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Posts tagged ‘bodice rippers’

Replacing the bodice

In light of the stunning revelation that French readers have rejected E.L. James’s oeuvre on account of it not being sexy, this may be an opportune moment to reclaim the discussion of eroticism in literature. Her profits are finally slumping, and as the nights truly begin to draw in, the phrase ‘winter is coming’ has more resonance than it ever does in Game of Thrones. The gritty reality of autumn is that even the hardest bitten bachelor may prefer company to stave off the chill. So, what constitutes a decent erotic novel? From the point of view of the female market (male erotic literature remains more visual at present), the first rule is do not set it in modern America. Regency London with its rakes, ton balls and highwaymen has historically been what the ladies of the lending libraries want. No underwear, one illicit kiss instantly leads to marriage rather besmirching female honour, and of course virginity is essential in our heroine.

However, there has been a shift in recent years away from Mills & Boon and Harlequin panting romances. No one is slicing through any stays, let alone bodices. Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas and Stephanie Laurens are big business, and they write about tetchy bitches that refuse to compromise. These ladies are always escaping alone in carriages, sometimes they even drive them. They take their clothes off first, and when they choose their husband to be, they tend to be grumpy hermits. Just as the protagonist escapes London for having given it up too soon to a cad, their future mates are obsessive types who fish the girl out of whatever river she has fallen into only to return to work. There are no inner goddesses, no demure euphemisms for male genitalia like his ‘tenderness’ (thanks, Virginia Andrews, for misleading several generations) and no one has to buy this sort of girl a car to get her in the sack. There is the usual series of tests these broken figures have to endure in order to deserve each other – much like the obligatory healing wound scene for 80’s action films – and only then is eternal chemistry guaranteed.

This is where the directness comes in handy. Without Nin and Burroughs, these women may not be portrayed as being so vocal in asking for what they want. Which involves the (tried and tested, admittedly for a reason) arc of building up trust as well as desire, constantly being reassured in order to overcome any nerves or insecurity, more eye contact than everyone may require or want, and ONLY then is the Karma Sutra a snap, for life, apparently. The last part is untrue, but there is an appetite in this seam of writing that has openness that was not always there. The genre may still need some work, but there is hope to be taken from the fact that none of these Romance writers propagate the myth that tantric times spanning days on end is what people want, more often than not it is all over before you know it out of sheer enthusiasm. This reality is what sets it apart from rose-tinted tittering bilge, because there are moments one may actually relate to.

The Editors

10. Why read (best-sellers)?

For the literary snob the bookshop is a battleground of culture; once through the door they must wade through a wasteland of best-selling books, complete with lurid covers, raised fonts and ridiculous titles, to reach the classics or foreign language section at the back of the shop.  Yet, the book snob would do we well to tread carefully though the shrapnel of this literary wasteland.

Much debate and far too many lines of review have been wasted on the Fifty Shades trilogy.  However, I would argue that Fifty Shades, and its best-selling neighbours, not only give us an indicator of the latest, fleeting, literary trends, but, in doing so, explain a lot about us and the world we live in.   We can no longer tag decades and centuries of the written word with discerning titles, such as romanticism, realism, gothic, modernism and post-modernism.  That our literary trends are so fleeting is the defining feature of our culture and society; the best-seller table is a real hodge-podge of literature.

Today the written word must vie with other art forms, such as film.  Walk into any cinema, flick through Sky Movies, and you will see the ravages of war, epic battles, fantastical lands and steamy erotic scenes.  Today’s best-seller is a book that has achieved its status through entertaining a reader who has easy-access to sensory overload – the book doesn’t just grab you, it must body slam you.

So, it is no wonder that Fifty Shades, a book that has reinstated erotic literature into our fold, has found its home on the best-selling table.  It is no wonder that Games of Thrones, with its world of epic fantastical battles, lewd incest and deep sorrow, has similarly won over the masses.  Our culture today has no defining literary form, it is not about a style of writing or genre.  Instead, what defines our culture, in all its art forms, is the need for an injection of adrenalin, a dose of emotion, a life booster.

I was born and bred a literary snob: at primary school I cried my way through Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, my adolescence was spent tangled up in the intertextuality of T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland, and I spend my English literature degree at Oxford speed-reading the classics section.  I am now an avid reader of Game of Thrones, I need my hit of literary heroin as much as the next person.  My pangs of shame are soothed by the knowledge that I am one of the masses, a product of society and culture, and I hope an integral part of it.

Anna Stewart

Not even fifty

There are many excellent novels written about sex and Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of them.

As is too often the case in literature, the hype around its highly sexualised content outweighs its qualities fifty to one.  The writer writes badly is the first problem.  But more than that, she writes about the mechanics of sex as though it is those that are titillating and not the excitement or emotion or anticipation of it.  Lines like “Orgasm! Another one!” are deemed to be a paragraph in themselves; as though orgasms creep up on people unexpected like dolphin sightings or skylarks (‘Dolphin! Another one!’).

Henry Miller’s modernist classics, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer are two far less book clubbable books because they are brutally explicit and beautifully well written.  Other classics, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or In Praise of Older Women struggled far more in their time than Fifty Shades of Grey has been made to.

Perhaps this is the problem. Fifty Shades of Grey is popular because it has been institutionalised by the media and made acceptable. It is acceptable to read it on the tube in a way that other sexual literature is not. But its value barely rises above the pornographic, the mechanical.  In the words of Henry Miller: “obscenity is a cleansing process whereas pornography only adds to the murk.”  Perhaps this is also true of too much popular culture today – just adding to the murk.

The Editors

9. Why Read?

First, a confession: I do read too fast.  I race through science fiction, I gulp down American contemporary fiction, devour bodice rippers and make an “igloo igloo” noise while consuming biographies.  The only thing I am capable of sipping is poetry, as it is something to be handled with caution: a little can sustain you for months when handled properly, whereas a botched job can ensure a soured outlook for yourself and others.

The pleasure is prolonged by the fact that you can, indigestion and penury aside, revisit and refine these moments of enjoyment throughout your life – your only concerns need be running out of shelf space (I have), allowing your muscles to atrophy (combat all the sitting down by resisting the Kindle and carrying six books everywhere) and attempting to have a relationship with a non-reader (just don’t do it). There are books from your childhood for comfort, enormous blocks of fantasy fiction for attaining the Bovary effect, the latest bolt from a newcomer that can ensure you avoid the people you went on holiday with in the first place, and the daily feat of eluding your surroundings on your commute with a piece of writing so accomplished that you miss your stop. Passages of Absalom, Absalom! stranded me in Bognor Regis.

By this stage, it may seem as if this approach is a slightly antisocial one: embracing the written word as a way of avoiding mankind. This is not the case: reading is a compulsion that defines friendships and eases every social encounter. If more people made a point of asking a new acquaintance what they are reading rather than what they do for a living, it would have the dual effect of weeding out the non-readers immediately – this is not to say you won’t be friends, but at least you immediately know them for what they truly are – and eliminating awkwardness as you attempt to politely explain what you do in an attempt to disguise the fact that you work to read.

So please continue to indulge – start early, do it everywhere and there is no such thing as too much.

Flora Joll