by Ashley Lister
Is beauty a necessary requirement in erotica? Of course it is. Who wants to shag a fugly? Does this make me sound glib? Of course it does. But the depressing thing is: I’m speaking the absolute truth.
Beauty, it’s claimed, is in the eye of the beholder. But this is only true to a certain extent.
Part of the problem with beauty is that the media have manipulated our interpretation of beauty to a level where it is now an unattainable goal. Models are photoshopped and airbrushed so that they’re unrecognisable. Photographs of an attractive model are tweaked and touched up until the image of the attractive model becomes the epitome of desirability with large, doe-like eyes, porcelain smooth skin and a perfectly proportioned physique. The photographs are tweaked to such an extent that, when the attractive model is placed next to their enhanced image, the model looks like a fugly. This video illustrates the point neatly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U&feature=related. Given this state of affairs, what hope do the rest of us have in ever being considered beautiful?
Fortunately, in literature, beauty is a subjective concept – invariably delineated by the perspective of the narrator or an opinionated central character. The protagonist believes the antagonist is attractive therefore the reader sees the antagonist as an attractive character. It might be a minor subplot that the protagonist hankers after a partner with a face like a baboon’s arse but the key issue is that the antagonist is beautiful in the protagonist’s eyes, therefore the antagonist is beautiful.
A reader once complained that I always made my characters flawlessly attractive. She said that this detracted from the story. I considered this as serious criticism and re-read the work that had generated this complaint. I then read it again and decided my critic had been talking shit.
In the novel in question I’d been fairly sketchy with each character’s physical descriptions. It had been written whilst I was recalling the advice given by horror author James Herbert. Mr Herbert (in a TV interview) explained that he tried to keep the characters’ physical descriptions to a minimum so that readers could imprint faces from their own imagination on to each character. He was talking in terms of stories that are plot based action narratives, rather than heavily involved character studies. As a device for erotic fiction, I thought it worked well and allowed the reader to experience a more intimate involvement through their own imagination.
But my critic was a woman so fugly her passport photograph was used as promotional material advertising The Horror Channel. Not surprisingly, she was also a person with exceptionally low self-esteem who believed that everyone else in the world was more attractive than herself. Admittedly, she was probably justified in having that opinion, but with her low self-esteem she had imprinted the images of beautiful people on the characters in my story and blamed me for creating a cast who reinforced her negative self-image.
All of which, is my longwinded way of saying: whether we create beautiful characters or bland faceless ones, there will be readers who see these characters the way they want to see them. And, if the reader wants beautiful characters, who am I to not give them what they want?
(NB ‘fugly’ is a derogatory neologistic noun formed from an expletive and the adjectivial ‘ugly’).