On Sunday at 8pm EST I'll pick a favorite commenter (insight is more valuable to me than flattery, so no gushing required, thanks) to win their choice of any of my currently available e-book titles.
Now on to the post…
Erotica writers know the genre's official boundaries as a matter of business. Readers know them implicitly, and they know that when they read a story that steps over the line, they set it down and walk away, maybe never finish it, or maybe even make a bee-line to their computer to hammer out an angry review.
If you're curious, the official rules are: no pedophilia, rape, incest, bestiality, snuff, or playing with anything that belongs in the toilet. That still leaves a lot of room to experiment, though… To quote my fabulous Ellora's Cave* editor, Jaynie Ritchie:
"How far is too far? Well, I don't see the boundaries ever being pushed to include kids, dead people or furry little animals. I think the key word in erotica is consensual. If everyone involved is happy with what's happening, then pretty much anything goes.
"That said, we still don't want anything that's verging on porn. The emotion has to be there, the connection with the characters and how they're feeling about themselves, each other, and what they're doing together."
Well said. She even went on to name-drop my titles, which is a handy segue into what I wanted to talk about this week:
"I love finding new authors who push boundaries and readers only need look at your latest works to see just how outside the box we're willing to go. Ruin Me and Willing Victim are both examples of boundary pushers."
I promise I'm not really trying to flog my own books—reader reaction, not reader enticement, is on my mind this week, and I can only speak to my own experiences. And because only my mom would want to read solely about my experiences, please comment, comment, comment!
As I've said before on a couple of occasions, the thing I love most about writing erotica is the genre's flexibility and freedom. I'm pleased to be writing romance now as well, but I can't imagine ever quitting erotica…its comparable lack of conventions (and I can speak only for contemporary, non-paranormals here) is way too much fun to give up. It's also a very honest genre. You strip intimate relationships down to their sexual bones and there's not much room for the polite and the respectable, the pretty.
This genre has allowed me to write about things romance won't, such as the existence of—GASP!—sexual desire for people outside of one's two-person relationship. I'm not saying we should act on it like Robin, the woefully flawed protagonist from Ruin Me, but come on. [liberal rant alert] Monogamy doesn't equal the end of attraction. Monogamy is the decision to forgo having sex with people who aren't your partner, not ceasing to want to have sex with people who aren't your partner. For as long as we've all been spouses and partners, we've been mammals for far longer. The mainstream romance crowd isn't so keen to broadcast that biological newsflash, and frankly, neither are plenty of erotic romance writers, readers, and publishers. Before it came out, I worried Ruin Me would incite some major reader vitriol, and that Robin would be too flawed to be relatable. But oddly enough, I haven't come across any reader comments or book reviews that condemned the story because of Robin's murky fidelity—plenty of people disliked it for other reasons, but not for the ones I'd anticipated.
I had a new release come out last weekend, one that took a lot longer to go from submission to sale than any other I've written for Ellora's Cave. I didn't actually question whether Willing Victim was going too far when I wrote it…that may be a testament to my exceedingly liberal brain space. It wasn't until Jaynie came back to me and said, to paraphrase, "I like this a lot, but because of the subject matter I need to get a second opinion before I can make an offer." The controversial aspect of the story is that it contains a heck of a lot of rape role-playing. Ooh, even I just flinched at the R word, and I wrote it.
Now in my head, rape role-play is so far from actual rape they're barely related. Actual rape is about abuse and hurt and humiliation, or the selfish, sociopathic satisfaction of the abuser's desires. Two people admitting they share a sexual kink linked to the power dynamics and the taboo nature of that crime…so not the same thing. Like bondage, if done right [and I don't actually indulge in either, in case you were curious…my characters are far kinkier than I'll ever care to be] it's still about control and power, but underneath, the structure that allows people to indulge in those kinks in a healthy way is built on trust, respect, and good old-fashioned curiosity. I could go on, but tons of far more qualified people than I have surely written more thoughtfully on the topic already.
What I'm getting at is that rape role-play is fairly common, as kinks go. The majority of people who are into it aren't wannabe rapists or rapists-in-training, or mental cases who think they deserve to be assaulted. I knew this when I wrote the story, but as always I forgot that not everyone shares my opinions. So my editor Jaynie asked my editor-in-chief, Kelli Collins, to read the story before Ellora's Cave could say yea or nay. Luckily for me, Kelli is progressive and open-minded, and not looking to play things safe. She announced she loved the story as well and I happily accepted a contract.
As my release day neared, I fluctuated between two frames of mind. On the one hand, I'd come to realize my story was controversial, even by mainstream erotica standards… The sex scenes are gritty and extensive. Also, the so-called hero, Flynn, isn't outwardly kind or cuddly, and I worried readers might add those facts to his kink and find him unlikeable or unworthy of the heroine's attraction and trust…or perhaps they'd find Laurel reprehensible for falling for such a jerk. Also, part of me was nervous for the book to come out, knowing I could be in for a glut of angry e-mails suggesting I was condoning or fetishizing one of the most heinous crimes there is. On the other hand, because the book was somewhat controversial, I figured it'd be easier to take the criticism. I expected some people to hate it based on the premise, so I wouldn't be in for a rude awakening if it got mercilessly slammed.
But weirdly, as of the day I'm writing this post, responses have be astoundingly positive. Our readers are tough as nails! You can check out the comments thus far from readers here—just scroll down to the ratings. There's hardly any mention of the story's contentious kink, in fact. And trust me, I didn't go light on the role-playing—Flynn is an unapologetic alpha brute who makes long-suffering Shane from Shivaree look like a librarian. Willing Victim is a truly filthy book. Which, I'll remind any semantically sensitive old-skoolers who may be reading, I mean purely as a good thing.
Now this is no market study by any stretch of the imagination, but what do results like this mean for the genre? I think it means our readers are curious and open-minded, and not as delicate as we fear. At least not the ones who read that advisory and still hit Buy.
So, our readers seem willing to go there…but where exactly is "there"? I asked EC editor-in-chief Kelli Collins her personal opinions about "how far is too far?" for erotica. Here's what she had to say:
"I can't speak to the industry at large [but] in regards to EC, I can attest to the obvious: The more risqué we become, the faster readers become jaded (the kinky devils). Eight years ago, anal sex was taboo. A couple years later it was rare to find a book without it. Five years ago, male/male was taboo. That trend exploded like few I've seen. BDSM, Capture, etc., these and more have experienced erotic Renaissances of sorts and found their place with readers. Now I'm seeing more female/female.
"I constantly wonder how far EC's readers will go; when we'll reach the limit of what they might accept. We have our taboo topics that will never be allowed, but they're relatively few and, beyond them, the sky's the limit.
"The need to push readers' boundaries and discover what they will and won't accept are the very things behind our 2010 Merry Kinkmas series, the sexual aspects of which will revolve around a specific fetish or kink. We're getting some interesting synopses for those, to say the least. Some already tame by EC standards; some beyond what I'd expected (read: day-um). No idea what reader response will be, good or bad…but it'll be fun finding out."
To word it my own way, I think there's room in erotica for extreme kink and a representation of the "uglier" sides of human sexuality. As long as there are writers brave enough to push the boundaries. I'm not suggesting I'm especially brave—I just tend to not think about the consequences of things before I sit down and write, hence all my flawed characters with their infidelity and obsession and rape fantasies. I like writing about the so-called ugly…though I pay for it sometimes with reader responses to my not-always-butterflies-and-rainbows semi-happy endings. But seriously—to everyone who hated the ending to Shivaree, did you not notice how frigging codependent Shane and Gabriel are? I stand by Natalie's decision. Ah, another digression. It must be Cara's day to blog. Oh and oddly enough, though Willing Victim is my so-called grittiest erotica to date, I suspect it's also the most romantic, something I didn't plan when I began writing what I thought would be a vignette about sexual exploration and submission. I'm not sure how it would have been received if I hadn't subconsciously balanced out the rough sex with a strangely tender romance. I think I got very lucky that Flynn and Laurel grew to care about each other the way they did, otherwise readers may have set the story down feeling unsettled and cold.
So, now to questions!
Readers: leaving aside the verboten subjects (bestiality, pedophilia, etc.), where is your personal boundary for where you're willing to let an author take you? Does the quality of the writing factor—i.e., would you read a story that goes beyond your normal comfort zone because an author who you already trust wrote it? What kinks would you like to see explored more in mainstream erotica? Do you think that the further publishers go, the quicker readers will become desensitized and bored with the genre?
Writers: have you written an edgy erotica, and if so, how was it received? Did the reader reaction surprise you? Is there a topic you're curious about exploring in a story, but you're hesitating due to its contentious nature? Have you submitted a story that got rejected because it went "too far"? Do you worry about what will happen to our genre if the lines continue to blur and boundaries to be pushed?
I'm utterly fascinated by this topic, so please, tell me what you think.
*Please note that the quotes from Jaynie and Kelli reflect their personal views, and not necessarily the views of Ellora's Cave / Jasmine Jade Publishing. Big thanks to you both for contributing your editorial two cents!