And then they had sex

Yesterday I watched Zoe Margolis contribute to a discussion around a new imprint launched by Total-e-Bound, Clandestine Classics.  The premise is simple, take an existing classic novel and insert sex scenes into it, just after watching the segment (39 mins in) I read Remittance Girl’s blog on the same subject.  Now I agree with Zoe that a more open attitude to sex is a good thing, more discussion, more acceptance.  However I’m not so sure that applying a penis pump to Jules Verne is the way to go about engendering that openness and acceptance.

As I highlighted in my comment on RG’s blog, the addition of sex scenes is, for me, problematic in maintaining the believability of the characters and their actions, or as Aisling Weaver  puts it more succinctly;

“Art of  every kind is a reflection of the artist as well as the culture within which it is conceived”

The sexual subtext of these books would have been well understood in their time, cultural expectations of both genders and their behaviours weighed heavy.  Sex was currency and virginity held the highest value.   A young woman who let her maidenhood be plucked from her became worthless, unmarriagable and unemployable.  Mr. Darcy may well be heroic in the rejection of his aunt’s marriage plans in favour of Elizabeth Bennet, but I doubt he would have been heroic enough to do the same had she been a fallen woman.

The only place you could add sex into Pride and Prejudice is in the elopement of Lydia.  The elopement and suggestion that she has had sex with Wickham horrifies her community and puts at risk the eligibility of her sisters, tainting them by association.  The only way the story can continue to hold water is if her sisters and their potential suitors are sexually chaste.  Wickham is a sexual predator, Mr. Darcy the noble and moral hero.  If Mr. Darcy also holds a mistress in London or has cajoled Elizabeth to loosen her stays for him how are we to believe him or trust him?  He would be exposed as having a double standard and his buying off of Wickham would be an act of convenience with none of the moral repugnance that we are supposed to feel in him.  It becomes a hollow gesture rather than a heroic act.

If you add in sex scenes you are changing the story – not because you’ve added extra scenes, but because you’ve added sex where it wouldn’t be.  Write me the bedside diaries of Elizabeth Darcy nee Bennet or the secret sapphic yearnings of Mary Bennet for Charlotte Lucas but put them in a different book.

Jane Eyre would not, could not have allowed herself to be sexually active with Mr. Rochester – she runs away not just because her heart is broken at his bigamy but because her reputation demands it.  Women had to be morally pure and physically pure.  Men might well have been less pure, but we all know what that has given us – the notion of girls you marry and girls you don’t.

The authors  knew well what they were writing, who they were writing for and who they were writing about.  Let those characters live in the truth of their complete stories.

My second problem with the premise of the series is that it undermines the status of erotica – which may no longer be seen quite as the poor relation, but perhaps the bingo winning chav relation.  It might make money but it isn’t “proper” literature.  I’m no snob (well I am) there is a place for all kinds of entertainment and genres.  High brow, populist, penny dreadfuls and classic tomes.  While I’m happy that people are reading – yes Fifty Shades of Grey got lots of people reading and I hope they go on to find more stories that they enjoy – I am also keen that authors are recognised for their efforts.  The authors that contributed to this series are all well established erotica writers but they will become best known for these particular books.  I sincerely hope that anyone that reads these books will go and find the contributing authors other works and explore the genre of erotica.

However, what I would much prefer is that publishers spent their time developing authors and working to make the genre the best it can be.  These books seem to be gimmicks, which to a cynical eye is riding the wave of interest after the success of E L James’ books, that make great press for a media looking for fun stories to offset the bad weather, Olympic and banking scandals.  Why not be confident in  your business and authors and trust them to deliver original work?

The media context for erotica is of titilation for minds weakened by the unfortunate status of motherhood.  These books don’t challenge that notion and for those of us striving with the unfortunate time constraints of motherhood to actually produce work in the genre this is disheartening.  I want to tell original stories with compelling characters and hot sex scenes. I want to take my readers to uncomfortable places where they squirm at the choices and actions that my characters make, but ultimately find that they can understand how they got there.

6 Responses to And then they had sex

  1. remittance girl July 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    “they may no longer be seen quite as the poor relation, but perhaps the bingo winning chav relation”

    *cringe* Oh yes. Yes indeed. Well said and woe is us.

  2. Eden Connor July 19, 2012 at 12:30 am #

    I enjoyed this post very much, and thank you for writing it.

    “Why not be confident in your business and authors and trust them to deliver original work?”

    And when they do, why not put forth the effort to promote that originality, rather than slavishly pushing the current ‘big thing’? Too many of the small presses most of us write for are myopic, in my humble opinion. If you spend all your time trying to share the brass ring already occupied by the many, won’t you overlook the chance to grab another that might become a singular stand-out or God forbid, the ‘next big thing’?

    It seems to me that too many in the genre are promoting the concept that “Insert Sex Scene Here” is all there is to erotica. Isn’t that akin to branding yourself as superfluous and worthy of ridicule? Last I checked, that was how you turned erotica into verbal porn.

  3. anandalila July 19, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    well said. as a writer who is new to the scene, i much prefer creative opportunities that prompt me to stretch myself further in my own work, not base it on what someone else has already written.

  4. fridayam July 19, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    Oh this is so true and so pertinent. An inability of readers to think themselves into earlier eras reduces their comprehension of the narratives of great writers, and to understand why their narratives command respect even in a changed society. Even if one took away notions of “purity” and marriageability” from Jane Austen, for instance, one is still left with an idea of women wanting–demanding–not to be exploited, to be respected as themselves. They consciously risk spinsterhood to get this, and their success is the success of love.

    Love and the erotic have a complex and often tenuous relationship. The love of a long marriage is often suffused with the erotic, but in the kind of fits and starts that wouldn’t suit an erotic novel. The erotic, after all, is a sort of fantasy fiction–a Middle Earth where sex happens more frequently, more energetically, with more partners, more spontaneously than would ever happen except in the lives of the terminally blessed.

    And there is nothing wrong with that–after all, fantasy fiction has given us Tolkien and Pratchett and the masters of SF, people who have learned how to take once-spurned genres and instill them with life and reality and good writing. As erotic writers, that should be our goal.

  5. Wyeth Bailey July 19, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    “The authors  knew well what they were writing, who they were writing for and who they were writing about.  Let those characters live in the truth of their complete stories.” Brava, Ruby. Excellent. I especially appreciate your character what-ifs. It makes me think, if these sex scenes change the story or the characters, it’s misappropriation. If they don’t, they’re pointless. I have to agree writers should write their own damn stories. Even fanfic takes existing characters to new places.

  6. Siobhan August 28, 2012 at 1:38 am #

    In 18th century literature, a woman opening her purse, which contains her well-hidden penny, is quite pornographic enough. The addition of explicit scenes Is pure vulgarity …