Timeless Classics

by | December 21, 2018 | General | 6 comments

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Roman Polanski’s renowned psychological horror film “Rosemary’s Baby”. I saw it within a few years of its release; to celebrate the fifty year milestone I watched it again at a local “classic films” club.

The movie stands up to the test of time pretty well. It still evokes a stifling sense of inescapable evil, set against incongruous but brilliant humor. Mia Farrow’s terror and resolve remain palpable and convincing, even if her submissiveness to her handsome, gregarious husband seems old-fashioned.

I couldn’t help notice, however, some critical ways in which the plot depends on the time period. In one point fairly late in the film, the heroine slips from the clutches of the coven who wants her baby and rushes to find a phone booth. (The coven is listening in on her home telephone.) Sure she’s being pursued, she waits nervously for the current occupant of the booth to conclude his call, before barricading herself inside. She calls a seemingly sympathetic doctor, only to find he is with a patient. Sweating with fear, she pretends to be on the line to discourage other people who want to use the facility, until the doctor returns her call.

As I watched this scene, I found myself thinking “Why doesn’t she just use her cell phone?” But of course that’s nonsense. Those of us who watched this in 1968 could not have imagined how mobile devices would transform our daily lives. If Mia had a mobile, she might have escaped.

Technology has changed radically, and changed our habits and assumptions along with it. We can expect that this trend will continue, and very likely accelerate. However society looks today, we can be certain it will be different next year, and maybe unrecognizable in five years.

What does this mean for writers? Wellmy first novel Raw Silk was originally published in 1999, almost twenty years ago. At that time, it would have been labeled as contemporary. Since my heroine Kate is a software developer, the book includes exchanges of email messages (which was part of my life even then), but there’s no Web and no cell phones. Bangkok (where the novel is set) has no public transit aside from buses and taxis. (On my latest visit, I discovered there are three subway lines in operation, with another four or five under construction.) In Raw Silk, people actually write one another physical letters, on paper, in order to communicate.

I’ve revised and republished this book three times. Each time it seemed a bit more dated. I wrestled with the question of whether I should try to bring it into the twenty first century. Finally, I decided to deliberately anchor it in a particular period, a year or two after the time it was written. I peppered the text with a historical, cultural and technology references that make it clear this is not a contemporary erotic romance.

A similar problem arose with my erotic thriller Exposure, first released in 2009. For my latest revamp (2014), I chose to update it to the present (more or less). I inserted appropriate technology where necessary to be convincing. I was helped by the fact that my main character Stella is working class with little disposable income. In any case, she’s not the type to go gaga about gadgets.

I have to wonder, though, how readers five or ten years in the future will react to the books we are writing now. (This assumes, of course, that people will still be reading in a decade.) Will our plots seem contrived? Will our conflicts be incomprehensible? For instance (let’s be optimistic), suppose that the current movement toward acceptance of varying forms of sexual orientation continues. Many gay romance stories revolve around the need for the characters to keep their relationships hidden from society. Readers who come of age in a world where same-sex attraction is viewed as normal and commonplace will not be able to appreciate the angst that propels these stories today. The tales will lose their meaning, or at very least, will seem like quaint period pieces.

Or consider another, more pessimistic scenario. In ten years, surveillance by states or by corporations may become so pervasive that privacy will cease to exist. A story about an illicit affair will seem unbelievable to someone who has grown up in a world where it is literally impossible to do anything in secret.

I became sexually active after the invention of the Pill and before AIDS. At that time, popular culture was not nearly as saturated with sexual content as it is today. I know I have a different attitude toward sex than a millennial. For me, sex has always been special, a unique and thrilling adventure. At the same time being sexually active was far less risky for me than for my mother or my daughter (if I had one).

So, could I write erotica that my hypothetical daughter could appreciate? Or are my attitudes and assumptions likely to seem strange and foreign? (When I recently posted a flasher in Storytime that referred to the sixties film icon James Dean, who embodies, for me, a certain bad boy sexual vibe, some members of the list didn’t recognize the allusion.)

We still read books from previous centuries of course (or at least I do), some of which we label as classics. I wonder what makes them “classic”. Perhaps there is some sort of universality in these works that somehow bridges the cultural gap between the author’s time and our own. Do emotions remain fundamentally the same even as society changes? Is that why we can still identify with characters like Emma Woodhouse, Sydney Carton, or Jane Eyre? One has to wonder, though, about how our experience in reading these tales compares with reactions of readers for whom they were contemporary. Perhaps we’re grasping only a small part of what the author intended.

In any case, I don’t delude myself that my own oeuvre incorporates much in the way of fundamental truths or themes that transcend time. Nevertheless, I’m in this for the long haul (nineteen years and counting), so I’d like to write stories that will be appreciated not only today but in the future as well. I wish I knew the trick to this. Right now, as in so many other things, I’m just acting on instinct.


Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Belinda LaPage

    With the 30-day Amazon cliff, longevity is not something a lot of erotica authors worry about. But still, the point is well made. I think so long as your book has a clear copyright year, readers are pretty forgiving.

    One of my favourite genres is speculative fiction, and in many respects, seeing how authors imagined the future from twenty or so years ago makes the book even more compelling – not because they turned out right or wrong, but because it lends a sense of wonder to the technological advances we now see as mundane.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Belinda.

      It takes me so long to get anything published that I’m not going to abandon it just ’cause it was written a few years (or many years!) ago. Indeed, I may hold the record for the most editions of a single erotic novel (but then, probably not).

      Sometimes it’s quite eerie to read speculative fiction written thirty or forty years ago. Philip K. Dick, for instance. In many ways, they got it right.

  2. Tig

    Wonderful article! And so true. I wrote a novel a few years back that I never did anything with. I was contemplating bringing it back to life, but the plot depends on the fact that deaf tech at the time was shitty, and now it’s radically advanced (and we don’t need type-talk machines anymore!)

    Unfortunately it’s not historical enough to emphasise the times (early 90’s).

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Tig,

      I don’t necessarily agree about the historical aspect. If the core conflicts are important, you can make your characters and the time convincing. The nineties seems like yesterday to me, but it’s twenty five to thirty years ago. Some readers (including deaf readers) were not even alive. It could be a revelation for them to see how difficult communication was, fairly recently.

  3. Rose B. Thorny

    “…so I’d like to write stories that will be appreciated not only today but in the future as well. I wish I knew the trick to this. Right now, as in so many other things, I’m just acting on instinct.”

    Lisabet, if anyone at all actually *knew* the trick, they and their heirs (if they had any) would never have to work for living ever.

    No one ever knows, ahead of time, while they’re creating something, or after they’ve created it, whether it will last or not.

    There’s the last part of a Doctor Who episode (“The Unquiet Dead”) involving Charles Dickens and the exchange between him and the Doctor is this:

    Charles Dickens: But you have such knowledge of future times. I don’t wish to impose on you, but I must ask you… My books, Doctor. Do they last?
    The Doctor: Oh, yes.
    Charles Dickens: How long?
    The Doctor: Forever.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that assurance, that kind of affirmation, during your lifetime?

    But without the Doctor and the Tardis, that doesn’t happen, so it’s a big dice game. All you can do is write your best and hope for the best. Whether or not reader continue to relate to your stories, no matter the era in which they take place, or if it becomes a classic, is totally up to the readers and they certainly can be a fickle and/or erratic bunch…totally unpredictable. It’s the same with movies. Some movies that are “classics” now, were panned by critics and didn’t make loads of money at the box office. They became classics after being rediscovered and touched the people who rediscovered them, and subsequent generations.. Sometimes, movies have become “cult classics” to a fairly narrow crowd that sees something in a movie that doesn’t appeal to a broader audience, but to the ones who see that something, it’s gold.

    Other movies that were “predicted” to be classic, praised up and down by some select few people and critics, have fallen flat, bombed, and have not even been resurrected as cult classics.

    No one has a crystal ball.

    Erotica, by it very nature, is actually a very narrow genre, and from what I can ascertain, doesn’t include a large number of “classics,” relatively speaking, for the volume that has issued forth even in the past 40 or 50 years.. Not surprising, really. What is erotic is extremely subjective, and if we’re to be honest, not a lot of erotica is written with any idea that it is going to survive the generation for which it is written. And here, I’m talking about *erotica*, not fiction with a high erotic content, or with an underlying erotic theme., or plot line. Perhaps universal themes in erotica would contribute to erotica that becomes classic. Does the theme appeal to a reader’s humanity? Could it be an allegory?

    Does “updating” a story work? I honesty don’t know.. Only writers who have done so and realized a resurgence in sales could speak to that. As you said with “Rosemary’s Baby” (and I’ve never read the story, nor watched the movie from beginning to end, because — and I know this is weird — no matter the genre, stories involving pregnancy are almost invariably on my “don’t bother reading” list), the story wouldn’t happen, if she’d had a cell phone. (Of course, it could happen in Vermont, considering the number of times “No Service,” appears on those little screens, in this state. While there appear to be plenty of bars for happy hour, that number is not matched by the number of bars on your cell phone)..) In any case, though, isn’t that where if the story is good enough, the reader is able to suspend his/her disbelief and just accept what was, not what is?

    When you think about some successful movies, made in the past 20 or 30 years, for instance, that take place in a past era, that doesn’t seem to have deterred movie goers. People watch “Saving Private Ryan” and accept that F-18s and other super fighter aircraft didn’t exist during WW2. “Titanic” was a blockbuster (I never saw the most recent movie of it, but have seen an older Hollywood black and version called “Titanic,” plus a British-made movie about the Titanic called, “A Night To Remember”), but I’m sure the most recent version was enjoyed because of the story, and in some ways perhaps hit home even harder, because even in a world where the internet and cell phones exist, viewers could “feel” the terror and frustration of the Titanic crew not being able to communicate their situation, plus no satellite information that might have detected a huge iceberg moving in the direction of the “unsinkable” ship. (Of course, it wasn’t just the technology, or absence of technology, that resulted in the disaster, but I’m sure audiences were enrapt anyway, because the story itself drew them in. They suspended, if not their disbelief, their knowledge of current technology and just let themselves be drawn into drama.

    Sorry to go on so long.

    Rose 😉


  4. Lisabet Sarai

    Thanks for your comments, Rose.

    I don’t completely understand WHY Charles Dickens’ books have lasted forever. He is not, in fact, one of my favorite authors, but many people disagree with me.

    Books have become ephemeral – due to the electronic aspect as well as the sheer number of them that are published. Indeed, even print books are disposable. I have a big box of author copies that I can’t figure out what to do with.

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