One day a girl in love said to the man she loved: “I could write the kind of stories you like...”
“Do you really think so?” he answered.
The girl speaking was Anne Desclos, better known in French literary circles as the journalist and critic Dominique Aury, and the man was Jean Paulhan, director of the literary publication Nouvelle Revue Française. Paulhan didn't believe a woman could write erotica the way men wrote it.
So, Aury began to write the now-famous Story of O for her lover. From the end of spring, across summer and through fall, she wrote five to ten pages at a time, always sending them off to the same general delivery address, without a carbon copy or a final draft.
Jean Paulhan collected and published the novella, calling the story of humiliation and absolute submission the greatest love letter ever written. He would know—after all, the letter was for him.
But no one else believed the controversial story could have been written by a woman. The book was published in 1954. Aury came out in 1994. Despite this and the dissemination of erotic works by other women writers, the stigma that women are somehow less capable than men at writing about sex continues to exist.
In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Jane Vandenburgh, author of the new memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century echoed this idea.
“Most women don’t write about sex at all, and if they do, they don’t do it very well,” she told The New York Times's Dwight Garner. “Or women write all purplish or silly and blushing or get gothic or medieval or do it with space aliens or become all mannered, elaborate and Victorian, and all of this is just about equally irksome to me, and some of it makes me almost physically ill.”
Maybe Vandenburgh has no internet access. But it's no excuse. I have a copy of The Best of Best American Erotica 2008, the last of the Best American Erotica series edited by Susie Bright. Of the 23 stories featured in a collection that stretches beyond its fifteen year-history, 15 are written by women. No aliens or Victorians in sight.
I turn to last year's Bad Sex Awards by the Literary Review, for the ten worst attempts at sex in literature. Of the 10, four are women.
“What makes good erotica?” I asked my friend Atherton Bartelby during one of our epic late-night phone conversations over cigarettes and coffee.
“Well, obviously being a good writer, and using language well,” he said. “Also being able to fully explore all elements of fantasy. Also I think that old fiction workshop saying of 'write what you know' is doubly true for erotica. Write what you know, or, write what you fantasize about, and I think if you do, it becomes a much better piece, more involved, more engaging.”
Fantasy lubricates inspiration. While the actual sex appeal of the piece is largely subjective, proper execution of the elements of writing enable the reader to suspend reality.
The bad sex scenes named by the Literary Review share some traits: cliche similes and metaphors (“like a moth to the flame,” “like a cat lapping up a dish of cream,” “as if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning,” “I'd been parched... and he was the long, cool, sensual drink I'd craved,” “like a wave breaking over him in the sea shallows,”), tired descriptions (“agonizing pleasure,” “his spurting glans,” “burned her to the core,” “sighing in bliss,” “ravenous kiss,” “plunged inside me,” “she shuddered to her climax,”), ridiculous elaborations (“the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me,” “[the vagina]'s the Medusa's head, that turns them to stone,” “it was a return to the garden of Eden; it was the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam's body and the two halves became Creation,” “he made her forget she was a Communist,” “so big I mistook it for some sort of monument in the centre of a town. I almost started directing traffic around it,” “as we contorted like origami creations,” “more purring noises, now with little squeals punctuating them,” “into the shuddering void beyond,” “it was as if self-awareness had been surgically removed,” “[she was] like a large terra-cotta urn and... [he] a specialist restorer focused on her intricate finish,”), and annoying words for genitalia (“appendage,” “member,” “membrane,” “hard bead,” “vulva,” “weeping orifice”).
Still, the perpetrators of these sins against erotica are both male and female. As are the rising stars of erotica, found daily across the web in their modern emanation: the sex blogger. To say that gender can determine how good one's writing can be is to place a gross limitation on that person. It's not just limiting—it's an uneducated statement that says far more about the speaker than it does about the authors of erotic literature.
In an interview years before she came out to the public as the author of Story of O, Regine Deforges told Dominique Aury, “They said it was a book that could only be written by a man.”
Aury's response? “It made me laugh.”
Funny—that was my reaction to Vandenburgh's comments for the New York Times.
The Art of the Sex Scene by Catherine Knepper: All the elements I look for in a great scene—vivid writing grounded in the concrete and specific; gripping, convincing action and dialogue; the revelation of character; a ratcheting up of tension—apply no less to sex scenes. Likewise, sex scenes are just as vulnerable to the common pitfalls of any troubled scene: abstraction or vagueness, a lack of tension, a lack of momentum, or stilted dialogue—just to name a few.
JUICY BLOG SNACKS:
Coming Inside by Sinclair
I don’t like making generalized statements like that: “women are made to x because biologically, bodies are built like y,” there is so much unfinished in that statement, and there is some sort of deeper, inner sense of gender and self that is discounted because of our binary system of classification under biology.
But there is something, something about the ways that entering inside, being permitted to come inside, being permitted to invade, to be permitted to take and thrust and enter, is not what my body is made to do, so I am on shaky ground, out of synch with what my cells know.
Embracing My Sluttiness by Nadia West
As usual I find it easier to get naked and fuck someone than to talk with them (after the fucking, the talking is usually easier). We made out in his living room for just a moment, then he took me by the hand and led me to his bedroom. We made out some more, with lots of groping. Then, he told me to take off my clothes. Um, yeah, I think he’s got my number already. I took my clothes off while he took his pants off. “Come over here and suck my cock.” Well, if you insist.
Moonlight and Macalania by Atherton Bartelby
Here are my legs stretched around your body. Here is your other hand, shamelessly moving up my spine, both hands lifting me up, toward, and onto your goal. Here are my teeth, grinding as you pierce the penetrable depth of my interior with the unforgiving length, breadth of you.
Therapy by Elise
“You’re beautiful with your mouth wrapped around my cock, Elise.”
I didn’t reply. How could I? I had him as deep in my throat as I could manage … breathing was difficult, talking impossible. I sucked in air through my nostrils with a hissing noise, felt his hand cup the back of my head and hold me there, refusing to let me withdraw. His scent assailed me as I worked to fight the gag reflex triggered by the head of his cock so near my windpipe.
Pulp Erotica #6 by Sugar Kane
I shivered at the sound of his stern voice as he watched me undress. I was freezing. My nipples rock hard. We were under cover, but the rain kept pouring. I slowly removed my tight jeans as he came closer. There he was, dark like the night, licking his thick lips as his hands rubbed up and down my bare thighs.
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