What inspires this post are two others, one by Remittance Girl: The Flesh Web, and the third by Malin James, The Mourning Sun. Any of you reading me over the years know that I’ve questioned why I write erotica. I want my writing to matter and I’ve struggled deciding how it should matter. Can erotica be literature? Can it be more than textual pornography? Can it have lasting value? Can it communicate more than just titillation? The questions, I think, are beautifully answered in these two posts.
RG’s The Flesh Web is a short post, almost a prose poem. She begins: “It’s just sex, I tell myself.” The first sentence is like a good guitar hook. We know, just in that first sentence, that it’s not just sex. Its much more than that; and that makes us want to keep reading. That’s the way a good writer hooks her reader. Next she’ll write: “Just nature doing what it must, working its fossil finger between the tight layers of accreted me and crooking a digit at him. ”
Now that’s some fine imagery. The “fossil finger” implies an instinct as old our genetic material, as irresistible and as inevitable. And what does she mean by “accreted me”? Layers of emotion?—civilization?—culture? But it’s masterful imagery. The fossil is created in layers. Its this association that leads to “the tight layers of accreted me”, but not so tight, or fossilized, that the far more ancient pull of accreted nature can’t work its fossil finger between.
And then the questions:
“So, why the excess? Why the twinge of the heart? Why the sense of brimming? Why does the back of his neck make me cry? Why do I feel a foot taller and so much more worthy of walking this earth when I curl my hand around his cock and feel it already hard, already the underskin of veins ripple across my fingertips.”
It’s here, I think, that erotica becomes literature—when it speaks to our common experience, our shared humanity; when, as in all great literature, we recognize ourselves and maybe comprehend ourselves anew. This, to me, is when writing becomes literature. Erotica speaks to our shared erotic experience; and for this reason not only do we recognize our shared erotic experience, but we’re aroused by it. That’s what the best erotica does and that’s why it’s considered subversive. Erotic awareness, contemplation and spiritual truth aren’t meant to go together (the pleasures of the flesh and of the spirit are considered opposites) but in Remittance Girl’s story they do; and they should in all the best erotic stories.
After this, RG returns to the central imagery of the story—a kind of leitmotif. She writes: “Here, beneath this teetering pile of meaning…” And there again, the idea of layers and of accretions reappears, but teetering now. The most solid and enduring image remains the fossil, the drive for sex and reproduction. Even love, in the final line, is reduced to a mere cloak—a veneer. This is masterful writing and this is erotica made literature.
Malin James’s story begins similarly, with a sentence that suggests imminent death.
His heart beats so hard she’s afraid it will shatter.
It’s a beautiful, sharp, cry of anguish and the rest of the story is a mediation on that cry. She’ll write:
She wants to reach in and cradle his heart. She wants hold it in her hands and hide it from the day that he will leave.
Love and the knowing loss of it are central to our shared humanity. But so far, this isn’t different from any work of fiction. But after a little background, some description, time and place, the reader enters the realm of erotic literature:
She sits up and unbuckles his belt. Her hands are nimble and quiet, as if she’s trying to wake him up without disturbing his sleep. He opens his eyes and smiles, sweet like a boy. It makes her ache in places she can’t name. The ache spreads through her. It passes through nerve and tissue and bone until she becomes that ache; the aching, inevitable loss of him, anticipatory and sharp.
This isn’t just sex. James communicates a whole panoply of emotions. Her hands are “nimble and quiet”. She doesn’t want to startle him. Is she worried about his heart? He looks a boy. Is that a wish? Does she want to make him young again? Strong? Eternally youthful? And then the ache, that’s both for his youth and knowledge that he’ll never have it back and even what little is left slips away. All this is communicated in how she touches him, how she perceives him as a boy, and the spreading ache that is both agonizing and an erotic need.
And that’s what separates erotica from erotic literature. There are so many different kinds of arousal. There are so any different ways to experience sex. Nature has made our minds our sexual organ. We color sex with metaphor and meaning. Sex is never just procreation. We create ourselves in sex as in everything we do. That erotica that rises to the level of literature gives us a window into this miracle of our sexuality. Our lovemaking is not just a singular moment but an articulation of the or days that have come before and our desires for the days to follow. It’s this understanding that Malin James captures in her story. And in understanding it, we share the arousal, the erotic desire. We’ve had that experience. It’s an erotic literature that speaks to our shared humanity and acts as a sort of catharsis. It does what all great literature does.
The sex that follows remains grounded in the first cry—the heart that will shatter. “His levis are ancient.” We’re reminded of his age. She tosses aside her dress with “unnecessary force”. Why? Because, impossibly, she wants every barrier gone. This is a desperate kind of sex. She straddles him and sinks down without play or pretense. And then the image that is as movingly powerful as any in any great poem:
“Her cunt is wet with the tears she knows she will cry. “
Such an image as only erotic literature is (and must be) capable of. This is the justification for every erotic story we struggle to write—this beautiful image.
Erotic literature is a flower in humanity’s collective imagination. It begins to grow, is recognized, and is destroyed. How many works have been lost? But maybe, for the first time, this flower in our literary garden will finally be allowed to blossom. Such stories as those by Remittance Girl and Malin James begin to show us just how beautiful it could be.
Will Crimson | September 9 2015