Phantom-Erotica by Vanessa Austin Locke

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    Erotica has enjoyed a lusty renaissance over the past twenty-four months. Or so we’re told. Ever since that book turned the world grey with envy (or nausea in these parts) thousands of column inches have been telling us that a new wave in female sexuality has been exposed. Clever marketers have been quick to jump on the trend, branding sex toys grey and claiming that sales have spiked dramatically. Women are embracing submission, not fighting it. Everyone’s flogging everyone else, and we buy Kindles just so nobody can tell that we’re reading the internal witterings of American virgins, or (for true purveyors of fine filth) what our feline friends ought really do with saucers of milk.

    But what is erotica in 2014? What is there left for it to be, when one considers the gaudy, bawdy technicoloured sexual spectrum that most of us have been exposed to since the Internet laid our deviant souls bare?

    Kinetic Erotica

    On closer inspection it seems that what we might call ‘true’ erotica is in rather short supply. Rowan Pelling, former editor of The Erotic Review, had difficulty in finding enough material to compile the new Everyman’s Library of Erotic Stories, because she was looking for that intangible, elusive quality that is far more rare than we’ve been led to believe of late. “I set out to include writing that was specifically erotic, by which I mean literature that had a kinetic effect on body and soul and in some way moves the reader towards a state of arousal, however gentle. It’s easier to widen your brief and include ‘writing about sex’, because then the sex can be good, bad or indifferent… I wanted writing that turned the reader on emotionally and intellectually.”

    So what is all this other material that’s coming out of the shadows post Anna and Christian if it’s not erotica? Is this a simple exercise in semantics? If the kind of erotica Pelling speaks of is so rare, what is it that everyone’s reading at the moment? Could it be that we’re being mis-sold a genre that remains an acquired taste, and are in fact simply looking at a more explicit form of romance? One that affords us the thrills which the over-stretched elasticity of our brains can actually feel? Pelling believes so, “I think the claims for erotica being a hugely booming section of literary sales are overstated. The readers of 50 Shades weren’t lovers of erotica, they were lovers of old-fashioned, gothic romance.”

    While Waterstones agrees with Pelling and hasn’t noticed a particularly impressive rise in sales of erotica aside from a small peak in the summer of 2012, Philip Stone, Editor of The Bookseller contradicts her, “E. L. James reinvigorated an interest in erotic literature and made it mainstream… As such publishers began to acquire or re-publish other pieces of erotica.”

    But can erotica be mainstream? Is the erotica that is being acquired and re-published actually erotica, or is it romance? Certainly the E. L. James doppelgangers are delivering stories modelled on paint-by-numbers fan fiction. But what of the classics that are being re-printed? Is Anaïs Nin’s writing still erotic to our aggressive sexuality in 2014, or is it romantic to our sense of whimsy? Now that we know the history of the woman whose imagination voiced the taboos of her day, we’re free to turn her into the heroine of a bildungsroman oeuvre that we can then, perhaps, model our own on.

    Hijacked

    And this is where the trend (whatever it is) becomes really interesting. Looking for signs of a rise in erotica as a search term via Google Trends it becomes clear that no such dramatic peak exists. There is, however, as Pelling predicts, a peak in romance.

    Stone’s belief that erotica has enjoyed a resurgence, although contradicted, is not wrong either, and is supported by Neilson Bookscan which shows that the erotic market is three times the size it was in 2011. However, if you’re expecting to see a list of erotic greats like A Sport and A Pastime, The Tropic of Cancer, L’Abbé C or Vox you’ll be disappointed.

    It seems that erotica, rather like philosophical anarchy, has been hijacked by a trend and turned into something it’s not. From Stone’s perspective – that of marketing books and tracking the analysis of sales – erotica is booming, “Booksellers began creating ‘erotic bays’ or ‘erotica tables’ in store, when previously erotic novels occupied only a solitary, tiny shelf at the very end of fiction.”

    Yet from Pelling’s perch above the more exclusive world where erotica can, by definition, only be a crafted work of literary genius, erotica has never experienced a resurgence because it’s never had an initial surge. It’s beyond trend, being too rare to form one. What we’re seeing now is simple romance with a hefty dose of sexual content to keep us interested.

    The Confessional

    Into this debate comes a book, which may throw some light on the subject. Emily Dubberley is the founder of Cliterati.co.uk, an online erotic blog, and author of The Garden of Desires: The Evolution of Women’s Sexual Fantasies. The book was written as an homage to Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, and surveys the current sexual fantasies of over 400 women worldwide. Although this collection doesn’t claim to be an academic book, it does make some light observances. Dubberley discovered three strong trends: first that submission was the biggest fantasy group, second that gender fluidity is becoming far more common, and third that we are less kinky than we were in the Seventies. She wonders if that’s because we’ve evolved in our attitudes towards sex. But speaking to her, it becomes apparent that she’s witnessing another trend unfurl, and it’s happening online.

    If we look at the Internet as a worldwide exercise in creative writing and rhetoric with varying agendas, the undeniable influx of self-named erotic blogs begins to take on a far more interesting persona. It’s relatively well understood that at times of economic hardship output of fantasy and romantic entertainment material increases, one presumes as a form of escapism. But it seems that another form of escapism and arguably a result of increasing narcissism, might be public diarising. And since we all know that shock means stock, what better way to gain followers (otherwise known as readers) than by writing ‘erotica.’

    In the egalitarian world of cyberspace anyone can be a writer and everything is a valid form of creative output, but there seem to be more writers of erotic fact/fiction, than there are readers, which begs the question: who’s getting turned on? Could it be that the answer is the author? In which case, it’s doing its job as erotica in a roundabout way. In our new 2D house of worship the confessional is just a click away, and we can all realise our sexuality by committing it to publication, then gaze at ourselves reflected back in it, before seeking absolution and acceptance from others who feel the same. While it may not be traditional erotica one can’t help but imagine that it’s an important part of the process for our always-liberating sexualities. And this time our on-going sexual awakening can be collectively delivered in a place to share, and discover that normality – the great message of Dubberley’s book – simply doesn’t exist.

    Anti-erotica

    Aside from a squabble about what erotica is and what it isn’t writers of all kinds – literary and pulp, electronic and print – have been largely responsible for opening conversations about sexuality and asking us to question our long-held beliefs, fears and prejudices. Since the sexual revolution these writers have increasingly been at liberty in the western world to deal with explicitly sexual themes. Whether those themes disturb or titillate is subject to the reader, and as we’ve seen above, the writer, but what place does traditional erotica have alongside these literary works?

    Speaking to Rupert Thompson about his acclaimed novel The Book of Revelation, it became clear that the classic erotic novel can now be explored in infinitely more interesting ways. The book is a deliberate inversion of one of the favourite erotic tropes popularised by Anne Desclose/Pauline Réage; the kidnapped girl subjected to sexual torture, which she secretly enjoys and eventually finds liberation through. Thompson wondered, “what if it was a man rather than a woman? I couldn’t think of another book like that. 

    There have been a whole host of books in recent years that deal with very uncomfortable sexual content. It can’t be called erotica, yet it deals directly with erotic material. It can’t be called porn, yet it is certainly pornographic in places. It’s highly literary, and while erotica is often written and enjoyed by women, these books of anti-erotica are mostly written by men, and receive a strong reception of their own. An early example of such a work might be Lolita, but more recently books including The Cement Garden and The Death of Bunny Munroe have all tackled the dark side of sex and sexuality in awkward, strip-lit, full frontal nudity.

    If there is work being done in the world of erotica, if there is a surge of any kind, then it is surely by these authors who are forcing us through new territory. Pelling states the blindingly obvious reality when she says, “50 Shades took things back down a much more traditional route.” A route of romance; sex was just the vehicle. There’s nothing progressive to be seen here. Not so for Thompson who recognises that, “Eroticism coincides with innocence.” And all the books mentioned above handle innocence, though not necessarily the innocence of their characters, but rather, the innocence of their readers. He continues, “It’s interesting – but also perhaps predictable – that men seemed far more disturbed by TBoR than women were.” Perhaps men are not used to having themselves written about thus. “I have been in taxis and asked to describe TBoR. Almost without fail, the taxi-driver will say something like ‘Oo-er’ or ‘That sounds like a bit of all right.’ I will then go into detail about what the women actually do to the dancer. The driver invariably falls quiet. The male knee-jerk reaction is predicated on a lack of imagination. Being held in a room by three women is not a fantasy, not if you imagine it fully. It’s a nightmare. Just as it would be if you reversed the roles.”

    Sex and Sex

    William Nicholson was one of those nominated for the latest Bad Sex Award, where he faced joining other venerated writers for crimes against sex scenes. Speaking on Radio 4 he dispensed with the generally assumed jovial sportsmanship that the nomination draws, and spoke honestly about what it felt like to be nominated, and specifically, what it felt like to be nominated as a man.

    He was hurt. He went on to explain that men especially find writing about sex challenging because they don’t tend to talk about it. And it’s true, much explicit sexual writing comes from women, who do talk openly and in detail about it. The myth that it’s just women whose sexuality needs liberating is hideously out of date. But writers like Nicholson and indeed Thompson (also nominated this year, though not for TBoR) are braving some very new and exciting ground, and women desperately want to hear from them. It may not be definable as erotica by Pelling’s or Stone’s definition, but it’s certainly more stimulating than the monochrome produce of a marketing consultant’s wet dream, and more prolific than those rare gems of erotica.

    Rare erotica

    Erotica, defined as a sexual work of art, is no more experiencing a revival than rhaphanidosis (although there are surely sites online to cater to that). It remains a rare and delicate enigma, delivered once, perhaps twice in a generation, by an author in possession of a sixth sensuality. What we do have is a burgeoning population of male authors ready to tackle unchartered sexual and erotic material if they’re not laughed out of the building, an egalitarian online community of female writers and bloggers letting us know that the word ‘normal’ is redundant, and of course, our very own set of floggers – for a romantic evening in.