Guernica, which is one of the best online culture magazines out there today, just posted their November 1 edition, and it’s quite a compendium of stories, interviews, essays, art, and poetry. They offer a pretty insightful interview with Junot Diaz that gets old JD to let his hair down quite a lot about his alter ego Yunior de la Casa.
I can also very strongly recommend reading Frank Cassese’s essay, “It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time,” a poignant and quite insightful story about the meaning of a postcard he received from the late, great, and beloved writer, David Foster Wallace. For every writer out there on all levels, this essay is a must. And, to be honest, I think people who just love to read books as well as people who love writers (that is, sleep with them and commit loving but, hopefully, sweetly salacious acts with them) should also read this piece. Cassese gets at the heart of the question: Why the hell do we do this to ourselves? It’s a great essay. Guernica should be proud of themselves for getting this out to the rest of us.
What I really want to point out about this issue, though, is that the fiction section is focused on erotica. In this issue and the next one, guest editor, Roxane Gay offers us six erotic stories that also happen to be quite poetic, lyrical, and well-written (literary). Or maybe it’s the other way around. Her own piece, “Broads,” is probably the most descriptively naughty, but the other two, “Boy, A History,” by Saeed Jones, and “Magic City Relic,” by Jennine Capó Crucet provide us with character depths and storylines that can only come out of describing the psyche of the intimate. Language in all of these stories is wielded masterfully. Erotic linguistics is clearly front and center.
Over the past year, I’ve watched the Fifty Shades of Grey craze both in the literary world (mostly hostile) and in the popular reading world (at least partially mischievous and rambunctious) and it’s become clear to me — please argue if you want — that the erotica genre is the most open-ended, inviting, and exciting field serious writers can ask for these days. Forget E.L. James’s millions and the kinky but cliche acrobatics of Christian and Ana, our most intimate selves have always been discovered through our tongues and teeth, hidden scents, wild odors, the taste of another’s gush, and the rising body temperature of two (or more) people helping each other achieve orgasm. In those intimate moments we have thoughts and we often fight to keep them at bay. We also let the full force of love mix with desire. Passion mutates our personalities into who we really are deep, deep down inside.
Desire, it seems to me, cannot be accurately described in this world without stories that bring the reader into the realm of the bone and the flower. (I’m working hard here not to be direct and explicit, because I’m saving myself for the swollen moments of fiction that I will describe in a second). In her introduction to her guest editing gig, Gay writes: “It is a fine line—the one between a literary novel where eroticism is richly imbued throughout and the more explicitly sexual prose of erotica.” What is beautiful about the implications of Ms. Gay’s guest stint is that this line, if that’s what it is, is in the eye of beholder.
Ever since I was old enough to be irreverent, I’ve marveled at the fact that TV, movies, plays, and novels rarely depict characters sitting on the toilet, standing at urinals, wiping themselves, having sex as a matter of course, or masturbating, except as central elements of the story (think about Ben Stiller in “Something About Mary”). This is actually one reason why I love porn, amateur porn in particular. We don’t get enough toilet room moments, but at least we get the apparent uninhibited moments of sex between couples (or larger groups). Even the faked orgasms of hairless, enhanced, and shiny muscled actors are more real than one-liners from Tim Allen or Zooey Deschanel.
For fiction, a world where American Realism has dominated form for a century, no pissing or wiping of the ass seems to me not very realistic. I mean, where did Huck Finn take a crap and what did he wipe with? Or how about a housewife in just one New Yorker story who has a bladder problem and has to keep interrupting a dinnertime argument with her husband to go pee? For great writers, all of whom have spent hours, I assure you, journalling away on powerful and exotic pornography that will never see the light of day, it must be a torment and a half to see people like E.L. James get rich and famous describing stereotype sex acts between idyllic innocents pretending at perversion.
It is refreshing, then, for me anyway, to see a magazine like Guernica (not Playboy or Penthouse) step up its game giving quality writers the opportunity to undress their characters and talk about clits and fucking and cocks and so much more. That’s us folks. That’s who we are behind closed doors (and closed minds, too, perhaps).
See, the thing is, once you open up the tool box of erotica, as a writer you can actually talk about all human experience. No more beating around the bush (so to speak). Portnoy’s Complaint really didn’t go all the way, did it? Neither did any of the Rabbit novels, nor Humbert Humbert’s memoir about sex with a minor. And if you’ve ever read DH Lawrence or even Hemingway’s Garden of Eden you know so much more could have been said had language been allowed to speak directly and call things as we all see them (or want to see them).
I don’t mean to imply that these books and all the great writers who walked up to the line between poetry and reality somehow failed us. How could they? It’s taken well over a millenium to get here. And it’s still a very dangerous thing to describe bodily functions and the thoughts people have when they think about sex and urological and gastroenterological reality. Sometimes it seems to me that our fascination with horror stories and terror was our way of pushing the line of what is acceptable forward.
Now, besides my simple question about why bodily functions are not more a part of stories (and what people are thinking while their body’s function), a more important question is why exactly has there been this censorship on private behavior. The very power of novels is that the reader is provided with intimacies that they otherwise might never experience. There is the reader as “fly on the wall,” and then there is the reader inside the protagonist’s head. We read at least in part to experience other realities, to partake in a kind of telepathy experiment with the writer about human emotion and twisted psychology. And yet, the most intimate stuff has been taboo. It’s almost as if the magic of the unconscious that fiction dredges up might be too much if those final intimacies were illuminated by skilled wordsmiths.
Or is it just taste? And fear of some beast loose in the world that may injure the innocence of children and other chaste humanoids living hallowed, gentle, safe, and irreproachable lives? Maybe there is something to the idea that if we don’t talk about it, then our illusion of innocence cannot be destroyed. Cetainly, serious danger comes from opening up erotica to the realm of artistic expression. One woman’s excitement is another’s pornography. Worse, it’s one thing to describe sexual fantasy and the act itself — boners and vulvas and nipples and scrotums — but it’s something entirely different to describe the thoughts of people connected to these body parts while those body parts are exposed.
But what are we trying to do as writers? Are we poets and artistes, painting exotic pictures with words to entertain and stimulate? Or is it something more? Are we looking to get at the crux of human experience and the magic and mystery of the interface between the mind and the body, the inner world and the world outside of the self, the conscious and the unconscious?
Every writer has to answer these questions for themselves. There is no one answer. For me, I have two novels coming out over the next several years that take this latter perspective. Sex and bodily elimination are by no means all that I’m writing about, but they are front and center. I don’t get crude, but I’ve already been told by some early readers that my stories make them feel uncomfortable. The sweet illusion that people aren’t sometimes twisted, partially psychotic , or even juvenile inside their own minds is something I admit to breaking down. But whatever it is you see and feel in men and women walking around in your world is not all that’s going on. You know that. Are you really unable to read about it? How honest does one need to be about the world as it really is? Just like writers, every reader has to come up with their own answer.
In her editorial introduction for Guernica, Roxane Gay describes James Salter’s language in his novel A Sport and a Pastime as striking “a balance, he has walked along that fine line—reminding us of these lovers and their human bodies, their attraction to one another, and still elevating the prose beyond bodily functions.” She also writes: “At times, the sex is utterly banal and still, we want to know about Dean’s prick, and Anne-Marie’s breath, and the wantonness of their bodies as they couple.”
So which is it? Elevated or banal? Do you want to know, or are you happy that you can’t quite get there? Gay’s own prose in “Broads” is anything but not quite getting there. She is an impressive writer. Because at the same time, while taking us all the way, the profound excitement of desire washes over the reader and opens up so many emotional possibilities for the characters. The banal is anything but still. The mind is elevated to a new and promising dynamic. Those interfaces of body-mind, within-without, and conscious-unconscious come alive. Finally!
In writing all of this, I fear that I’ve discussed a secret that has been out there for a while now. Digital readers allow us to read anything we want in public and at home in plain sight of everyone and no one can see the cover of the book. The puerile is now potentially invisible in the world — but not in our heads. If your spouse all of a sudden got very worked up about obtaining a Kindle this Christmas (or last summer when Fifty Shades was kicking ass) now you know why. I’m going to predict that erotica is going to become an expanded part of all literary genres over the next decade. The next version of Easy Rollins is going to have a penis that’s part of his life. Maybe JK Rowling was just practicing for her next Harry Potter entry with her “adult novel” The Casual Vacancy.”
All of this is important for the highly competitive publishing world and it’s new frontiers. There’s some evidence (see Have We Already Reached “Peak E-book?”) that the boom times for the ebook market are slowing. So, hopefully, if you’re an entrepreneurial writer, you’ve been seeing all along where I’m going with this — books are going to sell a lot more if the erotica toolbox is open for all.
And that porn stuff? Well, it may very likely fade away. The only reason it existed in the first place was because it wasn’t allowed anywhere else. Now that’s something really 21st century — The End of Pornography. “Oh, my.”