I Know It When I See It

by Greg Herren

I was on a mystery writer’s panel once at a literary festival, and the panel was asked, how do you create a character? Where do you start?

            The other panelists—all accomplished, successful, award-winning mystery authors—gave really good answers; things I’d heard before, advice I’d been given before, and I nodded as each of my fellow panelists explained their process of character creation.

And then it was my turn.

I looked out into the audience—it was an older audience, all dressed very well, and they were extremely conservative looking, if you know what I mean—and cleared my throat. “I decide what kind of sex life they have—you know, what they do in the bedroom and how they feel about sex, because that directly influences every other aspect of who they are as people. If someone is incredibly sexually repressed, that shows up not only in their interactions with other people but also in how they dress, how they view the world, and it shapes who they are more so than any other part of their personality.”

I was shocked to see people in the audience nodding, and the moderator, a mystery writer whose work I respect, said, “You’re absolutely right, but I would have never in a million years thought of that.”

Sometimes, being a pornographer comes in handy.

My first fiction publication was, actually, an erotic short story—and so was my second.

I had never once, in all of my dreams of becoming a published author, ever considered writing erotica—and in all honesty, writing that first story was incredibly difficult for me. I kept getting embarrassed as I wrote, and would have to stop. It was a constant struggle for me until I finished the damned thing. I don’t know how many times I told myself I just can’t do this and almost stopped. Yet I persevered—the story was for an erotica anthology called Men for All Seasons, and when I finally managed to finish writing it, I also submitted it to Men magazine. The anthology editor bought it—and the very next day the editor of Men emailed me and offered to buy the story. Flush with excitement at another possible sale, I responded, I’ve already sold the story elsewhere; but I have another I can rewrite and send you on Monday, if that’s okay? (It was a Friday afternoon.) He responded with an affirmative, and I spent the weekend writing my second erotica story.

Late Monday afternoon he bought the story.

And that’s how I became a pornographer.

Sometimes I write pornography and sometimes I write erotica; unlike Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said about obscenity and pornography, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it,” I actually can define pornography—and there is a significant difference between pornography and erotica, at least in the world of fiction.

To me, pornography is writing about sex itself; the characters really don’t matter, the setting doesn’t matter, and there really is no story. Two men (or two women) meet, are attracted to each other, have some blistering hot sex, and then go their merry ways. We don’t know anything more about them than we did when we first met them.

Erotica, on the other hand, is about the characters; and needs to actually tell a story. Erotic fiction, to me, has to meet the standards of fiction—there has to be a change of some sort in the main character by the end of the story; the sex itself needs to be revelatory to the character in some way. (When I teach workshops, I say “If you can change the sex scene in your story to nothing more than and then they fucked, and the story still works, then it’s erotica.”)

An example of this differential is my story “The Porn King and I,” originally published in 2002. In this story, my main character (who is nameless) goes into the Tower Video store on Decatur Street in the French Quarter and sees a poster of a lazingly hot gay porn star. He rents the video and takes it home to watch. As he is watching, there are three sex scenes unfolding: the one in the video itself, the one in his head where he is imagining himself having sex with the porn star, and his own actual masturbation. The only thing we learn about him is that he has a thing for the porn star and lives in the Quarter. He doesn’t change from beginning to end, and if you remove the sex scenes from the story, there is no story.

Conversely, my story “The Sound of a Soul Crying” is erotica because I can change the sex scene to and then they fucked and the story still works. The story is about an empath, who is awakened in the middle of the night by another man’s emotional pain. And as the story unfolds, we learn that the empath himself is lonely; his gift has rendered him unable to connect with another man. Yet he continues to feel, and sense, the other man’s pain—until they actually do have sex with each other, but in their minds. They aren’t together. The sex heals the other man, and they encounter each other in person in a French Quarter club. They’re drawn to each other, having seen the other in what they thought were dreams, and so they begin the process of getting to know each other. That story was erotica; the sex was important but incidental to the story itself.

There are exceptions, of course—I’ve read some erotica that was nothing but lush, smoking hot sex from the very first word to the last. And of course there are similarities between the two forms; the line between porn and erotica is frequently blurred, and really, that line is subjective—everyone defines it their own way.

I guess I know it when I write it.

5 Responses to “I Know It When I See It”

  1. 1 VK July 31, 2012 at 9:27 AM

    Thanks, Greg. This is one of the most understandable explanations of porn vs. erotica that I’ve ever heard.
    P.S LOVE your work!!!


  2. 2 Lisa Girolami July 31, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    That was great, Greg. Concise and clear now in my mind. You rock, Lord Herren!


  3. 3 Cee C. Williams July 31, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Definitely a subjective line which we walk along every time we put pen to paper.

    Great article, Greg!


  4. 4 Carol July 31, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    Thank you, Greg. This is an excellent example of showing the difference between porn and erotica.
    I love that title, “The Sound of a Soul Crying”. I will definately have to read it.


  5. 5 Sarah Martinez August 2, 2012 at 7:41 PM

    Thanks for this. I have been trying to define my own work and know it is not porn. I come across people who believe erotica is just a nicer word for porn and this explanation makes it much easier to illustrate the difference.
    Shared this around.


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