I Can Do Better: Fruitful Competition, Intelligent Vegetables, and the Erotica Revolution


Each erotica writer follows her or his own individual path into our fearless genre. Being the curious type, I often ask other writers about their initial motivation to write stories with explicit sexual content. The answers are as varied as they are fascinating, but I’ve found that one theme seems to recur often enough to merit some discussion in this first installment of “Cooking up a Storey” for the second decade of the third millennium of the Common Era.

The story goes more or less like this. The soon-to-be writer happens to be perusing Penthouse letters or browsing Literotica.com. Millions of readers do this every day, but what distinguishes the erotica writer from her fellow pleasure-seekers is her response. For when she is finished reading the story—or more likely stories–she doesn’t merely zip up and go about her business. On the contrary, she thinks: “I could do that. In fact, I could do better than that.” Soon after, she writes her first erotica story and the rest is history.

I myself had a similar experience, although with a twist. I’d read plenty of erotica in my teens and twenties: Anais Nin, countless Penthouse and Viva confessionals, Lonnie Barbach’s first anthology of erotica for respectable couples. But my true “trigger” books fell into my hot little hands in 1997—Maxim Jakubowski’s The Mammoth Book of International Erotica and Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica 1997. I still remember many of those stories vividly all these years later. They made me laugh, they made me hot, they made me understand that erotic writing could engage me on many levels all at once—even if the setting wasn’t Paris. After I read both books with my mouth hanging open, I knew it would be a difficult task to do better. But I hoped that some day if I worked hard, I might create stories that would capture some of the intelligence, courage and magic I found in these tales.

Still, I won’t deny that I have read many published stories that made me itch to do better. There is enough sloppy writing out there that I can certainly understand the urge to “improve” the genre. Competition among writers can be counterproductive, but in this case the competitive urge benefits everyone. Even if the measure of quality is subjective, if the urge to do it better means one new person transforms his erotic vision and sensibility into words, then something very good has already been accomplished.

As I move into my lucky thirteenth year as a writer of dirty stories, I’ve been pondering what it means to try to improve erotica both in terms of the writing itself and its reputation in the publishing world. In spite of great gains made over the past two decades, thanks to the work of numerous talented and dedicated writers and editors, most people still think sexually explicit writing is by definition stupid trash — with a few exceptions like J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Nicholson Baker’s Vox, which allow high-brow readers to get their naughty stuff wrapped up in a literary brown paper bag. Unfortunately, for the most part, sex and stupidity seem sadly wedded in the popular imagination, while intelligence and the erotic are destined never to meet. Witness the blonde, busty bimbo and the dried-up librarian, the space cadet muscle boy and the spindly software engineer who is reduced to offering computer help in exchange for sex.

Granted the literati might not buy these simple-minded stereotypes, but their contempt for erotica lingers on. Centuries of Christianity have dictated that the life of the mind must be divorced from our animal nature. It’s fine to study such things scientifically—though grant money is scarce enough for it—but to admit to erotic curiosity and enjoyment is risky if not downright professional suicide. Apparently to let sex mingle too freely with intelligence would threaten the very foundations of Western civilization.

Which, my fellow erotica writers, is why we have to do it. And keep doing it. And keep making it better every time we write a new story.

That’s my stretch goal for the new decade, but then I got to thinking: what does it mean to write “better” or “smart” erotica? Each writer and reader will have his own answer, but since this is my column, I’ll assume you’re expecting me to hazard a few opinions.

The answer I came up with is almost too simple. If you want to write smart erotica, the story has to involve not just banging bodies but human minds in all their complexity. If you think about it, that’s what’s missing from Penthouse letters—genuine motivations, emotions other than pure lust, the consequences and regrets of desire. Yes, many readers come to erotica to escape the real world, and there is a place for the type of story that whisks the reader away to a chateau or distant planet where the repressive rules of civilization don’t reach. However, such a setting does not preclude a smart approach. As long as the characters express something real about the human condition within the fantastic world, the reader will leave the story with a pleasant tingling in the brain as well as the lower regions.

Characters who think tend to avoid inhabiting hackneyed plots as well—which is why some protagonists just up and leave a story they don’t like. (A few of mine are still missing). Regarding plot, one of the two or three bits of wisdom I’ve retained from too many years of graduate school comes from Wolfgang Iser, the author of The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. I don’t recall what he wrote about Bunyan and Beckett, but I do remember his haunting character known as the “implied reader.” Iser’s academic argument restates in fancier language what ordinary folk already know—that the reader plays an active role in the reading process and brings certain expectations to a text. With genre fiction, the reader anticipates that her expectations will be fulfilled. With literary fiction, she expects much more, not just surprising and creative plots and quirkier characters, but a chance to discover new insights into her own life through the story. To me this has a very practical application: if we writers make the considerable effort to invest more of our own minds and sensibilities into our stories, our readers will respond in kind.

I’ll admit this demanding ghostly reader presents a challenge to the erotica writer who is just trying to weave a good yarn for the latest call for submissions on ERWA, myself included. However, I’ve found a simple answer to this problem, too. Put story first. That is, cook up a great story that fascinates you and let the sex flow from the well-rounded characters in that specific situation. And, if you really want to go the full course to smarter and better erotica, you’ll need one additional essential ingredient: extend your respect not just to the reader, but to the English language itself. Make love to it in the way you know best. Use all your sexy tricks, within reason, and it, too, will bloom like a flower in your hands.

While I’m talking about critics and readers, I wanted to mention a recurring pattern I’ve noticed in erotica reviews, especially of the many anthologies in our genre. While most reviewers make a conscious attempt to comment “objectively” on quality and theme, almost as many move on to mention the stories that pushed their particular erotic buttons. “This is a super-hot anthology. I read Story X over and over (wink, wink) and Story Y was the best because I always get off on dirty stories with elephants, or yo-yo’s, or [fill in the blank with your favorite fetish]. Story Z was amazing, too, because I’ve never heard of twelve people having sex on top of a flagpole and the main reason I read erotica is so my wife and I can learn new tricks to try at home.”

I don’t begrudge these readers their natural favorites among the buffet of offerings. I realize, too, that our readers are always putting us to the “wet/hard” test, while literary types don’t have to worry if their amorous scenes don’t “work,” because their readers seem willing to accept that tepid sex is just an accurate reflection of real life. I suppose I’m just hankering for a reviewer who will write something more like: “Story X really changed the way I look at sex” or “Story Y moved me to tears.” or “I went through the same experience as Heroine Z and I liked the way the author expressed the many dilemmas involved through the structure of the narrative.”

Yeah, okay, it’s a fantasy more absurd than twelve people fucking on a flagpole, but it doesn’t hurt to dream about it. Or to hope that when 2020 rolls around, our society will have an even clearer vision of the role of sexuality in our lives. If it does happen—and why not think positive?—I’m sure that ERWA members will have had a hand in making it possible, because we’ll never stop trying to do it better in our own unique and creative way.

This month I’ll leave you with a non-recipe that can always be improved and changed to meet the needs of your audience. It will, however, require a bit of thought to optimize the result. Slow roasting, like a slowly-simmered story, reveals the inherent sweetness and complex character of vegetables, which you’ll appreciate if your mother pretty much boiled every poor veggie to death, then tried to resuscitate the poor limp things with too much salt and gobs of butter. This recipe is much better—and far more intelligent in terms of nutrition. Bon Appetit!

Intelligent Roasted Vegetables for Creative Innovators

(One pan serves two as a main course, four as a side dish)

Enough chopped seasonal vegetables to fit on one baking sheet—or two if you have room in the oven and more eager mouths to feed
Olive oil and/or canola oil cooking spray
Salt and pepper
Flavorings of your choice (see below)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and grease it with olive oil or canola cooking spray.

Chop your chosen seasonal vegetables into equal pieces—one-inch cubes for harder winter vegetables works best. Cauliflower is good cut into half-inch slices.

In winter, chose a combination of vegetables such as winter squash, potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, carrots, beets and/or cauliflower. In the summer substitute zucchini, sweet onions, eggplant and peppers for a baked ratatouille. Or don’t follow any rules and roast whatever the hell you feel like cooking up.

Place the chopped vegetables in a bowl and toss with a mixture of 1 Tablespoon olive oil and 1 Tablespoon water (or use more oil if you prefer). Add a bit of salt and pepper and roast for 15-20 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and turn vegetables. Roast another 20 or so minutes until soft and slightly caramelized. These are good served hot or at room temperature.

Choose one or a combination of these flavor variations—or create your own!

Add chopped fresh or dry herbs to the water-oil marinade. In winter rosemary works well; basil or mixed Italian herbs are a good summer flavoring. Italian parsley is good year-round.

Ten minutes before the vegetables are done, sprinkle them with a quarter cup of grated Parmesan cheese. Skip the salt in the initial preparation and enjoy while still warm.

Toss the roasted vegetables with some balsamic vinegar or fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

Donna George Storey
February 2010

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2010 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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