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The War Against Erotica

November 4, 2013

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*Warning: While I always endeavor to handle even adult topics tastefully on Cold, the subject of the following discussion may be offensive to some readers. If you are one of those readers, please join me again next week. Thank you.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about standards in Indie publishing, or as it will increasingly be called – just plain old publishing. And over the next couple of weeks, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of creating and maintaining standards in the wholly democratic industry that publishing has become.

I think it’s imperative that we all talk about what is acceptable, what is not, what is ethical, what is shady, and most importantly, what benefits us all – writers and readers alike.

Enter Travis Luedke (TW Luedke to readers), who is an incredibly talented, versatile, all around credit to Indie publishing.

Really, he’s a pro.

His Nightlife series is a lollapalooza of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll that mixes glitzy and glamorous city living (in glitzy and glamorous places like Paris, London, Vegas) with gory and bad-ass violent vampire lore. And recently, it and almost every other erotic title at WH Smith and Kobo UK (with the exception of 50 Shades of Grey, which apparently is just your average romance, according to online retailers), has been taken off the virtual shelves.

Are The Nightlife stories outrageous?
Yes.

Are they erotic?
Yes again.

Are they for everyone?
No.

But are they well done and tailor-made for an adult audience hungry for books that actually have a great story, in addition to being filled with fun and dirty sex?

Absolutely.

Nightlife NYC 2

The Nightlife series has never pretended to be anything different. For what it’s worth, except for a few vampires, and crime-thriller plots, there’s not a whole lot in The Nightlife that you won’t find in 50 Shades. But 50 Shades is being treated as an exception. And it’s being treated as an exception exclusively because it makes so much money.

It seems to me, that if you’re going to put erotica back in the proverbial brown paper bag, that ALL erotica should get the bag. But I have a very heavy disposition towards free speech – even free speech I don’t like one bit. And I’m also a fan of consistency as it is the cornerstone of principled behavior.

So, in the interest of having a dialogue about setting standards in Indie publishing, I thought I’d ask Travis some questions:

First, is there anything in the erotica genre that you, personally, find offensive and think shouldn’t be there?

It’s really splitting hairs on many issues. For example: were-shifter romance~erotica. There are readers who consider some were-shifter sex scenes to be right on the edge of bestiality. Obviously, book-banning activists are focused on bestiality, but they are targeting adult romance featuring people that shift to the form of animals.

werewolf love

Of course, I don’t advocate, condone or promote any kind of erotic material that would be a true representation of bestiality. But consenting adults, with paranormal-shape-shifting attributes, are not even close to the same thing as having sexual congress with, say, a sheep.

And I definitely don’t condone any form of incest or rape that is WRITTEN FOR TITILLATION. You have to take these matters in context.

What was the purpose of the scene?

How was it written?

Does it move the plot and storyline with horrific character development elements?

Example: Flowers in the Attic includes rape and incest, yet it is shelved as horror, or psychological thriller.

Why are these things OK?

Because none of these events are written in a romantic~erotic context.

So, when you start looking at the issue of these taboos, you must have the proper perspective and context.
If taboo material is written obviously erotic~romantic, then that is considered bad or wrong. But today, in adult erotica, especially BDSM, there is a category of writers/readers who revolve around fiction with elements of rape/fantasy. It’s called NON-CON (non-consensual). There is a certain subset of adults who enjoy reading this genre. I suppose it’s a way to explore things that are just too wild and dangerous to do in reality.

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However, this is a very small minority by percentage of erotic~romance readers, probably down in the 2-3% range. And there are not many authors willing to cater to these readers. It’s a niche market.

I have harsh, abusive scenes in my books, where women are mistreated or even raped. These are scenes written as character insight and background, horrific and appalling. When I write about two characters falling in love (or lust as may be the case), you know the difference, it’s in every line of the scene.

When book-banners start waving the flag of righteous indignation, they need to make sure they are talking about taboo romance~erotic scenes and material, and not horrific~thriller scenes that might be included within a romance~erotic novel. It’s an easy mistake to make – especially when standing in the forum of public opinion amongst an angry crowd.

incestmds

Personally, I am not interested in taboo erotic material as a reader or writer. But, that doesn’t mean I want to slam it. BDSM fiction is boldly pushing the boundaries, with daring literature that is, in many cases, very well written, compelling, and scorching-hot.

lolita

In real life and in fiction, practitioners of BDSM ride the line of consent, mixing pain and pleasure. The average person might consider this bad or wrong, but for the adventurous, they discover unique and invigorating experiences.

I do not practice BDSM, but I have touched on it, briefly, skimming the tip of that iceberg, in the Nightlife Series.

What, in your opinion, is the state of erotic literature today?

I think erotic literature is in the midst of an explosive growth, evolving into a revolution of sorts in the world of fiction (and non-fiction).

Fifty Shades of Grey took a theme that was dangerous, sexy, somewhat violently sexy and fused it with the romance genre. That influence is bleeding over into other genres as well. Christian Grey and Anastasia have created a new ‘norm,’ a new paradigm for romantic fiction. And so, today, we are seeing the lines blurred between erotica and romance.

You could easily pick up a contemporary romance novel, and find yourself in the middle of an edgy, smoking-hot erotic scene. You could also purchase an erotic novel only to realize it’s basically romance with a more detailed expression of sex scenes.

And erotic sex scenes are becoming widely accepted in fiction, even outside of erotica and romance. Publishers and editors are instructing their contracted authors to write more steamy sex scenes, because its popular, because it sells.

So, in your opinion, erotica has evolved from the old days of pulp novels with names like “Spoiled Slut?”

I have heard it said that early erotica was basically porn on paper. I don’t really know, apart from having read a couple of short stories in Playboy.

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I can tell you today’s erotic fiction is hot, not always because of sex but because of sexual tension and attraction between two characters. It’s about the emotional investment a reader feels in these people. If readers care about the lives and the intimate moments between the characters, then you have arousal.

A porn classic like Debbie Does Dallas doesn’t work on paper, because describing the physical act means nothing if there’s no emotional investment in Debbie, or any of the men in her life.

So, yes, erotica is, in many ways, a more enhanced version of romance. Its romance with the bedroom doors wide open.

What, besides the obvious, drew you to write stories with erotic elements?

I have always been a fan of escapist fiction like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, and Peter Straub. I found the horror/thriller novels centered on the supernatural were my favorites.

It was Brian Lumley who taught me the dark, wicked beauty of vampires. And then a few years later I discovered Anne Rice. I have always loved The Vampire Chronicles, but it bothered me that these creatures never had any sex.

Then I found Laurell K. Hamilton, and discovered an entire world of dark erotic~romantic fiction. Now, I’m a total addict of vampire novels and films, and that’s what I write. But I have my cake and eat it too. My vampires live in the real nightlife of today, back alleys, ghettos, strip clubs, casinos, drugs, prostitution, escorts, mafia, cartel.

I like it dark, gritty, violent and sensual, with thriller intensity. And I blend all these elements into my own wicked cocktail.

wicked cocktail hour

Let’s consider the point of view of someone who might be more conservative in their standards. Why do you think there remains an objection to erotic literature, even if sex has been so heavily mainstreamed since the 1960s (assuming, of course, that it is being read by adults)?

Though I will surely offend someone (if you’re not offending anyone, then you’re just not living), I think most objection to erotic literature is based on the religious foundations of our culture. Judeo-Christian religions paint sexuality with a very black brush.

You’ve heard the old joke, Jews do guilt and Catholics do confession. Hence, erotic literature is considered a guilty pleasure by both readers and writers.

So, after having enraged half of the world’s religions, I will add that it seems, in general, our views on sexuality are changing and evolving.

In other words, we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket.

166814-sir-kingsley-amis

Why, in your opinion, does erotica belong in literature?

I think erotic scenes are the natural conclusion of passionate romance. All the great stories of our time involve passionate romance. I don’t mean milquetoast “I care for you deeply Martha,” I am talking visceral, primal passion – that “I want to pin you against the wall and make love till neither of us can walk,” kind of passion.

And why should the bedroom doors stay closed in our great love stories? Erotic literature usually embodies the fantasy of an ideal lover who does everything right.

How often do you get that?

I imagine we could all stand to improve our performance in the bedroom. Or have fun trying. Is that something worth researching and writing about? Worthy of quality literature?

Sex is a natural part of our lives. A healthy sex life makes happy couples and stable families. Sex should be celebrated. Literature should be shining a light on this glorious expression of love and passion.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that intolerance and censorship leads humanity down a road far darker than anything we might encounter in erotic fiction.
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28 Comments
  1. While I agree with the points made in this interview, I would like to point out that talking about censorship and banning books is completely missing the point. Retailers do not have the power to ban books–Kobo isn’t able to keep anyone from writing books or selling them or buying them.

    Kobo has made a decision to remove particular books from its catalog. I think that’s a bad decision from a business standpoint and will hurt their already faltering sales. It is not the same thing as the Nazi’s executing people for smuggling copies of “The Moon Is Down” into occupies Europe, however.

    Authors have a right to write and sell what they want. Readers have a right to buy what they want. Retailers have the right to stock what they think is best for their business. If an author finds that a particular retailer won’t stock her or his works, there are other options. Authors can create their own sales channels.

    Writers of erotic works would, I feel, be better served by banding together to create their own on-line bookstores rather than complaining about the stocking policies of existing retailers.

    • Misha – first, thanks for commenting. I love a good dialogue and that was the whole point of this piece. To present someone (Travis) with a very strong point of view and get people reacting.

      To some of your points, while I agree that a business has the right to sell whatever titles it wants, etc., what is often invisible in these situations is the role of pressure groups and activists. They also have the right to apply pressure however they want for whatever reasons they want, but erotica authors, then, have a right to strike back and call them book-banners. And in an industry like publishing – that has basically imploded and is creating a whole new business model – I think it’s important to talk about emerging standards. The standards that are being created now will, by and large, be followed by the new publishing industry at large, so this needs to be discussed. Ad nauseam as far as I’m concerned 🙂

      Are some of the claims exaggerated? Yes – on both sides.

      As I said in the post – without consistency, our principles waver. While Kobo and WH Smith have ever right to remove erotica titles from their offering (or any titles for that matter), if they keep 50 Shades and toss the rest under the auspices of providing a “cleaner” offering – I’m happy to take them to task for it. I think that’s unprincipled and deserves to be called out. If, however, they decide to take all erotica off their virtual shelves – including 50 – fine by me. As I said (and I’m paraphrasing) in my introduction – pick a team.

      As for Nazis and all that – I think you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion here.

      Nowhere in this post were Nazis ever mentioned and I would never make that connection or allow it to be made on my site. The photograph at the bottom of the post is from an all-American book-burning party that had nothing to do with Nazis. We’ve burned plenty of books here, too.
      Is referencing book-burning at all bombastic? Yes, it is. But I understand why Travis feels the way he does. As an erotica author, he deals with his books getting taken down, with people who are upset about the content of his work although they’ve never read it, etc., on a consistent basis. This is his point of view. And I think his point of view is interesting. If he didn’t have a strong point of view, this would be a boring post 🙂

      Thanks again for commenting – you made some great points that deserve inclusion in the argument.

      • The way to combat economic pressure is with economic pressure. Talking about book banning and censorship accomplishes nothing except alienating potential allies. What is going to make retailers reverse themselves on a business decision is showing them that it is bad from a business standpoint. Authors of erotic works aren’t going to get anywhere with retailers with an argument based on freedom of speech–they need to show retailers that they have the market and they have the sales and those sales can go to someone else.

        I wrote an entire blog post about why “50 Shades Of Grey” is completely irrelevant to self-published authors. Random Penguin is big enough to make their own rules and force retailers to follow them. No self-published author has that kind of leverage. Sure, it’s unfair, but that’s business. Complaining about life being unfair doesn’t change anything. What will change things is for self-published writers of erotica to show retailers that they are good business people and that they will make money for somebody.

    • I get what you’re saying, Misha, but I think a two-pronged strategy is smart. First, Travis and other erotica authors are flexing their economic muscle, climbing the charts, selling books, marketing the heck out of them, etc. They are also dealing consistently with their work being sabotaged and taken down from retail sites. The way to combat that is to speak up. It’s not just about economic muscle. Lots of very successful companies with products for which there is a proven demand face activist pressure and boycotts from retailers. They combat this by speaking up. That’s all erotica authors are doing – speaking up for themselves. I have to disagree that they’re alienating potential allies. I mean, maybe they are, but they’re also illuminating people about what’s happening in their industry. I’d say they’re making more friends than enemies with this strategy.

  2. Incredible post Victoria and Travis. I am reminded of an episode of Picket Fences where the good religious townsfolk went mad en-masse and started banning books from stores and libraries, books such as Catcher in the Rye for the use of the f word. They built a bonfire ready to burn the books. It took a non-religious person with common sense to bring the town to order and remind everyone of the dangers of mob violence and blind hatred and ignorance.

  3. I am not a fan of erotica but I am 100% behind freedom of speech and freedom of the arts. Great interview Victoria and Travis! And well commented Simon!

  4. Reblogged this on writerchristophfischer and commented:
    I am not a fan of erotica but I am 100% behind freedom of speech and freedom of the arts. Great interview Victoria and Travis!

  5. I have no problems with a store saying I don’t want to sell this. BUT if you leave similar books of the same topic on the shelf because it makes money that is discrimination.

    You can’t leave 50 Shades on the shelf and take Travis’ book down. At least his was well written. Yet, both are very erotic and fall under this umbrella. Unfortunately, Travis isnt rock star famous yet! Bet they don’t take down Anne Rice’s erotic down. Or even the Bertrice Small Lara books. Bet if Travis was a trad pub or famous in something they would leave his books up. Consistency is the key!

    I am all for screening…you can tell which books are crossing the line. But not mass removal.

    And if all the online book sellers say no to erotica or self published books then it is almost the same as telling someone no you can’t read this b/c it won’t be easy to find. Most consumers are not going to do endless searches for stuff.

    That is part of the reason Publishing houses are upset over self pub because they are no longer gate keepers to what people have available with the current system. Seems like to me they are trying to make a new gate….but that is how I see it.

  6. One of the things I see in this is a highly convenient witch hunt.

    I totally understand retailers have the right to select what they want to sell. But, when they start dropping books wholesale, becuase of a simple metatag or loosely defined cover art specs, like they have been doing, then they border on a form of discrimination.

    And certainly, we do not have a ‘right’ to publish in any of these retailers.

    But at what point does the discrimination become obvious enough to start calling them on it?

    I think its high time for an Erotica Author-Publisher Association, tasked with the job of creating a high profile retail operation devoted to all things erotic-romantic, and a portion of the royalty cut from such an operation could go to legal counsel to combat retailer discrimination and censorship.

    We need to start creating a standard that is clearly defined for ALL publishers. A cover art standard, a content standard, a metadata standard.

    There is now software that can scan content and find the books with taboo material. There is absolutely no excuse for not having an industry wide set of ratings and standards, exactly like the film industry.

    http://thenightlifeseries.blogspot.com/2013/10/erotica-censorship-beware-power-of.html

  7. Great post! From my point of view personally, I think there are double standards forming. If you write horror, you can write about rape, beheadings, incest or any of the taboo subjects and get away with it. Children can pick up all manner of these titles from their local library. It isn’t so easy for them to get their hands on erotica titles, without the use of a credit card and you have to be at least 16 to own one. Non-con is more popular than you would think and I’m pretty certain it’s above the 2/3% bracket you’ve put it in. Many erotic romances have an element of non-con, especially historical ones and it’s the excitement that draws the reader in. No-one wants to read about rape in an erotic fantasy (OK, very few do) but the idea of someone being capitulated into an erotic sex scene against their will and very much enjoying themselves is a popular fantasy. You need only look to the vault of Literotica and their non-con section to see just how popular it is. That’s also why 50 Shades of Grey was so popular, with a somewhat reluctant heroine.

    I love it when we claim things like ‘free speech’ and in the next instant we start censoring everything — but I do agree it’s a difficult subject. For the most part, these are just harmless erotic fantasies meant for the sole use of titillation and provided it is read by a sane adult, there will be no further problems.

  8. Awesome post Victoria and Travis!!

    I personally hate censorship and banning, not only do I feel that we are having are rights violated but what about the person who went to all the trouble and effort of creating this piece, whether it be a book, art or music, only to then have someone come along and decide that its offensive and should be kept away from the public. Shouldn’t we have the right to decide for ourselves whether or not we want to read a book, look at a work of art or listen to a piece of music and then decide for ourselves if we had found it offensive or if we truly appreciated what the artist/author was trying to convey?

    I think Stephen King said it best in a guest column for the Bangor Daily News, which he has the full column up on his site (and is an amazing read); “Third, to the other interested citizens of these towns: Please remember that book-banning is censorship, and that censorship in a free society is always a serious matter — even when it happens in a junior high, it is serious. A proposal to ban a book should always be given the gravest consideration. Book-banners, after all, insist that the entire community should see things their way, and only their way. When a book is banned, a whole set of thoughts is locked behind the assertion that there is only one valid set of values, one valid set of beliefs, one valid perception of the world. It’s a scary idea, especially in a society which has been built on the ideas of free choice and free thought.”

  9. Kobo has finally done the smart thing they should have done to begin with. Instead of lumping all their titles together, they have created a separate children’s store.

    ABOUT TIME.

    Now, can us adults have our choice of books restored? Or do we still have to shop for books under the clickbait tabloid ‘child-filter’ scare?

    Do children really shop for books on the internet? Hopefully not without their parents.

    The idea of an inappropriate title showing up in a children’s book section is a major/huge failure on the part of the retailer. Its not a failure on the part of Author-publishers, and it should have ZERO bearing on adult-themed publishing.

    And though Kobo has started to get something right, they still can’t compete with Amazon. When ereaders fall by the wayside for minitablets with full PC functionality, will Kobo still be in the game?

    Not if they don’t pull their heads out of their rears long enough to realize the Indie movement is what’s shaping the new publishing market. Embrace it, or be ground under the wheels of change.

  10. The only erotica that bothers me (read: triggers) is the kind that seems to romanticize date rape: when a man rejects a woman’s “no” to sex, or insinuates that he can read her mind and ‘know’ she wants him, or that having said yes once equals yes all the time. Out of context, it’s hard to tell what’s playful and what’s serious, but I’ve seen some erotic teasers on blogs and in Facebook groups that come off as rape-y to me. While I’m completely against censorship, I worry about the influence those books might have and how they perpetuate rape culture. We have enough of a problem with the whole “no means yes” mindset as it is.

    All that aside, let people write what they want to write.

    • I hear what you’re saying, Beth, and I cringe at the same sorts of rape scenarios you described. I don’t like them and I certainly don’t want my son – or any man for that matter – reading something like that and thinking it in any way reflects reality. What’s tough about erotica is that it’s so much about context and interpretation. And fantasy. That’s crucial. Erotica is about fantasy. And erotica writers shoulder a lot more responsibility than us “normal” fiction writers. They must be titillating and indulge in fantasy, but they must be very, very careful with how they present it.

  11. woah! mind blown.

  12. Gregory J. Cromwell permalink

    A very informative article, plus a great discussion in the comments section!
    I never liked censorship in any form, because it stifles creativity, rational thought, intellectual discussion and education (anything that stifles learning & education is the greatest of sins) . It’s too easy to label something as “offensive”, “pornographic” “insert your favorite silly reason here” and try to ban it simply because you don’t like the subject matter. If a person does not like a book, film, etc, etc, the answer is simple: Don’t read it! Give it a bad review, or the most effective method: simply pretend it does not exist. Banning something so others can not read it is a crime and should not be tolerated in a free and open society.

  13. One of the most articulate, honest, and interesting blog posts that I’ve read in ages. Thanks Victoria, and to those leaving many fine comments.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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