Remittance Girl

Good Night and Good Luck.

My post last month “The Club” garnered this clear-eyed response from Lisabet Sarai:

Most readers, however, choose erotica because they want to feel, not because they want to think. Specifically, they want to feel good–aroused, satisfied, reassured, or like they’re getting away with things they’d never attempt in the real world. To these readers, the deeper issues that concern you are close to irrelevant. Indeed, to many of them, craft and linguistic grace matters little if at all.

She is, of course, absolutely right about this. The vast majority of contemporary readers come to the erotica genre to “feel good–aroused, satisfied, reassured,” most consider the themes that drive me to write “close to irrelevant” and don’t give a shit about “craft and linguistic grace.”

Many years ago, I was in the music business; I sang in a band. We got a record contract with a big company who then decided our music was too ‘alternative’ and pressured us into writing more commercially accessible music. I wanted to be loved so much. I wanted to be successful so badly. I thought it was the only thing in the world that mattered to me; that adulation. But even at the time, I knew I was betraying myself. Somewhere inside me, even as we made the changes they insisted would make us famous, I knew I was doing the wrong thing. I did it anyway.

It’s a term I don’t like and rarely use, but since I am speaking of myself alone, I feel justified in saying I whored myself for approbation. And the fact that you haven’t got a clue what band I was in or what the music was like is proof of the fact that my choice to compromise my artistic vision was not a wise one. Had I stood my ground and refused to write more ‘commercial’ music you might still never have heard my work, but at least I would have kept my integrity. In the end, you can only account for your own choices.

I had something of a mental breakdown after that experience and, when I recovered, I swore that I’d never choose the lure of commercial success over artistic integrity again. Not because writing pop music is demeaning or requires less skill, but because it was a totally inauthentic act for me. For some people, producing accessible work is exactly what they want to do. And they do it well. They deserve the success they get because they’re not faking it, they’re not putting on the breaks of their intellect or dumbing down their ideas. They genuinely believe in the product they produce, and it shows.

I have never wanted to produce writing that facilitated masturbation, or made people feel safe and satisfied and reassured. Although I would be happy in knowing something I wrote might have turned someone on enough to help them to orgasm, I definitely have never been interested in making a reader comfortable in any way.

I remember many years ago having a drink with the lovely Lisabet in a bar in the Far Sast and saying: “Not only don’t I want to write this stuff, but I don’t think I can even do it.” It’s not easy to do. I don’t want you to think that I believe that conforming to current reader expectations in the erotica genre is easy. Far from it. I literally have not got the skills or the drive to do it. But more importantly, I don’t have the passion for it. I don’t want to produce cultural work I would not feel proud about publishing. I don’t want to write what I’m not interested in reading.

I believe that this has been coming for a while. The immense rise in popularity of erotic romance, its eclipse of the genre, and the sensational success of Fifty Shades of Grey has literally redefined the genre of erotica. It has led readers to expect something wholly different from what I can or am interested in producing.

For this reason, I think it is futile to continue to fight a battle that can’t be won. It’s an absurd fight and I should have realized this a long time ago. Moreover, I find myself in cast in the role of some stern, arrogant and, ironically, old-fashioned harridan in this debate. I feel like a crazy old Marxist with long, greasy grey hair who smells of body odor and cat piss, who stands on the corner of Oxford Street, screaming unintelligible gibberish at people who walk by, wrinkle their nose and go back to texting on their mobile phones. I am, in this genre, an irrelevance.

As Anais Nin said in the quote above, “we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” And I am no longer an Erotica Reader and Writer. Time to move on. This is my last post on the ERWA blog. It has been a wonderful experience sharing this virtual space with all these talented writers and adventurous readers.  I wish you all the very best.

Good night and good luck.

This Club

A fellow erotica writer I deeply respect posted a statement of Facebook to the effect that we should stop saying bad things about E.L. James and stop being nasty about the latest Fifty Shades of Grey offering.

Her point, and it is one I have seen made often by many erotica writers, is that this sour grapes stuff doesn’t become us. That we should be supportive of each other and celebrate successes when they happen. These are nice people. I’m not saying that sneeringly. I mean it. These are kind, empathetic, nurturing people.

And I disagree with them.

First, I want to say that if the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has improved your book sales, I’m sincerely delighted for you. However, let me point out that it has not been good for erotica as a whole. In the wake of its success many of the notable publishers, agents and anthologers who used to offer a publication pathway for non-romance erotic works have either closed or switched their content focus.

If our genre was derided by literary critics and in the mainstream media before, it is doubly so now. And if, at one point, we could say that this derision stemmed from a hegemonic distaste with explicit written examples of female sexual desire, that is much less the case today. Today, when our culture sneers at erotica, they use the first book that comes to hand to support their criticism that erotica can hardly be considered as having any literary merit at all. And that book is FSOG.  So, although we cannot hold it wholly to blame for the chronic misrepresentation of the quality of our literary efforts, it’s not exactly Caesar’s Wife either.

But what about solidarity you ask? Why can’t we be a more cohesive community? We are writers together trying to do something good that harms no one, that validates and narrativizes our liberation as agential sexual beings, that adds a little spice to people’s lives. And if some of us are hell bent on offering five star Michelin dinners while others aim themselves at the fast food market, so what? The important thing is that we support each other, right?

Here’s where – if you ever imagined I was a nice person – I will disabuse you of that notion.

My motivation in writing erotic fiction is to produce excellent work within the constraints of a very particular genre. I don’t always succeed, but that is the single reason I do it. I want to contribute to a genre I believe has always offered a unique opportunity to examine the human experience at its most raw, its most vulnerable, its most honest. Erotic writing doesn’t just tell the story of our erotic experiences but something far more fundamentally structural: how libidinal desire drives us. How that desire expresses itself explicitly and how it is sublimated and re-purposed in a thousand ways, how its gravitational forces curve and skew the trajectories of our lives.

I believe – perhaps fanatically – that society’s disdain for our genre is one of the most obvious symptoms of its own pathological ambivalence towards the very truths we write about. And to me, that underscores and reinforces its importance, its ability to give us a greater knowledge of ourselves.

My motivation isn’t to dwell in the good company of nice people. I have all the social friends I need. So if keeping your company means remaining uncritical about what I feel is doing immense damage to the genre I love, then I will eschew it. Because if our genre becomes the literary equivalent of just another line of badly prepared, quickly and superficially consumed fast food meals, then we have nothing to be a community around but the nostalgia of a once important writing movement that we have, for the sake of niceness, betrayed.

When we enumerate the writers in the erotica cannon: Bocaccio, Sade, von Masoch, Bataille, de Maupassant, Lawrence, Hall, Nin, Nabokov, Miller, Mishima, Carter, Reage, Acker, just to name a few… none of those writers would have remanined uncritical of FSOG. Not one of them. And we do them no honour by staying mute.

Short and Sweet – Two Places you Might Want to Go

As deadlines loom for me, I’m having a bit of a struggle carving out time to write anything. But I thought I’d point you in the direction of a few writers I’ve come across in the process of putting together exemplars for my PhD on new eroticism.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to invite you into the strange, dark erotic world of a couple of erotic writers you might not have heard of.

Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine is a collection of stories, mostly quite long coming of age stories that explore emerging female eroticism with an unflinching eye.

They are all set in the US and may resonate a little more with people who have grown up on that continent, especially in the Midwest, more than with me.

That being said, I cannot praise her highly enough for eschewing pretty much every erotica trope in order to get to the core of what it really means to be a young woman with growing sexual desire and being constantly under pressure to frame it in non-threatening, pretty and comfortable ways.

Bomer most importantly gets into the theme of desire and body image among women in a way that makes for a queasy and uncomfortable ride, and yet manages to bring the fierceness and singularity of how that desire, contorted into strange and erotic shapes emerges.

The novella, Inside Madeleine, ends the collection. I think more than story I’ve read, Bomer gets to grips with what it means to be a slut – a defiant, unrelenting, total slut – in the most visceral way. She unpacks the power of embracing the slur as well as the isolation that it can confer.

The writing is literary in that very post-modern, American way. Not particularly poetic. Stark and Protestant in its refusal of adornment and sentimentality. I would like to see us have the guts to be able to write about desire in perhaps a more measured way,  move past this level of dispassion and yet resist the trap of insipid romanticism.

(There’s a review of Inside Madeleine by Dayna Tortorici in the NTY here)

The second book, also a set of shorts, I’d like to tempt you into reading is Twentysix, by Jonathan Kemp. Although varying in length, some of the stories in this collection are actually flash fictions. One for each letter of the alphabet, Kemp offers intense, super-concentrated hits of gay male desire.

Unlike Bomer, Kemp luxuriates in language much in the way a poet does, and brings that writing skill to bear on universal themes like time, memory, abjection and the sublime. And although Kemp also acknowledges that unbridled desire has its dark side, he does, in my mind, find more exultant ways of facing down the spectre of that paradox. That’s not to say that his stories aren’t also intensely subjective. They are.

But, while Bomer’s stories are probably not going to find much appeal to a male reader, Kemp manages to transcend the aspect of sexual-orientation specific desire in his stories onto a more universal plane. While the characters are gay, and the sex is unapologetically homosexual, most of the pieces are going to resonate with everyone. He’s got a true gift for peeling away the wrapping and uncovering the kernel of the erotic – the engines that turn our wheels. Also, there is something almost redemptive  in terms of the way he portrays erotic desire pulling us down into depths and up to heights of experience, and often revels in the paradox of doing both at the same time.

(Kemp has a lovely essay on the Pornography of Language Here, at Writer’s Hub)

Happy reading!

Obtuse Angles of Desire: Disorienting the Reader

Photo: Alejandro Hernandez

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

Writing erotica is something of a paradox. Unlike mystery, horror, or sci-fi, erotica seldom takes the reader to wholly alien places. Unless you’re writing extreme BDSM, or Queer erotica aimed at a hetero reader, the sexual core of a story is something the reader has usually already experienced. At the very least, it’s something they’ve fantasized about. In a way, this is why so many people who haven’t written fiction before opt for writing erotica. Desire is something we’re all pretty familiar with. That should make it easy to write. But for that very reason, it’s also why a lot of erotica can seem stale and recycled. How many new ways are there to get your characters into bed? And how extreme do you have to make the sex to come up with something that doesn’t read like a thousand other stories out there? At some point, it can feel like diminishing returns on your efforts – as a writer or as a reader.

I’d like to talk about voice and narrators. When we start off writing, we tend to pick narrators who are very familiar to us. Often they are, at least partly, us. I have ceased to read much erotica these days, and I think partly it is because I seldom come across startling narrators or fresh voices or invitations to look at the erotic in new ways. I thought it might be helpful to look at a few strategies writers have used to pick up a reader and set them down in a truly unfamiliar narrative space.

Despite all the criticisms of Fifty Shade of Grey’s main character Anna, I think one of the reasons the story was so successful is that she is, improbably, a 22 year old virgin who never masturbated, never orgasmed, and never owned a laptop. For all the suspension of disbelief that demanded off the reader, it did allow James to frame the protagonist’s experiences as wholly new. And, I suspect, for a lot of readers, it allowed them to revisit a kind of innocence most of us, at least in my generation, lost around the age of 16.

I recently finished a zombie apocalypse novel binge. I was trying to figure out what the allure of the meme was. By accident, I ran across an extraordinary novel called “The Reapers are the Angels.” It’s going to sound insane, but it’s a cross between William Faulkner and George A. Romero. Part horror novel, part mystical road-trip, part literary masterpiece, the book tells the story of a young woman who has spent all her life in the post-apocalyptic world. She’s had no formal education and is completely illiterate. This allows the reader, through her narrative, to interpret reality in an incredibly different way.  She is a strange mix of innocent savant and pragmatic brutalist. Consequently, what should be a very run of the mill zombie apocalypse novel is transformed into a poetic and deeply philosophical literary text that uses the genre to probe questions of history, memory, human relationships and guilt.

A narrator’s ignorance (hopefully more skillfully established than Anna Steele’s) offers the reader a new way in to familiar spaces. And crafting a unique and somewhat difficult voice with which to lead the reader in also helps to destabilize their assumptions.

Beloved is another breathtaking novel that presents the reader with a history they think they know, but purposefully uses disorienting narrative voices to force the reader to reconsider what they think they know. On the surface, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a horror story. It has ghosts and terrible secrets, supernatural events and eerie synchronicities. But beneath the clever structure and the lyrical language is a deeply serious examination of how we construct identity and how the tragedy of belonging to someone other than oneself puts all relationships under erasure. There are many narrators and many voices in Beloved, but they all have one thing in common. They are all haunted by the past. This fundamentally changes the way they read the present and, consequently forces the reader to also do the same.

It doesn’t matter whether you set your story in the past, the present or the future, as long as you create narrators who navigate the world differently to the way we normally do. Give them a believable reason to have to use a different interior map, and you create radically alien points of view. It gives you the opportunity to examine the familiar with new eyes, from strange tangents. To deconstruct commonly held assumptions of the way the world works – especially when it comes to experiences we believe we feel at home with like sex and desire – and offer them to your readers as almost unnatural experiences.

Language can also play a big role in disorienting your reader. It seems counter-intuitive – to make your writing harder to read – but when done well, it’s a devastatingly effective device for taking your reader to a familiar place and making it feel like somewhere new. Novels like Trainspotting, The Road and Beloved all use challenging dialects and really strange turns of phrase to immerse the reader in what feels like a new world.

Even something as simple as going through your text and consciously tweaking every adjective, adverb or metaphor into one you’ve never read or used before can have a radical effect. You might end up with jarring, uncomfortable language, but if your plot is strong enough, you can pull the reader through it. Much like stroking a cat backwards, you may not produce a comfortable piece for your reader, but I promise you, you’ll produce something different to anything you’ve written before and take your reader on an unexpected adventure.

8 Tips for Writing a Juicy Book Review

There was a time, not so long ago, when only critics wrote book reviews. The advent of online and ebook sales and the rating and commenting capacity of sites like Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, etc., as well as the book-focused social media sites like Goodreads have fundamentally changed the way we not only buy books, but the way we choose them.

There are positive and negative aspects to this. One of the most useful being that, since few critics lowered themselves to write reviews of non-literary texts, only the most notable of genre writers could ever hope to have their books reviewed. Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan or Sarah Waters are very likely to get a review somewhere worthy. Even first novels within the literary genre are often graced with critical attention. But only the star quarterbacks of the detective fiction, sci-fi, horror or thriller genres could expect any attention. P.D. James, John Le Carre, Iain M. Banks, William Peter Blatty, Stephen King et al sell so many books that any newspaper or magazine with a book review section who ignored them courted the ire of its readers.

Most critics did not review ‘The Exorcist’ until after the film was made. Pity – because ‘The Exorcist’ wasn’t just a good horror novel; it was an excellently crafted piece of prose, as complex, nuanced, layered and description rich as many literary works. Similarly, it took the social recognition of William Gibson’s influence on the emerging information society to force critics to evaluate his works in any depth. And, when they grudgingly complied – for Pattern Recognition, published in 2003 – what they found was not only a novel of insightful cultural critique, but a rich creator of enigmatic characters. Indeed, the first line of his novel ‘Neuromancer’ is widely agreed to be one of the best opening lines in a novel: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

When online platforms allowed book readers to rate and review the books they’d read, it seemed like a wonderful day for readers of genre fiction, and it could have been. Years of the expectation of a critique forced writers in the literary genre to be mindful to use language well. Literary novels will often sag horribly in plot, feature characters who are mind-numbingly boring and offer readers little in the way of escapism, but they are expected to be, at the very least, artfully written. Sadly, those same literary critics have often been, in my view, woefully lenient on shabbily constructed stories.

Conversely, some genre fiction may feature compelling characters, exciting plots and far less attention may be given to the style of the prose. Sometimes, in fact, the writing is very quotidian.

So, it seemed that the stampede of new and willing critics, in the guise of reader reviews and ratings, might offer us all a wonderful way to not only choose our next genre read, but encourage genre writers to a higher standard of prose writing.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Most reader-critics have never grown past the level of an elementary school ‘book report’. Some can’t even manage that. It’s not really all that surprising: it takes skill to write a good book review and practice to do it well. Most people have never learned how to organize and communicate their response to a reading in a way that might be helpful to others. We are all of us, without a little discipline, narcissistic beasts who believe that our opinion, our feelings, our impressions are the only ones that matter. But a good review (not a positive review) is generous – not to the writer, but to prospective readers.

For those of you who would like to evolve past the ‘book report’ phase of book reviewing, I’d like to offer a few things to help you construct a review that will offer a prospective reader a more informed way to purchase, or not purchase, a novel you’ve read. This is not a complete how-to-review guide, and it doesn’t address basics like setting, character, plot, voice, pace, etc. I’m offering a few approaches you might not yet have considered.

1. Who is speaking? Orient the Readers of Your Reviews

The first, most honest and often most helpful thing to do in a review is let readers know what your personal starting position is. If you’ve never read anything in this genre before, say so! There is nothing wrong with admitting this. You’ve come into the novel with far fewer expectations. That can be a very useful point of view. You can offer people a fresh way to look at the novel outside the known assumptions made about a novel in a certain genre.

If you are extensively read within the genre, then point that out. You have a sense of the genre-specific context that other readers may not have. You possess a level of authority that allows you to compare the book you are reviewing to similar ones in the genre, other books by the same author. You can offer the reader a context for how they approach the novel. You can offer insight into the ways in which a novel conforms or breaks with the conventions of the genre.

2. Skip the Synopsis

A book review is not like the book report you had to write in fifth grade, where you have to give a synopsis of the story to prove to your teacher that you actually did read it over the holidays. The writer and her/his publisher have already constructed and provided, via the marketing material, a synopsis they feel will adequately intrigue the reader without spoiling his or her experience of discovery. Additionally, the book probably already has a Wikipedia page with a summary of the plot – link to that if you must –  or be a good net citizen and create or edit the Wiki page. Finally, there is always going to be someone who is still stuck in fifth grade and has already written one.

One thing that has rendered Goodreads almost useless to me is the unending number of story summaries masquerading as reviews. I don’t even read the end of the review (which might be informative) because I just don’t want to read yet another damn précis.

3. There’s No Such Thing as a Completely Objective Review, but that Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Aim to Produce One

Fiction is written to both excite the mind and the emotions. The concrete facts of a book (i.e. this is the author’s sixth novel in the series and continues the story of ***; the narrative is presented as a series of diary entries; it is set in Paris at the end of the war; the plot is tightly woven and the ending is unexpected; the narrator is a loud-mouthed and unreliable adolescent who, although endearing, manages to completely undermine my suspension of disbelief; please don’t let the genre fool you, this should be in the Young Adult section; etc.) will resonate with everyone.

How the book made you feel is probably most important to you, but that information is probably the least reliably universal. If you focus only on how the book made you feel, don’t fool yourself that you’re writing a review; you’re performing emotional masturbation in a public place.

It is perfectly fine to say you were left devastated by the ending, or that it kept you up all night, or that your heart soared when the heroine triumphed, or that the violence in the novel ruined all your memories of your nice holiday in the Caribbean, but that should not be the bulk of your review. Otherwise, you are just indulging in hyper-subjective exhibitionism, and I will conclude that you are using Goodreads as a way to suppress your deep-seated desire to take pictures of yourself naked with a dildo and post them on the net, but you don’t have the balls to do it.

4. Read Preceding Reviews

‘Me too’ reviews are uninformative. If you have nothing new to bring to the discussion, just leave a star rating. If you really want to communicate something valuable to other readers instead of using the platform as a way to stroke your own ego, you will read the other reviews first and take note of what they have covered and what they have overlooked. A helpful review provides new insights.

I’ve often gone to Amazon all fired up to write a review only to find that other reviewers have gotten their first and made all the points I wanted to make. That’s when I use the little star button to give the book a rating and move on. It is also very helpful to comment on previous reviews. Yes, people ARE entitled to THEIR opinion of a book, but they are not entitled to an UNCONTESTED opinion. If you read a review that you feel is unbalanced, say so!

If you find that none of the reviews deal with your particular insights into the book, then go ahead and write! You really are offering fellow readers something valuable.

5. Pick Four Things

There have been whole books written on books. Literature can be so open-texted and nuanced that readers can read the same book and yet have virtually read a different one. A review doesn’t have to cover everything and, in fact, the best reviews limit themselves to a few strong critiques. Pick the four or five things that you feel are most important about the book and focus on them. There’s nothing wrong with headings and point form! You’re not expected to write a novel on the novel. Be as brief or in-depth as you like, but always explain why you have come to the conclusions you’re offering.

6. Contextualize But Don’t Re-Shelve

Novels always contain a certain amount of commentary on reality. Whether it is the libertarian ethos lurking beneath a survivalist thriller, or the possible underlying conservativism of a dominatrix who decides to marry her accountant, good novels offer us ways of looking at our own world and the best ones do it by offering rather than preaching a viewpoint. It is very helpful to other readers to construct a review that links some topic or aspect of the novel to our everyday lives or real environment. Thinking about books this way often give you an insight into what the writer ‘wants you to think’ and a contextualized review invites other readers to consider that aspect of the reading they might have missed.

Indeed, a really exciting way into reviewing a novel, now that you have enjoyed it, is to ask the same question of the text that you have, at the onset of your review, asked yourself. Who is speaking? Do you suspect the writer and the narrator overlap? Is the writer attempting to explore the world from a standpoint other than her own by narrating the story via someone very different to herself? If the story is in third person, past tense and no obvious narrator is present, consider how adjectives and adverbs, descriptive passages are used to put a spin on the story. How immediate does the storytelling feel? Does it feel like the story is being told in a distanced retrospect? This can affect how real the story feels to you – how immanent the characters and events.

However, fiction is fiction. It is fine for you to point out that something in the novel might be untenable in real life, but if you go on and on about it, what you are now complaining about is that the novel is not a non-fiction handbook. And that’s not helpful when you found it in the Romance genre.  A case in point is the critiques of Fifty Shades of Grey which repeatedly point out how abusive the relationship is, and how little it resembles a healthy BDSM relationship. Had E.L. James written a guidebook on how to conduct a healthy BDSM relationship, critics would have every right to nail her to the wall, but that’s not what she set out to do. The book is a fiction of one relationship. It’s fine to point out that it portrays a very unhealthy fictional BDSM relationship, but it’s unfair and unhelpful to criticize it for failing to be the self-help handbook it never intended to be. It would have been just as valid and probably more informative to simply point out that the novel portrays an unhealthy form of D/s and should not be read as a lifestyle guide.

7. Consumer Choice Confirmation

No one ever had his or her life ruined by a bad book. No one ever went broke reading one. No one ever died from a poorly written novel (with the exception of the writer, perhaps). Moreover, it is unforgivably arrogant to tell someone not to ‘bother’ reading something simply because you didn’t like it. You may have gotten nothing from a book, but you can’t assume another reader will feel the same. You are not responsible for other people’s reading choices. Make your critique – make it scathing if you feel it merits it – but telling another reader not to buy it is rude and bossy.

Meanwhile, one of the most disturbing trends revealed in the consumer review sphere is also the reason why online bookstores like Amazon and iTunes provide space for reviews and why Goodreads exists. Behavioural scientists have noticed something interesting: consumers exhibit a desire to have their ‘good purchase judgments’ confirmed. They do this by encouraging others to make the same purchase.  Platforms like Amazon know this and they harness it as a way to encourage purchases.  It’s important to recognize that almost all of us have a desire to have ‘our good taste’ confirmed, and that this often unconscious desire is being manipulated to someone else’s profit.

As a good reviewer, your job in neither to encourage nor discourage people from buying a book, but simply giving them more information for their consideration. I’ve watched reviewers unconsciously turn themselves into book agents. They love a book or an author, and they take on the job of making sure everyone they know buys it. At the point you do this, you cease to be offering a review. You’ve become a member of the sales team, pitching the product.

We all want to encourage other people to read a book we’ve enjoyed, but the best way to do this is by offering a review that gives people both factual and emotional reasons why you found it so compelling. The moment you step over that line, you become an unreliable reviewer and an untrustworthy informant because it is not longer the book you are praising, but your own wise choice in purchasing it.

8. Find One Good Thing; Find One Bad Thing

No matter how much you hated or loved the book, pointing out one aspect that contradicts your overall impression is the single most effective way to make your review credible. It also happens to be a very good intellectual exercise.

For example, I gave Sylvia Day’s ‘Bared To You’ a predominantly poor review. In truth, I found it aggravating for a whole host of reasons, but the prose, although purple in places, is constructed with far more skill than ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or most of the subsequent copycat novels. Conversely, my review of ‘Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran’ by Marion Grace Wooley is almost wholly positive and I was so taken with the novel that I was reluctant to say anything negative about it at all. Nonetheless, made myself do it. The pacing in the second half does drag a little.

Do, Do, Do Review!

In the age of e-books and an avalanche of self-published and small imprint published novels, there is a lot of crap out there. But there are also gems we are all likely to miss unless someone takes the time and has the generosity of spirit to review them.

Many of you are extensive readers and, as a fellow reader, I value your informed opinion. Well-constructed reviews don’t spoil a novel for me. They often tempt me to read genres I wouldn’t normally read and loosen up my expectations and assumptions. This affords me a more adventurous reading experience. Some reviews have called my attention to underlying themes and aspects of a novel I might have missed and contributed greatly to my reading experience. I’ve even chosen to buy a novel based on a well-written negative review because I realized the reviewer was put off by exactly the things I found most delicious in a novel. In fact, it was this very negative review of ‘Those Rosy Hours At Mazandaran’ that prompted me to read it:

“…If you enjoy stories about psychopaths who discover each other’s love for toying with their human prey before brutally murdering them, then this book is the perfect one for you.” (excerpt from ‘Psychopath Filled “Prequel” to the Phantom of the Opera’, one star review by The Reading Wench,, Feb 25, 2015)

I read that and thought, “Whoa, that sounds perfect to me!”

No one is obligated to review every book they read; none of us have the time. But when you find yourself brimming with opinions about a book, when it has offered you insight, or a disappointing experience you feel you can put your finger on, please take the time to write a review. Readers everywhere are depending on it.

Problems and Pleasures of The Myth of the Uncontrollable Urge

Minotaur crouching over sleeping woman; Picasso, 1933

I’m going to begin this essay by asking you for the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to ask you to assume
I’m not an insane or immoral person. I’m asking this of you because I’m about
to wade into the uncomfortable, murky waters of consent, intentionality and
biological imperative when it comes to sex – both fictionally and factually.

Attempts to unpack these issues, to examine philosophical, historical,
institutional, artistic and socially constructed understandings of human
sexuality reveal uncomfortable realities. They don’t always accord with the way
we want things to be or live up to our ideals. But I’d like to argue that approaches that seek to present the issue as uncomplicated for the sake of clarity, are not realistic or productive ones.

I just watched the documentary “India’s Daughter.” It
chronicles the events of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a woman
identified in the film as “Jyoti”. Some Indian feminist have
criticized the film because it allows a number of the rapists, their defense
lawyers and a few others to air, what to most Westerners and many Indians, too,
are deeply misogynistic views on where women belong in society and the part
they play in their own victimization. These statements are not directly and
immediately rebutted in the film – it allows the audience to be appalled at
them. The strategy works well in the context of a Western liberal audience that
is probably unaware of the extreme schisms of social attitudes surrounding
women. But for an Indian audience, where these views are not uncommon or unknown,
it fails. The Indian Government has banned
the airing of the documentary
, ostensibly because it offers a platform for
views it wishes to eradicate. However, this decision might also have been influenced by a recent incident in which a
mob of thousands pulled an accused rapist out of a prison in Dimapur
, and
beat him to death. The event is more complex than it appears. The accused was a
Bangladeshi, so there are both issues of religious and immigration tension that
have played significant roles.

I’d like to examine the myth that humans are at the mercy of
their animal instincts, driven by their biological imperatives; how old and
widespread this fallacy is and how deeply it has embedded itself into many cultures;
and what part it plays in both our fictions and our social norms.

It’s all Aristotle’s Fault.

Not really, but at least in Western culture, Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics has served, through the centuries as a font of great wisdom
on the matter of the human condition. In Part Seven of the Ethics,
Aristotle submits that, once in the thrall of sexual arousal, humans are no
longer capable of exercising reason, restraint or judgement. Historicity and
language is a bit of a problem. We don’t know what stage of arousal Aristotle
is referring to. Perhaps he was referring to the moment of orgasm, in which
case he’d be spot on. The problem is that our historical unease with the
specifics of the human sexual response led to very broad generalizations about
states of sexual arousal. This myth that a human in any given state of sexual
arousal is incapable of exercising choice, or control, or good judgment, has
been responsible for a millennial get out of jail free card when it comes to
sexual ethics.

Sorry, Different Department.

By the time we did get around to studying human sexual
response in the mid-20th Century, courtesy of Kinsey and Masters
and Johnson
, the sciences had specialized. People who were interested in
philosophy, ethics, sociology or psychology had all been given their own
departments – nay – buildings on another campus. Let me tell you, interdisciplinary studies of human
are a rare, belittled, and underfunded species.

However, we know humans can and routinely do exercise
enormous control over their ‘animal’ instincts. We seem to be able to restrain
ourselves from peeing in our nests, we often find ways to negotiate our
territorial instincts, and unsurprisingly, we manage to restrain ourselves from
spending all our time mating – even though some of us spend an inordinate
amount of time thinking about it. There are men and women of diverse religious
orders who manage to live a life of complete sexual celibacy. Even
hormone-addled 16-year-olds don’t generally rampage through the countryside
raping every orifice they encounter. To look at it more quantitatively and at
more extreme levels of sexual arousal, practicing the ‘withdrawal method’ (27
pregnancies in 100) is still vastly more effective than using no birth control
method at all (85 pregnancies in 100). So, even at the abyssal precipice of
orgasm, it’s clear that we can and do have the capacity to exercise some
choice, some judgment.

Once We Were Dumb Mammals

Meanwhile, in the realm of society, we consistently ignore
that fact. Historically and to the present day, we create narratives about
humans helplessly carried away by the urgency of erotic bliss. Our literature,
drama and films are full of it. But, more darkly, so are our laws, our judicial
systems, our security structures. 
We may acknowledge rape as a crime in theory, but even in the most
‘enlightened’ egalitarian social systems, it is astonishing how often
responsibility is shifted from the person who refused to exert control over
themselves and onto something or someone else. It was the clothes the victim
was wearing, the fact that she was out alone, the fact that she wasn’t
accompanied by a relative, the fact that she (or he) came up to the rapist’s
apartment, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, prison, porn, the prevalence of a
‘rape culture’. The list of reasons why an individual is not wholly, personally
accountable for their actions goes on and on. Whether you find yourself in a
culture that denies women autonomy, or one that offers them an equal legal
status, the
myth of the uncontrollable urge always rears its head

Mythological Beasts

We can control ourselves and we enjoy the lie that we can’t.
It’s not really that surprising: biological drives are compelling, and it takes
effort to refuse their call. It makes sense that humans would have fantasies
about respite from that control. In his book “Speaking the Unspeakable:
The Poetics of Obscenity,” Peter Michelson explains the liberating appeal
of pornography. It is, he says, a space where we can luxuriate in relinquishing
the very real control we have over our animal instincts. There is romanticism,
authenticity and empowerment in our fantasies of giving in to our animal
natures. I don’t wholly agree with Michelson on the specific mechanisms of
this, because I think our ‘animal natures’ are themselves a fantasy
construction.  Nonetheless, he
presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing
control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised.

Meanwhile, romance often features motifs of being swept
away, overcome, overwhelmed, desiring beyond the boundaries of social
acceptability. The pursuer can’t help but want the object of his or her desire.
It obsesses them; it drives
them to extraordinary and unruly lengths within the context of the storyworld.
And the pursued, it usually turns out, cannot refuse the pleasure of being that
object of desire and, if all is well, return the feeling.

Fictional Outposts

One of the reasons I champion
fictional, eroticized portrayals of reluctance and even rape is because to deny
that these ideations have semiotic power is dangerous. But also, to attempt to
force limits (i.e. to have rape fantasies is a betrayal of feminist ideology)
on what metaphors, what metonyms, what ‘signifieds’ might be is also futile. I
think fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies
and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals
we used to be. I’m not convinced of the veracity of that earlier state of
natural ‘innocence’, but it haunts us and calls to us nonetheless. Fantasy and
fiction are the only safe places we should give it power or credence. To
situate this myth of the uncontrollable urge in fantasy and fiction is to put
it exactly in the place it belongs – beyond the pale of the everyday world and
civil society, and to underscore that it is the ONLY place it belongs.

One of the stark messages of “India’s Daughter” is
that it is social attitudes, the tolerance of real world inequities, the historical
absence of women’s voices, their lack of power and the perpetuation of utterly
baseless justifications that create an environment in which crimes like this
are possible. The shocking testimonies of rape-apologists in the documentary
are offensive as hell, but they serve to remind us that these attitudes don’t
survive and are not perpetuated through fictional works, but through entirely
real-world levels of tolerance that predate ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and even
basic literacy.

Fifty Shades of Grey: A Film Review

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first mainstream film based on an ‘erotic novel’ in quite a while; the last one I can recall was  Secretary, loosely based on a short story with the same title by Mary Gaitskill, but I could be wrong.

have been numerous recent art-house films considered to be erotic, like
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour), and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend but none of these, to my knowledge, were based on written prose. All are more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey,
and the last two mentioned are certainly, in my opinion, more erotic.
But they are also not as accessible to mainstream movie-goers since both
films focus on  same-sex couples. I admit to being bored to death by Nymphomaniac, but the opening sex scene of Von Trier’s Antichrist
still sticks in my mind as one of the most explicitly erotic pieces of
film I’ve ever seen. The rest of the movie was in need of a stricter
editor, but that initial scene is raw,  feverish and terrifying, which
is probably a telling clue as to my tastes.

Explicitness, it seems, is relative. There has been a great deal of television – True Blood, Spartacus, Deadwood, House of Cards, etc. – that is just as explicit as this movie, but those works don’t expressly promise to turn you on. Fifty Shades of Grey sells itself specifically as an erotic film.
I’d like to draw a distinction between erotic film and pornography
because it helps to explain why it’s not the lack of explicitness that
rendered Fifty Shades of Grey unerotic for me. I watch porn – I sometimes get myself off to porn – but I seldom consider it erotic.

narrative – filmed or textual – can be explicit, but it doesn’t have to
be. It doesn’t serve to remind our bodies that we’re mammals who seek
pleasure in the vague and often failed hope of conforming to our
biological imperative. It addresses our cultural mind and talks, not of
sex, but of what we as humans have made of it: not urge, not drive, but
desire. Eroticism is seldom about the pleasure felt or the orgasm; it’s
about the desire to get there, all the cultural and personal detritus in
which we wrap that pilgrimage, and the curious delusion from which we
all suffer that there is some tremendous, epiphanic mystery that lies
beyond that moment of pleasure.  We settle for less. We settle for the
orgasm and the intimacy and the delusion fades, until the next time.

like watching animals fucking, porn works on my lizard brain. It works
at a very uncritical, unthinking and physical level – it speaks to my
muscles and my glands but not my brain. Porn that made attempts at
narrative always put me off because it was invariably facile. People
used to put narrative into porn as if they needed an excuse to show
people fucking, but we’ve gotten past that. Now we just have video of
people achieving orgasms in various ways. For me, porn is a bit like
running the faucet in an attempt to encourage urination; sometimes it
works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not as if we don’t remember how to pee
theoretically, but the sound of that water running kind of bypasses the
understanding part and nudges the bladder to take the jump.

is about love – a cultural construction but no less powerful for that.
It often has a sexual dimension, and this is undoubtedly true for Fifty Shades of Grey:
the story of a young woman who falls in love with a very rich man whose
sexual practices are – even if she is intrigued by the trappings –
repugnant to her. So, essentially, Fifty Shades of Grey is, for
all it’s superficial focus on sex, neither pornography, nor erotic
film. It’s a love story. Some might consider it a very conservative sort
of love story, because the main character (not in the movie, but by the
third volume of the novel) trades the sexual relationship she would
prefer for love. This is what women have done for thousands of years.
anyone who has practiced BDSM, the book and the film are both rather
offensive parodies. Like spies who watch espionage thrillers, or
soldiers who watch war films, or doctors who view medical dramas, there
is always a sense of the false depiction of their lived realities. Fifty Shades of Grey
portrays a highly fictionalized and poorly researched approximation of
BDSM. All the props (too many, in fact) and none of the soul. There is
none of the visceral understanding that BDSM is not a game of sexual
‘Simon Says’ but an erotic experience that people go into very
willingly, driven even, to ‘queer’* the biological imperative and revel
in the ways that culture has embellished it.

There has always been
dominance and submission in mammalian sex, BDSM unpacks it and examines
it, dissects it and revels in the dichotomy of humans as animals and
humans capable of making a conscious choice in the power dynamic.
Similarly, there has always been pain and danger in the nature of
biological sex; instead of trying to mitigate or overlook it, BDSM
reveals it, gazes into it, glories in it. Semiotics – the many layers of
meaning we ascribe to any given word, act, person or event – are
central to BDSM, even when we don’t explicitly acknowledge them. The
handcuffs, the crops, the floggers, the wooden spoons, the sterilized
needles, the corsets, the gags are not tools without context. It is
their historical and social semiotic baggage that makes them erotic.
BDSM is an erotic defiance of allowing things, people and acts stay in
their socially and historically ascribed places. That’s why it’s
fundamentally obscene and immoral to whip a non-consenting individual
and deeply erotic to whip your consenting submissive lover. It may
appear sexist and unfeminist when a male is dominant and a female
submissive, but consider that both parties have made a deliberate choice
of positioning, in disobedience of what cultural norms are now or what
they have been in the past. We didn’t have a choice. Now we do and we
exercise the choice consciously. It is an intentional transgression, a
defiance and sometimes a parody of the status quo.

What makes the trappings of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey
so upsetting to practitioners is not just the absence in both the book
and the film of any sense of BDSM’s complexity, but the knowledge that,
for many people in the mainstream, this is their first encounter with
something purporting to be BDSM. Sociologist Eva Illouz points out that
erotic romance in general and Fifty Shades of Grey in particular is being consumed as a kind of dramatized, sexual self-help guide.

Fifty Shades of Grey
serves up a heady cocktail of paradox. It glamourizes BDSM, adorns it
with conspicuous consumption, bling, polish and muted lighting, while
responsibility, agency and choice are hauntingly absent. Meanwhile,
subtextually, BDSM is pathologized, criminalized: Christian Grey is into
it because he was abused. The only other practitioner we even hear of
is his first lover – a dominant, pedophilic woman who initiated him at
the age of 15. So the message is: the sex is hot, the toys are
expensive, and the only people who really enjoy this are sick. It’s not
difficult to see why so many in the BDSM community are ambivalent about
the book and the film. Much like EMTs who complain about the way film
portrays CPR. Of course, if you performed CPR on film with veracity,
you’d risk cracking someone’s ribs while boring the audience to death. 
If the BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey was performed with any
level of veracity, there’d be a lot more sweat, snot, welts and
screaming. It’s likely there’d be a few more obvious orgasms, too. I’m
sure neither of the starring actors would be willing to expose themselves
quite so thoroughly, even if those sorts of details had been in the

Personally, I’m not so concerned. Hollywood is constantly
producing films where women are innocent victims with little or no
agency – this is just another. It’s also constantly pumping out films
where characters make monstrous compromises in order to be loved. I’m
sure many filmgoers will return home after seeing the film and attempt a
bit of tie-me-up-and-spank-me’, and most will survive it. A very few
may find it immensely erotic and seek out more informed and detailed
sources of information. It may lead to some undesired and upsetting
bouts of rough sex, but so does going to a bar and by all accounts, so
does attending many universities. It might even result in a few
break-ups as partners find their tastes are incompatible. But, let’s be
honest, anyone with even an inkling of interest in BDSM may seek out far
more explicit and harrowing videos on the net.

Fifty Shades of Grey is just not that important a film. Go see it. Just don’t expect to come away with a new lease on your sex life.

to the book, the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy. Jaimie Dornan came
across as a joyless, humourless, self-important pedant. He reminded me
of guys who tell you they’re ‘Doms’ but turn out to be bitter, mean,
self-pitying and entitled little boys. But, in all fairness, that’s how
Christian Grey is written in the novel. Dornan’s far, far sexier as a
serial killer in the British series The Fall. However, I found
Dakota Johnson much easier to stomach than her textual counterpart; she
did the best she could with the lines she had and I found her smile
rather contagious (even when I was trying hard to dislike her
lip-sucking). She really does have a very erotic mouth. Finally, if
director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a poor job of visualizing the eroticism
of BDSM, she more than compensates for it by making helicopters,
gliders, Audis and interior decor look sexy as hell. My guess is that she
finds wealth a lot more erotic than kink. But then, sadly, so do most people.

Show Me Bad: The Wages of Censorship

Last week, the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 introduced a series of restrictions on the pornography produced and sold in the UK. The acts that are now prohibited to show on video range from the edgy to the puzzling.

  • Spanking
  • Caning
  • Aggressive whipping
  • Penetration by any object “associated with violence”
  • Physical or verbal abuse (regardless of  if consensual)
  • Urolagnia (known as “water sports”)
  • Role-playing as non-adults
  • Physical restraint
  • Humiliation
  • Female ejaculation
  • Strangulation
  • Facesitting
  • Fisting

The last three are included for being potentially life threatening.

Rest assured, all these restriction only apply to video remediation of the acts, but what interests me is the reasoning behind them.

Certainly breath play can be dangerous; there might, feasibly be some concern that making it seem unproblematic could lead people to try it without further education on the subject (although a reenactment your run-of-the-mill movie bar fight would be just as likely to cause severe injury). But a search of the research indicates only one death, in 1987, caused by fisting which tore the tissues so badly that the victim bled to death. There is another recorded death associated with an air embolism. Following this reasoning, as dangerous activities go, videos of showers should be banned; it’s a thousand times more likely to lead to fatality. I’ve searched far and wide, and cannot find a single incident of death by ‘facesitting’.

Then there is the puzzling ban on female ejaculation. When asked to explain their thinking on this, the group responsible for this decision argued that there was no evidence that female ejaculation actually exists and that the fluid being ‘ejaculated’ might contain urine, putting it in the same category as other watersports, i.e. golden showers. The fact that mainstream society’s objection to golden showers stems from it being considered an act of degradation – not because it involves urine – seems to have been lost on this panel. Is there actually porn out there where women degrade men by squirting on them? Well, if there wasn’t, there will be now!

The list of ‘strange’ goes on. Spanking is out, even though approximately 65% of all couples have tried it. Penetration by any object “associated with violence” is on pretty dicey grounds; most women who have been raped would consider a penis an object associated with violence.  Physical restraint is so broad as to be laughable. Hands up if you’ve ever let your lover tie you up and fuck you? The absurdity of this part of the list would be risible if it weren’t so sad. How is it that a government ends up banning the remediation of what a considerable number of lovers do in their bedroom on a fairly regular basis? The subtext is that these things aren’t normal. They are abusive, they are perversions, they are wrong.

But strangest of all, at least to me, are the prohibited acts that are not even physical: verbal abuse, humiliation and age-play. None of these are acceptable even when there is clear consent in the video. All of these restrictions approach the concept of ‘sins of the mind’. It appears that the powers that have imposed these restrictions have completely discounted the difference between fantasy and reality. Fictionality is no longer acceptable in porn because, in their view, our society can no longer be trusted to distinguish the difference between, for instance, pretending to be a 12-year old schoolgirl and actually being one.  Ironically, it is fictionality that makes porn culturally safer.

Another defense of these restrictions is that it protects children from seeing things they shouldn’t see. But think about all the sexual acts NOT on the list. Is it okay for children to see those things? I’m not going to list them. I trust your imaginations. This argument can be dismissed as ridiculous.

On a personal basis, the banning of the remediation of the acts on list offends me – not because I would want to see most of the acts, I’m not much of a porn fan – but because the prohibition makes a very grave statement about how intellectually subnormal the government assumes its adult citizens to be. More importantly, the government has once again entered into the business, as it did in most of the 20th Century, of taking on the authority to determine what normative sexuality is, and it has moved to ensure that non-normative forms are discouraged, even in fantasy.

But more ironically than all of that, in the name of stemming ‘rape culture’ and the depiction of violence against women, it has banned the video remediation of female ejaculation and facesitting, while still allowing the depiction of women choking on cocks and bukakke scenes.

This is not about protecting anyone from anything. This is, along with the ever-increasing surveillance of our private lives, a claiming of additional powers in the guise of concern for our safety.

Of course, the censorship of sexually explicit material and bans on pornography have never stopped people from getting their hands on it. The plethora of both written and photographic porn produced during the late Victorian period attests to this. What the legislation has done is make certain pornographic spectacle more forbidden, and therefore more alluring. If squirting was a popular meme before, its cache in the UK will go through the roof.  People will crave more violent flogging, caning and spanking material because it is prohibited. Eroticism requires transgression and this has simply made the things that have been banned all the more erotic.

And it that spirit, I offer you a little piece of social science fiction:

Show Me Bad

Having pulled on their gimp masks as they make their way down into the basement of the strip-mall Thai takeaway in Ruislip. Gina, Lotte and Rose weave their way through the occupied stacking chairs in the dank, windowless, impromptu cinema.

The others in the secret audience are also masked. Some in balaclavas, some in gas masks, some in pillowcases with holes for the eyes. People nod, murmur. All the seats are occupied, so they stand to the side, leaning against the damp brick wall, and stare at a large flatscreen TV.

Someone switches the lights off. The bluescreen menu prompt pops up and the input is set to ‘video’. First the screen goes black, and then brightens again. On the screen, in what looks like an old fashioned kitchen, a small, bony man argues with what appears to be his obese wife. The wife grabs him, trips him, and pins him to the dirty linoleum floor. The camera moves in, closer, closer. She is hiking up the skirt of her faded, stained housedress. She’s not wearing anything under it. The little man is struggling to free himself but he’s no match for her. She inches her bared bulk up his body.

Someone in the audience whispers, “Fuck, yeah.” The sound of multiple zippers being pulled down, the rustle of displaced clothes is a whisper beneath the hiss of the video. On the screen, there’s a close-up of a plump, enormous cunt lowering itself onto the little man’s panicked face. He screams as the huge, meaty, wet labia cover his nose and mouth. Only his bloodshot,frightened eyes are visible as the woman begins to rock her pelvis back and forth, slathering his face in viscous effluvia.

“Lick me, you motherfucker,” mutters the woman. The man’s hands are fluttering, clawing at her thighs but she doesn’t stop.

In the dark of the room, there are moans, the quick, determined sounds of genitals being self-pleasured.

The man’s legs are kicking wildly, uselessly. Muffled choking sounds are emanating from under the draped slabs of her vulva

“Oh, my god,” whispers Lotte.

Gina has her hand down the front of her jeans, frigging herself, gimp mask impassive, eyes fixed on the flatscreen. The little man’s face – what’s visible of it – has turned a deep red. His head jerks helplessly.

“So fucking hot,” whispers Rose.

On the screen, the massive woman is coming. Her body goes rigid, flesh judders, fluid floods out over the face of the little man, who now appears to be passed out, if not dead.

Half the masked audience is also coming. Moans, cries, grunts fill the dark. 

* * *

While waiting for the bus, Rose, Gina and Lotte stand in silence for a while, their gimp masks tucked safely back in their purses.

“I can’t believe what we saw,” says Lotte. “So this is a thing?” “They used to have face sitting in porn, on the net,” says Rose. “It used to be just cunnilingus, you know. The normal kind. But then the government banned it.”

Lotte looks confused. “Why did they ban it?”

Gina smiles. “They said it was too dangerous,” she says. “So someone decided to make it dangerous, for real.”

Rose nods. “It’s way hotter now, isn’t it?”

The Bad Sex Awards, Again

Each year, the Literary Review examines a sampling of recently published literary fiction and nominates a clutch of writers for consideration to win the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction. This year’s shortlist is as follows:

  • The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • The Hormone Factory by Saskia Goldschmidt
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  • The Age of Magic by Ben Okri
  • The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd
  • Desert God by Wilbur Smith
  • Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan
  • The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh
  • The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

As per their own site, “The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written,
perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern
fiction, and to discourage them. The prize is not intended to cover
pornographic or expressly erotic literature” (Literary). Which should prompt many erotica and erotic romance writers to breathe a sigh of relief, because I’ve read equally poorly written representations of sex from writers who, supposedly, are more expert at it. Before you start smirking, erotica writers, ask yourselves if you’ve committed similar literary atrocities.

The shame in wining this award is legendary. It’s actually hurt a few people’s feelings. There is the implication that, if you can’t write sex with any flair, you’re probably bad at it in real life. Not fair, but it explains why so many literary writers avoid it like the plague.

This year, with the possible exception of Murakami, the nominated passages are well deserved. And they read like a how not to write sex guide for a number of reasons. However, there are some recurring sins. Either the author tries to turn sex into a cubist hallucination, a completely disembodied experience, or he/she feels compelled to add unaccountably eccentric details just so it doesn’t read quite like porn. Problem is, it reads like porn with unaccountably eccentric details.

There’s Kirsty Wark’s abstracted, over-idealized something that could be sex or could be canibalism:

I had never imagined that I was capable of wanton behaviour, but it was as if a dam within me had burst and we made love that day and night like two people starved, slowly suffused with more and more pleasure, exploring and devouring every inch of each other, so as not to miss one single possibility of passion. (The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle)

Either write a sex scene, or don’t. But studiously avoiding a single detail of realism reeks of purple prose.

Wilbur Smith’s Desert God offers ‘ruby nipples’ and a cringeworthy description of a wet pussy:

Her pudenda were also entirely devoid of hair. The tips of her inner lips protruded shyly from the vertical cleft. The sweet dew of feminine arousal glistened upon them. (Desert God)

Pudenda? Really? The ‘vertical clef’? Is there a horizontal one? Leaking ‘sweet dew’? Really? Only a person who is terrified of cunt could feel the need to turn it into a cross between an anatomy lesson and the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flanagan’s offering is not quite as egregious but it’s not good either:

Whatever had held them apart, whatever had restrained their bodies before, was now gone. If the earth spun it faltered, if the wind blew it waited. Hands found flesh; flesh, flesh. He felt the improbable weight of her eyelash with his own; he kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world. As they lost themselves in the circumnavigation of each other, there came from nearby shrill shrieks that ended in a deeper howl.

Dorrigo looked up. A large dog stood at the top of the dune. Above blood-jagged drool, its slobbery mouth clutched a twitching fairy penguin.  (The Narrow Road to the Deep North)

You can see the problem here. Let’s pretend we’re NOT REALLY describing people having sex but insert a quirky detail (the skin indent from her knicker elastic) to avoid being accused of abstraction. PLUS, let’s juxtapose it with animal predation in all its glorious realism.

May-Lan Tan might have taken the time to wonder what human mouths have to do with volcanos:

I lie back and her hair tickles my stomach, her mouth wrapping over me. I’d forgotten this about her: she has the smallest, hottest mouth, as if she’s storing lava in her cheeks.

When I’m about to come, I flip her onto her back and take off her
underwear. I roll her nipple on my tongue and rub her clit with my thumb
until her lips get slippery. I glide my middle finger in and out, then
fold her legs up and push in. God. It’s like sticking your cock into the
sun.  (Things to Make and Break)

Besides this theme of things too hot to consider while thinking about sex, the second paragraph reads either like a reject from Penthouse forum pile or someone working at IHOP.

This might, to my mind, be the worst offender of all. It does serve to remind you that if male writers often don’t have a clue as to how sex works for women, the opposite is often also true. Here’s Saskia Goldschmidt’s offering:

She was moaning softly now, her breath coming faster. She tasted of apples. Her soft warm flesh was driving me crazy – that dish of delight my tongue was now lapping at frenziedly. Her suppressed cries were coming faster and faster. I unbuttoned my pants, pushing them down past my hips, and my beast, finally released from its cage, sprang up wildly. I started inching my way back up, continuing to stimulate her manually, until the beast found its way in. She opened her eyes and said softly, ‘I’m still a virgin, please be careful.’

I kept myself quiet for a moment, kissed her and said, “I’ll be very gentle, all right?”

Running her tongue over her lips she nodded; she was as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask, and it wasn’t long before I was able to really get going. We both came at the same time. I stayed inside her for a few seconds, gazed at her, and smiled. (The Hormone Factory)

This is bad for so many reasons, it’s hard to enumerate them all. But the juxtaposition of the purpled ‘ beast, finally released from its cage, sprang up wildly’ and ‘continuing to stimulate her manually’  to the inappropriate simile of ‘as hot as boiling water in a distillation flask’ this probably takes the prize for the world’s most schizophrenic writing style ever. It’s not just bad sex writing. It’s bad writing. I have a feeling Ms. Goldschmidt is not a bad writer, but I suspect she doesn’t like men enough to get to know any.

I’m not going to bother going through Murakami’s snippet, because it doesn’t rate as egregious. It’s just a sex scene not written to arouse, but otherwise, there’s not too much wrong with it baring a few inappropriate nature similes.

The extract from The Lemon Grove, by Helen Walsh, offers us another example of how while visceral detail can be good, the overly visceral becomes ridiculous:

    She closes her eyes. Shakes her head.

    “We can’t,” she begins. His mouth is on hers; his tongue is jabbing around her gums, the wrinkled roof of her mouth. He pulls away a second time.

    “Look at me,” he says.

    She looks him in the eye. She reaches out and cups his balls and squeezes gently. Nathan closes his eyes, bites his lip. Then he steps into her, furious. And when it hits her, it slams her hard and fast, as life once had. (The Lemon Grove)

Now, apart from the ‘wrinkled roof of her mouth,’ this may be one of those occasions where a fragment has been taken out of context. The protagonist goes from reluctant to grabbing his balls, and it reads very badly here, but who knows what the character’s like?  However, ‘he steps into her, furious’ might be one of the most sublimated metaphors for penetration I’ve ever come across.

This is not the first time Ben Okri has been nominated for this award. I’m pretty sure he shrugged the last one off instead of taking it to heart. It shows:

When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain.

She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour. Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail. She was a little overwhelmed with being the adored focus of such power, as he rose and fell. She felt certain now that there was a heaven and that it was here, in her body. The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her.  (The Age of Magic)

I’m guessing he got stuck on the theme of the mechanical. This woman appears to be a piece of electrical equipment. But it goes on to, again, a total avoidance of what sex is actually about in such a studied way, you’d think the human race had discovered a way to fuck without using their bodies at all.

Amy Grace Lloyd suffers from the illness of a writer who can’t decide on a term for vagina, which makes the whole thing read a little like a very old Harlequin Romance:

Her throat as open as her body, wet everywhere from tears and the
coming, and I did hear it, a long high twisting cry and a twisting in my
arms as my fingers dove up and up into the full expressive wetness of
her. (The Affairs of Others)

The rest of the passage also studiously avoids much relation of the sex to the body, but it’s not as bad as some of the others.

At least Michael Cunningham can call a dick a dick and, to be fair, this was written with the view to being about rather bad sex for the woman involved, which is realistic and, you know, literary:

They both know they have to do this quickly. He slides his dick into
her. She sighs more loudly, but it’s still a sigh, not a sex moan,
though this time there’s a soft gasp at the end. Tyler is inside her,
here’s the heat, the powerful wet hold, and fuck, he’s about to come
already. He holds off, lets his cock rest in her, lies on top, his face
pressed to her cheek (he can’t seem to look directly at her), until she
says, ‘Don’t wait.’
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.”
thrusts once, cautiously. He thrusts again, and he’s gone, he’s off into
the careening nowhere. He lives for seconds in that soaring agonizing
perfection. It’s this, only this, he’s lost to himself, he’s no one,
he’s obliterated, there’s no Tyler at all, there’s only… He hears
himself gasp in wonder. He falls into an ecstatic burning harmedness,
losing, lost, unmade.
And is finished. (The Snow Queen)

I’m finished eviscerating these poor writers, too.

There’s really only two reasons to write sex in a novel: because it is the writer’s intent to arouse the reader or because it is necessary to move the plot or character forward. As erotica writers, we write to arouse and, when we’re at our best, also move the story ahead.

Literary writers really need to decide why they are putting the sex scene in. It doesn’t have to be pretty or arousing, but they do have to be honest with themselves about what their aim is. This selection of literary luminaries show that few of them are.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to learn for any writer on how not to write sex here:

  1. Whether you are writing to arouse or not, sex is embodied and only poor writers avoid the reality of that with flights into metaphysics. 
  2. Overused and cliche imagery disconnects the reader from the moment and reminds them of the remediation of sex instead of actual sex. But, although fresh metaphors and similes can bring the reader to new ways of seeing the act, it’s a dangerous line to walk. If you’re going to risk the strange metaphor, make sure it doesn’t simply turn your whole attempt ridiculous.
  3. If under-writing is bad, over-writing is worse and shows you’re uncomfortable with writing sex. No one needs to be told that the vulva has a vertical slit, unless you’re worried your reader is going to mistake this for eye-intercourse.
  4. Context is always good, but the juxtaposition of sex with the likes of slathering, penguin-murdering dogs doesn’t situate the sex. It just makes the reader think that the sex was so bad it was impossible not to notice the dog.

My guess is that many literary writers fear writing about sex. They either avoid it or disembody it, or try too hard to reframe it as something no one has ever heard of before. It’s always good to begin by remembering that your reader is probably a human who has had sex and knows what it’s like.

Killing the Messenger

Last month, the BBC reported that Bettina Bunte who writes under the pen name Cass E. Ritter, was dismissed from her administrative position at a child care centre run by Kent Country Council. She was fired from her position after a number of parents (it’s not clear how many and I’d personally love to know) complained that she had written an erotic novel. According to Ms Bunte: “She claims the council told her they could ‘not be seen to promote this sort of thing’ and that her book damaged the reputation of the children’s centre.” (Staffing Industry). This is after Bunte asked for and received permission from her employers to speak to the media about her recently released novel.

Bunte is the first in a long line of people, mostly women, who have lost their jobs when it was found out they wrote erotic novels. But it doesn’t happen exclusively to women, or to erotic writers. Recently Patrick McLaw, an African American middle school language teacher was put on administrative leave and forced to undergo ’emergency medical evaluation’ after it was discovered he’d written two novels, set 900 years in the future, which involved a massacre at a school. When pressed on the issue, authorities reported that it was not just the novels that concerned them, but his state of mental health. (Atlantic Monthly). There was recently an incident of a UK male who was forced to step down from his position when it was discovered he wrote erotic stories. (DailyDot). Ironically, I have it second hand that the discovery was made when after the school organization contemplated raising funds by having an erotica reading night, his wife let it slip that he actually wrote some.  Judy Buranich (Judy Mays), Carol Ann Eastman (Deena Bright), Ayden K. Morgen, Deidre Dare…

It’s usually women, it’s usually erotica and the excuse for firing them often involves the protection of children.

Let me offer you a contrast:  Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, who has written some of detective fictions most celebrated novels under the pen name P.D. James. Her first novel, “Cover Her Face” was written in 1962. She has worked in the criminal section of the British Home Office, and served as a magistrate for years. No one ever thought she should be fired for setting her novels in environments she knew, or suggesting that she couldn’t do her job right because she wrote about mentally unstable characters with murderous intent, or painted word pictures of gory murder scenes. She now has a seat in the House of Lords. Of course, there is one huge difference: she doesn’t write about sex.

She claims the council told her they could “not be seen to promote this sort of thing” and that her book damaged the reputation of the children’s centre.

It’s not a wildly irresponsible to surmise that a number of the parents who demanded Cass E. Ritter’s removal and at least some members of the Kent County Council who fired her have read Fifty Shades of Grey. I do have to wonder if they’d be quite so anxious about the effect this administrator might have on their kids, if Ritter had been E.L. James. Sorry to seem jaded, but I notice that people are much less worried their children’s minds will be poisoned by millionaires. Similarly, why is it that the consumers of erotic or pornographic works aren’t considered destabilizing but their creators are?

But more haunting still is the unwritten, unexpressed accusation that lurks beneath a lot of these firings. What risk do people really believe these women pose. Words like inappropriate and reputation are bandied about, but strip the rhetoric away, and what it comes down to is that these women are losing their jobs because of a vague unspoken fear that they would, in some way, sexualize children.

It is not the content of the written work that is suspect. It is the mind of the person who writes it.

No one actually accuses anyone of anything. Because this allows the accusers to infer risk, rather than having to prove wrongdoing.  In Western democracies, the accused have a right to hear the precise charges leveled against them, defend themselves against them, demand that those charges be proved.

But if we stick to vague, undefined mutterings about inappropriateness, any amount of injustice can be done. How many gay men and lesbians through the years have lost their jobs based on the baseless but oft-perpetuated fallacy that being homosexual immediately implied you were also a pedophile?

Looking back on the great censorship cases of the 20th Century, I am reminded why, for all its draconian influence, state censorship is preferable to economic persecution.

In the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the 1958 trial on charges of public obscenity didn’t see D.H. Lawrence, the writer, in the dock, but Penguin, the publisher. The charge wasn’t that the writer was dangerous or unfit for society, but that the book was obscene and should not be published. When the state censors in a modern democracy, the writer, the publisher and the reading public have some legal recourse.

Similarly, in the US, it was Grove Publishers who were charged and defended obscenity charges over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Tropic of Cancer, and Naked Lunch. They notably won each case. But it is important to note that IT WAS THE TEXTS that were considered dangerous and drew down legal censorship, NOT THE AUTHORS. Moreover, even had it been the authors, a formal charge allows for the accusers to have to prove wrongdoing, prove risk, etc.

I suspect, at least in the West, that the supremacy of the marketplace, and fast-eroding protections for employees will mean that the persecution of writers will increase as it becomes clear that there are no mechanisms to stop it, save expensive civil trials that most erotica writers could never afford to conduct.

There are worthy efforts to highlight and ridicule the banning of certain books from schools and libraries, and I’m delighted to see this. But there is no movement to protect women who are economically punished for writing about sex.  We’re not in a good place, as women, as creatives, as workers or as eroticists. And if you think that writing under a pen name will keep you safe, think again. It only takes one bitter intimate to ruin your career.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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