Brave New Worlds :: Cecilia Tan on Publishing Sci-Fi GLBT Erotica
On a recent weekend a group of writers and editors gathered in a house tucked into a side street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for what its participants jokingly referred to as "porn camp." In fact, it was the annual retreat for Circlet Press held at the home of author and publisher Cecilia Tan.
Circlet Press is one of the leading small press purveyors of science fiction/fantasy erotica, specializing in stories and novels focusing on GLBT characters. For more than two decades Circlet has published books that don't fully belong to either of the genres of which it is a hybrid, and yet which combines the qualities of each.
Indeed, this June two of the company's books are up for awards. "Chocolatiers of the High Winds: A Gay Steampunk Romance" by H.B. Kurtzwilde has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT science fiction/fantasy/horror. Also on the ballot, in the category of Lesbian Erotica, is "One Saved to the Sea" by Catt Kingsgrave, about a lighthouse keeper's daughter who becomes involved with a shape-shifting selkie. The latter has already won the 2012 Rainbow Award for Lesbian Paranormal Fiction, and is up for a Golden Crown (presented to lesbian fiction and non-fiction) in the category of Historical Fiction.
Why mix erotica with science fiction and fantasy? Tan recalled that when she founded Circlet twenty-one years ago, "It was my feeling that science fiction and fantasy was the ideal genre for discussing 'otherness." It was also a way to combine two of her interests at the same time: "In my twenties I was a GLBT activist," Tan said. "I went to my first Pride Rally when I was in college. It was more political and less fun," she recalled, comparing them to more contemporary events.
Why science fiction? Tan was already fascinated by the genre, being a "Star Trek" fan who appreciated the Spock character as the alien who was different from those around him.
"When you’re young and coming to terms with your sexuality you fantasize," she said. "Science fiction and fantasy was where there was a place for me." Unfortunately, she could find little GLBT content in the science fiction she read in the ’80s. "The gay/lesbian content was there, but you had to squint to see it."
In 1992 Tan founded Circlet to provide an outlet for the sort of fantastic stories that embrace sexuality in all its forms, providing it was consensual and non-violent. That didn’t mean there weren’t vampires and werewolves as well as dommes and leathermen, but if the story was about rape or abuse, she would have none of it.
"I do believe Circlet Press exists to change the world," Tan said, not as if she thinks she can do it herself, but asserting that this is her contribution to the effort.
One way she did it was by publishing anthologies in which stories about gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and straights appeared side by side.
"That really upset bookstores in the old days," recalled Tan, whose works were often distributed through independent gay/lesbian shops where material for men and for women was strictly segregated. "It was like The Gap."
While some of Circlet’s books are narrowly focused ("Wired Hard" is gay SF; "Women on the Edge of Space" features lesbians in space) many collections feature both.
"We occasionally get the one star Amazon review," said Tan, noting that such reviews come inevitably from a reader who thought they were getting heterosexual vampire stories and was surprised by the mixture. However, "Generally speaking, because we’re in the science fiction/fantasy genre people are used to us being more free form.
If the genre material is straightforward -- although often taken in unexpected directions -- the erotica can be surprising. "Some people say pornography is for men and erotica is for women, but heterosexuality is the linchpin of that argument," argues Tan. "If you see it as a spectrum, pornography tends to be on the low end, and erotica is on the high end."
In other words, both may get you excited, but it’s the erotica that will engage your mind as well as your crotch. "For us, it has to be well-written," Tan continues. "All the regular standards that apply to science fiction and fantasy come into play... and it has to get you hot."
Readers may not be surprised that some of the writers publish under pseudonyms to separate their erotic from their mainstream work, but they may not know that you can’t always tell the orientation of the writer from the story. There are men writing lesbian stories, women writing steamy gay S/M tales, straights depicting gay orgies, and gays writing tender hetero love scenes.
"Every writing program tells you: Write what you know," Tan observes. But, "If you just write yourself in science fiction that brings in all kinds of problems. You need a bit of wish fulfillment. That’s what makes the engine run."
Mainstream observers sometimes seems surprised at women writing -- and reading -- gay erotica.
"Oh my goodness," mocks Tan, "Soccer moms like to read about penises... No one questions whether men hate their penises when they watch two women kiss."
As erotic fiction has gone mainstream, and various publishers have discovered there’s a market for adult romances mixing horror, the paranormal, science fiction, and fantasy, Tan hopes to keep pushing the boundaries even as she admits that publishers of erotica are sometimes at a disadvantage. Romance readers keep blogs and recommend new releases to each other. Erotica readers, on the other hand, tend to keep it to themselves.
"There’s a bit of the one night stand about it," Tan observes.
Mixing new books, reprints, original e-books, and a wide variety of genres and erotic tastes, Tan hopes new Circlet Press releases will continue to surprise and entertain her audience, even it remains a niche market. As she notes, "When we started people thought, ’That’s weird and quirky.’ Now we’re part of a passel."
The Circlet Press website contains free "micro-fictions" and samples of longer works, as well as the Circlet blog. It also contains links to order books and writer’s guidelines for those who want to try their hand at writing erotic science fiction/fantasy.
(Daniel M. Kimmel admits to publishing a couple of stories under another name at Circlet and dares you to find them. Under his own name he has written several books, including his most recent, "Shh! It’s a Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide.")