True story: I really don’t know erotica at all.
I’m not trendy – never have been – but I’ve certainly increased my erotica reading over the past six months or so, mostly because there are simply more erotica novels on offer these days (or because Kim suggests we read one… or four… together). On the whole, I have disliked more erotica novels than I’ve liked. On the whole, I have found more of the sex scenes in these books laughable than compelling. On the whole, I worry about the broader cultural trends that one might extrapolate from the genre’s (and specific books’) recent success. All that to say, I don’t think I”m the target audience for most erotica novels… I don’t read in order to be titillated. I don’t care how HAWT a sex scene is… I want a good story, good characters; I want good writing.
After I read and reviewed Wuthering Nights, I.J. Miller and I shared an interesting, wonderful, and intellectually exciting dialogue, and I asked him if he would be willing to come back on the blog and participate in a somewhat more exciting interview, featuring less politeness and more interesting questions. Somewhat obviously, he agreed. I.J. graciously offered me an e-copy of his short story collection Sex and Love, and I’m honored to be able to review it here. I may not be the target audience for erotica in general, but I absolutely adored Miller’s version of literary erotica (or, more accurately, of literature) as demonstrated in Sex and Love.
The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:
Who doesn’t hunger for more sex and love? In I.J. Miller’s stories everyone does … A married man who is a king in cybersex chat rooms, a woman torn between her boring fiance and a hot anonymous affair, a professor fighting off seduction by a biker chick, a lonely man held hostage by a lascivious ex-lover, a housewife infatuated with her daughter’s tennis pro, a straight man tempted by a gay friend … everybody in Sex and Love wants to burn a little hotter. Real people. Powerful writing. An intense, erotic ride that has the novel feel of one breathless journey.
I’ll start with the bottom line: I loved this short story collection. Taken together, the collection seemed like a kind of Metamorphosis that hinges on sex. That is not to say that sex is the point of these stories, but sex is the fulcrum that allows the characters to change (for better or worse).
Some of the individual stories, particularly “Lonely Man” and “Things We Shouldn’t Do,” reminded me of Jerzy Kosinski’s writing. There is a bleakness to some of the characters, a sense that they are present but not fully aware, not completely animated, that is deliciously creepy in its realism. I felt like the worst (and best) kind of voyeur jumping into these characters’ minds, shouldering up to their flaws, bathing in their hopes and dreams and inevitable failures.
It’s difficult for me to say which stories are my favorites, because there is an excellent diversity in the type of stories offered in this collection. “Husband and Wife” is a lovely tale of the intricacies and compromises of marriage. “Attraction” is a little bit creepy and a lot compelling. “Lonely Man” is bleak and dark and funny and heartbreaking but also beautiful. I highly recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys short stories and would enjoy a literary view of the world through a slightly cracked lens.
Interview with I.J. Miller
First off, I want to thank I.J. for coming on the blog, answering these questions and offering his perspective as a writer. I originally intended to edit down my questions a little bit, but I decided to leave them the way I hastily wrote them, flabby, goofy wording and all.
1. RwA: Have you read that book? Does it bother you that the increase in erotica’s marketability is directly connected to that book?
Miller: I have read Fifty Shades of Grey, or rather skimmed through it rather quickly. It is easy to be cynical about the book, because it has had such huge success and it is not very well written. However, it put erotica on the map and made it more mainstream and opened up the doors for so many writers and books. In addition, reading an erotic book is a little more acceptable now. Hats off to E.L. James. Any writer would wish for her success. Hopefully, her books get better.
2. RwA: As a reader — primarily of romance, but occasionally of erotica — my impression of the erotica market is that the proliferation of erotica titles in the wake of FSoG very closely resembles the explosion of “young adult paranormal romance” titles following the popularity boom of Twilight. There are tons of erotica titles available, but it’s very difficult to find any that are actually worth reading. What is your experience as a writer of erotica? Is it easier to get good erotica (my litmus test for “good” is just quality writing…) published these days, or is the market still challenging, just in a different way?
Miller: If you’re reading basic erotica genre material, perhaps the very best, excluding the sub-genre of literary erotica, has good writing, but still wouldn’t be called literary. Why? Chances are the characters are cleaned up, absent of any blemishes or tics. Chances are things happen in the plot because that is the way the writer wanted it to happen, but there doesn’t seem to be great justification for it in the story. Chances are there is a Happily Ever After ending and most, if not all of the sex, is really hot, which is certainly not true in real life. However, these types of criticisms can be leveled at almost every strict genre writing, including romance. The expectations for the reader are to have their fix, their escape into that world. For literary erotica the expectations are higher. For literature the expectations are higher. Unfortunately, a lot of literature may be dying as the younger generations seem more drawn to particular genres, rather than complex literary stories.
Isn’t this all really about our culture becoming more homogenized? How many individual family owned restaurants are there anymore, as compared to the generic Applebee’s or Friday’s you can find in every town? A motel, bookstore, drugstore, shoe store not part of a chain? So rare.
Ultimately, I try to stay away from following the genre norms and want to tell the best story, even if there isn’t a happy ending.
3. RwA: What draws you to write erotica? Do you consider most of your work to be erotica? What is erotica, really?
Miller: Aside from Wuthering Nights (literary erotica), I don’t consider my writing erotica. In my story collection, Sex and Love, a few of the stories could be considered erotica (i.e. “Single Woman,” “The Tennis Pro”). What I often do is use sex to tell the story. I have always been fascinated by sex, in my life, in my writing. I am a very controlled person, yet sex has sometimes made me uncontrolled. How fascinating to explore that in storytelling. So my endings in this collection are not always happy. Sometimes the sex isn’t hot. Sometimes the sex reveals the dysfunction. That’s why it doesn’t fit into the genre. It got published as erotica to fulfill the need to market it toward a better selling genre…and it has sex in it.
I don’t think simply focusing on characters over sex separates literature from erotica. It’s developing fully rounded characters, with their dark and light sides, with strengths and weaknesses, and having plots that are organic, dictated by the story, not by the need to titillate.
4. RwA: In Wuthering Nights, Heathcliff’s alpha male characteristics as bestowed by Bronte (strong, rude, forceful, swarthy, etc.) are joined by a host of physical descriptions that mesh the erotic portions of the tale with the original material and serve as an extension of his character. I’m cognitively aware that there’s a reason for these descriptions, but they seemed (to me) a bit over the top. What I most want to know is whether your intent with those descriptions was to depict Heathcliff as a super-sexy manly man or simply (and neutrally) to provide another, more tangible, layer of characterization for Heathcliff (or neither of these). While reading the book, I got the feeling that I, like every lady character, was supposed to be seduced by Heathcliff’s mastery and strength, but I never was. Was I supposed to find him sexy, or was the point of the whole thing that he isn’t sexy? That’s what I want to know.
Miller: Even in the original, Heathcliff is a near myth of power and passion. Part of developing these characteristics erotically was giving him great sexual size and stamina. In addition, he has a strong cerebral understanding of his power over women, how he can use that power to manipulate. Yet, he understands that this won’t bring him complete fulfillment, that the moment after making love is more significant than the act itself, that sharing it with someone you love makes it greater than any simply intense erotic experience you share with someone you do not love. So there is a great juxtaposition between his purely carnal encounters with Nelly and Isabella, and his true sensual longing for Catherine. As to whether he is sexy or not, that will be up to the reader and her perspective and what she brings to the story, and what she is turned on by, and what she is looking for in a man. If you look at the reviews, a lot of women find the book very hot and Heathcliff very sexy, especially the bdsm community.
5. RwA: Wuthering Heights reads, to me, as though Emily Bronte was trying to pretend to be a man when she wrote it. It’s got all the classic aspects of male literature from its era: flighty female characters doing things that make no sense; a classic romance with a nineteenth century sensibility (the kind where everyone dies after suffering for a very long time); and an inscrutable moral. In your retelling, you invested Catherine with a reason for all her crazy behavior, edited out a good deal of the suffering, altered the ending, and, I think, provided a bit of a moral. Was that your intent? If so – bravo! I know – that’s not really a question. — I’m starting with the assumption that your writing is an art and that you have a story to tell: what story did you want to tell with Wuthering Nights? What interested you about the project?
Miller: What a challenge to write an erotic love story where your female protagonist dies halfway through the book, which is partly why the original doesn’t have a fulfilling ending, in my opinion. The second generation takes over, but it is never as powerful as the original love story. So, what I did was streamline the story, got rid of some of the minor characters and subplots and focused on the love story. I also added some through lines that are present from the first part of the story to the end, specifically Black Rock Cragge, a new place between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, where so much significance occurs; and the locket, which in the original is crushed mid-way through the story. In addition, Catherine maintains a stronger ghostly presence even after her death…and then of course there is the ending (sorry, no spoilers here, but you read the book so you know what I’m talking about). The second generation and their relationships still have significance, but it is relevant, ultimately, to the final consummation between the lead protagonists.
The rewrite was the publisher’s idea and I was commissioned to write the book and given six weeks to do it. I’m sure the publisher expected a lot of verbatim text and some sex thrown in. Not my style. I really wanted to stay true to the original story, language, themes, and characters, but peel back more layers to everything with a deep, erotic interpretation. What a daunting task to do it in six weeks, truly possessed by Bronte and her wonderful characters.
6. RwA: Do you have any upcoming works you’d like to talk about?
Miller: I just finished a New Adult erotic romance for the 18-25 crowd called CELINE’S SOLUTION, about a college girl who gets her final, senior year education from her young English professor who is both a master of passion and a troubled secretive soul. Before she can know for sure whether she has found true love or needs to move on, she needs to unravel all of his mysteries. One of the things that is important to me is the back story: why are characters who they are and why do they make certain decisions? In genre writing, you rarely have to answer these questions. You can mention, “Oh, yeah she had a mean dad, or her first boyfriend was a jerk,” and that can serve to justify why she makes wrong boyfriend choices or whatever. Real back story can mean real weaknesses, deficiencies, heartache, etc. that don’t always go with erotica. This book is erotica because the sex is very hot, the emotions very high, it is a classic teacher/student fantasy, but it also shows a girl who has issues and is struggling to become the woman she wants to be. We’ll see if publishers are willing to go outside the genre a bit.
Also, I am working on a non-erotic novel that I’m sure you will love. It’s about two damaged women who meet and have a baby together and struggle to give the child the happy life they never have. Very intense, as they are also on the run from the law. Kind of like Thelma and Louise with a baby.
I want to thank I.J. for participating in this interview and speaking so candidly about writing, the erotica genre, and these two thought-provoking books. I’m intrigued by Thelma and Louise with a baby and will be keeping an eye out for it!
*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of Wuthering Nights from Grand Central Publishing via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I received an e-galley of Sex and Love from the author in exchange for an honest review.*