Things have always been tough in the publishing world, from rejections to slush piles to critics. Recently, one writer even got the news she’d been shortlisted for a National Book Award, only to find out that the awards committee had made a mistake. So how’s a poor writer supposed to find success? One way is to combine profit with pleasure?and write about sex.
Somehow, in all the talk these days about bookstore closures and Booker prizes, the one topic that never gets mentioned is erotica. Yet It’s always been a popular (if disrespected) genre. It might be a cliché, but there’s a lot of truth to the maxim that sex sells, even in ancient times. From The Decameron in the 14th century to the notorious novel Fanny Hill, written in 1748, writers have always found a market for steamy prose and poetry.
It’s the type of reading material that few people would peruse in public, but for all the disrespect the genre gets it can be one of the toughest writing chores to tackle. I speak from experience. I’ve written novels in several genres, and when I first tried my hand at the romance market I did my homework, scanning publishers? websites and new releases.
Racy romances seemed a popular subgenre, so I dutifully got to work. Nothing too risqué, mind you. Just a modern storyline along the Harlequin Blaze mould. And boy, was it tough. Every sex scene I wrote seemed hopelessly comedic, so I finally gave it up and went for a more wholesome style. (A smart move in hindsight, as the book was picked up by a New York publishing house.)
But it gave me a whole new respect for the writers who do manage the genre well?and the poor souls who win the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. Established in 1993, the award is overseen by Literary Review, an esteemed British magazine founded in Edinburgh in 1979 by Dr. Anne Smith, head of the English Department at Edinburgh University.
The 2010 award went to Rowan Somerville for his novel The Shape of Her. It included such awkward lines as ?Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.?
In case you think that bad sex writing is the purview of unknown amateurs, think again. Somerville’s first novel, The End of Sleep, made the shortlist for the Commonwealth Writers? Prize. Somerville was up against some tough competitors, too, including such celebrated authors as Jonathan Franzen and Annabel Lyon.
Still, there are enough readers out there that erotica is thriving, even as more polite genres struggle to keep publishers in the black. As one recent article pointed out, ?the erotic-fiction industry is booming?not least in Toronto, where a monthly meet-up and open mic evening for writers and fans recently kicked off.?
It’s certainly not a genre for every author but It’s one of the toughest to get right, so perhaps It’s time someone launched a Good Sex in Fiction award. Let’s see now?how do you spell lepidopterist . . .