Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Aren't you embarrassed?

A long long time ago, when my first book came out, a friend said to me, "Doesn't it embarrass you to let everyone know you think this stuff? I wouldn't dare!"

I was bemused for two reasons. First, because she was a pierced-and-tattooed Alt Grrl whom I'd thought epitomised the kind of confident person who is not ashamed of standing out. And secondly, because I could imagine dozens of things I would be mortified to reveal about my thoughts and attitudes and feelings - but very very few of them had to do with sexual fantasies. There are things I am ashamed of about myself. There are things I know that I should not say, or think, or do.

But sex fantasy? That's just fantasy. It's on another plane of impossibility. It's just stories. and you can write stories about anything without it saying a jot about you except that you have a wild imagination.

Of course, that's not the entire truth. The big picture is, as always, complicated. But on the whole I think erotica is not a genre that lends itself to searching questions about human nature or to soul-baring. We write primarily to turn people on. Erotic-romance authors (who exist in a genre with even more restrictive rules and expectations) write to turn people on ... and simultaneously give them a pat on the head and a big hug.

Maybe we should stretch ourselves a bit further though. Maybe we should try not to be so cosy. Remittance Girl is one author I admire intensely because she fights so hard against the honey-trap of giving the reader an easy predictable production-line product that will sell well.

All this is on my mind because I've read a couple of things recently that made me quake at their raw honesty.

Madeline Moore has been writing about her bereavement across her social network. Her words fill me with terror and sorrow, and just incredible wonder at the human ability to shape words to articulate the worst and best of a life. Read Fallen.

Garrison Keillor wrote an essay called "No Place Like Home" for the National Geographic. It's about his personal geography of Minneapolis. Here's a passage that made me go "Shiiiiiiiit, yes!" and want to kiss the hands that wrote it:
"A boy named Frankie Renko drowned in the river one spring at the sandy bank where we boys hung out. I was eating supper when the fire truck went by, and I wanted to go see, but Mother said, "There's no point in a bunch of rubberneckers standing around gawking." She said it was unseemly to look upon the sufferings of others if you were powerless to help. Years later, a photographer at the St Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked on the copydesk, writing obits, showed me his collection of pictures of dead people, drowned or shot or crushed in cars, but I did not look at them long. (I wanted to, but I didn't want him to think I was the sort of person who did.)

For days after Frankie drowned, I visited the death scene, trying to imagine what happened. He was paddling a boat near the shore, and it capsized, and he drowned. I imagined this over and over, imagined myself saving him, imagined the vast gratitude of his family. I don't recall discussing this with other boys. We were more interested in what lay ahead in seventh grade, where (we had heard) you had to take showers after gym. Naked. With no clothes on. Which turned out to be true."
Those simple words made me squirm with recognition. This is not about technique - it is about speaking to human experience. It's about writing something that makes you utterly vulnerable. Baring your shameful soul to the world. Can we take this sort of thing and do it in erotica, I wonder? Even more important - can we do it without being miserablist and sex-negative and nihilistic?

Sometimes all I want to do is write dirty. But sometime I want to write something that makes me shiver inside, not out of disgust or shock, but because it says something true that no one else has said in that way. Something I shouldn't dare to say.


Erobintica said...

Janine, you're not alone with these thoughts:

"It's about writing something that makes you utterly vulnerable. Baring your shameful soul to the world. Can we take this sort of thing and do it in erotica, I wonder? Even more important - can we do it without being miserablist and sex-negative and nihilistic?"

I've been pondering this a lot lately. I've found it very hard, if not impossible to write what I think of as happy erotica, and so I've written very little. But I feel like I'm teetering on the edge of a dark plunge. We'll see if anything comes of it.

Jo said...

Yes. I have problems with this. I think I start out intending to write raw and honest and it ALWAYS ends up cosy and irritatingly sweet, somehow.

But then, I think one of the things that makes me not-a-real-writer is that I've no real desire to inflict the shit in my head on others. I am very good at worst-thoughts, but I'm not sure they're the kind that teach anyone anything. And so perhaps that's why I end up turning to the cup of cocoa comfort instead.

Sometimes the nastiness or tragedy or violence alienates me from writing about it - I end up thinking, oh. Why did I read that? Unremittingly negative things tend to turn me off, but then, I also recognise that I'm a personality that tends towards avoidance of pain rather than the embracing of it.

Madeline's post is beautiful and awful, and different to fiction - I absolutely get that.

Janine Ashbless said...

I feel there ought to be - somehow! - a distinction between honesty and pessimism, if only we can find it. I'm NOT a fan of miserably-or-dead-ever-after erotica, partly because it's a downer and partly because that is just not my experiece. I honestly think that sex on the whole is positive: a Great Good. But we need to find more to say about good sex than "Wheee! This is fun!"

Perhaps that's why BDSM fiction works so well - it's got depths and isn't cosy, even when positive.

Jo said...

Beats Christian Romance, at least!


Madeline Moore said...

I believe I'm a realist but I'm often called a pessimist. I doubt I'll be writing any irritatingly sweet erotica in the near future, Jo. I absolutely agree with you on the avoidance of pain. We don't have to go looking for it, it's everywhere, all the time. Do we want more of it when we settle down with a good book? Even Kristina Lloyd's (SPOILER ALERT) Thrill Seeker has an HEA ending.

I don't know why I'm bleating my personal tragedy all over social media. I know why I wrote Fallen. It was in response to a blog event Madi Merren hosts. A visual cue is provided. The event is called Angst.
Erobintica,I'm in your boat. I think, again, that Kristina Lloyd has the right idea. Thriller erotica, or erotica/noir.
Janine, the veil of fantasy is not as tightly woven as you might, in your heart of hearts, hope. We *all* know about the Minotaur. And the Janus. We know you.
Interesting comments by everyone. I'm glad I came to the blog and read them.
As I plan my eventual next move, after my phusical move, these are precisely the questions I ask
myself and my future in erotica.
Jesus. Are my confessional fb posts some horrible sort of self-promotion?
I'm not going there! I do what I have to do, right now, to survive. The "real" me is much more dignified. I rent my garments among my colleagues and find some solace in doing it.

Remittance Girl said...

You've really given me a deep compliment here. I thank you.

You ask a good question:

"can we do it without being miserablist and sex-negative and nihilistic?"

My answer to this is: I really don't know. I definitely think I have some stories that are all those things if you interpret them in a certain way. One of the things I worry about in the genre is that the focus on keeping it 'light' and delivering a very ideal happy ending has made us think that anything that ends with characters being as complex as they began can often be perceived as miserabilist, sex-negative and nihilistic.

I think reading is like our sense of taste. If you've been living on a diet of sugar, anything even remotely savoury is going to taste very nasty for a while. It's probably just better to cut down on the sugar and add a few more flavours at the beginning, and go from there. Yes, it does sound a little patronizing to readers, but we've got to cop to the reality that we played a part in developing that sweet tooth.

This genre that could be a lot more than junk food, but it is going to take communal effort - on the part of both writers and readers - to develop a wider palate.

I'm an outlier. In terms of this endeavor, I don't even rate.

Madeline Moore said...

I meant to return to comment that the work of Remittance Girl is in a class of its own. This is harder for me to do, now that she has praised my piece, "Fallen," but I'm still going to say it because I meant to say it in the above post and I'm not going to not say it because I have been praised.

At the moment, I'm writing non-fiction; recounting what happened in my life.

RG takes the personal, her personal (we suspect) and makes it into extreme erotic tales of sometimes transcendence. Her characters, beautifully wrought, are transformed by the often violent nature of passion. I'd like to do that someday.