Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

We Deviants. We Happy Deviants

In the past month, the subject of how to discuss what we write has come up an uncanny number of times, from diverse quarters.  I have a friend who writes erotic fiction, but never admits to it, because his wife doesn't like it.  Another fellow writer says that he is uncomfortable about admitting what he writes, because he has children and (this must be an American thing) worries that people will somehow feels he's an unreliable father if he writes erotica. I know many erotica writers who use a pen name because they fear an admission of what they write will imperil their careers.

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.

19 comments:

  1. RG - I've read many insightful posts from you in the past. This one gets to the real heart of erotica. Thank you.

    "It is about our yearning, not really our getting."

    Exactly what I mean when I say that erotica is not about sex, but about desire.

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  2. An amazing post, RG! As an erotic romance writer, I am always backing away to the romantic, to the HEA. But that's always where the story ends, and frankly that's where the magic ends. What goes on beyond that point doesn't really matter.

    At least for me, the journey is the exploration of the place we can't stay, the place we'd probably be too terrified to stay even if we could. For me the question is how close can I get, how much can I take in, how much can I offer my readers before I am compelled to back away. I find that the closer I can walk to the edge, the more powerful the story is and the deeper the connection is to something it feels like we could almost, but not quite hold on to.

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  3. "I suspect, being an intellectual snob, I expected something more intelligent from my colleagues."

    This line stood out to me because of it's frank honesty. It is one of the things I admire most about you. When I read your posts, I know that you have examined your subject from an intellectual, emotional and often times spiritual angle.

    Your way of cutting through the BS, that we writers of kink and fantasy like to insulate ourselves with, is always a breath of fresh air.

    Thank you for continuing to produce things that make me go hmmm.

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  4. It has more in common with religious ecstasy than it does with procreation.

    Yes, I think this hits the nail on the head.

    I liked also your point that pleasure is often part of eroticism, but not always. I've previously thought of pleasure as being part of the erotic equation, and yet that felt a bit reductive too... ok, that's something to come back to when I'm not on the tail end of my lunch break!

    A very good post, lots to muse on.

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  5. Wonderfully honest, as always - eroticism apart from romance is so hard to explain, or justify, to those who are not immersed in it - this is a wonderful place to point all those that need an explanation I have no words (or, to be honest, patience) for.

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  6. Hello KD,

    I am not belittling romance, or taking away from it at all. That is another human experience with its own ineffable challenges to write well.

    It's when we use it to explain or validate eroticism, that's when I think we're shying away from our job.

    Of course, eroticism and love are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but when we represent them as interchangeable... we're missing the mark.

    I heard you read. I don't think you do that at all.

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  7. RG - I want to have an affair with your brain.

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  8. RG,

    I can honestly say I'm genuinely looking forward to the publication of your thesis.

    Another fantastic post.

    Ash

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  9. Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

    Not sure why you would expect a more mature response form academics, but you've nailed the general reaction -- be it from academics, bus drivers or cake decorators. Everyone tries to mitigate their discomfort with a giggle and a half-assed joke.

    *sigh*

    BTW, it's unfazed. Even a dizzying intellect could use a good copy editor.

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  10. RG, ditto what everyone else has said - this is a wonderful post. I'm fairly new at writing erotica and I know I'm still trying to find my way into what is it I'm trying to communicate with my words.

    When you wrote "eroticism is best understood as the journey to a fleeting and liminal state rather than the destination," it occurred to me that is very much what draws me to writing poetry too. And in my poetry I often journey to the erotic, so now I'm wondering what is it that I'm trying to say?

    I think I will be coming back to reread this piece often. Thanks!

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  11. Hello Bob,

    This 'dizzying intellect' needs an editor very badly indeed. And not just a copy editor either. But even that would be good. Thanks. Will correct.

    Hi Erobintica,
    It's funny you should mention poetry, because most of the literary theorists who have dealt with eroticism in any serious way all point to poetry - Bataille, Octavio Paz, Angela Carter, Deleuze, Lorde, Kristeva, etc. - as having had far more success in grasping the erotic essence of the moment than prose.

    I've been trying to find out why this is - possibly because poetry explores the limits of language better than prose and is not burdened with the task of telling a story. But partially, I suspect, because readers of poetry approach it with a less literal mind. It could also be because we engage more actively with poetry,

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  12. I join the chorus--this is an excellent post that articulates so well many of my responses to the way erotica and its writers are treated.

    First of all, interesting that what is called "adult" writing elicits such an adolescent reaction from those same adults. For me erotica reunites the mind and spirit (eros) with the physical part of sexuality, and this is apparently deeply threatening to many. I've also noticed how we scurry for the sanctuary of myth and caricature, as well as "science" and animal behavior. To be taken seriously, writing about sex needs either to focus on the horrible costs (Elmo, Petraeus) or be based on often absurd "scientific" data which inevitably loses the subtleties that are key to the human experience. Erotica can convey those subtleties, the ineffable spirituality, and the challenge to the status quo.

    It is a brave and radical act to treat eros and sex with respect. That's why we all need to keep doing what we're doing!

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  13. The unflinching that you're talking about at the end is really at the core of essentially everything I write erotica or no. It's what I love to read, it's how I love to read and by association how I strive to write.

    This is what I love about exploring eroticism to the point of making myself uncomfortable. Thank you for this.

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  14. This was a very important post, with its analysis of the things we look for but can't always find in erootica. The rections of fellow academics were only to be expected. As a poet, I find that the built-in ambivalence inherent in poetry and its many different interpretations make it a bit like the quantum phonomenon which means that we can measure the position or the velocity of a particle, but never both. There are features of our desire for and response to erotica thgat cannot be grasped but continually slip away.

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  15. "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."

    I agree. Working in a bookstore, I see it all. People think because you read erotica that it somehow makes you less literary than the next guy. Not so. Women (and men, but fewer sad to say) who read erotica are in the store buying and reading more than almost any other genre, except for romance. These women are voracious in their habits and I do my best to steer them toward authors they will love for years to come. The sad part is that most of them feel they have to hide what they read from the world. Thank goodness for the advent of the e-reader. The challenge is getting some of these women who are afraid of technology to embrace the wonder that it is so they can access the market that has so much to offer them.

    In my writing (now one short published in a Coming Together antho), I strive to craft an art that will both arouse the reader but also reach into the death connection you also talked about.

    I read this post and came back to it later to read again. As always, RG, I enjoy your insight and have downloaded some of your erotica. We read what we want to become. I strive to craft character emotions that reach through the page and draw the reader in, and be damned at the people who think it is porn. I know the difference. Erotica is an art about people connecting on that deeper level. (Most of the time. Except with my zombie story. That was a little bit of a different kind of connection story.) I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    All the best,

    Erzabet Bishop

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  16. I have pretty much the same problem when it comes to love..not regular routine romantic love...but transcendatal doomed-from the first tragic love stories i write...some things cannot be put down through language unless you are already preaching to the converts

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  17. I get your point here. This is a totally new perspective in eroticism that I have never actually looked into.

    Awesome.

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  18. Wow, what an excellent post.

    Erotica is definitely a form that can challenge both reader and writer in so many ways. So often, the juvenile responses that people have in discussing it come back to the difference between the sole focus being on the physical response versus the depths of erotic need and expression. The complexities of the total erotic experience.

    I feel many still do not know the difference between erotica and porn. And, probably, most of these simply don't want to.

    To some extent, there is a growing contingent of people who don't see the difference between erotica and erotic romance (and yes, all of these lines blur, but there are distinguishable features to each, as so eloquently expressed in your post.)

    Thank you for bringing so many points on erotica into tight focus. This post is a treasure.

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