Monday, September 6, 2010

Are We There Yet?

By Jean Roberta (Guest Blogger)

Thanks to Lisabet for letting me guest-blog here! I hope I can live up to the general tone of this space.

I write under my real first and middle names, Jean Roberta. When my parents were still alive, I promised them I wouldn’t use our unusual family name for –gasp – my lesbian fiction, which at that time was relatively non-erotic. Then I branched out into erotica in various flavors, and thought I should keep my writing persona separate from my parents’ hopes for me.

In the 1980s, while raising my daughter alone, I earned a Master’s degree in English. (The English Department of the local university has never had a Ph.D. program.) By now, I’ve been teaching first-year English classes at my alma mater for over 20 years. Thanks to the local academic union, I have a secure job and a good salary with perks.

Although I never have enough time to write (who does?), I’m probably luckier than most other erotic writers. To a large extent, my day job keeps me safe. A clean life in the Ivory Tower is what my academic parents always wanted for me.

But then there is the persistent question of where erotic writing fits into academia or a public library, a bookstore, the publishing world or a life. I’ve explained to amused colleagues that actually, many respected writers have written about sex. (“The Miller’s Tale,” written by Chaucer in the 1380s, is still one of the funniest dirty jokes around. And for lovers of classical drama, there is always the Greek comedy Lysistrata, written in the fifth century Before the Christian Era. Not to mention the double-entendres in Shakespeare.)

Explaining that sex keeps appearing in literature because it keeps appearing in life is like shouting into the wind. The French expression “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same) seems relevant to the notion that erotica is now openly accepted, and that prudery is a relic of the Victorian Age.

Since the beginning of the current century, I’ve seen numerous articles in mainstream publications, saying that sex in literature is now acceptable, and in fact, it’s chic. But then I get the snicker. Everyone who writes sexually-explicit fiction must be familiar with the assumption of certain friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers that the genre we choose to write in is sub-sub-literary, that anyone can write that stuff, that it’s an easy way to make money (much like other types of sex work), and that women who write that stuff are available for sex. (One of the perks of growing older is that every year, fewer strangers seem obsessed with me in that sense.)

And then there is the widespread assumption that erotica and erotic romance (sexually-explicit love stories) are the same genre with the same audience. My heart aches when I read about top-notch erotic authors who can’t get novels accepted by publishers any more if the work isn’t strictly romance.

There is nothing wrong with sexually-explicit love stories, of course. But there is something wrong with an assumption that sex must always be the expression of True Love which leads to a formal, lifelong commitment, and that only a commitment can “cleanse” the sex. I remember being told something like that by my mother when I reached puberty. This assumption wouldn’t make sense if we weren’t still living with a very old belief that sex is inherently degrading in itself.

My heart aches when I read about writers who won’t admit to anyone they know personally that they write sexually-explicit fiction under a pen-name completely different from their own. In some places, even now, erotic writers seem to occupy the same invisible social position that gay men, lesbians and bisexuals occupied before 1969, when a police raid on a disreputable bar in NYC turned into an uproar that made the rest of the world aware that “gays” existed (who knew?) and didn’t like being constantly picked on as carriers of “perversion” (sex).

I can only sigh when politicians launch protests against government funding for the arts (literature, film, music, visual art, dance, theatre) if a book, a performance or an exhibit includes any sexual explicitness, thereby making it “porn” according to the critics. In some elections, “porn”-baiting is a popular sport (“The other guys spend money on porn and sexual favors”). Those of us who write about sex are certainly not a protected species, and we often have to explain that it’s not the only subject we ever tackle in words.

Time will tell whether the general status of erotic writers goes up, down, or at least levels out. In the meanwhile, we need to support each other. Our freedom of speech isn’t guaranteed anywhere.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My Writing Bio

A national student writing award in my last year of high school encouraged me to dream of a Literary Career, but the road to success has many twist and turns. In the 1980s, a local publisher brought out a slim volume of poems, half by me and half by a woman I hadn’t met before. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in a larger city brought out my collection of lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. (The title is a reference to the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s.)

In the 1990s, I started writing erotica. My first erotic story, “Something Natural,” was published in Batteries Not Included (an anthology about lesbians and sex toys) in 1999. The story refers to the feminist sex wars of the 1980s/90s in which the use of sex toys (“tools of the patriarchy”) was very controversial in some circles. At the time, I was more afraid of being ostracized by all thinking women for being Politically Incorrect than for being a shameless writing slut, although the two categories seemed to overlap!

I joined the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, which provided me with encouragement and information. By now, over eighty of my erotic stories have appeared in print anthologies. (Learn more here: www.JeanRoberta.com. This site needs to be updated, but still has useful information.) My own diverse collection of 14 erotic stories, Obsession, is available in several formats from Eternal Press, now an imprint of Damnation Press. (Seriously!) Find it here: http://www.eternalpress.biz/book.php?isbn=9780980458169

Writing non-fiction is also a pleasure for me, and most of it is work-safe for readers. (Of course, this depends on your work.) Since July 2008, I’ve been writing a monthly column, Sex Is All Metaphors, for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association: www.erotica-readers.com (Look in the Smutters Lounge.) I’ve found that almost every subject of discussion has sex in it somewhere! Along with Lisabet, I write monthly reviews for the reviews site Erotica Revealed (www.eroticarevealed.com) . (The other reviewers are Kathleen Bradean, Steven Hart and Ashley Lister. The site is run by erotic writer/editor D.L. King.)

Check out the September blog tour for Spank! an anthology edited by D.L. King, including a story by Jean Roberta. The dates and links are listed here: And a free spanking story will be on my blog as of September 5.

10 comments:

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Jean,

Welcome to Beyond Romance! Thank you for your (as always) thought-provoking commentary. I'd never thought about the notion that the "true-love" aspect of erotic romance in some sense makes the sex acceptable, somehow less "dirty". That's quite an insight, and I think that for some readers, at least, there's a lot of truth in that observation.

And no, I don't think we're "there" yet. More's the pity.

Warmly,
Lisabet

Margaret West said...

Loved the post Jean. I do understand what your saying. I'm not an erotica writer, but my sister in law is. When I mentioned her book to a friend they sneered and said it's thinly guised porn! Mmm that makes me think,have they actually read an eorica book?
My SIL uses a pen name, so as not to embarress the children at school. I find that a bit sad.She is proud of her books, just wary who she tells about them. Her book 'Forbidden' has just come out and is doing so well, Thailand have just brought the rights to it. So in answer to your question, will erotica ever be accepted, yes it will and IS. Good luck with your novels.

Lorrie said...

Great post, Jean.

I don't write erotica and I don't really read much of it. My perferred taste is thriller/romance. But, I do think it will level out. Come on, let's face it, it's highly popular. And any genre that popular will eventually be acceptable writing and reading material.
At one time the "Gay" community was not accepted. Civilization is learning more about freedom of choice everyday. Stick to your guns and become popular in your field. Soon there will be no snickers, no false names, and only enjoyment and pride at your success.
Now, if we could only get rid of the nasty looks, the upturned noses and the no-no shaking fingers of the non-smokers when we smokers light up, I'd be a happy camper. And I don't think reading erotica is as bad for your health as smoking. Yeesh!

Krista D. Ball said...

I don't write erotica, though I keep threatening that I'm going to give it a try one day. I do like to pretend that erotica authors are treated on the same level, but they really aren't.

It is perfectly fine for me to write scenes where an orphanage is burned, the bodies of children nailed to local trees and cursed with magic. However, show someone kissing a breast and immediately people won't read it. I don't get it. The sexuality is a lot more everyday than the baby killing.

Even I get censored by reviewers, who make a point to give a warning that my upcoming book has a brief mention of bisexuality. There isn't even any sex!

There are days I don't understand this world...

D. L. King said...

Really excellent post, Jean! Yes, I think you're right: it's the love ending in commitment that makes the sex "all right." I don't know how we came to be so provincial but I'm pretty sure religion has something to do with it!

Word Actress said...

I love hearing writer's back stories and yours is a great one. You were destined from high school to follow this exciting path. So glad your life and writing is going splendidly...

Ginger Simpson said...

You reminded me that I wrote a erotic romance and I keep forgetting it. I'm going right now to add it to my book page, along with the link and cover. Maybe I'll snag a few sales if I admit that I'm really Pepper St. Clare. I loved your blog post. Luckily, times have changed since I first assumed an alias. I know many in my family would have fainted...that is if they ever took the time to read anything I write. *lol* It wasn't long ago, but I believe people are discovering why sex sells, especially when there's a plot involved. *smile*

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the comments! "Pepper" as an alias for "Ginger" is clever - & both heat things up! I'm impressed by the number of responses, all supportive as well as perceptive. I just hope a few of my university students this semester (which starts on Sep. 9) will write this well. (And there's a can of worms I didn't even open: the responses of some 18-to-22-year-olds to short stories by world-class writers that refer even briefly to anything sexual. Considering what I remember of that phase of my life, there seems to be a huge gap between Life and what some readers expect from Art.) Well, you have all brightened my week.
- Jean Roberta (who has trouble posting here as anything other than "Anonymous," for some reason).

Jolie du Pre said...

I've been able to write full-time and pay all of my bills writing articles. I live with my husband, but money from non-fiction writing is so good that I could support myself if I needed to.

That's what kills me more about erotica than the fact the prudes don't like it. If erotica gave me the type of money I make now, I'd focus on it more. If erotica were respected better, it would pay better.

Yeah, some erotica writers make great money, enough to live on, but they are not the norm.

Tom Olbert said...

Very interesting post, Jean.

As a paranormal fiction writer, I've never been into erotica myself, but I see it as a legitimate literary form (with or without the love interest) if done honestly. And, of course, objections will always be more political than moral in a society that seems to embrace violence over sex, pretending to maintain a Victorian or Puritan value system while parading teenaged girls on football fields and embracing male bonding in strip clubs. It's as if our society's greatest fear is to embrace its greatest desire. I guess it boils down to all male-dominated societies the world over trying to either suppress or dominate female sexuality.

Well, maybe erotic fiction will help our society through its confused adolescence.

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