Melbourne writer Kate Belle is the author of two novellas and a new novel, The Yearning, which tells the story of a torrid love affair between a schoolgirl and her teacher. It’s received a lot of attention from our members, and numerous rave reviews, so be sure to check it out. Recently, we had the pleasure of talking with Kate and New York Times bestselling author Abbi Glines about the New Adult genre,and the emergence of erotic fiction, and whether or not men can write about sex convincingly for women. You can watch that fascinating exchange here. We also asked Kate to provide some extra insights.
TheReadingRoom.com Guest Blog By Kate Belle “It’s a love thing” Boundaries are a funny thing. They shift with popular culture, with changing social attitudes and prevailing morality. With the explosion of the erotic romance genre across the globe, one could be forgiven for thinking that people have dropped all sense of boundaries and standards when it comes to sex in fiction. Having lived and breathed this genre for a long time, long before erotic romance and ‘new adult’ began enjoying their current popularity, I don’t think this is the case. Much of the erotic fiction boom has been attributed to electronic accessibility. E-publishing, and particularly self-publishing, has increased the breadth of available erotic fiction, including erotica and porn. Many commentators have noted that where women once had to skulk into a grotty sex shop and flick through cheaply made books to get a sexy fix, now they simply download it anonymously to their reading device. But this is only part of the picture. The truth is that women have always enjoyed reading sex but in the past they haven’t had access to the kind of erotic literature that appeals to them, primarily because most published erotic work was written by men. Historically, sex in fiction has had a distinctly masculine style, which might go a long way towards explaining why new adult and erotic fiction genres have become so popular. The vast majority of new erotic fiction is now being written, published and read by women. Men are predominantly visual and physical creatures. Their engagement with sex is rooted in the physical, whereas women’s engagement with sex is emotional, and this is what sets erotic work by women writers apart. Women know what other women want sexually. When female writers take this knowledge into their work, they create erotic journeys that embrace a feminine perspective. More often than not, erotic fiction written by women contains eros, the spark of sexual love. Don’t get me wrong: some men can write the kind of erotic fiction that appeals to women, but in my experience it’s the exception rather than the rule. While Natasha Walker’s The Secret Lives of Emma has enjoyed great success, a friend who is a fan of the genre described it as ‘filth’ (not in a bad way) and wasn’t surprised when I told her Natasha was a man. She enjoyed the book, but she did feel it was very different to the more romantic styles of her favourite writers, Abbi Glines and Sylvia Day. While the lines can be blurry, most erotic writing can be defined in three ways: pornography, erotic fiction (romance) and erotica. Pornography simply describes the mechanics of sex. It’s utilitarian, written for the purpose of arousal and stimulation. The characters tend to be flatter, two dimensional, and the scenario they have sex in often without context. There’s no story to speak of; it’s just an account of people having sex. And generally men really excel at writing porn.
Classical erotica encompasses more transgressive, taboo themes and tends to be written in a more literary style. Erotica explores the darker, more unconscious sexual urges of the human psyche and is more challenging and confronting to read; it does not necessarily aim to titillate. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and its soon-to-be-released contemporary, Tampa by Alissa Nutting, could be considered literary erotica. Both are disturbing accounts of paedophiles, and while they contain sexually explicit content, they aren’t really designed to arouse. True erotica is a far cry from commercial erotic fiction, the populist genre spawned by ‘that book’ we’re all so familiar with. Commercial erotic fiction shares many common characteristics with its more reserved older sister, romance. Readers have strong expectations, and woe betide an author who doesn’t conform to them. No matter how depraved the sex gets, the narrative must have a strong romantic element. The characters must be emotionally engaged and if the ending isn’t all that happy, there had better be another book in the series that delivers on the Happy Ever After promise. Erotic fiction can and does venture into some taboo areas, including BDSM, multiple partners and fetishism. But if there’s no story to speak of, if the characters lack emotional depth and connection, or the scenario has no authenticity, readers can be scathing. Uninformed or, worse, misinformed writers who venture into these arenas do so at their own professional peril. Being a bit anti-establishment, I’ve always enjoyed bending the rules. While I built the narrative of my novel, The Yearning, on romance genre traditions – powerful attraction, insurmountable hurdles, emotionally authentic characters – I stretched the boundaries by making the protagonist just sixteen and her lover an unapologetically promiscuous teacher. This alone has made some readers nervous. People find the idea of a romantic liaison between a student and teacher a challenging notion, until they read the book and understand it’s no salacious sex tale. There are ramifications for the dangerous premise. It was a risk for me as an author, but I knew as long as I maintained the confidence of my readers, it was a risk worth taking. Readers still have boundaries, and while pushing the envelope can be a good thing, it should be done in a respectful way. Books that contain outright violence or cruelty, exploitative under-age sex or careless infidelity are often judged harshly by readers and are generally not well tolerated. No matter how far from the missionary position erotic fiction travels, readers expect writers to respect their sensibilities and expectations. Women will tolerate a wide berth as long as the story has love at its core. Don’t be mistaken: in spite of the open-slather appearance of erotic fiction, there are still rules that can be bent but not broken.