Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wicked Words

Working on edits for an erotic ghost romance forces me to think (again) about the language of erotic fiction. The publisher of this story specializes in “graphic” love scenes. To me, “graphic” means lots of detail in both actions and sensations. The publisher, however, mandates that “graphic” also has to include a copious helping of the words formerly labeled “unprintable.” My ideas of explicit sex in literature were formed by FANNY HILL, which produces a lavishly erotic effect with extensive, concrete descriptions of every detail of Fanny’s dalliances but without a single “four-letter” word.

C. S. Lewis wrote an essay about the difference between drawing a nude human figure and describing it verbally. The verbal treatment presents a problem the visual art doesn’t. We have to choose among medical language (e.g., “vulva”), archaism (e.g., “quim”), baby talk (e.g., “pee-pee”), or slang and obscenity (fill in the blank). Lewis doesn’t mention the other alternative, euphemisms (“private parts,” “down there”) and flowery metaphors. Any choice requires us, as Lewis puts it, to adopt an “attitude” toward the subject. We have no neutral term like “nose” or “hand” for the genitals.

One problem I see in peppering love scenes with the words formerly considered unprintable is that reactions to them are so individually variable. One reader’s titillatingly naughty term may be the next reader’s disgusting obscenity. Or certain words may strike some people as silly rather than sexy. I’ve sometimes discovered that “four-letter” words I actually do find sassy and sexy are on the publisher’s banned list. I’ve tried figures of speech that the editor has overruled as ridiculous. Any author who doesn’t keep the bedroom door altogether shut has to face these choices. My compromise, so far, is to allow my characters—if it’s in character for them—to include in their dialogue words I would never speak in real life but which the publisher says our readers like.

Margaret L. Carter (


  1. Hi Margaret. You are so right, and so was Lewis about it depending upon "attitude". Thank you for a great post.

  2. -- is an article on BordersUK going up for sale again after being bought from Borders US in 2007.

    The article says Borders UK has been retooled because the "format" of what they sell is changing.

    Bookstores won't sell books much longer, it seems.

    Oh, the business of writing is indeed changing! Thank you for the insight into this editorial process, because although at this time it is pressuring the erotica market, the fact is this exact problem has always existed.

    Every publisher, or imprint, has a prefered "language" as well as grammatical style sheet.

    My father was in the newspaper game, and he always pointed out that papers had to be written to the 8 year old. Today, it's younger than that.

    But as far as erotica is concerned, many scholars agree that the single most erotic writing ever produced by mankind is the Song of Songs.

    Frankly, "temples like pomegranites" doesn't exactly do it for me, but as you pointed out, euphemisms that work are better than "on the nose" or explicit references.

  3. Actually, I have nothing at all against very explicit erotic scenes. I just maintain that they can be explicit without using "unprintable" words for body parts and sex acts. The "correct" terminology is plenty graphic for me (need not be euphemisms, though I think it's fun to use those as spice to vary the language). As far as I'm concerned, the degree of concrete detail and the dwelling on the characters' feelings (physical and emotional) are what make a scene "graphic." Yet it seems that for many people, daring to use "forbidden" words adds to the stimulation. Different tastes -- go figure.

    There's a funny cartoon somewhere online that shows a woman's face and figure with all the images from the Song of Solomon made literal -- breasts like twin goats, etc.