What do mystery – or erotica – readers want?

What do mystery readers want?

According to author Tom Savage, they apparently want “realistic stories with no realism.”

His full quote goes a little deeper:

Crime novels with… only nice people in them? Sexy, violent thrillers with… no sex or violence? Murder mysteries with… no murders? What you’re asking for are realistic stories with no realism.

Copy that.

You see, I used to write erotica. And, in case you’re somehow not aware, erotica involves very explicit sex scenes. That is its entire raison d’être, in fact. And yet I would constantly get one of two responses from readers:

  1. Too much sex!
  2. This sex is too artistic!

For me, neither of these criticisms make much sense. The first one should be obvious: if you don’t want to read about sex, then get out of the erotica section.

But it’s the second criticism that really confuses me. How can sex be “too artistic”? Why is giving your characters’ sexual interactions some, well… character frowned upon?

For me, the whole reason I enjoyed writing erotica was because it allowed me to explore those explicit details of a sexual encounter, but with a different spin each time. Indeed, it was really the chase and the tease leading up to the sex scene itself that was most gratifying to write, because that’s exactly the sort of thing that most women – and men, let’s be honest – really enjoy. Once you get to the actual down and dirty, however, it’s mostly just a matter of giving the mechanics some life. I mean, how many times can you really write about inserting Tab A into Slot B without becoming either rote or giving it some artistic oomph?

So the fact that readers would complain that the sex was too artistically described continues to be a perplexing point. I can understand disliking the characters, or maybe not even believing the setup (as in pornographic movies, readers tend not to be impressed by stuff like the “Ding-dong, it’s the pizza guy! Oh, my clothes fell off! Bomp-chicka-wow-wow!” type of setup), but to actively rebel against literary devices employed in a sex scene seems a little ridiculous.

It reminds me of this Anaïs Nin letter to “The Collector,” who was paying her by the page for erotica, back in the 1940s. He instructed her to “leave out the poetry” and instead “concentrate on sex.”

Even though I no longer choose to write erotica, I still sympathize with Nin – and with all erotic authors who enjoy and embrace the art of writing about sex.

And when it comes to mysteries, I enjoy them in all flavors: crime fiction, sexy and violent thrillers, cozy, crazy, and downright dirty. I draw the line at hopping inside the mind of a serial killer (and being forced to sympathize with said nutjob – particularly the ones that always seem to be stalking women), but other than that, I revel in the vicarious thrill offered by mysteries and thrillers. In fact, I truly appreciate the ones that can blend art and evil, like Red Hammond’s XXX Shamus.

So what do mystery readers want?

This one, anyway, wants whatever you’ve got – so long as it’s told full-tilt.


  • Brendan

    My interpretation of #2 is that people want realistic sex scenes. Not sex gods and goddesses doing spectacular things that the reader can’t do.

    My issue with Nin is that those books weren’t erotic. They were sexual, but it’s not the same. It’s because, as you mentioned, she was writing them for the money and not because she enjoyed it. I wonder if her diaries are better. At least she was more of a willing participant with Miller; not just out of financial necessity.

  • Laura Roberts

    Brendan: I don’t see why realism is incompatible with an artistic description, though. Painting the picture more beautifully is not always about the gymnastics and contortions required. But also, there will always be things that a fictional body can do that a reader cannot — otherwise, why would anyone bother with erotica to begin with? It’s a fantasy, after all.

    As for Nin’s books not being erotic, which ones do you mean? Her diaries are definitely worth a read if you haven’t checked them out yet, but the content varies widely depending on the volumes you pick. You could also read her letters to and from Miller in the book “A Literate Passion,” if you’re interested in those details.