by Jean Roberta
Synchronicity (defined as “the coincidence of events that seem related, but are not obviously caused one by the other”) usually seems to be at work in my life. Lately, I’ve noticed that several bloggers have written about the factors that change writing (especially sex-writing) from a thrill into a chore or a duty.
Once a writer has managed to fight off the inner censor for long enough to write a few sexually-explicit stories or even a novel, this work is usually posted in a public place where readers can comment on it. When the writing goes public, the writer is advised to promote herself/himself as well as the work, to write something new, to follow current trends in order to find and expand an audience. The advice (or the pressure) never ends. If zombie romances are currently fashionable, why doesn’t the writer pose in full zombie drag, including fake oozing wounds, and post their portrait on Youtube, with links on Twitter and Facebook? Why doesn’t the writer write a series of zombie romances? Doesn’t s/he want to be successful?
As a reviewer as well as a writer, I can see a difference between erotica which seems commercial (written for a specific market) and erotica which seems like amateur work in the original sense: written for the love of it. Some commercial stuff is written with great skill, and so is some amateur work. The difference in tone doesn’t necessarily have to do with sloppy grammar or unbelievable sexual gymnastics.
To give an example of commercial erotica, I have reviewed several anthologies from Cleis Press and have been proud to see my own stories in several others. There is nothing wrong with Cleis productions; au contraire. The paperbacks always have slick covers with eye-catching, tasteful photographs on them. The stories inside all seem carefully copy-edited. By now, there are dozens of these books, usually on specific themes. As a reviewer, I know I will always enjoy most of the stories in a Cleis antho, especially if they are written by contributors I recognize. These writers are professionals. When I see the name of Erotic Writer X in the umpteenth Cleis anthology in the past five years, I hope that s/he is not approaching burnout.
Some of the novels and anthologies I have reviewed have been put together by on-line groups that first gathered as amateurs, lovers of the genre and the craft. After much on-line discussion and mutual critiquing, the group decided to produce a book for the wider world to read. Sapphic Planet, an anthology of lesbian stories self-published in 2012 by a writers’ group of the same name, is a case in point. As a contributor, I couldn’t review this book myself, but I loved several of the stories by my fellow-contributors when I first saw them. Several of these writers are fairly prolific; they could be defined as both amateur and professional in different contexts.
An example of amateur work which I could and did review is the anthology Literotica (2002), a gathering of stories from the website of the same name. Both the group and the anthology have been dismissed as rank amateurs, but IMO, this is exactly why some of the stories in this book are unusual, intense, quirky and brilliant. I was taken aback by a few of the pen names in this volume and the 2009 sequel, Literotica 2 (“Dirty Old Man” “Whiff,” “KillerMuffin,” “jfinn”) and I can only hope these writers went on to write under more professional names, for lack of a clearer term.
Here in the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, probably the best-known amateur member (in the best sense) is Remittance Girl, who has openly stated that her goal is not to make a profit from her writing. Her invulnerability to market forces is exactly what gives her work a certain integrity which seems rare in any genre.
And of course, ERWA itself gave rise to an anthology, Cream, edited by Lisabet Sarai and published by Running Press in 2006.
Here are some questions I have been chewing on for some time: how is it possible for a writer to keep the enthusiasm and the recklessness of an amateur even after crossing over into the ranks of professionals? And where is the boundary between amateurs and professionals? (For instance, I have at least 100 stories in anthologies, not including two out-of-print single-author collections and one that just came out on September 1. However, my writing time still has to be stolen from the time I spend on my teaching job in a university as well as the “free time” I have to spend with family and friends. Does this mean I am a writer who teaches on the side or a teacher with a writing hobby?)
Judging from current laments, becoming a published writer often begins a long slide into conformity, numbness, distraction, and eventual writing burnout. I really don’t want to get there, and I am alarmed when fellow-writers I admire send distress signals from a place further down that road. Writing about sex, in particular, seems to require a certain continuing amateurism to retain its authenticity.
My own way of trying to recover the thrill of the sport is to withdraw temporarily from the world of published work, including the latest on-line piracy and the latest decision by a major book distributor to “disappear” any title that might be defined as “obscene” according to deliberately-vague legal standards. For a limited time, I don’t care about any of that.
For a few precious minutes in “the zone,” I care only about the characters who show up in my mind when I clear some space for them and ask them what they want. Inevitably, they want pleasure in some form. In most cases, their feelings about each other are complex and ambivalent. Their feelings are a catalyst that suggests the beginning of a plot. Will the characters (at least the one who speaks to me the loudest) get what they want? I need to find out.
The rest of the world can wait.