Nicola Griffith

What I’ve Been Reading, or Sex in Context


Much has been said here about how “erotica” and “literary fiction” are often closer than is usually acknowledged. Apparently the way to prevent your sexually-explicit story or novel from being put in the “dungeon” (where no one can see it unless they search for it by title) on Amazon is to label it something other than “erotica.”

More often than not, there is a sex scene or two in any current work of “fiction.” This doesn’t mean that writers in various genres are hypocrites who really write erotica without admitting it. It means that writers who set forth to write a plot that isn’t primarily about sex or even the development of a sexual relationship must find ways to integrate the sex into descriptions of other things.

The sex scenes can’t look as if they were copied-and-pasted in from some other imaginary world. If there is some dialogue in a sex scene, it has to be consistent with the speech patterns those characters have already established. The sex can’t be described in a different style from other activities in the same narrative, and terms such as “dick,” “pussy,” etc., can’t be used if they are never used in the culture in which the plot is set.

Issues of social class and culture don’t disappear in sex scenes. Even in extreme ecstasy, characters can’t afford to forget where they are, and how they are expected to interact in more public settings, and what might happen if their secret tryst becomes public knowledge.

Even if the narrative viewpoint is third-person omniscient, the descriptions have to be consistent with the central character’s consciousness. If modern English is used to represent other languages (including archaic forms of English, and Celtic dialects), the implication that the whole thing has been translated has to be consistent throughout the work.

Recently, I finished reading Hild, a 530-page novel set in seventh-century Britain. [The author, Nicola Griffith, is an English expatriate living in the rainy northwest of the U.S.] The central character, who came to be known as St. Hilda of Whitby, was born in about 614 AD in a culture in which small kingdoms were almost constantly at war, and in which the Christian church was making inroads into the traditional worship of Woden.

Hild’s mother, Breguswith (widow of a minor king who died by poison) is both a traditional healer and a shrewd observer of local politics. When she notices that her teenage daughter is growing restless, she advises her to have a sexual relationship with someone who doesn’t “matter,” someone below her in rank. (Hild is the the local king’s niece as well as his “seer,” who can presumably foretell the future.) This liaison would attract the least amount of notice in a culture in which privacy is scarce, and in which Hild could be expected to enter a diplomatic marriage in the near future. Needless to say, she can’t afford to become pregnant yet.

As it happens, Hild has a beautiful, sexually-experienced female slave, a captive of war that Hild bought on impulse because she wanted a companion who couldn’t leave her. Gwladus (Oo-lad-oos) was naked when offered to the highest bidder, and she was openly advertised for sexual purposes. She was clearly relieved when Hild bought her, and she has been Hild’s “bodywoman” (servant) ever since. Hild came to realize that as a property-owner, she had a right to protect her woman from the local warriors, so she stopped one of them from grabbing Gwladus, who is grateful.

Probably on the advice of Breguswith, Gwladus finds Hild in the dairy, and tells her that she needs to “lie down” in the afternoon, in their private room. With surprising confidence, she tells Hild to undress. Here is the following scene:

Her [Gwladus’] lips were soft. Like plums, like rain.

Gwladus put her hand on Hild’s thigh and stoked as though Hild were a restive horse: gently, firmly. Down the big muscles, up the long tight muscle on the inside. Not soothing but. . . she didn’t know what it was.

Stroking, stroking, down along the big muscle on the outside, up along the soft skin inside. Down. Up. Up more. “There,” Gwladus said, “there now.” And Hild wondering if this was how Cygnet [Hild’s horse] felt to be encouraged for the jump. Her heart felt as big as a horse’s, her nostrils wide, her neck straining, but not quite wild, not quite yet. “there,” said Gwladus again, and ran her palm over Hild’s wiry hair to her belly. “Yes,” she said, and rested there, cupping the soft, rounded belly, and then moved down a little, and a little more, and her hand became the centre of Hild’s world. “Oh, yes, my dear.” She kissed Hild again, and Hild opened her legs.

It was nothing like when she did it for herself. It built like James’ [Christian priest’s] music, like the thunder of a running herd, then burst out, like the sudden slide of cream, like a sleeve pulled aside out, and she wanted to laugh and shout and weep, but instead clutched at Gwladus as she juddered and shuddered and clenched.


On a later occasion, Hild tries to return the favour, but Gwladus tells her, “No, lady.” The nuances of the relationship seem somewhat unclear even to Hild. Is seduction the act of a servant, and would giving her pleasure make her even more vulnerable than she already is? Later, Hild is taunted by Cian, the young man with whom she was raised, who tells her that at least he doesn’t have to buy his bed-mates.

Without taking any firm philosophical stand on slavery in general, Hild has Gwladus’ metal collar removed, and she offers to let her former servant return to her home territory. Another close companion has to point out to Hild that Gwladus isn’t showing any desire to leave, so the relationship resumes, more or less as it has been from the beginning.

The author wisely avoids mentioning the ages of Hild or of Gwladus. Considering the cultural distance between modern industrial society and the tribal world of the seventh century, “underage sex”—even girl-to-girl—is probably the least shocking event in the novel. Warfare involving swords and spears is described in gory detail.

Novels like this show that fiction can tackle both sex and violence without being stigmatized for either of these elements, especially if the surrounding culture is scrupulously researched and described in detail.

For those who are interested, Hild is only the first volume of a projected trilogy titled “The Light of the World.” The second volume, Menewood, seems to be complete but not yet published. In the meanwhile, the author has written a shorter novel, Spear, set in the world of King Arthur.

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.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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