I sometimes get asked by readers and acquaintances new to the erotica genre what makes a piece of fiction “erotica”? What distinguishes it from other fiction genres? And recently, some other erotica writers and I have been mulling over the question in a forum. Considering the diversity of erotica out there, the answer appears difficult to define.
A story can contain sex as an element, and yet not be erotica.
A story can be erotica, and yet not have an obvious sex scene in it.
“What?” I hear you ask. “Well, how do you know if it’s erotica?”
It is my observation from both reading and writing erotica that there are three primary elements present in a piece of fiction that place it within the genre of erotica: framing, focus and intent.
Framing – The Erotic Gaze
In erotica, sex is the lens through which the character, events and themes of the story are framed. Effective erotica does not negate crafted story-telling – author Tobsha Learner in The Zipless Read reminds us that “like all good writing this does involve setting up the attraction, the obstacles, the psychology … of the characters”. This lens is then kept tightly focused on what occurs or is revealed through the characters’ sexual desires, thoughts, feelings and actions. These elements are the vital components of the story, not merely floral embellishments; they are central to the plot, themes and character development. Remove the sexual elements, and the story collapses in on itself, disintegrates like the average short-term sexual-romantic relationship. Remove the sex or sexual elements, and there simply won’t be a story.
In non-erotica fiction genres such as mystery or historical drama, if there are sexual elements, they are not core to the central theme of the story. Sexual elements may illustrate an aspect of the development of a relationship, or the end of one, and be part of a sub-plot. But the main spine of the story is not the sex. Character growth and plot development might be mapped through depicting a descent into madness, or the recounting of a road trip, or the unravelling of a mystery.
So, what about romance? Doesn’t this genre have sex as a central element to the story? Along with emotional and psychological imperatives, yes, undoubtedly it does. But here, we move onto the element of focus, and see that the focus on sex in erotica differs in ways both subtle and substantial to romance.
Focus – Eros Up-Close
I spent half a semester at Uni studying the romance novel in a subject on popular culture, and I’ve retained very little of it. Except as an opportunity for feminist analysis, romance novels bored me, and my discovery of interesting writing about sex such as Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus was a couple of years away. But I do recall that Mills and Boons novels are written to certain plot formulas – the desirable Mr Aloof must be introduced by page 7, the first obstacle to their union must occur by page 43 – that sort of thing. The formulaic approach alarmed my inner creative writer, and also disturbed me, because I believe fundamentally in the individuality of the reader and what the reader brings to the text. This is not an academic analysis of the romance novel. But I will draw some comparisons; how the focus on sex achieves differing functions in the two genres.
Erotica, in comparison to romance, is generally far more explicit about the sexual acts and aspects. The remnants of ejaculate drying across the belly are as worthy of focus as the delirious intensity of mutual orgasm. Where romance revels in painting in pleasing sunset hues and sweeping brushstrokes the gloss of ‘perfect’ sex with perfect or almost-perfect people, the “erotic gaze” permits both this, but also the grainy close-ups, the incomplete orgasm, the portrayal of scars and flaws of the body and psyche as sexy.
Tobsha’s article observes that readers want to be “in the skin” of the protagonists, feeling “the aching frustration and longing and then the blissful release of orgasm, both in the emotional, physical and sometimes spiritual sense.” This kind of interiority begets a particular focus to the writing, a focus on the sensory and emotional realms. A focus on relating to the world and to the lover through the detail and delight of all of the senses. Language gets textural, sensual and becomes finely attuned to the smells of different skins, the sounds of arousal and orgasm. As Nin passionately declares about erotic writing in the preface to Delta, “how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.”
Language gets textural, sensual and becomes finely attuned to the smells of different skins, the sounds of arousal and orgasm.
Erotica delves into the ambiguous, the taboo, the grotesque. Romance does not. It is comfortable with portraying these things alongside the sensual, the ecstatic, the celebratory elements of sex. Delta of Venus contains stories that explore bestiality, incestuous desires, paedophilia, and non-consensual sex, as well as more socially conventional themes of mutual seduction, virgins deflowered, and sexual awakenings.
Erotica can have a sense of humour about the messiness and awkwardness of sex, whereas romance takes itself very seriously.
Erotica can explore the eccentricities of human sexuality. In Tobsha Learner’s The Man Who Loved Sound, audiologist Quin falls in love with women via the tones and timbres of their voices. In Peek Hour I turn the misogynist tables and create a female voyeur character with an unrelenting case of penephilia (love of and enthusiasm for the penis). Romance sits within the narrow spectrum of normalcy – it is homogenised and pasteurised desire. It is also by and large heterosexual and monocentric, whereas erotica permits the exploration of alternative sexualities such as polyamory, kink, gay, queer and open relationships.
In this genre named after him, Eros can possess both god-like attributes and the frailties of humanity. Sometimes he misfires his arrows. Sometimes he refrains from flying, and takes the train.
Sex as a focus in erotica can be simply for its own sake. It can explore excessive, subversive, dangerous and addictive sexual behaviour without rancour. It can, but does not have to situate sex as a bonding activity, unlike romance. The characters that have sex do not have to live happily ever after. They do not even have to enjoy sex, depending on the intention of the writer.
Which brings me to the final aspect of erotic writing – that of intent. But, as it’s my intent to have your company for a little longer … that will be a whole other blog post.
Coming soon …
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