Monday, May 16, 2005

Literature or Fetish?

So, is reading erotica a literary experience, or just the written equivalent of phone sex?

I’m getting the idea it can be either one.

14 months ago when I published my first Soulful Sex collection, I thought I had a fairly clear idea of what’s going on in the erotica market today. I’d read my share of Susie Bright anthologies, stories from Playboy, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy and such, so I thought I knew the genre.

But I was wrong.

A year in the business taught me that erotica/erotic romance is the most complex genre in publishing. No one is quite sure how to define these categories, so there's much confusion about that. The readership is insatiable, so while some publishers do turn out decent books, many companies spring up to take advantage of the craze, and crank out hundreds of titles a month of less-than-stellar offerings. Quality is a big question mark.

It can be very confusing indeed for authors trying to write erotic romance that doesn't follow the most common and accepted formulas. Confused, I wondered if I had made a big mistake declaring myself a writer of erotic romance. I found websites that would not review my books because they didn’t contain the obligatory “C-words.” I ran into a reviewer or two who gave my stories high praise but downgraded them for not having enough sex and yet purporting to be erotic.

Meanwhile I sampled some erotica ebook titles, and while I occasionally encountered a well written book, much more frequently I was shocked by the lack of editing and overall poor quality of product. It seemed there was a real lack of standards in this genre.

I recently published an essay entitled “Why Does Erotica Have to Suck So Much?” in my monthly “Explorotica” column for the Novelspot website. I was inundated with mail from readers, authors and publishers who felt exactly as I did: discouraged by the problems in the women’s erotica genre today. These messages confirmed to me the poor quality of many of these books as well as my opinion of the mess much of the industry is in. So it became clear that while a lot of people recognized the flaws in these poorly done books, they are still the cash cow of epublishing and can't keep up with the demand.

The explanation? Well, I have a theory that there are actually two kinds of erotica fans. There are Readers, and there are Fetishists.

Very simply put, the Fetishists are people turned on by certain words and combinations of words in print. The words must be there or they don’t get aroused. If they are, nothing else matters. As phone sex titillates the ear, erotica titillates their eyeballs.

The Readers are people who appreciate literary devices like characterization, suspense, tension building, description, dialogue, and so on, to engage the mind and through it the body. These people are delighted to be turned on, but they go about it in a much more complex and more deeply engaged way.

It's cheaper and easier to make books for the Fetishists, so a lot of publishers put their focus there. And this development has gone on to the point that the Readers have learned to avoid that section of publishers’ websites because it has nothing to offer them. Many quality publishers shy away from books calling themselves erotica. And reviewers don’t know quite what to do.

I’m not here to blast the Fetishists…see my Fetish Test and you’ll find there’s probably not anything harmful coming out of their particular sexual habit. They are free to read whatever books make them happy, without being criticized for it.

I just want people to recognize that the erotica genre need not cater exclusively to the Fetishists. There are authors out here like myself who take an intelligent, creative, even spiritual approach to erotica writing. There are publishers who could support their efforts and turn aside a few of the fetish writers. And there are Readers who can be won back to the genre and find happiness there, if someone will just remember they are out there.

If you have read an erotic book that you feel exemplifies quality writing, manages to be arousing without using typical coarse language, and has literary merit beyond its sensuality, you may nominate it for my “Erotica with Soul List.” Please visit the page and email me your nominees.

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