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.