I have an enormous problem with erotic literature being marginalised and considered as: taboo, seedy, filthy, dirty, porno and all other similar titles that anyone with no appreciation for literature sees fit to name it…
How do we define literature anyway?
Literature has been elevated to a level beyond the average persons understanding due to pretentious people, most of them literary critics! My Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory by J. A. Cuddon offers the following as a definition:-
Literature: A vague term which usually denotes works which belong to the major genres: epic, drama, lyric, novel, short story, ode (qq.v). If we describe something as ‘literature’, as opposed to anything else, the term carries with it qualitative connotations which imply that the work in question has superior qualities; that it is well above the ordinary run of written works. For example: ‘George Eliot’s novels are literature, whereas Fleming’s Bond books are unquestionably not.’
It’s from this we must escape. A good writer of erotic fiction is no less talented because he/she has failed to write an epic poem similar in scale to Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”. Mass produced crime novels are often more popular than the classics, as are erotic novels and short story collections. We should consider what Cuddon goes on to explain under his definition of this elusive word ‘literature’:-
…there are many works that cannot be classified in the main literary genres which nevertheless may be regarded as literature by virtue of the excellence of their writing, their originality and their general aesthetic and artistic merits.
I have seen many erotic novels and short stories that share all of the above. And if artistic merit is what creates a piece of literature then we must not forget the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky’s definition of art.
According to Shklovsky, art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object itself becomes unimportant. The art exists in the creation of the object. Any piece of literature has been constructed in a particular way in order to achieve a desired result. Shklovsky’s argument turns upon a distinction between “automatized” and aesthetic forms of perception. “If we start to examine the general laws of perception,” he writes, “we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic.”
So essentially, art exists in order to disrupt our habitual perception. This is certainly the case in many erotic novels, novellas, and short stories. Any good piece of erotic fiction has been designed and constructed quite carefully with a precise purpose in mind. If this is indeed the case then they certainly do disrupt habitual perception, purely due to their fantasy element. Every scene or chapter in an erotic piece of literature is a perception and it is almost always likely to differ to your own as a reader; this is where much of the pleasure is derived. The reader is invited into another way of seeing the world or another person’s fantasy.
I understand that erotic literature should have an appropriate place in popular culture and that children in particular should be protected from exposure to it at an early age. But disregarding that for a moment, I would like to ask why our national newspapers, with all their time consuming, Sunday rubbish supplements about fashion and food, will only review the latest blockbuster or arty farty movie, and the current bestseller by Jeffrey Archer? Have we become that pretentious? Surely this is censorship?
Are we forgetting that Jeffrey Archer is a bloody criminal? There is a quote on his website that says: “The Best Cult Blog” – The Sunday Times. So The Sunday Times will back this crook and review all the other latest and greatest novelists, yet they won’t touch erotic fiction writers with a barge pole! Is this fair? Should they not be represented a little more in popular culture?
What makes the erotic novelist and short story writer different from these “successful” novelists is the content of their work; that is all. This is in much the same way as a cook book differs from a book on astrology. But what we must understand is that what makes the “best selling” novelist and short story writer successful is not necessarily their talent to write; it is often much more to do with their exposure and general critical attention. Which brings me onto the ideal writer in the eyes of the media; with this writer they get their erotic fix as well as their classic story.
I am a great fan of Sarah Waters novels, and the only reason I mention her here is because she seems to be the bridge between these two worlds: what is perceived as ‘literature’ and what is deemed as filth and pornography. Waters manages to blend the two together excellently. Her sex scenes are only just short of some of the graphic language found in the average erotic novel; they are beautifully stitched into the rest of her carefully crafted novels.
Waters’ Victorian pastiche novels about dildo wielding lesbians are a refreshing change to the usual best seller list, yet she has been nominated for several, well deserved, prestigious literary awards and she is a very well respected author. The average erotic fiction novelist is barely granted any respect at all for their craft, simply because of the volume of gratuitous sex and fetish elements. Many erotic writers do not pretend to be in the same league as someone such as Sarah Waters and they do not want the same credit for their craft, that’s not the point at all. Waters produces very different fiction indeed and the construction of her novels is something to be marvelled, but she is not condemned and shoved into a barely represented, tiny corner of the bookshop for her graphic sexual content.
People like to think they are being intelligent by commenting on those “successful” writers. They talk about narratology and literary theory at parties and in their English journals and newspapers as though it really matters to the average reader. I studied literature and theory for many years and I find my knowledge pretty much wanting something extra when it comes to erotica. Is this why we don’t represent and review it in mainstream popular culture? Because we are unable, or too prudish and pretentious to write about the very thing that keeps us in existence?
Readers of literary erotica continue to stick to websites that deal with erotic literature to get reviews and unfortunately these can often be bias, particularly if the website is selling the books they review. And if that wasn’t enough, when the erotic literature fan actually wants to buy a novel in store, they find them tucked away in the darkest, most inconspicuous corner of the place. They are forced to reach up high for one, through the laser alarms that signal the shop assistant and all the other disgusted shoppers that there is a pervert in the store and they should beware.
So what do we do? Well, the people who are deemed capable to comment “intelligently” on the bestsellers are completely unable to comment on erotic literature, simply because it’s a genre that defies too much analysis due its very narrative construction. Yes, there may be better characters in one and not in another, but at the end of the day these novels and stories are written to sexually excite, not become the next “bright book of life”, as D. H. Lawrence would have it. In fact if I know my D. H. Lawrence at all, I’d say he would welcome today’s literary erotica!
The media should embrace erotica for what it is. They need to get some real people to review books for a change and include some erotica. Reviews should be focused on majority opinion and not the words of some over educated “literary” type, or pretentious celebrity that deems themselves capable of doing it. Wouldn’t it be great to read a review in one of these dreadful Sunday supplements that went something like this?
“Yes, it kept me hard for around 40 minutes in the first sitting. Damn good read!”