With the final instalment of the Fifty Shades trilogy released in early February, the notion of erotic fiction has become increasingly prominent in the media. There is no doubt that when we think of erotica our minds immediately jump to the swoon-worthy face of Christian Grey, seeing as it was the fastest-selling paperback, selling more than 200,000 copies in a week. However, this genre is not limited to EL James’ domination-based trilogy but has a long, varied history.
According to licensed sex therapist Dr. Kat Van Kirk, “nearly every culture has utilised sexual depictions in one form or another,” with depictions surviving from early Greek and Roman civilisations and spanning almost every age in history. While the sketchily-written tale of naïve Ana and masochist Christian will no doubt make its mark as the most infamous piece of erotica in the modern era following its immortalisation in film, there are many who wrote on the subject in far more stimulating and even highly artistic forms.
One such writer was Georges Bataille, who was born in Billom in France in September 1897. While some of his works were firmly ensconced in the world of Western philosophy, political theory and theology, he was deeply interested in the erotic nature of literature, and as such, his novel Story of the Eye (published in 1928 under the pseudonym of Lord Auch) was first read as overt pornography. It centres around the sexual deviancy of two teenagers and documents their litany of exploits and perversions.
Bataille’s style of novella seems to be dark and psychological, as seen again in Blue of the Noon, which was completed in the 1930s but wasn’t published until 1957. Given that it was written as Europe gave in to fascism in both Spain and Germany, this piece is dark and incredibly violent. While this was his most overtly political work, it was still gratuitously framed with descriptive erotic scenes of a highly disturbing nature, including incest and necrophilia.
Highly interesting on a psychological level, these novellas deal with incredibly dark themes reflecting Bataille’s early life. By his own account, his fascination with the eye that inspired his most famous novel stems from seeing the blind, wild pupils of his father as he succumbed more deeply into a syphilis-induced paralysis, as do his fascinations with urine and humiliation.
Concluding his account, Bataille claims: “I never linger over such memories, for they have long since lost any emotional significance for me… [During] that deformation they acquired the lewdest of meanings.” As such, if you prefer your read to be a little more vanilla bodice-ripper and a little less nightmare material, you should probably appreciate Bataille’s genius from afar.
Yet Bataille explored an avenue that few had considered before or since: the artistic side of this genre. While the idea lends itself well to cheap BDSM and deep psychological approaches, many writers have also dedicated their literary talents to elevating this style to an art-form, but to little public success. Susan Sontag commented on the genre’s similarities to science fiction in exaggerating the norms of our world to the point of near-caricature. And like science fiction, the genre is often ignored and dismissed as trite. Despite these perceptions, there are those who have fought to demonstrate the intricacies of the genre.
One such author is Anaïs Nin, who is hailed as one of the finest writers of female erotica. Having discovered the genre on holiday in France, her innocent teenage self devoured the books one after another until she had obtained what she called her “degree in erotic lore”. Her work would have been incredibly contentious were it published today, dealing with abortion, extramarital affairs, and even incest from a female point of view; in the 1950’s, it was social suicide.
Nin had many different personas throughout her lifetime: from a nobody on the periphery of the literary world to a feminist icon finally recognised in publishing, to a bigamist liar with a husband in New York and Los Angeles, even a madwoman who had a consensual affair with her own father when she met him in her thirties. The most incredible thing is: these were all correct.
Despite all of this, her true destruction lay not in the publication of her book Incest but in her biography. Its writer, Bair, describes Nin’s attitude as being one of “monstrous egotism and selfishness, horrifying in its callous indifference”. Every hidden secret of Nin’s life was revealed in sharp detail by an author who seemed to take a perverse pleasure in completely humiliating her subject.
While Nin’s writing was far ahead of her time, there is another woman born far earlier who held this mantle first. Born in 1850, Kate Chopin (Katherine O’Flaherty) was often decimated by critics for her themes of female independence, sexuality, and empowerment. While she was definitely not a feminist herself, or even a supporter of suffrage, she never doubted a woman’s ability to be strong. She is most famous for her book The Awakening (1899), which describes the life of an unhappy wife and mother from New Orleans.
As a 19th-century authoress, Chopin and her subject matter were well and truly before their time, addressing not only erotic scenes but themes like racism and feminism as well. It would be quite some time before critics and readers caught up with Chopin, as she really did “break new grounds in American literature,” as suggested by Norwegian critic Per Seyersted. She went where no woman had gone before as she used passion, not love, as her muse, seeking to tell the real truth about a woman’s suppressed life.
I’m ashamed to admit that, before I undertook the necessary and incredibly interesting research for this article, I believed this genre to be one lacking depth, read solely by the frustrated and the curious. I have never been more glad to be wrong. In this world lie many brash and forward-thinking authoresses, the erotica equivalent of Sylvia Plath, unashamedly addressing difficult and scintillating themes including racism, feminism, female sensuality and passion, the latter two of which were painfully ignored in the times in which they were written.
I even must admit that, while not quite the groundbreaking work of a 19th-century housewife, even the Fifty Shades trilogy does its best to deal with deeper themes of abuse and healing in a pale shadow of its earlier, more artistic cousins. All in all, this literary genre, while somewhat stigmatised, is indeed far more interesting and dense than it would seem at first glance, with a history whose roots lie with writers who were only recognised long after this style became more popular. However, while they may not have known it, they have shaped the history and current face of erotica, with their tales still being lauded long after.