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.
Emily Maguire, whose debut novel Taming the Beast explores the relentless and damaging sexual relationship between a 14-year-old girl and her abusive teacher, singles out the work of Krissy Kneen:
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?
If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
- An interview with erotic writer: Krissy Kneen
- Interviews with authors Susan Johnson, Kirsten Tranter and Fiona McGregor in the Writing Mothers series
- Nothing like a good spanky: Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method
An interesting piece Kirsten. I was cracking up over Krissy Kneen’s struggle to get an orgy started! I wrote an erotic scene in my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, and it definitely drew more comment than any other scene in the novel! As a reader, I’m probably more interested to read about awkward sex than erotic sex because it’s more likely to reveal something about character.
PS Fifty Bales of Hay – what a clever title.
Yes, I think I find awkward sex more interesting too, in general, but it depends on the writer’s skill. I love Susan Johnson’s erotic take on just about everything (not just sex).
At the moment I’m re-visiting some old faves: The Story of O (mostly boring), Emmanuelle (some good bits) and Lady Chatterley. To me erotic is something that makes you fizzy in the pant area, makes you want to have sex with someone else or solo. I looked at 50 Shades because a Grade 6 boy in a class I was taking said he’d read the first 80pp of his mum’s copy and that it was ‘disgusting.’ I read up until the first sex scene, more than 100pages and it was all so goddamned boring and badly written as well. The sex scene was boring, the characters are boring and it was derivative too because it reminded me of Story of O. In my own writing/reading-scape, I have no desire to write erotica nor to read it really. Might have a look at Susan’s 100 Lovers, have been hearing about it. Also enjoyed Krissy’s Affection but it wasn’t erotic to me at all, just fascinating.
Fizzy in the pant area! God that’s hilarious! But weirdly true. I haven’t looked at 50 Shades but I will succumb despite all I’ve heard that it’s drivel.
Lady Chatterly still does it for me. It’s funny, the book was banned for being so dirty (in an era when underprivileged girls were sold as virgins, whether they were or not) and yet the sentiment in the book is so clean, pure sex … love it.
Krissy Kneen. Yes. And Kate Holden. Anaiis. Collette …
Any woman I’ve talked to who has read 50SoG reckons it’s shite, so I’m interested too in the perfect marketing storm that has sold so many copies of it. It’s kind of boring that the so-called commentators attribute the phenomenon to ‘our’ generation, whilst busy flogging more copies.
Thanks, Sarah. I haven’t read Lady Chatterley. So many classics I need to catch up with! Yeah, I am more interested in the hype surround Shades of Grey than the book itself, but also why women are attracted to it.
I have been reading online smut and erotic lit for years and was intrigued by the fact that suddenly a trilogy on bdsm sex was the new literary sensation. Even more so, as I have had my share of kinky in life.
What a total disappointment 50 shades was!
I suddenly remembered why I had stayed away from fan fiction – its not written by people who feel an urge to write and tell a story. No, its written by those who cannot help themselves but will push the character of a story they liked oh so much! into dimensions that character was not imagined originally to go. And if you are not a hardcore fan girl, well it just does not work.
Why a twilight fan fiction turned into bdsm novel would become such a global hit has been analysed by many, why it is that as a lover of literature AND lover of kink I could not even read far enough to get to the first sex scene – with all the lip biting,the teenagy inner dialogue and descriptives of attractiveness of the main characters (making me think I’d f****neither really, all way to clean). It was all way too boring, predictable and frankly annoying. In the end I let it be and went on a half-a**end research for ‘real’ erotic or sexy fiction and I guess my words comment was intended as a thank you for the Australian roundup. I am not from here and might read nikki gemmel’s ‘Bride…’soon. I have in the past read some French novels that were pretty hardcore, yet reasonably well written, unfortunately, I do not recall any names… As a tip tho, for some more grownup erotic fiction, I have read some truly exciting stuff written by (I assume mostly) middle aged men with a stagnating career and a boring marriage. When,after meeting anonymously on this or that forum, in the quest of whatever, they sent me not a photo of their crotch but a 25+pages of well written, still raw and very dirty short story/fantasy, I was truely fascinated and I thought this is cool, online fantasies don’t have to be only visual and shallow….or immature bloated fan fiction.
I mean I have moved on,too, and maybe those types of erotic writers only existed for a short time, but there were forums and dedicated blogs on livejournal and while I don’t know weather any of them actually ever lived at least part of their fantasy in real life, it FELT more real and drew me in WAY more than those first 60-80 pages of “50 shades ..” Managed to.
Have also bookmarked ‘my 100 lovers’ which sounds like it’s joyfully celebrating both, lust and life. Which I think is the essence of truly erotic literature – the life part has to be there. ….
Thanks so much Nikki, what a truly awesome response! And at last, someone who has read 50 Shades, or attempted to. I’m not sure if you will be that keen on Bride Stripped Bare. It’s at heart pretty conservative. But worth a look I guess. I loved My 100 Lovers and agree, it’s broader in the sense that it’s celebrating the erotic found in pretty much everything, if you’re looking at things that way. Are you a writer? I think your explorations of those forums where you were sent online fantasies would be the great basis of a short story or longer fiction or memoir.
i love to read and write and well, let’s say, I toyed with the idea of journalism when i was young (in Europe), encouraged by my teachers. but i got pretty busy with so much ‘life stuff’ (not just kinky things) and kept saying, well i will write a book on the other end. then more stuff happened, and a friend of mine said to me the other day “yeah if you put all of it in a memoir, it would just cover so many topics, people would think you are going a bit over the top. it’s just all a bit too crazy” but i guess life is, and one of the things that bothered me most in 50 shades is that the people in the book where all so stereotype and smooth and just.did.not.come.to. life. i LIKE fiction, but i think it has to be written even better than real life stories, to make it possible for the reader to immerse into the made up world.
If one day I will write down a coherent memoir ( i am writing shorts, sort of) about all the crazy, it certainly won’t all be fuzzy phantasm feelings for the reader, but if in the end, someone (who knows) compliments me not only for a touching/fascinating/incredible piece of story but ALSO for my writing, then I would think going through all that sh*t was actually worth it. =)
so yes, i guess, you could say, at heart I am a writer.
(note that one of my biggest self-esteem issues is that i am current between two languages, having myself removed from the daily environment of my mother tongue some..17 years ago i think, with a decade of French, now living in Oz in a totally English environment. i am a bit lost when it comes to that.)