Tutor with a talent for putting erotic sex into cerebral stories

March 9, 2007

Mitzi Szereto was at a party in her native US when a fellow guest insisted on showing her his crude efforts at erotic fiction.

"I think he genuinely wanted opinions on it. It was really horrible," she said.

But instead of putting Ms Szereto off the genre, the unpleasant encounter inspired her and led her to a highly successful career as a writer of erotic fiction.

Now she is seeking to inspire a new generation of budding writers - in erotica or otherwise - as an associate lecturer in creative writing at Derby University. She hopes her academic position can help lift erotica out of its much-maligned literary ghetto.

Ms Szereto's first attempt at erotica, The Captivity of Celia , proved a runaway success. From childhood she had been a fan of Gothic novels, and she produced something of a full-on Wuthering Heights , with the main male character, Sir Jason Harwicke, shamelessly modelled on Colin Firth in his incarnation as Jane Austen's Mr Darcy.

Sir Jason, "a real manipulator", blackmails Celia to do "whatever" he wants to protect her fiance (Sir Jason's cousin), who is wrongly accused of murder.

One breathless reviewer on the online bookseller Amazon comments: "The sexual perversity is astounding! Celia's journey of sexual self-discovery is an intelligently written and deeply erotic adventure. Each main character is well developed; dynamic, reprehensible and entertaining, all at the same time." And that, says Ms Szereto, is the difference between erotica and porn. Erotica must have a story and engaging characters, and be cerebral rather than mechanistic. And, while it may be explicit, it should not be smutty.

She admits that there has been plenty of bad erotica, which she believes has reinforced its ghettoised status.

"There has been a lot of poorly written, formulaic erotica, a one-handed read. But since more women have begun writing it, I think standards have improved. I don't deal with euphemism, but I like to have a more literary style and shy away from language that is very crude."

She is irritated that erotica is categorised as crude, which she considers snobbery from the literary intelligentsia. "If people are worried about the content, why not just say 'contains sexually explicit fiction'? It is this view that the only legitimate book is the literary novel that no one wants to read."

At Derby, Ms Szereto runs workshops in general writing, although many of her students say they would love modules on erotic writing. She insists that if someone is a good writer they should be able to write about anything.

But sex is a notoriously tricky topic, with celebrated writers such as Tom Wolfe, Sebastian Faulks and Iain Hollingshed winning the Literary Review 's Bad Sex in Fiction award. Ms Szereto is baffled that many authors can write with apparent ease about extreme violence but have difficulty with "something that's normal, natural and positive". She speculates that they are hampered by their internal censor and worry: "Somebody is going to read this, what are they going to think?"

Ms Szereto always had a hankering to live in the UK and notes a difference in attitude to erotica on the opposite side of the Atlantic. "In the States, there may be less of that behind-the-hand sniggering, but I seem to be accepted here more in the mainstream - I've taught workshops on erotic writing at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature."

She now concentrates principally on anthologies featuring contemporary work: the latest, Dying for It: Tales of Sex and Death , includes contributions by writers Niall Griffiths (described as "the Welsh Irvine Welsh"), Clare Colvin, Lauren Henderson and Ashley Lister. Her second anthology of Erotic Travel Tales is the first such work to feature a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, novelist Lesley Glaister, who teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University.

"To say you can teach someone to be a writer is hubris, but you can hone something that is already there and guide and inspire," Ms Szereto says.

And her key message to would-be writers is the need to be "very determined and pig-headed".

Her critically acclaimed book Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp through the Classics , which includes scholarly introductions highlighting the often erotic origins of what are now considered children's stories, was initially rejected by dozens of publishers. Her first M. S. Valentine novel was accepted only because of a chance phone call from the publisher: he had misunderstood the theme on the basis of the first submitted chapters and was set to reject it.

She says: "The odds are against you, and talent alone isn't enough. Nothing is easy and everything seems to happen by accident. I'm beginning to think it's a form of insanity that makes us think we have to be writers. It's something we're driven to do."

I graduated from...
California State University

My first job was...
working as a graphic artist and administrative assistant in my mum's real estate office while attending junior high school

My main challenge is...
finding the motivation and blind faith to keep going.

What I hate most...
is getting up early in the morning

In ten years I...
want to be writing in my cottage in the country or on a windswept cliff, with a devoted and cute male companion on hand to keep the winter chill away and make me cups of tea.

My favourite quote...
"When I'm good I'm very good. When I'm bad I'm better" - Mae West

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