I’m currently writing a short story unlike anything I’ve tackled before. It’s called The Narcissists (a working title) and, whittled down, it’s essentially a body-swap story, à la Big or Vice Versa, but concerning a married couple – and minus Tom Hanks dancing on a giant keyboard.
The husband is shallow, the wife pretentious, each with their own unique brand of vanity, and their marriage is in tatters. But, one morning, they wake to find themselves in each other’s body.
Initially, there’s plenty of room for hilarity, with anatomical exploration and bewilderment, and gender-based high jinx. But the point of the story was to show how these two people separately find themselves intensely attractive – indeed, as soon as they see themselves as a separate person, they want to screw that person. So they do – they have this bizarre, twisted sex from inside the body of their erstwhile partner, but with themselves.
It’s weird and freaky and as likely to spark arousal as it is a spine-tingling cringe. It’s also a bit odd to write on the tube on my commute – I’ve bought a case for my phone to limit the potential viewing angles of my little, filth-filled screen (you dirty old man).
Later, it explores feminism, empathy and masculine privilege – naturally via thematic transgender concepts – on its way to its existential finale, of Lovecraftian madness and despair, ultimately questioning the soul’s relationship with our bodies.
A lot to ingest – so you might be concerned the tone becomes too erratic, shifting from mutual disdain, to comedy, to erotica, to social commentary and finally to gut-churning horror, all in less than 10,000 words. But thankfully, the tone – much less the themes it concerns – remains consistent in its dark humour throughout.
Too blue for you
My problem is the sex itself. It’s essential, yes, but I’ve not written much sex before, and knowing what’s too much and what’s too tame is a challenge in itself. I don’t want it to be so blue that it becomes pigeonholed in “erotica”; but I also want it to evoke emotions: lust, disgust and carnal confusion.
At the moment it’s explicit – but is my idea of explicit some other prude’s sloppy nightmare? Or merely a deviant’s heavy petting? The books I’ve read over the last few years have hardly helped. Most of the time sex is merely implied, or if it is described, it’s brief, unfulfilling or ultimately tragic.
I need my scene to be sexy, because the sexier it is, the weirder it will feel. I want my characters to make love to their egos, to delve into a sweaty pit of self-lust that leaves them panting and confused. I want that confusion to fester, propagate and morph into paranoia. Finally, I want that paranoia to feed its inevitable, violent conclusion (which, as yet, remains undetermined).
Unfortunately, my frame of reference is limited. I don’t own a Kindle and, seeing as I’m too shy to read erotica openly in paperback, I’ve not come across much in the genre. I need to change that, and I’ll be buying an e-reader soon, though I’ve no idea where to start. The only erotica I’m aware of are the bear-shifter supernatural romances (do they count?) – and I only know about them because they’re hilarious.
For better or worse, erotica is a genre often derided, but I cannot in good conscience say one way or the other until I’ve read some myself. However, I gather it’s the predominant genre among self-published fiction – perhaps because titillation is relatively easy to achieve, though good writing demands depth.
Whether it’s true or not, I nevertheless imagine there are many examples of erotica that resemble low budget porn films with a story crudely filling in the gaps between the anal gaping – an excuse to place characters in a situation where the sex may occur. The sex is the real character – the people are merely the conduits for that character to express itself.
Of course, this prejudice against a form of writing I haven’t yet bothered to read will either be vindicated or refuted in my upcoming research, but I expect to both enjoy that exploration as much as learn from it.
I will need recommendations, however. And for that, I ask you, the internet, for assistance. If you’ve enjoyed anything particularly racy, please leave a comment below!
But before I leave you, I ask you this: next time you see someone nervously reading their Kindle on public transport, coyly holding its screen close to their chest as they peer down at it, checking periodically over their shoulder to check for eavesdropping bookworms – don’t judge them: it might simply be a writer doing research.