EROTICA TODAY – OLD AS THE HILLS, SO WHAT, IF ANYTHING, HAS CHANGED?
BY PRIMULA BOND
The publishing world seems to be in two minds about erotica. On the one hand, the explosion of that trilogy two years ago cannot be ignored. It sent editors rushing to get their star writers to emulate the success of the three books which overnight introduced the phrase 50 Shades into common parlance around kitchen tables and water coolers, not to mention Facebook and Twitter.
On the other hand, those of us who have been writing erotica for 20 years or more are still mostly rebuffed by an industry which sees erotica as smutty at best, second rate at worst.
Much was made when 50 Shades came out that what it revealed about the mainly female readers was even more interesting than the story itself. To put it very simply, it transpired that no matter how successful and high-powered they were, women responded to the escapist, relinquishing theme of strong man educating submissive woman.
Love it or loathe it, what the advent of that trilogy has also achieved with its focus on the emerging relationship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (when they are not busy in his Red Room of pain), is the rise of the more accessible genre of adult, or erotic, romance. This has given seasoned writers like Sylvia Day and me, and newer arrivals like Jodi Ellen Malpas, the chance to flex our creative muscles after years of toeing an increasingly restricted line of stereotypes and sex scenes and we are now freer to expand and modernise an age-old theme, let rip with some really intelligent, credible, enjoyable story telling and introduce more complex characters and relationships.
Meanwhile our widening market of eager readers can openly buy and display books with their understated 'grey' cover designs and bury themselves in a compelling love story which is every bit as hot and explicit as before, but can, and should, hold its head up with any other type of popular, well-written literature.
Many historical examples of erotic writing, previously banished, are now resplendent on literary book shelves, to wit the works of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) who chronicled torture and cruelty as well as blasphemy against the Catholic Church, The Story of O (1954) which also deals with sado-masochism, and Anais Nin's Delta of Venus (1940s). These all explore fairly extreme, even brutal, examples of sexuality rather than the wilder shores of love.
The much misunderstood Lady Chatterley (1928) comes closer to the deeper, more involved erotica that appeals to today's 'woman on the Tube' – in other words, the readers I am after. Whilst the Anglo-Saxon language is fruity and was considered shocking for its day, it perfectly expresses the awakening and wonder that occurs between the characters. Describing it as obscenity clouds the central tenet of the book.
I like to open erotica workshops with a discussion on the stark difference, in my view, between pornography (visual, blatant, unimaginative, demeaning) and erotica (written, evocative, inspiring, celebratory), using Lady Chatterley as an example of misconception.
The growing tenderness between Mellors (an articulate ex-Army officer, not a rude mechanical as is so often assumed) and Connie is not the overdone housewife-beds-plumber scenario, if only people would take the trouble to study it more closely. It's far more subtle, a release for both of them from the shackles on his part of a frustrating marriage and his withdrawn personality, and on her part from a loveless marriage and a stifling class system.
This analysis of whether my chosen genre has evolved piqued me when I was asked recently if male and female characters and their motivations had changed with the times. I pondered this question as I wandered round the supermarket one weekend filling my trolley with such mundane items as spuds, sausage rolls, felafel balls (currently an obsession), beer, yoghurt and, ooh go on then, cucumbers and Magnum ice cream.
Yes, we erotica writers see the suggestive everywhere we look, but we still have to eat, entertain and feed our families. And no, we are not paid enough to have lackeys to do it for us. The illusion our readers have of us lounging around all day dressed in leather bondage gear or baby doll nighties tip-tapping on our laptops and requiring a touch of flagellation before stepping out the front door is just that: a carefully constructed illusion. Some of us even masquerade as respectable matrons and pillars of the school gate.
I am an Oxford educated mother of three sons who has juggled legal work, lodgers and family with writing newpaper and magazine features, and although I have a colourful smorgasbord of 'real life' experiences ranging from single motherhood, depression and Catholicism to living abroad, chronic illness and older parenthood to fill many an article, my real passion lies in fiction.
Since I was a little girl scribbling in a grubby exercise book, the emphasis has always been on romance. Sometimes light, sometimes pretty dark. I dreamed of Mr Right, or more often Prince Right, during a mournful teenage listening to 10cc, university struggling with Shakespeare, twenties peppered with break-ups, and then the wonderful challenge of unexpected motherhood. My musings were consistently rejected until I submitted one to Mills and Boon. This time the rejection was at least constructive: my writing was great, but my sex scenes were too explicit.
And so my erotica career was born.
Tune in tomorrow to hear the next instalment!