A few years back I worked weekends in my local bookshop. I got the job on the actual afternoon of my eighteenth birthday, the shop being handily placed between a pub and a large green common, so off I toddled buzzing with cheap Cava and lots of presumably incoherent things to say about Agatha Christie.
It was during this time that I first began to read stuff we might class as ‘erotic’. In the spring of 2008, Charlotte Roche published Wetlands, a nifty, pink little hardback with an innocuous-looking avocado on the front cover. Not being able to glean a whole lot else from it, I dived in.
And this, as they say, is where the real fun began. Wetlands was FILTH: pure, unadultered smut. It wasn’t designed to titillate. It wasn’t meant to be ‘sexy’. What it was, was honest – at times cripplingly so. It tells the story of Helen, a young lady holed up in the crank because she’s cut one of her haemorrhoids whilst trying to shave her butt. Helen’s obsessed with all things physical, taking great pleasure in all the weird quips and perks of her own (and other people’s) body. She loves sex because she loves the fundamental lack of hygiene involved in it. (For some, it proved too much. I’d get an enormous kick from recommeding the book to stuffy women who wandered in ‘looking for a present for Cousin Julian’s 50th’ and who returned a week later, glowering.)
You wouldn’t call Wetlands erotic, though of course it does deal, almost constantly, in sex. So what makes for an erotic novel? Their purpose, I think, is multi-faceted: designed to arouse primarily, but also, like all literature, to instruct: to teach and show. They can provide readers with an alternate universe, a place of retreat from their own, dull or dulled sex lives. Although we’d all like to hope it did, nothing much separates Mills and Boon from, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Woman meets man, often illicitly, man kisses woman’s ear, woman lunges for man’s belt, and the rest is history. Secret Erotica novels might be written differently, they might strike varying tones with us as we read them but they are all, at bottom, following a formula.
Of course, literary convention plays a big part. Lady Chatterley can be placed alongside other works which, on publication, proved simply too scandalous for contemporary eyes: the Marquis de Sade, for instance, Anaïs Nin, The Sexual Life of Catherine Millet and – my own personal favourite – the utterly insatiable Fanny Hill. What’s interesting is that our attitudes not specifically to sex but to the presentation of sex – whether it be descriptive or visual – have changed so much. People have always had sex: that much is a given, but only in the last fifty years have we been comfortable enough to see it written down as modern erotica, in all its bare-arsed glory. The Brontës had to veil it a bit in the 1800s with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but they didn’t bloody veil it much. The main characters dash across wet moorlands, clawing at each other: they shag their bosses, and get so pissed up they let the mad, bad nympho out of the attic. However piously you want to present it, these, my friends are the facts.
‘Erotic literature’ covers a whole host of different media and style. Tastes vary, times change, but, as Fanny’s umpteenth paramour says as he prepares for mad lovin’ and heads a little too far upstream: my dear, any port in a storm!