Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What I am

Sex in the City: Paris v. 2

I wandered foolishly into a thicket of Amazon Vine Voices the other day. What struck me was that everyone keeps claiming a precise definition of erotica. A frequent criticism flung at stories, it seems, is to say 'this is not erotica'.

How many other genres have definitions so vague and mutable that it seems like an endless pastime just trying to work out what the fuck the genre should look like, let alone whether any particular piece is good or not in itself?

I'm not blame-free, I've spent a good deal of time wondering the same. We know it has to have a human head, (ahem) and probably some genitalia, at least in allusion. But then, there's EllaRegina's beautiful story with the fabulous character that has merely hooks and eyes.

Really, I'm omnivorious when it comes to erotica. I like porny stuff and I like the most subtle literary stuff, and lots in between. But then, I'm a bookoholic and I'm loath to reject any good writing merely because it doesn't fit some nebulous idea of a genre. Maybe it would be best to broaden the definition of erotica, rather than narrow it.

After all, if you're looking for a wide embrace, surely you'd find it on the erotica shelf?


Jo said...

Something tells me you've been sitting on this post for a while, it's more restrained than your facebook post was :) .

Jeremy Edwards said...

I've found that the types of narrow, dogmatically brandished expectations you're describing quickly reveal themselves as untenable when they're placed side by side, as in the typical Amazon Vine context: Reader A dismisses the book because there's too much sex and not enough character development, while B dismisses the same book because there's too much character development and not enough sex. A says it's junk because the language is frank and explicit, then B says it's drek because of all the flowery metaphors. And all these contradictory judgments are stated, not simply in terms of a reader's personal preferences, but as though the book is Bad because it Breaks the Rules of Good Books. It provides a good lesson, I think, in the folly of aesthetic dogmatism.

Nikki Magennis said...

Jo, um, yes. I keep making resolutions to be restrained, and then I forget ...

Jeremy - exactly. I think it's also because some people confuse an erotic book with their own personal porn shop. By which I mean, some people get really offended/agitated if what they're reading doesn't fit their own personal version of erotic.

I read a fabulous review recently, can't remember what for - but it said something like: 'I know what I like. I like resolutely heterosexual threesomes' - to which unh?howzatpossible? - but anyway, the reviewer was thoroughly miffed that the book in question didn't fit his specific fantasy. Obviosuly, if it didn't contain said fantasy, it wasn't erotic for him, therefore: not erotica. Pah.

Jeremy Edwards said...

By which I mean, some people get really offended/agitated if what they're reading doesn't fit their own personal version of erotic.

Yeah! I've found, in general, that a lot of people really can't see a distinction between their personal likes and dislikes, when it comes to the arts, and more objective judgments. It's so obvious to me that just because I, for instance, don't respond to ballet, doesn't mean the ballet is devoid of artistic merit. And yet so many people seem unable to conceptualize the "I don't personally care for it but that doesn't mean it's worthless" thing.

Nikki Magennis said...

Oh, yes, while we're here, the *other* thing that really pisses me off is the 'I don't know much about X but I know what I like' attitude.

Why would anyone imagine their lack of knowledge means they are the ideal candidate to cast judgement?

As an artist, this really pisses me off. More so because I've found the people with this attitude tend to be the ones who for some reason feel the need to share their opinions, loudly.

Damn, I did it again.

Why does art that doesn't appeal subjectively sometimes piss people off so much? There's lots of art/music/books that I don't particularly like, but it doesn't make me *angry* that it exists.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Yeah, the classic "I don't know much about X but I know what I like" people get special obnoxiousness points because they're pretending to be humble about their opinions while actually being the opposite.

Nikki Magennis said...

Special Obnoxiousness Points! Fabulous idea. I'm now going to (silently) rate reviews on a scale of 1 to 5 SOPs.

Jo said...

Restraint is overrated, unless you're a kinkster, Nikki :)

Thinking about my responses to erotica collections, I always feel fabulously lucky to find a story that totally works for me, it's a little gift. Which is perhaps why postive reviews are the only worthwhile ones - how can you tell if your likes will correlate with others?

But yes, I know we've said it before, but if I'm deciding whether or not to buy erotica, why do I want to hear from someone who doesn't ... read erotica?

Fulani said...

I don't usually pay much attention to genre labels. Often they're little more than marketing tools (though I guess that does mean I should pay more attention. Hmm...).

Under another name, for example, I write horror. But a few years back, publishers decreed 'horror' was dead. Not a lot got published for a while, until someone came up with 'dark fantasy' - and other people came up with 'bizarro', and a some other labels that between them more or less caught everything that used to be horror, and maybe a bit more.

You get debates in other genres about what 'counts' as being within the bounds of a genre. Val McDermid, for example, writes murder mysteries - but with many psychological elements and graphic descriptions. Should it 'really' be horror? And how about Jake Arnott's 'He Kills Coppers' - a crime novel but from the point of view of a serial murderer? That breaks a few conventions...

Equally the erotica/pornography thing has been debated endlessly. The distinction may matter in marketing terms - I'm sure there are people who buy material they call 'erotic' but would outright refuse to buy if they thought it was 'pornography'. In the UK Black Lace traded very successfully for quite a while on the proposition that their publications (some extraordinarily explicit) were really 'erotica' for the discerning female reader. You'd even see women reading them on public transport, etc.

But such labels don't cut much ice in a legal setting, where the question is whether something should be prohibited or not, often on the basis of its 'tendency to deprave and corrupt' - the UK now has other and more controversial standards relating to images, incidentally.

Personally I'd take the view that genre labels are used strategically as marketing devices; I'd simply play that game, or try to break the rules, as necessary - or create, define and promote a new genre if I write anything that seems to require it.

My 2p worth - whether it's a useful contribution or not I don't know!

Nikki Magennis said...

Fulani, interesting to hear a similar story from other genres. I wonder, though, is the charge of being unbefitting of the genre used as much as a qualitative judgement as it is in erotica?

I'm not even going near the erotica/porn debate, frankly. : )

Anyway, yes as a marketing label genre terms are useful. I think they can also be interesting when not used as a boundary but as a springboard, if you see what I mean.

Fulani said...

Yes, I think it is. If a reviewer says any book is 'not really within the genre', whatever the genre happens to be, it's almost always an implied criticism.

That said, some of the most interesting stuff around either mixes genres and sits between them, or doesn't fit any genre category. An example off the top of my head (because I'm reading some at the moment) is Thomas Pynchon who really deserves his own genre label of 'Pynchonesque'. His 'Against the Day', for example, runs the gaunlet from 'Boys Own Paper' style in one place to explicit erotica in others, and many others besides.

And the same 'interesting because it mixes genres' tag would be true with some erotica writers who stretch the boundaries - M. Christian, I'm looking at you...

As to using genre labels as springboards rather than boundaries, I agree entirely. The most recent successful genre label I can think of in this context was steampunk (and there are now 'steampunk erotica' titles out there). I'd call some of my own stuff 'postmodern erotica' but postmodernism is rather old hat now...