Romance, Erotica and What Women Like.

I am giving NO MORE unsolicited publicity to THAT BOOK. Oh well, go on then. I suppose I am, but only indirectly, and because I want to consider a topic which fascinates (and sometimes troubles) so many readers and writers. This morning, the newspapers are full of the 50 Shades phenomenon but I don't much want to add to the extraordinary word count except to say that (on the principle of not commenting about what you haven't actually read) I downloaded it as an eBook, read about 10% of it and then returned it for a refund.I couldn't keep going. It seemed explicit but not terribly erotic.

I wasn't shocked but I was - well, what is the word? Saddened? Disappointed? My knowledge of bondage and so on (mostly gleaned, I have to admit, from those faintly bizarre but entertaining television documentaries you sometimes come across when browsing Sky Channels late at night!) is that it is essentially fantasy play, indulged in by equal partners in a very specific set of circumstances. The participants always seem to be well aware of the difference between fantasy and real life. Presumably the writer of 50 Shades was indulging her own personal fantasy. Which is fair enough. But I do find it worrying when a whole tranche of hugely popular novels - I'm thinking of the Twilight series as well - involves revelling in a kind of helpless female submission which is very far from playful. If I'm watching or reading about this kind of thing, give me Buffy confidently kicking ass any day.

It's of interest to me in a more specific way because in considering THAT BOOK, I have admitted to myself that in a couple of my own novels, Bird of Passage and  The Amber Heart I have written quite explicitly about physical as well as emotional obsession.

The central premise of both novels is that two people from vastly different backgrounds find themselves enmeshed in a powerful mutual attraction. All the same, the books are very different. In Bird of Passage, the roots of Finn's desire for Kirsty lie in his own traumatic childhood and his need to belong somewhere. The story explores what happened to him, why it happened and the effects of that appalling trauma, spreading out and influencing others, like a stone thrown into a still pool.

In The Amber Heart, I wanted to explore a mutual physical attraction so powerful that it overrides all considerations of status and propriety within the milieu in which it is set. For Maryanna and Piotro, it begins in youth and continues throughout their lives. And like all such obsessions, it is as selfish and destructive as it is life affirming. This is really what the 'story' of the book is about - as well as a great many other things. Ironically, I reckon it was this physicality - the erotic elements - which lead a number of traditional publishers to turn it down on the grounds that nobody wanted to read that kind of thing any more, did they? Well, not written by a woman, anyway.

Except that maybe they do.

But we struggle to find the right words to describe sexual attraction - as I have struggled with this blog post - without straying into 'erotica' territory. Not that there is anything wrong with erotica. Or with romance either. But I believe that it should be possible to write about an intense sexual attraction without the need to become genre specific.

A few weeks ago I found myself travelling by train with a friend and fellow writer. We discussed the 50 Shades phenomenon and started to name films and books which, as women, we had found sexy - genuinely, physically sexy. We named more films than books, which suggests that there may be a dearth of novels which tackle sensuality from the female point of view.

My friend named The Big Easy, with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin and I was quick to agree. Amid a sea of cinematic seduction scenes which make sex look like some kind of bolted on (and frequently unsexy) titillation, all that huffing and groaning, it's a beacon of sensuality. One of my own favourite movie scenes is the divine Antonio Banderas with the equally divine Salma Hayek in Desperado. Forget the preposterous violence. Watch it for that central scene where an injured but still dangerously mesmerising Banderas finally gets together with fiery Hayek.

Banderas and Hayek in Desperado

I'm sure my female readers are thinking of their own particular favourites by now. I could probably come up with a lot more, given time - but for the moment, my third film would have to be Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze, teaching 'Baby' to dance and running his hand down the warm, ticklish inside of her arm. Which of us women, watching that scene, has not felt it too?

In all of these a brave heroine is matched with a hero whose character is spiced with a good measure of danger. It may be the standard stuff of romance, but there's a bit more to it than that.What all of these films have in common is a thread of demonstrable physicality running like electricity between hero and heroine - I want to describe it as a warmth, because that's what it seems like - and because that in itself is innately 'filmic' it may be one reason why my friend and I thought first of films, rather than novels. 

Top of the novels is - for me - Wuthering Heights. The passage which I think first taught me how to write about physical passion, way back when I was in my teens, is this one:
'An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive. In fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy...A movement of Catherine's relieved me a little presently; she put up her hand to clasp his neck, and bring her cheek to his as he held her: while he, in return, covering her with frantic caresses, said wildly - You teach me how cruel you've been - cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy?'

Even then, as a young woman, I could acknowledge that Grim Heathcliff and Mad Cathy were in no sense love's young dream, and that this was very far - a million miles - from the tame kiss as a prelude to the happy-ever-after ending, the walk into the sunset. That was the whole point. Part of the attraction of Wuthering Heights for me is the intense emblematic physicality of it, from the description of the Heights itself where the fire is always blazing even when dreadful things are happening, to the vigour of its inhabitants with all their uncomfortable and disruptive energy, an energy which seems to persist through death and beyond. Too many overly romantic film versions make us forget just how young, selfish and cruel these characters are. Why? Does it disturb the film makers? Are they afraid to take a classic on its own terms? Is this not the way women are supposed to think - or write? But it is this raw, youthful sexual energy which, when frustrated, is transformed into casual sadism and madness. If it is ignored, the resulting production makes no sense at all. In a very real sense, all the heat goes out of it. 

So, three movies and one novel.
There's one more and you'll probably think I've taken leave of my senses altogether when I say that it's Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. But let me explain.

There's a key scene in the novel where our (young, feisty) narrator, Davie, has been very ill and has had a tremendous quarrel with (older, experienced, deeply dangerous, deeply flawed) Alan Breck. I've always thought Breck one of the most worryingly attractive and equivocal heroes in all literature, never mind Scottish literature.
'His eyes had a kind of dancing madness in them...' says our narrator. 'Altogether, I thought of him at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.'
Not only is Alan suspected of a cold blooded murder, but in our earliest encounter with him, we see that he kills people with skill and efficiency albeit only when he is attacked first. Later in the novel, David Balfour - sick, delirious and on the point of collapse - challenges a furious Alan to a fight. We know that Alan is a superb swordsman while Davie... isn't.
Provoked beyond measure by Davie's insults, Alan draws his sword but at the last moment throws the weapon from him. David responds to this gesture with a sudden physical capitulation:
'At this the last of my anger oozed all out of me and I found myself only sick, and sorry, and blank, and wondering at myself... but where an apology was vain, a mere cry for help might bring Alan back to my side. "Alan," I said. "If you cannae help me I must just die here... If I die ye'll can forgive me, Alan? In my heart I liked ye fine - even when I was at the angriest."
At this plea, both childlike and heartrending and made all the more powerful because David has never been short of courage - Alan instantly relents:
"Davie,"said he, "I'm no a right man at all. I have neither sense nor kindness; I couldnae remember ye were just a bairn. I couldnae see you were dying on your feet; Davie, ye'll have to try and forgive me."'

I never read this passage without a little frisson at the brilliant physicality of it. But then the whole book, indeed everything Stevenson writes, has an intense appreciation of the physical running through it. Perhaps because he had such a sickly childhood - and knew extremes of illness, even as an adult - he also knew how to value energy, warmth, physicality, the senses - and was never afraid to depict them in his writing. 
Interestingly, Stevenson's later novel, Catriona, has an equally wonderful evocation of youthful desire, the torment, the crazy sensuality of it all in the face of the demands of propriety. I dramatised both of these novels for radio, so became very familiar with them, and the erotic charge in Stevenson's chapters about the growing attraction between Davie and Catriona is particularly sublime. 

So - no firm conclusions, but a topic worth debating. 
I'll admit that there's a certain romantic element about all of these scenes. But I don't think that's what makes them sexy. I think that's more to do with an attempt to depict a feeling, an energy which many of us have known at some point in our lives. We recognise it when we see it or read about it. For most of us, even as we grow older, the heightened sensation, the sense of living more vividly, more warmly, for however short a time, is what we remember and desire to recreate, and perhaps what we find ourselves identifying with. Did I find that same warmth and vibrant sensuality in what I read of THAT BOOK? 
No. Not at all.
But I'm also aware that these are generalisations and other people may - clearly do - feel differently. 
What do you think? 

Catherine Czerkawska 


Dan Holloway said…
Some very good examples. To give some scenes and books/films that worked incredibly well for me for different reasons
- the very best examination of the complex entanglement of the desperate need for domination and violence for me is Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher
- on erotic obsession, nothing comes close to Josephine Hart's Damage
- the sentimentalist in me finds it hard to beat the film version of the bath scene between Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient - what works so well there is the narrative structure which means we know the tragedy that will ensuue and have approached the key scene from both chronological directions
Hilary said…
I did enjoy that! And I loved your examples, and will now rush off to read Kidnapped and Catriona for the first time as a grown-up.

Apposite, because just before I read 'The Curiosity Cabinet' for my review on Vulpes Libris I'd been having the '50 Shades' conversation with far too many people and so felt I had read the sample bits, finding them far, far more depressing than arousing. As a consequence the phrase that popped into my mind when I started reading your work was 'a draught of cool water'. And I have to say that I found 'The Curiosity Cabinet' immensely sexy, and not just in the erotic passages - the modern love story positively crackled throughout - so onward and upward to 'The Amber Heart' and 'Bird of Passage', as it certainly looks as though you write my type of eroticism. In my view (or maybe I mean for my taste), done as well as that, rooting the eroticism in the realms of the possible - real, important situations and emotions - trumps fantasy and games playing every time, for me. (To say nothing of the 'Is this why women chained themselves to railings and threw themselves under horses?' argument against the whole submission thing - I had better not start on that one). That is what I like. (Hope I'm making sense!)
Hilary said…
I missed my chance to play the game! I have a couple of films in mind:

The news this week of the end of Minitel and (presumably) of messagerie rose made me call to mind the wonderful film 'Une Liaison Pornographique', where wonderful Natalie Baye and Sergi Lopez use it (or do they?) to link up for weekly sessions of some utterly depraved sexual practice (which we never see). The film then explores how the relationship is blown apart when they decide one time to meet for pretty hot, but essentially vanilla, sex. It's wonderful - touching, funny, sad, and immensely erotic - if ever it turns up in the far recesses of BBC4, don't miss it!

-Antonio Gades' Flamenco version of 'Carmen', where Gades plays himself/the Director finding his Carmen, and through the course of the rehearsals acts out the Carmen tragedy with her.

A novel to argue over - My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier - mystery, obsession, betrayal - and that scene with the jewels ...

Otherwise, I'm struggling - have been so often disappointed (mildly, on the whole).
This has given me something to think about - and a number of things to read/reread/see as well. I'm glad you found TCC sexy, Hilary. Now, when I go back to it, some years after I wrote it, I think the modern love story is quite sexy too! Isn't it odd how you come back to things and reread them almost as if somebody else had written them?
Avril said…
The scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in the hotel in Venice, before going out for the evening- in the film 'Don't look Now' (based on the story by Daphne Du Maurier).Now that's my kind of sexy.

Although I agree with Dan, Josephine Hart's 'Damage' is up there for erotic obsession.
Mari Biella said…
I agree with Avril that the sex scene in 'Don't Look Now' is amazing. It's natural, not obviously choreographed (perhaps this is partly why it aroused such controversy at the time), and you can really believe in these two people who love each other deeply but are also tormented by grief and guilt.

Speaking as someone who doesn't gravitate naturally toward erotica, thinking of deeply erotic literature is harder. I think my dream erotic novel would be along the lines of 'The End of the Affair' with actual sex. If anyone knows of anything that might fit the bill, please let me know!
Mari Biella said…
I agree with Avril that the sex scene in 'Don't Look Now' is amazing - it's not choreographed, like a lot of cinematic sex, but appears deeply natural. You can believe in these two people who love each other deeply but are also tormented by grief and guilt.

Speaking as someone who doesn't gravitate naturally toward mainstream erotica, thinking of deeply erotic literature is harder. I think my dream erotic novel would be along the lines of 'The End of the Affair' but with actual sex. If anyone knows of anything that might fit the bill, please let me know!
Agree about the scene in 'Don't Look Now' - I'd forgotten about it. Du Maurier herself always seems to write 'physical' things beautifully.