Author I.J. Miller and I look at erotica from both sides, now

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.

Cover image, Sex and Love by I.J. Miller

Cover image, Sex and Love by I.J. Miller

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!

Wuthering Nights is now available as an e-book and a trade paperback from Grand Central Publishing.  Sex and Love is  available as an e-book and paperback from Fanny Press. 

Cover image, Wuthering Nights by I.J. Miller

Cover image, Wuthering Nights by I.J. Miller

*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.*

Review and Author Interview – Wuthering Nights by I.J. Miller (and Emily Brontë)

Cover image, Wuthering Nights by Emily Bronte and I.J. Miller

The blurb, courtesy of the publisher:

Romantics everywhere have been enthralled by Emily Bronte’s classic novel of the tragic love between beautiful, spirited Catherine Earnshaw and dark, brooding Heathcliff. The restrained desire between these two star-crossed lovers has always smoldered on the page. And now it ignites into an uncontrollable blaze. In WUTHERING NIGHTS (Grand Central Publishing; On-Sale: January 29, 2013; $3.99; ISBN: 978-1-455-57301-1), writer I.J. Miller reimagines this timeless story to reveal the passion between Catherine and Heathcliff—in all its forbidden glory.

Interview with I.J. Miller

Wuthering Nights is an interesting take on a classic book, and there is plenty of fodder for discussion.  I am very pleased and thankful that I.J. Miller agreed to participate in an author interview.

1.  RwA: Who is the target audience for this book, readers familiar with Wuthering Heights or readers just discovering that story?
Miller: WUTHERING NIGHTS targets fans of the original as well as those looking for an intense erotic romance.  Those familiar with Bronte’s Wuthering Heights will hopefully appreciate the effort put in to stay true to the original language, themes, and characters, but will understand the nuances of this interpretation and how the plot was altered or developed to make the erotic scenes organic and heighten the romance.  For both old and new fans it is a novel with more layers peeled back, new dimensions added, that make it a story that stands on its own, even if one never read the original.
2.  RwA: Why did you choose Wuthering Heights as the background material for your erotic novel?
Miller: It’s a natural choice. Since it was written it has carried the aura of one of the greatest love stories every told and Heathcliff is the original, tragic, alpha-male literary hero, a model for so many others, including Edward in Twilight and Christian in Fifty Shades.  In addition, I was particularly attracted to both Heathcliff and Catherine because they are flawed, not your stereotypical perfect hero and heroine.
3.  RwA: What do you think about the recent mainstreaming of erotic literature?
Miller: It’s wonderful that it’s out of the closet.  Perhaps not fully exposed in the mall bookstores and libraries, but certainly going strong with Kindles and Nooks.  As the popularity increases, there is more demand not just to produce a sexy book, but write one that is hot and tells a good story, which is good news for my work, which has always had an emphasis on being literary erotica. 
4.   RwA: In your story, Heathcliff is remarkably well-endowed; why?  Does this physical trait have an application to his character, or is it just fairly standard for a leading male in erotic stories to be so endowed?
Miller: So you noticed! The answer is “yes” and “yes.”  Heathcliff has always had a sort of mythical status of inner strength, passion, and even brutality.  It seemed natural that when interpreting him erotically, making him well-endowed would serve this myth well.  And when you are dealing with the heightened emotions of an erotic romance, ample endowment can certainly help contribute to the fantasy aspects of the story.
5.  RwA: What is it like being a man writing for a primarily female audience?
Miller: Lots of fun!  It’s certainly a challenge.  Since most of my readers are women, it is essential that I get the female protagonist right.  I enjoy writing strong female characters and as dominant as Heathcliff is, especially with other women, Catherine is more than his equal.  When writing an erotic romance I am looking for the voice that will appeal to women, one that expresses both strength and vulnerability, one that appreciates the full flowering of a beautiful romance.  It helps to be in touch with my feminine side to understand this complexity.  But perhaps I also have an advantage when it comes to the male’s point of view and revealing to women what makes a tragic hero tick.

 RwA:  Thank you, I.J., for agreeing to participate in this interview and for your candor.  I wish you great success with this and future books!

My Review

I love mashups.  So when given the opportunity to check out a mashup between the erotica genre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I was curious.  The notion of taking a classic work of literature and mashing it up with an unexpected element… I love it.  I used to be a purist, but, honestly, isn’t it wonderful that these literary worlds, instead of dying from neglect, can be explored by new audiences and illuminated by new contexts?

I love song mashups, too.

My quirky mashup-joy notwithstanding, I don’t think I’m the target audience for this book, even though I enjoy literary erotica as a genre.  For starters, I’m not a fan of Wuthering Heights.  Heathcliff is an asshole, and Catherine is a crazy bitch, and as much as I enjoy the Cathy/Linton/Hareton story line, it isn’t enough of an inducement to get me through a few hundred pages of Heathcliff and Catherine being crazy asshats to each other and everyone else.  So, there you go.  I have a bias in favor of and a bias against Wuthering Nights: An Erotic Retelling of Wuthering Heights.

There were some things that I quite liked about this retelling, specifically:

  1. The erotic elements are very cleverly woven into the story.  How does Heathcliff convince Nelly to help him?  Well…. let’s just say it involves a dungeon.  How does Heathcliff morally destroy Isabella?  Well… let’s just say it involves a good deal of AP (and a dungeon).
  2. Catherine.  Batshit crazy she may be, but Miller did an excellent job blending the characterization provided by Brontë with the new elements he brought to bear on the story.  Actually, I thought Miller did a great job with all the characters, and I want to give him a high-five for excising most of Joseph’s role in the book (dude is soooo annoying in the original.).
  3. The ending between Cathy and Hareton is lovely, and I appreciated the deviation from Emily Brontë’s version of events.
  4. Wuthering Nights is told in a fairly straightforward third-person narrative, excepting the prologue and epilogue.  I appreciated the simplicity of the storytelling, because one of the things that I like least about the original is the shifting first-person narrative between Mr. Lockwood (a tenant and stranger) and Nelly (who tells him the whole sordid tale).

My primary objection to this book is its depiction of female sexuality, especially in Nelly and Isabella. (As an aside, though, I really do need to throw in that I could have happily lived my entire life without being exposed to the three (THREE!!) episodes of butt-licking contained in this one story.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I thoroughly enjoyed my underexposure to anilingus… Sadly, that ship has now sailed.)  As an erotic retelling of the story, I assumed that certain scenes were meant to be titillating to me, the reader, but I was far more often confused than moved by the actions and descriptions that are original to this work, mostly because I was alienated by the female characters’ responses to sexual stimuli.

  • Heathcliff is a domineering, brutal asshole who smells bad (or, at least, has a strong smell), is super hairy, sweats profusely, has bad breath, and has a capacity for rape (I’m never super keen on rape, and that continued to be the case throughout this book), yet Catherine, Nelly, and Isabella are powerless to resist his wiles whenever he flashes his giant dong in their general direction.  
  • There’s a scene about halfway through the book wherein Heathcliff, spurning Catherine’s advances, instead chooses to go outside and build a lattice.  While he hammers rhythmically, the three ladies in the house get hysterical with arousal and, each in her own room, proceed to take care of business.  Thence comes my favorite passage in the book: “Each with their own rhythm, all three might have orgasmed at different times, if Heathcliff hadn’t stopped suddenly, unbuttoned his fly, pulled out his stallion of a cock, and urinated all over the standing wood frame.  The sight of his outrageously massive member — golden liquid arcing in the sunlight, fully drenching the lattice — caused a simultaneous, feminine shudder throughout the home at Thrushcross Grange.”  That’s a lot of pee.
  • The prose used to describe Heathcliff’s manly man-ness is often just a bit over-the-top, but I can kind of go along with the profuse and worshipful descriptions of his shoulders (so broad and manly) and chest (“…the almost pear-shaped, iron arc of each pectoral…”) and how sexy the ladies found those parts to be.  Armpits, however, are not generally considered a super-sexy body part; however: “…revealing a glimpse at the full, dark thicket under his armpit, causing a quick intake of breath in the ladies,” and “[s]he leaned forward, by his armpit, and inhaled deeply the scent of his masculine fineness.”

So, there you have it.  A man may be stinky, both of breath and body, possess whole thickets of body hair, act with domineering brutality, and be bent on destroying a lady, but if he has a giant penis and he shows it to her, she will be powerless to resist it and him.  As long as Heathcliff (and his penis) is virile, forceful, and dominant, no lady can resist him.  The instant he displays “…deep vulnerability and humanness…,” however, “…she was able to see him for the ugly brute he was: sour breath, snoring at night like a windstorm, cruel to every human he came in contact with…”  This is such an intriguing (but also awful, in a way) view of masculinity and femininity.  In Heathcliff, there is masculinity that cannot soften, boundless strength available only through forced rigidity.  In Nelly, Isabella, and Catherine there is an instant, unthinking response to that strength, an instinctive yielding beyond the power of thought or reason.

I should point out that the story achieves something of a middle ground through the romance between Hareton and Cathy.  Hareton treads the territory between brute strength and gentleness, and Cathy is capable of using her brain on occasion. Their section of the book, though lovely, comprises only fifteen percent of the whole, and the rest is such an odd mix of disgusting behavior and worshipful response that I find myself on the negative side of ambivalence.  Although I could not exactly like the book because of its sheer implausibility (and the butt-licking), I’m not sorry I read it.  It is interesting, and I hope more people read it.

Wuthering Nights was released as an e-book on January 29, 2013 and will be released as a trade paperback on April 23, 2013 by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Books.  To find out more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about I.J. Miller, please check out his website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*