Erotica and Her Sisters

June 19th, 2009 by Philip

I’m pasting below a letter I received today from the only genuine writer of erotica I know, who graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program the same semester as her pal, the estimable Susan Lilley. I asked her in my note to help us find the path to real literary erotica and away from Ms. McNaughty. I hit paydirt, as you will see.

Here’s the reply of Ann Rosenquist Fee:

OH PHIL, what timing!! I’m at the Minneapolis airport with a few hours to spare, waiting for a fellow Stonecoast grad to arrive from New York so we can teach, tomorrow at the Loft Literary Center, a one-day workshop called Sex on the Page. The class is a product of our final Stonecoast presentation, in which I presented Ann’s Theory of Erotic Truth (an original blend of theories from French philosopher Georges Bataille and erotica writer/editor Susie Bright), and then my co-presenter, Ellen Neuborne, and I used that as a lens to help students judge what works and what doesn’t in their own and others’ erotic scenes, and then showed how to use that lens to create the most powerful, efficient and relevant erotic scenes possible in service to story. In short, our theory mandates that in order for erotic art to succeed, it needs two things: 1) an element of transgression, either in content or form (and we mean REAL transgression, smart transgression, not purportedly naughty sex, which doesn’t surprise us at all, really — transgression as in a conventional narrative that suddenly becomes a panting list of phrases and fragments when a kiss is described, because such a break in form embodies and shows-versus-tells how the character experiences this moment differently than, say, walking down the street) and 2) a fecundity, a transcendence, a fertility to the scene that both slams the reader into his/her own body and also sends them to an entirely other place, which, in sum, should be more/different than what porn achieves, and always in service to the larger story.

Here ere are some suggestions straight from the outline I’m prepping right now.

Texts that get at the theory…
Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality
Susie Bright, Full Exposure: Opening Up to Sexual Creativity and Erotic Expression
Susie Bright, The Sexual State of the Union
Jean Paulhan’s foreword to Story of O
Diana Widmaier Picasso, Picasso: Art Can Only Be Erotic

Examples of powerful and artful erotic writing…
Best American Erotica collections edited by Susie Bright (especially 2006 with “Talk About Sex: An Orientation” by Jamie Cat Callan)
Any Cleis Press erotica collection edited by Alison Tyler
Judy Blume, Forever
Cris Mazza, “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet” from Normal: Fiction Collective Two (1998)
Anais Nin, House of Incest
Pauline Reage, Story of O
Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles
Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

And here’s the link to the Loft class description…

http://www.facebook.com/l/;http://www.loft.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=product.display&product_id=2166

…in case you decide Rollins or some other entity needs Sex on the Page. Ellen and I are pitching it to conferences around the country – we were thrilled to have the Loft as our first taker.

Hello to superstar Susan, please, and to Paul next time you’re in touch. Writerly vibes to you all…

Ann

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Category: blog, contemporary fiction, portfolio 7 comments
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  1. Mary Ann de Stefano says:

    Way to increase the hits on your site!

    If Ann comes to town, perhaps she'd like to do something for MAD.

  2. Vanessa says:

    LOVE this info! I also want to add a great book suggestion on this topic…"Too Darn Hot: Writing About Sex Since Kinsey" It's an Anthology edited by Judy Bloomfield, Mary McGrail and Lauren Sanders. It even includes Wife-Wooing by John Updike!…All around it's a must read for people struggling to tackle sex in literature, or just bone up on their skills…no pun intended. ;)~

  3. Philip Deaver says:

    Maybe someone could explain to me why not a lot of males get listed as writers of erotica. Is this just another chick thing? Can't men be trusted to write about sex correctly? :-)

  4. Vanessa Gonzales says:

    So Josh and I ended up having an hour long discussion about this last night—good stuff! Here’s a summary:

    I think that a lot of Erotica is being written by women because it’s for women, not men. It’s like that joke “men don’t buy Playboy for the articles”……I say women have an advantage because they know what women want and actually experience during an orgasm, plus they have firsthand experience with the range of emotions during the whole encounter.

    Josh says men are writing about sex, whereas women are writing about the sexual dynamic in the human connection. He thinks men can totally be trusted to write about sex, but it has to be an empathetic male; someone who can see beyond the barriers created by overgeneralizations and misconceptions that leave most men with a distorted view on what women want–so it would have to be the kind of guy that really gets to the core of it and doesn’t just scratch the surface….

    BUT, and here’s an interesting twist—word on the grapevine is that Erotica editors are avoiding women writers because they say women are too good at getting to the ‘core’ of it and readers don’t want that—they want the surface story for a successful form of escapism….Here's the link to a hilarious and interesting article that’s a MUST read (and spin) on this issue….

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article6535949.ece

  5. Ann says:

    What a great conversation! I'm glad some of this is useful.

  6. Philip Deaver says:

    I read, and do recommend, the piece Vanessa G. provided above. I've posted a version of this (present) comment three times here and deleted it because it feels like sawing away on a violin that has no strings. Sex for 22 year old newly wed males and females respectively or adventurers in that age group and for fifty year old still vital men and women (respectively) living single after divorces is not the same in any sense, though all combinations are super compelling in their own respective ways. There is an array of Erotica for men and also for women. When men write Erotica, it's mostly a dance they do to lure women — or let's just say they want women to respond. When women write Erotica, they too want women to respond. They expect men will respond to about anything except perhaps the real sensual art of it, or something. Damn sure, women, in writing Erotica, don't want to tell men what they want. They want men to know intuitively, haha, it's the multiple choice part of the test! Somehow the woman seems to take pleasure in the man guessing wrong. It fulfills her notion of what a bungler he is and why most of the time she can't bear it with him. Literarily, it seems to me that Erotica by men, as interpreted by women, is a little like, per the article Vanessa G. recommended, a man hammering on the clit like it was a button in the elevator (and the woman's lying there thinking, "Forget it, Harold. Take the stairs"). Somehow a male writer going directly to sex (as men might in a literary form called Erotica) fulfills women's lowest expectations and reveals him as yet another bloke who doesn't know what a woman wants ("what a woman wants" is apparently the whole point of Erotica, that ever mysterious thing and nothing else).

    It strikes me that the best sex I've read in literature (confining my considerations right now to that) comes embedded (if you will) in good stories in which the point of the stories was something else and sex was a sudden surprise along the way. There is a novella by John Fowles entitled The Ebony Tower that I read years ago and that replays in my mind a lot when I'm writing. It would never be called Erotica. The story wasn't about sex — it was about some people Fowles made very real, their dilemmas and their loves and their tortured destinies — not Erotica at all but I think somehow all the more erotic because of that.

    Can you think of other stories or novels you’ve read that are erotic in that way? Ones that don’t try so hard they rub a blister?

    I think that's an interest of mine in this topic. Not how to write Erotica but how to write the huge sexual moment in the context of stories that are about something else, without botching either the moment or the story. My other interest in this topic is to read Erotica and about Erotica, stuff written by women we seem to agree, to see how men are faring in the minds of women, at least in their rhetoric. Not good, not good at all, is my working conclusion. I can't get the image out of my mind of the fat refrigerator repairman with his crack showing above the butt of his blue jeans as squats into his work — that seems to be the annoyingly persistent male who, ugly as he is, is forever wanting sex. In the Erotica conversation, only women seem to know what women want and how to get down to brass tacks. And then there's the monthly Cosmopolitan covers, bold in female beauty, cleavage and skin, glaring at us from the magazine rack, beckoning who? Women!

    It's okay, because we are talking about writing, philosophy, entertainment and sexual politics, not about actual sex. Eventually, not totally but still for the most part or at least mercifully on occasion, men and women still come off their separate islands and get together for sex, sometimes even because they actually want each other specifically, sex being (luckily) almost as hard-wired into women as their sense of superiority over, annoyance for, and disappointment in, us.

  7. Jennifer Bechtol says:

    PFD: "It strikes me that the best sex I've read in literature (confining my considerations right now to that) comes embedded (if you will) in good stories in which the point of the stories was something else and sex was a sudden surprise along the way. There is a novella by John Fowles entitled The Ebony Tower that I read years ago and that replays in my mind a lot when I'm writing. It would never be called Erotica. The story wasn't about sex — it was about some people Fowles made very real, their dilemmas and their loves and their tortured destinies — not Erotica at all but I think somehow all the more erotic because of that.

    Can you think of other stories or novels you’ve read that are erotic in that way? Ones that don’t try so hard they rub a blister?"

    A lot of Jim Harrison’s fiction smacks of this. His works always contain sex, and one or more characters vigorously pursuing it – men AND women. The sexual content in his stories richens both the characters pursuing the sex, and their relationships with each other. And there is always a good amount of build up, no jumping right to the act, although the act is always neatly described. Often, by the time it’s “gotten around to,” the reader is just as relieved – or revolted – as the characters. In my opinion, it accurately reflects the way men and women actually pursue each other sexually. The women have a fair – and generally more than fair, position – and it (the sex) doesn’t always work out. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s touching, and sometimes it’s downright ugly. What’s more real than that?

    Maybe the reason the romantic entanglements of Harrison’s characters are so effective is because they are so much like what really happens. There are no smoldering glances, no bedroom window curtains dancing in the cool night breeze – there is, however, angst, frustration, rejection, reception, and release. And sometimes a bottle of Butterscotch schnapps to grease the wheels. This is reality, but reality that becomes a level of voyeurism because of how closely we can identify with it. And that’s erotic … but maybe not Erotica by definition.

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