Erotic fiction has long been popular amongst readers, though it may not always have been so unashamedly read on the public transport commute to work. With the rise in popularity of erotic works, I find it sad that people dismiss the genre as full of trashy works like 50 Shades of Grey. While that style of predictable erotic fiction has long been popular, you only have to look at Mills and Boon to see that there’s no shortage in market for this kind of publication, it isn’t all that’s available, and it certainly isn’t the best example of erotic fiction.
There are many negative stereotypes surrounding the genre and more generally when it comes to writing about sex. It isn’t that we are still prudish about the subject (although of course, some people are), it is more that we now see that sex shouldn’t be unrealistically romanticized and written about in clichéd terms. Instead, writing that is frank, open, and explorative is by far the most interesting kind of erotic writing.
The stereotypes of the genre
Erotic fiction is often talked about in negative, condescending tones by those who prefer a more ‘high’ form of literature. When they discuss the genre in that way, they are referring to the stereotypical elements at play in publications like Mills and Boon. The publisher, which began in 1908, knows it’s audience and continues to give them exactly what they want: ‘a fantasy world of intrigue, danger, passion and romance’ in an ‘easy, thrilling read.’ Is it so wrong that they produce content they know their audience wants?
Mills and Boon produce 120 new titles per month in 25 different series. This way, whatever your particular tastes are – if you like a bit of thriller with your romance, history, medical, etc – they have got you covered. You can sign up for subscriptions to a particular series or buy them singly. But each series comes with its own very specific guidelines for plotting, characters, and the erotic scenes to be featured within them.
I highly respect a publisher that sticks to what it does best. My issue with their output – and other similar erotic fiction, like E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey – is the way the ‘hero’ is presented. In their writer guidelines, Mills and Boon call out – in every one of their series guidelines – that the male hero needs to be an ‘alpha’. For instance, from their ‘Modern Tempted’ series writing guidelines, ‘…There’s no compromising on the hero: he must be very alpha and absolutely to die for! There’ll be sparks flying when these two meet – and nothing short of fireworks once they get to the bedroom!’ This kind of predictable characterization will leave many feeling unsatisfied, along with the completely unrealistic and overdramatized plots.
Here’s the thing though, not all erotic fiction is like a Mills and Boon novel.
Unrealistic, overblown sexual description that adds nothing to the plot is not something that is limited to erotic fiction as a genre either. There are plenty of examples within literary fiction. Recognising this, the UK’s Literary Review initiated the Bad Sex awards. In 2014, the award’s 22nd year, the prize went to Ben Okri for a passage in The Age of Magic. The passage that drew such attention began with ‘When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight.’
The list leaves no writer out of bounds, featuring Booker Prize winning authors and widely respected, highly acclaimed authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Haruki Murakami. It would seem that no author is immune to writing bad sex.
Don’t despair, there really are good examples of erotic literature. My favourite is Anaïs Nin, particularly Delta of Venus, a collection of short erotic fiction (the excerpts from her diary, Henry and June, is fantastic erotic writing, though not fictional). Nin’s frequent sexual partner, Henry Miller is the one who got her into writing erotic fiction, a genre he had already firmly established himself in. Any of Miller’s works are worth reading, with their frank description of sexual acts and a mixture of philosophical musing and questioning. Neither Miller nor Nin romanticizes the act in the way many of those found guilty of writing ‘bad sex’ do.
There are, of course, also novels that were born out of the Libertine movement by writers such as the Maquis de Sade and de Laclos. These tales are based on the morally bankrupt and free spirits, exploring their sexuality in any way they choose. What is perhaps the most interesting aspects of these kinds of erotic literature is their explorative and inquisitive natures. Whereas the more trashy, predictable erotic fiction is riddled with cliché’s, the characters in these tales will try out anything – predictability isn’t a part of their existence at all.
While novels, and sometimes short stories, are the more obvious works of fiction for exploring the erotic, it has also been covered in graphic novels. The most notable modern publication is Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. The narrative reimagines famous literary female characters (Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz) and depicts sexual abuse from a young age and how their lives play out as a result. Some have argued that the visual nature of the graphic novel makes it pornography rather than erotic fiction and there has been a lot of controversy around the images depicting acts against children. But the nature of the story is thoroughly intriguing, and much like the Libertine writings, is explorative in looking into the nature of sexual acts, especially child abuse.
If you want to read a ‘thrilling and passionate’ sexual story with little weight given to complex characters or plots, there is plenty of erotic fiction to suit your needs. However, if you would be interested in reading something both erotic and full of depth, the genre has got you covered as well. For every overly written, bombastic sex scene there are frank, realistic accounts of sexual exploration and discovery. Erotic fiction is unfairly labeled by only a particular subset of the much wider genre.