Keep Your Porn Out Of My "Pride and Prejudice"

I write porn. But I'm not into giving classic novels a "sexy makeover" in the style of "50 Shades of Grey."

Jul 18, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Every well-rounded woman does her erotica-reading from the comforts of her kitchen, right?

I am not one to normally be sanctimonious about others’ reading choices. Even when the “Twilight” craze was in its heyday, I managed to restrain myself to clutching my Terry Pratchett books and quiet hissing every time someone even started saying “Team Edward.” But these days, just seeing anyone read “50 Shades of Grey” on the Cal-train makes me want to physically throw myself on the pages, mewling, “That’s not how sex works! Just tell me you know that’s not how sex works!” 

Part of me knows that this irrational anger is just run-of-the-mill jealousy. E. L. James gamed the system, and she did it well. Plenty of fan fiction writers spend months and years of their lives on their well-crafted, tightly plotted masterpieces, and James just happened to hit the alleged horny middle-aged housewife jackpot when she changed the names of her full-length “Twilight” BDSM fic and sold it as an e-book. More power to her.

And I’m incredibly pleased that “Grey” has really opened the door for erotica writing as an economically viable pursuit. As a tween, I whetted my writing appetite mostly through overblown descriptions of blow jobs and strictly choreographed scenes of boy band fourgies. I find writing porn comforting in the same way that I imagine some people knit: it’s not easy, but there’s a typical cadence to it that I enjoy. 

The first time I actually got paid real money for it was like being paid to nap, if napping involved substituting phrases like “hot velvet pocket” and “throbbing Tenderloin avenue” for various genitalia. So if this “50 Shades of Grey” nonsense makes it easier for me to pay my rent in exchange for thinly veiled “Doctor Who” alternate universe gender-swap fan fiction, then let’s have at it.

However. If the ripples of this success means that I have to blindly accept a re-boot of “Tale of Two Cities” where Carton and Darnay go to town on each other in a French Revolution-era jail cell, I am not onboard the baby-gravy train. (Sorry.)

According to The Huffington Post, Total-E-Bound Publishing is planning on giving several novels in the public domain a “sexy makeover.” Now, readers won’t have to rely on visions of Colin Firth’s clingy shirt or Kate Beaton comics to envision Mr. Darcy’s manly brooding around Pemberley Sex Villa; instead, they’ll be able to read about it in the explicit “Pride and Prejudice” prologue, now apparently co-written by Amy Armstrong and Jane Austen. 

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Ladies, start your vibrators!

This concept is not that innovative. Anyone perking up their ears at the prospect of blisteringly hot Sherlock Holmes / John Watson relations has clearly never found herself in certain corners of the Internet.  

I’m also intrigued by the publisher’s claim that the “voice” of the novel will be unchanged. Are we going to add “The wind wuthered! The man ejaculated!” to the great literary ouevre of our time?

OK, I’m being slightly hyperbolic. Realistically, developments like this aren’t cause for the kind of pearl-clutching and “What’s wrong with our youth today?” moaning that I’m sure the 24-hour news cycle is just itching to get a jump on. It’s pretty awesome that at least two of the proposed revamped novels seem to include same-sex relationships. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to stumble into the “Lesbian and Gay Fiction” section of Barnes and Noble, you’ll know that this is an awesome development: LGBT romance novels, with the same emotional buildup as their heterosexual counterparts, are few and far between.

And I’m psyched, too, that books like these and “50 Shades of Grey” bring non-vanilla, non-traditional relationships into the limelight. Sure, it’s not exactly thrilling that I’m now explaining flogging to my mom, but anything that brings kink into the conversation in a way that doesn’t automatically dismiss it as perverse is definitely an exciting development.

Still, though, I think there’s a danger here in reducing all erotica to “50 Shades of Grey” and its ilk: namely, misinformed, vaguely misogynistic variations on fan fiction. For one thing, I just don’t think it’s sustainable. The more we continue to brand every erotica that comes down the pike as part of the "Grey" phenomenon, the more we propagate the idea that it's the Aphroditic ideal of erotica. Which it -- well, isn't.

“50 Shades of Grey” seems to both be blessed by and suffer from the glitter of novelty: explicit bondage scenes are a refreshing cry from the sort of fade-to-black peen-to-vag impregnation bullshit that is the bread and butter of a romance novel’s climax. But it can only go so far. Eventually, the novelty of reading porn! In public! Is going to wear off, and we’ll be left with pages and pages of heroines fellating asparagus to half-assedly try to whack off over. 

Secondly, and more importantly, I honestly think this kind of copy-catting limits aspiring authors’ imaginations. Don’t get me wrong: I think writing fan fiction can be an invaluable stepping-stone for development of such crucial skills as “dialogue” and “how to deal with pronouns when everyone in your five-some identifies as a dude.” But when you’re working within an existing universe, where the characters eventually do have to trot out the personalities and destinies laid out for them, it can be a lot harder to steer them into the squishy crevices of your darkest brain-corners without some serious in-universe exposition. 

You want to write a rugged, salty story about a weathered sea captain and his beleaguered first mate? Don’t slap a “Master and Commander” label on it and then limit yourself with minutiae about sextants when all you wanted to do was have someone get captured by pirates while his second-in-command stages a dashing, shirtless rescue. 

Someday, I’d love to see erotica become its own economically and culturally productive genre. It can absolutely be done. Back in the early part of the century, science fiction grew from relying largely on world-building and shaky science to often nuanced explorations of the human condition. Similarly, I want the typical erotica story to go from relying on a pornographic shock factor to actual human character development. If we just keep relying on the same plots (or the same sex scenes), nothing is ever going to get more interesting. And that sucks for everybody. 

Kate writes porn! Sometimes, it even ends up in places you might read it. She'll keep you posted over at @katchatters.