Has E L James broken erotica?

Girl plus books

So, has E L James broken erotica? Why am I asking that question? A few weeks back, due to an extraordinary combination of circumstances—mainly involving the heavy discounting of a pair of anthologies in which I have stories—I found myself riding high in Amazon’s paid erotica author rankings. With huge excitement, I watched my rank climb to number four. It made me feel as if I were, for the briefest of moments, the fourth best erotica writer in the world! (Which, of course, I’m not. Because these rankings have absolutely nothing to do with writing quality.)

Naturally, I grabbed a screenshot for posterity. I usually rank somewhere around 300 and I doubt I’ll ever get that high again. But when I got over my own glee, the one thing that struck me most forcefully was not my presence on that page but someone else’s. E L James’s, in fact. There she was, grinning out from the number one slot with the original FSOG. And now that she’s released a FSOG spin-off from Grey’s point of view, she’ll probably remain at number one for a good stretch longer. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly don’t begrudge her her inexplicable success or the money she’s made, and I personally think that a lot of the vitriol levelled at her by other writers is born out of if not professional envy (because of course, no one actually wants to write like her), jealousy of her success. Yes, the books are utter rubbish, but, dare I say it, so are the vast majority of erotica titles. However, it made me feel incredibly sad that, three years after FSOG was published, she was still at number one. It made me sad for my—our shared—genre.

What’s happened to erotica since FSOG became a world-conquering phenomena? E L James was supposed to be its savior, but did she in fact break it? Certainly, very few erotica writers are making a living. Of the ones I know (of which there are plenty, many at the top of the profession), I can think of less than a handful who don’t have a day job or other source of income. Erotica publishing is in disarray. And, after briefly appearing in a book shop near you at the height of the FSOG frenzy, erotica has once more been retired to the invisible pages at the back of Amazon and other book retailing sites. The millions of women who bought into FSOG have not, as predicted, purchased very much more.

Erotica has always gotten a bad rap—it’s the genre all the other genres look down on. Recently, a writer friend was hugely upset when a family member told her she was “too good to be writing erotica.” My friend felt insulted and slighted, and was very defensive of erotica and her desire to write it. I totally sympathized with her. But I didn’t tell her I’d said virtually the same thing—”You’re wasted in erotica”—to a mutual friend just days before. I had meant it, and thankfully it had been taken, as a compliment. Because what I meant was this writer deserved a wider audience and greater respect for her work than she would ever get writing in the current erotica market.

For those of us who write smut, it sometimes feels like we’ve been herded into a ghetto, and that the rest of the literary world would rather disown us. A lot of erotica writers feel very aggrieved by this—and they have a point. There are some hugely talented writers in the field whose work deserves recognition and corresponding sales. But I would suggest there are a number of very valid reasons why my chosen genre is looked down on. Which is why I felt justified in saying to my friend that she was wasted in erotica.

First, I’ll tell you what I think the contributing issues are. Then I’ll deal with them in turn.

  • The reasons why people read erotica
  • The inherent problems with long-form erotica
  • The assumption by inexperienced writers that because they have great sex, they can write great sex

The first thing to consider is why people read erotica. Here, I feel there’s a mismatch between why people actually read it and why erotica writers think they read it. To put it bluntly, readers turn to erotica as a masturbatory aid. They want one thing from a dirty story and it isn’t fine words, tight plotting, good characterization or enlightenment on the human condition. They can get those things in other genres. I look elsewhere when I want those things. Readers don’t care about grammar when they’re getting they’re rocks off, which is why bad erotica sells as well as good. For writers who care about their craft, this is galling. But it’s an undeniable truth—the market for literary erotica, or even decently written commercial erotica is very small. And if your audience doesn’t demand a quality product, there’s no pressure in the market to provide one.

Books and glassesI know other writers will disagree with me. As a group, we read each other’s work, cross promote and review it. Erotica is the most friendly and supportive of ghettos. But we’re writers. Of course, we love well-written erotica. We love well-written everything. And in our insulated little bubble, I think we’re in danger of losing sight of the reality about the marketplace for our work. I don’t write literary erotica—my work is populist and I’m happy to admit it. But I’ve had a reader criticize me for spoiling their enjoyment of a story by using too many big words—and believe me, I really don’t. I’m afraid the vast majority of our readers are not looking for literature. They want written porn and they want it cheap or free. And they can get it in droves. In other words, the erotica market needs high quality writing like a fish needs a bicycle—and that’s why good writers struggle to make money at it.

My second point on why erotica seems so broken is the problems inherent in writing long-form filth. It’s incredibly difficult to make a full-length erotic novel work. For romance, the plot follows the usual arc of rising conflict and resolution, with sex the reward at the end. Not so erotica. Our publishers admonish us if there’s no sex in the first few pages. No time for our protagonists to meet, fall in love, fall out of love due to a misunderstanding, and then get back together before finally sharing body fluids. No, we need them banging straight away. This requires the use of plot devices—our protagonist is sleeping with someone else at the start or dreaming of having sex. Perhaps the characters have been a couple for a while or there’s some novelty reason why they need sudden sex. But it all constricts a writer’s freedom and leads to unsatisfactory story arc. One of the main criticisms levelled at FSOG as an erotic novel was that the reader had to wade through 100 or so pages before they came to any sex. Possibly one of the few realistic elements of the book—it takes time to reach point bonk—but no good for an erotic masterpiece.

However, let’s suppose we manage to get our couple (trio or whatever) into bed with an awesome opening sex scene, then where to next? More sex. It’s erotica after all, so even if the writing’s good and the plot’s decent, we need plenty of bonking. And that, unfortunately, becomes a little repetitive. If your reader has used the first sex scene as a masturbatory aid, well, the subsequent sex scenes might droop a little. This is why erotica is the one genre in which short story anthologies work so well. Sustaining erotic tension through a whole novel while producing a satisfying read is bloody difficult. In other words, in writing long-form erotic, you’re beset with the problems inherent in the form before you’ve even put a word on the page.

Finally, the I-have-great-sex-so-I-can-write-great-sex issue. Self-publishing is wonderful. It’s democratized the whole industry. We can all be published writers—yay! But that doesn’t mean we’re all good writers. Take this analogy. Suddenly the price of Stradivarius violins drops. I can afford one and I can book a concert hall, so why not put on a concert and play a couple of violin concertos? A ridiculous notion, isn’t it? A world class violinist spends years perfecting their art. So why do so many people think the first thing they write is worthy of publication? That they don’t need to work at it? That they’re a natural? Even the most gifted natural musicians slave for decades before they take to the world stage.

Writing is difficult. Writing well is even more difficult. Writing good sex? It’s very hard indeed. (No pun intended!) There are somewhere in the region of 5,000 erotica writers on Amazon. 5,000. It bears repeating. Most of their output is execrable. The output of our head girl, E L James, is execrable. So why would anyone want to dig deeper? I read buckets of erotica for professional reasons and I hate most of it. I really do. Certainly there are good writers out there, brilliant writers who leave me in breathless awe of their work (Remittance Girl, Malin James, J T Louder). But how is the sliver of the audience who care about quality going to find the smattering of writers gifted enough to give it to them? Discoverability for new writers is hard in any genre. In erotica it’s harder still, with the dreaded Amazon adult tag rendering one invisible in searches.

Good writers should be able to make a living from their writing but they can’t. Amazon is awash with free erotica. You can read a new story every day and never pay for one. For writers, it’s a Catch 22 situation. How will anyone know they want to buy your work if you don’t give them a free read first? I’m guilty of it myself, with free stories on Amazon and around the net, not to mention regularly on my own blog. You can probably read your fill of me without paying a penny.

Yes, erotica is a broken genre. Great writers aren’t getting recognized, the market’s flooded with crap, and even publishers can’t seem to make a go of it—witness the recent debacles at Ellora’s Cave and Cleis.  But it’s not E L James who broke erotica—her enduring position at the top of the pile is merely an indication of the deeper issues.

So what’s the solution?

To be honest, I can’t tell you. I would certainly like to see fewer writers in the market and a better standard of writing—but I’ve already explained why that’s unlikely to happen. For individual writers, there’s the siren call of other genres and that’s certainly a possibility for me.

But one thing struck me when thinking about how to solve these problems. Why should erotica be a genre at all? Given that sex is so fundamental to all our behaviors and motivations, so universal and yet so diverse, shouldn’t it be in every story, in every book? And to a certain extent it is, just not written as graphically. There are a few successful mainstream writers who include sexual detail in literary novels but not many. So here’s my idea: let’s leave badly written porn in its own little cave, but why don’t better erotica writers storm the barricades of mainstream writing? Don’t leave grown-up sex writing hiding in the shadows—bring it out into the light. Don’t attempt the great erotic novel. Just write a great book that deals with sex as it should be dealt with—openly and explicitly, but in service to the story rather than the story being in service to the sex. Don’t label your book as erotica just because it contains sex. Don’t give it a blatant erotica cover. In other words, if you’re serious about writing sex, stop writing erotica. Write about sex in the mainstream! Tag it as literary fiction, contemporary fiction, women’s fiction…

This is an idea that I’d like to open up a discussion on with other erotica—and non-erotica—writers. Could this be the way out of the ghetto for writers who actually care about what they write?