Let’s be honest. Erotic literature has taken a hit in credibility the past few years. Though it is a sad turn in popular genre fiction, it need not lay down and surrender where the craft of literary erotica is concerned. Writing erotica is unique as a respected art form that dates from the 18th century, when sensual exploration married the ideals of literary fiction. Sex was a vehicle to convey the story then as it should now, instead of the wham bam, thank you ma’m pornographic weirdness it has popularized into.
My call to arms, if one wishes to grasp the banner, is to reclaim what rightly belongs to the realm of literary fiction. I propose we redeem the form to it’s purposeful glory by writing erotica worth reading.
Labeled as smut, Lady Chatterley’s Lover faced censorship when published in 1928. Detractors argued the novel had the potential to shake the fabric of social morality. Few mentioned the novel’s intrinsic merit. After all, author D.H. Lawrence layered beautiful language with the sensual nature of human connection.
He too has bared the front part of his body and she felt his naked flesh against her as he came into her. For a moment he was still inside her, turgid there and quivering. Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her.
Writing erotica as literary fiction
Literary fiction provides merit through social commentary and exploration of the human condition. Though Lawrence wrote of sex and the abandon of desire, he also used the titillation of illicit romance to explore heady social issues. Lying in her gardener’s arms, our protagonist comments on the fate of the world and suggests it would be best to leave it behind. To our pleasure, her lover responds with a summation of the novel’s intent:
Even there (the moon) you could look back at the Earth, dirty, beastly, made foul by men. It’s a shame what’s been done to people. Men turned into nothing but labor-insects… and all their manhood taken away, and all their real life. I’d wipe the machines off the face of the planet and end the industrial epoch absolutely, like a black mistake.
Remember, this is 1928 and the industrial age is in full swing. Men are cogs to a greater autocracy, and the period saw a great flood of dystopian literature as a result. Though he was writing erotica, Lawrence was commenting on social conditions. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a call to change the society’s inadequacies and promoting equality among men. Hence, the novel has literary merit.
Erotic fiction can once again take its place as a respectable form on the shelves at Barnes and Noble if only we step up, as Lawrence did, to the challenge of writing it.
writing erotica well
I believe the design of language is to spur sexual arousal. Therefore, write with a purpose. Writing erotica is an author’s chance to emote passion and lust in order to bring out the nature of their story’s merit. As such, use language that does just that. Write to make your reader weak at the knees. Communicate with intelligence and reason rather than shock and porn. Be quotable rather than deplorable.
Begin by structuring your story as any other. Plot an outline, identify story elements and draft away. For erotic fiction, acts of a sexual nature are the vehicle for rising and falling tension, a perfect analogy for the moods of passion. Look to each intimate scene as having three major stages: a growing arousal, a climax and a post-coital depression. Passion has consequences, and within these let the story come to light. Write your sentences to advance plot, setting and tone. Trust yourself.
From Bram Stoker’s Dracula:
The fair girl went on her knees and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth.
elements of setting in literary eroticism
It is safe to surmise that eroticism in literary fiction shines light on the human condition in relation to the stimulus around it. For example, let us say a particular story speaks about humanity in flux with technology. Therefore, the setting must illustrate an abstraction from the human body. Warm in contrast to cold. Supple in divergence from rigidity. Desire in opposition to aversion. Beauty in conflict with horror.
Writing erotica in this vein illustrates how the strengths of human sexuality interact with a setting through change and reflection. Because this is an expectation of the form, draft settings that skew from nature’s sensuality. Fill your world with conflicts against emotion and truth. Be brazen in writing consequences for those who step out of the social norm. Dictate impossible fallacies for lovers to overcome.
Balance form and function. Write with a soft touch to challenge the reader’s imagination, yet do not be so vague as to leave them in the dark. A reader should be part of the environs in a novel. Therefore focus on bringing them in. Obvious metaphors and cliches debase good literature. Consequently, originality strengthens it. Take for an example this excerpt from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
…and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
writing erotica with an eye for vocabulary
Most noteworthy in the creation of literary erotica is the use of appropriate vocabulary. As a result of the validity placed upon commercial erotic fiction, there seems to be no shortage of outright pornographic nouns, adverbs and adjectives. However, instead of listing the obvious as examples, I instead propose this. Use language that would not be deemed filthy by an average, rational human being. Choose words that are socially acceptable.
The mastery of using appropriate language when writing erotica stems not in the lazy approach of sticking in short and foul words, but in the construction of description and meaning. Rely on your taste and that of your reader. Be biologically accurate but not filthy. Be honest and sincere. Hence, use language that portrays a sentiment in that precise moment rather than falling back to debasing profanities.
There is, however, a great deal of opportunity to take this sentiment too far. Too often a rough draft with an intimate scene drops from modernity into the realm of King Arthur’s court, where the language of sex adjusts to a great deal of flowery prose, filled with PC symbolism and innuendo. Don’t be that writer. Fix it during your revision. The language and vocabulary should be commiserate with the language and tone of the setting. John Cleland kept this in mind while writing his 1748 novel, Memoirs of Fanny Hill.
…and now, disengaged from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? Not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant.
be knowledgeable of your characters
It is no secret that well a written novel is a conspiracy of its characters. Write protagonists with faults, antagonists with redeeming traits. Create personalities who are alive and complex. Make them believable in their settings. Most importantly, in literary eroticism, write from both aspects of the intercourse. The cardinal sin of erotic writing is to focus on only one character. React to the characters’ desires as individuals with purpose and contribution.
Do not be the writer who writes a one-sided sex scene where one character is ‘banging away’ and the other is nothing more than a receptacle. Inject individuality and reactivity.
Lastly, develop characters who are more than what they appear in bed. Demand well rounded traits with desires, dreams and frailties that go beyond the bedroom. This is where the story lies. Write to enrich, not just to titillate.
- Create merit by writing for a reason
- Use appropriate vocabulary
- Make a statement
- Write for posterity, not Penthouse
- Be clear yet challenging
- Read the masters to learn your craft
- Do not channel chivalrous language for the 21st century
- Develop well-rounded characters
- Use sex to illustrate your point, not centralize it
- Write believable scenes
Write with passion and integrity, striving to better the form of your desires.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on the subject, so please leave your comments below.