Yes, erotica is still a guilty pleasure around here. But with clever editors, talented writers and mainstream publishers ready to publish good work, more and more readers are parking interesting erotic fiction on their bookshelves. The success of Electric Feather, Tranquebar’s first anthology of lit erotica, pushed them to bring out another collection of erotic short stories, Alchemy. Sheba Karim, editor of this anthology, tells DNA, how it amazes her that “sex is such a vital aspect of our lives, but we still have a difficult time writing about it.”
Excerpts from an email
What were your challenges while putting together this anthology?
Editing the work of others—if the work is of a certain quality—is easier than writing your own. But finding 12 or 13 well-conceived stories by talented writers that could be part of an erotica collection is definitely a challenge, though not, of course, as challenging as writing 12 or 13 good erotic stories of your own! Also, a lot of writers often have a tendency to actually pull back when there’s a sex scene, so I had to encourage a few of the authors to really explore what happens sexually between characters without the shame or trepidation that sometimes accompanies such an exercise. It’s amazing; sex is such a vital aspect of our lives, but we still have a difficult time writing about it.
And it’s not easy to write a good sex scene, there’s always the risk of being flowery or cheesy, overly dramatic, unintentionally humorous—the annual ‘Bad Sex Award’ by the Literary Review never lacks for nominees.
Tell us about your process of editing, any thumbrules you followed.
1) The author is always right. You can present your argument, of course, but it’s the author’s piece and the author’s decision. Your goal to assist the author is shaping their vision, but it is their vision, not yours. Of course, you might have a situation where the author is new to writing and convinced that he/she has written the best story in the world, in which case you have the delicate and unenviable task of getting them to understand how and why their story needs work.
2) Never, ever change a word of your author’s work without their consent! This happened to me once with a literary magazine. The editor was extremely opinionated and wanted to make a few changes to the story that I strongly objected to. When the story was published, he had gone ahead and made the changes anyway. It is extremely upsetting to see a sentence that you didn’t write in your own work.
3) Know your own biases and prejudices. For example, I have a bias toward narrative realism. So if I’m editing a work that is surreal stream-of-consciousness, I have to make edits and suggestions that are appropriate for the style the author has chosen, and not push the story in some other direction. You have to be able to get out of your comfort zone and appreciate a story on its own merits.
Is there a thin line between erotica and porn?
I think distinguishing between erotica and porn makes more sense in a medium like film, where you could argue an erotic film would have a story line and characters you care about and more build-up/foreplay whereas a bunch of random people only having sex would be porn.
But a story will have always have some type of narrative, and pulls you into a fictional world. I think a better distinction in terms of the written word would be erotica and porn but ‘badly written erotica’ versus ‘well-written erotica.’
What is the social significance of erotica?
The fact is that we are inundated with sex every day, in film, on billboards, on TV (take, for example, the Axe campaign and that awful ‘I feel like a virgin’ commercial). But there is little public discourse about sex, little education about safe sex, respectful sex. We have to be able to say, it’s okay to have sex, it’s normal to want sex, but it has to be done in a consensual manner. Of course, it’s a complicated issue, tied in with honour and religion and shame and female infanticide and subjugation. Publishing more erotic literature won’t solve the problem, but it can help open up the dialogue, as well as people’s minds, because erotic literature doesn’t objectify or commodify sex, but engages with it on a deeper level.
In the anthology, there is a wonderful story by Hansda Sowvendra Shekar called Semen, Saliva, Sex, Blood. Set in a small city in eastern India, it’s about a gay medical student’s frustrating search for love and connection in an environment where homosexuality is not an acceptable identity, where the prevailing attitude is still, “It might be okay to have sex with a guy to get yourself off, but not to love one.” The story is a frank exploration of the sexual encounters between the narrator and various men and the emotional fallout that ensues. A story like this has social significance because it introduces readers to a perspective and a reality they might otherwise never know.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on two projects, a historical fiction novel set in 13th century Delhi and a young adult novel set in modern day New Jersey.