Look, I’m not saying it’s Great Art. I’m just saying it spoke to me.
It bothers me when people ask questions like “What purpose does erotica serve?” or “Why do you read/write erotica?” because it’s like asking me to justify the existence of something that I don’t really think needs justifying.
I feel that the value of it is apparent, but it’s unfortunately not apparent to most people. If it were, there wouldn’t be this tremendous hostility toward it culturally, or this sick antipathy that causes non-erotica writers and publishers and so on to give us the cold shoulder, to pretend not to notice when we get shoved around, I can only presume because, like schoolkids ignoring the bully beating up on the weird kid, they either don’t care or don’t want to draw attention to themselves or create even a tenuous connection between what they do and what we do.
I can’t say if it’s this way elsewhere, but we Americans like things to have a clear-cut purpose. We want to be able to justify the things we like by saying that they are good for us. We feel this need to justify and defend everything, to make everything that makes us happy into something that is necessary and therefore respectable.
And to Americans, sex is just not respectable. It’s filthy and it’s dirty and it either leads to babies and everyone knows parents never have sex because having sex with kids around somewhere is just W-R-O-N-G because they might see it and be traumatized instantly or worse, would get the idea that sex is fun … or sex leads to not having babies, which leads to people just fucking willy-nilly all over the place, on public transportation, in the waiting area at the Olive Garden, in the jury box in the courtroom, in the aisles at PetSmart, popping Plan-B pills like Pez and penciling in abortions between orgy night and the homosex recruitment dinner and talent show and spending government money on unnecessary birth control that they wouldn’t need if they weren’t slutty, slutty, sluts.
I mean, we love sex, culturally, we’re crazy about it, but when it comes down to people actually having it, or making accommodations for that in our society, we have all kinds of fucked-up hangups. So pleasurable things are considered “luxuries.” As in, not something you need, but something in which you indulge. Things that are unnecessary, and therefore not respectable. Erotica falls squarely into that category. It’s seen as wank material, and that’s all, and there is nothing respectable about it. The standard view is that nobody needs it. It’s something you read for pleasure, it’s related to sex, it’s just not something most folks want to admit has value.
But erotica is more than wank material, so much more than that. It’s an entire genre dedicated to exploring an area of the human experience that many writers explicitly exclude from their works. Like any other genre, it can illuminate things about us that we might otherwise only glimpse. It has many purposes, not just to arouse; it can be there to challenge, to push, to provoke, to alarm, to disgust, to horrify, to elate, to explain, to bridge gaps and increase understanding.
Is all erotica valuable in this way? Well, no. Not all erotica is as transcendent and artful as The Story of O. Certainly not all of it is important on a literary scale. Boffy the Dick Slayer: Boffy’s Magic Dildo* is not going to pack the same punch as Venus in Furs, and will likely not be remembered with the same fondness. Yes, I do absolutely believe that some books are better than others. Even the bad books, though, have some value. They’re part of human expression, a product of our unique consciousness. Many of them, maybe especially the bad ones, are manifestations of our innermost fantasies; to produce such a thing, even if you never show it to another human being, is an act of great courage. If we’re looking for a reason to justify its existence, surely all of that counts for something.
Perhaps no other genre deals so nakedly with the desires of the human body and heart, and perhaps in no other genre do our finer qualities coexist so closely with our grossest animal urges. The erotic tale, even on a level as unrefined as a Penthouse Forum letter, possesses extraordinary power to repel or compel. Erotica stands with horror and humor as a genre with much greater depth than it would at first appear, a genre that deals baldly with our most visceral responses, and I think it’s no coincidence that horror and humor are also oft-maligned as trash and swiftly repressed as dangerous … or that there is so much overlap between the three.
A genre shouldn’t be judged by the worst of it. Some genres have more “worst” than others, and erotica/porn is one of them. So much of what is produced and published by respected erotica publishers would not stand up if held to the same standards as regular fiction. I would argue that this is partly because people don’t treat it with the respect it deserves. They don’t expect much from it. They have lowered standards, reduced expectations. I’d also argue that it’s also partly because people have an enormous appetite for it, and an apparently equal appetite to produce it. I find the lack of quality quite frustrating, yet those things are virtues, too, in their way. There’s a kind of all-embracing camaraderie to smut, it’s a catholic genre in the truest sense, and belongs to people of all tastes and proclivities.
If a person can’t see the value of a genre that attracts readers and writers to it in such numbers, that so splendidly produces pearls and pig shit with equal bliss and abandon and without judgment, that deals so fundamentally with our most-censured and possibly most potent urge, then I really don’t know how to explain it. And it’s hard for me, very hard, not to automatically assume that people who dismiss it out of hand as worthless or beneath notice or of no literary value are also dismissive and disapproving of the human sexual urge and its many manifestations, because the cookie really seems to crumble that way. Show me someone who wants to restrict what gets printed who doesn’t also want to restrict what consenting people can do with one another.
So when someone asks me why I read or write erotica, or what the value of it is, I feel sad, because that’s a question that I don’t know if I could answer in any way that would mean anything to the kind of person who’d ask it. All I can say is that if you read it, or wrote some yourself, it might teach you a thing or two, but usually they don’t want to hear that. They don’t want it to be something that cannot be reduced to a simple series of bullet points summarizing its virtues and beneficial effects, they don’t want it to be something they will have to explore for themselves if they are to understand it at all. They are completely missing the point.
* Actual title pulled off Smashwords this evening.