Conflict is the engine of story. Although in my real life I usually try to avoid social unpleasantness, as a writer, I’ve come to understand the basic rule of seducing an audience: create a compelling character with a passionate desire, throw one or two monumental obstacles in front of her that she must battle, and end it in a gripping climax. Give them all that, and your readers will keep turning those pages with a spark in their eyes and drool on their lips.
Erotica writers are fortunate in that aching desire, built-in obstacles (like clothes), and rocketing climaxes are integral to the structure of sexual exploration. However, we also face particular challenges. In this installment of our writer’s feast, I’d like to focus on the elements of writing that give erotica its flavor. Namely, I’m going to tackle two classic questions of our craft—what makes erotica different from pornography and “literature,” and how much sex does an erotic story need.
Now I’m well aware that volumes have been written on the difference or lack thereof between erotica and porn. I certainly agree that in the end the decision rests with each reader according to his own taste and sensibility. Nor would I ever impose my definition on anyone or argue that erotica is “superior.” However, as a writer, I truly believe there are crucial differences in the nature of our creative task and its effect on the reader.
In my view, porn aims to lift the reader out of the ordinary world of limitations, rules, regrets. The characters exist mainly to engage in and enjoy sex, and the plot provides them with abundant opportunities to do so. The writer doesn’t want to distract the reader from this magical space with any unpleasant consequences or indeed too much engagement with the intellect, which is so much a servant to cultural values. When I’m in a certain mood, pornotopia is exactly where I want to go, and indeed often I incorporate pornographic fantasy into my stories.
In our current environment, literary fiction focuses on the aspects of human experience that are not easily spoken of in our everyday lives. Family secrets, neuroses, lifelong disappointments, social pressures, all the things pornography tries to escape, are examined under the merciless glare of realistic fiction. These stories are “character-driven” in that readers expect a flawed protagonist we come to “know,” if not necessarily like, and a plot that approximates real life. Rape and under-age sexual activity, forbidden in pornography where it is assumed this disturbing and taboo material will arouse the reader, are acceptable in literary fiction if portrayed in a way that emphasizes the negative consequences, and the fact that something as potentially pleasurable as sex can indeed be used as a terrible weapon against unwilling victims.
In my opinion, erotica occupies the hazy middle ground between literature and pornography. Like porn, sex in erotica is often pleasurable, and always important to the story. On the other hand, as in the literary genre, the characters tend to be more fully rounded, bringing their histories, emotions, and ambivalence to bed with them. They experience consequences when they have sex, mostly good, but sometimes less than rosy. I’ll admit that one of the ways I personally decide whether I’m reading erotica or a pornographic romp is whether I feel the sex scenes could actually happen in “real life.”
And while erotica is still looked down upon in many literary circles, or seen as a snobby feminist moniker for an old-fashioned dirty story from the down-to-earth pornographer, its in-between status not only allows it to embrace the best elements but transcend the extremes of both genres. In literary fiction, it seems, characters who have sex, and god forbid enjoy it, always suffer punishment of some sort. There is no room for a celebration of the pure pleasure, much less the sacredness of sexual union. Yet, pornotopia often leaves us feeling unsatisfied above the waist. We cannot deny that darkness, disappointment, and regret are part of the erotic experience. To repress this truth eviscerates sex of its full power as an engine of conflict and a mirror of character. Erotica provides a unique, and even revolutionary, stage to portray the honest impact of sexuality on our lives.
I know, it sounds like a grand endeavor when you’re sitting down to write a humble story, but it’s actually rather simple to accomplish this goal. How? Be authentic. Sure, sometimes “truth” needs to be sacrificed for a good story—how often do we actually seduce an attractive stranger on the subway?—but there are thousands of opportunities, large and small, to portray sexual desire authentically based on your genuine sensual experience rather than cliché. Each time an erotic writer tells the truth about sex, each time an intimate secret, whether joyful or shameful, is laid bare, good comes to the world.
On to the next question often asked of veteran writers—how much sex should an erotic story have? My first impulse is to reply “as much as possible.” This is due in large part to my own frustration with the fade-outs to candle flames in so many of my favorite classic love stories. Plus the answer always gets a laugh from my audience, too. But to be authentic and truthful here, I stand by that answer.
And I don’t.
Many beginning erotica writers, my novice self included, seem to believe that a series of sex scenes alone make a compelling story. Indeed for me, the very act of speaking the unspeaking was so exciting, I lost sight of the fact that there wasn’t much of a story holding the scenes together. Over time I’ve come up with another way to distinguish erotica from porn: in erotica, if you take out the sex scenes, you still have an interesting story left over. Perhaps a very short interesting story, but one that would intrigue a reader nonetheless. Thus, when I say “as much sex as possible,” I am not suggesting you hammer your reader with ten pages of in-and-out hydraulics.
However, there are other more crafty and subtle ways to insinuate erotic energy into the story, and I suggest you exploit them to the fullest. One of my personal preferences is to alert my reader right up front that they’re in the hands a writer who is intrigued by sex and not afraid to talk frankly about it. And there’s no reason not to start right at the beginning. Here are openers from some of my stories that have been reprinted numerous times:
I kneel down and you tie the blindfold over my eyes. (“Blinded”)
I’ll be honest. I like my sex a little rough. And very wet. (“Wet”)
Don chose the perfect moment to tell us about the cunt book. (“The Cunt Book”)
Assignment #4: Bring yourself to orgasm without using your fingers, hands, vibrator or other sex toy. Record the experience in your Masturbation Journal, following the usual guidelines. (“Dear Professor Pervert”)
Hotel rooms turn me on. (“Room Service”)
After all, I want to be honest with my reader from the beginning. With this writer, they’re in for plenty of sex. But not right away. After that little teaser, I usually back up and introduce my characters and their situation before I leap into the actual sex. Or more to the point, I don’t usually leap into the sex. I slither slowly and sumptuously into the sex. Again perhaps because I personally have a better time in bed with plenty of leisurely foreplay, I like to provide my readers with a similarly seductive build-up. Getting back to the power of authenticity and honesty in writing, I would like to ask you, dear reader, when looking back over the erotic stories that have stayed with you, which section moved you to “action”? If you’re anything like me, I bet it wasn’t the actual orgasm, but something slow and sly and wicked that came before.
So, when I say “as much sex as possible,” I really mean that I appreciate an erotic story where every gesture, every line of dialogue, and every word is chosen with consideration as to how it builds sexual tension and fuels the reader’s erotic experience. Sometimes this can involve pulling back and taking a breather to create yearning. Or it can involve describing something apparently unrelated to the sex in sensual terms—the feel of sunlight on skin or the flavor of a sweet carrot or the velvet of a night sky. While other writers are “allowed” to move their readers to such emotions as shock, fear, anger, sorrow, joy, triumph and satisfaction, they face criticism for reaching below the belt too openly. However, readers usually pick up erotica or porn with the expectation of sexual arousal. It’s not easy to accomplish this—readers in the Internet age are jaded and discriminating about their arousing materials—but the reward is awesome indeed because your words can become an intimate part, even the engine, of your reader’s most private pleasure.
Yes, this is another daunting challenge we face, but allow me to prescribe another fairly easy approach. Write about what truly turns you on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if my erotica turns me on. I suspect the question is meant to make me blush, but I always admit it does, intellectually and physically, at least in the early stages before I put on my no-nonsense editor’s hat. Without that genuine connection, I would merely be churning out someone else’s idea of sexy—and how boring is that? Not only can a reader can feel authentic excitement in the prose, it sure makes the writer’s life a hell of lot more fun!
So tell the truth, write on and get ready for some feasting!
This month we’ll be enjoying the salad course, which, like erotica, can span the spectrum from light and refreshing to hearty and substantial. I’m including below one of my favorite main course salads I offered in my July 2009 column [Naked Lunches: Picnics, Porn Stashes, and the Roots of an Obsession], which is perfect for picnics and potlucks. In keeping with this month’s free and easy theme, however, I also wanted to honor the in-between versatility of the homely, yet often transcendentally delicious green salad.
I rarely use recipes for salads these days, except for more complex dressings. I start with some fresh lettuce from my organic vegetable box as a base, then build up with seasonal goodies. A favorite for fall is lettuce with pears, toasted walnuts and dried cranberries dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. Summer is ideal for a main course Greek salad—ripe tomatoes and peppers, Kalamata olives and feta cheese. In winter, you can add citrus, like fresh orange slices and currants. Sometimes the answer to the question of the perfect salad of the moment is exceedingly simple: fresh greens, grated carrots, a few croutons and a tasty homemade dressing. Simple, honest, seductive, sustaining, and sexy. The following is one of my favorites, with a Japanese twist.
Deliciously Light Miso Dressing
Combine the following in a bowl or dressing shaker.
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon ginger juice*
1/4 teaspoon mirin
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons mellow white miso
3 Tablespoons low sodium and low sugar rice vinegar (such as Marukan lite)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
*You can either grate your own fresh ginger then squeeze out the juice or use a prepared product like ginger juice or minced ginger from The Ginger People (available at stores like Whole Foods).
Naughty Picnic Couscous Salad
1 10 ounce package quick-cooking couscous
1 14 ounce can vegetable or chicken broth
2 tomatoes, chopped
A bunch of green onions, chopped
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and well drained
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch long julienne
1/2 cup dried currants
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup freshly toasted pine nuts
5 Tablespoons lemon juice
4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
1 drop hot pepper sauce
Pinch of garlic powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Bring broth to a boil over medium heat. Add couscous (check package if more liquid is needed), off heat and cover. Let steam for five minutes. Uncover and cool, then fluff. Transfer couscous to a large bowl.
Add tomatoes, green onions, chickpeas, bell pepper, currants and chopped parsley and mix until well combined.
Blend lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, curry powder, hot pepper sauce and garlic powder in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add dressing to couscous and toss to combine. Refrigerate at least one hour. Can be prepared one day ahead. Mix in pine nuts just before serving (take nuts in separate container for a picnic).
Donna George Storey
“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.