Erotic fiction is often narrated in first person, or third person proximate, attempting to give the reader an experience of the story’s eroticism from inside the mind and the body of the narrator. In this way, it has the capacity to do what image-based pornography (which almost always situates the viewer as voyeur) cannot do; more than simply showing the reader what has occurred, it seeks to inform the reader of how it felt physically and emotionally. Some of the harshest criticism levelled at the genre stems from these attempts to ‘speak’ these experiences which Lacan and others have insisted cannot be spoken (Fink 162).
Erotica, it is said, resorts to ‘purple’ prose, often using cliched poetic devices to communicate the thoroughly mixed up stew of sensation, emotion and signification (O’Hagan). Even though prose featuring other, non-sexual, limit experiences – a fist fight, mourning the dead, triumph over adversity – often resort to similar over-used metaphor, hackneyed, predictable adjectives and adverbs, and threadbare symbolism, the erotica and romance genres seem to come in for special critical humiliation. This is, I think, less a comment on the literary talent of the writers in the genre, but rather a reflection of how even now – in a world inundated with explicit sexual images – written attempts to communicate that ‘unspeakable’ intensity of experience still embarrass us. For all society’s pretence to openness, to tolerance, eroticism – not sex, not the mechanics or the flesh or the bodily fluids, but the inner experience that so taxes our ability to relate it – frightens us.
As Slavoj Zizek has said regarding visual pornography: you can have the explicit sex or a good story, but you can’t have both and, moreover, the very impossibility in communicating eroticism results in pornography’s absurdly codified representations of sex:
“The ultimate proof of this unrepresentability is provided precisely by pornography, which pretends to ‘show everything’; the price it pays for this attempt is the relationship of ‘complementarity’ (in the quantum physics meaning of the term) between the narrative and the sexual act: the congruence between the filmic narrative (the unfolding of the story) and the direct display of the sexual act is structurally impossible: if we choose one, we necessarily lose the other” (Zizek 226).
Some postmodern literary writers, like Martin Amis, Michel Houllebecq, Kathy Acker and Charlotte Roche have studiously opted for hyper-clinical or abstracted representations of sex, cleansed of all poetic imagery or cogent narrative, in an attempt to circumvent this impossibility. But I argue that this accepts and bases its efforts on the conclusion that eroticism has no narrative or meaning or that any meaning or affects ascribed to the erotic experience are constructed falsehoods. This assumes that the meaning ascribed to the written remediation of any experience isn’t subjective and unempirical. While it is undoubtedly true that no text or image – no matter how artfully executed – can ever be a faithful, holistic reproduction of a powerful lived experience, why are we so tolerant of the multiplicity of failed literary attempts to do this so when the experience being related is non-erotic? Why do we have so much disdain for our attempts when it is? And, most importantly, why do those who so absolutely dismiss the possibility of any single, immutable, universal truth, single out of the writing of erotic experiences as especially problematic?
A world full of explicit pornography – that spurns meaning-making or emotion in favour of pure sensation – is indeed far more effective than a puritanical one at preventing us from contemplating our erotic natures or assigning them any lasting or deep value in our lives. We have shifted from considering our eroticism a site of grave transgression to situating it as a fun and meaningless pastime. At least sinners cast a significant shadow on the horizons of our subjecthood. Playful fuck-bunnies are eminently dismissible and disposable, despite their commercial potential; they’re also conveniently interchangeable and replaceable.
I suggest that we must start, as writers of the erotic, from a place of admission: we will fail to truthfully relate all, most or even some aspects of any given erotic narrative that attempts to approach realism, but this is no reason not to make the attempt. And, although we have an obligation to attempt originality and avoid cliche and hyperbole, we also have an obligation to remind our culture that, no matter how uncomfortable to acknowledge it, our erotic desires and experiences play a very central part in the meaning and value we ascribe to our selves and those we interact with. Our erotic urges inform and influence the actions we take and the decisions we make. Attempts to demonise or superficialise narratives of human eroticism both do us a disservice. Both succeed in dissuading us from the contemplation this essential part of our nature with the gravity it deserves.
- Fink, Bruce. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
- O’ Hagan, A. “Travelling Southwards. Review of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.” London Review of Books (Online) 34.14 (2012): 29.
- Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 2008.