What do I intend when I write about sex? I intend a lot of things and they vary from piece to piece, so let me back it up a step.
What do I intend when I write?
This is more straightforward because the answer hasn’t changed in fifteen years. For me, authorial intent comes down to one thing: I want to understand.
The first story I ever wrote was a vignette called “Passing Unnoticed”. It’s never been published and likely never will be. It’s nothing more than a moment between a tired, jaded young woman and a tired, hopeful old man. It’s not an erotic story, but there is a sexual tension to it that stems from their recognition of something in the other. I wrote that first story because I was struggling to understand two halves of a coin—how do you go on when you want to let go; and how do you let go when you know your life is done?
I still don’t have the answers to those questions. Sadly, writing that story didn’t give me access to universal wisdom. What it did give me was a window into small, specific truths, which I used to explore my questions through small, specific characters. As with so many things, there is no one answer—there are as many answers as there are people to ask questions. So I started asking more questions and I wrote stories for each:
What do you do when you find the child you thought you’d lost?
What do you do when your perception is dangerously wrong?
What do you do when your own nature is trying to kill you?
What do you do when you realize that you’re fundamentally alone?
That’s why I started writing – to explore questions like that so I could try to understand what it is to live. Fast forward 12 years.
I’d always written erotic stories, but only for myself. My intention in writing them was to explore my fantasies and turn myself on. My intention didn’t change when I began submitting to erotica calls, except that now I also wanted to turn the reader on. At that point, my writing had two different purposes: the literary was for exploration and the sexual was for titillation. It wasn’t until about a year ago that this began to change.
When I wrote “The Second Letter” I wasn’t thinking about turning anyone on. I was thinking about what happens when you compromise yourself for something you desperately want. In other words, I was asking a question: How do you recover a self you’ve willingly given up? That was the first time I consciously engaged a question through a sexual lens. (I’d been doing it subconsciously for years, but never with intent).
After that, my intent began to stray. I became less deliberately concerned with arousal, and more concerned with trying to understand, because sex is really effective way to engage the human experience. I’d been so caught up in the demands of the market that I created a divide in my writing where one didn’t have to exist. I could write about sex in the same way that I write about everything else, which was exciting because sex is the easiest and most natural way for me to engage the questions I tend to explore in fiction.
The authors who inspire me—Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin—undermine that same dichotomy. Their work explores what is is to live, love, hate, and hurt, and they do so beautifully (and arousingly) with sex. They’re a sort of intersection between the literary and erotic. Realizing that gave me permission to integrate my authorial intents, so now what I intend when I write about sex is the same thing that I intend when I write—I want to understand. If my stories turn someone on along the way, that’s wonderful. That makes me genuinely happy. But I no longer feel compelled to engineer that affect the way I used to.
I realize the phrase “engineer that affect” could be easily misinterpreted. I don’t think writing to get a reader off is in any way less valid than writing for some other purpose. If that’s your passion, that’s what you should do. There is a sensitivity between writers on either side of the porn vs. erotica debate, just as there is contention along the commercial vs. literary divide in mainstream publishing, and that divide has become increasingly pronounced in the post-FSOG erotica.
Recently, Remittance Girl wrote a searing analysis of what the erotica market has become, while Tamsin Flowers examined the market issue with a pragmatic, unflinching eye. Each piece looks at the issue from a different angle—Remittance Girl’s from the literary, and Tamsin’s from the commercial. Interestingly, both come to similar conclusions—that erotica is no longer what it was and that authors dissatisfied with the market as it is would be best served by writing in a new or different genre.
I highly recommend both articles. They’re prompting important discussions regardless of how or why you write because, for me, there is no value judgment in being a commercial vs. a literary writer. It’s simply a question of where your work fits.
These two pieces prompted me to think about authorial intent because understanding why you write about sex can help you understand where your work does or does not fit. And yes, it’s true that writers write for more than one reason, but there’s usually one overarching motivation that drives the majority of your work. Do you write predominantly to turn the reader on? Or do you write for other reasons—to explore, understand, critique or examine everything from socio-cultural issues to love, death and what it is to be human?
If the former, your wheelhouse is very likely in the commercial realm. If the latter, perhaps you fit into the historical definition of literary erotica. Either is valid. The point is that knowing where your intent and passion lie (even if only from piece to piece) means being able to position your work appropriately.
For my part, knowing that my primary intention is to understand rather than turn-on helps me make larger choices—am I willing to compromise to get commercially published? Am I willing to publish less widely to love what I write? And how can I get my work to readers who want it? Because that’s important too. Readers are the other half of the equation – without readers, I can write to understand all I like, but it’s a self-serving exercise if I can’t connect with someone else.
For me, compromise feels uncomfortable, because in order succeed in a commercial market, I’d have to write away from my natural intent, which means that I’ll very likely have to find different ways of getting eyes on my work. That’s a good thing to know. It will allow me to write in the way that is most satisfying to me, without wasting emotional energy banging at a door that won’t open.
For authors whose work fits cleanly into a market, that a wonderful thing and I hope you take advantage of it. However, those of us with less clear cut paths have to be flexible and creative in pursuing new ways to connect readers with our work. In the end, all I really want is to pursue my intent and match my work to as many readers as I can. I would love for other writers to be able do the same.