The Critical Dismissal of Erotic Fiction: Fifty Shades of Ambivalence

Yesterday, the Guardian posted this:

Ebooks roundup: Fifty shades of new erotica and roll the dice for a price

Populist titles tick the genre boxes, publishers get creative with eshort tasters and price-setting takes a new twist

It’s not unreasonable to expect, considering the title, that the article’s author would take some time to actually discuss any of the erotica books on offer, but no:

Meanwhile, explicit tales of erotic entanglement are legion as publishers chase the market opened up by the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey, still dominating the bestseller chart. This month sees the launch of Beth Kery’s Because You Are Mine, to be published in eight weekly instalments (Headline, ££1.49 each); Destined to Play by Indigo Bloome (HarperCollins, ££1.99); Marina Anderson’s Haven of Obedience (Hachette Digital, £3.99); Diary of a Submissive by Sophie Morgan (Michael Joseph, £2.99); and three collections of erotic short stories by Tobsha Learner titled, with unashamed camp, Quiver, Yearn and Tremble (Hachette Digital, £2.99). The plots involve – well. Do you really need to know the plots?

I commented on the patronizing and dismissive tone here:

“The plots involve – well. Do you really need to know the plots?”

Yes, I really need to know the plots. That literary critics have felt it so beneath them to critique erotic fiction has certainly contributed to the sad reality that few writers within the erotic fiction genre have developed the sort of storytelling skills of other fiction genres.

If, as Iain Banks eloquently said, the genre of science fiction examines how humans deal with change, then erotic fiction examines how humans deal with desire. Within those parameters, there is a great deal of scope for theme, story, character and conflict.

Every year, the Bad Sex Awards come along and the Guardian posts yet another article on how sad it is that no one writes sex well in novels. Not terribly surprising — when literary luminaries think it so beneath them to actually read any well-written sex, or can be arsed to critically review novels in which the good sex writing appears.

Sexual desire is a fairly universal experience and yet the literary world is still stuck in the grip of Aristotles’ insistence that no rational thought is possible under its sway. If ever there was an unquestioning, uncritical acceptance of dogma, this has to be it. It’s been 90 years since Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written. Could you please get over it?

There are wonderful stories out there about how humans navigate the storm of desire. Presidents court impeachment, the great and good are brought low by it. And the literary world’s response, for the most part, is to tiptoe around the reality of those tempests like parsimonious prigs picking their way down a shit-strewn alley.

When some adventurous writer doesn’t follow that banal path, it’s labeled ‘porn’. Which only goes to show what sheltered little lives most critics live. Because if you did consume any, you’d be able to tell the difference between porn and erotic fiction: no one in their right puts conflict into porn.

This led to an interesting stream of comments. One commenter requested that, instead of taking offense, could someone please recommend some good erotic fiction writers.

Another insisted that erotica was only meant to arouse, and we should stop whining about it.

“… Erotica is what it is. It’s silly to try to justify it in terms of the genres detractors consider more “worthy.” By getting offended by the label of “porn” and insisting that erotica isn’t really about arousal, but all those things that great literary works are “supposed” to be about, you’re essentially agreeing that arousal isn’t a good enough goal on its own. What, exactly, is wrong with porn? Is it too base and obscene for the folks who write “quality” erotica? The message is so mixed it’s making my head spin.” (full comment here)

This was my response:

My point was exactly that – of course you skipped the laundry list and prices. Who wouldn’t?

As to your point that erotic fiction is meant to titillate: no one in their right mind is denying that it is. Just like thrillers are meant to thrill and horror novels are meant to engender a delicious tingle up the spine. Most fiction is designed to elicit reader responses. But that doesn’t mean they can’t offer more breadth of experience for the reader than just that one reaction. And the best writing in genre fiction offers more.

The label porn doesn’t offend me. It’s simply inaccurate. Porn is meant to assist in getting you to an orgasm. It doesn’t have a plot, or characterization or conflict. And it shouldn’t. It’s not a story form.

Erotic fiction is. And any given piece of erotic fiction may not necessarily arouse you personally, because the sex in it may be functioning in other ways. Often, erotic fiction is simply looking at the world through the lens of erotic desire. Not necessarily yours, but that of the characters. Like any good piece of writing, it should make you think.

There is a general belief that any level of arousal precludes critical thought. And with a few exceptions through literary history, critics have dismissed erotic fiction as unworthy of their critical response because it does. The origin of this absolutist reaction lies in Nicomachean Ethics, and has been underscored by a deep ambivalence towards sexuality in Judeo-Christian culture. The erotic fiction has, historically, sought to interrupt this assumption. D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, etc. didn’t just write to arouse, they wrote to arouse and ground that arousal in the social realities of their times.

In truth, we think critically in the face of arousal quite a bit. The world would be a pretty horrific place if we didn’t. Most good erotic fiction writers aim to do more than be fodder for masturbation. If you, as a reader, aren’t seeking any more than that, that’s fine. However, porn is more efficient if that’s your only goal.

As erotic writers, gay, straight, male, female, most of us aim to locate arousal within the larger landscape of the story world. To bring eroticism out of the cold, redlight zone it has been relegated to, and include it as a major force in the lives of our characters.

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