Victorian prose

Immersive Proximity and the Luxury of Space: POVs in Erotic Fiction

Justine by de Sade, the first two editions were in 1st person,
the final version in 3rd.

I took a quick poll last night on my twitter stream to find out which point of view was the preferred one for both readers and writers of erotica.  As you might imagine, no one behaved themselves and I didn’t get a definitive answer. 

Now, you’re asking yourself why this question might not pertain to other genres equally. Of course, POV is always significant to the reader’s experience of the narrative.  But there are both historical and cognitive reasons why it is of greater interest to erotica writers than it would be, say, to murder mystery writers. 

Before the 20th Century, much erotic writing was written in first person and often presented to the reader as a candid confessional.  The choice of this voice is significant because it was, in literary terms, the equivalent of the money shot. First person was felt to convey veracity and solicit reader empathy.

Narrative theorists, novel critics, and reading specialists have already singled out a small set of narrative techniques–such as the use of first person narration and the interior representation of characters’ consciousness and emotional states–as devices supporting character identification, contributing to empathetic experiences, opening readers’ minds to others, changing attitudes, and even predisposing readers to altruism” Suzanne Keen writes, leading to narrative empathy. (1)

Certainly confessional memoires like ‘My Secret Life,” by Walter, strove to create the effect of a confidence being shared between ‘men of the world’ about the forbidden landscape of sexual experience.

The firmness of her flesh impressed me, whether I put my finger between the cheeks of her arse or between her thighs I could with difficulty get it away; she could have cracked a nut between either.  (2)

This approach survives to this day, with the same strategy to convey genuineness and confidentiality to the reader in letters to the Penthouse Forum.

She started out by telling me that she loved me, then asked, “Honey, what would you say if I told you that I wanted to have sex with some other guy?”

I was thrilled with the thought, but needing to act like I was maybe too macho for that, I asked, ‘Where did you ever get an idea like that?'”  (3)

But before you start to think that first person erotica just results in downmarket pseudo porn, it’s worth remembering that Henry Miller wrote “The Tropic of Cancer” in first person:

At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. … I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.  (4)

Interestingly, de Sade’s two first versions of Justine were written in first person, but for the final publication, La Nouvelle Justine, he changed it all into third person.  (5)  Considering how long it is, this must have been quite task. It should tell you something about how important he felt the POV was to the way he wanted the story read.

In an interesting meta-strategy, although the stories in Anais Nin’s “Delta of Venus” are in third person, the collection starts off with an intensely first person narrative prologue in which she talks of how the stories came about and how she wrote them, which cleverly assures the reader of the author’s personal erotic investment in the work, while presenting the stories as her own intensely narrative sexual fantasies set at a distance to allow the reader into her lascivious world.

She was a very, very clever writer. She gains the confidence of the reader in the same way that first person narratives do, but her use of the third person POV in the actual stories works an interesting magic. First person erotic narratives work very well when the reader finds it easy to empathize with the narrator.  Walter, de Sade and, I would hazard a guess, Miller, all assumed their readers would be men. Men like them. 

Nin not only set out to write beyond her lived and (perhaps) autobiographical experience, but take the reader into erotic fantasy and position both she  – the writer – and you – the reader – as voyeur. Third person narratives allow the reader enough distance so as not to be put off by the gap between fiction, the fictional characters, the erotic fantasy and the reader’s sense of self.  Moreover, the third person narration makes it possible to present male protagonists without jarring the reader with the reality that the writer is female.

“Now the Baron, like many men, always awakened with a peculiarly sensitive condition of the penis. In fact, he was in a most vulnerable state.”  (6)

Some erotic writers find themselves compelled to tell a story and it presents itself with a voice in which to be told and they remain faithful always to allow the story, in essence, to ‘tell itself.’

However, after I’d been writing a while and I began to get stalled on stories that didn’t seem to slither off my fingertips with the fluidity I had hoped for, I began to take more notice of POV. I realized that sometimes a story wasn’t working because it wasn’t being told by the right character. This is what really prompted me to think deeply about POV.

I realized that sometimes my stories didn’t have the level of conflict I wanted because I had started out writing the story in the POV of the character who was least conflicted. This gave me a more reliable narrator, but a less exciting story.

When I began to venture into writing male protagonists, I stuck to third person for the same reason Nin did. I wanted to acknowledge my unmaleness as a writer, and underscore the fictionality of the story.  But more recently, in stories where I felt I really could truly empathize at a deep level with the male protagonist, I have attempted first person.

It is often said that ‘literary’ works are usually written in third person and, if you take a look at the literary canon, a large portion of them are, but by no means all of them.

I think one of the reasons for the perpetuation of this myth is a legitimate one. Literary fiction attempts to ask the reader to, in a way, be conscious of the writing while reading. It asks the reader to split themselves in two – immersing in the narrative but also always remaining a little distant in order to afford the reader the opportunity to read critically at the same time.

You might think this has no relevance in erotic fiction, but I would argue that there are times when it can be very effective.  Say, for instance, you are writing a story involving a paraphilia or fetish that the vast majority of your prospective readers might not share. You want to tempt them to glimpse in at the eroticism of it, but you don’t want to assume their compliance, from a literary perspective. Third person affords readers the space and distance to intellectually acknowledge the eroticism of something they might not want to do in real life but might be aroused by in fiction. So, if you want to write a watersports story that is not aimed at readers who you know will get off on it instantly, third person is a great way to afford them wiggle room and allow them to indulge in the erotic descriptions of it without feeling like they’re living it personally.

On the other hand, I have at times wanted to intentionally disorient the reader, to prompt that fine line between disgust and lust, and a first person narrative can be much more immediate and immersive for this, forcing them into the world and the scene for narrative effect. In a way, intentionally violating their comfort zone.

Most people who have been writing a long time make POV decisions very consciously. They’re well aware of the pros and cons of each voice.  If you haven’t tried to go against the grain of your instincts yet, give it a try.  Even if, after a few attempts, you decide to return to your favourite POV, at least you will have had the experience of wielding the power that the decision of POV can offer you.


 1. Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative. 14.3 (2006): 207-236. Web. 13 Oct. 2013. <>.

 2. Walter. My Secret Life. 1. Amsterdam: Privately Published, 1888. Web. <>.

 3.  T.P. “A Fucking Good Time.” Penthouse Forum Online. GMCI Internet Operations Inc., 28 Apr 2013. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <>.

 4. Miller, Henry. The Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press, 1961. Print.

 5. “Justine (Sade).” Wikipedia. N.p., 18 Jul 2013. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <>.

6. Nin, Anais. Delta of Venus. OCR. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Web. <>

In Praise of Grammar

By Lisabet Sarai

I recently reread a favorite book from
my youth, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Originally published
in 1868, it is considered to be an early classic of detective
fiction. An unscrupulous British officer stationed in India plucks
the Moonstone, a massive diamond, from the forehead of a Hindu idol
and carries it back to England. Misfortune, reputed to be the effects
of a curse, dogs the man until his death, whereupon the gem becomes a
bequest to his niece upon her eighteenth birthday. On the very night
Rachel receives the stone, however, it disappears from her bedroom.
Broken engagements, assaults, scandal, madness, illness, despair and
death follow, as the mystery becomes increasingly tangled.

The first time I read The Moonstone,
I was caught up in the story. That was long before I began my career
as a writer. During this more recent reading, I found myself at least
as conscious of Collins’ style and craft as I was of the plot.

The novel unfolds in sections narrated
by different individuals, each of whom (according to the framing
conceit of the tale) has been asked to report on the events he or she
personally witnessed relating to the loss of the diamond. Some of
the narrators are major actors in the mystery, while others are
peripheral. Collins does a magnificent job giving each one a
distinctive voice. The various sections not only propel the plot,
reveal clues and cleverly misdirect the reader’s attention, they also
create surprisingly three dimensional images of the characters –
their motivations, prejudices and peculiarities. My pleasure upon
this second reading of the book came as much from appreciating these
unwitting self-portraits as from the gradual unraveling of the
secrets of the stone. And much of the richness of these vignettes
derives from the characters’ differing use of language.

The experience started me thinking
about the wonders of English grammar. Victorian prose tends to be far
more complex grammatically than what you will find in modern novels.
Sentences are longer, with multiple clauses, adverbial modifiers,
rhetorical questions and parenthetical asides. Of course, some
authors of the period produced sentences so pedantic and labored that
they’re painful to read. A more skilled writer (like Collins) uses
these linguistic variations to express nuanced relationships that
would be difficult to communicate with shorter, more direct

Consider the following passage, chosen
more or less at random. The narrator (Franklin Blake) is a young
gentleman, educated in Europe, and hopelessly in love with Rachel.

I might have
answered that I remembered every word of it. But what purpose, at
that moment, would the answer have served?

How could I tell
her that what she had said had astonished me and distressed me, had
suggested to me that she was in a dangerous state of nervous
excitement, had even roused a moment’s doubt in my mind whether the
loss of the jewel was as much a mystery to her as to the rest of us –
but had never once given me so much as a glimpse of the truth?
Without the shadow of a proof to produce in vindication of my
innocence, how could I persuade her that I knew no more than the
veriest stranger could have known of what was really in her thoughts
when she spoke to me on the terrace?

Complex indeed! We have both simple
past (“I remembered”, “I knew”) and past perfect (“had
said”, “had astonished”, “had suggested”). Blake is
describing a past conversation with Rachel, in which they discussed
another conversation that occurred the day after the diamond
disappeared (a time previous to the first conversation). Even more
intricate are the connections between facts and the counter-factual
or hypothetical, both in the simple past (“might have”, “could
I”) and more distant past (“could have known”). The tense
inflections and adverbial modifiers elucidate relationships not only
between different stretches of time but also different degrees of

How many of us could pen a paragraph so
complicated and yet so clear?

As an exercise, I tried to translate
the passage above into simpler, more modern prose.

I could have told
her I remembered every word. But I doubt she would have believed me.

I could have said
that she astonished and distressed me. She had been in a dangerous
state of nervous excitement. I had even wondered whether she really
knew more about the loss of the jewel than the rest of us. But when
we spoke, she hadn’t given me the slightest hint of the truth. Since
I had no proof of my innocence, there was no way I could convince her
that during our conversation on the terrace her accusations were as
much a mystery to me as they would have been to a stranger.

Even this reworking requires the past
and past perfect. There’s no way to get around them, since the
distinction between the first and second conversations is crucial to
the sense of the paragraph. I didn’t manage to completely remove
counter-factual expressions (“could have”,”would have been”),
either. If I had, significant chunks of meaning would have been lost.
As it is, I feel that the translation doesn’t begin to compare with
the original in terms of expressing subtleties of both logic and

Authors today have a tendency to view
grammar as a necessary evil, a set of incomprehensible rules designed
to trip them up as they proceed in telling their story. I look at it
differently. Grammatical structures (and punctuation) exist in order
express linguistic distinctions. As writers, we’re fortunate. English
is capable of communicating a bewildering variety of such
distinctions, in wonderfully precise ways.

By comparison, I’ve been studying a
foreign language where there’s no grammatical difference between
present and past tense, or between singular or plural, a language
without articles or grammatical mechanisms for indicating that
something is contrary to fact. Native speakers manage to understand
one another, but I find the language frustrating in its lack of

I’m sorry to see the changes that are
stripping English of some of its grammatical richness. One rarely encounters the subjunctive anymore, even in written communication.
Semi-colons are practically extinct. Indeed, one of my publisher’s
house style prohibits them, along with parenthetical asides.

Since I began publishing, my own
writing has followed the popular trends. I’ve learned to limit
subordinate clauses to no more than one or two per sentence. I’ve
been trained to avoid long passages in the past perfect and to eschew
adverbs. I won’t say that my writing has necessarily suffered; my
early work definitely tends to be overly prolix. Still, I sometimes
feel like rebelling against the starkness and simplicity of modern

When that happens, I sometimes write
something pseudo-Victorian. Here, for instance, is a passage from
Incognito, ostensibly from a Victorian woman’s secret diary:

I scarcely know
how to begin this account of my adventures and my sins. Indeed, I do
not fully understand why I feel compelled to commit these things to
writing. Clearly, my purpose is not to review and relive these
experiences in the future, for in twenty minutes’ time these
sentences will be invisible even to me. Perhaps in the years ahead, I
will trail my fingers across the empty parchment, coloured like
flesh, and the memories will come alive without the words, coaxed
from the pages by my touch like flames bursting from cold embers.

I have a secret
life, another self, and that secret has become a burden that I clutch
to myself, and yet would be relieved of. So, like the Japanese who
write their deepest desires on slips of rice paper and then burn
them, I write of secret joys and yearnings, and send that writing
into oblivion.

Let me begin
again. My name is Beatrice. The world sees me as poised, prosperous,
respectable, wife of one of Boston’s leading merchants and
industrialists, mother of two sweet children, lady of a fine brick
house on fashionable Mount Vernon Street, with Viennese crystal
chandeliers, Chinese porcelain, French velvet draperies, and Italian
marble fireplaces. I devote myself to the education of my dear Daniel
and Louisa, the management of my household, works of charity,
cultural afternoons. In sum, the many and sundry details of
maintaining oneself in proper society.

Though I have
borne two children, I am still considered beautiful. Indeed, with my
golden locks, fair skin, turquoise eyes and rosy lips, I am often
compared to an angel. How little they know, those who so describe me.
For in truth, I am depraved, wanton, and lecherous, so lost that I do
not even regret my fall.

Ah, the glorious grammar!

Am I the only one out there aroused by
this structural intricacy, as artful and constraining as shibari?

Photo by Dirty Diana

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