Written by Paula Brečak for Self Studies
Erotic literature is one of the oldest forms of pornography. Before we could capture sex on film, we imagined it. What better way to create a rich sexual scene than through captivating prose and sensuous descriptions putting into words what many don’t even dare think. Some erotic stories are nowadays counted as literary classics, such as those by Anaïs Nin, a 20th century eroticist and short story writer challenging women’s gender role, or those authored by Marquis de Sade, after whom the words sadism and sadist were coined.
Contemporary erotical writings are abundant both online and in print, but they rarely enjoy the same acclaim as is given to the erotic literature of the past centuries. The contemporary literary erotica was mainstreamed by the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, written by British author E.L. James and first published in 2011 and 2012. The global hit was subsequently adapted into a series of blockbuster films and followed by an alternative set of novels, narrated by the male protagonist. The books were a great success, the original trilogy having sold over 150 million copies, exceeding the sales of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter in paperback. But Fifty Shades of Grey did not begin as a novel set for worldwide fame. It began as Twilight fanfiction, published on a fanfiction website under the pen name “Snowqueens Icedragon”. The realm of fanfiction is, in fact, where many, mostly female, readers get introduced to erotic literature.
Fanfiction is a creative writing genre authored by fans of a particular book, film or TV show, featuring characters and settings of that fictional universe. When fans find the original story lacking passion and spice, they take it upon themselves to write an erotical version or a spinoff for their own and others’ enjoyment. Erotic fanfiction, easily available online and free, is the perfect space to begin exploring spicy romantic and erotic present-day writings.
When it comes to full-length novels, choices are not lacking either. Many writers will create fictional universes containing entire serieses and following the same characters in book after book, so you may take your time with them. You can choose from subgenres such as historical erotica, regency romance, contemporary erotica, fantasy romance, monster erotica, queer, kink, dark romance (with themes of trauma, violence, and morally-questionable characters), fade to black romance (where sex scene are implied but not explicitly written), and many more.
Though some media have dubbed erotic literature such as Fifty Shades of Grey “mommy porn”, imagining the readership to be suburban housewives, research has shown that the readers are usually highly educated professionals who read in multiple languages and on average consume a book a week. One of the regular erotic genre readers we’ve talked to, Syr, says: “I used to consider erotic romance lower quality than any other genre and sometimes still catch myself thinking that. I believe that is because erotic novels are aimed towards women and consumed by women. At the same time, women are told they should not enjoy sex nor erotic material, especially in literature, which is considered to be sophisticated and classy, unlike sex.”
The reasons erotic novel readers give for enjoying this genre are relaxation, distraction, fun, inspiration for partner sex, and libido increase. One reader, Sunstone, says she enjoys stories that do not focus wholly on sex, but that build layered characters that are funny, sad, romantic, brave, and complex. Sari notes that when there is more context to a story, she gets a sense of already knowing a character and then easily feels with them. Porn films, especially free ones that are often short in length, do not allow for this build-up of characters, narrative, and sexual tension. Mary adds that films do not leave much to be desired, while a reader is an active participant when reading a novel and putting their imagination to work.
To further explore the world of erotic literature, Self Studies interviewed Anja Cota, an author and ghostwriter with a passion for steamy romance novels.
How did you get into writing erotic novels and what genre do you write?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a hopeless romantic, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before that aspect of me bled into my stories, too. With that also came the erotic content many romantic stories contain. I think romance and some level of erotica come hand-in-hand for most women.
As a ghostwriter, I get to work on various genres with different levels of erotic content within them. When I write for myself, however, I enjoy writing urban fantasy romance and contemporary romance the most. Those are just the genres I have naturally gravitated towards since that is what I primarily read. Generally, I follow a very simple mantra with my writing—I write what I would want to read, and that seems to resonate with my readers, too.
What makes a novel or a story erotic? How sexually explicit does it have to get?
A novel or a story is erotic when it contains a substantial amount of erotic content, but it’s very hard to give a precise definition. For some readers, a ‘substantial’ amount will be thirty pages of erotic content in a 300-page book. Others will want half of those three hundred pages to be steamy. Most readers’ taste escalates over time, and what they once considered an ‘erotic’ or ‘steamy’ story is perceived as very tame to them after a few months of reading.
The same answer can be applied to how sexually explicit the book should be. Some readers enjoy ‘clean’ language that lacks vulgarity while sex is still beautifully described. Others like it as explicit as possible, not shying away from vulgar language. In both cases, the books are still considered erotic.
What are some popular tropes in erotic literature?
I could go on about book tropes for days—the list would go on and on since they’re crucial in picking books that suit your taste and preferences. Perhaps the most beloved ones are ‘enemies to lovers’ and ‘forbidden love’. They’re perfectly formulated to build up sexual tension between characters. There’s also ‘why choose’ trope (also known as ‘reverse harem’), where the female main characters have multiple love interests (usually with no jealousy or drama). ‘Forced proximity’ includes the main characters being forced to spend time together (there are usually bonus points if they dislike each other at first). As the name suggests, the ‘slow burn’ trope slowly builds the attraction between characters (and it’s always worth it!). Other pretty self-explanatory tropes I can think of are the age gap, fake dating, small-town romance, academic rivals, the marriage of convenience, and a second chance romance.
How do you think other erotic content (porn films, audio porn…) compare to erotic novels in ways?
Erotic novels provide backstories that many women, in particular, find very appealing, rather than jumping straight into sex. Erotic novels also allow people to imagine themselves in those situations rather than watching someone else act in the scene, which makes the novels that much more exciting.
Erotic stories and novels are aimed at women and women make up the majority of the readership, even when the protagonists are male gay couples. What do you think this says about women’s relationship to erotic content they choose (not) to consume?
There are a few reasons why this genre is very popular amongst women. It has become somewhat common knowledge that men respond to visual stimuli more than women do. So, what images are to men—words are to women. I think what is particularly appealing to women is this ability to paint a picture in our minds—to curate these scenes the way we want them (under the slight guidance of authors and the plots they set, of course).
Another big factor is the fact that these books are mainly written by women. Women know what other women want to read, since they usually have similar mindsets and expectations. In the reading community, you’ll often hear the expression ‘men written by women.’ These fictional men are usually morally grey and fulfill all women’s expectations, which makes them very appealing to readers. I’d say they often—kind of—prompt women to not settle for anything less than what they deserve.
Lastly, erotic books are a safe way for women to explore kinks without fear of judgment. By reading these books where the main characters go through these wild scenarios and try out different kinks, they can see how their bodies react to those mental stimuli. I think it’s healthy and helps promote self-exploration and self-love, while allowing women to move at their own pace and enjoy content that matches their taste.
Erotic literature doesn’t have the best literary reputation, it is often not regarded as high quality. Why do you think that is? If a novel is erotic, does it automatically mean that it is of lesser quality?
When you mention an erotic novel, most people will think of endless pages of sex. I think the main reason behind this is the parallel usually drawn to erotic movies. They are solely focused on sex as an act, but that’s not the case with erotic novels. Countless hours of world-building and character development go into these novels. Authors are very passionate about their plots, characters, and worlds they are placed into—all to give the readers the best reading experience. Erotic content in a novel is content like any other, and it can be written beautifully, just as it can be written distastefully. While sex positivity has come a long way, sex is still often regarded as ‘dirty’ and somewhat taboo, directly affecting how erotic novels are viewed.
You have a book coming out October 2023, can you say a bit about it?
My upcoming book ‘Delve,’ co-written with my co-author Emma Lowe, is an urban fantasy romance with plenty of steamy content. It’s perfect for those who want a gentle introduction to BDSM, interesting plot and entertaining characters. Here’s a book blurb:
When Zara Blackheart (an undeclared witch who's studying media journalism in the mortal realm) decides to visit a local BDSM club, she never expected to meet Isaac Ryker (a hue-turned-vampire who's secretly the leader of a rebellion gang). Despite their complicated pasts, the two lose themselves in what was supposed to be one hot, steamy night of passion.
Complications arise when Isaac decides to stay in town, going undercover as a professor who happens to work at Zara's university. Relations between them are strictly forbidden for various reasons, but the two find themselves drawn to each other. Emotions run high when Isaac learns that his current "mission" involves possibly harming the Blackheart witch, along with other sacrifices that he's not sure he's willing to make.
Torn between his past and present feelings, Isaac needs to decide whether to save the woman he could potentially fall in love with or bring his old flame back from the dead.
Can you recommend any books or authors you enjoy?
If you want to start off easy, I recommend the Twisted Series by Ana Huang. These books are a wonderful entryway to the world of steamy romance. I recommend the Never After Series by Emily McIntire and the Dark Olympus Series by Katee Robert for something slightly darker.
If you get hooked on the genre, an avid erotic fantasy reader Helena also suggests:
- For those new to erotic romance novels: Ali Hazelwood, Lauren Asher, and Tessa Bailey
- For a wide variety, including monster romance: Sara Cate, Leigh Miller, January Rain, Ivy Asher, and Raven Kennedy
- For fantasy romance: Carissa Broadbent, Rebecca Yarros, and Jennifer L. Armentrout
- For really dark romance (with a lot of trigger warnings): Harley Laroux
Make your intimate reading corner inviting and cozy with some candles and a massage oil. Equip yourself with a wearable vibrator that is easy to maneuver while you flip the pages of your current read or choose a wand massager that is always at your hand and don’t forget lube. Happy reading!