Dirty Words: Dragging Erotic Fiction out of the Brown Paper Bag

Erotic fiction has long since moved on from the days of brown-paper wrapping, although public perception of it still tends to occupy those realms. As a long-time reader and writer of erotica, it still surprises me to come up against what, to me, are outdated and ignorant beliefs about the genre. Tell someone you’re a fan of erotic fiction, or display your Best American Erotica next to your Best Australian Short Stories, and they’re likely to think you’re a raging pervert.
The world of erotic fiction is as varied as the world of sexual fantasy, and for that matter, the world of literature itself. It’s not just about Penthouse letters or Mills and Boon or even dear old Henry Miller anymore. Of course, there’s still a lot of shit out there (one need only browse through one of the innumerable free-sex-story websites out there to attest to that fact), but a lot of writers are making a point of writing fiction that speaks to sex and sexuality in a realistic and positive manner, in ways that don’t require the reader to leave their brain at the door. Literary erotica may be an oxymoron in the minds of many people, but that simply isn’t the case. And why should it be? Why do we have to take one of the fundamental urges and experiences of humanity and decree that it must be written about negatively, or in ways that destine it to be smuggled out of the shop under your jacket? Why can’t sex be celebrated, and writing about sex be celebrated as a good thing? Sure, sex has many facets, but not all erotic fiction is about the superficial or the unequivocally good. Like writers of any other genre, erotic fiction authors strive to represent the breadth of human experience and the manifest ways in which flawed beings interact with each other. And I’m not saying erotic fiction has to be about the best fuck ever where everyone gets off five million times to be good, or even sex-positive. There needs to be plenty of dark mixed in with the light if sex writing wants to be honest with itself, and if it wants to be seen as anything other than wish-fulfillment fluff. For example, one of the greatest pieces of erotic fiction I’ve ever read, Sharon Waschler’s ‘To the Marrow,’ was the sexiest piece of emotional devastation through literature that I’ve ever experienced.
Owing to a number of influences – our culture being based on less than sex-happy religion being a big one – sex has often been explored in terms of its power to harm, destroy or subvert dominant social ideals in a negative way. What has largely been left unexplored are the positive aspects of sex, and its power to subvert dominant sexual ideals in a good and necessary way. Even the classics of erotica often explore the less positive aspects of sex, and while part of that is because any good story needs conflict, another aspect is surely that like any form of fiction, erotica explores and reflects the attitudes of the society that those who are writing it inhabit.
Culturally, we still have very strong ideas about sexual and gender identity and expression, and are unconsciously motivated to strive toward these ideals. We have firm ideas about what is and isn’t sexy, who is or isn’t sexual, and about femininity and masculinity, womanhood and manhood, heterosexuality and homosexuality, even if these ideas have begun to open up in the last few decades.
Krissy Kneen, author of the erotic short story collection Swallow the Sound (Eatbooks 2007), sees erotic fiction as a way to combat mainstream media images of sex, and of who is entitled to be a sexual being. ‘I think the only kind of sex that is up front and accepted is sex between beautiful people in a kind of cinematic fantasy. It is advertising sex. It is daytime TV sex. Real sex is not so clean. Real sex is between ugly people, it is awkward and messy and complicated and makes us make silly noises and stupid faces. That kind of real sex is seen as shocking and people glimpse it and go “eeeww!” We are worlds away from accepting this into the mainstream.’
Sex is often largely absent from mainstream literary writing, unless it’s bad sex. Bad sex can apparently develop a character (or a plot point) and tell the audience something about them in a way that good sex apparently cannot, even if what it’s telling us is that this character has bad sex.
Obviously there are myriad reasons a writer would write about sex, and why they’d choose to write bad sex, and what they believe it can convey about their characters, but bad sex seems to win the day over and over again.
Porn writing has been criticised because, like visual pornography, it has been seen as emotionally and spiritually empty, a shallow and unrealistic representation of sex designed only as wish fulfillment. Erotic fiction has been seen by many writers and readers as a way to counterbalance the emptiness of porn and the sex-negativity of the pervading culture – hence the appropriation of erotic fiction by pioneers such as Susie Bright and Joani Blank as an explicitly feminist act. Erotic fiction published today owes much to the work of writers such as Bright, Blank, and Nancy Friday, who recognised the power of sexual fantasy and were determined to explore it outside of the stigma against sexual expression.
Of course, the lines between porn and erotica are not always clear; my erotic fiction may be your pornography, just as my touching literary masterpiece may be your snorefest. But why are we so shocked when literary authors decide that sex is something worthy of exploration in a positive light? Major erotica anthologies such as Bright’s Best American Erotica, The Mammoth Book of Erotica, and the Best Lesbian Erotica and Best Gay Erotica series regularly contain contributions from literary authors such as Martin Amis, Jane Smiley, Louise Erdlich (find some more). The bodies of work of these major authors are not lessened by their inclusion in an erotica anthology. But when acclaimed Australian author Sonya Hartnett released an erotic novel in 2005 (?), she did so under a pseudonym, and perhaps for good reason: like Nikki Gemmell being the ‘Anonymous’ author behind The Bride Stripped Bare, (a work which proves that just because something’s about sex, it’s not necessarily erotic), Hartnett’s anonymity quickly became one of the worst-kept secrets in Australian publishing, and earned the book a scathing review from Peter Craven, the bulk of which amounted to criticism of Hartnett’s smuttiness and outrage that one of our best literary authors would lower herself to writing about something as base as sex (never mind that Hartnett has frequently explored sexual themes in her books, albeit in perhaps a more traditional way).
Part of why I think erotic fiction is so important is that it has immense power to influence people’s sexuality in a positive way. In a sex negative culture, or in a culture where substantial discussions of sexuality and sexual longing don’t really take place, erotic fiction has the potential to open up a dialogue, even if it’s an internal one, about desire and its place in your life. Krissy Kneen agrees:

Any long-term relationship will go through flat patches where sex becomes repetitive and boring, and then there are those times when you just want to take pleasure by yourself. A little extra stimulation is completely essential and this can be provided though erotica in a more thoughtful way than most internet porn. Literature stimulates your mind in different ways.

Fantasy lies at the core of our sexual beings. It is a facet of sexuality that has the power to be completely honest about our desire. Of course, that makes it sound all very safely anthropological, when the other side of that coin is that fantasies are sexy and fun and about as easy to stop as a well-aimed brick. Fantasy will never require someone to do something distasteful or illegal because, unlike porn films, it is never in the realm of the physical. At the same time, it is a legitimate outlet for sexual fantasy and pleasure.
People fear fantasy without due cause, because they worry that a fantasy will necessarily, at some point, have to become a reality. This is not the case. What gets you off in your own mind is not necessarily going to get you off in reality, or be something that you’d actually want to do. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the fantasy for what it is. Many people have fantasies that are impossible morally, legally, physically or logistically, which does not make them bad fantasies, nor does it make the fantasiser a bad person.
‘I get concerned when people start banning things,’ says Kneen. ‘Literature does not harm people. Literature gives us more possibilities and that can only be a good thing. If something is offensive then don’t read it, but don’t ban it. Limiting ideas can never be a good thing. Sex is such a fundamental part of our existence and people seem to have the strangest relationship to it. Almost everyone does it, but almost no one can talk about it or look at it until it is cleaned up and made more neat.’

Erotic fiction is moving in leaps and bounds (or if you prefer, gasps and moans), even if it’s still something people tend to put under their beds rather than in pride of place on their bookshelves. It is growing as a genre, and will continue to do so as more and more people realise that sex is just as legitimate a topic for writing as any other human experience, and that reading something to feel aroused is no worse than reading something to feel any other emotion.

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