Surrealism is all over the place in BDSM erotic romance and erotica. One of the issues with writing in a genre that is still in its infancy is that, when you apply techniques such as these, there's a chance that some of your readers won't understand what you're trying to do. This post is going to talk about the situation of the genre, precariously perched between realism and unbelievability, between surrealism and relatability.
Personally, while I agree that it's every writer's job to communicate their idea effectively, I think that one of the best privileges of using the English language is that it has so many wonderful ways of encoding meaning, ways of creating new meaning from commonly understood tropes, and ways of interpreting that meaning.
One of my favorite things, which I've done with both Mastered by the Highlanders and my new book, which still doesn't have a title yet, is to use different things as metaphors for orgasm. You will notice that I didn't use the word "shattered" once in my book. I actually hate when people say "shattered" because it just got so overused in That Book That Shall Not Be Named (or, You Know What for short).
"But Katie" I hear you say, "That's symbolism and the title of this post was surrealism."
Yep, I was just leading into it gently. Don't worry, I can tell the difference.
Surrealism is a protracted state of symbolism that's intentionally designed to explore ideas in a way that's not overtly realistic. Surrealism plays a part in most narratives we create surrounding BDSM. The scenes people play out will often have an element of surrealism - the contradiction of the schoolgirl uniform that's designed to best showcase adult women's anatomies, for example. It's not realistic, and for people who use those, that's exactly the point. One of the things I love about reading and writing in this genre is that it's packed full of surrealisms, anachronisms, things that don't quite add up, and I especially like when it's done that way intentionally. There are thirty year old men wearing diapers whilst flicking through the works of Noam Chomsky. A farmer who left school at 16 can become a headteacher, strict and all knowing within the bounds of his domain. Any number of kittens go back to working in checkouts, doctors surgeries and libraries once their scene is over. The wonderful thing about this surrealism is that you don't have to live through the thing in the story to be included by it. It's just the boundary between dreams and ideas. Some people can and do enact BDSM 24/7, but while real BDSM and literature are close cousins, that's not really what's being discussed here, I'm more concerned with the imaginative contrivances of the written word.
In The New Topping Book, Eastman and Hardy wrote about shadow play - the interplay between our light, open, overt selves, and our shadowy, secret, unconscious selves. That shadow is quite often explored by BDSM fiction, because it's a safe space for us to consider, for example, how it would feel to do a certain act, to be made to do a certain act, or to consider how it would feel to be the unwilling victim of something you secretly want. For me, the only realism that kills a story begins and ends with the development of the relationship between the main characters. If the relationship isn't properly developed, then no amount of using the word "ye" to make it look old is going to work out. If the heroine is just meeting the hero one minute then marrying him without all the in between stages, it kills the believability. An example of this in a well-known book was the reception of the Harry and Ginny ending in the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. One reader explained how they found Harry and Ginny's ending jarring in a fabulous article that has since been taken down off the internet.
I have difficulty writing stories that are realistic developments of a relationship but where consent has not been given. I don't mind reading them, but it doesn't sit right when I try to write them. There's a failed draft of a story idea I had about six months ago, that would have been out by now, if I had only been able to fix the issues of how the heroine can consent and still be reluctant without it just being coercion. I take my hat off to writers who successfully walk that line. Maybe one day I'll pull it off. Obviously beneath the surreal situation of any story itself, the characters can be assumed to be enacting a scene and therefore their activities are consensual and they are able to safeword.
A lot of book snobs in erotica seem to believe that, if a story isn't able to be totally re-enacted exactly the way it happened, it's an invalid story. It's a criticism that erotica and erotic romance writers seem to get thrown at them quite regularly, which is a shame because too much realism cripples imagination, and one of the most wonderful things about this genre is the sheer amount of imagination some writers are able to use, because they're not constrained by the things that mainstream publishers expect from writers (which changes with any given season). To some extent, a BDSM erotic romance written to be 100% entirely realistic would probably be a bit flat to read, even if it was fabulous to live through.Surrealism as an artistic movement brings up that side of ourselves that we don't usually let out in polite company. It's the id, while the superego has stepped outside for a fag break. The surrealist nature of BDSM erotic romance and erotica holds a mirror up to our most secret of desires, so we can explore them as a thought exercise without actually getting (say) a criminal record. Because if you did half the stuff in BDSM erotic romance and erotica novels in real life, you would probably end up in prison. To be fair, this same point can be made to a greater or lesser extent towards all BDSM scening. If you spend an hour living out a kidnapping fantasy in a play space, you're exploring that shadow on the fringes of your subconscious in a surrealist psychodrama. If you actually kidnapped someone, you have a problem and you need a lawyer. See? Realism has its place, but so does absence of realism. In this genre, I feel strongly that realism isn't actually very important, as long as everyone's positioned properly for the sexy scenes and continuity has been maintained. It's an acquired taste, for sure, but so is eating a pongy English cheese, yet may people find this activity enjoyable too. More important is how the story makes the reader feel. Does it uplift them or is it depressing? Does it turn them on? Has the story left the average reader slightly better than it found them, either in a better mood, or having had a nice moment with Mr Buzzy, or just as a little slice of escapism? If the answer is yes, then as far as I'm concerned it's been a success, and bugger whether it's realistic or using surrealism or just plain unbelievable. Having said that, I do like the fine details and little mess ups that show characters to be real humans. When was the last time a character was swallowing liquid come and retched slightly? I don't think I've written anything like that, and I'm not sure I would, because it's not very sexy (unless you're into Roman Showers) and more to the point, it would kill the tension. Some of my favorite stories involve leaps of imagination that are bloody ridiculous, but I still love them for it. HG Wells's The Time Machine is a good example. Or Bram Stoker's Dracula. There's films, too - any Disney movie has to start off with an unbelievable fundamental premise, and the James Bond movies are the same. There's some real scientific experiments which I have seen or read reports for, and which seem unbelievable (nuclear fission which happens every day at power stations seems totally ludicrous when you hear about it, and non-Newtonian fluids are just plain bizarre). The bottom line is, it seems silly that this genre has to work twice as hard to achieve realism when real life doesn't make any effort at all on that front.
Lots of Love,
Copyright: 2016, Katie Douglas. Web Design: Katie Douglas.
Background image credit: Shashi Rupapara (image licensed under creative commons).