Introduction to THE SECRET RECORD
Man goes constantly in fear of himself.
His erotic urges terrify him.
Death And Sensuality
The subject of erotic literature is an area of our lives that exists within us like a separate, troubled country. Like death, sex obsesses us all in ways we often cannot define or admit, even to ourselves, for we have been trained since childhood to observe a solemn quiet on these topics, like tourists in our own souls. While people will talk freely about subjects that are of less importance to them, they are reluctant to discuss their erotic natures. Despite the unprecedented public attention given to sexuality in the past decade, for most people it is still forbidden territory, and to them, an erotic novel is still a dirty book.
Yet the function of erotic literature is to express the secret part of our lives which periodically rules us no less than money or death. By presenting erotic tumult, writers give form to emotions which are often unruly and sometimes anarchic. Their books are tentative maps-the rough cartography of explorers-which create order in the terra incognita of our psyches, and what can thus be circumscribed can be understood. Such writing confirms an important measure of our interior worlds and purges us of our fear of the unknown.
We read what frightens us because the work confronts our deepest suspicions about life; we agree upon an objective world we call civilization, and find in horror stories expressions of our nightmares about it. In the present, some of us go to erotic literature the way our grandparents went to Dracula and the tales of the Brothers Grimm: for affirmation of the creative life of chaos within ourselves. We are reminded by that chaos that we have private beings which cannot be preempted by the stem demands of the world outside us.
Erotic literature possesses a raw, innocent power which general literature has lost for many readers. It is popular writing, not yet divorced from its source in folk stories; popular, yet still socially forbidden, despite its current quasi-legal acceptance in the United States. Perhaps it is because of this power-and its underground popularity-that civilization has had so many telltale reactions to it, ranging from proscription through ridicule, feigned boredom, and uneasy condescension. Society has taken it very seriously indeed. After all, erotic writing is a threat to the conventional moral order-Dionysus calling to the demons of the unconscious-and general literature is seldom so directly threatening. The ordinary run of fiction is shelved in public libraries and ignored while society gets on with its business. Not so erotic writing. Like other branches of popular literature, it is read by people from one end of the intellectual spectrum to the other.
There is an audience for this kind of writing, perhaps larger than that for science fiction and mystery stories, but unfortunately few critics who are willing to guide readers to a deeper understanding of it. There have been some critical studies devoted to those erotic classics which have survived the centuries, but modern erotic literature, by which I mean a large number of books written from asexual perspective and published in Europe and America in this century, has been met with silence by critics and reviewers.
An important result of this neglect of erotic literature has been that the constructive processes of public appraisal and literary criticism have not been available to it. Erotic writing is therefore peculiarly virginal, for in the absence of these reactions there are no standards by which its real achievements can be measured. Art of any kind is in one sense an argument between artist and audience, an effort by the artist to persuade his contemporaries of the truth and importance of his vision; it cannot mature without a response. Erotic writing is strong because it is read innocently and weak because its readers have no criteria by which to judge it. If it is not better, one of the reasons is that society has not looked at it straightforwardly. Strother Purdy makes this point in his essay "On the Psychology of Erotic Literature." '
...we are forced to a partial realization of why so much erotic literature
is bad: although it deals with the basis of life, censorship and guilt force
it out of the normal course of life and literature, and it makes a virtue out
of its handicap, strengthening rather than seeking to control and diminish
its departure from verisimilitude.
What about these "dirty books" then? Are they an "important source of mythic self-knowledge," as the critic Peter Michelson believes, or are they trash, as their detractors argue? What is the difference is the difference between good and bad erotic writing and how is one to distinguish between the two? The problem is common to every literary genre.
The formulas of popular literature may be transformed and even transcended, but if a writer succeeds in doing this, has he raised the level of the genre, or escaped it into general literature? Just as there are detective novels which affect us with the power of literature, and thousands of others which are no more than crossword puzzles, there are some erotic novels which by all standards of literary judgment are works of art. This should seem self-evident to the informed, unbiased reader, but most people are unable to approach erotic literature without a personal bias based on their attitude toward its subject matter. Yet while it is not necessarily true that understanding produces sympathy, it is obvious that intolerance inhibits understanding.
Still worse for attaining a broader perspective on the field is the attitude that grants erotic literature its occasional masterpieces while scorning the genre from which they arise. Exceptional work may be found in every genre, but before the masterpieces of erotic literature can be accurately assessed, it will be necessary for the discriminating reader to accept the murky Mississippi from which they flow as a legitimate waterway.
Europeans poke fun at Americans writing about sex; we approach the subject too piously, they say. They're probably right. There is something in our souls-is it still that durable Puritan conviction of sin?-which makes it necessary for us to treat sex like thin ice, likely to crack beneath us. We take our sex as seriously as we used to take our work, constantly trying to improve it, tinkering with it, justifying it, unable to leave it alone to nourish us. Being American, I agree that sex is no laughing matter. Although I believe that joy is one of the synonyms of sex, and that erotic writing lends itself to a comic buoyancy, laughter is often the most effective obstacle to sexual arousal. Despite this, humor, which includes the grotesque, the awkward, and the embarrassing occasion in bed, has been a fertile source of themes in erotic fiction.
What are some of the other themes-as opposed to the formulas-of erotic literature? Fantasy has been an important and pervasive element in the genre. Few of us will ever murder someone, travel to Mars, punch cows on the open range, or satisfy a dozen strangers at an orgy; but we can live these experiences vicariously. Obviously one of the attractions of fiction is that it enables us to experience vicariously a thousand lives we wouldn't have the courage, time, or inclination for in reality; erotic fiction dramatically increases the number of vicarious experiences available to us. In most instances, however, the themes of erotic writing are the familiar themes of mainstream writing, among them innocence and its loss; degradation and redemption; freedom" and enslavement; desire and its consequences; and the transcendence of the ego.
One of the functions of literature, and especially popular literature, is to reflect and report upon the passions of the day. Presently, when sex occupies so prominent a place in our cultural life, it doesn't seem outrageous to suggest that erotic writing may be the popular literature that most accurately mirrors a large part of contemporary life, a secret record, so to speak, of our secret lives. In any event, thinking about sexuality has undergone such a rapid change in the past decade that its literature has become progressively acceptable to large numbers of people, particularly the young, who read erotic writing as much for entertainment and the confirmation of their own beliefs and lifestyles as for titillation. People have seen that the insights of Freud and the discoveries of sexual research since Freud can hardly be applied by a literature which ignores sexuality.
These are some of the arguments for an intelligent reading of erotic literature and for its acceptance as a legitimate genre of writing, but the most important is pleasure. Which is to say: What is wrong with reading a book for the purpose of both physical and mental stimulation? Why do we forbid ourselves sexual arousal when we read?
Eros is, in the classical sense, one of the first impulses of all literature. Poets feel a connection with eros both historical and personal, which may be why so many of them have- contributed to modern erotic writing. The connection between poets and erotic writing has been a productive one. The interest of poets in exploring the potential of this genre of fiction coincided with a period in history when legal and market conditions were right. When the 1966 U .S. Supreme Court decision on pornography made possible the publication of explicitly erotic novels, the demand for writers by publishers in the field was great. Most of these publishers appeared from nowhere, with no experience or interest in publishing beyond the money to be made during a boom, and they protected themselves by insisting on formulaic hackwork designed to appeal to the widest audience; but a few had the imagination-or the indifference- to commission work by young writers curious and open about the form and in need of the relatively small fees that were being paid.
Their encounters with a form as rigid in some ways as the Japanese haiku produced variations, viewpoints, styles, and themes they could only have arrived at in erotic fiction. Perhaps that is why their novels are often more exciting than other areas of contemporary literary experimentation: this tension between tradition and formula and the freedom to work up to the limits of one’s erotic imagination. Of course for every good erotic novel, there are a thousand failures; nevertheless, a serious assessment of the achievements of the genre is long past due.
It may be useful to list at the start what this book is, and what it is not; to define, and to note some intentions. In the context of this book, erotic literature means any imaginative writing that is mainly about sexuality. Beyond this simple definition lie too many complications not relevant to our purposes here. The adjective erotic pertains to the sexual passions; the words obscene or pornographic are so laden with legal connotations that they will be used as little as possible. Let lawyers quibble and writers publish. This book is not a history of eroticism, a history of censorship, or an apologia for dirty books. Instead it is what used to be called an appreciation- of the genre, and of certain writers in it. It is also a practical literary tour through previously uncharted territory, the erotic literature of this century. Finally, it is an attempt to persuade readers that there is a secret literature under their noses worthy of intelligent attention and respect.
It would be unnatural if the reader, after going this far, did not wonder for a moment about the author's own point of view. I believe that sexuality is fully as important a subject for literature as war, death, or the struggle to survive and enjoy the time between our beginnings and our common end. I see the print of eros on every page, and in every life.
Image by Alan Sondheim