Is there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ erotica? Broadly speaking no, I think (legalities and common moralities aside). Needless to say, it’s a matter of personal taste. I was recently interested in a Reddit discussion where one poster expressed impatience with any dialogue in erotica as a distraction from the main action, and another insisted that dramatic friction and relationships between characters was more important than the actual sex. Opinions on the balance of ratio of ‘sex versus story’ abound.
In his book Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism: The Politics of Pleasure, Joel Gwynne suggests ‘literary erotica’ to be part of that tradition established by such writers as Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos), the author of the 1954 work The Story of O. This means, I imagine, a work with “literary merit” – that is, well-crafted language, a distinctive authorial voice, a coherent plot, successfully realised characters… And so on. Indeed, The Story of O was awarded the major French Literature Prix de Deux Magots. A controversial choice, but one that enhanced the novel’s standing.
The term ‘literary erotic’ is also used, interchangeably, to refer to fiction that is not classified as ‘erotica’ but containing explicit sexual content. I have referred to examples of this here in a previous post. (As for the difference between erotica and pornography, that is another question. I suspect it’s a matter of personal taste and perspective. Perhaps the oft-used comparison can be sufficient here, though I cannot find an accreditation for the quote: ‘The difference between erotica and pornography is very simple – with erotica you take a chicken feather and tickle… with pornography you use the whole live chicken.’ )
Anyway, back to ‘quality erotica’, a label as impossibly subjective as the terms mentioned above – ‘literary erotica’, even ‘literary merit’. It appears impossible to have an objectively expressed and agreed definition for these. They are slippery terms. At its simplest, perhaps it means ‘not pornography’. Yet even that attempt at classification is of very limited help.
In looking for what quality erotica might be referring too, I came across a ready-made explanation in an article written a few years ago in a Barnes & Noble blog by genre fiction writer Paul Goat Allen. By necessity, his suggested attributes of ‘quality erotica’ are broad, but useful. “It has to be,” he says, “well-written, atmospheric, and multilayered, and it must feature characters who are intriguing and easy to identify with.” And adds “…if a story moves me physically and emotionally, that’s success in my book.” Goat Allen goes on to note that producing ‘quality’ erotica is easier said than done (I note he himself has written the sub-genre ‘Zombie erotica’, which is intriguing and I must look it up), and he provides a short list of examples of his own favourite reads.
In a previous post I have also suggested a list of ‘quality’ or ‘literary’ erotica (just cannot make myself take those inverted commas away). Naturally, these are not all going to be to each person’s taste or align with each individual’s sexual kink and preference. But I think they meet those broad criteria: well (or at least reasonably well) written; believable and developed characters; and following a ‘proper’ story line. And, I would add as an essential, they portray sex in ways that are compel and fire the imagination.
Paul Goat Allen, 2013, 6 Essential Erotic Fiction Reads, https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/6-essential-erotic-fiction-reads/
Gwynne, J. 2013 Erotic Memoirs and Postfeminism: The Politics of Pleasure, Palgrave Macmillan.