Thursday, November 3, 2011

Under Covers

“Aauuggh!” Carli had never made a sound like this before.

My own sounds were more staccato: “Uh! Uh! Uh!” I reminded myself of an old-fashioned train chugging uphill.

“’We – almost – there?” she huffed.

“Yep.” I couldn’t say more.

Oh the joys of a man-free lesbian life: we get to move our own furniture from room to room. The carved oak chest Carli inherited from her late grandmother definitely belonged in our bedroom, even if it killed us both.


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This is the opening passage of a story which was accepted for the upcoming Girl Fever, an anthology of 69 short lesbian erotic stories.

Does the opening scene look erotic to you?

The history of written and orally-transmitted (ha) erotica is full of double-entendres like the one above. “Off-colour” jokes depend for their effect on clear sexual implications followed by a disclaimer on the part of the joke-teller: why, what did you think I meant? What a dirty mind you have!

The bad reputation of sexually-explicit literature (in conservative circles) is rank with hypocrisy. Apparently it’s fine to make wisecracks about big tools and busy people (wink wink, nudge nudge) among men and women in the average office workplace as long as you can claim you’re not actually referring to sex.

Writers of the past (including the very recent past) had other strategies: phrases in Latin or French and/or metaphoric veils. In Victorian novels, a secret affair may become public knowledge when the couple is discovered “in flagrante.” Or someone surmises that the French lieutenant has a “paramour.” Or a realistic description of foreplay (some shedding of outer garments) is followed by “their hearts and bodies entwined and the earth moved.”

An amazing number of people I know, who say they have read certain “classic” novels of adultery (The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary), claim they are not the least bit erotic. Even Violet Leduc’s tortured autobiographical stories of lesbian passion (e.g. La Batarde) and Oscar Wilde’s thinly-disguised gay horror story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, are assumed to be “above” the level of erotic fiction.

Yet if sex as a major plot-premise is a defining element of literary erotica, much of the literature that is taught in schools (secondary schools as well as colleges and universities) fits the definition.

And no, I don’t buy the theory that literature is whatever the reader reads into it. A novel about “cheating” (extramarital sexual relationships) must be about sex and all the emotions that accompany it. And although it is possible to be emotionally unfaithful to a spouse or partner without "going farther," the great novels about the great tragedy of being tempted, surrendering to temptation and losing one's respectable public image always include sex as a physical activity that can be discovered.

A whole lot of literature describes sexual feelings. Most of us who include explicit sex scenes in our writing were first inspired by reading-matter that was recommended by our teachers or our parents. We simply imagined what was implied but not clearly described in the original versions. (Note the current spate of rewritten versions of Jane Austen’s genteel romance novels of the early nineteenth century.)

“Erotica” has always been hard to define clearly because it has always overlapped with supposedly non-erotic genres. If I have to define the difference, I would say it’s a matter of awareness. Writers who label their work “erotic” are conscious of writing about actual sex, the desire for sex, and the consequences of sex. Those who would be insulted to be reminded of the erotic elements in their work tend to be writers in denial, or writers of double-entendres.

Sexual feelings seem to be an unavoidable factor in the general human comedy (or tragedy). Differences in genres seem to be largely about how that thread is spun in the fabric of a story.

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5 comments:

  1. "Writers who label their work “erotic” are conscious of writing about actual sex, the desire for sex, and the consequences of sex."

    Oh, very good, Jean! I've never seen this before, but I think there's a good deal of truth here.

    And oh, how I groan at the current crop of X-rated Austen!

    I wonder if one could get away with teaching it!

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  2. "A whole lot of literature describes sexual feelings. Most of us who include explicit sex scenes in our writing were first inspired by reading-matter that was recommended by our teachers or our parents. We simply imagined what was implied but not clearly described in the original versions." Yes. Before there was fanfic, there were private imaginings. I know that my sordid little mind filled in blanks that didn't even exist.

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  3. Hi Kathleen!

    I think people have always had an interest in erotic writing but had to be careful. But a lot of the classics skirt close to the edge. THe scene in "Dracula" where the three vampire ladies come at Jonathan HArker was blatantly erotic. Stoker set the standard for vampires to come. I was snacking on Fanny Hill and there are some very explicit erotic scenes there. You wonder how these books managed to make it past the prudish. Its only lately that sex has moved to the front of stories.

    Garce

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  4. Garce,

    It's interesting that you mention "Fanny Hill" (actually titled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), first published in 1749, because it was NOT accepted as mainstream literature in any era that I know of. It was expurgated ("cleaned up") and the original was passed around as an "underground classic" for about 200 years after the publisher was sentenced to the pillory! I mentioned it in my 2001 talk on the history of erotica & censorship, which I turned into an article.

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  5. Hi Jean! (why did I call you Kathleen?)

    That happened also with the Richard Burton transaltion of "The Arabian Nights" which turns out to have some very explicit stories.

    Things are getting better. I didn;t know there was a class on the history of erotica. I'd love that class. I was really born thirty years too early.

    Garce

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