28 November 2023

Smutty fiction is in its renaissance era thanks to TikTok

Erotic fiction dominates pockets of TikTok and Instagram. But is the genre regressive, or harmless filthy fun? 

Scroll through Instagram reels or TikTok’s #ForYou page for long enough and it’s likely that you’ll encounter some of form of smut. “She has him on his knees as he t0uch3s h!ms3lf at her command” reads the text on one of them. In another by TikToker-stroke-author Madison Fox, we get a glimpse of the kind of filth we can expect from Good Game, her “spicy gamer boy romance” novel. You’ll even find #relatable POVs based around being a connoisseur of erotic fiction, or #spicytok. It doesn’t matter where you look: it’s clear that we’re living through something of an erotica renaissance. 

Erotic fiction has always been popular, and it’s been around nearly as long as literature itself. The first popular entry into the genre is widely regarded to be 1749’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, though most of us probably know erotica as the seminal Fifty Shades series. The three books in the original trilogy (which started off as fan-fiction for The Twilight Saga) saw British author E. L. James top Forbes‘ list of the highest-earning authors. They’re also, however, widely regarded as badly written: Salman Rushdie said that the first instalment “made Twilight look like War and Peace”. 

When it comes to the new generation of erotic fiction, the situation isn’t all too different. Though users on X have concerned themselves with just how bad these books are (“Listen I have no beef with horny smutty writing but like can we get better standards PLEASE I’m begging”), they’re simultaneously transforming the world of romance publishing. Colleen Hoover, the darling of TikTok’s #BookTok, has seen sales soar. The parent company of TikTok has even started its own publishing company, and they’ve already gone about buying the rights of books by self-published romance authors that are popular on the app.

What is different about the work contained within this new iteration of the erotic fiction genre is the language used. X was ablaze after an image of the dedication in T.L. Smith’s Moments of Mayhem circulated, with users noting how “seeing this kind of verbiage outside of internet (notably fandom) spaces feels really really weird”. But given that these books are written by authors who found their footing on Wattpad – the online platform that’s become something of a hub for fanfic – what else would we expect? 

So what’s the issue? Are these books regressive? For some, yes. As was the fate of the Fifty Shades series, they’ve attracted criticism for making the women at the core passive receptacles for whatever their partner (whether a regular guy, vampire, or mafia boss) desires. Largely, however, people don’t dislike them because of their lack of feminist credentials. Really, to be true to the tenets of modern feminism, we can’t dictate what one woman should or shouldn’t read, no-matter how cringe-inducing and “backwards” it may be. Rather, people don’t like #spicybooks because they’re… bad. And as some users of X have put it, they should be relegated to the online sphere.

Products of the genre are so formulaic that one book often ends up being an awful lot like another. At the beginning of this year, two prominent authors of the “monster-fucker” genre (no, we’re  not making that up) even had a tiff when one of their works appeared to borrow from the others’. To be honest, considering that the both of them were writing erotic fiction about a “vrix” (a half-human, half-spider hybrid), really it’s surprising that this didn’t happen sooner. 

That’s not to say that the popularity of these horny books isn’t something of a welcome change. Amidst what’s been called a “sex recession” and the pearl-clutching discourse around film depictions of sex that emerged earlier this year, something like #spicytok is comparatively positive. They could even be seen as part of a broader horny renaissance, something that also manifests in things like TikTok’s horny chefs. But again (and just like #spicytok) the lackluster “meat” of this kind of content lets the side down. “It’s like it’s a performance of eroticism without actually being sexy in any way” remarked one X user. 

At the end of the day, authors of the genre might just be tapping into something that, deep down, everyone wants. And if they just spent a little more time making their horny books into horny masterpieces, everyone would be willing to be loud and proud about the fact. Until that happens? The creators and consumers of #spicytok are still the winners here. There’s clearly some awareness that putting this kind of content out into the world will rile people up, and that only functions to draw more attention to the genre. That’ll lead not only to articles just like this one, but a boatload of people who resonate with the genre, buy the book, and absolutely love it… And the cycle continues.

  • Writer Amber Rawlings

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