I’m a member of a very vibrant private group on Facebook called The Erotic Literature Appreciation Society. A fair number of its members are some of the writers I most admire. However, what is clear is that, beneath the surface, there is a pretty massive schism as to what we are calling ‘erotica’.
Historically, erotica, as a written art form and often referred to as (textual) pornography, has never been a ‘fixed’ thing. Some scholars consider Sappho’s poetry erotica. Historians of ‘erotica’ point to works like The Decameron, The Heptameron, the verse and plays of John Wilmot (dramatized first as a play and then the film The Libertine), the works of de Sade, and then we arrive at the Victorian anthologists, writers and poets: Richard Francis Burton (who translated One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra), Swinburne, Pierre Louÿ.
Then came collections like The Pearl, and The Romance of Lust, and psuedo-autobiographies like The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon and My Secret Life by ‘Walter’, and the astonishingly explicit The Sins of the Cities of the Plain – the first exclusively Queer erotic work.
I want to pause here to reflect on the nature of all these works: yes, they were all aimed at erotic arousal, but reading them now they seem very quaint, funny, even boring. But to get a sense of the nature of ‘erotic literature’ you have to take the context of the times in which they were written into account – because without it, we lose the sense of the wealth of what they are. The Decameron was written in Italy during an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague with its sense of impending doom and the Christian view that the Plague was a consequence of sin. The Heptameron’s context is intense religious and dynastic power struggles in France and Spain. The libertine texts appear during the Restoration – in the wake of incredible slaughter after the long power struggle over the British throne. Similarly, with de Sade’s works, they appear as the French Monarchy is crumbling and the Revolution looms on the horizon.
Victorian erotic literature evolves in the context of four massive upheavals: the dramatic shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the scientific method taking hold and being applied to every form of natural phenomenon and clashing fantastically with long-held religious beliefs, the migration of large segments of the population from the country to the cities and the expansion of the British Empire.
I want you to consider the content of these works in conjunction with the times in which they are being written, because without doing this, we tend to lose perspective on what the author was doing – what they were writing against, what social norms they were challenging.
Flash forward to the 20th Century, and we have D.H, Lawrence – deeply influenced by Freud and the English Class system. Radclyffe Hall writes The Well of Loneliness which, although not explicit, confronts the reading public with the realities of suffering in a society where same-sex love is stigmatized and criminalised. Bataille’s work is produced as Fascism is about to eclipse Europe. Women writers like Nin and Duras are writing in the shadow of the first wave of feminism and in a world still wholly steeped in sexist misogyny and hypocrisy over what is sexually permissible for a woman to do, to say, to write. Miller and Nabokov are breaking open the rigid roles of men in society and revealing the underbelly.
This isn’t by any means even a pathetic intro to the history of erotic literature, but I wanted to go through it a little to underscore that erotic literature has always been socio-political critique. It has always used the premise of the singular erotic human being’s struggle, eroticism as a kind of body-bound truth point in contrast to or in concert with the culture and society of the time. In a way, it has always been escapist writing – but it is important to ask yourself what a contemporary reader was escaping from. The hand you push into your pants or under your skirt is stained with the everyday world you live in. The semiotics of eroticism are always, always curved by the gravity well of prevailing ideologies. Erotic literature has always acknowledged this.
So, although I understand that people who call themselves erotica writers but whose aim is simply to produce something that enables a quicker wank, and the readers who want to buy ‘erotica’ only for that one purpose – want to be ‘in the club’, they don’t want to bother with the philosophical aspect of the genre’s canon at all.
These days, the vast bulk of what is published as erotica is utterly untransgressive. It doesn’t press against prevailing norms at all. We keep telling ourselves the lie that it’s daring to write about sex explicitly, but it’s NOT. Explicit sexuality is almost everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous that people have to buy programs to make sure their kids don’t stumble across it on the net. There’s absolutely nothing counter-cultural about blogging your sexual exploits. It’s feeding the contemporary content machine. I’m sorry. You are not transgressive. And saying you are, over and over again, doesn’t make it so.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a model of complete contemporary conformity. It valorizes obscene wealth, the whim-driven and nepotistic use of power, the narrative that men want sex but women want love. I’m not going to go on about it. It’s no more transgressive than a Calvin Klein ad.
Meanwhile, there are a small but not insignificant number of writers – who call themselves erotica writers – who are interested in carrying on the legacy of erotic literature: using eroticism as a frame through which to look at, complicate, contrast, and destabilize how mainstream culture perceives ‘reality’. We think it is part of our calling to use eroticism as a way to ask readers to question their assumptions, not just about sex, but desire.
The problem is that the majority of readers, publishers and writers do not think that is ‘erotica’. The economic success of erotic romances like FSOG and the strung-together-sexually-explicit vignettes aimed solely as ways to help women get off textually have really redefined the genre. Because this is the reality in our culture: a genre has become whatever its most economically successful exemplar determines it to be. And it has no place for me, and the small group of writers like me, who write something else.
Maybe we are dinosaurs. Maybe we are writing for a readership that doesn’t exist or is too small to merit a super-structure of editors, publishers, and sales outlets.
I’m never going to stop writing what I write. It forms a core part of my identity. If that means I only have 5 readers, that is okay. I’ll still keep writing. But I do harbour a hope that what I and a dwindling number of writers produce is culturally valuable and, perhaps, the problem is that the label we use for what we write has become so unrecognizable from its historic canonical texts, that we need to find another name to call the kind of literature we produce.
The one thing I know is that the marketplace has won. What the majority of readers call ‘erotica’ bears no resemblance to what I want to write. I’ve wasted a decade fighting a losing battle. It’s time to formulate a new strategy.
I want to frame this in a more positive light. Perhaps this is a good thing for literature. I know a lot of writers I deeply respect have struggled and self-censored and compromised to accommodate what publishers want and what readers expect. I know it’s been incredibly soul-destroying for some of them. Maybe this was our sin: erotic literature IS NOT BY ITS NATURE accommodating to the marketplace or the mainstream. No wonder we’re failing. Let us please stop trying to fool ourselves that we can make a living at this if only we cater to publishers guidelines, political correctness and reader expectation. Let us write freely and courageously into the underbelly of our culture and know that some people do read it and are enriched by it in profound ways.
That’s our job. Let’s just do it. Meanwhile, we really do need a new name.