From Sin to Superficiality: Erotic Narratives

naughty_bunny_pornErotic 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.

4 Thoughts on “From Sin to Superficiality: Erotic Narratives

  1. An interesting article. As you so rightly say, it is almost impossible to convey erotic feeling, in a book or article, that transmits to the reader the intensely personal experience during a sexual encounter. Whereas pornography shows, often very graphically, the mechanics of sex, a good writer attempts to get inside the heads of the characters to allow the reader to feel that they are one of the characters involved, especially when writing in the first person. This is something I try, and often fail to do, for it requires a special talent which I don’t believe I have. I look in awe at those writers who can convey these fleeting moments to perfection, and hope that, one day, I will be in their number.

  2. Very thoughtful analysis. Interesting that critics hold the representation of erotic experience to higher (unreachable?) standards than any other emotive and physical experience. It’s almost a Catch-22, isn’t it? Do you think they weigh the same criticism against sexual scenes in a non-erotic work, or an admittedly erotic work that has established itself as more ‘literary’ in nature? I expect we will always find ways to justify praising certain representations as “art” while we condemn others as “porn”.

  3. it will never cease to amaze me how sexuality and eroticism is the only subject under such scrutiny as far as literature is concerned…your post is a wonderful exploration of all sides of this..

  4. on October 26, 2015 at 9:19 pm said:

    When Zizek says “…you can have the explicit sex or a good story, but you can’t have both…” It makes me wonder what he is watching. Zalman King comes very, very close to giving us both in his best video erotic works.

    I believe that what he fails to consider is that the mind is the common denominator of everything, of all five of our senses along with our emotions, thoughts and accumulated memories. After all, what is filmic pornography? It is simply a series of still pictures, when appropriately displayed, connected in your mind, to appear moving. Focusing on just the one sense, the physical, is a mistake because it cannot, or perhaps I should say, it should not be experienced or thought to be experienced in isolation from all the other senses and inputs to the mind. Imagine, if you possibly can, having sex or eating a gourmet meal and having every sense gone except the sense of touch. It would be a very flat experience.
    I see the mind and the senses connected. The senses can send experiences to the mind and the mind can send feelings to the senses. Ask anyone who has phantom pain after a limb removal. If the senses can send pain they can send pleasure. If you have never experienced that then perhaps you have not learned the method of stimulating the mind to send those particular impulses. We naturally fall along a continuum of those that are experienced with our minds stimulating our senses and enjoying the experience and those that are not.

    I believe that the goal of the erotic writer is to ply their craft in a way that stimulates the mind to initiate the connection and activate the senses through a visual input. Just as the orgasm creates input to the mind I am certain that the mind can create an orgasm. With conscious practice I believe that almost everyone can move along the continuum to the place where they can create their own erotic pleasures or they can enjoy an erotic story as a template for their pleasure. Just because a person has not yet learned the process to create the sensations in the senses yet does not mean they won’t enjoy the experience of trying. The erotic author via their stories provides a guide map for those on the path to safely experience all levels and kinds of sexual experiences and find those that stimulate their mind in the most the harmonious way for them personally.

    No matter what society in general thinks, or what we think it thinks, we all know that we are naked under our clothes and that means right now this instant and always. We know too that people have, and hopefully enjoy, sex or there wouldn’t be so damn many of us around. What society needs to get over is the fact, yes it is a fact, that there will always be erotic literature because the writers have a need to write it to please themselves and the readers have a need to read it to please themselves.

    As long as there are humans there will be erotica!

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