Friday, November 30, 2012
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Monday, November 26, 2012
by Jean Roberta
Years ago, my sister who has a Ph.D. in English, with a specialty in nineteenth-century fiction by women, claimed that referring to sex in a work of literary fiction is acceptable as long as the work is not intended to arouse lust. I was reminded of our mother’s amused response when I asked her (at age four, or thereabouts) why people in stories never go to the bathroom. Mom (who earned a Master’s degree in English during the Second World War) explained that it wouldn’t be appropriate to describe “private parts” in a story, and that I would understand it all better when I was older.
I am now approaching “normal retirement age” (as it is called in the university where I teach English), and I still don’t get it.
Let me revise that statement. I think I get it, but as I often remind my students, it’s never safe to assume. And even first-year university students should be striving to express themselves clearly and thoroughly in written words. A claim that certain subjects have to remain unmentioned – like Voldemort, the villain in the Harry Potter novels -- for reasons that shouldn’t have to be explained just isn’t clear or logical.
By now, my mother has passed away and my sister no longer speaks to me, but the defense of literary standards is still a large part of the business of English departments in universities throughout the world. There seems to be a widespread assumption among the conservatives who hate “porn” that 1) all educated people can recognize this stuff when they see it, that 2) educational standards are declining in the public school system (at least in Canada and the U.S.), that 3) there is a widening gap between the literati and the masses who are kept ignorant so they can be exploited by a corporate-government alliance, and 4) allowing “porn” (sexually-explicit writing) into the Ivory Tower would be the ultimate surrender to the muggles, an admission that literate culture is dead or dying.
At the same time, advocates of sexual freedom and sexually-explicit reading-matter (fiction and instruction manuals) have been invited to speak in reputable universities that pride themselves on being avant-garde. Some post-secondary schools that have creative writing programs offer workshops and courses in erotic writing that are taught by erotic writers who have probably been disowned by their blood relatives.
As a university instructor whose job is to force a captive audience of young adults to write analytical essays, I can cautiously agree with points 2 and 3, outlined above. Every semester, my notorious grammar quiz gets more complaints and a lower class average. Is this because modern society is as decadent as Sodom and Gomorrah (offensive to God Himself), or maybe ancient Rome, and teenagers are now reading about body parts instead of learning the parts of speech? And are these activities mutually exclusive?
The lack of communication between porn-hating conservatives and radical advocates of literature that dares to tell the truth about Voldemort subjects is truly amazing. I’ve seen conservatives and radicals rub shoulders in the halls of the university, greet each other with big smiles, and agree in department meetings that we all really have the same goals.
I don’t think so.
By now, I suspect that all my colleagues in the English Department know what I write, but I never feel a draft of cold air coming from any of them. They have known me for years. I’m a silver-haired grandmother who teaches grammar. I don’t wear stilettos or fishnet stockings to academic social events. When one of my colleagues jokingly (rhetorically) asked in a meeting if writing “porn” could be considered an academic accomplishment (expected of academics who must “publish or perish”), he didn’t seem to be aiming a dig at me. Apparently what I write is thought of as something completely different.
It seems that no one wants to admit that “academic standards” are a bucket that can hold oil and water, elements that don’t mix well.
Five years ago (November 2007), a serious journal, The New Criterion, published an article* on “the grotesque carnival of today’s academy” by Heather MacDonald, who claimed that university education (particularly in the U.S.) has gone further downhill since 1987, when author Alan Bloom thundered about low standards in The Closing of the American Mind.
As evidence that educational standards have descended into hell in the 21st century, MacDonald refers to a book she picked up in the library of the University of California at Irvine: Glamour Girls: Femme/Femme Erotica, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and published by the Haworth Press (now defunct). MacDonald claims that this anthology is “undoubtedly not what California’s taxpayers have in mind when they foot the bill for new university books.” (Did she run a public opinion poll?)
After referring to a story in the anthology which was “as much as I could take,” Macdonald explains: “The jacket blurbs from various erotica writers assert that the collection makes an important contribution to lesbian literature by presenting ‘femme/femme’ (feminine lesbians) couplings instead of the usual ‘butch/femme’ stereotype.” This type of breakthrough is clearly not what MacDonald hoped to find in any book housed in a university library.
Egad. I was one of the erotic writers who wrote a blurb for Glamour Girls, and I still regard it as a literary anthology. I was glad to read a collection of stories that combine hot sex with a feminist challenge to the kind of masculine/butch chauvinism that still seems entrenched in some lesbian communities, not to mention mainstream culture. I can’t imagine a good reason why this book should be thrown from a library window onto a bonfire on behalf of taxpayers anywhere.
Luckily, I haven’t heard of any book-burnings inspired by this article or by any other rant about the spread of “porn” into places where it doesn’t belong. Yet some academics casually refer to sexually-explicit writing as something that no one with talent or intelligence would write, or study, even as they claim to promote the pleasure of reading.
Like other academics, I am very concerned about government cutbacks to universities, especially the one where I teach. It concerns me that young adults graduate from high schools without knowing how to put the feelings and ideas that want to burst out of them into written words. It especially concerns me that too many students say “I’ve never been good at writing,” without adding that they were never taught how to structure a sentence.
Ignorance is such a bad thing that it might just be the root of all evil. So how is it related to sex, or descriptions of sex? I can think of several factors that contribute to low literacy rates, and sexual energy is not one of them.
I hope the English department where I hang out never becomes the site of an ideological war like the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s. If war breaks out, however, I don’t intend to claim there is no important difference between the radicals and the conservatives, or that I don’t believe in “taking sides.”
Sigh. I just hope to have lots of good company on this side of the barricades.
*”Another View: America’s Flaw or Bloom’s?” by Heather Macdonald, in The New Criterion (November 2007, Volume 26), page 24.
Posted by Jean Roberta at 5:26 PM
Saturday, November 24, 2012
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
By Lisabet SaraiComing Together: In Vein. Despite my hatred of all things Microsoft, I've decided that using Word's Track Changes functionality (as all my publishers do) is the most efficient way to communicate my suggested modifications to my authors. Anyway, last week I was working on a submission from a well-known and respected writer and found myself breaking up her sentences: deleting conjunctions, inserting periods, and adding initial caps. My intuition (which I rely on at least as much as more analytical processes when I'm editing) told me her sentences were too long. Paragraph after paragraph, she would string three or four or even five independent clauses together with various conjunctions.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Thursday, November 15, 2012
By: Craig J. Sorensen
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
When people, in everyday sorts of interchanges, ask me what I do, I say I teach and I write. They're never all that interested in what I teach; they ask me what I write, and I tell them. Since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the next inevitable question is: oh, so you write stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey? No, not really, I say.
Their reaction - the knowing smirk, the sly wink and, occasionally, some far too TMI confession - constantly reminds me that what we do is still considered deviant and transgressive.
In the world of academia, it's even more interesting. As a graduate student, you spend a considerable amount of time going to seminars, interacting with other graduate students, and the question of your research comes up all the time. In the last 2 months, I have had to sit in a group and fess up to exactly what I write and what I'm researching over and over. From time to time, I will encounter a genuinely thoughtful response: wow, what a compelling area of study! Good luck with it!
But more often than not, after the initial, very studied attempt to appear unfazed, I am met with the same 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge' follow-up that I receive from non-academics. Frankly, it depresses me. I suspect, being an intellectual snob, I expected something more intelligent from my colleagues.
Eroticism is a dangerous subject; so dangerous, in fact, that our society consistently prefers to deal with it at arm's length by mythologizing it or turning its subjects into caricatures. Either that, or they try to reduce it to anthropological study. Eroticism is not sexuality, although it is often expressed through sexuality. It has more in common with religious ecstasy than it does with procreation. It is so mysterious to us, that we try and explain erotic attraction by aligning it with animal mating displays and successful reproductive strategies in the wild: i.e. men are attracted to red lipstick on women in the same way apes are attracted to females in estrus with inflamed backsides, or, masochists like to be whipped because it produces endorphins that get them high.
Let me put an end to this nonsense: male baboons don't have fur fetishes and masochists are not drug addicts.
Eroticism is the story of our negotiation between self and other on a very deep, very visceral level. We are born alone, die alone, and yet, in extremely special circumstances, we sense that there is a way to escape the gravity well of our hermetically sealed existences. And very much like ecstatic religious experiences, profound erotic experiences offer us, if only for fleeting moments, that sense of there being something more. This is why, I think, so many of the French theorists, reflecting on eroticism, felt it was existentially connected to death - not death as a negative, but death as the greatest of all transformative experiences. What makes eroticism more interesting, to me, is that you can live to talk about it.
And that's the challenge for erotic writers. It is easy to describe a sex act, easy to list the attributes of a person you want to fuck, easy to trot out the slang, the jargon, the tropes, the memes we have all come to recognize as signifiers for activities that lead to orgasm or ejaculation. This is the use of cliche in as much as we wave textual imagery in front of our reader that we know will predictably trigger the reader's arousal: "He pounded into her tight, wet pussy."
But that is mistaking pleasure for eroticism. Pleasure is part of eroticism, to be sure, but not its entirety.
The erotic experience, at its zenith (which may be at orgasm, or may be at some other point) renders us almost without language. To attempt to approach it, in writing, will never be entirely successful. Authors will often, at the height of an erotic moment, slew sideways into romantic love, as if that will do duty to fill the vacuum of language that the erotic experience leaves us with. I've certainly been guilty of this.
I don't have an answer. But what I have learned is that eroticism is best understood as the journey to a fleeting and liminal state rather than the destination. There is no end-game to eroticism. It is about our yearning, not really our getting. We reach, we think we've grasped that elusive prize, only to find out that what we're holding either is too slippery to keep, or is not the prize we were after.
Like pathos, like nostalgia, like joy, terror or sadness, eroticism is a way-station, not a terminus. However, unlike those other human experiences, our culture has not found ways to explore its depths or heights comfortably or unflinchingly. We turn its subjects into objects and depersonalize them because the spectacle of the real experience is thriling, utterly intimate, and overwhelming.
But our challenge, as writers of the erotic, is to take that on. Not to flinch, not to look away, not to cheat by reducing the acts or the characters we write to caricatures or myths, or take refuge in the more socially acceptable sanctuary of romantic love. And that's why, unless our culture changes radically, we will always be transgressors in the literary world when we pursue the task of writing the erotic.
Saturday, November 10, 2012
Tuesday, November 6, 2012