In his book Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity, Peter Michelson, who like many academics classifies all sexually explicit texts as pornography, identifies three types: hard-core, soft-core and complex pornography (41). Under his schema, hard-core addresses the human fascination with the “myth of animality” inviting the reader to indulge in a fantasy that, freed from the constraints of social order, we would indulge our sexual urges with the mindless abandon of mating animals. Michelson identifies soft-core pornography as texts “titillates its audience with animality, but seeks to socialize that myth by sublimating its physically egocentric energies into a materialistic culture’s analogue of spirit, the myth of sentimentality.” However, although complex pornography may use the conventions of both hard- and soft-core pornography, says Michelson, it differs from both in that it is not “exclusively committed to the myth of animality and its explicit sexual imagery,” nor does it offer the “ethical encouragement to the sentiments of the status quo” but instead “explores the moral recognition that necessarily precedes and informs true ethical perception” and synthesizes “the myths of animality with those of love.” Indeed, Michelson places complex pornography firmly in the Age of Anxiety, preoccupying itself with “a neurotic interpretation of love” (41). More pertinent to this essay, Michelson goes on to say that complex pornography “derives from that psychic state where consciousness mediates sexual energy” (58).
As to how the erotic fiction any writer produces might be classified, I’m not certain it is possible or indeed wise to claim with any certainty to which of Michelson’s type it might pertain. Not only would it depend on the intention of the writer, but depend on her skills in aiming her prose towards the target register. How the reader reads the text – to what purpose any given text may be put to in the moment – has a significant bearing on what category it may fall into. Even the most “hard-core” erotic writing might, by so precisely featuring that myth of animality, be approached by a reader as satire and social criticism. The same holds true for what Michelson calls “soft-core”; if the “socialization” of animality that harbours the “myth of sentimentality” is read critically – if those myths are deconstructed in the reading – it can equally serve as a piece of “complex pornography.” Finally, and conversely, readers of a piece of “complex pornography” may very well find particularly visceral passages and use them out of context, as a piece of “hard-core,” ignoring the elements of the conscious mediation of sexual energy in favour of one paragraph with particularly resonant erotic imagery that works to ensure the happy outcome of a quick masturbatory moment. I suspect there are generations of readers of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Burroughs’s Naked Lunch who own copies with selective page corners folded down for convenience. I am not attempting to argue that a writer of erotic fiction lacks any control in how their work is read, but rather to suggest that Michelson’s schema is an ideal of the way erotic works are encountered by the reader.
Meanwhile, the collective attitudes to works of erotic fiction also have a bearing on how a text is positioned and read. From the prosecution of Penguin Books under the Obscene Publication Bill in 1960 for its publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the ongoing feminist critique of bodice-rippers (Regis 4) to Susan Sontag’s eloquent defense of written pornography as an artistic convention (Sontag 205), erotica, more than any other form of fiction, has had to justify its existence, its artistic and social merits in the public sphere.
With the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey, it has come under sustained criticism for its lack of literary skill (O’Hagan), its faithfulness to hegemonic gender roles (Downing), and its overt celebration and, one might even say, eroticization of consumer culture (Chu). It has also come in for sustained criticism for its misrepresentation of sadomasochistic practices (Dymock, Connolly). In Hard-Core Romance, Eve Illouz addresses the phenomenon of readers using texts like Fifty Shades of Grey and other erotic fiction titles as erotic and/or romantic self-help guides (27) and cultural treatises on the practice of self-realization and identity construction (86).
These criticisms are problematic. Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of fiction, of high erotic and romantic fantasy being used and judged as if it were explicitly didactic. And, although it is, as some fans claim, a celebration of female pleasure, it also seems oblivious to the ways in which it perpetuates repressive, conservative values.
At the same time as Fifty Shades of Grey has been enjoying its success, there has been a rise in the number of erotic works written with unapologetic socio-political agendas: explicitly feminist works that actively resist normative gender roles (Frederick, Antoniou), queer erotic romances that conspicuously employ conservative romantic tropes but populate the narrative with queer characters (Smith), and sex-positive writer-activists whose narratives frame the erotic as entirely unproblematic and without consequence (Bussel).
As an erotic writer, I’m compelled in the psychodynamic and socio-cultural aspects of eroticism. If I have an agenda it is to explore, through fictional narrative, our erotic desires and what informs them and what engines that power them. But I also admit a creative appetite to destabilize what we identify as erotic in contemporary society and to invite the reader to consider that our erotic arousal may not be as natural or innate as we think it is. That far from being the liberation we proclaim it to be, it is more socially proscribed than we care to admit. Moreover, many the tropes we identify erotically transgressive are often centered around nostalgic themes of past prohibitions; thus making them socially ‘safe’. Lacanian psychoanalytic theory offers me, as a creator of erotic narrative a complex framework by which to consider all the elements that constitute eroticism: the subject, fantasy, desire, the drive, jouissance and, most crucially, language. As Ellie Ragland puts it in the preface to The Logic of Sexuation:
“Lacan’s teaching put an end to an era when it was possible to talk about the human subject without reference to the ethos of the language, desire, and jouissance that structure it and, hence, condition all conscious and unconscious perception. In this sense, Lacan’s revolutionary theories in psychoanalysis have immediate relevance for philosophy, linguistics, literary theory, gender theory, and the wider disciplines in the human sciences and humanities” (ix)
Indeed Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Barthe’s formulation of the difference between texts of pleasure and texts of bliss (or jouissance) seem like an almost too obvious, too simplistic ‘fit’ for creative writing in the erotica genre. And yet, the vast majority of erotic fiction available accepts, employs and perpetuates normative erotic signification. There is little recognition or interrogation of the fact that we, as subjects in the Symbolic world, are unconsciously adopting the desire of the Other as our own, including the explicitly erotic desire of the Other. Our world is inundated in pornographic memes that act as ‘erotosignifiers’ – incredibly effective triggers for things we believe we must, as normal erotic beings, desire. But these very erotosignifiers are the ones that most efficiently serve to maintain conformity and reinforce structures of hegemonic control over the erotic via, as Zizek has described it, “the Law’s obscene supplement” (The Parallax View 366). For all our mainstream culture’s disavowal of mindless hedonism, sexual objectification, decontextualization, etc., these disingenuously disavowed, but implicitly employed erotosignifiers serve contemporary power structures in myriad ways. They provide a libidinal valve for the enormous pressure of the socially responsible humans we are enjoined to be. They rationalize our concepts of eroticism, in terms of gender designations and roles, heteronormativity, socially validated forms of sexual expression. Finally, train us to a commoditized understanding of our drives, our identities and our intersubjective relations.
According to Bruce Fink, one of the central jobs of the Lacanian analyst in clinical practice is to get the analysand to become curious about their desires and the structure of their fantasies, to begin to question and critically consider how much of their desire is, in reality, the desire of the Other. (52-53)
Of course, for obvious reasons, the reader-text interaction and the experience of fictional narrative, cannot be and should never be portrayed as a form psychoanalysis. But if narrative fiction, and particularly erotic fiction can enjoin the reader to consider, even in small ways, how their desires are constituted, then I feel this offers me a way to make a positive contribution to the genre.
Antoniou, L. No Other Tribute: Erotic Tales of Women in Submission. Masquerade Books, 1997.
Bussel, R K. Orgasmic: Erotica for Women. Cleis Press, 2013.
Chu, Arthur. “Fifty Shades of Gilded Cages : The Luxury Branding of Domestic Abuse.” The Daily Beast. 2015. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
Connolly, Pamela. “Fifty Shades of Grey Is Bad for Bondage.” The Guardian Online 8 July 2012.
Downing, Lisa. “Safewording! Kinkphobia and Gender Normativity in Fifty Shades of Grey.” Psychology & Sexuality 4.1 (2013): 92–102. Print.
Dymock, Alex. “Flogging Sexual Transgression: Interrogating the Costs of the ‘Fifty Shades Effect.’” Sexualities 16.8 (2013): 880–895. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.
Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.
Frederick, I.G. Love Hurts. Pussycat Press, 2014
Illouz, E. Hard Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.
Michelson, P. Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity. State University of New York Press, 1993. Suny Series, the Margins of Literature.
O’ Hagan, A. “Travelling Southwards. Review of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.” London Review of Books (Online) 34.14 (2012): 29.
Ragland, Ellie. The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan. New York: SUNY Press, 2004. Print.
Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.
Smith, Paisley. Beauty and the Butch. Elora’s Cave Publishing. 2013
Sontag, Susan. “The Pornographic Imagination.” Radical Styles of Will. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. 57. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. Print.