Sex is the vehicle, the conveyance, yes; but my stories are about desire, or attachment, or doubt, or adventure, or growth, or any of the many things that other novels and short stories are about. I almost always have a core idea that I wish to explore: Is it wrong to need reassurance of one’s attractiveness? What role do observers play in defining a couple? How does being covered (physically and metaphorically) affect your view of yourself? What circumstances drive us to ask directly for what we want? and so on.
In other words, erotica often addresses themes that can be found in a lot of other fiction, from history to fantasy to family sagas and ‘chick lit’. In some cases it addresses themes you might find in other genres too, from crime to horror to westerns. It just does so in a particular way. In fact, it often turns the question around and asks ‘what is sex about?’, or ‘what’s the driving force behind our fantasies?’
Of course these questions won’t be new to many readers of contemporary literature. Anyone who’s read Thomas Pynchon, for example, will remember passages dealing with intense and often rather fetishistic sex, and exploring different dynamics of desire. There are plenty of examples in Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day. Then there’s Hubert Selby Jr., with Last Exit to Brooklyn. And if you’re familiar with French literature, much of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work, such as Project for a Revolution in New York, revolves around extended and hugely detailed sadistic torture fantasies – though the intellectual justification for them is that they push at the boundaries of narrative structure and expose the linguistic tools from which narrative is constructed (often, actually, by deconstructing narrative into small fractured parts with minor variations in repetitions – not that you really needed to know that). And then of course there's the long tail of books prosecuted for obscenity in the past, some well-known (Radcliffe-Hall's The Well of Loneliness, Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and maybe some surprises there as well - have a look at this list, or the Wikipedia article on obscenity (which is mainly US-based and contains a few interesting observations that aren't particularly relevant here, such as the FBI's interest in online erotica).
But while eroticism has made appearances from time to time in ‘high literature’, it’s also now emerged from the shadowy interior of ‘adult bookshops’ and broken out of plain paper packaging to become a major genre in its own right. Erotica seems to have come of age.
The internet has helped, and so has Kindle. All the evidence is that people are prepared to read stuff electronically that they wouldn’t buy in physical form (Antonia Senior has an article about this in The Guardian). If you look at genre listings on Kindle the three biggest categories are, on the UK Amazon site, romance (about 18% of titles), crime/thrillers/mystery (15%) and erotica (12%). Other categories – fantasy, science fiction, horror and even ‘literary fiction’ have many fewer titles.
This is a rough guide because some books are tagged in more than one genre category, the categories themselves can be arbitrary (‘crime’, ‘thriller’ and ‘mystery’ aren’t always the same thing, but they constitute a single category) and what counts as a ‘title’ can be immensely variable – from a very short story to a thousand-page novel, with many erotica titles being on the shorter end of the spectrum.
It’s difficult to make an assessment based on sales because publishers don’t like releasing sales figures. When they do, erotica tends to be lumped in with ‘romance’, ‘general fiction’ or some other broader category. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests erotica is now one of the major areas of – what shall we call it? Textual consumption? – especially in ebook format.
However, erotica has had a sudden and unexpected boost in its public profile since two erotica titles, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, reached numbers 1 and 2 on New York Times fiction bestseller list in March 2012 (these positions were correct as of 25 March 2012; here a BBC News article about the books).
Plus, HarperCollins has decided to launch a new line of ebook erotica under the Mischief imprint, while Eroticon, a recent conference for erotica writers, ended up being reported in the mainstream press – see for example the report in The Independent and The Guardian. (I wasn't there, unfortunately - it was a busy weekend for me in other ways.)
If there’s a lot of it about, and that’s not purely because everyone’s looking for wank material. There is a lot of wank material out there, but there’s also a lot more than that. Erotica speaks to its readers about their lives and their concerns – their fears, uncertainties, doubts, desires, fantasies, fetishes and so on. And it doesn’t do that purely by talking about sex. It uses sex as a way to address all these other issues. It uses sex just like crime fiction uses murder, and science fiction invents alternative universes, to address the same kinds of underlying issues.
My own erotic stories, incidentally. often have underlying themes that revolve around topics as varied as philosophy, social theory, inequality and economics, and art and literature. The very first erotic story I wrote, believe it or not, was an exercise in phenomenology. Erotic Review Magazine liked it and published it (it's no longer on their website but is likely to be republished in another format soon!).
But for now, the key thing is this: erotica is no longer in the shadows it was once forced to hide in. It's out and proud, it's clear that it strikes a huge chord with a lot of the reading public, and the best of it does what any good literature does - address the personal, emotional and social complexities of the world we live in.