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Taking Off the Training Wheels

Yesterday I finished the last chapter of my erotic Victorian novella, The Chaperone. Or "Madeleine Dupont" finished "her" erotic novella...because as far as the print record is concerned, T.K. Marnell is a timid literary type who doesn't even know that the smutty stuff exists. I'm not even sure she knows the biological difference between girls and boys.

Anywho, now Madeleine Dupont only has one more title in the works, and she intends to begin it after she waits a week and proofs The Chaperone for publication with fresh eyes. "Tara Chen" also needs to borrow the computer for a few weeks to hack out two YA short stories that have been sitting in outline purgatory for months. The next Dupont seems like it will turn out to be a full-length novel (at least 50k words, judging from the outline she wrote last week). But after she finishes it, Madeleine is considering going into early retirement.

Why? Is it because she imagines that Mr. and Mrs. Dupont cry into their coffee mugs every time they read about their daughter's latest "masterpiece"? Is it because she wants to write books she can talk about in public and give to family and friends? Is it because, when her boyfriend meets former coworkers on the street, he announces, "Oh, Madeleine? She's writing porn now"? Maybe a little bit. But mostly it's because she's growing out of it. You see....

Authoring erotica is writing with training wheels.

Erotica is possibly the safest genre you can write in. "What?" you ask. "But erotica is daring! Erotica is fringe! It takes courage to talk openly about those delicate matters." Eh, maybe it does at first, if you grew up in a squeaky-clean Puritan bubble like me and need to conquer your shyness. But in all other respects, erotica is the most comfortable, sheltered, risk-free genre in the popular market.

Erotica Is Anonymous

Madeleine Dupont is an imaginary persona. T.K. Marnell can hide behind her to block any negative vibes from the disapproving public. She doesn't have to take full responsibility for the message or quality of her stories. If people hate them, whatever. Madeleine is disposable.

But even if T.K. Marnell owned up to Dupont's titles, it wouldn't expose her to anything major. The readers of erotica are generally anonymous, too. Unlike in other genres, these readers don't seek out authors. They have little to no interest in connecting with writers on a personal level—or in destroying them. A reader who doesn't like the content of a YA, SFF, chick-lit or crime novel won't hesitate to find the author's website and shoot off an angry message to let her know why she and her book are despicable, shameful trash. But do you think someone who bought an erotic story and had a problem with it is going to use a personally identifiable email account to contact the author? No...that's weird. That's embarrassing. It would be like hunting down the director of an "adult" film to tell him he ruined a particular scene of Busty Babysitters III with bad lighting.

Readers of erotica won't even leave reviews. I was shocked—shocked—when someone left ratings of "The Arrangement" and "The Mistress" on Barnes 'n Noble. "The Arrangement" is selling, comparatively, like hotcakes (Madeleine had some fifteen sales this month across platforms...that's more copies than T.K. Marnell has sold of Bubbles Pop, like, ever). But nobody who has downloaded it from Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, after that first odd outlier, has so much as clicked one of the stars up top. That's understandable. Erotica is something you admire in private. Once you're done with it, you close the window, delete your history, and move on to more respectable things. You don't want to advertise your preferences to other people. What that means for authors like Madeleine is that they can hit "Publish," sit back with a mug of peppermint tea, and never worry about snarky reviewers slamming their stories. It's safe.

Readers of Erotica Aren't Picky

Not to offend any of Madeleine's potential readers, but people do not seek out porn for the artistic or intellectual value of it.

It's not that readers of erotica can't appreciate the "finer" aspects of literature; it's that what they want from erotic stories is not the poetic articulation of penetrating insights into the human psyche. They want literal penetration. Every audience wants something from the media they consume. When people watch sitcoms, they don't need phenomenal acting; they just want to laugh. When they listen to pop music, they're not expecting groundbreaking lyrics; they just want a catchy, toe-tapping tune. And readers of erotica want to be aroused. Good prose is nice, too, but it's not strictly necessary—like the background music in hardcore videos. Maybe some people listen to the track and say, "Hey! This band is awesome! I'll have to look them up later!" But for the most part, the audience is busy with—ahem—other things. If the music is really terrible, of course, it can be so distracting that they give up and find entertainment elsewhere, but the basic standards are easy to meet.

Sex Is Inherently Interesting

The hardest part about writing, for me, is keeping readers engaged. I tend to write mellow, character-focused stories with very little "boom!" or "pow!" I write about the everyday woes of young adults, or the hypocrisy of political parties, or other things that elicit a chorus of yawns. Making these things kind-of-sort-of interesting, never mind exciting, is very difficult.

But sex, just by being sex, is exciting by default. A writer doesn't even have to try. She can just describe what's going on between two naked people in plain vanilla terms, and it's arousing enough. Hell, a transcript of the proceedings in shorthand would be exciting enough.

"He pulled her close and kissed her. He unzipped her jeans and slipped his hand into her panties. She arched into his fingers and moaned his name."

See? Insta-eroticism in three simple sentences. (And one tear-diluted mug each of roasted hazelnut coffee and plain black tea. Sorry, Mom and Dad). No adjectives, proper nouns, or creativity necessary.

Of course, Madeleine puts a teensy bit more effort into it than that. She does have a message to deliver by writing these things, you know (usually it's that people need to be honest with their partners to maintain healthy relationships). But she doesn't need one. And I'm afraid that, once she realizes she doesn't need to, she'll get lazy. She won't push herself to write the stuff that takes some thought and planning.

Sex is Predictable and Dependable

Humans figured out all of the ins and outs of sex (hardy har har) millenia ago. There isn't a position, combination of partners, or toy that hasn't been done before. Neolithic men and women whittled dildos out of bone, antlers, wood etc. I've seen pictures of "sex aids" from ancient China that look like they were made of jade or other precious stones. Anything you think is edgy and modern was probably tried on the dirt floor of a cave 200,000 years ago. The basic process worked the same way then as it does now.

Sex scenes follow a simple, predictable arc. Character(s) get aroused. Character(s) get naked. Object A enters Slot B. Character(s) fuck. Character(s) orgasm. The precise natures of Object A and Slot B are up for grabs (oho, I'm on a roll today!)—A can be a phallus, a finger, or any number of objects (vibrators, carrots, tentacles...), and B can be a hand, a toy (sock, doll, banana peel...), or any of the three openings of the human body available as entry points. Mix and match any combination you please, but the pattern is the same. Deviate from the pattern, and you're going to disappoint a lot of people.

The formula can be convenient or frustrating, depending who you are. Madeleine Dupont doesn't mind. She finds the structure nice and safe. T.K. Marnell, on the other hand, tends to get bored, and recently she's been wanting her body back so she can write things that make people angry again.

The next (last?) Madeleine Dupont novel won't have much sex in it, actually. Two explicit scenes, tops, plus maybe one half that ends at a strip-tease and a little groping. The first one will be a challenge because she'll have to figure out how to write it from the POV of someone who's effectively blind, without using names or visual descriptors. The second will be somewhat of a stretch because she is not a homosexual male. I'm not sure Madeleine will be able to call it erotica at all...but in any case, it's probably the last historical "romance" she'll do. It's time to take off the training wheels and see if she can stay upright on her own.


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