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Beyond the Bonkbuster: Australian erotic writing

Fifty Bales of Hay by Rachael TreasureAs 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.

(Kirsten Tranter)

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?

Susan Johnson, My Hundred LoversAndrew 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.

Linda Jaivin, Eat MeAnna 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, Taming the BeastEmily 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.

Krissy Kneen, Swallow the SoundBut 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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Tasting the erotic: Krissy Kneen

Author Krissy Kneen

Author Krissy Kneen

Inspired by all the media frenzy surrounding 50 Shades of Grey — and its even better spin-off, 50 Sheds of Grey — I decided to look into Australian erotic writing for the next issue of Newswrite (the magazine I edit for the NSW Writers’ Centre) and started speaking to a number of authors about how they create sex scenes.

Pretty soon I came across Krissy Kneen.

Based in Brisbane, Krissy is the author of two short collections of erotica, Swallow the Sound (see Angela Meyer’s review) and Triptych. She also writes regularly at her blog, Furious Vaginas.

The author Emily Maguire (who writes about sex brilliantly in her debut novel, Taming the Beast), describes herself as a huge fan of Krissy’s work:

 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.

Intrigued by Krissy’s writing, and her appearance on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club (as part of a panel on erotic literature), I spoke to her about her favourite writers, the history of erotica in Australia, and how to write great sex when you’re not in the mood.

Who do you see as the most interesting contemporary Australian writers working in erotic writing (short stories / novels / nonfiction)?

I love Susan Johnson’s My Hundred Lovers [see Wild Colonial Girl’s interview with Susan in the Writing Mothers series] and Rod Jones, Sonya Harnett and Frank Moorhouse do sex so well. I am not a big fan of most of the ‘erotic’ novels as a genre. It is rarely done well without relying on cliche. I prefer literary books that are not afraid of their sensuality.

I know there are a great many Australian writers working in romantic erotic fiction, paranormal erotic fiction and just general erotic fiction, and they do very well internationally, but I am afraid I am a sucker for literary fiction and so my reading in those areas is limited. I am currently reading Jeff Sparrow’s book about pornography, Money Shot, and finding that fascinating, and am also just starting Benjamin Law’s Gaysia — not exactly erotic books but important books about sex.

Landscape with AnimalsI still find Landscape with Animals by Cameron Redfern (Sonya Hartnett) to be my favourite Australian erotic book, although her genre is usually YA, so I think I’ll be waiting a long time for another from her. I recently re-read Linda Jaivin’s Eat Me and the sex bits are excellent, very funny, and it is lovely to see her wrestling with feminism and women’s friendships within the genre. I also love Kate Holden’s The Romantic for great writing about sex. Kate is a fabulous writer and I am very much looking forward to more. Nightpictures by Rod Jones is another one of my favourite erotic books.

Is there a history of Australian erotic fiction that you can trace back? Do you know of any early examples?

The academic who has written on this subject is Xavier Pons. His book Messengers of Eros is a really thorough look at sex in Australian fiction. The thing is, I haven’t read a lot of the early examples of Australian sex writing, but Pons has and shows us that there is indeed a long tradition of it, and although we associate sex writing with women now, it was a very masculine domain at one time. My real foray into sex writing in Australia began with Justine Ettler (River Ophelia) and Linda Jaivin (Eat Me). There was a big stir when Nikki Gemmel came out with the anonymous The Bride Stripped Bare and, although there was a lot of well-written sex, that book was so inherently conservative in its relationship to sex (if you have extra-marital sex you will die), I am not a fan. Her second book With My Body is an even less discreet ode to monogamy, even going so far as to say that the most sexy sex is that which is performed to conceive a child.

I personally love sex books that challenge us on our relationship to sexuality, that do not see monogamous or heterosexual as the default settings, and that allow sex to be something celebratory and not something to feel shame about. That is a rarity in sex literature and a very rare thing in erotic genre fiction, which is why I tend to steer clear.

How do you go about writing an ‘erotic’ scene? Does characterisation come first?

Krissy Kneen, TriptychIt is different for everything I write. If I am writing a novel, the character will always come first and their sexuality is just an expression of character, but with Triptych I was specifically setting out to write pornographic literature and as a result I thought about it in terms of sexual preference first and character second. I knew I wanted to write about transgressions and therefore picked three ‘perversions’ of sex (voyeurism, bestiality and incest) and worked back to character and story from there. In my short collection, Swallow the Sound, I just used sex scenes from novels I had written that had not been published. I worked those up into short stories — so definitely they came from the characters and the story.

What makes a scene ‘erotic’ for you? If it’s not working, do you ditch it or keep trying?

Some days I don’t feel like writing sex, but that is rare. Mostly the sex is the easy part. I have more trouble sustaining a plot for the length of a book. Structure is my difficulty and the sex is the fun easy part of the writing. It is rare that the sex isn’t working. 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. Every bit of writing feels like a Krissy Kneen, Swallow the Sounddifferent craft. I have recently been editing my book and that feels like sewing. It is exhausting and hurts your eyes and requires a lot of concentration but when it is done well you feel a sense of achievement seeing something that looks seamless, even though you know there is a lot of invisible mending in it. The sex scenes are definitely the sculptural component, where the other parts of the story feel a bit more like painting with oils, laying it on, and then going back when it is dry and adding more colour, taking it from a flat inert thing to something that gives the impression of movement.

I do enjoy the sex the best. I suppose that is why people respond to it in my work. It feels like my more natural craft. Still there is nothing like tackling the parts of a book that come less naturally to me and making them work. That feels like a real achievement.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? WHAT MAKES A PIECE OF WRITING EROTIC FOR YOU? DOES IT HAVE TO BE ABOUT SEX? HAVE YOU EVER TRIED TO WRITE A SEX SCENE YOURSELF?

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