Monday, June 5, 2017

Erotica and Literature (#erotica #censorship #amreading)

My bookshelf
My TBR shelf
By Lisabet Sarai

I’m reading several books at the moment, with many more on the stack (see above!), but I want to focus on only one title in this post: ASport and a Pastime by James Salter. I’m about three quarters of the way through this slim novel, which manages the unusual feat of being both intensely literary and unabashedly erotic.

It’s a common observation that sex and literature don’t generally play well together. I’ve encountered many articles (some posts on this blog as well as on ERWA) which observed that literary novels can include sex only if nobody enjoys it. Of course that’s hogwash, but one can note a definite trend toward dysfunctional relationships and unhappy endings for sexually-active characters in books labeled as “literature”. We erotica authors often complain about the fact that literary authors can write with impunity about topics like teenage sexuality or incest, while any story of ours that touches these subjects will be promptly banned, or at least relegated to the dungeon. This double standard is especially irritating to those of us who experiment with themes as well as stylistic and narrative techniques that might, in another genre, be considered “literary”.

I first became aware of A Sport and a Pastime while reading an interview with another author, about his favorite books. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, but the article offered high praise for both its beautiful writing and its sensuality. I was intrigued enough to go buy a brand-new copy, something of a rarity for me.

From the interview, I’d thought the book was relatively new. However, it turns out that A Sport and a Pastime was published way back in 1967. Furthermore, it is considered by many to be a modern classic. While searching for it on Amazon, I found Cliff Notes for students who were assigned the book in class!

The novel is narrated by a middle aged man whose name, if given, is unimportant. He’s an intellectual, a photographer, a writer perhaps. Certainly he’s a keen observer with a talent for vivid description.

Here is the first paragraph of the novel:

September. It seems these luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.

The narrator flees Paris to take up temporary residence in the house of friends, located in the provincial French town of Autun. His motives are a mystery. He seems melancholy, or at least moody, as he settles into the backwater and gets to know his neighbors.

Occasionally he returns to Paris, to participate in glittering, superficial cocktail or dinner parties with friends. At one such event, he meets Phillip Dean, an attractive young man from a wealthy family who has dropped out of Yale and is traveling, rather aimlessly, around Europe. A few weeks later, Phillip shows up at his door in Autun, driving a borrowed vintage car, and takes the narrator touring around the region. In a raucous club in Dijon, they meet Anne-Marie who is hanging out with a group of black men. She is obviously not innocent despite her long hair and sweet face. Later they encounter her again, in Autun, and Phillip begins an affair with her.

The nameless narrator exposes bits and pieces of Phillip’s and Anne-Marie’s relationship, chronicling their intense physical attraction, contrasting it with their difficulties in communication. Patrician Phillip barely speaks French. Anne-Marie comes from a poor, common family. Their expectations and assumptions could hardly be more different. Still, something luminous binds them.

The radio is playing. They undress in the winter daylight. Dean is a little embarrassed at his condition. His prick gets hard whenever he looks at her. He can’t help it. His chief desire is to raise her on it, exultant, to run her up into the sunshine, into the starlight, where she can see the world. They begin to dance a little, naked, in the early darkness, the music thin and foreign, their feet bare on the rug. Then they make love, she astride him, in the favorite manner of the Roman poets, as he informs her. He lies gazing up at her, his hands encircling her ankles. The rich smell of her falls over him. At the bottom of it all, his eyes lingering there, the mute triangle in which he is implanted.

How, though, can our narrator know these intimate details? He’s not present at these trysts, yet he describes them in achingly beautiful language. Is the love affair only in his imagination? He clearly identifies with young Dean, understands the younger man’s confusion and his overwhelming desire. Are these echoes of his own youth that he is projecting on strangers? Are Phillip and Anne-Marie merely figments of his melancholy nostalgia?

These questions, perhaps, are what defines A Sport and a Pastime as literary. The narrator admits his own unreliability:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern that finally appears, which resists all further change.

The sex scenes in this novel are perhaps less graphic than some I would write, but they don’t flinch from the physical. They have an breathless intensity that I at least found exciting. Furthermore, I believe this arousal reflects the author’s intent. Three quarters of the way through the book, I suspect this relationship will not end well—or at least that it will end. Youthful passion rarely endures in the best of circumstances.

Nevertheless, James Salter is not suggesting that carnal desire is shameful or trivial. Quite the contrary. It may be premature for me to comment on the author’s final purposes in writing this gorgeous kaleidoscope of a novel. However, he may be implying that as we age, desire, or our memories of desire, are the only thing that really matters.


  1. I've said this before at one time or another in one place or another... but regardless of how one feels about censorship, I actually don't think it's accurate to use the term "double standard" about, for example, erotica about incest being prohibited where other books involving incest are not. It's not an inconsistency, because the assumption with erotica (generally speaking) is that the sexual activities therein are being portrayed in a positive light, that they're being celebrated. That is presumably the basis for differentiating incest erotica from other works of fiction or nonfiction in which incest occurs in the narrative. It would be analogous to differentiating general fiction in which racist violence occurred from fiction in which racist violence was portrayed in a positive light. Please understand that I'm not equating incest erotica with Nazi literature!! I'm just saying that someone who objected to the Nazi portrayal of racist violence would not be expected to object to every other book in which racist violence occurred in the course of the plot. Likewise—no matter how one feels about prohibitions against incest erotica—I don't think it makes sense to expect someone who objects to it to object to all books in which incest occurs. I think that misses the point of what they're objecting to, whether one agrees with them or not. Presumably, they're not objecting to incest being mentioned or described, per se; they're objecting to it being portrayed positively.

    1. But what does probably embody a double standard is the unending stream of "action" books and movies that glorify the extralegal violence and various serial felonies perpetrated by their glamorous protagonists. I'm guessing we never see Amazon censoring those items for portraying socially unacceptable behavior in a positive light!

    2. "the assumption with erotica (generally speaking) is that the sexual activities therein are being portrayed in a positive light, that they're being celebrated."

      I don't agree with this at all. Erotica might very well explore the feelings of guilt involved in an incestual relationship, as well as the sexual arousal. A character could feel awful about her attraction to her father, yet still succumb to her lust. In fact, the forbidden nature of incest contributes to the arousal.

      In any case, this argument does not hold up when discussing youthful sexual experiences. Many literary works are "coming of age" tales that include sex between characters that are younger than eighteen, and that portray this in an erotic manner. One of my favorite novels from my youth, "Ghosts" by Ursula Perrin, does exactly this. (One of these days I'll get around to reviewing this.)

      I continue to maintain that much of the double standard is pure squeamishness on the part of publishers and booksellers. If you label something as "erotic", they don't want to deal with it, because sex makes them uncomfortable.

    3. Erotica might very well explore the feelings of guilt involved in an incestual relationship, as well as the sexual arousal. A character could feel awful about her attraction to her father, yet still succumb to her lust. In fact, the forbidden nature of incest contributes to the arousal.

      But those are the complexities, the nuances, the multiplicity of different scenarios. Amazon (or whoever) is basing their policies on broadly general rules of thumb.

      If you label something as "erotic", they don't want to deal with it, because sex makes them uncomfortable.

      I certainly agree with you there! But, in my view, that's a separate piece of what goes on.

      As for the "coming of age" scenes in literary fiction, I think that may be not so much a deliberate double standard as that the episodes occurring in things that aren't labeled "erotica" go under the radar. It's not like the Amazon honchos are sitting down and reading every book, after all. I'm not saying there isn't a prejudice against erotica—of course there is—but as far as what we're talking about here, I don't think that's the operative factor. I really don't think anyone at Amazon is saying, "Well, there's a highly erotic and graphic and positive portrayal of sex between two 17-year-olds in this new novel, but we'll let it pass because the book is classified as literary fiction."

    4. But when it comes to twentieth-century fiction by famous authors, there would undoubtedly be a difference in how such issues were treated by the powers that be, even if they were waved in front of their corporate noses. While there are certainly people out there who would love to ban all sorts of literature for all sorts of reasons, a company like Amazon isn't going to risk messing with long-established popular classics.

    5. So I suppose that qualifies as a double standard, but it's one based on status, not genre—which presumably accounts for why "classic" works of literature identified as "erotica"—regardless of their content, I assume—are treated differently from contemporary erotica by small-time authors.

    6. The thing is, nobody will even notice if so-called "literary" fiction deals with forbidden topics. Nobody cares. Label something as "erotic" and you wave a red flag.

    7. I agree with that assessment in part. I think it's a mixture of how the topics are framed and contextualized (or how they're presumed to be, according to very generalized rules of thumb): "events" versus "aspirational fantasies"; the fact that if a book isn't labeled as "erotic" the sex scenes buried within are unlikely to draw attention, where "erotica" is routinely scrutinized at the level of title/theme/description; and the fact that "literature," if it's already canonized, is more likely to be immune from interference (in our times) because of its "importance."

    8. Some of my writers definitely write on a literary level that happens to include enough references to sex to fit into my erotica anthologies, and at least one, when she got an agent, was ordered by that agent to have me change her name on a story to a new pseudonym (the one she'd been using is now used for science fiction/fantasy, and she's won some awards in that genre.) I tend to stick with books that are classed as erotica out of a probably misguided belief that they're more likely to be noticed that way--sometimes readers do searches for erotica, but a book without a hot-topic theme like vampires or zombies or whatever the zeitgeist happens to be at any given moment isn't likely to be noticed in the flood of books available. Actually, I know I'm wrong, but I don't know how t work the system any better.

    9. Ugh! Change her name so as to not sully her literary pseudonym with her erotica pseudonym?

      That's exactly what I'm talking about. Pisses me off!

  2. Hi lisabet! I have this book on my bookshelf, i even have an ebook of it and yet so far I haven't read it. I don't know why. The Bible says king Solomon had over 700 wives and concubines. That's way too much pussy for one man. But I get it too, I just really love my books, I love looking at them and going through them. Can't stop myself from buying them. And I have that one on my to read list.

    1. When I consider my old age (some time long in the future LOL) and think about diminished capacity, I console myself with the thought that I'll still be able to read all the books I've never gotten around to opening. (Of course, there are diminished capacities that might prevent that -- I pray I keep my mental facilities, whatever happens to my body!)

  3. I think that rather than a double standard, it's that erotica implies stimulation, and because of that fact, there are thoughts about what should stimulate readers. I guess it's a legal thing. Last topic somebody mentioned Nicholson Baker, who has managed to b somewhat successful crossing that line. I'd imagine it takes finesse. And balls.

    Will look for this one. Sounds like something I'd like to read.

    1. With all this discussion about the double-standard, I haven't really mentioned how gorgeously written this book is. The prose is concise but exceptionally evocative, almost like poetry. I can see why it is considered a classic.

  4. I read A Sport and a Pastime and some other James Salter short stories on the recommendation of a writing teacher some twenty years ago. I agree Salter is a good writer and he was unusual in his thoughtful, honest depiction of the erotic. However, I remember feeling that female subjectivity was erased--Anne-Marie and his other lovers in the stories existed as objects of desire. For whatever it's worth, Salter inspired me to write the female side of things because I felt our stories needed to be told by us rather than for us.

    1. I agree -- up to a point. Anne-Marie definitely IS an object of desire, though she's far more than an object. Her personality comes through strongly, although her perspective does not.

      However, I don't think one can criticize the author for this. We are not obliged to present every characters' point of view. We write the erotic at least partly based on our own experiences, and this book honestly portrays his (or appears to).

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