I don’t really get enough questions on Tumblr to make an FAQ, but there is one question I do get frequently, and it’s this:
“Why do you call yourself a pornographer? What you write is really more erotica!”
I’ll be honest, this one kind of flummoxes me, because I feel like in 2013 the distinction between pornography and erotica for textual fiction is kind of… irrelevant. And nonsensical. But mostly irrelevant.
I mean, here’s the thing: usually the way people distinguish between “pornography” and “erotica” is with some variation on the theme of “pornography” being something where the purpose is titillation, and “erotica” being titillating fiction that also has some higher purpose.
There are some problems with that.
For one thing, what counts as a higher purpose? Cinematographic beauty? Physical beauty of the characters? Emotional connection? A gripping plot? A political statement? Side-splitting humor? I absolutely have seen all of those things in straight-up no-holds-barred actual filmographic pornography, as in, porn flicks, made in porn studios, with porn actors, to be sold in porn shops, or shipped to you at your home in a discreet brown paper wrapper from an online pornography emporium. Don’t believe me? Check out The Intern (contains NSFW dudes), or the Crash Pad series (contains NSFW ladies). And it’s not, like, just in a few titles, here and there; in general, the porn that I look at for more than about four seconds—and believe me, I look at quite a bit of porn (NSFW, obviously)—contains at least one and frequently several of those things. Especially humor. I haven’t done, like, a statistical analysis or anything, but my intuitive impression is that most porn, especially contemporary porn made for our present post-hipster-irony age, is funny. And, like, self-consciously, deliberately funny, not just funny by accident because genitals are hilarious. (Though genitals are hilarious.)
To me, this assumption that when you are talking about textual sexual content, what divides “porn” from “erotica” is that there be some higher artistic quality to the work is completely at odds with what happens in visual sexual content, which doesn’t really have an “erotica” category at all. There’s porn, and then there’s soft-core porn, and then there’s literary filmmaking that includes sexual content, but that three-way breakdown really doesn’t map onto textual fiction. The logical thing to do might be to think of the parallel three categories in textual fiction as “porn”, “erotica”, and “fiction with adult themes”, respectively, but textual fiction that gets called “erotica” is very much not the same thing as soft-core porn. Anyone who’s read any decent erotica will tell you that in fact stuff that can be legitimately called “erotica” can be both way less dirty than some literary filmmaking that includes sexual content and way dirtier than huge swathes of the mainstream porn industry. Usually what divides porn from soft-core porn has to do with how much genitalia you see, and what’s going on with it while you’re seeing it; but that’s not a good metric for textual fiction, where a lot of things other than how down and dirty the characters are getting—point of view, identification, connection, mood, theme—can determine how graphically, and with what language, the down-and-dirtiness is being described. (If you want a good example of this process in action, I highly recommend Peggy Munson’s excellent story “Fairgrounds”, which appeared in Best American Erotica 2006; you can read part [though not all] of it here, via Google Books. It’s very, very dirty. It’s also incredibly beautiful, complicated, creative, metaphorical, and lyrical.)
Which brings me to a corollary of this first argument: if what makes “erotica” different from “porn” is a higher purpose, there’s an embedded value judgement in that that really raises my hackles. Specifically, it’s the judgement that <Thing X>, this abstract higher purpose in fiction that erotica has and porn skips, is in fact a higher purpose. That lyrical prose, or what have you, is in fact more important than making you hot. It’s not just extra; it’s better.
I think that’s a really dangerous idea, in large part because desire can be, in and of itself, such a tremendous revelatory tool. Characters tell us things about themselves when they’re turned on. Desire exposes and unfolds them as people. Sex is a really important thing: how people do or don’t want it or have it or like it or think about it is very often a major part of who they are, especially in certain stages and contexts of their lives: young adulthood, midlife anxieties, the uncertainties and self-renovations that go along with aging; in new relationships, relationships on the edge, relationships in flux. Negotiating sex—articulating what you do and don’t want, and finding someone who gets something out of giving it to you—is a hugely important and challenging thing, and it’s not like you do it once and then stop. You have to do it over and over and over again, and it’s hard every time. And part of what happens between an author of dirty stories and their reader is that an author of dirty stories can create a space, this magical little ten thousand or thirty thousand or one hundred and twenty thousand word space, in which the reader has not only permission but encouragement to experience desire, and, a lot of times, to experience desire in ways and contexts that the reader would not feel free to enter on their own.
That’s. Enormous. That’s absolutely huge, and it’s rare, and being both important and unusual means that it is a precious and valuable thing. And, I mean, you know, please forgive me re-mounting my feminist soapbox and so on, but it’s especially precious and valuable for women, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to experience their sensuality and sexuality within the lines.
In general, for me, a more interesting line to draw would be between “boring fiction” and “interesting fiction”. In boring fiction, things are predictable and tidy and clean. The decisions people make are easy and the end result can be seen from a mile away. In interesting fiction, things are chaotic and messy and hard. Characters are complicated and uncertain and they lie to themselves and each other. They have to work to see things correctly. They have to struggle to figure out what is right. They have to compromise. Events might mean one thing or many things or nothing at all; they might mean one thing to one character and something completely different to another. Sometimes mundane things happen and people get hung up on them and blow them way out of proportion because that is how things happen in real life. Sometimes people screw and it’s bad. Sometimes they screw and it’s amazing. Sometimes people fuck because they are seeking affection and connection and comfort and touch, and sometimes they fuck because they’re horny. Sex can be hot, funny, injurious, a terrible idea, a fantastic idea, solo, with a buddy, with multiple buddies, with multiple electronic buddies, whatever, and the characters have to make it up as they go along. The characters have to figure out how to say, “I need you to tie my hands behind my back and fuck me against the door, if this partnership is going to work,” and that’s not easy; and they have to figure out how to say, “I need you to help with the household chores, if this partnership is going to work,” and that’s not easy either.
I love those stories. I read the fucking hell out of those stories. Those stories are the ones that get under your skin and won’t get out. They’re the stories that make your eyes leak because you are running out of room inside. And the way they do it is by putting hooks inside you and dragging you through what the characters are going through, whether that’s love or sadness or hope or uncertainty or fear or anger or desire. And yes, if it is important that the reader feel love and sadness and hope and uncertainty and fear and anger, if pulling the reader through those emotions is part of the author’s goal, then yes, if the characters are experiencing desire, then it makes sense for the author to want to pull the reader through desire, too.
I hope my stories are interesting. I hope that when you read my stories you follow my characters through their love and sadness and hope and uncertainty and fear and anger and, yeah, through their desire. If the desire weren’t important, I’d leave it out! This is Editing 101: if a scene isn’t important, if it isn’t in some way revelatory, it shouldn’t be in the story. Maybe I don’t always hit that—I know I don’t always, actually; I definitely didn’t with “Flight”, which is why I haven’t archived it off Shousetsu Bang*Bang; I have a lot of problems with it and I want to rewrite it—but that’s what I’m going for. That is the goal: to pull the reader through everything that my characters are experiencing, with all the parts of themselves, without discrimination or distinction. So yes, when there’s sex in my stories, I hope it makes my readers hot. No: I hope it makes my readers fucking scorching. I hope it makes them catch their breath and bite their lips and squirm. I hope they enjoy it extensively, and at their leisure, and with whatever companion(s) and/or technological assistance they desire; and I hope they come back for more. If that weren’t important to me, the sex wouldn’t be in the damn story at all.
And that’s why I call myself a pornographer: because if you’re reading my stories, I sure as hell hope you’re having a damn good time.