Does Erotica Need a Happy Ever After?

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I’m sure you’ve heard of the distinctions between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction. Of course, as with the different erotic categories there is some inevitable overlap, but in general terms literary fiction often refers to the more ‘serious’ type of novel that deals with big, over-riding themes and wins lots of highbrow awards. Commercial fiction, on the other hand, are the mass market paperbacks that you will find in every supermarket, airport, bookshop three-for-two offers and Amazon bestseller lists. Whether it’s romance, crime, horror or chick-lit it tends to be written for the masses and for good reasons – it sells. Think of the difference between your more ‘serious’ musician who writes his own music, plays acoustic guitar and is highly lauded by critics, as opposed to the good looking boy band who frequently storm the charts with their upbeat pop music, and you’ll get a rough idea of the distinction. That isn’t to say that highly commercial bestsellers can’t be incredibly well written – Nora Roberts, for example – or that literary masterpieces don’t translate into commercial sales. Last year’s literary crime thriller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, was hugely popular. But nevertheless the distinction remains, with literary aficionados turning their noses up at commercial writers who write for the market, and popular authors feeling their writing skills aren’t being taken seriously.

So what does this mean in terms of erotic writing? The recent surge in erotic novels have tended to focus more on the commercial end of the market, particularly erotic romances such as Fifty Shades of Grey, with the predictable literary grumblings being totally at odds with the gadzillions of sales. As a generalisation, more literary erotica tends to be quite introspective and have something to say about the human sexual condition, whereas commercial erotica tends to be romantic and more focused on the story itself. Another often heard assumption is that literary erotica – and fiction – tends to be a bit miserable, often drawing some pessimistic conclusions about humanity and society, whereas commercial erotic and romantic fiction wraps things up into a nice happy ending.

Honestly, I prefer happy endings. Certainly within the romance genre. After all if a reader is going to invest their time following a couples’ relationship, or one person’s sexual journey, it’s ultimately always more satisfying to leave them with a warm rosy glow as a reward, rather than a slightly bitter aftertaste. Sasha  Grey’s recent ‘The Juliette Society’ for example was a great read, a beautifully written slice of introspective erotic fiction that left me thinking for days. However it also left me with a slightly empty feeling, rather like that one-night stand that never calls.

That doesn’t mean your main characters have to end up pledging their undying love; very popular in today’s erotic stories is the notion of a HFN ending – Happy For Now, as opposed to the less realistic happy ever after.

Of course you will most likely find that it’s your characters and your plot that drive the ending of your story rather than an attempt to make your tale ‘fit’ and that’s as it should be, but it’s always worth bearing in mind where your story fits in among its counterparts, especially if you want to get it out to readers.

Extract from Passionate Plots, a Guide to Writing Erotic Stories and Scenes’ published March 2014 by Compass Books.

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