There are probably a number of outstanding erotica writers out there who have written delicious novels full of BDSM kinkiness wondering why their royalty checks don’t look anything like those of E.L. James. This post is an attempt to explore why that is, and how the Erotic Romance genre is, philosophically and politically, almost the binary opposite of Erotica.
You would think that genres which predominantly focus on the nasty things two or more people get up to in bed would be closely related. Superficially, and commercially, they look very similar, but readers know they are not. Underneath the hood, ideologically, they stand almost in opposition to each other, despite the subject matter they share.
Modern erotic romance novels conform to the mythic structure of a classical comedy described by Northrop Frye. People meet, they become lovers, chaos ensues, but social order is finally restored in the form of a wedding. Although most erotic romances no longer end with a wedding, the ‘Happily Ever After’ convention is maintained through the explicit culmination of the romance in some sort mutually agreed upon serious and long-term emotional commitment to each other. By the end of the story, we are left with a stable ‘family-like’ unit. We go from order to chaos to order.
Even when the pairings in an erotic romance are non-normative, i.e. gay, lesbian, bi or trans romances, they still ultimately pay obeisance to the prevailing cultural dominance of a ‘normative’ relationship structure: two people, together forever. Even when the story revolves around a menage, it either ends with a pair at the end, and the third party neutralized somehow, or an hermetically sealed threesome that, for all intents and purposes, results in a place of domestic order.
No amount of wild, kinky or transgressive sex in the middle can mitigate the final conservative outcome of a neat, socially recognizable and culturally settled bond. The outcome of all these stories is essentially a conservative one. One that supports and perpetuates the prevailing social order.
I cannot recall who said it, but one very famous murder mystery writer once said that her readers were people who had a very passionate love of justice. No matter how gruesome the murders or thrillingly evil the murderer, he or she is inevitably caught and made to answer for the crimes. The convention of the genre demands it. The readers expect it and are left disgruntled and unsatisfied when the implicit promise of the narrative is not delivered.
I would echo this by suggesting that, no matter how explicit, licentious or debauched the sex, erotic romances promise something similar. These two individual characters with their chaotic taste for erotic adventure find each other and this perfect matching up of desires neutralizes whatever destabilizing influences they might have on society. The inevitable pairing at the end guarantees the reader a return to emotional and sexual order. Erotic Romance lovers are essentially ideologically conservative in their appreciation of a restoration of the social order.
But, according to Georges Bataille (the French writer and thinker who spent more time considering eroticism that almost anyone else on the planet) this conservative social order and eroticism are almost mutually exclusive. Eroticism, said Bataille, is a uniquely human phenomenon that results from an excess of sexual energy. (Unlike almost all other animals, humans indulge in sex far more than the continuation of the species demands. Our instinct to have sex might be procreative, but our desire to have it far outstrips the needs of nature.) This excess, this eroticism, is a dangerous and destabilizing force, he said. Which is exactly why all cultures, in one way or another, have attempted to control the effects of this energy and why so many of our religions, taboos and customs are especially focused on matters of sexuality and violence. Foremost amongst the mechanisms used to control these desires is the institution of marriage and the promotion of monogamous, procreative relationships.
Bataille, Lacan, Zizek, Deleuze, and others have made interesting observations on how one of the most effective ways to control humans within society is through work. Work occupies us, distracts us, commits us to the social order. Spouses, mortgages, and 2.3 children turn out to be a very good way to keep us occupied, working to support them. So the myth of the romantic ideal of the permanent single partner whom we lust after in perpetuity and love eternally serves that hegemonic structure well. Perpetuating that myth through erotic romances encourages us to aspire to that myth in reality, make it our loftiest of all goals, and ultimately to internalize and validate that authority and its rules of social order with enthusiasm.
But the reality is that eroticism is a fleeting, liminal human experience. It does not – cannot – last long. And it would not be so attractive or precious to us if it could. Erotic heights are by their nature impermanent, chaotic, and fundamentally transgressive. Our greatest erotic experiences occur right at the edges of the limits imposed not only from without (in the form of prohibitions, taboos and religious interdictions) but more importantly, at our inner limits of the rules of behaviour we have internalized. Erotic ecstasy is the place where we lose ourselves, not just to another, but to the structured world. This, of course, cannot be sustained. Or rather, it can only be sustained in death.
A person who gives themselves permission to enter this state of erotic rebellion is an anathema to the fabric of social order, since none of the rewards that society can offer them have any value in that moment. They are in a state of revolution against the stable, against categorization, against limitation, against even language itself. And this is what lies at the heart of all the best erotica. This essentially transgressive, anarchic, unconstrained state of being.
It took me a fairly long time to fathom why I, as a writer and reader, had such a deep antipathy toward the narrative structure of erotic romance. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I like a good love story? Why can’t my characters end up blissfully happy and together forever? I have come to feel that the underlying text of the story-form of the erotic romance is a type of conservative social propaganda. Not ‘unfeminist’ as some feminists have claimed, but simply reflective and supportive of the status quo as regards all our positions as productive, functioning and controllable members of the current social structure.
I am, at heart, deeply anti-authoritarian. And although in my everyday life, I am a quite a law-abiding, acquiescent citizen, I am not interested in taking that part of my world into my fictional writing.
The eroticism that does interest me lies in the opposite direction: that place of impermanence, transgression, and dangerous erotic experience. Its very instability is what I find so blindingly beautiful, intriguing and exciting.
So it is really not so very surprising that, despite the veneer of transgressiveness, Fifty Shades of Grey has done so much better than well-written, more erotic, more informed pieces of erotic fiction. Because beneath all the surface naughtiness, E.L. James’ ‘global shocker’ strongly reinforces a very stable and conservative social order. And, the truth is, most readers are far more comfortable with that.