Beyond the Bonkbuster: Australian erotic writing
As I look at my web stats for the first year of Wild Colonial Girl, I note the top ranking search items: ‘wild’ and ‘spanking’. Usually entered together. It seems that putting ‘wild’ into my blog’s name attracts lots of pundits looking for pleasure (good move) — who must be disappointed to discover that the ‘spanking’ only leads to Keira Knightley unceremoniously being berated for her performance in A Dangerous Method (bad luck).
With Australian publishers so keen to jump on the Fifty Shades bandwagon (Fifty Bales of Hay just landed on my desk), I am intrigued by the desire to pin the ‘erotic’ down. I spoke to a number of writers about how they define, read and write the erotic.
The following article was originally written for the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Newswrite magazine and gave me the chance to look deeper into Australian erotic fiction, the kind I might want to read.
Susan Johnson can make eating a piece of cheese sound like it deserves a plastic shrink wrap cover and restricted classification.
Today I had three separate conversations about Fifty Shades of Grey. I haven’t read the book. The people I was speaking to hadn’t read it either. But it’s created a frenzy of speculation. Why are people reading it in droves? Why are women so intrigued by a tale of submission? Why does everyone want to talk about it even though they haven’t read it? And, damn it, why didn’t I write it?
Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books traces the history of what he playfully terms the ‘bonkbuster’ from the 70s through to now. From Jackie Collins to EL James, he argues that: ‘Each era gets the erotic writing it craves, or deserves, if that doesn’t sound too much like I’m asking you to spank me into an ecstasy of submission.’ In Australia, we’ve experienced our own bonkbusters, relevant to the times. While we didn’t have the sweaty slick surfaces of Sidney Sheldon, we had the kinky grunge of Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia, the comic frenzy of Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me, the curiously conservative anonymity (at first) of The Bride Stripped Bare, the grim then romantic works of Kate Holden and, now, the luscious morsels of Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers.
Now, erotic writing. What is it exactly? It’s a term that can define almost anything, and not necessarily just sex. When I think erotic writing, I think of poetry, of tastes and textures, of books squirreled away where others can’t find them. Reading erotic writing is an intensely private experience or one to be shared with a lover. Many have argued that the appeal of Fifty Shades has been heightened by its presence as an e-book. You can download it secretly. You can read it on a Kindle, without a book cover letting everyone know on the train what you’ve got your hands on. There’s no doubt that part of its success has been due to the e-revolution but you can still read over someone’s shoulder pretty easily when they have an iPad. I think there’s more to it.
Erotic writing breaks down into many genres too. It’s by no means an all-encompassing term. As author Krissy Kneen points out, there’s ‘romantic erotic, paranormal erotic and literary fiction with erotic elements’. There’s creative non-fiction (Kate Holden seems to be paving the way here) and a new breed capturing the imagination — erotic fan fiction — where writers imagine sexual encounters between celebrities, politicans, musicians, you name it! But even the word ‘erotic’ can be problematic. Fiona McGregor, whose 2002 novel Chemical Palace delves deep into Sydney’s queer dance party culture, with lashings of sex, prefers other words:
I have a slight mistrust of the term ‘erotic’ as a middle-class euphemism for ‘porn’, although it is usually not nearly as much of a turn-on as porn, and instead (perhaps aptly) stodgy and middle-class. I definitely respond to sexy writing, to good sex in writing. I think it works best when it is woven in with everything else, intrinsic to the narrative. The awkwardness and exquisiteness of human intimacy, the elation of love, however fleeting.
Anna Hedigan, in her Moral High Ground blog, talks of the appeal of dirty books, the ones without pictures (as opposed to visual pornography): ‘Written smut … gives you ideas. You are in the middle of those ideas. If something takes your fancy but isn’t quite to taste, well, it’s in your head now. Play it another way.’ In an ABC Radio National panel on erotic fiction, Linda Jaivin agrees, arguing that ‘it’s better to read dirty books as a kind of antidote to visual porn’ — but she warns that these days we are in ‘neo-Prudish times’, and far less open in our attitudes to and discussions about sex than when she wrote Eat Me in the mid-90s. She believes writing erotica is a freer form than pornography because imagination — along with other things — is stimulated: ‘All fiction is an act of creation between the reader and the writer … You come together on the page.’ (Yes, it’s almost impossible to avoid continual double entendres when talking on the topic.)
When I asked some writers to chat about their favourite Australian erotic writing, many attempted to run a mile, keen to distinguish their tastes as literary (rather than the erotica genre). Krissy Kneen summed up the general consensus: ‘I am not a big fan of most of the “erotic” novels as a genre. It is rarely done well without relying on cliché. I prefer literary books, that are not afraid of their sensuality.’ Favourite writers cited by a number of authors included Rod Jones, Sonya Hartnett, Frank Moorhouse, Linda Jaivin, Kate Holden, Emily Maguire, Sophie Cunningham, Christos Tsiolkas, John A Scott and Dorothy Porter.
I’m a huge fan of Krissy Kneen. I rarely find her work ‘erotic’ in terms of arousal, but I think she writes about sex and the erotic in a deeply intelligent and empathetic way. I always come away from her work feeling warmer towards strangers and humanity in general. It’s like she uses the erotic to uncover the gorgeous, hugely varied, vulnerabilities of human beings. She really captures the desperate need to be approved of in all our most private weirdness, to be touched and loved.
But when writers talk of the erotic, there’s one name that crops up again and again. Susan Johnson. I take to her new novel, My Hundred Lovers, with a hot water bottle and a Kindle. The entire work just glistens off the screen. Every word shimmers with suggestive delight. It’s not just about attractions to other people (and ourselves) but to objects and experiences: a warm bath; lying under a tree; a loyal dog; a bridge in France. As author Kirsten Tranter comments, ‘the most erotic piece of writing I’ve come across recently is in My Hundred Lovers, where she’s discussing what it feels like to eat a croissant. My god.’
The deeper I go in — to the critics exploring erotic writing in Australia, the discussions, the book reviews, the research — the more I end up elsewhere. Outside our borders. The writers on Australian erotica seem to be, well, French. The publishers releasing books about Australian erotic writing (and its history) — like Xavier Pons’ fascinating Messenger of Eros: Representations of Sex in Australian Writing — are based abroad. Pons’ book looks into authors like Helen Garner and Justine Ettler, with a particular focus on writers from culturally (and/or sexually) diverse backgrounds like Lillian Ng, Simone Lazaroo and Christos Tsiolkas.
But what of the act itself? The creation of text that turns you on, that stimulates your senses, that gets you going. Is it just a matter of sitting at your desk and pumping the words out, as for other writing? Or does it require something special? Writers approach it differently. Like all sex, and relationships, characterisation comes first. And it’s always complicated. Krissy Kneen writes:
Recently I had the experience of finding it very difficult to get an orgy started in a book I was writing. It was pages and pages later and they still weren’t even close to getting their clothes off. It took me the better part of a week to finally realise that one of the peripheral characters had all the power in the situation and all my protagonist had to do was confess to him that she wanted an orgy and he very quickly and easily made it happen. Sometimes, like that example, starting the sex is the hardest bit. Sometimes characters aren’t ready to leap into bed but often if you make them just do it and it is awkward and embarrassing, that makes for a great sex scene…I can tell when a sex scene is really working. I can always feel it. It feels like you are riding a wave and you just have to stick with it till it comes to a natural end. It feels a bit like sculpting actually. It feels physical, like you are touching the shape of the scene. It is very sensual work.
Kirsten Tranter likes to hold back, revealing power plays at work between her characters, making them (and her audience) wait:
Erotic scenes are fairly challenging for me because in general, in a very broad sense, I’m hopelessly drawn to the anti-climactic, to the moment that almost arrives and yet doesn’t, is deflated in some interesting way; what this has meant for the sex scenes I’ve written is that there’s a distinct lack of sexual consummation. In my last book, ‘A Common Loss’, the main characters don’t get to have sex despite their spending a weekend in Vegas … I’m interested in erotic longing, and erotic encounters that are interrupted and maintain and intensify that energy. There’s as much or maybe more erotic energy in an interaction that is interrupted or frustrated as there is in one that is fulfilled.
Jon Bauer disagrees, arguing that you need to give readers something of what they desire. He creates erotic scenes to move the story or conflict along:
I was surprised to find myself writing saucy scenes in ‘Rocks in the Belly’. Genuinely surprised. But I felt that they progressed the reader’s insight into the character and said something about his use of sex as a salve, his misogyny, and his discomfort with becoming genuinely close to others. All scenes are fine, no matter their content, if they are contextually relevant … As a writer, I think it is important for a novel or a narrative to build tension, but also to release some of it regularly. A reader needs compensation along the way, and won’t thank you for not providing at least most of what you promise.
We’ve heard words from the experts but you don’t need to be a published author to write erotic fiction. With the internet’s burgeoning erotic scene, anyone can have a go. Whatever you’re into — sex dolls, wearing nappies, hairy men, amputees — there will be someone else to share your predilection and a forum to exchange ideas. There’s also the increasingly popular erotic fan fiction. The banal and repetitious nature of much graphic sex means it can work best in short bursts, and is even more entertaining in performance. Eddie Sharp organises regular readings of erotic fan fiction at festivals and The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Started in 2006 with a handful of people at UNSW, the event now regularly sells out quickly, helped by writers/readers like Andrew Denton. FBi radio’s Sunday Night at the Movies highlighted some recent works in their ‘Erotic Fan Fiction, Edition #2’ night, including the chance to hear Eddie performing his now legendary ‘At the Movies’, a deeply unnerving take on what really goes on between Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton when they’re filming their weekly TV show. With subjects like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, Toby and Josh from The West Wing (and even some of the performers’ fellow colleagues), anyone’s game.
This all sounds fun but what if you’re the subject of erotic fan fiction, sexually stripped and humiliated in front of thousands? A Kill Your Darlings podcast explored the predicament. Comedian Lawrence Leung was surfing the net (or googling himself, actually), and came across an erotic fan fiction all about him. He was appalled and intrigued, that ‘someone has to tell this story in an anonymous forum’. He decided to explore this idea in a comedy show of his own (Beginning, Middle, End), of a fan who decides to take ownership of Leung’s character, of using him, turning him into fiction: ‘For the first time I was confronted with someone taking my life, and my identity, and running with it. It’s kind of like identity fraud of the most disturbing kind.’
As you can see, there’s a lot happening in Australian erotic writing. Whether you want to focus on genre (in all its forms), add some spice to the literary possibilities, or get your favourite characters into a range of positions, the field is open to play and experimentation — and big bucks if you manage to pull off the next Australian (or international) bonkbuster.
HAVE YOU READ OR WRITTEN ANY EROTIC FICTION? WHAT EXCITES (OR HORRIFIES) YOU ABOUT THE GENRE?
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