April 27, 2008

Defensive "Sex Writer" Responds

Oh, my god. I am nearly speechless. Except, of course. I'm not. (When am I ever actually speechless?) But I find this article so offensive. This is a feature about a new book called "Playing," and in the piece, the journalist describes the writer, saying: Eight months pregnant, Abrams wore a demure wrap dress and thick-knit sweater and donned a soft brown bob, looking nothing like the writer of a bondage-spiked book.

What the fuck is the writer of a bondage-spiked book supposed to look like? Here are some of the writers I know who have at least dabbled in bondage writing: Sommer, Kristina, Shanna, Nikki. Saskia. Which one looks like a writer of a bondage book?

Would this sentence be in the piece if Abrams were the writer of crime fiction? Or romance? Or gardening? Are writers supposed to go out in costume now so that they can sell the genre they write for? I mean, what's implied is that we bondage-spiked book writers always go around in head-to-toe latex. (Except for Sommer, because she'd die from an allergy...we'll have to put her in leather.) Is it the soft brown bob that makes Abrams look "nothing like the writer of a bondage-spiked book"? Or her thick-knit sweater? Or the fact that she's pregnant? Or the demure wrap dress?

I'm flat out puzzled by these statements:

The problems of language may be why the divide between literary sex and erotica is so stark -- beautiful or intellectual language may not be titillating language, and if climax is the goal, even the best writers' words can't compete with an amateur's quivering camera. Sex scenes have foiled many an experienced novelist; one London literary journal even hands out Razzie-type awards for worst-written sex (past winners include Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, posthumously).

All that can make erotica writers sound defensive. "Americans don't like their sex and their art mixed together," said D.L. King, editor of the review site EroticaRevealed.com and a writer of BDSM fiction (it encompasses bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism). "Erotica writers are still treated like the bottom of the barrel."

And so Abrams was worried that, as a first-time novelist, she'd be seen as a "sex writer," with the reader's lone gratification as her primary purpose. She tried to strike a balance, she said, by focusing on Josie's complexities and avoiding pornographic cue words of the four-letter kind, aiming to "give pleasure in a couple ways" -- literary and sensual.

I keep rereading to figure this out. What does it mean "the divide between literary sex and erotica is so stark"? What is the difference between literary sex and erotica? Good erotica is literary. Right? And I feel as if the journalist is trying to head off angry "sex writers" by saying: "All that can make erotica writers sound defensive."

Well, yeah. You've basically just said that erotica can't be beautiful or intellectual. That good writers are easily trumped by amateurs in the world of smut. I don't believe a journalist would make these statements about any other genre. Nobody would claim that Stephen King couldn't compete with an amateur horror writer, or that Sue Grafton couldn't hold her own against a novice crime writer.

This is why "sex writers" get defensive.

Any opinions?
Other than the advice to settle down with a shot of tequila?


P.S. Fabulous fetish art is by Nancy Farmer. The frisky little dollies have their own website!


Kristina Wright said...

I have had long discussions about this in academic circles. I'm still trying to make sense out of the ridiculous idea that writing about sex as a positive experience means you end up being labeled as a "sex writer," but writing about sex as a destructive force means you get the label "literary writer."

My take on it is this: It's not about how graphic the sex is, it's about the end result. Erotic fiction rewards the sexual woman, "literary" fiction punishes her for being sexual. I haven't read Abrams's book, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Something Bad happens to her protagonist for enjoying BDSM. Something Bad must happen to any woman who dares embrace her sexuality in a "literary" novel or story. While an erotic novel might validate the heroine's sexual desires (empowering her), the literary novel punishes the heroine's sexual desires (subjugating her).

I use the term "literary" to refer to that genre which is marketed as highbrow fiction-- not to suggest erotica-- or any other genre-- isn't literary. I also think there are erotic novels which portray sex as destructive yet are still published as "erotica" and that seems to boil down to marketing.

Sorry to ramble on. I'm rather passionate on this topic.

Jeremy Edwards said...

The problems of language may be why the divide between literary sex and erotica is so stark --.

It seems to me that the author of that article is revealing his/her ignorance of the subject matter. What the above statement says to me is that the person who wrote it has never read the kind of erotica that's found in books put together by people like Violet Blue, Susie Bright, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Maxim Jakubowski, and Alison Tyler. Go read anything by somone like Shanna Germain, and then try saying there's a "divide between literary sex and erotica" based on an inability of literary-style language to arouse.

beautiful or intellectual language may not be titillating language, and if climax is the goal, even the best writers' words can't compete with an amateur's quivering camera.

That says everything about the article author and nothing about erotic writing. Why is a person who finds clumsy, amateur sex videos more arousing—by her/his own admission—than the erotic literary feats of the world's best writers assigned the task of assessing the erotic in literature?

I think there is a distinction to be made sometimes between literature in which the erotic effect is central to the author's agenda, and that in which erotic elements are largely or entirely subservient to other artistic goals. That's why one book might be labeled "erotica" and another "fiction" with a lot of sex in it" (not that it always has to be clearly definable as one or the other). But this has nothing to do with quality, or with the power of well-crafted words to convey passion. It's just a matter of what the author's goals are.

Alison Tyler said...

Hey KW and JE,

Ta very much for your insights! And KW, You're not rambling. I totally appreciate when intelligent people can speak on subjects that leave me feeling like a blithering idiot. I just stand there, mouth open, going, "What the fuck? What the fuck?"

I absolutely agree with you on the "Something Bad" part, too. In fact, the novel I'm working on currently is completely based on having both a BDSM relationship and a happily ever after—not winding up in a loony bin like 9 1/2 Weeks.


Smut Girl said...

It all seems to hinge on owning a 'quivering camera'. Where does one get one of those?

You know what I see when I read this?: "Mwahmwah mwah. Mwah mwah mwah..."((this sounds V much like Charlie Brown's teacher)).

All this proves to me is that erotica is one genre where the book is still judged by the cover. And that most people who like to shoot their mouths off in a most authoritative manner have no earthly clue what the fuck they are talking about and have not dipped into the Erotica section at Amazon. They have not read beyond the book they hold in their hot little (uptight) hands and want to label and nutshell the entire genre and all the people who work within.

Which is nothing new. She just needs a sign: SMALL MIND AT WORK.


I tend to ignore people who talk out of their asses. Asses are wonderful things, useful for many fun activities...talking is not one of them.

And thank you v. much for wardrobe change! I love leather almost as I like living and breathing :)

Emerald said...

It was so funny when after the snippet you said, "I keep rereading to figure this out." Before I even got that far, I literally kept going back to that first italicized paragraph thinking, "What the hell is this person talking about?" -- not angrily, but with sincere confusion.

I agree with Jeremy's well put comment about the "beautiful and intellectual language" assertion being indicative of the article writer rather than about erotica. I really don't understand why it seems so mysterious that writing about sex can be just like writing about other subjects -- yes, there may be some writing out there that seems in a literary sense "sub-par" because its end goal is simply to get someone off. That's fine, as it serves a certain purpose some people are looking for. Is sex itself not the same way? It seems to me that the vastness of the realm of sexual experience and possibility inherently means that writing (or other art) on the topic holds similar potential for spanning the artistic spectrum in such proportion -- just like other subjects. So some "sex writing" is just to get someone off. So is some sex. But some sex is so very much more, and getting off is a beautiful and amazing part of it, not just a superficial end product that disregards all else involved. Why would sex writing not be the same way?

I think a lot of this comes down to some of the woeful ways sex tends to be viewed by the cultural mainstream, and that would include orientation toward the "Something Bad" phenomenon that Kristina Wright mentioned and, as she alluded to, a disorientation toward women embracing their sexuality. Sigh...

I'm thankful for all of us who don't disrespect sexuality by judging/oppressing/vilifying it and offer our perspectives as such to others and/or the public. Namaste.


Alison Tyler said...

Of course, if I were to dress as a bondage writer, I'd want one of these. (Truly, I want this anyway.)


Raven said...

The stark divide really is a function of our culture's apparent discomfort with women's sexuality. I wrote a paper in college on women's sexuality in literature just as I was discovering well written erotica at Sisterhood Books in LA - and I concluded (wrongly, it turns out) that a shift in this dynamic was beginning, one in which women's sexuality would be appreciated, embraced rather than serving as the cause of the Something Bad to which Kristina refers.

It was fun, however, to read as much smut as I could get my hands on and call it research.

Incidentally, having been 8 months pregnant during last year's Folsom Fringe, someone should point out to the author how bloody difficult it is to find anything sexy, let alone BDSM gear for the pregnant woman in either maternity stores or BDSM oriented retailers. So from a practical perspective, I have to wonder just what in the fuck she was supposed to wear. My favorite pict from this pregnancy was of a gorgeous rope harness a friend did that framed my belly and breasts perfectly; it was a way of feeling sexy I will always treasure.


Alison Tyler said...

Sisterhood Bookstore! Oh, my god. On Westwood Blvd., right? A few books from Wilshire? I worked upstairs on a newspaper...

Okay, but back to being defensive. I think that the journalist really meant that it was shocking to find someone pregnant who wrote about sex.

Cause god forbid people who have sex should get pregnant, or soon-to-be mothers should like to write about sex, or kinky people should procreate, or writers should do what they write about, or *not* do what they write about.

But maybe it was the "soft brown bob" that seemed so out of place.


Raven said...

Okay, but back to being defensive. I think that the journalist really meant that it was shocking to find someone pregnant who wrote about sex.

Oh I believe that as well. I'm just feeling snarky and would hate for the author to think there was only one pregnant woman who still liked to think about/write about/have kinky sex. On the other hand, there were a few suprised looks at Fringe, so I don't believe the bias is unidirectional.


p.s. Alison - I just knew you would know Sisterhood!

Alison Tyler said...

Alison - I just knew you would know Sisterhood!

You notice how I didn't say whether the bookstore was North or South of Wilshire—because I'm god-awful with directions. I can tell which way the beach is, and I know that you walk down from UCLA, across Wilshire, to find Sisterhood. Hmmm. That makes it south of Wilshire, right? Fuck. I have no metal in my head. Spin me around three times, and I can't tell you where I live.

Will you take me home?


Raven said...

Can I spin you around after we get there?

I've been trying to remember the way to Sisterhood; the memories are a bit hazier than I'd like. I remember the doorway was at an odd angle, it seemed, more tan once inside I misstepped toward the back where there was a level change (unless I'm now combining indie bookstores in my mind), and it had a scent all its own.

I suppose, though, one would merely need to look up the address of the blasted Borders that went in across the street, sounding the death knell with the first pieces of steel that went up.

Thanks for letting me hijack this thread for a few; Sisterhood Books and my own awakening during those years is very much a part of who I am and why I write porn.


jothemama said...

I'm too brain dead to enter into this conversation but it's very interesting. But didn't Shanna jsut talk about how people don't think she's dirty because she looks so sweet? Isn't it the same with the bob and hte femninine, non threatening clothes? A wrap dress and a wooly jumper and a bump? You're expressing a diferent sort of persona, one that is sadly not connected with sexuality, when you dress that way. It sounds 'nice.' You're right, Saskia does look like a bondage writer on those terms!

That's the sadness - that a certain kind of femininity and motherhood! are seen as precluding horny dirtiness.

Anyway. You all need to go out and buy some hairbands and pearl earrings... you too, Jeremy.

Dayle A. Dermatis said...

Two comments:

1. One thing we can do is to write polite, well-written letters (like your actual post, Alison, and all of the wonderful responses to it) to the author of the article, explaining our objections and suggesting the author expand his (her?) erotica reading.

2. But that said, all genre fiction regularly gets bashed by the literary crowd. I write romance and SFF as well as erotica (and sometime combine them!) and they're all looked down on. There was a huge outcry when Margaret Atwood denied Oryx and Crake was SF. Romance is constantly pooh-poohed as unimportant fluff. And so on.

But you know what? Literary fiction isn't widely read. Genre fiction is. More people are buying and reading our books, and (kinda scarier thought) we're making more money on our books than some litr'ry writer published by some tiny university press. Romance fiction (which includes a fair amount of erotica), for example, is 26.4% of all books sold.

That and a shot of tequila makes me sleep quite nicely... :-)

Saskia Walker said...

Literary or erotica? Why does it have to be one or the other? Personally I dislike labels, because this is what happens. It's too limiting. This also reminds me of the reasons why I left an academic career. As for judging someone on how they look, (or don’t look,) it was a couple of years ago that I realised judgmental remarks often say more about the person commenting than the subject they are commenting on. When I realised that, those types of commentaries lost a lot of their power over me. Thankfully.

(off to be dirty some more, just cos it’s fun and life is short ;)
(oh and I want one of those too, heh.)

Alana said...

Yuck. No comment. In any regard.

Shaun Putaine said...

I realize that journalists are pressed for time... But, wow, this author should have spent a few minutes on the Google machine before penning this article.

A quick internet search could easily have dispelled the Author's preconceived notions about both what erotica is and what a BDSMer or writer apparently should look like.

I think it speaks to our societies repressed views of sex and sex writing. Things are getting better, but slowly. I'm sure the Author would be shocked to know that there's probably someone in the office, perhaps in the next cubicle, who is a kinkster and that someone probably looks pretty 'normal'.

Well, I'm off to don my leather harness and chaps, time to go to the grocery store.

Su Tungpo said...

I know at least one literary writer from the UK who wrote an S&M novel under his own name. Anybody familiar with Alasdair Gray? His "Something Leather" from 1990 is S&M/B&D. It also has a literature feel to it. It awas totally ignored when it was released. (I encourge you to read it if your tastes run toward involuntary b&d.) So even when you get a literary writer as opposed to a "genre" writer the mainstream ignores it.it seems to me to be the subject itself.We've all seen enough critics come out to know that there are a lot of them into b&d, but they are afraid to admit it. "Porn is bad. Social science proves thst it leads to serial killers and other deviants. So we have to ignore it."

That's just me. I used to be a low level psychologist, and I've examined the research. There is NO evidence that porn, b&d, etc., lead to anything but good times and enjoyment.