Common to the most dismissive attacks on E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey has been a disdain for its perceived genre of “mommy porn,” as if the very juxtaposition of those two hated words established something so contemptible that nothing more need be said. It’s like the “mommy state” and “porn addiction” rolled into one! Let’s hate on it!
Certainly there are big problems with the power relationships in Fifty Shades of Grey. But in claiming to promote “real” erotic writing, Time Out fumbles big-time. I would go so far as to say their article by Michele Filgate entitled “Ten Books More Erotic than Fifty Shades of Grey“ ranks as one of the most ignorant things I’ve read about sex so far this year — and this, frankly, is a hell of a year to be competing for that dubious honor.
As far as we here at the expansive Deception Press offices can tell, the article mentions not one single example of actual erotica. What it contains are six examples of literary novels about sex, plus one memoir, one book of poetry, and a forty-year-old sex guide, about which Filgate apparently only thinks the illustrations are hot.
To those of us who, say, have spent the last twenty-five years busting our asses and facing every manner of social prejudice to ass-kick the erotica genre, Filgate’s list is insulting enough.
But by using the headline to judge Fifty Shades of Gray against — I am not kidding — The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Filgate makes it pretty clear she has no idea what Fifty Shades of Grey is. One could write a lengthy treatise (far lengthier than this) about why Pride and Prejudice is a better novel than The Silence of the Lambs, but what would be the point? Exactly the same point as judging Fifty Shades of Grey against Pride and Prejudice — to make the latter’s proponent feel superior.
How much more ridiculous, then, is it to judge not one novel against another, but Fifty Shades of Grey against a book of poetry? How obvious can it be that what the author is establishing is not what ten erotic books are “sexier than Fifty Shades of Grey,” but which ten erotic books she approves of?
And with this selection, Filgate proclaims from the highest mountain that she does not approve of erotic fiction — or, actually, that she hasn’t the foggiest idea what it is.
Case in point, and first on the list, is Kafka Was the Rage, by Anatole Broyard. Now, we here at the Deception Press offices happen to have read this book and loved it. It’s a hell of a likeable book, right up there with Edmund White and Diane DiPrima, but it’s not erotic fiction. It isn’t even fiction. And it certainly isn’t erotica. It’s a memoir, sexy at times and definitely sexually provocative. But it is a far howl from the escapist fantasies of Fifty Shades of Grey — and as far as one can get from Twilight fan-fic, which is where Fifty Shades started.
Fine, so….Michele Filgate liked Kafka Was the Rage more than Fifty Shades. Does that make it fair to compare them? Only if Filgate builds a case for it, which she hasn’t.
Second on the list? Vox by Nicolson Baker, the cause celebre for explicit sexual writing among the literary set of the early 1990s. An excerpt from it was featured in Susie Bright‘s Best American Erotica series, which is fine, except it wasn’t erotica then and it isn’t erotica now. Bright’s including it in that volume was not so much a pretense that Vox is “literary erotica” as it was a statement about a cultural trend and an acknowledgement that Baker’s novel was a significantly important work in the history of erotic writing. Maybe Filgate feels the same way.
So, then…why is Vox on this list, and no volume of Best American Erotica is?
If the answer is because Best American Erotica is no longer being published…well, neither is Vox, you know. It’s a novel; it gets published, it stays published (sometimes). Anthology series tend to be forgotten the second they’re off the table, but to have missed the significance of Best American Erotica is just plain odd for a writer who decided to compile this particular list. It didn’t stop being significant when the last volume was issued, nor are used copies exactly hard to find.
I find it far more likely that Filgate happens to have read and enjoyed Vox and approves of it, but doesn’t approve of Best American Erotica — or has never even heard of it. I’m also not so sure she’s heard of Maxim Jakubowski’s long-running Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica series, or of any of the bazillion anthologies edited by the likes of Alison Tyler, Violet Blue, or Rachel Kramer Bussel.
Did she decide those books are “not more erotic than Fifty Shades of Grey,” or did she not bother to look?
Unfortunately, the rest of the list seems to imply the latter. It is composed of literary crossover fiction with erotic themes, not the kind of erotic novel that Fifty Shades represents as a genre. I’m pretty sure that Filgate doesn’t, or wouldn’t, understand the distinction, or would believe it invalid. Well, tough shit. She’s comparing apples and oranges. And I think she’s doing it because she made up the list by grabbing the books she already knew about — the kind of books someone stumbles on if they’re a literary fiction reader.
But the hallmark of the excruciating sex-negativity on this list is the inclusion of Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex. This is a critical book in the history of sex guides, but it is forty years old. That makes it not exactly the most current sex guide out there. Did Filgate completely miss the many, many sex guides published since then? Yeah, apparently. And she didn’t bother to look, because she obviously doesn’t approve of books about sex. Just read what she writes about The Joy of Sex:
Okay, so you don’t read this book as much as sneak a look at the scandalous pictures—especially when you’re 12 years old and staying at a friend’s house, and notice said friend’s parents’ copy on their bookshelf. If a picture is worth a thousand words, we’d say just one of this book’s evocative illustrations—e.g., the oral encounter Comfort identifies as “mouth music”—is definitely worth more than several thousand words from the James’s pen.
Great, so now we’re comparing glimpsed illustrations in a sex guide to a novel, and deeming one “erotic” and the other “not erotic”? And, thank you very much, but “I” don’t “sneak a look at the scandalous pictures,” I’ve read The Joy of Sex many times, along with plenty of other sex guides. Very good friends of mine have even written some.
You might think we’re just being pedantic, but this is is sex-hating propaganda at its most egregious. It’s the kind of hate speech that keeps women feeling bad about their desires. And unfortunately, it’s a very common roadblock to an open mind about sex. The gap between “What turns me on” and “What turns you on” yawns out vast and empty, with dragons and demons pirouetting through it. Whether “you” and “me” are you and me, you and your lover, or you and the “mommies” who supposedly jack it to Fifty Shades, one is grabbing at straws when one has to trot out Broyard’s memoir and Pablo Neruda in order to bag on what someone else gets hot for.
If Fifty Shades doesn’t work for you, who gives a damn? If you have serious reservations about its portrayal of supposedly consensual power exchange relationships — as we certainly do, or as Jennifer Armintrout brilliantly articulates in her chapter-by-chapter criticism of Fifty Shades — then, hell, more power to you (get it?). Detail them and we can have a conversation about what makes good porn, good erotica, good literature, good S/M, good D/s, good entertainment.
But slinging covertly misogynistic, ageist labels like “mommy porn” doesn’t mean you get to stack Fifty Shades of Grey up against Pablo Neruda and then feel superior to those who like the former and have never heard of the latter.
Not when that distinction itself can only be valid in a literary universe that ignores what has been happening in the world of actual literary erotica for the last twenty years. And the definition of literary erotica is, as far as we here at Deception Press are concerned, fiction intended to turn you on, not fiction that happens to be about sex. And sure as hell not the illustrations in The Joy of Sex.
If you want to compare Packing Heat: Femdom Strap-On Stories to Fifty Shades of Grey…fine, you’re comparing short stories with a novel, but at least they’re in the same general genre and carry the same general intention for most readers: they’re probably reading them to get turned on. At least, everyone I know who read Fifty Shades under their own power read it to get turned on, since “Reading it to see what the buzz is about” is hardly reading a book under your own power.
But if you’re going to compare Packing Heat to The Sheltering Sky or for that matter Le Morte D’Arthur, then why don’t you save yourself the trouble and compare a hawk and a handsaw? You’ll get the same glib sense of satisfaction if you like one and not the other, and you won’t have to insult an entire group of writers, editors and artists who have spent the last twenty years reinventing writing about sex in order to get it.