A few years a ago I was living in these apartments in San Antonio Texas. One of our neighbors was a small, cantankerous woman in her 60s from Thailand named Nute (sounds like newt). She liked us and didn’t have many friends. When she’d make up a batch of Thai home cooking she’d bring a bowl by the apartment for us. She liked to watch me eat it. I was the only one who ate it. The playfully spicy but non-threatening tex-mex of Taco bell and most of San Antonio's tourist traps were boiled oatmeal compared to this. Nute’s cooking occupied its own parallel Universe of studied heat and pain. It’s wasn’t fun. It hurt. It was real. It was the food you might be served in the afterlife if you died without being absolved of your sins. This was serious food, and the faint hearted need not apply. In fact the faint hearted could just get the fuck out of the way when Nute came around with her soup, with tiny native Thai chilis floating in it, the hottest natural substance on God’s foot stool. It made my eyes weep, my nose run, my face turn red and my skin sweat. Nothing could put it out. Water spread it on your lips like a gasoline fire. I took some to work for lunch and people gathered around, seeing me weeping and gasping and red faced, thinking I had received some tragic news. I adored Nute’s cooking and found it sexually arousing.
I found Nute sexually arousing also, but in a peculiar way. I’m oddly wired so that I find older women, whatever age I am at a given time, to be the most sexually attractive. The funny thing about Nute was, that as a fantasy figure she was arousing. But in the real world she was not. When the real Nute was standing next to me, watching me eat and whimper, I didn’t feel attracted by her in that way at all. When she wasn’t around, and it was just my imagination it was another thing. Her skinny frame was a blank tablet on which strange dreams could be written. I could never figure out the mystery of that, how the fantasy image of woman could reach you in ways the woman herself could not. There’s a short story in there somewhere.
I find this true on many levels, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. Here’s what I’ve found so far. Straighten me out if I’m wrong.
One of the best books on writing craft that I know of is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Steering The Craft”. Most writing books will explain the bricks and mortar of plot structure, POV, character arc and the three act story. Le Guin’s skips all that and addresses something different. Her book is dedicated to the beauty of language in writing craft. Her exercises are along the lines of writing gorgeously, writing “chastely” (no adverbs or adjectives. Just try that some time.) and writing magically.
Writing in a magical voice is an element I’ve seen in several forms of popular fiction. I never got comfortable with this form of speech until she explained it to some extent in her book. It’s the difference between skinny little Nute standing next to me, and Nute the seductive Fox Lady of fantasy. Fantasy beats reality most of the time.
Le Guin gives examples of magical speech from Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings”. We’re not talking about magic words, but instead a kind of syntax. A way of talking. This is a syntax that doesn’t attempt to imitate common speech, but a kind of high flown speech. It represents speech inhabiting a role, compared to speech imitating life. This is one of the chief distinctions between popular fiction and literary fiction. In pulp fiction, tough talking crime noir detectives like Philip Marlowe could be counted on to say things like
"I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."
"'Okay Marlowe,' I said to myself. 'You're a tough guy. You've been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you're crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let's see you do something really tough - like putting your pants on.'"
Magical language is recognisable as words without contractions, faux Shakespearean pronouncements in stentorian tones. It is a type of sound, an aural imagery, that reminds your imagination that this is something more than reality. You should be hearing it a certain way. For example imagine, say, a young boy is trying to open a door he’s not supposed to. In mainstream fiction a gruff man standing nearby might say “Hey! Knock it off, kid. You ain’t allowed in there.” Okay. Now imagine a wise old wizard saying the same thing in magical speech “Young boys are most curious. Nevertheless, what you desire is forbidden. You shall not pass." Wizards and wise men talk this way. Native-Americans in movies who speak English as a second language talk this way. Villains on Star Trek talk this way, God knows why.
Magical speech exists in erotic fiction in the BDSM genre. I’m getting better acquainted with this genre as time goes by, but its still a little exotic to me. My favorite book is still “Raw Silk” by Lisabet Sarai. It just stands out, and its probably the best introduction for a beginner to the genre imaginable, because the main character Kate O’Neill is new to the experience. We learn this world along with her. The lesser men in this world, her boss, men she encounters, speak in a natural manner. But when her dom Gregory has her alone for the first time and is seducing and introducing her to the world of pain through which she will explore her own sexuality, he speaks magically:
Gregory stood back a bit, looking her over. “Once again, Kate, you surpass my expectations. Now indeed you look as my slave should look, well whipped and well satisfied.”
Or this from Anne Rampling’s (Anne Rice) “Sleeping Beauty” series:
The Prince gave a low gentle laugh.
“My Beauty is very like an unstamped coin.” Said the Prince. “And I wish to draw in the full character. I shall take delight in training her. I wonder if you yourself are as attentive to her faults as I am.”
My Beauty is very like an unstamped coin? Strictly speaking, guys don’t talk like this. Readers who’ve been getting by on Hemingway and Bukowski have to change gears, and changing gears is good for you. These are fantasy words, words of pleasure and magic, not violence. These are words to conjure with. They arouse and draw you in. They invoke images of pleasure in ways that a more straight forward syntax would not.
Look at it from another angle. Here’s a fragment from an unpublished novella of mine called “Miss Julia’s Cake Club”. This is how guys talk when they’re not playing around:
“You do what I tell you. You don’t think – you just do. That’s what you do. I decide what you do, so you’d better stop insulting me. Me – I decide. You do what I tell you to the fucking T!” He kicked wildly at her again and hit her elbow. Her right arm went numb. “Tell me that lie again!”
“That’s it.” He grabbed the edge of table and threw it over sending the dinner into a gory splatter against the wall. The cheap glass dishes they’d gotten from the American church missionaries shattered into sharp edged blades over the kitchen floor.
“That’s my fucking dinner!” he screamed at her, his face looking like it had just been boiled. “Look at what you made me do to my fucking dinner! I give you a home. I give you love. I give you everything a woman can ask for. And then you lie to me and you insult me and now look what you made me to do to that shitty dinner that tastes like shit. Look what you just did!”
“I didn’t mean -”
“What? What did you just say? Don’t you fucking argue with me!”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Don’t you try to lie to me like I’m stupid. Bitch – I will fuck you up!”
She looked around frantically but he was standing between her and the front door, and there was nowhere to hide. She rolled into a ball and covered her head with her arms.
“Clean it up!” he hollered. “Fat stupid bitch – get up and clean that shit the fuck up!” She could see through her fingers that he had his belt off now, the big steel buckle dangling down and she knew the worst was still on its way.
Hello? Anybody still reading this far? Like I said – unpublished.
There’s nothing sexy about that scene. That scene hurts to read, but I promise you its pretty damn realistic for a lot of women in this world. That’s not what we come to erotica for, for many people its what we come to get away from. A good writer in this genre will give us the magic and the language to conjure it with.