In the past month, the subject of how to discuss what we write has come up an uncanny number of times, from diverse quarters. I have a friend who writes erotic fiction, but never admits to it, because his wife doesn’t like it. Another fellow writer says that he is uncomfortable about admitting what he writes, because he has children and (this must be an American thing) worries that people will somehow feels he’s an unreliable father if he writes erotica. I know many erotica writers who use a pen name because they fear an admission of what they write will imperil their careers.
When people, in everyday sorts of interchanges, ask me what I do, I say I teach and I write. They’re never all that interested in what I teach; they ask me what I write, and I tell them. Since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the next inevitable question is: oh, so you write stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey? No, not really, I say.
Their reaction – the knowing smirk, the sly wink and, occasionally, some far too TMI confession – constantly reminds me that what we do is still considered deviant and transgressive.
In the world of academia, it’s even more interesting. As a graduate student, you spend a considerable amount of time going to seminars, interacting with other graduate students, and the question of your research comes up all the time. In the last 2 months, I have had to sit in a group and fess up to exactly what I write and what I’m researching over and over. From time to time, I will encounter a genuinely thoughtful response: wow, what a compelling area of study! Good luck with it!
But more often than not, after the initial, very studied attempt to appear unfazed, I am met with the same ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ follow-up that I receive from non-academics. Frankly, it depresses me. I suspect, being an intellectual snob, I expected something more intelligent from my colleagues.
Eroticism is a dangerous subject; so dangerous, in fact, that our society consistently prefers to deal with it at arm’s length by mythologizing it or turning its subjects into caricatures. Either that, or they try to reduce it to anthropological study. Eroticism is not sexuality, although it is often expressed through sexuality. It has more in common with religious ecstasy than it does with procreation. It is so mysterious to us, that we try and explain erotic attraction by aligning it with animal mating displays and successful reproductive strategies in the wild: i.e. men are attracted to red lipstick on women in the same way apes are attracted to females in estrus with inflamed backsides, or, masochists like to be whipped because it produces endorphins that get them high.
Let me put an end to this nonsense: male baboons don’t have fur fetishes and masochists are not drug addicts.
Eroticism is the story of our negotiation between self and other on a very deep, very visceral level. We are born alone, die alone, and yet, in extremely special circumstances, we sense that there is a way to escape the gravity well of our hermetically sealed existences. And very much like ecstatic religious experiences, profound erotic experiences offer us, if only for fleeting moments, that sense of there being something more. This is why, I think, so many of the French theorists, reflecting on eroticism, felt it was existentially connected to death – not death as a negative, but death as the greatest of all transformative experiences. What makes eroticism more interesting, to me, is that you can live to talk about it.
And that’s the challenge for erotic writers. It is easy to describe a sex act, easy to list the attributes of a person you want to fuck, easy to trot out the slang, the jargon, the tropes, the memes we have all come to recognize as signifiers for activities that lead to orgasm or ejaculation. This is the use of cliche in as much as we wave textual imagery in front of our reader that we know will predictably trigger the reader’s arousal: “He pounded into her tight, wet pussy.”
But that is mistaking pleasure for eroticism. Pleasure is part of eroticism, to be sure, but not its entirety.
The erotic experience, at its zenith (which may be at orgasm, or may be at some other point) renders us almost without language. To attempt to approach it, in writing, will never be entirely successful. Authors will often, at the height of an erotic moment, slew sideways into romantic love, as if that will do duty to fill the vacuum of language that the erotic experience leaves us with. I’ve certainly been guilty of this.
I don’t have an answer. But what I have learned is that eroticism is best understood as the journey to a fleeting and liminal state rather than the destination. There is no end-game to eroticism. It is about our yearning, not really our getting. We reach, we think we’ve grasped that elusive prize, only to find out that what we’re holding either is too slippery to keep, or is not the prize we were after.
Like pathos, like nostalgia, like joy, terror or sadness, eroticism is a way-station, not a terminus. However, unlike those other human experiences, our culture has not found ways to explore its depths or heights comfortably or unflinchingly. We turn its subjects into objects and depersonalize them because the spectacle of the real experience is thriling, utterly intimate, and overwhelming.
But our challenge, as writers of the erotic, is to take that on. Not to flinch, not to look away, not to cheat by reducing the acts or the characters we write to caricatures or myths, or take refuge in the more socially acceptable sanctuary of romantic love. And that’s why, unless our culture changes radically, we will always be transgressors in the literary world when we pursue the task of writing the erotic.