- Oliver Parini
A year or so ago, Rebecca Croteau "weirded out some friends," she recalls, when she brought her laptop to a Super Bowl party. "I was in the corner, writing away. They were like, 'What are you writing?' And I was like, 'porn.' 'No, really, what are you writing?' And I was like, 'porn.' And they were like, 'What, right now?'"
"And then I got kind of annoying and feminist about it," says the Colchester mom of two, laughing. "Like, 'If I ask you point blank, everybody here is gonna say they believe a woman has the right to orgasm and sexual fulfillment. So if you're going to be embarrassed about this, yeah, I'm gonna get in your face about it!'"
The past few weeks have brought us scads of media commentaries inspired by the release of the hit film version of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Many take a tone that suggests their authors are still "embarrassed" — if not mortified — by the phenomenon of women reading and writing about sex.
And yet, while James may have increased the presence of whips and chains on the page, that phenomenon was far from her invention. Romance tends to outsell other fiction genres, and today's romances typically (though not always) contain some degree of "heat" or "steaminess" — that is, sex described without demure euphemisms. Furthermore, the rise of e-commerce and e-readers has made it far easier to consume and sell such books, and to market them to niche audiences in search of particular erotic flavors. In short, the market for sexy romance is booming — largely because women want it.
Croteau, 35, knows all about that. In the past year, she's ghostwritten 12 books for clients seeking erotic fiction — and made more money in the process than she could with freelance blogging gigs, she says. She's also released a novella with digital publisher Ellora's Cave and has stories forthcoming in various anthologies, along with a small-press novel. (She chose to use her pen name for this article.)
When she meets with Seven Days at a downtown Burlington café, Croteau has a subtle dyed streak in her hair and an easy laugh. Well versed in comic-book culture, she compliments the young man at the next table on his American Sign Language T-shirt — an in-the-know reference to Marvel's Hawkeye character.
After she left her corporate job because of childcare issues, Croteau relates, she searched for freelance writing work on the networking platform oDesk. She "found that there were a number of people looking to have someone write an erotica story or a romance story for them. I thought, I used to write it for fanfic [fan fiction]; might as well," she recalls, "and found that there's something really fun about writing about sex."
Fan fiction, or stories penned by fans about their favorite literary, film or TV characters, has developed in parallel to online erotica, with many writers producing both. (An erotic component is common in such stories, though not universal.) Intellectual property law keeps fanfic out of commercial circulation, but recent years have seen more writers altering their popular stories to sell them legally as original work. Thus, with changes of name and place, a free online BDSM reimagining of Twilight became the mega-best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey. For further evidence that online titillation is going mainstream, look only at Simon & Schuster's recent six-figure acquisition of Anna Todd's After, a college romance series that started its life as an erotic epic about Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction.
Croteau calls fan fiction a "fantastic writing exercise." But her early ghostwriting brought some exercises of a less welcome kind. "Especially with the stories that were, like, tentacle monsters and body switching," she says, referring to anime-inspired kinks you may not want to google at work.
Some of her early clients, Croteau says, seemed less than professional. "Somebody asked me at one point, 'Do you think you're just writing it for their spank bank?' And I was like, 'I don't really want to know.'"
Now, however, Croteau has a single client who "turns what I write around, repackages it under a different pen name and sells it on Amazon." She makes approximately $200 per 10,000 words, and can turn out 25,000 words "in a good week ... not amazing money, but it pays for the groceries, at least," she says with a laugh.
On her website, Croteau lists her "wills and wont's" for potential erotica ghostwriting clients. She won't write about nonconsensual sex or anything illegal. She will write about "bodily functions (scat, golden showers, erotic lactation)," but prefers not to. Necrophilia is not OK — unless the dead partner is a vampire.
Most erotica publishers observe similar restrictions, she says, though "you can find somebody to publish just about everything." You just may not find the more taboo-challenging works on Amazon. In the past year, Croteau says, the e-commerce giant has been experiencing a "push to clean up the site, because they were getting a lot of criticism from people who go on and search 'My Little Pony' and suddenly find two pages of 'My Little Pony' erotica. Which," she adds wryly, "is not what you want when you're sitting down with your 6-year-old to find a Halloween costume."
While some writers draw strong distinctions among romance, erotica and pornography, Croteau quips that erotica is "porn with its fancy clothes on." Part of what she likes about the genre, she says, is the variety: "Erotica's come a long way from the '80s and the Harlequin romances that we all stole from our moms. It can be really sweet and sexy. It can be brutal and hot. It can be both at the same time."
But to appeal to the ravenous romance readership, she emphasizes, even the darkest erotic stories must have happy endings — and no, not (just) in that sense.
Croteau's novella Sweet Mistake — published under her pen name — is firmly in the "sweet and sexy" category. Its heroine is a young woman who's good with a fuse box, less so with a standup mixer. Determined to make perfect cinnamon rolls for a family occasion, she gets help from a local butcher who also happens to be a baker — and smoking hot. The two eventually get something cookin', with no details spared. But they don't do so until the end of the story, which highlights their cute getting-to-know-you banter in a way unimaginable in, say, a Penthouse letter. Oh, and they use a condom.
The safe-sex issue, Croteau says, is one of the biggest controversies in romance. "If you ever want to break the internet, go on Twitter and say, 'Romance writers, do stories need to have safe sex?'"
Croteau is pro, at least for stories with contemporary, real-world settings: "Maybe it's because I'm a mom," she says. As for whether condoms harsh the buzz, "I don't think you need [the characters] to sit there and have a 20-page conversation about it," she says. "One line takes care of it, and you move on."
Is it hard to keep coming up with new ways to describe sex? "There are times when some of my fantasy life gets actively transcribed onto the page," Croteau says. "I've also been known to text a friend and be like, 'OK, I'm out of ideas; what do these two do right now?' And she's like, 'Blow job in the shower.' And I'm like, 'OK, blow job in the shower it is!'" Even Cosmopolitan articles on sex positions can serve as inspiration.
Croteau uses a pen name for her erotica because "I've got two little kids," she says. But in general, she's "not super-secretive about it. I post some stuff on Facebook. Most of my friends know. I don't have much in the way of filters."
She plans to wait until her kids are "a good bit older" to tell them what she's writing. But sometimes, says Croteau — who has also freelanced as a parenting blogger — her two lives collide in comic ways. "The part [of writing erotica] nobody thinks about is that, when you have little kids at home, you're sitting there trying to write, you know, They grasp each other passionately, as the 2-year-old's like, 'Mommy, can I have a banana?' And you're like, 'She grasped his banana — no, wait. That's not right!'"
Of course, much of the appeal of romance, erotic or not, is that it transports readers out of their mundane reality. And that's why Croteau doesn't like to slam Fifty Shades of Grey, even though she describes the books as "not my cup of tea" and says she wishes everybody would just "shut up about it."
"I don't know anybody who looked at Fifty Shades of Grey and said, 'I want a relationship just like this,'" she says, referring to critics who've characterized James' hero's aggressive pursuit of the naive heroine as abusive. "It's a fantasy! It's pretend, and you're allowed to want things in fantasy that you don't get to have in real life because they're not sane or safe or healthy." For instance, she suggests, she might fantasize about marrying a rock star, while knowing the experience would be a lot less fun in reality.
And when she meets fans of Fifty Shades who haven't dipped any deeper into the erotica pool, Croteau says, she simply tells them, "That's fantastic; I'm so glad you liked that! Let me tell you about this other book you're gonna love."