February 22, 2013

The NSFW Files: An Introduction

A new monthly essay series by Karl Wolff

In popular criticism, timing is everything. In light of the wild success and popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, the time is ripe to examine the genre known as erotica. The near-omnipresence of Fifty Shades in the hands and Kindles of the American reading populace has made sexuality a topic of conversation. Not since 1972, when Deep Throat nearly made porn cinema a mainstream success has anything comparable happened in American culture. The early Nineties, when Quentin Tarantino's films were new and dangerous, ushered in a decade of Tarantino knock-offs, imitators, and derivative films. The same is true for Fifty Shades, with bookshelves and Kindles filled with imitators riding the coat-tails of James's success. But unlike Tarantino's ultraviolent cinematic pastiches, James's novel is a thinly veiled Twilight fanfiction. I haven't read her work and don't plan to.

But because I refuse to read poorly written trash doesn't mean the genre of erotica has nothing to offer discerning readers and fans of quality literature. This essay series is reminiscent of the works of French philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes. Barthes wrote works of literary criticism, but he also wrote pieces of professional wrestling, soap ads, and car design. Nothing under the sun, including erotica and pornography, should be immune from critical examination. In 1967 Susan Sontag wrote a pioneering essay on pornographic literature entitled, "The Pornographic Imagination." She asserts, "Not only do Pierre Louys' Trois Filles de Leur Mere*, George Bataille's Histoire de L'Oeil** and Madame Edwarda, the pseudonymous Story of O and The Image belong to literature, but it can be made clear why these books, all five of them, occupy a much higher rank as literature than Candy or Oscar Wilde's Teleny or the Earl of Rochester's Sodom ...". In this new CCLaP series I call "The NSFW Files," I will examine three of the five mentioned. As in my previous essay series, On Being Human, I will seek to answer a series of questions. What is erotica? What is pornography? What makes a work obscene or indecent? How are these related to its possible literary value? To add order to an already explosive, divisive, and sensational topic, I will cover the twelve books in historical order of publication. Besides making an assessment to the book's literary value, this will give each book the required historical context.

History plays an important role, a factor that bleeds into things like availability and expressions used. Unlike other genres, erotica and pornography have been targets for repressive legislation. One way to control a populace is to control the flow of information. To paraphrase what I said in my review of Mania!, a history of the Beat Generation in relation to free speech, "Shouldn't you be the one who determines what you read?" Not some politician, cleric, or other moral guardian. But that is politics and we'll get elbow-deep into that filth soon enough.

Back to the literary nature of erotica and pornography. All literature is, at root, about language. Most of these works are studded with four-letter words and coarse expressions of humans fornicating with each other. To quote another critic, Walter Benjamin wrote about pornography in an early essay, saying, "Just as Niagara Falls feeds power stations, in the same way the downward torrent of language into smut and vulgarity should be used as a mighty source of energy to drive the dynamo of the creative act." With these short little words and with this sometimes coarse language, society has become hysterical in their reactions. This attests to the power of the language involved. The writings of the Marquis de Sade still shock and horrify, despite being written in the 18th century.

For the selections of works I will investigate, I've run the gamut from allusive highbrow literature to notorious smut. Except in one case, Alan Moore's graphic novel Lost Girls, I picked novels. Some can be classified as erotica or pornography, others are novels with erotic elements in them. I have also added novels with gay and bisexual characters, so this won't be a straights-only venture.

We begin with The Satyricon, a novel fragment written by Petronius in the late first century CE. It is also the only novel written without the lens of Western Christianity impinging on its depiction of human sexuality. The next novel is Gynecocracy, by Viscount Ladywood, written in 1893. It is a Victorian curiosity about a wayward British aristocrat under the harsh tutelage of a governess involving physical and emotional submission and forced feminization. We jump ahead to 1928 with The Story of the Eye, by George Bataille. The outrageous story is appended with a philosophical essay by Bataille. Besides being a novelist, Bataille was a learned philosopher, essayist, anthropologist, and poet. He had a greater point when writing the short novel. We shall find out what point he wanted to make.

Our first gay novelist is Jean Genet. He wrote Our Lady of the Flowers in 1943 and remains one of the most beautiful novels ever written. It details the life and times of a transvestite named Divine (an inspiration for John Waters's star of the same name). The novel overflows with medieval beauty, violence, and depravity. Unlike other works here, Genet wrote the novel in prison to titillate himself, not necessarily the reader.

After Genet we have The Story of O, by Pauline Reage, written in 1954, and The Image, written by Jean De Berg in 1956. Both focus on themes of sadomasochism and both are considered by Susan Sontag to be products of the pornographic imagination with literary value.

Written in 1959, Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs is a Beat Generation classic, along with being the last non-illustrated, non-pictorial piece of literature tried in the United States on charges of obscenity. The book is filled with sexually explicit passages, hallucinatory nightmares, and diatribes against government repression. Burroughs writes about the effects of heroin addiction and withdrawal in what can be described as unintentional anti-drug propaganda, as opposed to the ham-handed earnestness of D.A.R.E. advertising campaigns.

Like Burroughs, John Rechy is a gay author. He wrote City of Night in 1963, chronicling gay hustlers in a pre-Stonewall America. He was instrumental in making the gay hustler a literary icon within the cosmology of LGBT fiction.

Unlike previous works mentioned here, Ada, or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov is a highbrow literary masterpiece. Written in 1969, it chronicles an incestuous relationship between two siblings. Nabokov concocted an alternate history to ground the narrative, couching it in allusive language. While other works mentioned here contain explicit language, meaning language unambiguously clear about what it is depicting, Nabokov writes with language by turns opaque, nuanced, and subtle. This does nothing to negate the eroticism within the narrative.

In 1983, Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek wrote The Piano Teacher. It tells the story of the titular piano teacher who also visits porn shows at night in Vienna, along with having a tortured relationship with her mother. She won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for her novels "that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power."

The Ages of Lulu, written in 1989 by Almudena Grandes, is a Spanish novel about the sexual awakening of Lulu. Spain has had a rich tradition of eroticism in cinema, with works by Pedro Almodovar and Julio Medem's erotic labyrinth Sex and Lucia. We shall see how this Spanish author handles eroticism.

The final novel is Matriarchy, by Malcolm McKesson, published in 1997. Most of the novels already mentioned have been works meant either mainstream and underground audiences. McKesson's work can be considered a piece of outsider art, since he wasn't a professional writer and his novel about forced feminization includes several feverishly obsessive drawings he made.

The last work is Allan Moore's Lost Girls, from 2006. While it is the only graphic novel covered here, it is a graphic novel heavily informed by literary history. Moore's work becomes controversial because he depicts the sexual lives of Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy, the female protagonists from The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Now they are all grown up and brought together in Austria on the eve of the First World War.

To come back full circle, Susan Sontag mentions two other genres in contrast to erotica and pornography: science fiction and comedy. For quite some time, science fiction has been seen as a disreputable genre, aimed mainly at juveniles. One can see from a cursory glance that science fiction does have numerous examples of works with literary merit. It still has countless books aimed at younger audiences, but then again, quit complaining about The Clone Wars being silly and stupid and read some Iain Banks or Paolo Bacigalupi. Sontag's point about comedy can be summed up in term's of audience expectations. One doesn't watch The Three Stooges and complain about its violence, since Larry, Moe, and Curly are simply obeying the rules of slapstick. One shouldn't mistake the sexual equipment and endurance of characters in erotica for lacking realism either. It is a stock feature of the genre and should be understood as such. If anything is to be gained from this series, it is recognition that erotica and pornography are genres worthy of examination. Not only are they legitimate genres, but there exists some works that exhibit literary quality by writers of talent.

*Translated as Mother's Three Daughters.
**Translated at Story of the Eye.

Filed by Karl Wolff at 1:00 PM, February 22, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |