Real Talk: On Literary Erotica, Part 1

This edition of Real Talk delves deep into the seduction that is literary erotica. This week I’m joined by two popular writers within the genre, as well as an avid reader/blogger. We talked tropes, stereotypes, and the stigma surrounding erotica.

  • Delphine Dryden writes award-winning contemporary erotic romance for Carina Press, and mainstream steampunk romance for Berkley. When not writing, she can be found noodling around on the internet or playing tabletop games far into the night. You can find her online at, and she is on Twitter far too much. Or Facebook if you are into that.
  • Jeanette Grey is a former physics teacher, artist, tech support consultant, and web designer, now trying her hand at writing romance. Her short fiction has appeared in collections such as Best Erotic Romance 2013, and her latest release is Take What You Want from Samhain Publishing. Find her online at, on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Jessica Luther is a freelance writer and journalist, reproductive justice activist, and historian. Her main blog is but she blogs about romance novels at Steel And Velvet.

Avital: When did you first get interested in erotica? Not necessarily writing it, but perhaps the first time you read it and were like “Whoa! This is a thing!”

Delphine: Fan fiction!

Avital: Ha! Me too!

Jeanette: Thank you for saying it, Delphine! Ditto!

Avital: Is that like the elephant in the room? Whispered in a low voice … faaaaaaan fiiiiiiiiiction.

Delphine: I think it’s the elephant we have all decided to admit exists now.

Jessica: I have never read fan fiction.

Avital: So, with the absence of fan fiction in your life, how did you find yourself reading erotica, Jessica?

Jessica: I think I downloaded it thinking it was “romance” and it wasn’t. And I remember thinking, “WHAT IS THIS I HAVE FOUND?”

Avital: Ha! Surprise erotica! I actually had that moment with fan fiction. Here I was reading a fan story about Eric & Sookie and then all of a sudden — whoa! This was way past anything HBO was showing or Charlaine Harris intimated at in her PG-13 books.

Jeanette: That’s quite similar to the fan fiction erotica discovery process, Jess. Just, with fan fiction, you go looking for more of some characters you love, and then BAM! Hardcore graphic sex between those characters you love. What’s not to like there?

Avital: Delphine and Jeanette: How did you two make the leap from fan fiction to original erotica?

Delphine: I’d been reading and writing fanfic for a few years, and several of my online writing friends were making the switch and becoming published authors (one in particular has since become a bestseller), and my reviewers were always suggesting I write original stuff. Eventually I did. I never read it (erotica) until I’d started writing it, however.

Jeanette: My experience was similar to Delphine’s. With the added element of my having been completely sucked into this fan fiction world for a long time and just getting … bored with similar tropes that kept showing up. And realizing there was more out there, and that I had my own characters in my head and my own stories to tell.

Avital: Oh, the tropes! Can we discuss those? The bad tropes in particular…

Delphine: Jeannette, exactly, I felt much the same way. And Avi, I feel like there are no bad tropes, only badly written stories. Tropes serve a useful, even necessary purpose in genre fiction, but they should only ever be a starting place or guideline for an author … never a crutch.

Jeanette: And a good writer can make any horrible trope wonderful.

Delphine: Exactly, Jeanette. Ever read Sherry Thomas’s amnesiac heroine marriage-of-necessity book? FANTASTIC.

Jessica: I was going to bring up Thomas, too!

Jeanette: Nope, but I just added it to my list :)

Avital: Good points, Delphine. And yes, that can be said of any genre. I guess I was thinking more of the “steel coated in velvet” types. Can those ever be good?

Delphine: Is the thing coated in steel the hero or just the hero’s … thing?

Jeanette: I’m not sure that’s a fair question to ask a writer. Someone points out an overused phrase to me, and suddenly I can never see it again and not think, “GAH! Overused phrase! Bad! Stop it!”

Jessica: Jeanette: YES! Sarah Wendell once pointed out that men always are described as smelling “masculine” and now I see it every time I read anything.

Avital: I just feel that in this genre I see more overused phrases, but perhaps because they refer to sexual acts they stand out more?

Delphine: I think in any genre there are certain things that one sees over and over. And there are only so many euphemisms that don’t get downright silly.

Avital: Let’s talk audience for a second. Who is the primary audience for written erotica?

Delphine: Women, of course, at least when it comes to erotic romance. But I’ve had a surprising number of male readers too. More men are coming out of the woodwork and admitting they read the stuff.

Jessica: Audience? I’m not sure how much I know about this. I assume similar to romance, which I think is hetero women.

Delphine: No, queer women read it too.

Jeanette: But yes, mostly women.

Avital: Is it a chicken and egg sort of thing? Who is doing the writing, who are they writing for, etc…

Delphine: I think men are more likely to read stuff that is advertised as “literary erotica” per se. But I think that so much erotic romance and erotica these days really crosses that line, so it’s more who it’s marketed to that determines the audience. I think women also tend to write for women. I’ll probably get slammed for saying that. But I am always aware my primary readership is female. I don’t know that it changes what I put on the page.

Jeanette: There’s often a pretty big overlap in what people want to read and what they want to write. It’s all about the kind of story you get invested in.

Avital: Would literary erotica be as stigmatized in mainstream culture if men were seen as “into it?”

Jessica: No.

Jeanette: To vastly overgeneralize, pretty much anything marketed for women is for women only and anything marketed to men is for everyone. I think it’s absolutely part of the stigma.

Delphine: But I think men probably are interested in different tropes, different types of focus, when it comes to erotic stories. At least publishers seem to think so. I agree with Jess. If men were into it, it wouldn’t be as stigmatized.

And be sure to check back later this week for part two!

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Follow me on Twitter.

[Photo of woman reading in bed via Shutterstock]