Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Shared EncyclopediaRemittance Girl (2009)

It has become of late very trendy for writers of erotica to say they write porn. It’s a kind of post-modern thumbing of the nose at those who might disapprove of material that contains anything sexually explicit.

“What do you write?”

“Uh…I write porn.”

“You write screenplays for skin flicks?”

“No. But dirty stuff. Prose, but dirty prose. You know?”

“No, not really.”

Everyone has his or her own ideas about what porn is. One of the cleverest answers came from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” It’s clever, but unhelpful. For one thing, in the context it was meant, it assumes that porn is a bad thing. It also makes the assumption that it is visual. The only intelligent thing about that statement is that it underlines the subjective nature of making a call.

Umberto Eco, author and professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, wrote that in order for a reader to connect with his books, they had to share the same encyclopedia. He wasn’t talking about a real encyclopedia, but rather a set of understandings and values that were similar enough to mesh and communicate fluidly. He calls it a “social treasury”.

In essence, whenever the writer and the reader possess vastly different social treasuries, there is going to be a problem. The content, the meaning and the intentions of a piece of work are going to be mistaken, misinterpreted and misread.

There’s a great scene in the film “The Reader,” when the young man and his older lover are sitting in the bathtub and he is reading “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” to her. At one point she stops him as says, “That’s disgusting. How can anyone write that?” Even so, after her outburst, she still wants him to read on. It’s a humorous moment in a very dark film and it underlines this concept of the social treasury. Here is a woman who has existed in and helped to grease the wheels of a vast killing machine, but she finds the description of sex obscene.

Time, of course, has a great deal to do with those social treasuries, but not to the extent you’d imagine. I very much doubt Anais Nin, Henry Miller or the Marquis de Sade would think what I write now is obscene. Education, social status, economics and how close a person keeps to current social norms all play a role in forming individual social treasuries. And individual lived experience is just as much a part of forming them as well.

You might think all this talk of social treasuries is just a way of letting bad writers off the hook, and in recent times, it probably has contributed to the acceptance of a lot of crap as art.

Of course, anyone can write a clumsy sentence. Anyone can write a clunky plot, or bad dialogue. But it isn’t bad grammar or ham-fisted storytelling that makes something porn. Beyond the flaws in craft, it is the central concepts, the ways of seeing and being in the world, and the way those are expressed through characters and stories that are the ‘carriers’ of a writer’s social treasury.

This means that whatever you write, someone is going to find it impossible to connect with your work. But it also means that there’s a great likelihood that someone else is going to feel intense proximity to it. The reality of it is that no matter how good a writer you are, you aren’t going to connect with every reader unless you write something so simplistic it is essentially meaningless.
Really great erotica doesn’t just arouse physically; it resonates, it calls the reader home and plucks at something deeply embedded and essential in the reader’s understanding of the world, as does any great piece of writing. But erotica has an added level of intimacy. It asks the reader to open up parts of their social treasury that might not see the light of day very often and takes us back, sub-textually, to the place where our first sexual responses were formed.

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If you would like to read more about the Eco’s understanding of the model reader and social treasuries, read “Beware of the Fallout: Umberto Eco and the Making of the Model Reader” by Gary P. Radford.


  1. What a wonderful post. Thank you for articulating something that I've had a hard time explaining.

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, RG! Nice to have you here at the Grip!

  3. As erudite a post as I would expect form you, RG, and offering some critical insights. But then I have a question, given the topic for the week.

    Has there been a fundamental change in the "social treasury" that explains the explosion of sexual material in the media and on the Internet? Advertisements today would have been called pornographic, or at least obscene, when I was born. Is there something new about our shared view of sexuality and the world that has enabled or encouraged this "new explicitness", as Garceus called it?


  4. It was a very great pleasure to be invited to post something on "Oh Get A Grip!" I thank you all for the invitation.

    Regarding Lisabet's question, it's an incredibly good one. I don't think I have the resources to answer it very authoritatively, but I do have some opinions on the matter.

    First, I think it is a mistake to imagine that all the "new explicitness" is any sign of consensus. I think there are many people who are very, very upset by the amount of explicitness in mainstream media.

    Second, I think it would be a mistake to assume this "new explicitness" is a sign of us becoming more honest about sexuality. I think it is more about the marketization of everything. Most of the explicitness in mainstream media is connected with someone's desire to sell us something, not to have an open and frank dialogue about human sexual response. I don't think it's teaching us how to be more open lovers, it's teaching us how to consume more, and how to view our sexuality as a marketable product.

    My very great fear is that there may be a tremendous backlash that will come from both the right, in the form of a backlash against "iniquity" and from the left in the form of a rejection of free market economics. I'm worried we'll get caught in the middle.

  5. RG!

    This is one of those posts that bears re reading a couple of times.

    Somebody at ERA, i think its Mike Kimera, always signs off with something that says "What I wrote is not what you read." There's a lot of truth in that, and I think that's the essence of what you're saying here.

    One the things I learned over time at ERA is that reading is as much an acquired skill and art as writing. There's a thing Francis Prose calls "close reading". You and Lisabet are the best close readers I've ever known personally, which is why I always pounce on you both with my latest scribbles. Your crits are invariably on the mark and insightful. You ladies are my mentors. You have the ability to read what I actually wrote.

    I think when people read something, as Eco is saying, they bring their own library of ideas to it and see what they see. This is most true of religious literature. The Jewish talmud is essentially a 4000 year old running commentary on the Old testament of people reading very very closely and projecting their ideas onto what they read. Oddly this applies to erotica too. People see what they bring to the table.

    I was transformed by the reponse at ERA to "The Dying Light" which I consider the most best story I've written so far. That was one of those stories where you weep over the keyboard as you're writing it.

    Only two people read it, you and one other. You really liked it, and better yet - you understood it. You understood it better than I did. Geezus. Some of the stuff you wrote I thought "Wah??? Sonuvagun, she's right. I never noticed that." The other guy never made it past the first couple of pages before he just barfed. He hated it. "Why the EFF are you talking about FOUNTAIN PENS? When do we see some hot action?"

    I really sat in the corner and thought about that a long time. That was when I realised reading closely was an art as much as writing. It takes time to become a good reader, the way Umberto Eco is talking about. And there are only a limited number of people who will ever get what you're trying to do, regardless of whether you're any good at it or not.

    C. Sanchez-Garcia

  6. By the way, anyone who would like to read the Gary Radford article on Eco and the model reader can read it for free here:


  7. Ernest Borman called it symbolic convergence. I dedicated a few years of my life to that concept for my master's thesis. Back then I wrote about gender stereotypes and leadership. These days I think I'd write a much different paper.

    That fact that people can communicate at all is astonishing, when you think about it. We have to agree, at least in general terms, what words and images and symbols mean. To be able to communicate on an intimate level... I wonder if that's harder or easier than any other communication? Yes, it requires trust, but does physical intimacy (i.e. sex) require the convoluted structure that speech requires? Or is it simply, "touch here for extreme response?"

    Who knows?


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