. Hyde will fade back into the shadows.

But maybe not.

Meanwhile, this dual identity is a major marketing pain. I mean, what’s my brand? Exquisitely crafted, poetic prose that tugs at your emotions? Or wildly over-the-top fucking and sucking?

I’ve heard that readers like consistency. They want to know what to expect when they pick up a book from one of their favorite authors.

With me, you never know. Will it be Jekyll, or Hyde? I guess what I really need is to find the readers who enjoy both my alter-egos.

Let’s Get Real

Lisabet Sarai

few days ago, I received the welcome news that a short story of mine
had been provisionally accepted into an anthology. The editor wrote:

love your story, but it will need a little bit of amending: we cannot
have any mention of anyone under the age of 18 having sexual thoughts
or masturbating. (I know this is absolutely silly but we are not in a
position to risk it.)”

me make it clear that this story (which would probably be categorized
as literary erotica) does not feature underage sex. The main
character has an unusual and rather dangerous fetish, which first
appeared after an experience in his mid-teens. The story includes a
flashback in which the protagonist describes those early events and
how they shaped his current, adult sexuality. Like most teens, his
reaction to arousal was to masturbate.

not going to fight with this editor, first of all because I really
would like to be part of the anthology and secondly because she
recognizes the ridiculous nature of the prohibition. However, this
state of affairs still makes me fume. I mean, let’s get real.
Nobody masturbates more often than teenage boys! And sexual
thoughts? As I recall my high school years, it was pretty difficult
to focus on anything else!

hard for me to understand the logic behind this rule. We’re not
talking about pedophilia here. We’re discussing private sexual
stimulation. Who is being hurt? Why should this be a forbidden topic?

first time I remember masturbating, I was four. I didn’t have any
idea what I was doing, but I knew it felt good. I had erotic
fantasies in grade school (about being kidnapped at the beach by a
classmate who wanted to pull off my bathing suit). It’s an accepted
scientific fact that children have sexual urges, and that in the
years right after puberty, hormones run rampant. What purpose does it
serve to pretend otherwise?

anyone still cling to the myth of childhood purity and innocence?

fact, fetishes often have their roots in childhood experiences.
Changing my story probably won’t do great violence to its main
points, but it does reduce the authenticity of the tale.

write, and read, erotica for many reasons. As for me, I’m simply
fascinated by sex. My personal motivation in writing is to explore
the way sexuality complicates, illumines and transforms human
existence. I want to realistically portray the experience of desire
and to show its varied impacts on the lives of my characters. If I
can arouse my readers in the process, I’m pleased, but that’s a
side effect rather than my primary goal.

become quite difficult to achieve this goal when I’m forced to deny
power and importance of teenage sex. Confusing, scary, wondrous,
indescribably intense—our
earliest encounters with sex strongly influence our adult fantasies
and needs.

who says otherwise is either a liar, or out of touch with reality.

Short and Sweet – Two Places you Might Want to Go

As deadlines loom for me, I’m having a bit of a struggle carving out time to write anything. But I thought I’d point you in the direction of a few writers I’ve come across in the process of putting together exemplars for my PhD on new eroticism.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to invite you into the strange, dark erotic world of a couple of erotic writers you might not have heard of.

Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine is a collection of stories, mostly quite long coming of age stories that explore emerging female eroticism with an unflinching eye.

They are all set in the US and may resonate a little more with people who have grown up on that continent, especially in the Midwest, more than with me.

That being said, I cannot praise her highly enough for eschewing pretty much every erotica trope in order to get to the core of what it really means to be a young woman with growing sexual desire and being constantly under pressure to frame it in non-threatening, pretty and comfortable ways.

Bomer most importantly gets into the theme of desire and body image among women in a way that makes for a queasy and uncomfortable ride, and yet manages to bring the fierceness and singularity of how that desire, contorted into strange and erotic shapes emerges.

The novella, Inside Madeleine, ends the collection. I think more than story I’ve read, Bomer gets to grips with what it means to be a slut – a defiant, unrelenting, total slut – in the most visceral way. She unpacks the power of embracing the slur as well as the isolation that it can confer.

The writing is literary in that very post-modern, American way. Not particularly poetic. Stark and Protestant in its refusal of adornment and sentimentality. I would like to see us have the guts to be able to write about desire in perhaps a more measured way,  move past this level of dispassion and yet resist the trap of insipid romanticism.

(There’s a review of Inside Madeleine by Dayna Tortorici in the NTY here)

The second book, also a set of shorts, I’d like to tempt you into reading is Twentysix, by Jonathan Kemp. Although varying in length, some of the stories in this collection are actually flash fictions. One for each letter of the alphabet, Kemp offers intense, super-concentrated hits of gay male desire.

Unlike Bomer, Kemp luxuriates in language much in the way a poet does, and brings that writing skill to bear on universal themes like time, memory, abjection and the sublime. And although Kemp also acknowledges that unbridled desire has its dark side, he does, in my mind, find more exultant ways of facing down the spectre of that paradox. That’s not to say that his stories aren’t also intensely subjective. They are.

But, while Bomer’s stories are probably not going to find much appeal to a male reader, Kemp manages to transcend the aspect of sexual-orientation specific desire in his stories onto a more universal plane. While the characters are gay, and the sex is unapologetically homosexual, most of the pieces are going to resonate with everyone. He’s got a true gift for peeling away the wrapping and uncovering the kernel of the erotic – the engines that turn our wheels. Also, there is something almost redemptive  in terms of the way he portrays erotic desire pulling us down into depths and up to heights of experience, and often revels in the paradox of doing both at the same time.

(Kemp has a lovely essay on the Pornography of Language Here, at Writer’s Hub)

Happy reading!

We Deviants. We Happy Deviants

In the past month, the subject of how to discuss what we write has come up an uncanny number of times, from diverse quarters.  I have a friend who writes erotic fiction, but never admits to it, because his wife doesn’t like it.  Another fellow writer says that he is uncomfortable about admitting what he writes, because he has children and (this must be an American thing) worries that people will somehow feels he’s an unreliable father if he writes erotica. I know many erotica writers who use a pen name because they fear an admission of what they write will imperil their careers.

When people, in everyday sorts of interchanges, ask me what I do, I say I teach and I write. They’re never all that interested in what I teach; they ask me what I write, and I tell them. Since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the next inevitable question is: oh, so you write stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey? No, not really, I say.

Their reaction – the knowing smirk, the sly wink and, occasionally, some far too TMI confession – constantly reminds me that what we do is still considered deviant and transgressive.

In the world of academia, it’s even more interesting. As a graduate student, you spend a considerable amount of time going to seminars, interacting with other graduate students, and the question of your research comes up all the time. In the last 2 months, I have had to sit in a group and fess up to exactly what I write and what I’m researching over and over. From time to time, I will encounter a genuinely thoughtful response: wow, what a compelling area of study! Good luck with it!

But more often than not, after the initial, very studied attempt to appear unfazed, I am met with the same ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ follow-up that I receive from non-academics. Frankly, it depresses me. I suspect, being an intellectual snob, I expected something more intelligent from my colleagues.

Eroticism is a dangerous subject; so dangerous, in fact, that our society consistently prefers to deal with it at arm’s length by mythologizing it or turning its subjects into caricatures.  Either that, or they try to reduce it to anthropological study. Eroticism is not sexuality, although it is often expressed through sexuality.  It has more in common with religious ecstasy than it does with procreation.  It is so mysterious to us, that we try and explain erotic attraction by aligning it with animal mating displays and successful reproductive strategies in the wild: i.e. men are attracted to red lipstick on women in the same way apes are attracted to females in estrus with inflamed backsides, or, masochists like to be whipped because it produces endorphins that get them high.

Let me put an end to this nonsense: male baboons don’t have fur fetishes and masochists are not drug addicts.

Eroticism is the story of our negotiation between self and other on a very deep, very visceral level.  We are born alone, die alone, and yet, in extremely special circumstances, we sense that there is a way to escape the gravity well of our hermetically sealed existences.  And very much like ecstatic religious experiences, profound erotic experiences offer us, if only for fleeting moments, that sense of there being something more. This is why, I think, so many of the French theorists, reflecting on eroticism, felt it was existentially connected to death – not death as a negative, but death as the greatest of all transformative experiences.  What makes eroticism more interesting, to me, is that you can live to talk about it.

And that’s the challenge for erotic writers. It is easy to describe a sex act, easy to list the attributes of a person you want to fuck, easy to trot out the slang, the jargon, the tropes, the memes we have all come to recognize as signifiers for activities that lead to orgasm or ejaculation. This is the use of cliche in as much as we wave textual imagery in front of our reader that we know will predictably trigger the reader’s arousal:  “He pounded into her tight, wet pussy.”

But that is mistaking pleasure for eroticism. Pleasure is part of eroticism, to be sure, but not its entirety.

The erotic experience, at its zenith (which may be at orgasm, or may be at some other point) renders us almost without language. To attempt to approach it, in writing, will never be entirely successful.  Authors will often, at the height of an erotic moment, slew sideways into romantic love, as if that will do duty to fill the vacuum of language that the erotic experience leaves us with. I’ve certainly been guilty of this.

I don’t have an answer. But what I have learned is that eroticism is best understood as the journey to a fleeting and liminal state rather than the destination. There is no end-game to eroticism. It is about our yearning, not really our getting. We reach, we think we’ve grasped that elusive prize, only to find out that what we’re holding either is too slippery to keep, or is not the prize we were after.

Like pathos, like nostalgia, like joy, terror or sadness, eroticism is a way-station, not a terminus.  However, unlike those other human experiences, our culture has not found ways to explore its depths or heights comfortably or unflinchingly. We turn its subjects into objects and depersonalize them because the spectacle of the real experience is thriling, utterly intimate, and overwhelming. 

But our challenge, as writers of the erotic, is to take that on. Not to flinch, not to look away, not to cheat by reducing the acts or the characters we write to caricatures or myths, or take refuge in the more socially acceptable sanctuary of romantic love.  And that’s why, unless our culture changes radically, we will always be transgressors in the literary world when we pursue the task of writing the erotic.

Heat and Craft

By Lisabet Sarai

I’m starting to wonder whether craft is the enemy of heat.

My first novel poured from my imagination onto the page in a breathless rush of passion. Looking back, I remember the process as almost effortless. Nothing seemed to block the flood of fantasy. My heroine Kate was my personal proxy, indulging in ever more transgressive erotic scenarios as she explored her sexual identity. As she surrendered to her master Gregory, I was reliving and perfecting my own odyssey of submission and then moving beyond recollection to conjure the imagined scenes I never had the opportunity to try. I wrote the whole book in a peculiar state of arousal – not exactly on the edge of orgasm, but with an exaggerated appreciation of every sexual stimulus, both internal and external.

Readers of Raw Silk tend to get turned on. The book has been called “scorching”, “outrageous”, “intensely erotic”, and “explosive”. And when I reread my favorite bits now, they still make me wet.

At the same time, I cringe when I notice the many flaws in the book. My sentences seem too long and complex, overly influenced by my academic training. The dialog strikes me as unrealistic and wooden. (This was before I learned to allow my characters to use contractions when they speak!) Repeated words, phrases and sentence structures jump out at me. And I realize, with a sinking heart, that some of the interactions that have the most visceral effect on me are overworked BDSM clichés.

In the dozen years since that first publication, I’ve matured as a writer. My prose is far more polished, less flowery and more direct. My characters can converse without sounding as though they’ve been filtered through Google Translate. I have conscious control over issues I used to manage by instinct – foreshadowing, flashbacks, suspense, sexual tension, narrative flow. Originality in premise and execution have become critical concerns. When I address a theme or a subgenre, I deliberately try to find a treatment or a twist to distinguish my work from the thousands of other authors writing erotica and erotic romance.

I was an amateur back then. Now I’m a professional. All my self-conscious craft, though, seems to have smothered the spark that used to kindle my readers (and me) into vicarious flames.

It’s much more difficult now to write a truly sexy scene. There’s too much going on in my head. Instead of simply reveling in my personal perversions, I worry. Is this too stereotyped? Is this too raw for romance? Is this too tame for erotica? Haven’t I written this same thing a million times before? Sure, it pushes my buttons, but didn’t I just read more or less the same thing in someone else’s story? And what about that sentence? I used “cock” twice already – should I change it to “prick”? Have I already used a storm metaphor for orgasm in this tale?

As a result, all too often these days I seem to find myself in a state of literary paralysis. The horny flow of erotic ideas has dwindled to a trickle. Sure, occasionally inspiration will seize me and a whole story will pour out of me in a few hours. I treasure those experiences – especially since they’ve become so rare.

I know that part of the problem is hormones – or lack thereof – as I age. And how could I not have become a bit jaded? I’ve probably read a thousand erotic short stories since I turned “pro”. I admit I’m almost as critical about other authors’ work as I’ve become of my own. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that one’s first story about anal sex is going to be a good deal more exciting than the fiftieth. You’re only a virgin once.

Still, I sometimes wonder whether I should stop being concerned about craft and just write “Sucking Daddy’s Big One” or “Slave to the Cruel Professor” or “The Pirate’s Whore” – the type of books that Amazon tells me people decide to purchase after viewing my recent BDSM story collection. It’s true – the stories in that collection are more subtle, surprising and literary than Raw Silk, but they’re not as hot. I don’t know if I COULD silence the analytical voice in my head, or ignore my concerns for originality and freshness, but if it were possible, would I be able to recapture the glorious searing intensity of my early work?

I’m a snob – I know it. A while ago I read a BDSM novel for purposes of a review and was appalled by the poor quality of the writing. Glaring grammar mistakes, incorrect punctuation, inappropriate word choice, confusing and inconsistent point of view – the book broke practically every rule of craft. Meanwhile, the story trotted out all sorts of stock BDSM elements: the stern but voluptuous employer in her tailored suits and spike heels, the innocent “natural” submissive with an inexhaustible appetite for abuse, the male “assistant” called into service to train the new slave. It had bondage, spanking, flogging, suspension, butt-fucking, medical play, pseudo-Victorian costumes… I wrote a pretty scathing review, but at the same time I have to admit (as I did in the review) that some parts of the book turned me on. The awful writing ultimately did not prevent me from being aroused.

So maybe, just maybe, the craft doesn’t matter. Could that be true? I know it’s possible to produce a supremely well-written erotic story that also has the power to arouse me – some of my favorite erotic authors do it all the time. And yes, elitist that I am, I find wonderful writing exciting in its own right. Perhaps, though, that aesthetic thrill could be teased apart from my baser (and more basic) sexual reactions.

Then again, perhaps not. The aspects of BDSM that arouse me most have to do with the emotional and psychological currents flowing between the dominant and the submissive. It takes a certain skill to bring those dynamics to life. Whips, handcuffs and gags by themselves won’t do the trick, at least not for me.

Does too much craft interfere with heat? Are the two independent, addressing totally different levels in the reader’s psyche? Should I switch to writing pure porn? Could I?

I really want to know what you think.

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