Short and . . . dirty?
I feel a bit weird saying this, but I challenged myself to read more erotica and erotic romance, mainly because of the conversation surrounding A Certain Book. So many people in Romancelandia are claiming, “There are way better books out there!” that I’m thinking “Well, show me what you got.” Aside from that, I’ve found that good erotica and erotic romance explores the emotions and concepts at the heart of any romantic or sexual relationship (power, consent, agency, desire, etc.) in particularly intense and overt ways.
Victoria Janssen, The Moonlight Mistress
Erotic scenes require a kind of world-building to be more than Tab A/Slot B; they have to explore why these particular people put Tab A there, and how doing so affects them. The erotica/erotic romance that has worked best for me focuses on the sexual and emotional interactions between the characters and doesn’t try to do much else. I recently DNF’d an erotic romantic suspense novella because cramming all those elements in meant none of them seemed convincingly developed.
And now I’m going to contradict myself, because Janssen’s shortish novel is a historical erotic fantasy. Yes, it’s World War I with werewolves and sex. Not to mention multiple intersecting plot lines and a large cast of characters. I can’t say too much about it, because I’m still reading it, but I’m really enjoying it and find Janssen is developing all the different elements effectively.
It’s partly that there isn’t that much sex, so there’s room for the other stuff. I tend to think of erotica as having a lot of sex, I think because, as Ridley complains, erotic romance readers and writers often view the sub-genre as “a romance with extra (and possibly kinkier) sex scenes” rather than, as Sylvia Day defines it for the RWA’s erotic romance chapter, “stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction.” (For an interesting poll and comment discussion on defining erotic romance, see this 2009 Dear Author post).
I’d certainly call the sex scenes in Moonlight Mistress erotic; they are both fairly graphic (really graphic? romance-reading has changed the way I judge this) and meant to arouse. But real life sex is meant to arouse, too. I’d describe this book as simply “a story where sex isn’t treated as a bodily function best left (mostly) unnarrated,” as so much fiction does. I asked Janssen on Twitter if she thought of herself as writing erotica when she wrote it, and she replied, “I thought of it as an adventure story that happened to have erotica in it. Mostly I wanted to write about WWI. And it showed.” Since I have long enjoyed fiction set in and around WWI, that’s a bonus for me. The Moonlight Mistress is making me think about the ways that genre labels limit what books can do. They help us find certain kinds of stories, but they keep other things out. This is a book that defies easy categorization, and it’s all the more interesting for it.
[Note: I regularly interact with Victoria Janssen on Twitter, and we discovered that we graduated only a year apart from the same college, though we never met there. So add that grain of salt to my recommendation, if you like.]
Lucy Rodgers, Maid for It
Rodgers’ website says she “writes dark erotic tales that explore the three C’s: consent, coercion, and captivity. Her stories . . . are intended for mature readers . . . who are looking for erotic literature that explores not just the physical but also the psychological and emotional elements of sexual bondage and domination.” Maid for It does deal with those themes. It made me wonder just how far romance-reading has moved my goalposts, though, because I didn’t find this story that dark or dirty. (It’s just a bit of bondage and anal and he collars her and . . . see what I mean? My goalposts for dirty aren’t where they used to be. Let’s just say it’s no baroque fantasy along the lines of Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty triology). I think experienced readers of non-consensual or dubious-consent erotica who like a hard-edged, truly dark story might find this too light for them, because of its inclusion of romance elements and the way it glosses over the gritty reality of the story. For me, it was a perfect way to explore themes of consent and agency, because I’m not sure how much dark reality I could take. As I read, I thought a lot about Jessica’s post on “Autonomy and Agency,” and I’m still pondering both the literary and the ethical-sexual questions Rodgers’ story raised for me long after finishing it.
Heroine Gabi is an illegal immigrant from Mexico, fleeing after accidentally witnessing a murder. She’s caught and given a choice between deportation and working for a maid agency that she quickly discovers is providing sexual services. She’s sent to work for gorgeous, wealthy, dominant Ben, who wants a full-time slave. Gabi has a certain amount of agency: she chooses sex work over deportation, which will mean death for her. But the threat of death means she isn’t making a truly autonomous choice and can’t meaningfully consent to Ben’s demands.
Real sex trafficking is not titillating or sexy. This worked for me because it’s so obviously not real. Gabi, though a virgin, takes to submission . . . well, not quite as fast as a duck to water, but pretty close. Her troubles are eventually resolved off-stage in a convenient way. The set-up is just a frame to allow exploration of the issues of consent. Moreover, Ben wants true consent. He’s not interested in having an unwilling sub. Gabi lies to him to stay, which actually means he isn’t giving informed consent to their relationship either.
The narration is first-person present (normally, the present tense part would drive me crazy, but I didn’t even notice until well into the story). I liked Gabi, and I thought the point of view was necessary to the focus on her emotions: this is a story about Gabi discovering who she is and what she desires (or being made by desire into someone new, as she thinks in a lovely passage near the end); reaching a point where she can meaningfully choose and consent to Ben; and convincing him that she’s doing so. I loved the exploration of her feelings. There are also enough glimmers of what Ben is feeling to make the more romantic elements work for me, for the most part. It’s like an old-school Harlequin Presents where the hero is mostly a mystery. The one place where I wasn’t sold was at the end. This is spoilery, so you may want to read no further.
Ben asks Gabi to marry him. He says it’s so she can legally remain in the country, since the INS doesn’t recognize master/slave relationships. I think we’re meant to understand he loves her, though. Certainly I did. I’m sure that people can be married and have a 24/7 D/s relationship. I expect they work out what that means in different ways. I just wasn’t sure how these two would work it out, and what marriage would mean to them. I guess the two “modes,” erotic and romantic, didn’t quite fit together for me here, either in the narrative structure or in the characters’ lives. It gave me yet more to think about, but I wouldn’t have minded a clearer picture of what their relationship would be going forward. Finally, Ben throws the key to her collar into the ocean. This may have been a grand romantic gesture, the sign of their sure HEA, but I was mentally screaming, Ack! Safety first! I guess I couldn’t depart from reality quite that far.