Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Mitzi Szereto - Putting the Literary Back into Erotic Fiction

Is it possible to want someone so badly, love someone so strongly, so overwhelmingly, you'd be willing to sell your soul to the devil to have him? This is Mitzi Szereto's own distinctive take on the Faustian legend. Her short story, "Hell is Where the Heart Is," is irreverent with dialogue as sharp as the devil's pitchfork. Szereto is a pioneer of the form and, let's face it, it takes courage to pioneer erotic fiction, so often confused with pornography and sleaze.

Copyright: Mitzi Szereto
Even people who don't much care for erotica find something to praise in Szereto's work, as Jill Murphy of the Bookbag says in her review of a previous anthology, Dying for it: Tales of Sex and Death, edited by Szereto. "Groan. Erotica is really not my thing... It's all so crass." However, Miss Murphy concedes the book has something to offer, indeed that she loves the Szereto story in the collection. "I enjoyed it mightily," says Murphy. "It's short, funny and rude."

"I don't really agree that sex is just about fun, though," says Szereto. "I'm afraid I take it seriously and entwine it with emotional attachment. I don't like soulless sex – perhaps that's my downfall. People aren't perfect. Expecting sex to be perfect is expecting too much." But in her writing, Szereto is a perfectionist, spending many hours preparing her projects. Believing that she must pursue all her goals to the utmost of her ability, she admits to being an "all or nothing" person. "I think I would die if I couldn't create."

A Renaissance in Literary Erotica

An American, Mitzi Szereto now lives in Essex and drifted into erotica almost accidentally. She was unimpressed by the quality of erotic fiction writing and didn't see why it should be "the poor relation" in a literary sense. She longed for a sort of Renaissance in literary erotica, a return to the classics like Fanny Hill by John Cleland. "I love the flowery language of the Victorians," she says. She first went classical with Erotic Fairy Tales, a Romp through the Classics (2001) prefacing each story with an introduction describing its origins. Strangely, as a child she hadn't cared much for fairy tales and now smiles to think how she derided those stories for being too immature.

"If I knew then what I know now," she says darkly. "They had such X-rated themes before being cleaned up for children." So she revamped the stories, for example, her personal take on the Sleeping Beauty story. "For rather than pricking her finger on a spindle and dying, the young Princess had fallen asleep by touching a prick."

Scorn for the Smut-writers

Szereto believes erotic fiction should be literary, mainstream and multicultural and never dumbed down for the reader. It's about finding a fresh, new angle, making stories new and relevant to modern readers, but without losing their original integrity. She's laid back about her writing talent, explaining that her ideas pop into her head and then start bubbling in her brain. Outspoken in her contempt for pornography, she says, "I take great offence at this smut-writing porn-writing mentality of so many writers of pornography. It does a major disservice to erotica." She has equal scorn for erotica authors who dabble in porn for cash rewards because it works against good quality erotic writing and finer erotica authors become stigmatised. Clearly, the academics agree with her since they clamour to invite her to their university or literary festival workshops.

So, can the differences between erotica and pornography be defined and just how subjective is the dividing line between the two? Is it just a matter of quality, or, perhaps, content? Szereto's criteria are: (a) Does it have lasting value? and (b) Does it have artistic integrity? Pornography, she says, has neither of these and it's time for literary erotica to move forward into the mainstream. One thing that puzzles her is the book world's top-shelf mentality where erotica is concerned. "Do you find warnings inside an Ed McBain novel telling readers they shouldn't murder anyone?"


Her characters come to her in pieces "like trailers from a film" and she tries not to rely too much on events and people in her life. Nor does she keep a notebook. "I am not one of those writers who go about with a journal," he says. "I find I file things away inside my head and when I need them, they magically reappear."

It's important to Szereto that people want to read and review her work. She disregards the censure of others. "If others are not comfortable with what you do, then that's their problem. No one should be ashamed of producing work of a high standard, that involves the reader in arousing, artistic prose." Erotica aficionados love her work and she has a large fan-base of both readers and writers, whose mail, she says, is insightful and intelligent. Her reviewers generally treat her kindly. "She writes with wit, humour and a playful storyteller's gusto," said Kate Falvey, of www.womenwriters.net.
In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde said, "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well-written or badly-written, that is all." Perhaps it is up to Mitzi Szereto over 100 years later, to convince us that this is true.

The full version of this article was published as "Making Love Gripping," Writers' Forum, November, 2007 and subsequently on Suite 101, 10 November, 2010.

Personal input from Mitzi Szereto
Getting Even Revenge Stories, ed. Mitzi Szereto, Serpent's Tail, 2007
Dying for it - Tales of Sex and Death, ed. Mitzi Szereto, Serpent's Tail, 2006
Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics, Mitzi Szereto, 2001, 2nd edition released and renamed: In Sleeping Beauty's Bed: Erotic Fairy Tales (2010)


rhondda said...

Nothing wrong with erotica in my book as long as it is tasteful and dignified.
Thought I might make some money from it at one time and tried a semi-autobiographical approach, but discovered that you need experience for an autobiography:(

Janet Cameron said...

Eliminate "tasteful" and "dignified" from your vocabulary. That might help. :)