Friday, December 7, 2007

Book Bottom II: Pornotopia and its Discontents

Warning: I'm in Theorygirl mode these days, trying to make a whole lot of interesting ideas fit together, which they don't quite yet.

But with Jane Lockwood's "have we lost our way?" post still in mind, and with my brain cells still wonderfully massaged by Katha Pollitt's fabulous wit and smarts, here are some further thoughts about erotica, pornography, and erotic romance.

It's the people who have a problem with porn -- even a simple aesthetic revulsion at the shaved and implanted phoniness of it all -- who are suspect now, and who have to prove their normality by insisting that they "like sex," as if sex were all one thing, like oatmeal. Imagine if you said, Yes I like sex, with the right person, in the right place, in the right mood, preferably after a lovely meal cooked by someone else; otherwise, frankly, I'd rather get on with Daniel Deronda.

That's Pollitt again in Learning to Drive. Is she right? Certainly I do think that there's a certain you-go-girl giddiness in the hype for the romance erotica lines. It's interesting these days how we're nudged in the direction of a kind of tickle-me-Elmo giddiness about sexuality. Doubtless a necessary corrective to many still-current pruderies and hypocrisies, but perhaps not the best inducement to make a book hang together.

Pollitt continues that, "in porn no one takes a night off, no one even rejects one partner for another they like better; they just have them both at once, and the meter reader, too, should he happen to drop by" -- or (I hasten to add) the hunky gardner in the Marquis de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom. Rock critic Richard Goldstein once put it more succinctly. "In porn, everybody wants it. All the time."

Of course, Pollitt doesn't seem to have read much erotica since the very male-oriented porn from the 70s, but it's possible that (mostly)-by-women-(mostly)-for-women erotica from the romance publishers is going in that direction. At least I gather from Jane Lockwood's post that there is some sentiment that it's possible to have too much of a good, friendly, down and dirty thing -- and that what you risk is losing the romance.

I'm not sure. Partly because I haven't read enough dirty books lately. My current w.i.p. has taken a lot of effort: the draft's due Monday and after I hit the SEND key I'll find out what's actually happening in the world outside my study.

For now, tho, I only have my experience, and a word, "pornotopia" -- from Steven Marcus's 60s lit crit book The Other Victorians, which introduced books like The Pearl and My Secret Life to a general readership. I don't remember Marcus's exact definition, but I've kind of adopted the word to mean a kind of alternative fictional world -- sort of another kind of dimension, where the ground rules are different, and sometimes the laws of physics and biology. It's a fun, friendly, sort of prelapsarian world. Even when you impose the power strictures of BDSM, it's got a kind of amplitude. It lends itself to episodic writing and ensemble plots (I like the ensemble aspect, because I often find romance novels awfully thinly populated).

But as to plotting: If you're a Shakespeare, you can get the dizzy wonder of A Midsummer Night's Dream out of it. But if you're not a Shakespeare, it can be hard to fit a plot around what's potentially endlessly episodic.

What's interesting to me is that when I was writing erotica-that-at-that-time-called-itself-pornography, I found that I desperately wanted a plot. And so did my characters.

In the Carrie books, a perverse dynamic began to take over. The bigger and friendlier my orgies got, the more seriously I and my characters began wondering about who really liked who best (or even loved them). Relationships formed just below the surface of the action as characters began asking themselves what they really wanted. I began to imagine little offstage tragedies (what's going to happen to Susan when Andrew realizes she's really into Steve?). I loved giving tiny subplots having happy endings (poor neglected Stefan, happy at last as Mr. Constant's boytoy!). I wrote a sequel, Safe Word to figure out whether Carrie's Story had really been Carrie's story at all, or Jonathan's and Kate's.

Which was one of the ways I drifted toward erotic romance.

About which I'm blogging today, at Michelle Buonfiglio's RomanceBuyTheBlog at LifetimeTV, to cap off Erotic Romance Week there and in honor of the mass-market paperback release of Almost A Gentleman. Please come by and say hi.

And about which I'll also be yacking on a panel with romance academics (whom you can also check out online at the Teach Me Tonight blog) . I'll be chatting with them in person, though, at the Popular Culture Association Conference in San Francisco next March. My contribution (which I hope will be provocative) will be called "From BDSM to Erotic Romance: Observations of a Shy Pornographer." I hope to attend in Theorygirl mode, except that by then I hope to have figured out all this out (partly through posts and discussions here).

And if you want to read more from Safe Word, the clue to my current contest is in the excerpt from that book, posted on my web page. And the prize? An autographed copy of Forbidden Shores, by Jane Lockwood.

Oh and as for my question -- well, do you think there's a difference between male and female-oriented erotic fiction?


Celia May Hart said...

I haven't read male-oriented porn since, well, my reading of Anais Nin who was writing for men. Erica Jong is probably the first female-audience-oriented author I read. She taught me it was okay to use four-letter words in my books, which I now do with abandon.

But I think there's definitely a difference, even with the artistry in Anais Nin's writing, there's no real relationship there beyond what happens in bed. Sade is worse: women are just objects to fuck. (I didn't really like Sade, although "Quills" was a way cool movie.)

In women-oriented porn, smut, erotic romance, whatever you want to call it -- the sex, the turn-on, is hugely important for those days when you just need to find your favorite dirty bit -- but the relationships between the characters in reading the entire book is also way important.

It's like we want our cake (the sex) and eat it too (the relationship). Or maybe I should've assigned those the other way around....

I have further thoughts on this as a result of my booksigning last night which I'll share whenever its my turn next!

Pam Rosenthal said...

There's a theory re Sade that the character he identified with most was Justine (it might have been Simone de Beauvoir who said that). In any case, Juliette is a wicked portrayal of a woman in control.

Jong was way important to me too. I've never read her early novel Fanny (it's a Cleland sendup, I believe), but I'd like to.

It's like we want our cake (the sex) and eat it too (the relationship). Or maybe I should've assigned those the other way around....

Or, as I have a character think in the draft I'm finishing up: One could have one’s passion and… hmm, could one eat it too? No, that wasn’t quite right. Well, in any case one could laugh at it.

Looking forward, bigtime, to what you'll be sharing next, Celia!

Celia May Hart said...

I have Fanny but have not read it yet. It's deeply buried in the TBR pile.