Erotica, as a literary genre, has fascinated us at Tranquebar. Last year, we published Electric Feather, a collection of erotic short stories edited by Ruchir Joshi. This year we plan to bring out Slither: Carnal Prose, a series of short stories by Urmilla Deshpande; an anthology of Sri Lankan erotica; as well as a sequel to Electric Feather to be edited by Amit Varma.
Literary erotica has had a long history. While the Kama Sutra is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest and best known examples of the genre, there are several other early treatises worth mentioning, from the Ananga Ranga– an Indian love manual written around 1179 CE, to the Japanese pillow books produced between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries – used by concubines in geisha houses. Even Victorian England, for all its moral rectitude, found its share of explicit writing being published, in the form of a sexual memoir attributed to John Spencer Ashbee, and the magazine, The Pearl. While it may seem as though men have controlled the production of erotica, the Greek poet Sappho stands out as an exception with graphic love poems to a young girl, and Anais Nin with novels such as Delta of Venus and House of Incest.
Writers such as Nin and Sappho are viewed with the highest regard, which brings us to a seminal question: can erotica be distinguished from pornography? The general view is that while erotica has artistic aspirations, pornography is purely of a commercial nature. Jug Suraiya, who is soon to be published by us, agrees when he says, ‘Erotica represents the complex cartography of desire, full of hazard and mystery, inviting endless exploration. Pornography is a dumbed-down diagram leading to a cul-de-sac whose only destination is libidinal claustrophobia.’ Gloria Steinem, in her essay, Erotica vs. Pornography, believes that the distinction lies in the representation of women, and where pornography is seen as objectifying its female characters, erotica liberates them. In her view, ‘Pornography is about dominance. Erotica is about mutuality.’
The area of debate has even found its way into court-houses, with the Canadian Supreme Court wrestling with the fine line between the two terms way back in the 1960’s, when discussing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In deciding whether Lawrence’s book was obscene, the court noted that it had ‘none of the characteristics that are often described in judgments dealing with obscenity– dirt for dirt’s sake, the leer of the sensualist, depravity in the mind of an author with an obsession for dirt, pornography, an appeal to a prurient interest, etc.’ In 1992, the Canadian High Court further emphasized that a work would only be labelled as pornographic if it happened to be ‘degrading and dehumanizing.’
Others however are quick to dismiss such distinctions between art and smut. Andrea Dwokin suggests, ‘ Erotica is simply high-class pornography; better produced, better conceived, better executed, better packaged, designed for a better class of consumer,’ and Walter Matthau avers, ‘ One man’s pornography may be another man’s poetry.’ Russell Smith on his part goes on to say, ‘I have always hoped and believed that pornography would eventually become more literary and literature more pornographic.’
While the debate over the distinction between erotica and pornography continues, another area of contention is what makes for an accomplished piece of ‘fictive sex’. Salon recently ran a contest for good sex writing, and even while declaring the winner – John Hynes, the judges described the aspects what worked for them. Laura Miller says, ‘One of the things literary writing about sex ought to do [is] describe not just the fact of sex, but the way how it happens changes how characters understand who they are. […] One of the ironies of desire is that it’s often more powerful when it’s denied, and in a way this is both fulfillment and languishing in a single act. I love the combination of emotional intensity and physical detail, which are all reasons why it was my first choice.’
However it’s interesting to note that even amongst critics and writers there is little agreement. On the one hand, Walter Kern says, ‘My favorite sex scenes are the blunt, depersonalized, pornographic ones (Bret Easton Ellis is the master here) that allow me to fill in the sensory blanks myself. I almost always prefer something like “He fucked her hard” to a gourmet, gynecological, Updike-ean presentation of the various sights and sounds involved.’ On the other hand, Howard Jacobson believes that it is the discussion of sex that is the intriguing part, not its depiction. ‘The only point in writing a “he puts that in there and she puts this in here” scene is to arouse, and I’m not interested in doing that.’ He goes on to say, ‘To a novelist – to me, anyway – the “about” is more interesting than the thing. Explicitness almost invariably takes you to bathos. The great sex scenes in literature for me don’t show sex at all – Dorothea in Middlemarch, for example, registering the sexual horror of her marriage through her revulsion from Roman art… It isn’t morality that determines this preference in me, but aesthetics.’
Similarly, on the one hand, Russell Smith says : ”Miranda July’s short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is a model of how to write sex in fiction. The sex occurs, as does everything else in her fictive universe, neutrally; that is to say, it occurs without any change of language or tone. It is described in exactly the same way – in her case, a rather detached way – as is every mundane activity.’ On the other hand, Rufus Griscom avers, ‘All the best pieces we’ve published deal with what I refer to as the blush zone. If either the writer or editor loses their ability to blush, then it’s boring and they should get out of the business. Appreciating and teasing out the subtleties and complexities of the writer’s relationship to internalized taboos and their own sense of shame is the beauty of the exercise. If they can simultaneously throw in some humor and some poignant revelations about the human condition then that’s a masterwork. That’s the Holy Grail.’
And still others suggest that references to sex should deleted entirely. Melissa Katsoulis, a literary reviewer for the Times of London, says, ‘Sex is a subject best avoided altogether. If I was writing a novel, I wouldn’t attempt to write it except in the most Victorian and prim way, because it’s awful. It’s a cliché, but the moments of genuine frisson in books are when hardly anything happens.’ It is a view that Auberon Waugh, the founder of the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Awards is accused of holding, for having said that his team hopes ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.’
Over the years, there are writers who have tried compiling a list of guidelines on writing erotica. Utne for instance advices, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Step 1: Never compare a woman’s nipples to: cherries; cherry pits; pencil erasers; Frankenstein’s bolts.’ Jennie Nash, on her part, says somewhat more seriously, ‘Focus on the dialogue. Why? Because it’s pretty easy. No one’s giving a long soliloquy in this situation – or if they are, they’re a very strange duck, which would actually give you a lot of material to work with.’
Perhaps the only point of agreement is this: writing erotica is fraught with difficulty. Russell Smith says part of the challenge lies in the pervasiveness, even everyday-ness of sex: ‘Everyone has sex, just as everyone eats, yet we talk all the time about what we eat. To talk at work about last night’s sex would be like talking about the morning’s bowel movements. So of course it embarrasses novelists as well.’ Others suggest the problem lies in the attempt at verbalizing what is too profound to articulate. Anthony Lane says, ‘One of the great glories of sex is the difficulty of talking about it – no other human activity, not even love, is so resistant to the assaults of language. Talking during it has never been easy, either, especially if you were brought up not to speak with your mouth full, but nothing can quite match the verbal shortfall of erotic anticipation and remembrance; struggling to say what we feel, we plod from the lachrymose to the smutty via the obstetric, and never seem to get any nearer.’
David Amsden suggests that the act of writing is in itself at odds with the act of sex. ‘[Writing and reading are] the least instinctual of activities and therefore less than ideal for expressing our most basic instincts. And then there’s the nature of those who choose to write about sex: Thanks to some Darwinian law, they tend to be of the hyper-curious, exhibitionistic sort that make for good drinking companions, and even better lovers, but not necessarily the subtlest of prose stylists.’
And still others blame the English language and its glaring flaws. As Russell Smith says, ‘English is a difficult language to write sex in. It is hard and Germanic. It sounds either clinical or comical. Or, if you choose to use slang terms for body parts and activities instead of proper terms, it sounds rough and crude.’
Even while these debates rage, Doris Lessing seems to have the final word. She suggests that erotica is not just titillation. ‘The description of what happens in the bedroom, between the sexes with all the power-play between the genders is a vital and valid documentation in literature.’
Which brings us to a list of questions for you:
Would you make a distinction between pornography and erotica?
What do you think works in a piece of erotic writing? What jars?
Would you say that sex is best left out of novels and poems?
Do you like reading erotica? Which was the last piece of erotica you read?
We hope to hear from you.