In the same week that South Africa’s first mainstream erotic novel for women hit shelves, a major publishing deal was announced that is poised to take local erotica worldwide.
There are those who chose to link these two events with the horrific rape and murder of Anene Booysen — the implication being that women’s erotic expression is somehow connected to the culture of sexual violence in this country.
It is more constructive to see women’s increased comfort with their own sexuality as a significant poke in the eye to patriarchy, and something to be celebrated rather than shamed back into hiding. Homegrown erotic fiction is an example of South African literature finally coming into its own.
Literary agent Oliver Munson of AM Heath & Co in London announced the sale of a “choose your own adventure” erotica series written by South African writers Sarah Lotz, Helen Moffett and Paige Nick under the pseudonym Helena S Paige.
Rights to the series have been sold in the UK, the US, and South Africa. Translation rights have been sold in 10 countries so far. There is no doubt that this series is regarded as major news in the world of international publishing.
I asked Helen Moffett why the medium of fiction has proved so successful in women’s erotica.
“I’m no expert,” she replied, “but I suspect it’s the old adage of the most powerful sexual organ being the one between the ears. My close men-friends tell me that the male brain is sexually stimulated via the eyes — that looking, the visual aspect of sex, is what they find erotic. Women take in erotica via the eyes differently — we seem to prefer print as a medium that tickles our fancy. And other bits. Possibly because this means we can shape or project the fantasy to suit ourselves, a basic principle underlying The Girl Walks Into series”.
Fifty Shades of Grey initially grew in popularity through word of mouth alone, which Paige Nick attributes to erotica becoming a more accepted form of enjoyment for women: “Reading erotica is a deeply private and intimate experience for a woman. However what I think the Fifty Shades series did was give a lot of women permission to enjoy erotica. Before this, erotica had always been a brown bag genre, but now the feeling is if everybody else is doing it, then it must be okay. So the spreading and sharing of the news of it is social and communal, as it would be for a good recipe, or a great movie that’s out on the circuit.”
What clearly had publishers reaching for their wallets in this case was the ”choose your own adventure” aspect of the series. Moffett didn’t want to give too much of the premise away, but commented: “We were sick of erotica and romance in which women are passive, and everything is done to them, often by an older, wiser man who ‘coaches’ them. Why don’t we let women choose? Why can’t they walk into a room and pick whoever and whatever they fancy, with the freedom to change their minds halfway through? So they can choose male, female, older, younger, experienced, innocent — or to go home to hot chocolate and a good book. Whatever they want, it’s their decision, they have the power.”
Jassy Mackenzie is the author of Folly — arguably South Africa’s first mainstream erotic novel. Her novel is notable as much for its intelligent use of humour as for its sex scenes. I asked her whether it was a risk to mix humour with sex in a genre that traditionally takes itself very seriously indeed.
“The humour in Folly was essential,” said Mackenzie, “because in this book the heroine is in charge, rather than being the more typically portrayed submissive. I hoped that by making the domination scenes funny it would engage the readers without the story becoming too ‘heavy’. The humour also helps to differentiate Emma’s other clients from her love interest, Simon. The scenes with him swiftly become more serious and more erotic, with the other sessions providing some light relief”.
One thing that Folly and Fifty Shades have in common is the over-arching love story. I asked Mackenzie whether it was a cliché to assume that woman prefer a helping of romance with their sex.
“I think women enjoy the process of seduction,” Mackenzie speculated. “Whether they’re seducing their love interest or being seduced by them. It’s a more complex and multifaceted journey than the plot of — shall we say — plumber rings doorbell to be met by housewife with large breasts. For us, love plays an important role because it involves our emotions in the process.”
Sex scenes are notoriously very difficult to get right. Paige Nick admitted that this is one of the more challenging aspects of writing erotic fiction: “Look, it’s not hard like removing a brain tumour is hard, but writing sex scenes is definitely tricky, for a couple of reasons. The first is that no author wants to write bad sex. You don’t want to turn your reader off, make them cringe, throw a speed bump into the story, or even worse, bore them. Particularly when there are multiple sex scenes in one book, as is the case with the A Girl series. Each one needs to be unique and original, or else you’ve lost your reader and done your job badly.”