One of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written, “The Sway of the Dead,” has just come out in a new anthology at long last. But here’s the thing: it’s been released in an erotica anthology, Erotic Dreamspell. Anyone who has followed my writing career at least casually knows that this is not the first story I’ve written that’s come out in an erotica collection. In fact, if you type in my name at Amazon, three of the four titles that come up are erotica books. I’d argue that this is a gross miscategorization of the scope of my writing, and yet I’m not at all abashed to be included in the erotica genre—perhaps foolishly.
99.9% of what I write is not erotica at all. I write horror, sci-fi, fantasy, literary, and humorous fiction. I’ve even written children’s stories. I take pride in being able to write for different audiences, and no matter what I write, I always aim to explore some aspect of human conflict. Sometimes that conflict involves sex and sexuality. I hate to break it to all the prudes out there, but sex is part of being human. We make love, we fuck, we fantasize, we lust, we masturbate. All those experiences and emotions make up a huge part of the human experience. How can we not write and read about sex? It’s not smut, it’s not erotica just because there is an element of sex in a piece of fiction. My aforementioned story, “The Sway of the Dead,” is a violent dystopian zombie story. First and foremost it is a warning tale about getting caught up in the middle-class consumer rat race. The two heroes in the story have sex. The scene is not explicit, but it doesn’t dance around the deed either. It is what it is. Whether because of the unabashed sex, social critique, or the violence, this story riled up almost every magazine editor I sent it to. Most made personal written comments about how much they disliked the story, how reprehensible it was, and how inappropriate it was. It took the editor of an erotica anthology to read it with an open mind and see the story for what it is. That’s just one of the reasons I don’t shy away from the erotica label.
The publishing world has a tendency to pigeonhole writers in a specific genre, largely because it makes writers more marketable. If you know that James Patterson does nothing but vomit out detective thrillers, and you love reading detective thrillers, then you’re going to happily buy all of his books. This characteristic of the business is one of the reasons authors use pen names when they publish work with adult content. This is the marketing excuse we hear. The other—often unspoken—reason writers use pseudonyms is that here in the United States, we are still terrified to talk about sex. Popular sentiment is that it’s a deed best left unspoken, necessary to propagate the species, yet something to be shameful about. Writers, along with artists in all mediums, avoid discussing sex out of fear that they will be stigmatized and their work marginalized as pornographic trash.
I’ve written only two legitimate erotica stories. Only one has been published, and that’s “Night of the Bear,” which originally appeared in a British erotica anthology from Xcite Books called Sex & Seduction. Both erotica stories I wrote came as the result of a dare. A writer friend of mine, Melinda Combs, sent me an ad from a magazine editor looking for sci-fi erotica. I naively remarked to Melinda that any hack could write erotica, but she begged to differ and went so far as to triple-dog dare me to try it. So, I took up the challenge and wrote a sci-fi erotica piece. It was a hell of a lot harder than I thought. I sent my resultant story to the editor and she wrote back a scathing critique/rejection letter. My story was clichéd, sappy, and unbelievable, she said, and more importantly, there was not nearly enough sex to excite the reader. She was right.
Not one to accept failure, I tried my hand at it again, and this time I let my barriers down. The resultant story, “Night of the Bear,” was downright naughty and not meant for the faint of heart. Yet at the same time, it was a great story, and it turns out that’s what erotica editors are looking for. I sent the story off to a different editor, and boom, it got published in Sex & Seduction. The story has subsequently been packaged into two Kindle e-books, Aztec Gold, and Getting Waxed (which accounts for 3 of my 4 erotica titles on Amazon).
This story has caused some notoriety for me, largely because I teach at the college and high school level. When a student comes across one of these erotica books on Amazon or Goodreads, I inevitably get questioned by the student whether it’s true or not. Is that really me, their seemingly square teacher? The fist couple times I was confronted in this matter, I was abashed, but then I slowly began to realize that there is nothing to be ashamed about. “Night of the Bear” is a story to entertain adults. That’s what I tell my students, and that’s the truth of the matter. Adults deserve to be entertained too. We can’t water everything down and give it a PG rating just out of fear a kid will find out about sex. This is why I’m so glad Melinda dared me to write erotica. This is why I’m not ashamed of the erotica tag.
It’s worth asking what erotica is, really. To me, it’s fiction that’s written to arouse and titillate the reader. An adult reader. It’s sensual. In a sense it’s escapism. It allows us—the reader—to live a fantasy we could never have in real life. In my story “Night of the Bear” the protagonist takes drugs, kills demons, gets a blowjob from a vampire, and has passionate sex with a manipulative, power-hungry seductress. These are all things that I don’t do in real life. My guess is, neither do most of you. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, but it makes sense that reading about this sort of thing is a healthy outlet. It satiates our primal need for danger and excitement that is lacking in modern society so that we can go about working our normal jobs and have satisfying—even passionate—love lives with our partner.
The literary stories I’ve written with elements of sex in them have garnered a somewhat warmer reception from editors at literary journals than from speculative fiction editors. This seems odd to me, because speculative fiction editors have generally been more open-minded to experimentation in style and content over the last few decades, but perhaps this is a misconception on my part. After all, Harlon Ellison felt compelled to put together all the Dangerous Visions anthologies to provide a forum for the racier speculative fiction stories some very well-known writers couldn’t get published elsewhere. Perhaps editors of lit mags are more open to adult content because of their smaller readership and their target audience, which tends to be more open minded in regard to sex.
Whatever the case may be, erotica editors in my experience still have been the most open-minded and honest when it comes to content that in some way challenges our sensibilities. This is why I’m not ashamed of the erotica tag.
Should I be concerned that I haven’t used a pseudonym for my erotic titles? The novel I just finished revising, Dreamwielder, is the best thing I’ve written to date and it has a legitimate shot of getting picked up by a big publisher. But it’s a far cry from erotica. It’s dark, and hopefully suspenseful at times, but my target audience is young-adult to adult. There is no sex in the novel. Is my name tainted by my erotica pieces? Because I have also chosen to write stories for an adult audience? Will publishers steer clear of me because I haven’t carved out a pigeonhole for myself?
Realistically, the answer to these questions is no, because I’m still small potatoes and nothing I’ve had published yet is significant enough for big publishers to even worry about. Still, these are good hypothetical questions to ask. Could JK Rowling publish a steamy novel aimed at an adult audience, then go back to writing YA fantasy books? I don’t know.
All I can say is that right now I wear the erotica titles as a sort of badge. Those stories represent the edginess and poignancy I like to embody in my fiction, and the editors and readers of erotica are open-minded and willing to read the types of fiction I write. This is more than I can say for the readers of wholesome fiction.