Real Talk: On Literary Erotica, Part 2
This edition of Real Talk — read Part 1 here — 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 DelphineDryden.com, 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 JeanetteGrey.com, on Twitter and on Facebook.
- Jessica Luther is a freelance writer and journalist, reproductive justice activist, and historian. Her main blog is JessicaWLuther.com but she blogs about romance novels at Steel And Velvet.
Avital: Why do you think there’s still such stigma regarding literary erotica? Especially when visual pornography has become more mainstream in a way (or even softcore but explicit shows like “True Blood,” “Game of Thrones,” etc…).
Delphine: Notice that in both the examples you mention, the sex is almost always accompanied by either explicit violence or the threat of violence. It’s never romantic sex for its own sake, or for the sake of visually representing progress in a relationship between two primary characters.
Jessica: I always think anytime women show an explicit interest in sex, it is frowned upon. Or met with giggles. There’s so much shaming around women and sex in our culture.
Jeanette: Agreed. It’s all the eye-rolling that “chick flicks” stereotypically get from guys for being about fluffy, silly things, plus the added bonus of (at least in this country) Puritanical views about sex. Fluffy silly things like relationships and emotions is where I meant to be going with that thought.
Delphine: Jess — agree, absolutely. Surround it with explicit violence and it’s “Woohoo, boobies with our violence porn.” But surround it with roses and wine and suddenly it’s “chick” stuff.
Jessica: It falls very nicely into the virgin/whore dichotomy that is everywhere: if you admit you read literary erotica, there is only one category there that you fit.
Avital: Right. People don’t know what to do with you/that information. That’s why I got especially pissed about the “mommy porn” term that came out with 50 Shades.
Delphine: “Mommy porn” enrages me.
Avital: What reactions have you gotten from others re: writing erotica. And Jessica: same question about reading it, since you’re so vocal about it.
Jeanette: I’ve gotten much more open about what I write with people I know in real life, and a good third of the time, the mention of writing romance shuts down a conversation completely. I mentioned it to someone who is a writing tutor at a university about a week ago. She literally said “Oh” and walked away.
Delphine: Jeanette: Do you get the, “When are you going to write a real book?” question?
Jeanette: Del: RAGEBALL. Yes.
Avital: What is so damn scary writing/reading about women who enjoy having sex?
Delphine: I think it’s scary for some people to consider women having that much agency. Sex is powerful stuff. If we enjoy it and control it, using it for our own devices instead of being used for men’s devices, we’re like witches.
Jessica: I was going to say agency in the bedroom is the issue. I shouldn’t have even said “in the bedroom” there. Just agency when it comes to sex.
Avital: I think you both nailed it. The whole concept of agency is what it comes down to with so many things related to women (see also: reproductive rights).
Delphine: It’s like we’re all becoming as powerful as crones. That frightens a lot of people. Men especially, but women too.
Jessica: I think there is still a belief that women come into relationships with minimal sexual knowledge and the men teach them what they need to know.
Jeanette: We’re also not supposed to want or imagine or think about any kind of sex outside of our real lives or our marriages. There’s always that person who wants to know if you actually DO all of the things that happen in your books.
Delphine: Jeanette: I think we’re not supposed to want sex at all as an end in itself. Only as it relates to a relationship with a particular man.
Avital: Since I brought it up before: 50 Shades Of Grey. I know there are a lot of feelings about this book, but … what does it say about it’s mainstream popularity? And has it lifted the stigma a bit?
Jeanette: I think it’s both lifted the stigma and created a new one. Yes, more people have accessed erotica now, but it was not well-written erotica, so some people are just turned off all over again by it.
Jessica: I definitely think it allowed a lot more people to show an interest in that literature and have open discussions about it.
Delphine: Yes. We gained some ground, I think, because publishers and the public did see that people were more open-minded than previously thought about what sexual practices could be depicted in mainstream fiction.
Jeanette: But it was still portrayed in a lot of media as something to make fun of.
Delphine: There was so much tittering.
Jeanette: The bits of it that are read on TV shows or SNL are all floggers this, DOWN THERE that.
Jessica: I agree with Jeanette that there are plenty of people in my life who have told me they read it and disliked the writing. But it’s hard to say, I think, if they are using the general discussion of the poor writing to talk about reading it but not liking it too much.
Delphine: And those of us who’d been writing, and publishing, BDSM erotic fiction for years when that book came out, now get a lot of “you’re just copying 50.”
Jessica: I didn’t say that right – they are using the discussion of the poor writing to distance themselves from the book at the same time that they are engaging me in a discussion about it. It may be they like the book just fine but know they aren’t supposed to like it (because, like Jeanette said, it gets a lot of flack in pop culture).
Jeanette: That’s true re: the writing as a way to be able to talk about it.
Delphine: But I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes about what erotic romance could offer them as a genre, so in the sense that it led to that discussion in general I think it was a good thing.
Avital: So now we need to get a quality, well-written piece of erotica out there and topping charts.
Jeanette: But as we’ve already talked about, there was already this sense that romance and erotica are “trash.” People looking to reinforce that stereotype open 50 Shades and find plenty of ammunition, I think. Which is regrettable, in my opinion.
Delphine: Yeah, I know an awful lot of people who seem to have read an awful lot of that bad writing, and I don’t think they were doing so in order to criticize it. That’s their after-the-fact justification because they can’t admit they were aroused by it. And, Avi, yes! I agree! And there is SO much good erotica and erotic romance out there.
Jessica: But I also wonder if well-written erotica would be a chart-topper. I think James’ book was a hit because it was, unfortunately in many ways, “easy to read.” Like Dan Brown.
Delphine: It wasn’t very emotionally challenging for the reader, that’s for sure. And it didn’t necessarily draw the good kind of attention to kinksters, either. So many awful, tired stereotypes reinforced.
Jessica: There was little about it that challenged anything beyond our own ideas about women reading about sex. The storyline was, obviously, VERY familiar to people. Twilight, cough cough.
Delphine: I get very RAGEFACE about people writing BDSM without doing their homework first.
Avital: Yeah, the BDSM community also seemed to have their mainstream moment when 50 came out. Righting misconceptions from the book. So, let’s end on a positive note then. Can you each share one or two top favorite reads out there for folks to read.
Delphine: Anything by Cara McKenna or Charlotte Stein! And the new Christine d’Abo “choose your own kink” story, “Choose Your Shot,” is a great piece for anyone wanting to dabble in well-written kinky reading without too much emotional demand. The romance is there but you can arrive at it any way you like.
Delphine: We all love some Charlotte Stein.
Jessica: Really, anything by Ann Calhoun.
Jeanette: Definitely ditto on Cara McKenna and Charlotte Stein.
Jessica: For the historical and/or m/m erotica: Ava March.
Delphine: Oh, and Riptide has an AMAZING book coming out for m/m, GLITTERLAND.
Jessica: I am screenshot-ing all of this and ordering NOW.
[Photo of woman reading in bed via Shutterstock]