“Nicholson Baker does not look like a dirty-book writer. His color is good. His gaze is direct, with none of the sidelong furtiveness of the compulsive masturbator.”- The New York Times, August 4, 2011
From the opening three sentences of this New York Times magazine profile of NIcholson Baker, you would assume that Baker was a writer of 50 Shades of Grey-style books. But he’s not a writer of fan fiction-turned erotica. He’s a revered prose stylist and winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award. So why did a journalist from The Times presume that Baker must be a masturbating sexual deviant? Because he’s written books with sexual themes. Journalists would never assume that murder-mystery writers have a history of homicide. So why do they treat writers of erotic books as if they must be morally unhinged?
In part, it’s related to our American value system that celebrates violence in cultural products but pillories sex. One need only to look at the MPAA to get an idea of how Americans view sex. To take one example: the heart-wrenching drama Blue Valentine (2010) received an NC-17 rating because it has an oral-sex scene between a married couple in it, while the dismemberment and cannibalism-filled Hostel 2 (2007) received an R.
But we reserve a special contempt for those who write about sex. We have a yearly prize celebrating the worst sex writing, a prize with the seeming purpose of shaming any serious novelist who dares to write about intercourse. The Bad Sex in Fiction award is covered in the mainstream media because it allows news outlets to place “sex” in the headline without fear of repercussion because it is adjacent to the word “bad.” And there’s no equivalent “Good Sex Writing” award. (Salon created one, but it only lasted a year.)
Without any literary standards, it is only by luck that I encountered good erotica.I remember my first experience reading a book that both turned me on and had literary value: George Bataille’s Story of the Eye. I was 16, and it was a gift from an overweight dyslexic man who was in love with me and wrote me incomprehensible, yet intelligent love letters where my name was spelled in at least three different way. Even though this gift didn’t convince me to go out with him (nor did the David Bowie 8-track, clown horn, and the Bobby Darin cd), it transformed my life. The novel, translated from the French, was so revoltingly hot, so forbidden that I ended up telling everyone at school about it. So it began to be passed around, this work by a famous French philosopher, and read with fervor by South Florida teens, while meanwhile our assigned literature, Beowulf, lingered unread.
So how do we begin to change this attitude? One way to make cultural products more respectable is to canonize them. A genre of art isn’t considered legitimate until our gatekeepers say it is so. The graphic novel was transformed from a glorified comic book to a literary storytelling medium when Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. The video game got its due when the academic journal Game Studies debuted in 2001. With the peer-reviewed Porn Studies journal following in its wake in Spring 2014, it is time for another genre to join their ranks in the cultural pantheon: erotic literature.
We need a canon of erotic books, an official list of the sexual classics. And this is not just a whimsical plea on my part, but a goal I see as worthwhile it its own right. Because when we categorize books and other works with graphically sexual themes as lacking true artistic value, when we relegate them to lowbrow status, we devalue sexual behavior itself.
A canon is never objective and will always be controversial. It represents the judgement of a community of experts whose opinions are respected even if they aren’t unanimous. It’s nearly impossible to define what makes a book a classic work of erotic literature, but I’m going to try nonetheless. Here’s my criteria for the erotic canon: The work has to meet high erotic and literary standards. It can be either fiction or memoir, as long as the narrative is compelling,
Here’s my list so far. It’s surprisingly short. Maybe it’s because my sexual tastes are unusual, but I think more likely I haven’t read widely enough (and I’m not turned on by D.H. Lawrence). So I need your help in fleshing this list out. Please offer suggestions in the comments section.
1. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
2. Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille
3. The Sexual Life of Catherine M., Catherine Millet
4. House of Holes, Nicholson Baker
5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
6. 120 Days of Sodom, Marquis de Sade
7. Vox, Nicholson Baker