Aug 182011

When people write of erotic fiction and bad taste, they usually aim their poison pens at purveyors of writing who prove themselves from page one-and-a-half to be foul-mouthed and boorish savages whose idea of a seductive setup is a pizza boy asking, “Did one of you cheerleaders order extra sausage?”

But that’s not the topic today. This article is the second in my six-part series (you do the math, Bruce Willis) on the senses in erotic writing. Last time around I talked about the delights of the schnozz. Today it’s the mouth that concerns me — I’m writing, literally, about taste.

For a genre where so many book blurbs offer “gustatory delights,” “mouth-watering offerings,” and crap that’s “lip-smacking good,” supposedly, one would think we eroticists would have far more common with food writers than, in fact, we do. The connection between food and sex is nowhere more evident than in the way that erotic books are marketed, far more than in their content. While erotic stories about food are a solid aesthetic sub-genre, it’s also true that even erotic stories apparently unconnected to food per se require some kind of vivid description of taste to truly bring the reader in to the moment — during oral sex, for instance, or even a kiss, or a romantic meal at a zillionaire’s mansion before the orgy starts, or in the moments of burn following a shared Scotch consumed before balling fervently in a dive bar bathroom.

Erotic stories rarely get the vivid descriptions of taste that would do them justice. That doesn’t make them bad stories at all — erotic tales have a lot of fish to fry, in sensual terms, and not knowing what the character’s fourth margarita tastes like probably isn’t going to inhibit the reader’s appreciation if the point is to get the characters into bed together. But at some point in most erotic stories more than a very few thousand words, someone is tasting something where most of us have only a vague idea about what it tastes like — a body part, body fluid, leather boot. It may not get described at all, which is fine for most stories, or writers may use some stock phrase that doesn’t really tell the reader anything. Taste is a tool in the writer’s tool kit that is not always critical — but provides endless creative possibilities once you really start thinking about it.

The description of sensory pleasures in general is one of the hallmarks of vivid writing — and in erotica, the sensual details can set you apart from garden-variety Alt Sex Stories fare (which I do not mean to badmouth, mind you) and writing that is truly evocative. Most evocative descriptions of sexual encounters contain some reference to taste, and for most of us, taste is a key ingredient in real-life sensuality. Food and sex are inextricably connected, and taste and sex still more so.

Yet if you google “taste in erotica,” you get some hits that are at best distantly connected to the topic at hand, like a Nyotamori restaurant in Denver called “A Taste of Erotica,” Nyotamori being the practice of eating sushi off a naked female (or, presumably, a naked male, though I’ve never heard of that). There are any number of books that promise (and, in some cases, deliver) the connection between the sensuality of taste, in the literal sense, and the sensuality of, you know, sensuality, in the euphemistic sense.

Many very good erotic stories engage the senses at the kind of level that’s expected from the very best food writing. Sex writers can learn a lot from reading very good food writers — and surely the reverse is also true. Many anthologies have sought to mine the connection between food and sex, and not just for their marketing copy.

In fact, I contributed to one of them recently, the anthology Torn, edited by Alison Tyler, in which I waxed philosophic for some lengthy pages about the musky taste of the Cherokee Purple strain of heirloom, from the point of view of a character who doesn’t like tomatoes.

Now, my reason for making the character not like tomatoes was twofold. First, it created tension between the two characters, since the other one really liked tomatoes, and in fact grew them in great quantities. Thus, the experience of taste became a dominant/submissive exchange between them. But my second reason was that, by not liking tomatoes, the viewpoint character was forced to experience them with a certain lack of expectations. Tasted in an erotic context, tomatoes proved way sexy, and the endless variations of different varieties at different points of ripeness proved fertile ground for what I found to be a deeply sensual experience (writing about it, that is). Since I don’t usually write about food much, this was particularly cool; like the main character, I was experiencing something for the first time. Or, if not for the first, at least without the jadedness that comes from having done things the same way a million times.

What’s more, I like tomatoes a lot. But I also turn out to be mildly allergic to certain heirloom varieties.

Therefore, tomatoes carry a certain charge of danger,  a certain taboo appeal…just like the other tastes one might encounter in erotica.

The best thing about writing erotica is that as one does it one also gets, ideally, to learn about writing everything else. Every sensual detail brought into a story helps the reader connect with the characters and the fictional world you’ve created.