D.H. Lawrence got in trouble over it. Anne Rice used a pen name to write it. E.L. James made a fortune off it. No one can deny that sex sells, yet it remains controversial. The mere mention of erotica sends literary noses pointed toward the heavens in a triumphant stance of superiority. For the majority of the literary world, erotica is not literature at all.
The truth is that some believe erotica is cheap. They dismiss it with other genre writing like Sci Fi or Romance. Many see these types of stories as inferior to scholarly or academic works. I disagree. I won’t argue that some erotica is pure smut, merely words to get off by, but not all, and certainly not mine. I believe that there is such a thing as “literary erotica,” and I consider my work to fall into that category. Why? Because I write erotic stories the way I write any fiction. I use the building blocks of literature to craft and develop tales which seek for more than just to lube a reader up. My stories aren’t about sex. They feature sex, yes, and prominently—that’s the nature of erotica—but they are always about something more: love, relationships, self-discovery.
However, while highbrow authors and critics refuse to acknowledge the idea that erotic writing can contain all the elements cherished in their canon of traditional stories, they often overlook the simple fact that many of the writers they hold in esteem have written so-called “trash” themselves. Sex in stories is not a new concept. Hell, sex is all over the Bible. But what is perceived as a sex scene, or erotica, or pornography is what can easily separate the elite from the rubble.
So much of my writing career has been overshadowed by the few erotic stories I have published. Often times, this has caused me to ask myself why I didn’t publish my erotica under a pen name like so many authors do. There were two reasons for that. The first reason was that I didn’t want my first major publication to have a fabricated name on it; a name I didn’t identify with. The second reason was that when I was in college I wrote a sex column for the campus newspaper. When it was pitched, I had wanted to write the column under a pen name, but my adviser would not agree to that. She felt that I should stand behind my work, not hide behind a faux name. And while that ideal is questionable at times, it stuck with me. As a writer, I have always wanted the freedom to write what I feel I need to write. And if I am going to write something, then it has to be only I that claims ownership of it.
Still, I was dismissed quite frequently. People wrongly assumed that everything I wrote and published was erotic. I was pigeonholed into a stereotype I was beginning to resent. Often, I had to make judgment calls about listing my publications on resumes for employment. My erotic works were my sole, significant publications. Would I be judged unfairly? This quandary has plagued me for years. So why would I want to collect my erotic works and expose myself to ever more misjudgment? Why follow my debut novel, An Ordinary Boy, with a collection of erotic stories? Because I am proud of my work. My erotica is some of the best writing I have ever done. Also because I want to show the world that erotica can be literary. It doesn’t have to be only about cheap sex.
I will admit, as I often have, that I didn’t intend to enter into the business of writing about sex. I fell into it quite by chance. As many readers may know, my first piece of erotic fiction was “Mates.” I had never intended for this piece to be an erotica story. Once I had finished writing it, I thought that the sex, which was an important element of the plot, was more than what one might find in your average short story. This made me think it might find a good home in a gay erotic anthology. And I was right. Alyson, the publishers who I credit for the start of my career, loved my writing. I appeared in three consecutive erotic anthologies in the same year. I was, as they say, on a roll.
For an emerging writer, the idea of being published in a major publication with international distribution supersedes all thoughts of snobbery from the literary community. And of course, for a new gay writer, opportunities to publish can be limited. At the beginning of my career, journals and anthologies featuring gay writing were starting to diminish. Submission calls for gay literary fiction were scarce. But there was never a shortage of erotica calls to be had. Erotica was my first break into the business, and I was grateful to have that break. I was proud of my achievements and even boasted about them. After all, I was a paid writer who was in demand. But even though I had success, I knew erotica wasn’t where I wanted to stay. I had more to write, other tales to tell.
As a writer—not a gay writer, not an erotic writer, not a genre writer, but as a writer—I will continue to tell the stories I feel need to be told. They won’t all deal with the same issues, won’t all be in the same genre, won’t all appeal to the same readers. And that is okay. There is more than one way to tell a story, and there is more than one type of story to tell. If that story happens to get you off while reading it, well, then, good.
Brian Centrone is the author of the debut novel An Ordinary Boy, the mini ebook collection I Voted for Biddy Schumacher: Mismatched Tales from the mind of Brian Centrone, and four one-act plays produced on stage for the National Endowment for the Arts’ The Big Read program. His short stories and poems have appeared in various anthologies, newspapers, and literary and arts journals. He teaches writing in New York.