Erotica Authors Grapple with Sex and Literature in the Age of '50 Shades' 

Tiffany Reisz, Megan Hart, Cara McKenna, Skye Warren, and Kitty Thomas talk about the craft of literary smut.

Most people aren’t keen to talk about porn in mixed company. In the halcyon days before 50 Shades of Grey became a thing, explicit sex in literature didn’t have much presence in the mainstream cultural dialogue either. In the years since, with erotic fiction still dominating bestseller lists and regularly popping up in talk show monologues, it’s safe to say our collective boundaries have shifted.

When 50 Shades of Grey movie billboards were ubiquitous, the slogan on them was “Curious?” but the only things we were curious about was whether Jamie Dornan cried between takes. But real erotica — by which I mean that written by authors who don’t plagiarize ideas and who grasp the basic points of writing — is indeed curious. It has been an art for hundreds of years but was thrust into the mainstream in large part because of a shabbily written novel that began its incredibly lucrative life as Twilight fan fiction, an ignominious moment in the sun for any genre.

So I did some Sherlocking (and no, by ‘Sherlocking,’ I don’t mean erotic Sherlock fan fiction) into the world of literary sex to find out just what goes into the profession of well-written smut.

“God, I love a man with a big vocabulary.”

—Tiffany Reisz, The Siren

Because a lack of strong writing in carnal matters can lead to misunderstandings.

Now, because the most famous current entry in the genre is the most objectively terrible book to achieve popularity in recent memory, you might think, “Well, I have sex — how hard can writing it be? I’ll just go ahead and crank out out some dinosaur erotica!” But literary titillation takes craft and finesse.

And these five authors have it in spades. For example, see what this reviewer said of Cara McKenna’s work: “I’m a bit in awe of McKenna’s ability … some of the imagery and writing style were so exquisitely executed … knocked character development out of the park…” Or see what this one said of Tiffany Reisz’s work: “So intelligently written … Yes, it is hot and steamy but … if you just want the titillation, then go find a different book. If you like smart, fun, deep, books with a heavy sensual side then The Siren is the book for you.” Or see this review of Megan Hart’s work: “Hart has done an incredible job of crafting an erotic story with an actual storyline, rather than lots of ‘wham, bam, thank you man’ sex. … A recommended read for those looking for something sensual yet deeper.”

In addition to McKenna, Reisz, and Hart, I spoke to Skye Warren and Kitty Thomas, both of whom specialize in taking the “is he dangerous” element to more provocative places.

First things first: If you want to know if erotica writers have done everything their characters have, nobody’s got time for that.

Megan Hart: Everyone asks, “Do you do all the things you write about?” My goodness, who would have the time? If I was doing that, I wouldn’t have the time to write. If someone writes a murder mystery, people don’t ask, “Have you killed a lot of people?”

Cara McKenna: Anyone who thinks we’re all nymphos and have done everything our characters are doing will either be really disappointed or really relieved. There are a lot of writers who write psychopaths and serial killers who have never killed a squirrel, but they can imagine who this person is and what they might do. I think erotica and sex scenes are the same. If you know your character well enough, you can guess what would turn their crank.

What are the most common misconceptions about erotica?

Cara McKenna: That it’s a new thing that E. L. James invented. Bless her heart, she’s been great for the industry’s visibility and great for my sales. You can ask 100 people what they think about her and get 100 different answers. To generalize wildly, I don’t think women realized erotica was out there and definitely not in the volume it is. It’s been around for as long as people had language. Every decade there seems to be a new book that reminds people it exists. 50 Shades is the current one.

Tiffany Reisz: Probably that we’re sex-crazed and having sex all the time. I’ve lost count of the amount of people who volunteer information about their sex lives and think I want to hear it. I don’t want to hear it any more than if you go to the dentist, you’d want to hear about his sex life. People can have trouble separating the writer from the creation. Every year around November, there’s a company that does a calendar of naked priests. I get inundated on Twitter and Facebook — hundreds of people send me links, thinking I’m dying to see this. I don’t have a priest fetish; just because I write about somebody who has a certain profession, doesn’t mean that’s my fetish. I don’t think Stephen King has tried to re-animate a dead pet. But you never know!

Megan Hart: I think the biggest misconception is that people who write and read that kind of material are doing so because they’re unhappy or unfulfilled in their personal lives. What drives anyone to enjoy any kind of stories they read or write? I like to write sexy stories because how can you write about two people falling in love — or more than two if that’s the case — without exploring that? My goodness, people do crazy, crazy things if they want to have sex. It’s a huge motivational thing; so universal, and at the same time, it’s individual and unique and not the same for any two people.

Sex makes bumble-tongued fools even out of the most eloquent, but the beauty of it is that it also tunes our ears to hear the meaning of words that, spoken under other circumstances, would make us laugh or cry or frown.

—Megan Hart, Dirty

Skye Warren: There are a lot of ideas that erotica is either cheap or in some way, very different from a regular other type of book. To me, at the end of the day, it’s just a book, with all that implies. Any book, regardless of the genre, is designed to evoke emotion. A good erotica book would do exactly that — evoke all the same emotions as another book, including arousal.

Kitty Thomas: It’s not romance with more sex. It’s a totally different focus and genre. I think there can definitely be a disconnect with readers coming in from romance who are just expecting a “dirtier romance” that follows all the genre conventions. Erotic romance is a thing, of course, but readers shouldn’t expect standard romance genre happily-ever-afters from me. There are other authors who write that and write it beautifully, but it’s not my thing.

What were you doing before erotica?

Cara McKenna: Graphic design for a magazine company.

Tiffany Reisz: I was in seminary school.

Skye Warren: I used to write software. Very left-brain.

I’d never really had a plan. That had been the point. I had wanted to wander, to flit, and I’d flown right into a spider’s web.

—Skye Warren, Wanderlust

So, what are the components of good erotica?

Cara McKenna: I prefer it to be well-written and smart, with the kind of vocabulary where I don’t feel like my intelligence is being insulted. I get fascinated by the psychology of it. Peeling back the brain layers is just as interesting as all the parts moving in and out of each other. I like that part of the story. But my answer might not look like another reader’s, and that’s totally legit. One person might not blink an eye if a heroine refers to her genitals as her pussy. That might turn someone on; it might squick someone else out. You have to poke around and experiment. Word choice is important.

There was summer in the air, a warm breeze that reminded me of broken teenage curfews and a hundred once-favorite songs and forgotten crushes.

—Cara McKenna, After Hours

Tiffany Reisz: Good erotica is very subjective, because I’ll read one book that really does it for me, and then another along similar lines that doesn’t. But good erotica needs good world building and fantasy building. I’m thinking of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty chronicles. The characters are pretty flat, but they’re the hottest books I’ve ever read. Conversely, in the Kushiel’s Dart books, which I also loved, the characters are well-developed. Erotica needs a good setup. I really need to believe the world and be immersed in it.

“What’s your favourite position?”
“I usually play winger.”
“Zach, I adore you, but you can’t make soccer jokes during phone sex. It just isn’t done.”

—Tiffany Reisz, The Siren

Megan Hart: To me, good erotica is a story that makes you think and feel, but that’s any good story. Good erotica makes you a little bit uncomfortable. I like to leave it a bit subtle or vague and open to interpretation. I like to make the reader think and maybe accept points of view or situations they wouldn’t normally understand or think, “Why does that turn someone on?”

Skye Warren: Good erotica is simply a good book that either has sex in it or happens to focus on the sexual journey of one of the characters.

Kitty Thomas: Good erotica is somewhat literary and engages your brain as much as your naughty bits.

He said it with everything he did, every touch, every caress, every physical pleasure he bestowed upon me. Give it all to me. Give me your will.

—Kitty Thomas, Comfort Food

Turn-ons can be intensely personal and vary wildly between people. How do you gauge what will be sexy to others — do you simply write what appeals to you, and trust that it will also appeal to others?

Cara McKenna: I’ve certainly written sex acts that I’d never in a million years want to do. But if it makes sense for the characters, that transcends any personal appetites. First and foremost, it has to be sexy to the characters.

Megan Hart: I write things I personally find sexy and I assume the people who read my books read them because they like what I do. When I first started off writing and I didn’t have a reading audience, I wrote a little bit to what was marketable at the time or trendy or what everyone wrote about. Also things I found interesting to read. But it has to be stuff I enjoy myself or can understand why others would enjoy it.

Shadows suited him. On James they skittered and fled, even in the dark, leaving him bright and shining. On Alex they clung and caressed, dressing him in mystery.

—Megan Hart, Tempted

Kitty Thomas: Mainly I write things I find hot on the page and trust that I’m not a special snowflake with totally unique interests. I just trust that the compatible people will find my work.

If you haven’t developed morals by the time you start reading erotica, it’s probably too late.

—Kitty Thomas, Comfort Food

Let’s talk research. Do you do it, and if so, how?

Cara McKenna: If you’re going to write about a fetish or a community that has a lot of tradition — like the BDSM community, or cuckolding, which is what my next book is about — a lot of these communities have specific vocabularies for the different roles and acts. You don’t want to mess it up. But you also don’t want it to sound robotic, like a how-to manual. I always research. You don’t want to get other people’s kinks wrong. That would be rude, like writing about another culture and getting it wrong. I listen to a lot of Savage Love podcast with Dan Savage. That’s a good resource.

Tiffany Reisz: I started playing around with kink when I was 21 or 22. But I’ve never personally done suspension, so if I put that in a book, I have to research it. I’ve never personally done bloodplay, but I’ve talked to someone who has. I think it’s great more people are aware of BDSM and talking about it, but if it does inspire an interest, do your research. The real world is not the same as fiction. I have been to kink clubs, but when I created the club in The Siren, I hadn’t been. I based it off a documentary I saw about the old Playboy clubs.

“Impressive, isn’t it?”
“No,” Zach said. “It’s appalling.”
“Really? Such a strong word to describe sensual activities shared between consenting adults.”
“Hurting people for pleasure? For sexual pleasure?”
“Holding Eleanor down while she struggled underneath me and begged me to stop…that was beautiful.”
“Rape isn’t beautiful.”
“But you see, it wasn’t rape,” Søren said, his tone light and conversational. “She enjoyed the struggle, enjoyed feeling overpowered and taken. I take rape very seriously, Zachary. … You seem uncomfortable with women fully owning their sexuality.”

—Tiffany Reisz, The Siren

Megan Hart: I research all aspects of the story I don’t know, not just the sex things. I go online; I ask people who have experienced it. It’s really not that hard to get people talking about their sex lives.

How would you respond to someone who called your work porn?

Cara McKenna: I think it fills gaps in the sexual entertainment market that porn can’t. With porn, you can hear what they sound like and see what they look like. For a lot of women, that doesn’t work. To generalize bombastically, we’re wired differently than dudes. There are too many chances to be picky, like, “I don’t like his voice, or face.” With erotica, so much of the ambiance is in your own imagination. You can picture who you want and make their voices how you want. It’s more erotic because there’s room for editing. It’s a more inclusive kind of porn delivery system. And there’s also not a lot of super creepy “Just turned 18!” ads flashing in the corner that might harsh your buzz.

A snatch of memory visited me, of my pitching a fit when an old boyfriend had grasped my hair when I’d been giving him head. It had hurt, and worse, it’d made me feel like he’d written me into some porn scene. I’d signed up to be with a nice guy, not some porno-jack-off hair-grabber, and he’d violated my expectations. How dare he not conform to the script I’d composed when I cast him as my gentle lover? How dare he try to recast me as some slap-around slut whose hair he got to grab while he fucked my mouth? … Funny how with Kelly, I welcomed the dirty stuff. I guess because he came as advertised. He couldn’t violate my expectations, when violation was basically his main selling point.

—Cara McKenna, After Hours

Tiffany Reisz: It depends on your definition of pornography. With The Sleeping Beauty chronicles, there’s literally a sex scene on every page and the point is to get you off, but porn is typically more visual. This is the analogy I use: Romance is to porn as a cozy mystery is to a snuff film. Just because they both have a dead body, doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.

Romance is sex plus love. Erotica is sex plus fear.

—Tiffany Reisz, The Siren

Megan Hart: I certainly have had more than one person try to tell me I write porn. My belief is porn, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I know the difference between porn and erotic fiction. I know the difference, but trying to convince someone else will be a lost cause.

In the wake of the success of the 50 Shades franchise, have you felt pressured to meet popular demand by dumbing down your work or by making your heroes gazillionaires or by adding in BDSM if you didn’t have it before?

Cara McKenna: A lot of us felt pressure after 50 Shades to gravitate towards writing these super alpha male heroes. Certainly more mainstreamish BDSM. I write D/s books, but DIY, none of the bells and whistles. BDSM is expensive, elaborate, and time-consuming. It doesn’t appeal to me. In my books, it’s “what does he have, probably duct tape and a mirror.” It feels sexier if it’s more spontaneous. And I have this weird aversion to books that have heroes that are jacked and fit but don’t do sports or physical jobs. My heroes are working-class. Ellora’s Cave always let me write whatever I want. After 50 Shades, Penguin came a-courting. They’d taken the time to read my stuff and knew what I wrote. For the first book, they did want a real alpha hero, and I was happy to do that, but they never cared about a billionaire. I’ve never felt external pressure to write a hero who’s a millionaire. I know in not doing that, I might be missing out on sales. Billionaires are huge, stepbrothers are huge, vampires also huge, so if you want big bucks, you should write billionaire stepbrother vampires. The tradeoff in not chasing trends is not chasing the gold rush — but I wouldn’t be interested in the work, and it would show on the page.

“Are you part of the BDSM scene or whatever?” Laurel asked. He made an exasperated noise. “I can’t stand that shit. They make everything so fucking complicated. You might as well be one of those Civil-fucking-War reenactors…Anyhow, I just like stuff a lot of women don’t, so I have to make sure I find the ones who do.”

—Cara McKenna, Willing Victim

Tiffany Reisz: I get a lot of recommendations through it. Like, “If you thought 50 Shades was poorly written, here’s well-written BDSM.” I never read it. I read the first paragraph and knew it wasn’t for me. I don’t like first-person present tense, and the heroine sounded 14. But you can’t really compare them. Her books came from Twilight. They began as fan fiction and came with a built-in audience from the Twilight base. It’s like Jurassic World — of course it was No. 1 at the box office, because it had the built-in base of fans of the Jurassic Park franchise. My books are original fiction, they come from nowhere, so that’s more of an arthouse film.

Megan Hart: Those books certainly got a lot of people reading the genre who had not read for a long time. As far as the books themselves, I think they have created really divisive opinions, but my opinion is that it was overall positive in that it brought readers. I was fortunate in that I had already established a readership at the time, and I have not felt any pressure to change the way I write. I don’t have a checklist, like ‘oh, I haven’t done an orgy book yet, let me try that out.’ But I also don’t want to write the same story again and again.

Sex is not wrong. Sex is not dirty. Not even sex in a public place with a man you barely know. It’s not. Sex is a gift, a built-in human pleasure, something to enjoy and cherish and utilize. Sex rejuvenates. Sex replenishes. Orgasms are just one more miraculous function our body provides, no more shameful than a sneeze or the beating of our hearts. Sex is not dirty, not even in public places with someone you barely know. Liking sex, like a man’s hands on me, coming with him, letting him inside me … that doesn’t make me dirty.

—Megan Hart, Dirty

Finally, let’s talk about “grape,” as Amy Schumer calls it — grey-area rape that isn’t a black-and-white situation. Erotica uses more technical terminology than Schumer; the official term is “dubious consent.” Fantasy of a partner exerting power and force does not signify that someone would welcome such a scenario in real life. Still, it’s a loaded topic — so for those who chose to engage with it, why? And were there any concerns over how it might be received?

Cara McKenna: There are books like 50 Shades that purport to be consensual, but readers might not interpret it that way. Then there are books like mine, that might have edgy kink or one that has rape role-play. Some readers might find it a turnoff; some like the dubious consent. Skye Warren writes a lot of dubcon books. She’s a great writer. It’s just at the edge of what I’m comfortable reading. Never before have I felt like there’s been such a mass public discussion of consent and rape. Which is great, it needs to be talked about. But because it’s such a hot-button issue, we’re sort of primed to be looking for it, and some might be looking to witch-hunt people who are not showing enough concern. On the other hand, our culture is full of it. I watch a lot of crime shows, and people are getting raped all over the place. There’s no doubt there’s a titillation aspect. No one likes to recognize in themselves that they have that response, but rape fantasies are really common because I think fear and arousal operate from similar places.

“Me wanting to pretend a man is forcing me once in a while doesn’t mean I secretly think I deserve to get raped or that I’d ever in a million years want to be. It’s all about control—having it or giving it up.”

—Cara McKenna, Willing Victim

Kitty Thomas: Sex and fear together can be very potent. I think it’s a primal thing. Orgasm is “the little death.” There is something about sex, death, fear, that’s all mixed up deep in our psyches. No matter how outwardly civilized we become, it’s still right there just under the surface, and I think these types of books tap into that in a safe space. I don’t usually write safewords. The book itself is the fantasy/scene. So if you need a safeword, putting the book down is your safeword. And that’s perfectly acceptable. I definitely want readers to feel that mix of fear and arousal when reading. That’s a way to make that happen where it is safe — because it’s a book — but it doesn’t always feel safe in the experience of reading it. I think readers begin to trust certain authors to take them into that space and then bring them back into the real world without too many psychic bumps and bruises for the journey.

Skye Warren: Ideally, women would be able to explore and enjoy their sexual fantasy without shame. But that’s almost an impossible ideal. There’s quite a bit of shame tied up in these subjects that we’ve internalized. Wanderlust [in which the hero rapes the heroine] freaked a lot of people out. It freaked me out, honestly. I literally wrote it in the dark at night. I stayed up late and didn’t let myself think about what it was. It was really only looking back, I thought, “Wow, this is crazy dark, people will be so mad at this hero and at me for writing it, I can’t publish this.” From a career standpoint, it might not be good to publish. It’s too out-there. But almost immediately, people were reading it and reviewing it. It really struck a chord. I got a lot of, “I liked it, but I wasn’t sure I should,” or, “I loved it and feel bad that I did,” or, “I found it strangely hot but it’s not for everyone.” Even when they liked it, they wanted to temper it. It’s a tough question because they feel like, if he did this awful thing to her, are you saying rape is OK? If I like it, am I saying that I’m OK with it?

Gentle hands wrapped the smooth leather around my wrists and secured them to the headboard with an ease that scared me. “You can get out of this,” he said, nodding toward my tethered hands. “If something were to happen, you could wriggle and yank them out. It’s safe.” Safe? Was that really a consideration here? This whole thing was unsafe. That was too mild a word.

—Skye Warren, Wanderlust

Skye Warren, continued: When people talk about concerns over the fact that these books exist or are being read, ultimately there are women who have these desires, fantasies, or curiosities, and this is the safest possible way to explore that. And they’re entitled to that. That’s why, for me as an author, I don’t feel shame or worry about the fact that I write it. I get contacted by a lot of new authors, and I always get asked about morality. They like reading [dubious consent] and the idea of writing it, but they’re concerned about what they’re putting out into the world — is it morally OK? I always say, “If you don’t feel comfortable, then don’t do it.”

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