Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, July 13, 2015

This Club

A fellow erotica writer I deeply respect posted a statement of Facebook to the effect that we should stop saying bad things about E.L. James and stop being nasty about the latest Fifty Shades of Grey offering.

Her point, and it is one I have seen made often by many erotica writers, is that this sour grapes stuff doesn't become us. That we should be supportive of each other and celebrate successes when they happen. These are nice people. I'm not saying that sneeringly. I mean it. These are kind, empathetic, nurturing people.

And I disagree with them.

First, I want to say that if the success of Fifty Shades of Grey has improved your book sales, I'm sincerely delighted for you. However, let me point out that it has not been good for erotica as a whole. In the wake of its success many of the notable publishers, agents and anthologers who used to offer a publication pathway for non-romance erotic works have either closed or switched their content focus.

If our genre was derided by literary critics and in the mainstream media before, it is doubly so now. And if, at one point, we could say that this derision stemmed from a hegemonic distaste with explicit written examples of female sexual desire, that is much less the case today. Today, when our culture sneers at erotica, they use the first book that comes to hand to support their criticism that erotica can hardly be considered as having any literary merit at all. And that book is FSOG.  So, although we cannot hold it wholly to blame for the chronic misrepresentation of the quality of our literary efforts, it's not exactly Caesar's Wife either.

But what about solidarity you ask? Why can't we be a more cohesive community? We are writers together trying to do something good that harms no one, that validates and narrativizes our liberation as agential sexual beings, that adds a little spice to people's lives. And if some of us are hell bent on offering five star Michelin dinners while others aim themselves at the fast food market, so what? The important thing is that we support each other, right?

Here's where - if you ever imagined I was a nice person - I will disabuse you of that notion.

My motivation in writing erotic fiction is to produce excellent work within the constraints of a very particular genre. I don't always succeed, but that is the single reason I do it. I want to contribute to a genre I believe has always offered a unique opportunity to examine the human experience at its most raw, its most vulnerable, its most honest. Erotic writing doesn't just tell the story of our erotic experiences but something far more fundamentally structural: how libidinal desire drives us. How that desire expresses itself explicitly and how it is sublimated and re-purposed in a thousand ways, how its gravitational forces curve and skew the trajectories of our lives.

I believe - perhaps fanatically - that society's disdain for our genre is one of the most obvious symptoms of its own pathological ambivalence towards the very truths we write about. And to me, that underscores and reinforces its importance, its ability to give us a greater knowledge of ourselves.

My motivation isn't to dwell in the good company of nice people. I have all the social friends I need. So if keeping your company means remaining uncritical about what I feel is doing immense damage to the genre I love, then I will eschew it. Because if our genre becomes the literary equivalent of just another line of badly prepared, quickly and superficially consumed fast food meals, then we have nothing to be a community around but the nostalgia of a once important writing movement that we have, for the sake of niceness, betrayed.

When we enumerate the writers in the erotica cannon: Bocaccio, Sade, von Masoch, Bataille, de Maupassant, Lawrence, Hall, Nin, Nabokov, Miller, Mishima, Carter, Reage, Acker, just to name a few... none of those writers would have remanined uncritical of FSOG. Not one of them. And we do them no honour by staying mute.

6 comments:

  1. We have such a culture of political correctness around us at this time - as a person, yes, I try to be kind and compassionate. My critique of someone's work isn't personal, and I feel no pressure to 'like' every book I come across, even if I actually do like the author as a person. The emphasis on romance, the strict 'guidelines' of the few publishers who do accept erotic work, the current tastes of the reading public, all have lead me to seek an alternative genre, because my erotic is not their erotic and it never will be. It should be, the intent is to arouse, in the way arousal often occurs in life - surprisingly, unexpectedly, against all odds, outside of our comfort zone

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  2. ...society's disdain for our genre is one of the most obvious symptoms of its own pathological ambivalence towards the very truths we write about. And to me, that underscores and reinforces its importance, its ability to give us a greater knowledge of ourselves.

    You are so right, and, although I'm on record as a more or less "forgiving" reviewer of FSOG, I agree with everything else in your column as well. Initially, I supported James' endeavor because she wrote it as a labor of love. A great deal of the criticism had to do with what the culture made of the novel along with a generous dose of the usual erotophobia and misogyny. But from what I understand of the recent release (which I will never read), this is pure commercial exploitation of the popularity of the novels. The negative Amazon reviews point out that a switch in point of view suggests that new insights into the character are offered. These never materialize. I believe James does have a duty to provide something substantial if she's going to take the money. In exchange for a reader's precious time, a writer owes her a commitment to providing the best work possible--the result of hours and years of thought, planning, dreaming, crafting, living. James--and the publisher and editors in equal part--should be called to account for that. We must also admit that FSOG has harmed rather than helped thoughtful erotica. On the bright side, that leaves us doing what we've always done--taking risks and writing honestly with little hope for fame and riches.

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  3. I've had trouble trying to wrap my mind around the fact that such a poorly-written, unedited series is a top seller. The only thing that has made sense to me involves statistics that claim a large proportion of adults in the US, probably also everywhere else, haven't read a complete book in 6 years. Yes, I'll wait while the idea that you don't even read 1 book a year sinks in to the brains of all of us readers and writers who live and breathe words.

    So if you never read, your only reason for reading FSOG (or the Harry Potter books, for that matter, or anything else "trendy") is to be a part of those "in the know", and not be "out of the loop." You'd have no idea what constitutes a good book, since you never read. And the faults that more literate folks find abhorrent or glaring, never bother you because you don't even notice them. And since you don't read at all, the idea that books can have "naughty bits" is a bit of a thrill for you, so you obligingly go buy the other books as well. But if you try other erotic books that don't have "billionaire" in the title, or feature alpha stalking dom males, and virginal moppets with self-esteem issues, you'll be disappointed because they're "different", and you can't read them as easily because the vocabulary isn't dumbed down or repetitive.

    That theory, ladies and gents, allows me to sleep more easily at night.
    I don't lie awake agonizing over royalties checks that buy me coffee, while a more popular author made over $95 million last year...much.

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  4. "Erotic writing doesn't just tell the story of our erotic experiences but something far more fundamentally structural: how libidinal desire drives us. How that desire expresses itself explicitly and how it is sublimated and re-purposed in a thousand ways, how its gravitational forces curve and skew the trajectories of our lives."

    Beautifully expressed, RG. The best erotica does accomplish this. Most, however--including a good deal of my own work--does not.

    I suspect that neither literary critics nor the erotica-reading public share your views. I believe you're right about the former; they cannot allow themselves to take a literature of sexuality seriously. That would violate too many of their prejudices.

    Most readers, however, choose erotica because they want to feel, not because they want to think. Specifically, they want to feel good--aroused, satisfied, reassured, or like they're getting away with things they'd never attempt in the real world. To these readers, the deeper issues that concern you are close to irrelevant. Indeed, to many of them, craft and linguistic grace matters little if at all.

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    1. Hi Lisabet,

      I think you're spot on about this. I'm not interested in servicing a reader on that level and that is exactly what the bulk of readers of erotica are looking for these days.

      Time for me and this genre to part ways, I think.

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  5. Great post, RG. Great thread, too, and Fiona, I think you've gone further than most in explaining the popularity of FSOG. I teach young adults in mandatory first-year English classes in the local university, and for many of my students, "literature" (fiction, poetry, drama, even creative non-fiction) is a foreign language that they don't want to learn because they're convinced that they will never need it. In some cases, they're even convinced that they don't need basic composition skills either, even though they expect to enter some wildly successful career path. This is the current zeitgeist.

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