Strange things happen when people write in the dark, stranger still when they, without being asked shed light on it. Couple years ago I wrote a blog on Spacebreak Sex, on the curious absence of sex scenes from literary fiction and the overall consensus that maybe that was because we sucked at it. Of course I now hesitate to claim such a thing now that I’ve actually written a couple of them, involving two consenting humans at that, and I wouldn’t have even thought about it enough to write a blog, but recently it came to my attention that somebody was looking for me, with the hope of me writing an erotic story for a collection.
Of course I have no problem with writing about sex (my apologies if you thought this was a PG13 blog). The more whams, bam and slams in fiction the better quite frankly. I don’t see why G. Carbrera Infante and Roberto Bolano should have all the fun; after all they are both quite dead. So no, I have no problem whatsoever with sex in fiction. But I do have a problem with erotica.
Erotica’s purpose cannot help but be dubious: for one, it sets out to spark desire on a mass level; something as fraught with disaster as trying the same seduction on two different people. The idea of one kind of story, or one kind of set up or even one or two kinds of sex that would turn on millions is not only ludicrous, but also kind of creepy. But I’m not one to turn down honest paying work, and besides, this is what pseudonyms are for. And some of that stuff is actually good, well the gay stuff anyway. The straight stuff that I “researched” came across as oddly unsexual, even anti-sex, and they all had a sort of artistic line that was disturbingly similar. It took my awhile to figure out what was wrong with erotic fiction.
None of these writers are having sex.
It’s a curious phenomenon, the virginal ho. The literary smut hound that somehow never comes across as ever having sex. Not satisfied with my suspicion I dug deeper and came upon a site that shall remain nameless. I’ve spent some time in a newsroom so I knew what to do: checked the bio before I read the story. Here was one:
…Bald, old guy writes erotic tales when he's not building his model railway.
I don’t know about you, but that got me hot. A typical paragraph went like this:
"Damn you John, you're being cruel."
"And you're loving it." His hand went to his cock again; he wouldn't have to wait much longer surely.
He bent and kissed her pretty ass, nipped the soft flesh and thought how much he loved this sweet creature.
"Oh no!" she whispered and he heard the trickling sound.
What preceded was a rather disturbing sadomasochistic fantasy, but disturbing only in the sense that it read like the work of someone who had not had sex before. And probably should not since he may cause grievous damage to another human. In another story by a different but male author, the male character, with one hand in the Bangkok whore’s (is there any other?) cunt (his word not mine) and the other in her anus, she still manages to have a pretty lucid discussion about countries of origin, national identity and nostalgia. Worse was the in-between sex narration, where the writer got into quasi-metaphysical mumbo jumbo just to prove to the reader that he’s read wikipedia and was not some hairy palm redneck typing with his free hand.
The thing about erotica for the most part is that for all the action, it betrays very little understanding of female and male bodies. The man’s penis is always hard and dripping pre-cum, the woman’s vagina is always throbbing and dripping whatever, and it’s never a vagina, but a cunt or twat. One becomes nostalgic for a simple pussy. I wonder how these women think, what with their twats throbbing at the mere sight of a male bicep. So we have dicks dripping, twats throbbing, breasts heaving, clitorises undulating (!), lips licking, tongues flicking, cocks straining in their pants. The cock is always super long so that it needs two tongues to lick it and the vagina manages to be super tight yet super deep at the same time. And if the evocative passages are horrible, the evaluative ones, where the writer gets into the character’s mind are much worse. Step into the remains of an exploded orgasm and you slip on lines like these:
“It's all fake, of course. All this. A construction. A replica of love. Play-acting on an exotic stage. A Hollywood movie. And like all movies, we pay our fare, and for a short while we allow ourselves to be subsumed by another reality. In the warm comforting cinematic darkness, we become part of a world more vivid than the one we live in.”
And here I was cussing creative writing students because they’re far too in love with Raymond Carver. For a genre of such transgression, erotica can be frustratingly conservative, or at least lock step. There’s no new territory being opened or any clever retelling of the old. Maybe cleverness is asking too much, but whom, after reading these stories goes on to actual sex? With another person? Consensual? Not only are these writer not fucking, worse, they’re not reading. Susanna Moore’s In The Cut, Nic Kelman’s Girls, Adam Thirwell’s Politics, Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name all manage scenes both hot and brilliant, scenes that could teach these writers what happens when one body touches another. But the tragic flaw of this fiction is what grips all mediocre fiction; a lack of reading, a basic unintelligence about literature that perhaps they felt they had no need for since their thrills were below the belt.
Except that it isn’t. Erotica isn’t actual sex, so it has to seduce the brain first. Instead I kept coming across writing like the kind I sometimes see in workshops, by writers trying to shock or titillate but with no experience of either. Other times it’s the taking on of a transgression that they have neither the intelligence nor daring to handle. This leads more often than not to fiction that’s accidentally disturbing, or at least bothersome enough to make you wonder just where did that last missing child end up.