"Can erotica be serious?" and other topics that make me angry

April 3, 2013


Bitch, stop smiling.  This shit be serious.
On Slate, blogger Amanda Hess recently posed the question "Can Erotica Recover Its Reputation From the Ludicrous Fifty Shades of Grey?"  In this article, she interviews Lux Alptraum, editor of Fleshbot and its new branch, Fleshbot Fiction, a collection of 99-cent short erotica pieces which aims to “spare you the time of searching through things full of spelling errors."

Which made me wonder...what if I like spelling errors?  Or, more likely than not, what if I don't give a fuck about spelling errors?

Before we address these questions, let's set up a dichotomy.  (Did I spell that right? Wait. Yup.)  

Side one.  You go out to brunch with your friends.  Over some eggs benny and between conversations about tuna pirates and Fallon replacing Leno, you bring up this book you found at the laundromat.  Let's call it Ana Lisa Smile: Anal Adventures in the Louvre.  How droll.  Who reads this dross?  Here.  I brought it.  It's in my purse.  Let me read you a little.  Oh, shut up.  They can't even hear us from there.  Okay.  Giggle.  Listen to this...

Side two.  You are home alone.  You take out that erotica novella you found at the laundromat.  It's a quiet evening.  You crawl under the covers and open to page 68...

Follow me?  There are two sides to sexuality, public and private; for some people they are one in the same, but for most they are separate.  There's the side that talks freely about sex in that joking, silly, hyper-informed way that we reserve for polite conversations about politics and other pseudo-taboos.  Then there's the side, usually private, wherein we know exactly what turns us on and where to find it. 

Now, on to the article.  
This Valentine’s Day, [Alptraum] took part in a public erotica reading. Other speakers that evening entertained the crowd with “intentionally funny” erotic tales. Alptraum chose a “very serious, very intense piece about BDSM.” The crowd was “just totally quiet,” she tells me. “I think in part because they liked it, and in part because people aren't totally sure how to manage arousal in a public environment.” 
Okay.  I get that.  First of all, I commend Alptraum on sharing a BDSM piece.  There's a spectrum of erotica available, not just fifty shades of grey  *rimshot*.  But also let me address the idea that the crowd was quiet probably for a spectrum of reasons, not just for the two named here.  

As even Debbie Downer knows, "serious" and "intense" pieces usually bring a crowd down.  And while I'm sure there were people in the audience who "liked it" and weren't "totally sure how to manage arousal in a public environment" (Sporting giant wood?), there were probably more people who were uncomfortable with the BDSM, which can be violent and painful to read.  And what about the people who just didn't find it interesting and were too polite to say anything?
Thanks to the rousing success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey—which originated as Internet Twilight fan fiction with a BDSM twist—erotica is again fodder for public discussion. But the tone of that conversation isn’t always very sincere. As one 19-year-old One Direction fan-fiction writer put it, Fifty Shades “gives the fan fiction world a bad name because it is so poorly written.” James’ book became big news (and a forthcoming major Hollywood film) not in spite of its ludicrous style, but because of it.

Fifty Shades became popular because it was picked up by readers online before it was marketed aggressively to a mainstream audience.  And I feel safe in assuming that the majority of mainstream readers have never read anything sexually frank, so it created a sensation.  The quality of James' writing didn't sell the story, its subject matter did.  Come on.  That's like saying Twilight succeeded because of its sparkling prose, not its sparkling vampires.
“If someone writes the world's hottest novel, what is Funny or Die going to do with that?” Alptraum says. “No one is going to record Gilbert Gottfried reading it.”
No, but here's Ellen de Generes doing it.


Now Amanda Hess on James:
Fifty Shades has only cemented erotica’s reputation as juvenile, poorly-constructed, and—perhaps most damning—totally feminine. In a world where most mainstream pornography is filmed with a male viewer in mind (and often, with guys manning the camera and the promotional machine), written erotica has been traditionally more accessible to women, who can produce it cheaply and anonymously, with few resources, no institutional support, and reduced risk of public shaming. That’s only reinforced the idea that women prefer to read their smut as opposed to watching it—and that they’re so hard up, they’ll accept whatever amateur bodice-rippers are offered to them.
Remember my dichotomy above about the public and private sexual selves?  This article is written with the public self in mind: what we read when we’re in public and what we talk about, not what we read in private and actually gets our rocks off.   

Erotica readers existed before Fifty Shades, and even though the book has opened the floodgates for newbies like me to try writing erotica for a public audience, in terms of quality, just like with sex, it’s always been “different strokes for different folks.” 
Diff'rent Strokes' Gary Coleman

Some readers don’t have hang-ups when it comes to grammar and sentence mechanics; they match up with self-published authors and writers on fanfic boards who are free to push content boundaries.  Some readers demand work with more technical proficiency; they match up with the erotica branches of established publishing houses who demand an editorial process for both traditional print and online content.  That's what's so fantastic about the Internetz. You can find exactly the material that turns you on, even if that includes "amateur bodice rippers."   
On self-published, unpaid erotica sites, the “rough-to-diamond ratio is pretty intense,” Alptraum says. 

Jesus.  Okay.  Even on self-published, unpaid GENERAL fiction sites the “rough to diamond ratio” is going to be high.  It's self-publishing.  That’s what the Internetz does: it takes away the gatekeepers so that people can put forth their content, no matter what genre they write, no matter what the quality is.  What makes Fifty Shades such a trailblazer is that James rose up from these Spartacus-style pits of guts and gore to glorious commercial success.  

From Spartacus, "The Thing in the Pit".

Here's the clincher.
It’s still the case that “respectable people often turn away from erotic entertainment,” so “the people who engage in it aren't necessarily the most talented writers or content creators,” [Alpstraum] says. “Erotica is treated as something that doesn't have to be good,” and “that’s what turns it into a joke.”    
When it comes to sex and erotica, "good" is a term that your audience has to define, not the editors.  Not the gatekeepers.

Also, did Alptraum just say “the people who engage in [writing erotica] aren’t necessarily the most talented writers or content creators”?  So...let me get this straight.  She got Slate to promote her website, then insulted the people who will be creating content for her.  Nice.  Very nice.