This research project sets out to explore the possibilities of formulating new sites of eroticism through critical and creative writing. The creative portion of the project consists of a collection of fictional short stories that, if published and offered commercially, would most appropriately be situated in the erotica genre. However, much of the scholarship on this form of writing classifies it as pornography. While it was not my intention to engage in the seemingly never-ending pornography vs. erotica debate, the arguments behind it reveal nuances which are relevant to a Bataillean concept of eroticism—specifically the necessity for transgression and the instability of language. As the volume of easily accessed pornographic material has grown, as it is increasingly accepted as a mainstream topic of discourse, and as it has become a commercially legitimized commodity, its status as a transgressive form of expression needs to be interrogated.
Pornography vs. Erotica
Until fairly recently, our cultural reticence to give sexually explicit material serious consideration has led us to ignore or dismiss glaring differences in medium, genre, content and tone, lumping it all under the single classification of pornography. This leads to a situation in which anything and/or nothing of substance might be said about it.
In their introduction to The Encyclopaedia of Erotic Literature (2003), Gaetan Brulotte and John Phillips note, “when consulting existing reference works and dictionaries on the subject, and the very few specialized histories of the genre, one is struck by the difficulty scholars have encountered in differentiating erotic literature from pornography or from love stories containing sexually explicit passages” (Brulotte & Phillips x). They go on to highlight the difficulties of making distinctions based on ethics and psychology (subjectivity and the presupposing of a sexual norm), sociology (high vs. low culture), gender (male vs. female authorship), and legal (standards of obscenity) viewpoints and find them all lacking.
The everyday use of the term ‘pornography’ or ‘porn’ tends to be fairly precise, referring to explicitly sexual visual media (either still or moving images) made, marketed and used as an aid to achieving sexual arousal. However the academy still persists in referring to all non-medical, explicit representations of sex as pornography. Most scholarship on the subject does not distinguish between different types of sexually explicit content or between visual and textual works. Similarly, there’s little distinction made between documentary, biographical and fictional narratives. This is inadequate for a number of reasons.
First, it ignores the fact that what is produced and commonly called ‘porn’ today might be more properly conceived of as a form of documentation. In the past, still and filmic porn was sometimes theatrically simulated sex acts, embedded in a noticeably contrived fictional narrative; this has not been the case for decades. These are not fictional characters pretending to have sex as a narrative plot point. While there may still be some token attempt at a fictional premise for the sex to occur and there is still a great deal of artifice in porn, it is not entirely fictional. While the participation of professional porn actors and the presence of cameras and a script follow a theatrical model, the result is still the video documentation of real people having real sex. And, while intention to distribute and monetize the resulting documentation transforms the act from one of private experience to a commoditized public performance, it cannot be said to be wholly a work of theatre or fiction. I would argue that fictionality more easily affords the possibility of symbolization and of metaphor that the remediation of real events resists. In erotic fiction, an erotic act can stand for itself as an arousing event and simultaneously function, for the reader, as a metaphor for more general truths lending the eroticism of one to the other.
Secondly, video or photographic documentation of staged sex does not require the viewer to create his or her own mental images in the way text—fiction or non-fiction—does. The textual paradigm forces the reader to actively participate in creative meaning-making. My point, in Lacanian terms, is that there is far less ‘play’ at the point de capiton in a visual representation. Lacan’s own use of diagrams and mathemes supports my argument; it was his concern that his words might be misinterpreted that led him to offer these images and formulae (Bailly 49). I think this is why Žižek uses film as an illustration of how the Lacanian point de capiton functions in relation to ideology (Žižek 153), because, in some sense, seeing is believing, while the abstraction of text—especially expressly fictional text—offers more scope for interpretation, for re-symbolisation, for reader re-formulation.
Thirdly, the blanket use of the term pornography does not take intention, expectation or intended usage into account. While pornography—whether visual or textual—is produced specifically and chiefly as an aid to achieving sexual satisfaction, many of the texts included in the canon of 20th Century erotic fiction clearly have more ambiguous goals. I will address what these might be later in this thesis. Furthermore, the content of most pornography, while marketing itself as transgressive, conforms to widely agreed-upon understandings of what is ‘properly’ sexually arousing, thus perpetuating normative, hegemonic models of the erotic. In contrast, many of the works in the canon of 20th Century erotic fiction propose far more truly transgressive, socially problematic sites of eroticism.
For all these reasons, I do not classify my creative work as pornography. Not because I feel pornography is morally wrong, lacking in artistic skill, or less worthy of intellectual attention, but simply because to call my creative writing porn would be to give false expectations to a reader. The stories I have included in this thesis are entirely fictional. They were not written to be passively consumed, but demand active reader participation and, while parts of them are most decidedly written with the intention of arousing the reader, I am not aiming for the uncomplicated type of erotic arousal that facilitates orgasm. My aim is to make an affective link between eroticism and the human condition. These are works of fiction situated—though not unproblematically—within the erotica genre.
The Erotica Genre
The current term used by writers, publishers and booksellers to describe the genre of written works containing narratives that depend heavily on the erotic experiences of the characters is erotica. In her book Explicit Utopias (2015), Amalia Ziv highlights many of the difficulties of perception and definition, calling attention to oft-cited definitions of the genre that bear little resemblance to contemporary erotic fiction:
Marcus’s characterizations apply best to the classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pornographic novels he had in mind, and they do not fit contemporary women’s or queer erotica as well. While there certainly are contemporary pornographic texts that lean on the genres of fantasy (e.g., Anne Rice’s fairytale porn that is discussed in chapter 2), or science fiction (e.g., some of Pat Califia’s science-fiction porn stories located in a dystopic future), more often contemporary women’s erotica situates its narratives in everyday reality and, as Susie Bright notes, tends to integrate details of daily life and, furthermore, takes account of the limitations and risks that beset the erotic lives of its protagonists (xii). […] However, even such more realistically grounded fiction, and even fiction that explores the more complicated feelings associated with the experience of sexuality, retains the basic wish-fulfilment quality of pornography: sex does take place, even in unlikely circumstances and in the face of obstacles, and is always satisfying (Ziv 9).
Ziv still uses the terms pornography and erotica interchangeably, erasing the distinction between works that feature explicit sex chiefly for the purposes of helping the reader to achieve orgasm, and works that (while perhaps helping a reader to reach orgasm) aim to say something more about the human condition and often use a reader’s arousal as a way to complicate what is being said. I propose that, instead of distinguishing pornography from erotica based on a reader’s response which, as Brulotte and Phillips point out, will always be subjective and based on an individual’s sexual template (Brulotte & Phillips x), it is more helpful to meditate on the quandary that, while the aim of pornography is solely to aid the reader in achieving arousal and orgasm, a traditional story structure requires a credible and compelling conflict. Few people want conflict in their porn.
Looking back at what are commonly considered the canonical texts of erotica in the 20th Century, it’s clear that erotica has not always been ‘utopian’ or escapist literature: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Bataille’s The Story of the Eye, Nabokov’s Lolita, Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Nin’s The Delta of Venus, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Duras’s The Lover, Miller’s Nexus/Sexus all refuse this description of a Utopian escape into wish-fulfilment. All use description and language in a way that may sexually arouse a reader, and yet all complicate that arousal with some form of narrative conflict, lending the vicissitudes of the world an erotic aura and, at the same time, refusing a reader a completely fanstasmatic escape from the Real. What makes them not only erotic but important works in the genre is that they use erotic arousal as a mode of discourse through which to examine the human condition. Michelson describes these sorts of texts as “complex pornography” (Michelson 41).
Like other literary genres, erotica contains a number of sub-genres. The one that most closely resembles pornography is often referred to as ‘stroke fiction’. Stroke fiction is text specifically crafted, like visual porn, to be used as an adjunct to an individual’s sexual fantasy, as an aid to masturbation, or as a tool to heighten a couple’s sexual arousal with an aim to enhancing their sex. Although textual and superficially narrative in structure, it never contains a level of conflict that would classify it as a story in the literary sense. Stroke fiction relies heavily on common sexual memes or clichés, which are anticipated to be familiar to the reader. This use of erotic cliché is, much like the ‘money shot’ in video porn, effective erotic shorthand, functioning as erotic triggers to help the reader achieve arousal as efficiently as possible. This form of writing eschews any ambiguity of erotic imagery with which the reader might engage in metaphorising the story. For this reason, stroke fiction is effective both as a masturbatory aid and a tool for the reinforcement of hegemonic ideology; it works by reigniting what is already normative and standardised, not by inviting reader creativity. Stroke fiction often sets its narrative in a story-world with no context or a context that is so cliché as to be easily ignored. The sexual content is all that matters; everything else is set design. Like porn, by excluding everything but the sex from the story-world, elevating it to an absurd level and delegating the rest of the universe to unimportance, it is implicitly but firmly and safely diminished to the rank of fantasy.
Another sub-genre that conforms to Ziv’s wish-fulfilment criteria is erotic romance. In the past, the romance genre avoided graphic or prolonged descriptions of sex. While sex always featured strongly as an element in romance novels, it was often abstracted or stylised. Acts and body parts were referred to briefly and euphemistically. Romantic love, not sexual desire, serves as the prime motivator for moving the plot forward. Most significantly, romance requires closure; the conventions of the genre demand that all stories conclude with a ‘happily ever after’ (or at least a ‘happily for now’) ending. With the increase in mainstream tolerance for sexual explicitness, romances began to feature more explicit sex, described in more detail and with more realism. Notably, sexual pleasure and compatibility became a legitimate reason for love’s evolution. In the last ten years, this genre-crossover has become so successful that many erotica publishers now only accept works that conform to erotic romance conventions: a strong central love story, explicit and arousing sex scenes, and a happy ending. Erotic works that do not include a ‘happily ever after’ ending are now difficult to place with publishers.
The Poetics of Erotica
In his book Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity (1993), Michelson proposes that “obscenity is not simply a cultural aberration but a complex expression of human imagination, humanistically vital enough to have its own poetics” (39). Like many scholars on the subject, he classifies all sexually explicit texts as pornography, but he identifies three distinct types: hard-core, soft-core and complex pornography. Under this schema, hard-core pornography addresses the human fascination with the “myth of animality” inviting the reader to indulge in the fantasy that, freed from the constraints of the social order, we would indulge our sexual urges with the mindless abandon of animals mating (41). Stroke fiction erotica sits comfortably within this classification. Michelson identifies soft-core pornography as a text that “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” (41). Erotic romance fits neatly into this category.
Although complex pornography may use the conventions of both hard- and soft-core pornography, Michelson notes, 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” (55). Michelson situates complex pornography firmly in the Age of Anxiety, preoccupying itself with “a neurotic interpretation of love” (41), deriving “from that psychic state where consciousness mediates sexual energy” (58).
It is precisely at this nexus that I think the reflective writer and reader of erotic fiction may be found. These complex pornographies, then, might correspond with what Barthes called “writerly texts” (Barthes S/Z 4) and Eco called “open texts” (Eco 50). They don’t constrain or circumvent the meaning-making capacity of the reader. They don’t offer closure but allow space for the reader, writer and text to come together in an agreement that we are all contemplating the same unwritable space. With these kinds of texts, the reader is invited—sometimes compelled—to engage actively as writers, interrogators, examiners of what the gap in the text points towards. Indeed, the reading may feel incomplete unless the reader fills in gaps, elaborates, extrapolates or even provides their own satisfactory ending when the one that is offered doesn’t provide the emotional closure they desire.
There is an opportunity, in the experience of these sorts of writerly, open texts, for a reader to examine and interrogate the desires they have brought to the text. The text becomes one voice in a two-way conversation where the writing and the reader merge, diverge, clash and produce a very private form of discourse about desire.
I try to explore this possibility in my practice as a writer of erotic fiction. Readers come to erotic fiction with a desire to be aroused and yet most readers know that, unlike what is commonly called porn, erotic fiction doesn’t always promise a reader closure in the form of sexual satisfaction. Nevertheless, it is a genre that demands an admission of a frank, libidinal interest on the part of the reader even before the text is engaged with. So, from the outset, the relationship between the reader and the text begins in an somewhat intimate and vulnerable place.
The Jouissance of Words
While most of this thesis focuses on the ideas conveyed in erotic writing, I’d like to focus for a moment on the base currency of erotic writing —words. The erotica genre often uses stark sexual slang. Both culturally conservative and progressive literary critics have criticized it; one side accuses erotic writers of shocking and offending the public morality and the other side accuses us of laziness. We have a curious relationship with obscene words: a significant proportion of the population uses them on a daily basis, and yet we still balk when we hear them spoken by figures in authority. I might say ‘fuck’ all the time, but our Prime Minister can’t say it without scandal. It is perfectly acceptable for a doctor to discuss ‘coitus’ in detail but, if he uses the word ‘fuck’, suddenly his authority as a holder of power-knowledge disappears. This dichotomy suggests a magic at play in obscene language. Slang terms can be erotically exciting not just because of the signifieds they point to, but exactly because they are prohibited or problematic. The use of the word ‘cunt’ can be erotically effective for the very reason that some women find the term so demeaning and offensive: in one single word I have confronted my reader not only with the idea of a vulva viewed in a specifically sexual way, but I have dragged the whole historic spectre of the shame, the fear, the ambivalence that we have loaded onto that sexual organ with it. In a way, the use of sexual obscenity is a kind of cultural parapraxis—leaking not what is sexual, but what is perverse about our attitudes towards the sexual.
While obscene words are often used as short cuts in erotic writing, I would like to propose the idea that they also act as universal markers for open-textedness, serving as a signifiers not just for the act or the body part, but for experience and meaning that is beyond language. Sylvia Lippi elaborates on the Lacanian perspective on why certain words are transgressive beyond the signifieds they gesture towards, but because of the very absence of a material object. I am quoting the passage here in its translated entirety because there is no official English translation of this paper, and Lippi gets to the very core of the matter:
Thanks to their resonance, words become seductive like bodies, they attain a physical beauty. Invested with instinctual value, they become erotic ‘objects.’ In opposition, the ‘prohibition of jouissance’ becomes the ‘jouissance of prohibition’: language as an extreme point, ‘at the limit,’ can become the focal point around which desire and jouissance revolve. There is no material object in the jouissance of words, only a signifier, a signifier that takes the place of the drive’s object. The excitement is produced by the material absence of the object, which nevertheless is there, underlying the signifier, in the infinite meaning of each word. Some signifiers can touch the sexual real, or better yet the tips of the real, the tips of jouissance can enter into the signifier, when this signifier doesn’t have the task of giving, in collaboration with other signifiers in the chain of discourse, (univocal) meaning to a sentence. Delight in words represents, without the subject’s knowledge, delight in the impossible real, but in a way that’s transverse, impure, incomplete. For this reason, the jouissance of words always shows itself to be transgressive (Lippi. Emphasis mine. Translation by Rob MacIsaac).
While the use of sexual slang and bell words may be laziness, repetitive, or apparently meaningless, it may also function effectively as an erotic meta-signifier, a tacit compact between the writer and the reader that what is being referred to is a limit experience known to both but beyond words.