In response to a previous post of mine AgTigress said that
I am most uncomfortable about a classification that distinguishes at a primary level between 'didactic love fiction' and 'erotic (love fiction)'. The first level of any typology has to employ definitions that cannot overlap, otherwise the whole framework totters. [...] clearly a novel about love or a human relationship may be both erotic (= dealing with the topic of sexual love) and didactic ( = aiming to teach some lesson or principle) - or it may be neither.Leaving aside what is or isn't "didactic," the following is a guest post by AgTigress which explores the differences between "erotica" and "pornography." I think it complements Sarah's post "Erotica vs. Porn" and my "Romance Novels: Pornography or Literature?"
The links included in the text were added by me.
Censorship and expurgation have a long history which is interwoven with profound changes in society over the last few centuries, a history that still casts a shadow today. It is too complex to examine in detail here, but some background knowledge is helpful if we are to understand why the current classifications of novels containing explicit sex seem to give people a lot of trouble. We are dealing with the aftermath of a situation that existed from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, in which open references to sexuality were believed to be wholly unfit for the ears and eyes of people whose innocence required protection, then defined as children and respectable adult women, or whose natural tendency towards licentious behaviour required restraint, namely the unsophisticated and uneducated members of the underprivileged classes. Most parents still exercise rights of censorship over their children’s reading, and most adults still do not wish to find practices they regard as intrinsically wrong, such as the sexual exploitation of children, casually featured and described in their leisure reading. We all recognise certain limits, and should be able to understand in principle the setting of boundaries, even though those boundaries vary enormously on an individual, generational and regional basis.1
The difficulties with clear classifications and definitions of erotica, so-called ‘romantica’ (an etymologically regrettable word) and pornography arise because the situation is still fluid and changing today. Those who discuss current fiction genres sometimes know little of the paths that have been travelled within the last few decades. Attitudes to sexuality have altered particularly radically over the last 50 years, and this is reflected in all areas of life, including changes in the legal position regarding censorship, and ongoing debates on what, exactly, constitutes ‘obscenity’.
In the 1950s, a writer could not, in a mainstream English-language novel, describe any acts in which a respectable married couple might engage on their conjugal couch; the bedroom door had to be firmly closed on the reader. Only the most cautiously euphemistic circumlocutions might be employed to indicate that a couple were having a good time in bed. Between the late 18th century and the end of the 1950s, there was no possibility of classifying any widely available book as an ‘erotic novel’. Any fiction with overt sexual description was unquestioningly classed as pornographic, and was in breach of obscenity laws. No distinction was made between well-written works and semi-literate ones; between books with interesting plots or with none; between those with well-drawn characters and those with identikit ciphers recognisable, if at all, only by the size and capabilities of their genitals. If a book openly described sexual acts, it was pornographic, and that was that.2
In the 19th century there were real problems even in the publication of academic non-fiction that dealt with sexual topics. However, works dealing with medicine or with some of the more arcane aspects of art-history or anthropology were not popular, mass-market books: they were expensive volumes, written to inform rather than to entertain and titillate, and were written and read only by highly educated men. They were therefore not expected to pose any dangers to the morals of the man (or worse still, the woman) in the street, who had neither the education nor the leisure time and disposable income to acquire and read them. Sexually explicit fiction was, in fact, published in Victorian Britain, but the publishers ran considerable risks, for their activities were illegal. Their marketing strategies had to be devious and inventive, and their readership was almost exclusively wealthy and upper-class. There were other problems relating to the visual arts, but that is a different, though connected, story.
In the changing society of the post-Second World War world, attitudes shifted dramatically, and this was quite obvious and visible even to a reasonably socially aware teenager at the time. In the UK, better and more easily available education, including university education, facilitated greater social mobility, and many of the rigid puritanical certainties of earlier decades, still based on a Victorian view of class and morality, started to crumble.
A crucial legal test-case took place in 1960, when Penguin Books decided to test the brand-new Obscene Publications Act of 1959 by putting out Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in paperback. The book had first been published in 1928, but was obtainable in unexpurgated form only on the Continent. Raunchy English-language novels were sometimes printed and published in France, Germany or other European countries, and were consequently available to the wealthier sections of society who habitually travelled abroad. Ordinary middle-class and working-class Britons did not do so in the first half of the 20th century. Their holidays, if any, were too short, as were their finances. It has always been assumed by the rich and privileged (as it is by campaigners for censorship), that they themselves are somehow immune from the corrupting effects of obscenity that they hold to be so dangerous to hoi polloi. A paperback at 3/6d placed Lawrence’s notorious novel within easy reach of the masses, and struck at the very heart of the status quo regarding ‘racy’ fiction. (Three shillings and sixpence, a typical price for a paperback novel at the time, is 17½ p. in today’s UK currency, equivalent to about 35 US cents).3
Social and class implications run right through this topic, in the visual arts as well as literature. The most famous quotation from the Lady Chatterley trial was the revealing question one of the prosecution barristers asked a witness – 'would you want your wife or your servant to read it?' (My italics). Those who have read the book will be well aware of its extreme social, as well as sexual, subversiveness in the context of its 1920s setting: not only does it describe sexual intercourse, but it describes it taking place, with enjoyment, between an upper-class woman and a working-class man. That question, posed in 1960, brought home to most who heard or read it just how much the world had changed. The idea that a man had any right to control his wife’s choice of reading-matter, and the mere mention of servants, seemed completely irrelevant and archaic to most of us in 1960. Penguin won their case, on the new legal grounds of ‘literary merit’ as a justification for explicit sexual content. The mere presence of sexual incidents in a book no longer defined it automatically as pornographic, obscene and illegal, and the Penguin edition went on to sell 3 million copies, many of them doubtless to people who had not previously heard of D.H. Lawrence. Definitions had to be changed, but this has happened informally and gradually, and the situation in other English-speaking countries may lack the clear 1960 turning-point identifiable in the UK.
But if we return to the basic definitions from the etymology of the words, which is always a good thing to do, obvious definitions almost write themselves. ‘Pornography’ means ‘writings about whores’ and ‘erotica’ means ‘matters pertaining to eros, that is, sexual love’.
Prostitutes engage professionally, for profit, in a series of sexual acts with individuals whom they do not know personally, and with whom they therefore cannot feel any emotional ties. In a parallel sense, writings that describe a series of sexual acts between people whom the reader never gets to know, or even to recognise and tell apart, and does not care about, are pornographic. However, the prostitute – and the actors in a pornographic text – may find the sex acts perfectly agreeable, and may be engaging in them voluntarily, or indeed with enthusiasm: the sex acts themselves need not be unusual and extreme, as long as there are plenty of them. Written pornography should thus consist of a sequence of descriptions or vignettes of sex acts, often barely connected with each other in terms of story and plot (and frequently set against an unrealistically theatrical or exotic backdrop), taking place between stock characters that are interchangeable ciphers. The aim is solely to arouse sexual excitement in the reader. Like any other fiction, pornography may be well written and enjoyable or badly written and ridiculous.
Erotic activities must, by definition, involve personal, emotional ties of some kind, because the definition includes love. Agape is spiritual love, eros physical, sexual love. If a reader is to feel anything emotional, as opposed to physical, from reading a book, characters have to be rounded; they have to evolve and develop; they have to be real and interesting people who relate to one another in memorable ways. This is why Cleland's 1749 classic is not pornography, but erotica. The Happy Ever After ending is irrelevant to whether a work is erotic or pornographic: that characteristic belongs to romance, erotic or otherwise, and as it happens, Fanny Hill is also a romance, with a strongly emphasised HEA ending.
Erotica should therefore follow the usual rules of novels in having a proper story, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and believable, well-drawn characters who grow and change during the course of the story. The reader may still find the action sexually stimulating, but will also enjoy a specific narrative, not simply a sequence of generic sexual acts. ‘Erotica’ should also indicate novels in which the principal theme is the sexual relationship of the leading characters; they are about the sexual relationship(s) above all else. This differentiates erotica from the many other novels, common today, though completely unthinkable and illegal in the past, in which the main story arc is about romance, suspense, mystery, family relationships – any one of a dozen genres – but in which sexual incidents, where they take place in the text, are described in an open, graphic and detailed fashion.
There seems to be a widespread view today that erotica must include descriptions of adventurous and inventive sexual practices rather than so-called ‘vanilla sex’. This assumption has probably arisen because we have come to regard it as normal that the description of everyday sexual acts is perfectly acceptable and is often included in quite unremarkable, mainstream books that are readily available to all. This may lead us to imagine that ‘erotica’ must be something different and less ordinary. The precise types of sexual practices described seem to me to constitute another and separate classificatory system that can cut right across the main genre typology; for example, homosexual pornography, erotica, erotic romance and non-erotic romance are all viable definitions. As it might be hard, though not impossible, to sustain a whole novel on the basis of one devoted couple repeatedly copulating in the missionary position with the lights out, erotic novels probably do tend to display some sexual variety, but orgies with casts of thousands, or unusual uses of household appliances, are certainly not necessary to qualify a work as erotic.
‘Pornography’ continues to be used loosely and, in my view, inaccurately, as a pejorative term, but it is much better classification to avoid such value-judgements and to confine the term to writings that simply describe series of sexual vignettes without much in the way of plot or character-development. Because of the wide range of personal taste in sexual matters, what is offensive to one reader may be perfectly acceptable or pleasing to another. I have heard people declare that pornography is only about ‘bad’ kinds of sex – rape, paedophilia, bestiality, genuine sadism and the like. But some people regard homosexuality or consensual bondage games as disgusting and perverse, while others regard them as perfectly normal. I have even seen people claim that badly-written sex should be defined as pornography. All these approaches define pornography as ‘sexual fiction which I, personally, find offensive’. Individual tastes are a totally unreliable and unscholarly basis for classification; no wonder people disagree on what ‘pornography’ is, when they venture into such subjective territory. A more detached and objective approach is necessary.
If we stay with the basic meanings, both pornography and erotica may be well-written or badly-written; both may deal with kinds of sexual activity that an individual reader finds either exhilarating or repellent or any point between: the big difference is that pornography is episodic and lacks the true story arc and distinctive characters that we expect to find in a fully evolved novel. It is aimed only at arousing physical sexual response in the reader. A simple test of pornography is that the average reader can easily lose track of exactly who is doing what to whom. Erotica, though focusing on sexual activity, should follow the conventional structure of novels in having a proper story and believable characters.
1 The history of literary censorship in Britain and North America up to the late 1960s is wittily and informatively told in Noel Perrin’s Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy (London, 1970).
2 The term ‘erotica’, along with ‘curiosa’, was used chiefly in relation to 18th-century or earlier books and art with sexual themes, privately produced, or produced at times and places with sexual and social mores unlike those of Victorian Britain.
3 [This is a footnote added by Laura] I suspect that AgTigress's conversion doesn't take into account inflation. You can use this currency converter to "Find out how yesterday's prices compares to today's prices." They're using the word "yesterday" extremely loosely, since their converter will convert UK (English) currency from 1270 to 2005. I'm really including this link because I think it might be interesting for everyone who enjoys reading (or writing) historical romances. If you then want to convert modern UK pounds into another currency, you could use the converter here.
[And one final note from me (Laura). The illustration is, of course, the cover of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover from 1960, cover design by Stephen Russ. I found it at Wikipedia.]