American popular culture suffers from what I consider to be a strange dichotomy. Whether the topic is homicide or pornography, both writers and readers maintain different standards of acceptability regarding extreme content.
In Europe, explicit sex is often more socially acceptable than graphic violence when it comes to mass media. In America, the opposite is apparently true, based partly on the widespread fear of the female nipple, which makes no sense to me personally, whereas photos of lethal weapons are freely shared all over social media, without fear of authoritative censorship.
But of course, the irony in formally forbidding something, especially if it’s a perfectly natural impulse, is that it only makes it that much more desirable. That’s just human nature.
Play It As It Lays
Most crime authors don’t shy away from descriptions of violence, often going into brutal detail about a gruesome murder. But this focus on realism just helps create a credible context for the case being presented, and adds urgency to its resolution, since too often in real life, crime goes unpunished.
Unless it’s hardcore Noir (which is actually tougher to market to the mainstream), most crime and mystery books offer cathartic comeuppance for their villainous characters, though the “justice” being served is sometimes shrouded in ambiguity, a commentary on the corrupt state of our democratic justice system. At least from a common cynical viewpoint, expressed by the bulk of authors in this field.
While readers demand (virtual) justice, they’re in no hurry to get there, since the destination is not as exciting or even fulfilling as the deliciously dark and decadent journey. Many people live vicariously through outlaws, even if these rule-breaking characters ultimately pay the penalty for their bold rebelliousness – a price most of us aren’t willing to pay. Except for the cover price, of course.
Erotica is a lucrative field but if you look at sales statistics, this applies mostly to eBooks written from a female perspective, as opposed to male fantasies. There is a fine line between Erotica and Romance, another traditionally popular genre, going back generations. That distinction is drawn by how explicitly the sex sequences are described, and how frequently they “interrupt” (as opposed to enhance) the core narrative.
Broadly speaking, male fantasies are very, very, very different from female fantasies, whether straight or gay, though naturally sexuality is an extremely subjective state of affairs, as it were, varying from individual to individual rather than from demographic to demographic. Avoiding stereotypes is always advised, even when you’re aiming for a general audience.
But as a basic rule, male sexual fantasies simply aren’t as popular as female fantasies, which is why almost everyone has heard of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, even if they haven’t read them, but hardly anyone has heard of A Mermaid Drowns in the Midnight Lounge or Freaks That Carry Your Luggage Up to the Room.
My books are written from a strongly heterosexual male perspective (can’t help it, sorry), and are quite graphic – much more so when it comes to sex, often rough sex, than regarding violence. Most of my audience is also male, at least from what I gather. And guys just don’t read as much as women. It’s a fact.
Plus my audience base, such as it is, is composed largely of crime and noir fiction fans (though I am consciously expanding that to include horror buffs, since my “pulp” mashes genres, another unmarketable quality). And many crime fiction fans are much more squeamish when it comes to sex than they are to violence.
Conversely, fans of Erotica really aren’t interested in anything harsh or bloody or negative. It’s mostly about consensual (even if particularly nasty) sex, whether with a big business tycoon, the cable guy, or Bigfoot.
If the Shoe Fits…
Female crime writers often write straight-up Mysteries, not Noir, though that is changing, and rapidly. Again, as a general rule, men want to read hardboiled stories about other men being manly, and behaving badly, whereas women want to read stories about women being strong and even dominant over the opposite sex – mentally and emotionally, not just physically. That’s because the sexes are otherwise unevenly matched in our society, at least on certain levels.
It is almost impossible, or at least extremely challenging, to write a female story from an authentically “feminine” point of view if you’re a male. But if can be done. Many Erotica eBooks are ghost written by men. And as I mentioned earlier, Noir is no longer relegated to the plight of the tough, horny, lonely male, written for and by the same.
So there are no rules in this arena, only guidelines. The one hard and fast truism is you should always know your target audience.
So if you’re writing hardcore erotic horror noir, like I do…well, good luck.
Otherwise, before you being blowing open any borders separating acts of pleasure from acts of pain, make sure you know where those lines are first – and how many readers are willing to cross those blurred boundaries with you.