Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sex as Literature's Bitch

by Amanda Earl

Why is sexual activity often associated with misfortune or dysfunction in mainstream literature?

Here are my half-baked theories (HBTs) on the subject with a little help from Alberto Manguel in his introduction to The Gates of Paradise

HBT # 1

According to religious doctrine, sex is supposed to be subordinate to the spirit. Sex is for procreation, with pleasure being a reward for such. Erotic fiction is subversive because it depicts sex as enjoyable, the achievement of desire as the ultimate goal. Western literature is still very much influenced by religion because its readers are still very much influenced by religion. Christianity is still a major world religion with one-third of the world's population as its adherents. Its doctrine continues to influence people. Part of that doctrine means that sex outside of marriage, sex with people of the same sex and sex with multiple partners is a sin. It's not a viewpoint that is going to go away quietly. The parts of the Bible, such as the Song of Solomon, which poetically rhapsodize about the pleasures of sexual union, are of course in conflict with such dogma, but Christians live with many paradoxes.

In fact, mainstream society is full of these paradoxes towards sex. We use underage children to sell us alluring clothing. We are fine with graphically explicit violence in films, but show a man's dick and the film has to have an X Rating. Priests take vows of celibacy, but many of them turn out to be buggering little boys. These paradoxes are reflected in literature, thanks to hard working writers trying to make sense of them and the existential angst of the modern world.

HBT #  2

Writers want to create fiction that includes a healthy dose of conflict in order to make the work compelling. [Segue: Not to say that fiction without conflict can't be compelling; see this post on kishōtenketsu.] Sex, especially shameful sex, is a pretty convenient and juicy little conflict creator. It is something most people have to deal with, one way or another. So all readers and writers can relate. Desire can be something that is difficult to reign in; it plays with one's emotions. Repression or frustration of desire can lead to out-of-control acts.  In other words, it's a pot of gold for any writer.

HBT # 3

In literary fiction, all subjects can serve as material for inspiration. Writers can write about incest, rape, abuse, bestiality,necrophilia…all manner of sexual dysfunction and criminality, with the understanding that they are not writing about such acts to titillate. These subjects are very juicy for writers and consequently they are ubiquitous in literature. Open up most Canadian literary fiction at random and you will happen upon
a) winter;
b) a character who has been the object of abuse or incest;
c) World War II;
d) lichen [more common in poetry than fiction];
e) cormorants [see d];
f) a grieving widow.

See Gail Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure for Death by Lightning; Lisa Moore's February; Timothy Findley's the Piano Man; Anne Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees, Barbara Gowdy's We So Seldom Look on Love

What self-respecting fiction writer wants to write about healthy, loving experiences, when they can immerse themselves in  the dark, nasty stuff, emotional baggage, the skeletons in our closets?

In erotic fiction, writers can't get published by legitimate publishers if their fiction includes such taboos for the sake of arousal. We also cannot write about underage characters, so coming of age stories, the ones that are so ubiquitous in mainstream literary fiction are also mostly off limits to us, unless we figure out a way to make their coming of age happen after they are eighteen (and sometimes even older), which comes off as a wee bit preposterous most of the time.

Meanwhile Tamara Faith Berger's excellent novel Maidenhead  about a sixteen year old girl whose first experience with sex involves a stranger who pisses on her, beats her and gets her involved in pornography has received rave reviews in the mainstream media, and justifiably so; however, reviewers are not allowed to get too explicit in their reviews.

The fact is, erotica writers are hamstrung. We want to portray sex positively, but we also want juicy stories with complex plots and characters. It's such fun to write villains. [I look forward to the next topic which discusses the happily ever after ending.]  We, too, want to take on the angst of human existence with all the sturm und drang [this video is NSFW] that such angst entails.

To me the best example of a contemporary writer who immerses herself in the paradoxes, who plays with the tensions of sex as pleasure/shame and whose landscapes are often bleak and exotic is Remittance Girl. Her characters are never perfect. She writes from deep psychological depths and her work doesn't just titillate body parts, it also provokes the mind. See for example her novels Beautiful Losers about a threesome made up of two gay men and a woman and the Waiting Room about Sophie-the-slut and Alexander, her tempter, lover, perhaps redeemer/corruptor. 

I do feel that such resplendent examples are still rare in contemporary erotica. I can think of a few others off the top of my head: M.Christian,  Mike Kimera (the latter no longer writing alas.) No doubt you, dear readers, can provide me with a few examples of such and I invite you to do so.

HBT # 4 [or rather, an extension of HBT # 3]

Take for instance BDSM, which is the current darling of the mainstream, thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. And I say darling of the mainstream because newspapers and magazines are suddenly full of articles on how handcuffs and floggers can spice up your marriage, etc. 

Compared to BDSM fiction's earlier incarnations, such as the Story of O where O is forced into service without prior consent and the men who use her aren't exactly paragons of virtue, or books by the Marquis de Sade, contemporary BDSM fiction has been replete with cool-headed perfect dominants and compliant submissives. Agreements are made ahead of time; scenes of abduction abound, but are prearranged by the spouse. Often contests and calls for submission for BDSM erotica include the proviso that the acts depicted must be SSC (Safe, Sane and Consensual) or RACK (Risk Aware Consensual Kink).

Is this because there is pressure by the BDSM community to portray BDSM that way, to avoid putting BDSM in a bad light because it is seen as reprehensible by mainstream society?

Just the other day I was watching a recent episode of Mad Men [SPOILER ALERT!] Out of the blue, Don became all dommy with his mistress, pathetically ordering her to crawl on the floor (she wouldn't) and then making her stay in a hotel room to be used for his pleasure (she did.) and then when she wanted to end it, begging her to stay. Begging!  No preamble, no prearranged agreements, because this is how the mainstream thinks BDSM works. And this is one of the reasons why BDSM erotica more than any other kind of erotic fiction is held up to a standard (SSC/RACK; robotodoms).

Because mainstreamers have these ludicrous ideas about BDSM, its practitioners and advocates worry that people wanting to experiment might take this fiction as truth and decide to try out the activities based on how they are portrayed in fiction. This is tantamount, in my opinion, to saying that readers are stark raving idiots. And perhaps some of them are, but if so, they have bigger problems in life than their inability to read beyond the literal.

Meanwhile there is a plethora of very educational, highly informative reference books that deal with the subject available for the curious to consult. See Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns; A Different Kind of Loving; SM 101. & take a look at this great list on the Submissive Loving site.

It's not to say that all contemporary BDSM erotica falls in line with SSC/RACK or has perfect characters, but when it includes dysfunctional characters, they are usually redeemed by the end of the story or the door is open for their redemption. My theory about why conventional society is actually reading and admitting to reading Fifty Shades of Grey is because the so-called dominant is a sociopath who is taking out past issues with his crack whore mama and redeemed by the love of a good woman. Such pleasant heteronormativity. Much more unpalatable to mainstreamers if he was just an ordinary man, a good man who was turned on by drawing out sexually repressed lovers and making them understand their true selves, who delighted in their punishment, their pain for his sake and their own but not because he is suffering from some kind of disorder or mania, simply because it's fun or mind-expanding.

Erotica writers have a tough challenge to write compelling fiction while still portraying sex in a positive light. These days you are pretty much obligated to include condoms in your descriptions of the sex act. I find this tiresome. I read erotica to fantasize, not to be brought back to reality with a sticky piece of latex on the page. See. Remittance Girl's recent blog post "Unsafe Sex and the Representation of Ideals." And while I don't mean to suggest that such restrictions are always in place, it does seem to be becoming more of a trend. I doubt works like Georges Bataille's the Story of the Eye or the Dead Man could never be published in print today. 

Nicholas Baker, author of the Fermata and Vox, recently published House of Holes, which received many reviews, including one by the NewYork Times. The work is described as not as pervy as his previous books; although the Globe and Mail says that it is just as graphic, but goofier. Is this less pervy more goofy style because Baker is trying to satisfy more pedestrian tastes, become more palatable to the mainstream? 

Faced with the way mainstream literature often uses sex as its bitch, many of us want to try to write sex positive fiction. But I'd rather just write good fiction myself, with all the tensions and possibilities available to mainstream literary writers. The problem is mainstream publishers would find my graphic descriptions of sex gratuitous instead of empowering and arousing, which are my goals when I use such language. Whereas at least graphic sex is still welcomed by erotica publishers. But even that is changing. I've seen a couple of calls for submission advising against the use of explicit language, more calls for heterosexual erotica than queer erotica and also for BDSM erotica, requests to add romance. I worry that erotica is trying to become part of the mainstream. I prefer to play in the margins.

In conclusion, I believe that mainstream literature writers continue to write sex as dysfunctional in order to generate conflict, but I also believe that erotica is becoming increasingly sanitized with pressure to clean up its act and be less filthy in order to be palatable to the mainstream. Take a look at Selena Kitt's article on Amazon's filtering and the steps erotica writers are having to take to get their work past the Amazon censors so that we pervs can find their books. 

Also I've noticed a few authors whose work used to be quite gritty writing sweeter tales. While variety is good, I have been told that the reason for the lovey dovey nature of at least one of the books is because of market demand. I hope I’m wrong, but if erotica is becoming less edgy and if writers are sweetening up their writing in order to suit mainstream demand, I am very concerned. 

26 comments:

  1. I love this post for many reasons, including because it's so very complimentary to my work.

    You state:

    "I believe that mainstream literature writers continue to write sex as dysfunctional in order to generate conflict"

    I think this may be partially true, but I also think it is incredibly fashionable for postmodern writers to make damn sure you understand how very little they are swept away or impressed by anything, including sex.

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    1. thanks, RG. i hope people who haven't heard about your work (for some bizarre reason) take this opportunity to explore it.

      on postmodernism: i thought that was dead ;) there is a tendency for contemporary writers to act blase about everything, including sex. it's nerdy to be exuberant. i am an ubergeek.

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  2. Hi, Amanda. Great that you're contributing to the Grip now!

    Re. Nicholson Baker: I'm no expert, but from what I know about him I suspect he is a writer who writes exactly what he wants to (and who has the luxury of being a darling of the literary crowd--not that he doesn't deserve it--and thus knows his work will pretty much always get published and have attention paid to it). And, for what it's worth, Vox (the earliest item in Baker's "erotica" oeuvre) is to my mind clearly the most vanilla, sweet-flavored book of the three.

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    1. thanks, Jeremy. i'm enjoying being here.

      i'm no Baker expert either. i would love to be a darling of the literary crowd with the luxury to have my work published.
      i haven't read H of H yet (not sure i'm going to), but i read both Vox & the Fermata. V. did have a bit of romance to it, also underage sex & a cherry being taken, if i recall correctly. the Fermata bored me desperately.

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  3. A lot of ideas here! And a variety of plausible hypotheses (all of which probably have a grain of truth).

    Here's another one: literary authors (hey, maybe most authors) may have had mostly dysfunctional sexual experiences, and they write to explore and exorcise them. In contrast many erotica authors write to celebrate sexual pleasure and/or to relive and expand on the high points of their sex lives. Certainly that was my initial motivation for writing erotica.

    Of course, if literary fiction were not so welcoming of miserable sex, screwed up authors might not be so drawn to the genre...

    Meanwhile, the "romancing of erotica" concerns me a lot (even though I also write erotic romance). It's a marketing phenomenon, primarily. There are probably ten thousand times more romance readers than erotica readers out there, and as erotic romance gets more explicit, the genre lines are blurring. So more and more "erotica" calls blend into romance territory, trying to capitalize on this latent market. However, romance readers simply won't put up with a dark or ambiguous ending.

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  4. thanks Lisabet. i wonder how many writers of mainstream literary fiction write erotica under an assumed name? i know at least one. i haven't seen any stats on this but i can believe that most people have had some kind of dysfunctional experience related to sex, whether it be some form of abuse as a child or otherwise. it's possible that some people are still working through such while others have already dealt with it.

    it's interesting to learn about the romancing of erotica & the number of readers there are for romance. i'm looking forward to the next topic about happily ever after endings. it's kind of fun thinking of a bunch of infuriated romance fans marching on Washington or something to protest the ambiguous ending ;)

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    1. I am one of those folks who uses my name for all things smut, mainstream lit etc. What's interesting to me personally is that when I've had sex in mainstream stories it has tended to be welcomed more if the work in question doesn't focus on sex. Curiously I've only had one editor in about the last 15 years say a word about it and it wasn't that I wrote explicit erotica but that a lot of it available at that time wasn't heterosexual that was an issue. Since then it hasn't been a problem.

      Sex still makes people uncomfortable so I think part of what happens around sexuality in mainstream literature reflects that. Not in a deep or meaningful way all too often which is unfortunate.

      I look forward to posts about the romancing of erotica as well. I don't write romance at all and don't really enjoy it as a reader. I have concerns about that myself.

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  5. Excellent article! And how have I missed this blog? Mr. Baker was one of the primary influences in turning my literary explorations, as a writer and reader, towards the erotic, with 'Vox,' way back whenever that came out... I was fascinated by the idea, as I was quite interested myself in the activities/thoughts/etc. Baker was dealing with. But he novel itself was ho-hum. A disappointment. As was "Fermata"...a better read perhaps, but still... And 'HoH' just sounded lame.

    So back about eight years ago I wrote the first draft of my novel, "Cocksmith at the Helm," which I describe as "a bawdy picaresque" to those who know what that means; or as an erotic Hero's Journey, for those more mythologically inclined. I self-pubbed it three years ago to a great and general ignoring. I wrote it as a love song to life, to woman, to all of us. I wrote it in reaction to the ever-increasing obscenity that has come to describe our national mind-set, and the policies of the indecent--then manifested by the emerging Abu Ghraib criminality...amongst other things that all began coming to light back then. I wanted to create something that any prude/hypocrite would call obscene, but that anyone with any knowledge of lit. would find beautiful. And funny. And moving. And a taboo-breaker. And very sexy.

    And so I did. And I continue to do so... Bringing such work to a greater audience, however, is a real neat trick, and one I'm not particularly skilled at. Maybe it'd be sweet to be a literary darling. The cash'd be nice, and so would the recognition. But those are rewards, as I see it, for success at mediocrity. The play for the least common denominator, that everyone 'gets.' (Hence the toning down or sweetening?)

    Ah well. Things are what they are, I suppose...and as ever, I have schemes aplenty afoot. Including this: should any of you who have posted here, or who have read these posts, be interested in a copy of "Cocksmith at the Helm," give me a shout and I'll send you a copy--as long as you'll promise to read it. Just so ya know...

    peace out

    J.A. Finisterre

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    1. thanks for your reply & comments, J.A. glad you have discovered the blog. best of luck with your literary shenanigans. we have a great workshop group over at the Erotica Readers and Writers Association along with lots of calls for submission, links to erotic videos, paraphenalia, reference books & more. http://erotica-readers.com/

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    2. Hello, J.A.,

      Welcome to the Grip! We're an eclectic bunch here, but it sounds as though you'll fit right in (as well as at ERWA). I daresay every one of us knows what "picaresque" means.

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  6. Gosh, all the comments added to Amanda's thorough post leaves little to be said, but that's never stopped me from spouting off about something! I must say that I read Vox back in the day and the others as they came out. I thought the books delightful. Not very stimulating but Baker is such a imaginative wordsmith and so much fun to read that it kinda makes up for their lack of depth.

    I also get the impression that Baker doesn't have to cater to whoever pulls the strings. He does seem to write what he wants and gets away with it. Things like the underage characters in The Fermata. He impresses me as one of us who made good. Made it in the mainstream without compromising much as far as I can tell. We don't learn of deep internal sexual explorations reading Baker, but he is funny as hell.

    I think a writer not looking for the trappings of success and fame, or those who don't have to write for a living, may have a little more freedom in what he/she writes. Since I have so little published, I'm content as a hobbyist. God forbid if I had to depend on my earnings as a writer. LOL! I'm content to be a medium-sized fish in the little pond of ERWA. Of course, if someone came along and offered me a bundle...

    Good to hear from and about Remittance Girl again. Hi RG!--We've missed you around ERWA. What was it taking all your time? Doctorate? Masters?



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    1. thanks for your comment, Daddy X. Baker has been the main interest of the post apparently. now i feel like rereading Vox again. i agree with you, he is an excellent wordsmith.

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    2. I've been pondering the apparent trend in who actually buys books these days. How much effect has the internet had? How are habits changing? When it comes to erotica versus romance, are fewer people willing to pay for erotica while the romance readers will still shell out for the emotional immersion they get from romance novels? I'm just theorizing here, but I've noticed that there seems to be less and less market for lesbian erotica, while lesbian romances are still going strong. Possibly the male segment of the market that used to buy girl-on-girl erotica can now get enough kicks from online porn. And possibly younger people are more oriented to online and media content than to books, while the older people who still buy books prefer softer romance.

      I like to keep track of what google search phrases lead people to my blog. (You do that too, admit it!) I tend to get more hits for the themes of my anthologies that have sold the least, leading me to suspect that the people who want to read that sort of thing don't overlap much with the people who buy books. And right now, with my newest antho (coming out in three weeks) being more-or-less true stories, I'm getting vastly more hits, many of them with "free" as part of the search phrase. I'm probably pissing off more people because they get there and don't find free stories, just my TOC and introduction, than are inspired to buy the book.

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    3. Hi, Daddy,

      Before long, Remittance Girl will be Doctor Remittance Girl. If you think she speaks with authority now...!

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    4. Hi, Sacchi,

      I don't know about the younger/harder/older/softer theory (speaking from personal experience). However, I do think the ready availability of on-line porn has filtered out certain segments of the market.

      On the other hand, those segments might have been disappointed anyway. I've got reviews for my BDSM short story collection Just A Spanking from people who were clearly disappointed that it wasn't more like hard core smut.

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    5. Sacchi, i have noticed more het romance calls & fewer GLBTQ calls in my very unscientific, not really paying attention survey of calls i get thru ERWA. i find it very disturbing & worrisome. is it that fiction that doesn't fit within mainstream convention are being buried by Amazon as Selena seems to suggest? i read a fair amount of free erotica on my Kindle but if i find a really good writer, i go on to buy more books by her. since i joined this blog, i've resolved to make more of an effort to find well written erotica to read. i've found that by reading some of the folks here & also by consulting reviews via ERWA & blogs like Erotica Revealed. but it is just so easy to pick up a freebie via Kindle. i go through kindlespice.com to find out about such. many of them are really bad, but they tend to highlight the kinks i like a wee bit more than any other site i've found. maybe one of the things we need to do is to really push & promote writers who are not being promoted as much as they should be. it's a mission ;)

      Lisabet, i have a hard time believing that online porn is anyone's substitute for erotica. i wank to both, but i think readers will always be readers.

      very interesting comments all. glad to see this has generated some discussion. thanks for the topic, Lisabet :)

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  7. Amanda, I'm sure the number and quality of the comments were due to your engaging and astute initial post.
    Thanx for that.

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  8. Nicely and concisely written, Amanda, and well-argued. This is a topic which we, in our free societies, need to debate more openly.

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    1. Great, concise post, Amanda. Re the ongoing Christian influence on how mainstream literature is received, other major religions (e.g. Islam, Hinduism, Judaism) and even political ideologies generally seem to view sex in parallel, negative ways. (Of course, there are liberal variants of all these, but they haven't taken over.)In my real-life experience as an "out" member of the local LGBTQ comunity before it was hip, I've found that much public homophobia is based on the belief that queers/perverts are having too much fun, unconnected with reproductive responsibility. When I was part of a small organizing committee that spoke to Regina City council in 1989 about launching the first GLBT Pride Week there, our opponents (who identified as proud Christians & Muslims)said in that case, there should be a Pedophiles and Prostitutes Pride Week, as though all these categories were the same (i.e. there is decent, monogamous sex within marriage, then there is Sin & Sickness). The amazing increase in social respectability for some queer folks (2-career same-sex married couples) since then, accompanied by the rise in "bullying" (harassment often based on homophobia and/or woman-hatred) seems part of the same double-think that affects Amazon's classifying tactics. It's mind-boggling.

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  9. it is mind-boggling. i was hoping someone would bring up other religions too, since i have no experience with such myself. all of this: the censorship, the anti GLBTQ attitudes, the romanticization of erotica etc, make me even more determined to write erotica than ever. it's one of the reasons i resumed writing erotica after an absence of several years. thanks for your comments, Jean.

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  10. As Jean said, they're jealous, just the same as the murderers who beat the shit out of others for sex crimes in jail. Just another chance to hate someone for something someone else doesn't have or are too afraid to pursue.

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  11. Thank you for this excellent and insightful article about a subject that I feel very passionate about. And particularly for mentioning the strange phenomenon of being able to write about any kind of sex act or experience AS LONG AS IT IS NEGATIVE OR TRAUMATIC. (And of course there often is a lot of hidden arousal around such descriptions). But I think that's true for many genres including mystery and science fiction. I also find it very disappointing that sex-positive and explicit literature is often pushed into a ghetto of 'Erotica' where it is assumed that positive and explicit sex must be there for the sole purpose of arousing the reader. So what does this say about our culture: sex as a traumatic experience is ok or even admired in the mainstream, sex as a positive experience and journey of self-discovery is 'erotica' i.e. text pornography.
    there may also be an element of sexism here: why is Henry Miller literature then?
    I feel intellectually invigorated by the lively discussion!

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    1. thanks, Senta. glad you could participate :) i remember reading somewhere that literary writers are concerned about causing sexual arousal in readers, afraid it would distract them from the work & yet they feel free to cause other feelings, such as anger, shock, sadness etc. it makes no sense. it's just the usual shite. which was my short answer to the question ;)

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  12. Excellent article. I have read many things in the past that would not be published now in the erotica genre.
    All works of writing, literature and even art are made to inspire emotion, sensations and thought. To not break the rules and write things as good, bad and sometimes ugly is just as wrong as not writing things that show the perfect, terrifying and gross. I believe that many writers are writing for others more than themselves which will eventually leave all writing becoming set stories, emotions and expressions. It is the staunching of the imagination and creativity that will eventually make all writers obsolete. (The rule makers don't want us to think or feel for ourselves. They only want what sells and what won't rock the boat.)
    For writing to grow, even now, writers cannot be bound by the physical, the common method or even the usual ideas of situations. We need to show that things like emotions are not harmful but also show that loving, caring and equality are just as important. Pushing the boundaries is something I like to do in my writing. To have read the above things you have written only proves the fact that writers are becoming lazy and not writing as they did in the past. Writers push society to accept, learn and grow from our works, just as all artist do.

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