Classics of Erotica: what makes a classic?

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Ages ago – I think it might even have been last century, if only just – I was commissioned to write a piece for a now-defunct magazine (FIesta Digest, if you want to know, but don’t ask for the issue number) on the Top Ten Erotic Novels Of All Time. The editor sent me his little list, which I immediately disputed, and after quite a lot of freely and frankly exchanged views, we arrived at a compromise list, which I’ll try to reproduce:

In no particular order, we settled on,

Venus In Furs

The Torture Garden – Octave Mirbeau

The Story of O

De Sade (I have a feeling we couldn’t agree on which book, so he got a multiple-book mention.)

Little Birds – Anais Nin

My Secret Life

The She-Devils – Pierre Louys

Fanny Hill

Love All – Molly Parkin

Macho Sluts – Pat Califia

Despite being the author of the article, I didn’t quite agree, in the end, that all ten of those books deserve the ‘classic’ label. My Secret Life, for example, is both dull and nasty, and probably merits its place only as a historical curiousity. I wasn’t wild about Pierre Louys, either, but at least I didn’t have to include The Dice Man, a book I harbour a particular dislike for as the premise is fascinating but both the narrator and every stupid, smug, ‘alternative’ straight white boy who takes it as a bible, are so fucking annoying and do so little with the central idea.

I do remember that the two I insisted on (replacing Henry Miller and someone else) were Molly Parkin and Pat Califia, which are also the two most modern on the list. Part of my reasoning for including them was that both books were – and are – as shocking and taboo-pushing as they are horny. Macho Sluts, in particular, is as much political statement as one-handed read, and Molly Parkin was the Establishment-frightening, much-talked-about Outrageous Woman writer of the late 60s and early 70s. She actually gets a namecheck in Jilly Cooper’s Imogen, in a scene where the librarian heroine is confronted by a Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells type raging about the book’s ‘pure filth’.

Looking back at that, I think the question of what makes an erotic book a classic is quite a complex one. It’s not just shock value, or we’d all be wildly thrilled rather than mildly amused by all those Diddled By A Dinosaur titles. It’s not necessarily literary skill, either – ‘Walter’, the author of My Secret Life, is repetitive and niggly, De Sade is all over the place. The closest I got to anything like a conclusion of what the books had in common was citing a kind of feverish, obsessive intensity they all seemed to have.

It’s partly on my mind because I have just – a bit belatedly perhaps – finished Kristina Lloyd’s Asking For Trouble, often referred to as the most controversial erotic novel ever published by the original Black Lace imprint. If you haven’t read it yet I thoroughly recommend it, and I really wouldn’t be that surprised if, the next time someone puts together a list of contemporary classics, it makes it onto the list. Asking For Trouble is filthy, certainly: I nearly dropped my Kindle in shock at one point. But lots of people write about boundary-pushing sexual acts (the tampon scene in 50 Shades, for instance) without eliciting much of a reaction other than ‘Eww’ or nervous giggles, so it’s not just what the characters get up to. A part of the book’s appeal is the brilliant evocation of Brighton in the late 90s; the town is almost a character in its own right. Kristina Lloyd also captures the irrational, compulsive momentum of unwise lust. I think the most memorable thing about it, finally, is that it depicts a woman who is both sexually submissive – massively sexually submissive – but also a rounded character who is, ultimately, in charge of her own life.

I’m going to have a look back at the classics on my original list, and put up a post about each one, over the next few months. I’d love to know what everyone else thinks, so post your nominations in the comments and I’ll check them all out. (Authors nominating their own books will get the statutory spanking, naturally.)

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2 responses to “Classics of Erotica: what makes a classic?

  1. “Classic Erotica” has always been one of my favorite topics… for reading, writing and debate. My argument has always been that erotica, unlike other literary genres, has to be judged contextually – what the author was trying to do as he was writing, what readers would have taken from it at the time, and how society would have responded to it.

    Certainly it cannot be read with the same eyes that consume modern erotica, for many of the same reasons that you wouldn’t offer Charles Dickens to a Ben Aaronovitch fan; or why many more people know Sherlock Holmes from the movies and TV than have ever read the stories. But also because, these books were largely written for an audience that wanted little more than a prurient stroke story, with no eye for “greatness” or “fame.”

    The Merryland books, for example, are laughable today but at the time, they were unimaginably filthy. My Secret Life IS dull, niggly and nasty, I agree. But so was a lot of Victorian era erotica. It’s what audiences wanted and expected (check out one of the reprints of the Pearl periodical for much more of the same). In fact, the only book from that era I’d recommend to a modern reader would be Devereaux’s Venus in India, and even that has its problems.

    Other books on your list (and other lists too) have attained “classic” status, but – like Holmes – more people know DeSade through reputation than have ever tried wading through one of his frankly interminable books, while Story of O (although enjoyable) is still bolstered more by the legend of its long-time “banning” than by its pretensions to brilliance.

    But I certainly agree with you re Asking for Trouble, and I’m really looking forward to future postings!

    (PS: If you were serious about the spanking, “Miss America – A BDSM Vampire Tale” by Chrissie Bentley is… oh. I see what you mean. Sorry)

  2. Pingback: Sexy psychological thrillers and cake! « Kristina Lloyd

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