Many different shades

A few months ago I came across a comment by a literary agent, made back in 2016, expressing relief that the ‘fashion’ for publishing erotica was over. So I guess erotica is not to his personal taste then.

Hang on though, this guy was saying a genre that is hundreds of years old, arguably thousands, at least in visual form, is over and done with in text form? That it was all a fleeting fad?

By all the evidence, erotic art was created and appreciated by ancient peoples. Take for instance the findings in the Hohle Fels caves in Germany, or older, excavations of Aboriginal art in Australia dated back 28,000 years. We cannot know for sure that these works were created for the purposes of carnal titillation, but evidence suggests that for as long as people have been having sex (i.e. forever) and have been able to wield a tool (so to speak) for artistic purposes, they’ve been creating erotica.

In literary forms, we have early erotic poems in ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia. Following the development of the novel form and in terms of specifically erotic literature, we have Defoe’s Moll Flanders and de Sade’s Justine in the 18th century, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs in the 19th, to name but several examples. Not to mention the Victorians getting their kicks from such saucy periodicals as The Pearl, and a number of ‘by anonymous’ works on matters of lustful pleasure. As erotica became more ‘mainstream’ in the 20th century, we have frank sex scenes in D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, John Updike, Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Jeanette Winterson… Again, to name a small handful of examples from the many.

But of course I am being deliberately naive. What our literary agent friend presumably referred to was the Fifty Shades of Grey publishing phenomenon, stimulating (if I may) many similar books and helping to revive the fortunes of others in its wake.

Nothing wrong of course, broadly speaking, with a bit of alpha-male spankery, if that’s your kink of choice (whilst realising I here brush lightly over much feminist argument). And in print publishing terms, it does appear as though the ‘Fifty Shades’ wave has crested and ridden out, even if ‘billionaire’ erotica seems to continue to, er, dominate e-book erotica sales. As they say, once a trend has been identified, it’s pretty much over.

Yet erotica is so much more than this. As Rachel Kramer Russell points out in her blog, “Writing about sex is so much bigger than one little Grey trilogy”. Yet how many times have you seen marketing claim ‘If you liked Fifty Shades then you’ll love this!’ – in ways that are not particularly helpful or relevant, or even necessarily true?

My purpose here is not to criticise or belittle the Fifty Shades books. For one thing, given the legions of fans the series has, that would be plain silly. For another matter, I haven’t read the books. No reason, they just don’t appeal to my personal taste.

No, I am simply stating the obvious, I think, that erotica crosses a broad range of literary sub-genres (and indeed artistic sub-genres more widely) to suit almost as wide a range of tastes as there are sexual preferences. So to dismiss it with a very narrow definition, not to mention a narrow mind, seems unfortunate.

Reference to Between the Sheets: Writing and Selling Erotica by Rachel Kramer Russell,, retrieved 01 January 2018.

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1 thought on “Many different shades

  1. Great post… totally agree with you.
    I did read the first, to see what all the hype was about.
    I half read the second but by then it had become a love story with issues and the shock value had dissipated….
    ELJames attempted a brave thing.. to ‘normalise’ previously considered ‘alternative’ bedroom activities and ann summers sales increased by huge amounts post book!!!!
    Hilarious (good job they didn’t look in our drawer under the bed, tee hee, we didn’t need a book to show us how it’s done!!).
    Loved your post. Surprised it didn’t get more traffic… 🌸


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