In light of the stunning revelation that French readers have rejected E.L. James’s oeuvre on account of it not being sexy, this may be an opportune moment to reclaim the discussion of eroticism in literature. Her profits are finally slumping, and as the nights truly begin to draw in, the phrase ‘winter is coming’ has more resonance than it ever does in Game of Thrones. The gritty reality of autumn is that even the hardest bitten bachelor may prefer company to stave off the chill. So, what constitutes a decent erotic novel? From the point of view of the female market (male erotic literature remains more visual at present), the first rule is do not set it in modern America. Regency London with its rakes, ton balls and highwaymen has historically been what the ladies of the lending libraries want. No underwear, one illicit kiss instantly leads to marriage rather besmirching female honour, and of course virginity is essential in our heroine.
However, there has been a shift in recent years away from Mills & Boon and Harlequin panting romances. No one is slicing through any stays, let alone bodices. Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas and Stephanie Laurens are big business, and they write about tetchy bitches that refuse to compromise. These ladies are always escaping alone in carriages, sometimes they even drive them. They take their clothes off first, and when they choose their husband to be, they tend to be grumpy hermits. Just as the protagonist escapes London for having given it up too soon to a cad, their future mates are obsessive types who fish the girl out of whatever river she has fallen into only to return to work. There are no inner goddesses, no demure euphemisms for male genitalia like his ‘tenderness’ (thanks, Virginia Andrews, for misleading several generations) and no one has to buy this sort of girl a car to get her in the sack. There is the usual series of tests these broken figures have to endure in order to deserve each other – much like the obligatory healing wound scene for 80’s action films – and only then is eternal chemistry guaranteed.
This is where the directness comes in handy. Without Nin and Burroughs, these women may not be portrayed as being so vocal in asking for what they want. Which involves the (tried and tested, admittedly for a reason) arc of building up trust as well as desire, constantly being reassured in order to overcome any nerves or insecurity, more eye contact than everyone may require or want, and ONLY then is the Karma Sutra a snap, for life, apparently. The last part is untrue, but there is an appetite in this seam of writing that has openness that was not always there. The genre may still need some work, but there is hope to be taken from the fact that none of these Romance writers propagate the myth that tantric times spanning days on end is what people want, more often than not it is all over before you know it out of sheer enthusiasm. This reality is what sets it apart from rose-tinted tittering bilge, because there are moments one may actually relate to.