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

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.

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1. Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative. 14.3 (2006): 207-236. Web. 13 Oct. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/narrative/v014/14.3keen.html>.

2. Walter. My Secret Life. 1. Amsterdam: Privately Published, 1888. Web. <http://www.horntip.com/html/books_&_MSS/1880s/1888_my_secret_life/vol_01/index.htm>.

3.  T.P. “A Fucking Good Time.” Penthouse Forum Online. GMCI Internet Operations Inc., 28 Apr 2013. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <http://penthouseforum.com/2013/04/a-fuckin-good-time/>.

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. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justine_(Sade)>.

6. Nin, Anais. Delta of Venus. OCR. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Web. <http://optimisinglife.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/nin-anais-delta-of-venus.pdf>

One Thought on “Immersive Proximity and the Luxury of Space: POVs in Erotic Fiction

  1. A very worthwhile read RG. Interestingly, I am exploring right now telling the story by breaking the fourth wall and speaking to my readers/audience directly before writing in the first person and then writing the scene again as a radio script. We’ll see how that goes. Your comments about Anais Nin were poignant to my thought processes there. I’ve just read ‘Crossing to Safety’ by Wallace Stegnar. The story is told by Larry, certainly the least conflicted of the two men (the story is about 2 couples) and that enables him to flesh out the deep conflict of Charity and Sid, a marriage wherein everything had to be done Charity’s way. It’s not an erotic book but he explores the erotic side of their marriage giving some insight into Charity’s disappointment and the way they functioned. I’ve tended to quite naturally, without thinking about it, tell the story from the POV of the most conflicted character. It’s overdue for me to write from the male perspective. Lots of great food for thought in your article. Thank you.

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