This is a shortened version of a column I wrote for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association about terminology–specifically, my notions of What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Sex (with apologies to Raymond Carver for misappropriation of the title).
When mainstream authors include sex in their fiction, they usually do so in a more subtle manner than what you’ll find in stories of specifically explicit fiction. (There are exceptions, i.e., Philip Roth.) Here in porno land, sex is the prism through which we choose to view the human condition. We know sex has a propensity to yield up interesting psychic and psychological insights. Sex stories lacking those kinds of insights leave me dissatisfied, because I know they’re somewhere between the lines. As an editor, I hope to be able to coax the writer into discovering them.
That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I talk about writing sex. I’m talking about stories in which the sex drive informs the character’s behavior, stories in which sex fantasies and fetishes lead the characters into dramatic situations, stories in which the sexual dimension of life is placed front and center. I’m talking about exploring, via fiction, all aspects of human experience, without deleting sexuality from the picture. And, oh yes, by the way, I’m talking about sizzling words that get the reader off.
When I began writing sex stories circa 1979, there was no such genre as women’s erotica—or, for that matter, erotica--unless you count the ubiquitous Anais Nin. I called what I was writing exactly what I and everyone else I knew had always called it: pornography. Later, in the mid-eighties or thereabouts, Porn versus Erotica became a hotly debated issue that I found irrelevant and tedious.
None of the definitions of these supposedly different genres made any sense to me, and I continued to defiantly call it pornography, until we’d all been so bombarded by the term erotica that eventually it tripped effortlessly off my lips.
By the mid-nineties, sex anthologies had become a booming cottage industry, and with sub-genres yet– sci-fi, vampire, horror and fetish erotica–and I had to concede that the term pornography was insufficient. But erotica didn’t cover it all either. In my introduction to Herotica 5, I addressed the need for an expanded terminology, and I coined the term ero-lit, but of course it didn’t catch on. Nor have any other new terms been adopted to describe the diversity of styles that blossomed once we had permission to be sexy in print. For lack of a snappy word or phrase, my preferred terminology is the somewhat cumbersome but very precise sexually explicit literature.
Given that, some dictionary terminology may be useful:
Erotica: Literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire.
Pornography: The presentation of explicit behavior, as in photography, intended to arouse sexual excitement.
Sexual: Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of sex, the sexes, or the sex organs and their functions.
Explicit: Expressed with clarity and precision .
Literature: Imaginative or creative writing, esp. of artistic value.
Of course, different dictionaries offer different definitions. The anti-porn crowd went orgasmic when they discovered the root of the word pornography stems from the Greek term for female slaves, and loosely translated the word as writing about female slaves or prostitutes. Half of Andrea Dworkin’s philosophy was based on this detail.
Lest anyone get their knickers in a knot for any reason whatever about sexually explicit literature–and recent history suggests they very well might—rest assured that I’ve only used it to describe my own books and stories.
As much as this genre is about sex, I’m constantly telling erotic writers The Sex is Not the Story. The more sexually explicit literature I read, write and edit, the less tolerance I have for thin plots and weak characterization, no matter how ragingly hot. If there’s a drawback to this, it’s that I can lose sight of the primary purpose of sex writing: to get the reader off.
I wasn’t always such a curmudgeon about what may seem like nitpicking details–but after screening, re-reading, editing and proofing thousands of sex stories, it can become rather tedious. I confess that sometimes I actually skipped the sex scenes until I read enough of the rest to know if I liked the story–it’s a lot easier to fix a sex scene than it is to breathe life into another writer’s characters, or patch up an implausible plot, or create a plot where none exists, or–the one thing that simply can’t be edited into shape—bad writing, period. Once upon a time my heart beat wildly to racy passages; now it’s the rare story that can turn me on–but this is actually an editorial asset: if a story motivates me to get out the vibrator, I almost always accepted it.
So this is what I’m talking about when I talk about writing erotica, pornography, ero-lit, or sexually explicit fiction. A dirty book by any other name would smell just as dirty.