Dirty books shouldn’t need defending, should they? However, there’s a certain kind of book I’ve noticed that gets badmouthed everywhere it goes. It’s treated like an uninvited guest who turns up at a formal party looking like a streetwalker, then proceeds to get drunk, foul-mouthed and does a lewd dance on the table top, flashing her skimpy undies. Everyone considers her an embarrassment, but you can guarantee most of them are secretly enjoying the show.
What books am I talking about? I’m talking romantic porn. You know the sort of book: the one where the plot is the thinnest excuse for hanging together a series of sex scenes. Romance readers feel cheated because there’s little in the way of a romantic arc: just two unfeasibly hot men (or whatever gender combination you like) shagging like rabbits at every opportunity. Erotica addicts get annoyed because it isn’t edgy or literary enough, and there’s too much lovey-dovey snuggling for their tastes.
And yet this stuff sells like hot cakes, making all us writers who are aiming for a higher class of erotic romance—the kind where there’s character development and genuinely plotty sex—look on in bewildered envy. Who is buying this stuff? Don’t they know it’s tawdry rubbish? Why would they turn down our gourmet feast for the literary equivalent of a fast food burger? It makes no sense.
Except it does.
I used to be a literary snob. I think it comes with the territory of having a degree in English Literature. For years I looked down on both romance and porn, while secretly devouring them when I had the chance and no one was looking. As an undergraduate I even wrote a paper on Mills and Boon romances, purely so I had the opportunity to sit and read them with a valid excuse: “I’m not doing it for fun. It’s research, honest!”
I still remember the illicit excitement of reading those books, much like I remember the thrill of reading my first genuinely pornographic novel. I was about fourteen when I found a paperback copy of “The Sheik” by Anonymous on a park bench. The plot was a fairly standard—western woman kidnapped and becomes part of the Sheik’s harem, then falls in love with one of the other slaves—but I was hooked. Here was sex on the page. Genuinely dirty, explicit scenes that revelled in the human body and arousal. I read it secretly under the covers with a torch, and it fed my sexual fantasies for years.
Now I own an ereader it’s much easier for me to read trashy books without anyone knowing. I don’t have to admit I’ve read them on Goodreads—no one need know about my deviant tastes. Except I don’t want to hide it anymore like a shameful secret. I want to be open and honest about it:
I read romantic porn, and I’m proud of it.
I read and enjoy a lot of other kinds of erotica too—romance doesn’t have to figure, but the longer the book, the more I yearn for some kind of romance in the plot, even if it’s between a whole bunch of people—and there are certain publishers out there who are more than happy to cater to my hunger for smut-laden polyamorous romances between more men than you can fit on the cover.
I’m not entirely sure why I like my smut to have hint of romance, but it seems as if many other women feel the same way—and no doubt a fair few men, although female readers do represent the majority of the market for written erotica. I recently spoke to erotica publisher Hazel Cushion (Xcite Books), and she told me that since “that book” exploded all over the marketplace (you know the one: tie on the cover, rhymes with “shifty fades”), her biggest sellers are no longer the more edgy BDSM titles, but it’s the books featuring a romance in amongst all the sex. The new set of erotica readers want something safe, not too challenging, but with copious amounts of explicit sex. And they want all that sex to be between two loving and consensual partners (or more than two, if they’re kinky sods like me).
Without wanting to get mired in that age-old debate about what makes something erotica rather than porn, I’m going for the following definition of porn when I use the term: writing that is designed to arouse the reader, where the plot exists to provide scenarios for sex, and where the characters are pretty much ruled by their sex drives. When I think about it in those terms, I can’t help but wonder if all my novels so far have in fact been porn (although the next one has very little sex in it, which was quite a surprise to me!). Of course, I try to be literary and include themes and a wider world outside the bedroom, but the fact remains I enjoy writing sex scenes, and I enjoy writing highly-sexed characters. It stands to reason that my plots will provide plenty of opportunity for them to get it on, and I’ve never shied away from using explicit language. Indeed, I was rather proud when The Hot Floor came out, and reviewers said it felt like they were “reading porn”. They often said it in a rather surprised way, as in they were expecting erotica and got something rather more filthy. Fine. It is a very dirty book, I’ll admit it, and I definitely wrote it with the intention of arousing the reader. I can’t think of a finer compliment than someone telling me my book has fed their erotic fantasies, but so far I can only think of one review where the reader has actually stated they masturbated while reading.
Why are we still so ashamed of admitting we’re aroused by reading smut? It strikes me that a lot of the snobbish attitude I see directed at dirty books springs from us being uncomfortable with our own sex drives. Instead of looking down on pornographic writing, the feminist in me rejoices in the fact that this is one lucrative part of the porn industry that’s almost entirely in the control of women. The vast majority of writers and publishers of erotica are female, and they’re doing extremely well for themselves out of it. No one gets exploited, and there’s no risk of spreading STDs. Written porn is the ultimate in safe sex, while still giving us the chance to get down and dirty in our imaginations. I want to see an end to this widespread snobbery about dirty books, and I want to celebrate all those books that have nurtured my filthy fantasies.
Yes, even the romantic ones.
English through and through, Josephine Myles is addicted to tea and busy cultivating a reputation for eccentricity. She writes gay erotica and romance, but finds the erotica keeps cuddling up to the romance, and the romance keeps corrupting the erotica. Jo blames her rebellious muse but he never listens to her anyway, no matter how much she threatens him with a big stick. She’s beginning to suspect he enjoys it.
Find Jo at JosephineMyles.com