Erotica author, aka Elspeth Potter, on Writing from the Inside

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Worthy Transgressions

People have been talking for a while about how there's more erotica being published in both print and electronic formats, and how more people are reading erotica and talking about it, and how erotica is getting more and more explicit and transgressive.

transgression: (noun) an act of transgressing; violation of a law, command, etc.; sin. Or, in the case of published erotica, exploring the limits of societal boundaries regarding sexual acts.

Is there any way to gauge appropriate levels of transgression? (I am aware of the innate humor of that question!) If we progress in huge leaps, will we leave our readers behind? He did what with what in a what? Why? If we progress in tiny, shuffling steps, will the readers grow bored with reading the same acts over and over again? Oh, good grief, not another ménage à neuf.

If writers are exploring the boundaries, how far is too far? And is that really the relevant question? I think the real question might be, how far it worth it to go outside the boundaries?

I think, in story terms, it's the boundaries that are of the first importance. You can't transgress unless there's a boundary in place. If those boundaries aren't set up in the novel or story, then transgressing is meaningless, and fails the "why do we care?" test of fiction.

Say the story is set in Regency England. It's a big deal if one character deliberately ignores another on the street. In a contemporary novel set in, say, New York City, that act would be much less meaningful. If, however, one contemporary character was peacefully walking along 6th Avenue and another character ran over and sniffed her buttocks, then there would be conflict. In a science fiction world where all of the dog-descended aliens sniff each others' buttocks in greeting, not sniffing would be the transgression.

To say it another way, I think the effective degree of transgression in a story is directly related to the boundaries the writer sets within that world. If those boundaries aren't set, then transgression might momentarily shock, but ultimately not serve the story.

If the world is contemporary and local, it's a bit easier to relate to the boundaries, as we carry them within us; then the craft issue moves on to the next stage, using the transgression effectively by making it uniquely relevant to the characters and themes of the story.

If the transgression doesn't serve the story, then I think it's pointless. At least in the stories I am most interested in reading.


  1. Great post, Victoria. This is one reason I wish I wrote historicals. So much more forbidden, so many more possible transgressions. :) Oh well, I'll just have to enjoy other' yours - and work to find the ones that are worth it in my contemporaries.

    Natasha Moore

  2. Good discussion on transgression. I've never delved into it that way. I always think of it from the heroine and heroes POV, and their particular culture.
    And, I must admit, trangressions, as such, don't do that much for me as a reader. I mean, okay, but so what because so often they're used to simply manipulate emotion.
    I don't want that kind of manipulation. I want to *feel* the scene.

  3. I think having the characters transgress can be a good way to explore the character and how he or she reacts (and why they transgressed). It can be effective, if it's right for the characters and story. It doesn't work as well when it's just plugged in (as with the Big Misunderstanding plot).

  4. Thanks, Natasha. I think that there are a lot of good issues we can use for contemporaries - Janice Kay Johnson's Superromances come to mind - but sometimes it's harder for readers to enjoy the conflict, if it's too close.