Sex and the Scribe

7 February 2014 Nicki Reed

Sex and the Scribe

Nicki Reed, Ed#438, August 2013

On the challenges of writing raunch.

Here is a secret. When I first started taking my writing seriously, caring that I could get somebody to read it, be moved by it, I was writing erotic fiction. Glorious and terrible, comic short stories about getting your end in. Why erotic fiction? Well, I was reading it and finding that it was mostly unintentionally hilarious – euphemism is the mortal enemy of eroticism, a grimace will kill a sexy vibe every time. I reckoned I could do better. I experimented. And I fantasised, tried out same-sex sex on paper because I couldn’t within my marriage. I road-tested stories on my poor sister. My stories were first person: a bolder version of me having it off in lifts and car parks, with a newsreader or a policewoman, and my sister found them difficult to read. I guess my stories worked.

Now, I write erotically when it’s called for. I get dressed in leather, make sure nobody’s home, pour myself a long, tall, wet one and type.

When I turned up for the first meeting at my publisher, I had no idea I’d be talking about erotica, and sex, and pornography, years later. When it came to the marketing of the book, I worried that I’d have to make some big declaration regarding my sexuality. Well. Misspent worry and I get along like I would with Clive Owen, if he ever returned my calls. Sex sells, as my publisher said, as my novel teacher said, as everybody in the world says. And it is the erotic moments that people have concentrated on.

My novel Unzipped is about a woman exploring her sexuality and I felt I needed to show the sex; it seemed a rip-off not to show it. But it’s not a sex book, it’s a romantic comedy – When Harry Met Sally not When Harry Met Sally and They Did Dallas.

In retrospect, I know that what’s important is how the protagonist feels about the sex. You can show it in slow, undressed detail or show it with the lights off – how she feels can be seen either way.

But maybe, if it didn’t have sex, Unzipped would have received zero attention. And my publishers liked the sex: it’s not unreasonable they’d want more. When I got my pages back from my editor, with her cross-outs and grey lead markings, there was not a mark on any sex scene. Was my editor so disgusted she couldn’t write? No. If she wanted things to be different, she’d say. Had she dropped her pencil and slid off her chair?

Really, writing erotic scenes isn’t different from writing any other kind of scene. You lay it all out in the first draft and in the rewriting you dial it back until you wind up with a scene in which no word is extracurricular. The longest erotic scene in Unzipped started off twice as long (another secret: I was in a hormonal mood that day). On each revision I shortened it, asking myself: is that too much, is that gross, am I bored, how embarrassed do you want to be?

I was on a writers’ festival panel not too long ago with Isabelle Rowan, who writes male-to-male romance, and Randall Stephens, a performance poet who writes about sex (and other things including Darth Vader and grammar). It was our job to discuss erotic writing. None of us are writers of erotic fiction – it’s not what we would have listed on our passports. We don’t write to titillate; we’re thinking about consequences, relationships, risk, love. If there is sex, it’s in support of the story. We read, Randall performed, we laughed at the ick-factor of erotic writing and we almost got out without mentioning Fifty Shades of Grey. But if we’re talking erotic, we have to mention that book.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Christian and Anastasia. Born of Twilight fan-fiction, it is a phenomenon that is read and loved and disparaged and bought all over the world. Erotica as a genre has gone mainstream and publishers are trawling the net for the next big thing. Fifty Shades has made erotic literature more acceptable. I think the acceptability may be because everybody’s doing it. Like getting on the phone when out with your mate for coffee. I was on a tram once and there were three copies of Fifty Shades being read. No shades of any Unzippeds. You know you’ve made it when you can’t get the sour taste of professional jealousy out of your mouth.

I don’t know why Fifty Shades is so huge. It’s clunky, flabby and coy. It’s porno. A friend says it’s Grease. She’s right. It’s Sandy and Danny with more money, no dance numbers and no sense of humour. Is it because it’s a series? We’re loving a series these days. Because Christian makes sure his woman is fed? Because it resolves the sexual tension, repeatedly, that Bella and Edward of G-rated Twilight couldn’t? Is it because you can slip it onto your e-reader and read porn on the way to work?

I feel haunted by that book. It follows me wherever I go, or I’m following it. I read it for research. Really.

I don’t read erotica anymore, though – yeah – I read Tipping the Velvet, The Monkey’s Mask and Monkey Grip, for their good sex. I make sentences to answer a question I’m asking. I find it hard to write straight sex because I have been there and done that…and done that – it’s difficult to make writing sex interesting unless you’re imagining a new component. Still, I write to find out, always have. I’d like to find out about Daniel Craig and Catherine Zeta Jones, individually, or all of us together. I would write that.

» Nicki Reed, author of Unzipped, lives in Melbourne. She blogs at


This article first appeared in Ed#438 of The Big Issue magazine.