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January 14, 2003

Femme (Lit) Erotica

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

As you know, in the last twenty or thirty years a lot of women artists and writers have made attempts to move into erotica, into porn, and into the edgier precincts of art. Do you enjoy keeping tabs on what they're up to?

I do. Why? Partly for erotico-religio-aesthetic reasons that I'll save for a slower day. But partly also because it's simply fun (and occasionally beautiful and moving) to watch women stretch their wings. There's also the interesting-art-and-sex-puzzle side to it. Which, as I see it, is this: Given that women haven't traditionally played the straightforward, aggressive-pursuer role, given that many women don't seem as narrowly sex-centric as men so often are, and given that sex per se is the basic motor of this kind of art -- well, how can the woman artist move to the center of it and take command? I'm interested; I want to know the results, or at least watch the effort get made.

So I'm a student and fan of all this, and it's a corner of the art-and-lit worlds I'm forever returning to. Over the holidays I treated myself to three fairly-recent erotic books by women. I caught up with The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a memoir by a French art-magazine editor named Catherine Millet that created a scandal some months back. Susanna Moore's In the Cut caused a fuss a few years farther back; it's basically a writing-school attempt at doing something hard-boiled, thriller-like, and sexual, but from the female point of view. Both of these books have some serious lit pretentions. I also read through one example of flat-out erotica, a collection of stories, Dark Desires, by an author who calls herself Maria del Rey.

What's the verdict? Well, I had a good time. I often like it when art pretentions are mixed up with erotica -- the boundary between art and porn is one I'm fond of exploring. So that wasn't the reason I found myself skimming through much of the French memoir. Did you read about it at all? Millet writes about her sex life, which seems largely to have consisted of saying No to almost nobody; she's a woman who has made her orifices available to hundreds of men, whether in the forests of the Bois du Boulogne, or in sex clubs, or in artists' studios, or in the back seats of cars.

As a book, it's a strange and arresting piece of performance art. Millet's take on her own story is about as French as can be: ie., clinical, distanced, chic, philosophical, existential. She isn't going to make sense of it. She isn't going to go searching for explanations. She isn't going to justify it. C'est comme ca, and that's all there is to it.

I'm actually rather fond of the genre: the intense, existential Frenchwoman's book about sex,alienation, masochism, negation, and spirituality. I tend to take it (and enjoy it) as a kind of chic, sexy grandstanding. This wasn't one of my faves, though, despite Millet's originality in putting herself on display in nonfiction terms, and her accomplishment in being even more haughty towards her own sexual nature than Frenchwomen usually are. (Striking, isn't it, how the French can be such snobs yet be so pointedly sexual at the same time?)

The problem for me was that, once past the initial, striking setup, there wasn't much to the book, and it went on too long. (These books tend to be best when presented at novella length, in short chapters and with lots of white space.) Millet works as an art-magazine editor, which means, as you'd expect, that much of the book is written in art-theory dissertation language, as though she's analyzing her sex life as though it were a piece of art. Millet appears to have some high-falutin' conceptual-art ideas about organization and time that mean that the book circles around and around and around, and that the stories of actual sexual encounters, which often start off well, usually then go pfffft. And the ratio of impossible-to-make-sense-of philosophizing to down-and-dirty action was way too high -- I say this, I have to point out, as someone very fond of ludicrous French "philosophical" carrying-on.

I could praise her for being so frank, and for causing a scandale -- the French, who live ever-so-boring and bourgeois lives otherwise, seem to need the occasional such scandal. (The book's publication was followed a short while later by a volume of nude photos of Millet taken by her I guess you'd say life-partner, Jacques Henric.) Being a literal and rube American, I find myself wondering how true in a purely factual sense her account is. I don't see any reason not to believe her, but I don't see any reason to take her accounts as the raw truth either. Many of the book's pages scream "Unlikely!" at me, though perhaps I'm simply far more uptight and unimaginative than I think I am, though I don't know whether it matters. But, in any event, people who share my taste for intense high-minded French female masochism would do better, I think, to rent a few amazing recent movies, Catherine Breillat's "Romance" and "Fat Girl," and Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher."

Sample passage from "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.":

It goes without saying that such a powerful contradiction to the principles of sexual freedom meant that this agony could not be articulated and , therefore, reduced me to scenes and crying fits that were all the more intractable, and hysterical displays worthy of a Paul Richer drawing.

Love that "therefore"! And who's Paul Richer?

It was much the same for me, only different, with In the Cut. (Nastily naughty title, eh?) I made it all the way through without too much skimming, and wound up wanting to give Susanna Moore a tip of the hat for "nice try." And I'm eager to see what kind of movie it'll be turned into. It's been a hot movie property for some years; at one point Jane Campion was going to write and direct, with Nicole Kidman starring. IMDB currently lists Meg Ryan as starring, which, given how lowdown some of the book's action is, means that Meg has decided to give her star image a bit of a makeover.

"In the Cut" is an attempt to write a hard-boiled, brutally sexual and violent novel from the standpoint of a woman. I'm sorry to say that I didn't think it worked out too well, although a few of the scenes were pretty hot. It's one of those literary books, like Mailer's "An American Dream," that tries to merge the hotsy-totsiness of pulp with the control and insight of lit. I loved "An American Dream," and didn't think "In the Cut" came off nearly as well. The pulp side had its moments, but the lit side was largely annoying, and putting them together didn't strike off any sparks for me. And the book's complete lack of humor made it more of a drag than it needed to be.

But the book is a bizarrely divided reading experience in another way too. The main character is a disagreeably prudish and self-serious NYU creative-writing teacher who gets caught up in seamy crime shenanigans. So the book is trying to function both as a riveting melodrama and as a concise and sharp character study. The serial-killer melodrama was ok, although lord knows there are a lot of genre writers who do it better, and the character study never came off. (I'm wondering why some high-low experiments work wonderfully and some lay an egg, and I'm coming up with nothing of interest. Any thoughts?)

To make sense of what happens at the book's climax, we need to be persuaded that the main character is psychotically masochistic, yet that's never convincingly hinted at. Instead, the character seems like one of those academic/intellectual/writing women we all know -- a mouse and a priss who grandiosely imagines herself to be hot stuff. But, whatever she is, we just don't see her clearly enough. Interesting to note that reader-reviewers on Amazon have been largely hostile to the book.

I do find it interesting that some women writers are trying to pull off hard-boiled tones and narratives. But do you often find them convincing? I seldom do, I confess. I spend most of my time thinking, "She's trying to show she can do what a guy does," and I often don't for some reason find that a very compelling spectacle. I've run across a few books where I thought it worked -- an early Sue Grafton, an early Sara Paretsky, and an amazing little novel by the actress Mary Woronov called "Snake." But usually it strikes me as so contrived as to resemble a put-on.

Sample passage from "In the Cut":

He unhooked a pair of handcuffs from their resting place at the small of his back and slid them noisily across the desk.

I looked at them. I was suddenly aroused, worried that they were not for me, that he had taken them off his vest for comfort. I, who refused for years to let the husband in Paris realize his life's ambition of photographing a scorpion in my vagina.

"You're under arrest," he said.

"A scorpion in my vagina"? Pretty gaudy!

All of which leads me to a few musings about sex and the sexes that may get me jumped on (perhaps deservedly) by annoyed readers. It seems easier for men to get out there and take sexual risks in fiction than it does for women. As far as my (very sad and pathetic) creative-writing-class experience goes, it's difficult to stop a man from writing an overheated scene, while when a woman writer does one, the effect is too often either of trying-to-play-with-the-boys, or of an English major trying to generate some intensity by plunging into her neuroses and shyness.

The wife tells me that she thinks many women are more conflicted about getting out in the world generally than they allow themselves to admit, and I think that's probably true. They tell themselves (and god knows they're told by the culture) that they have to get out in the world, that that's where fulfillment and excitement are to be found. But something in them holds many of them back just a little -- where guys tend to be, if anything, over-enthusiastic.

If there's anything to these observations, there are tons of good explanations for them, prime among them the fact that women need to protect themselves more than men do. While guys are compelled to run around trying to stick it into anything, women simply have to be more picky. There may well be -- and I say this as someone without an ounce of qualification to do so, but what the hell -- something in many women that makes them want to hold back sexually.

I do notice a personality-type pattern that recurs with intellectual and/or arty women: a kind of masochism accompanied by a kind of intellectual arrogance, the two of which are in conflict, which then seems to deepen both. Have you noticed (and I think I have, although I'm fully prepared to get slaughtered for trying to assert this) how often with women (exceptions allowed for) their brains and their feelings seem to be in conflict? And how seldom that seems to hold for men?

For men, having a few spare brains can be like having an especially lively dick; you want to wave it around even more than usual. Simple as that. For intelligent women, their brains often seem to lead them in one direction while their feelings pull in another. And a masochistic/neurotic gap opens up, into which many smart women sometimes fantasize falling. I've noticed this pattern (the character type leading to the predilection for certain kinds of sex fantasies) over and over with art-world and intellectual-world women. They often live out ideas of themselves as complicated and fascinating hot stuff. I remember the tales of one well-known NYC arts woman who liked to be abused by men dressed in Nazi outfits.

On the other hand, what to make of the fact that actresses are often so much more daring than actors? They often give performances that are fullbodied, emotional and out-there, while the guys often seem more guarded. A quick list: Diane Lane ("Unfaithful" is now out on DVD, by the way), Kelly Lynch, Isabelle Huppert, Miou-Miou, Juliette Binoche, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts ... Hard to think of guys who've done anything comparable.

What do you make of this? Is it entirely a matter of the kind of woman that goes into writing vs. the kind of woman that goes into acting? Does it have something to do with women being more comfortable about physical and emotional display than men are? I have many more theories about this, but given that my own daring has just run out, I'll save them for future postings. Curious to know what your musings are on the topic.

In any case, at the more pretentious end of fiction-writing things, the question tends to boil down to: does the art aspect enhance the erotic side? And does the erotic aspect enhance the art side? I'm always hopeful myself, and willing to cut anyone who�s willing to try a lot of slack. So: an "A" for effort to both Catherine Millet and Susannah Moore.

But out on the more directly porn-ish outskirts of writing, there are no such gambles and no such concerns. It's all about whether what you're reading is a turn-on. I've read a fair amount of porn over the years, and have tried, with marked unsuccess, to write porn myself. (Speaking of which: I'm amazed how many of my serious-writer friends tell me that what they'd really like to do is write a hot porn novel. And I recall what an acquaintance who works in the movie biz once told me: that what many filmmakers really yearn for is a chance to make super-hot, well-financed semi-porn movies with real actors in them. I hope the failure of "Eyes Wide Shut" didn't bring too many of them to their senses!)

One of the pleasant discoveries you make if and when you read porn is that some of it's well done, and not just in the "hot" sense. Sometimes the characters have motors, goals and voices; sometimes the situations show some wit; sometimes the plotting has some cleverness; and sometimes the writing itself shows flair. There are some chic and pleasurable reading experiences to be had out in the porn world. I remember one novel called "Vice Park Place" that struck me as more skillful and enjoyable as fiction than any new literary novel I read that season.

Dark Desires by Maria Del Rey is a collection of straightfoward English stories aiming only to please and arouse, and it's crisp, intelligent, and resourceful, if considerably more fixated on spanking than I am. Del Ray's stories have no literary or intellectual pretensions. The book certainly shows signs of smarts, but it isn't intellectual, either in the overt art way of Catherine Millet or in the overly-controlled writing-school way of Susannah Moore. The book is simply what it is -- well-turned stories full of hot scenes. But Del Ray is a skillful and witty fiction writer, and has some a propos observations to make about how people live.

Del Ray sets the stories up shrewdly and resourcefully, moves into the situations directly, does surprisingly effective ker-thump erotic heart-stoppers (those moments, key to erotic art, when the character senses a situation's terms shifting from everyday to loaded-with-erotic-significance), saves up a surprise and a twist, and is out of there and on to the next one. Part of her strength is that she's tuned-in to the erotic component in on-the-job dynamics -- the new executive's young wife who winds up servicing the boss's dominatrix wife, for example. I wouldn't want to make -- and she wouldn't want me to make -- huge claims for her book. But it's brisk and well done, and it does the job it sets out to do very cheerfully.

Which doesn't sound sexy but somehow is. If the dark (and the art) side is largely absent here, well, my earth-shattering conclusion is: hey, maybe sometimes that's okay. Maria Del Ray manages to make the kinkiness work while being brisk and companionable -- a literary achievement of some worthy-of-taking-note sort, as far as I'm concerned. She manages to generate plenty of heat without stuffing the furnace full of art and neuroses.

Sample passage from "Dark Desires":

"How long were you watching?" Ariana asked softly.

"Long enough. My, Stephie darling, what a passionate young filly you are. And there I was thinking you were a frigid little bitch. Or is it that you're frigid with men but a real nympho with the gals?"

"You wouldn't understand," Stephie spat angrily, sitting up on the bed but making no attempt to hide her nakedness.

I don't know about you, but reading that passage, I want to know what happens next.



posted by Michael at January 14, 2003


Michael -

Thanks for the review of Millet's book. I recall reading about it when it was released in Europe. The english translation must now be available. I will refrain from purchasing it.

In regards to "The Piano Teacher." Melis (spouse) and I viewed this over the weekend. You are correct, it was an "amazing" movie, though Melis was somewhat disturbed by it due to experiences she had in a prior relationship. I enjoyed it immensely.

Your site is extremely interesting.


John V

Posted by: John Venlet on January 15, 2003 9:29 AM

You seem to be coming at this from an odd angle. Ask yourself why it is that these women felt they had to write "high lit" erotica. Why do they have to dress it up in that stuck-up language and high-mindedness that turns so many people off? Who are they trying to impress? Is it because they are trying to write for both sexes perhaps? How many men write this stuff? Or is it that men can get away with writing Penthouse Letters porn without worrying about what someone might think? Personally, I wouldn't touch either type of erotica on a bet.

Now, for good, solid erotica written by women for women, check out Black Lace books. I would be curious to see a man's reaction to these books. Read one of them and let us know how they compare.

Posted by: Alexandra on January 15, 2003 11:55 AM

Hi John -- The Millet's available in English, yeah. Let me know how you react if you give it a try. Glad to hear about "The Piano Teacher." I'm not sure I can say that I enjoyed it, but I was certainly impressed by it. Was that the ultimate Huppert performance or what? Please let me know how you react if/when you look at the Catherine Breillat movies. I thought they were pretty astounding -- less harsh and far more chic than "The Piano Teacher."

Hey, Alexandra, Very curious to know your reactions to this kind of writing and moviemaking. Do you have faves? Are there works with big reps that you hate? Is it your theory that the women writing in an art-porn mode are doing so for reasons we should be skeptical about? You may be right, though I certainly have nothing against anyone, male or female, who wants to inject a little eroticism into their art or a little art into their eroticism. Sex and class both: what's not to like? Though many artists seem to have a hard time getting the balance right ...

Readers who enjoy this stuff would do well to take Alexandra's advice and check out the Black Lace female-erotica series. The ones I've sampled have been amazingly up-to-date, classy, smart and entertaining. I once contacted them, curious about whether they'd accept a manuscript from a man (me), and was told no, they're very serious about publishing only work "by women and for women." Integrity! Emma Holly and Stella Black are two of the good authors whose Black Lace novels I can recommend. There are others too, but their names don't come to mind just now ...

And let's all urge Alexandra to write about these kinds of topics herself on her own blog.

Thanks to both of you for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2003 12:34 PM

Michael -

I believe "impressed" might be a more apt word than "enjoy" to describe my thoughts in regards to the film, though I did enjoy the characters presented and the presentation of the subject matter within. Huppert was incredible.

I'll be attempting to locate some of Breillat's movies this weekend. I'll let you know my impressions.

John V

Posted by: John Venlet on January 15, 2003 1:07 PM

Hey John. Oh, I should have mentioned: Be sure not to rent the Breillat movies at Blockbuster! There's an R-rated version of "Romance" available (and which Blockbuster rents) that apparently makes no sense whatsoever, and that includes none of the film's most remarkable scenes. Look for the NC-17 version instead, at some other outlet. I'm assuming this holds for "Fat Girl" as well, though I don't know for sure.

Best, Michael

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2003 1:43 PM

"something in many women that makes them want to hold back sexually"

I think it's just good sense. It is rare for men to pay for being a dog, yet even being accused of sluttish behavior can wreck a woman. One wonders what will happen when all the college students flashing their tits in "Girls Gone Wild" videos are in meetings with the male college students who bought the videos. I'm betting it won't be good.

Even at my age, I assume that if I go into a bar alone, someone will buy my a drink. God knows what would happen if I didn't "hold back."

Posted by: tgcm on January 15, 2003 4:45 PM

Excellent review of the Maria del Rey book, which sounds like it was the best of the bunch. I like her novels as much as the stories, though. It's still not 'literary' smut, but there's a darker side to her writing too.

Posted by: xyzzyx23 on January 27, 2003 5:46 PM

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