Phase One – Literature, lists and definitions.

I had my first meeting with my primary supervisor last week.  It was a very encouraging one. I went in worried that he would sit down and say: okay, here are all the things that sucked about your proposal that you have to fix. He didn’t say that at all, and yet I know that I have to work on specifics now and narrowing down my focus.

My degree is a PhD by practice. So my aim is to have a 30/70 split: 30,000 words of critical reflection and 70,000 words of creative work.  Part of what scares me, haunts me and presents the biggest challenge is how to really effect an intellectually defensible marriage between the critical and creative work.  I mentioned this fear to my supervisor, and he suggested that these parts don’t have to be physically separate. The critical part could serve as annotation, or illumination, or gloss to the creative portion – or the opposite. Having a background in graphic design, and loving old books, and the semiotics of layout,  I found the idea of this very visually and intellectually stimulating. Something sort of Talmudic.

The Talmud (there are actually two distinct ones) is made up of two parts: the law (the darker columns in the centre) and the discussions on the law (the annotations surrounding the central columns).

I doubt very much that any reader of erotic fiction would want to read all the research, theory and critical reflection surrounding the text, but I think its a wonderful way for me to approach it as a finished work to present as my doctoral thesis. It will keep me making sure that the relationship between the critical and creative parts are strongly related.

So that was my first experience with my supervisor, and I have to say, it made me feel very secure that I could take a creative approach, even visually, to my work.

So, here are my tasks going forward in the next few months:

Build a bibliography on

  • eroticism
  • reader-response criticism

The first part is self-evident. The bibliography on reader-response criticism is essential because this is the lens through which I want to work. Reader-response criticism had its heyday in the 1980s.  It’s since fallen out of favour and been eclipsed by more culturally focused methodologies. If I am going to pursue it, I need to defend why I feel it’s a good approach for my work.

Here are some of the theoretical assumptions about reading inherent in the reader-response critical approach”

Literature is a performative art and each reading is a performance, analogous to playing/singing a musical work, enacting a drama, etc. Literature exists only when it is read; meaning is an event


The literary text possesses no fixed and final meaning or value; there is no one “correct” meaning. Literary meaning and value are “transactional,” “dialogic,” created by the interaction of the reader and the text. According to Louise Rosenblatt, a poem is “what the reader lives through under the guidance of the text.”
(Reader Response Criticism, Barbara A. McManus :

As a writer, I write only for the reader. Reader-response criticism gives primacy to the reader – not the reader as representative member of a sociocultural grouping (of class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, etc), but as an individual having a personal, intimate reading experience. I don’t write for women, or the working class, or straight people. I write one to one, appealing to and playing on the lived experience of the reader to make meaning of the text I provide. Moreover, my position is that writers intentionally use language that either invites or rejects the readers’ attempts to pull their lived experience into erotically explicit texts – and that in the last decade, this holding off of the reader from embodied engagement with the text has become very common. The how is pretty clear to me. The why is much more of a challenge to explain, but I suspect it has to do with not wanting to trigger arousal in the reader, as if that is a cheap trick, an unworthy pursuit, a low-art behaviour in the face of the ubiquity of pornography in mainstream media – as if they were scared to explore the difference or rejected the position that there is any difference.

And this leads me back to the definition of eroticism, and how often it is mistaken for, used as a substitute for the word pornography. Luckily, there is some exceptional writing on how they differ.

My second task is to write a working definition of eroticism that will guide me in investigations.

The third task is to make a list of 6 works of fiction and 6 works of non-fiction that explore eroticism, and summarize them in a few sentences each. Of course, the bibliography part makes this much easier.

Right now, I’m thinking for the fiction, that three books in which I believe the writers purposefully avoid erotically engaging the reader come to mind straight away:

Atomized by Michel Houellebecq
The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson
The Humbling by Philip Roth

I’m going to be working on the other three. I would like to include other titles where the sexually explicit scenes are not heterosexual, but ironically, gay and lesbian literary works seem to embrace the possibility of arousing the reader quite fearlessly. If you have any suggestions, I’d be grateful.

For non-fiction, I’ve got four to be getting on with:

Eroticism by George Bataille
The Politics and Poetics of Transgression by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White
Resisting Nudities : A Study in the Aesthetics of Eroticism by Florence Dee Boodakian
Beyond Romance by M.C. Dillon
and, perhaps Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity by Peter Michelson

So good, so far.  Wish me luck.


7 Thoughts on “Phase One – Literature, lists and definitions.

  1. Luck!
    I found that fascinating!

  2. You must, must, must read Jonathan Kemp’s ’26’! His other book, ‘London Triptych’, is also wonderful. He’s a gay writer. I think he’s saying some deeply important things about sex, sexuality, language and culture, and he does it so beautifully and boldly. 26 is eminently quotable. One of my favourite lines is: ‘If sexuality has a voice it has yet to find it.’

    I hope you like his work. I think you will! (He’s also very handsome.)

    Great to hear you’ve got off to such a positive start!

    • Methinks, though, that if you like him, then it’s probably not the book I’m looking for. I’m looking for the ones that DON’T allow the reader in to the eroticism of the scene. Not the ones that do. But you help me make my case. GBLT literary writing tends to be unafraid to engage the reader erotically – perhaps because as their sex is still considered ‘transgressive’ they can get away with it. Whereas straight writers, writing straight erotic scenes, are too scared of being labelled pornographers and low-brow.

      • Ah, I see. Sorry! Reading too fast in my excitement about your research.

        Interestingly, JK first came to my attention at this event at Sussex: (Do I need to do html?)

        It was billed as a session about the language of sex in fic. And while it was a fab, exciting event, a clear difference in approach developed with, in the gay corner, Kemp being fearless and sexy in his fiction, and in the het corner, Enfield being embarrassed and jokey in her rejection of sex. I found the divide and the perpetuation of the notion straight women aren’t into sex quite grim.

        There was some discussion at the end which touched on this, more an observation than an analysis. I think gay people have had to explore and foreground their sexuality to carve out their identity. Sex is more closely associated w/ gay people and their personal narratives than it is with those belonging to mainstream het culture (remember the Amazon algorithm debacle when all gay books, fic and non-fic, along with erotica, got chucked off the ranking system because gay=sex?) In most bookshops, in the gay and lesbian section, erotic lit is mixed in w/ general fic about/ people. Erotic lit aimed at straight people has its own section – used to be a tiny, embarrassed section till 50 Shades came along. Sex seems more integrated in gay identity than it is in het identity; perhaps ironically, gay sex has become permissible because of prejudice.

        • I saw that event and thought… GOD, what a great panel! I’m jealous you got to attend. I agree with you completely regarding gay sex being permissible because of prejudice.

          Lit crit still sees gay and lesbian sex and eroticism as ‘transgressive’. And so acceptable to write about. While straight sex can be found on the top shelf of the news agents or on PornTube, if you please. We don’t muck about in that sewer.

          Ironically, I’ve come to believe that the mainstreaming of porn has a very conservative underbelly. It is ‘controlled consumption’ sex. Sex presented within the boundaries of the commercially surreal. It’s ‘sex’ you can consume and go back to work, like the good worker bee you are. It’s sexual opium for the masses.

          Eroticism is violent and dangerous and bleeds over into the world. It smears identity and rejects the building of identities through consumer culture. It’s lived in the body and the mind instead of in the world where people can sell you stuff.

  3. Kenneth Clarke’s “The Nude” makes a distinction between “nudity” which is not erotic and “nakedness” which is erotic. At least that’s what the critics say — I’m afraid the arguments went over my head. Might be useful.

  4. Good luck! This sounds so fascinating. And I still can’t stop pondering what the definition – or even just MY definition – of eroticism is.

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