Thursday, March 8, 2007

Is it Art?

By Madeline Moore

'Tawdry, misogynistic, and unrealistic.' I'd pressed one of my best friends, another writer, to read my first erotica novel, Wild Card. Now she was giving me her honest opinion of the book. I was stunned.

Tawdry? As in cheap, flamboyant, and tasteless? OK but …misogynistic? Impossible. Wild Card is a Black Lace novel – written by women for women. Unrealistic? The action primarily takes place in a hotel room over a couple of days – the classic dirty weekend. Or did my friend think a good paddling followed by twelve strokes of the crop was more than a real woman could stand? Not if that woman is a pain slut!

Then the kicker. She called me an artist, and said I have a responsibility to the world. Just like her.

Well, I'm a writer, I know that. But an artist? What's that even supposed to mean?

Is erotica art? Is genre fiction art? This is a just a little essay and my first post as a member of Lust Bites (as is evidenced by the ungainly topic I chose) so I'll get to the point. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on who wrote it and when. It used to depend on whether it originally came with a hard or paper back, and, although 'trade paperbacks' and the lovely new covers introduced by traditional erotica imprints like Black Lace have blurred the distinction a little, it's still possible to judge a book by its cover.

Here's what I think about art: It evokes a feeling. Sometimes, the public response to art translates into action, (Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe for example) but not always. Mostly, aren't we simply awed by art?

Genre fiction writers are charged to evoke a particular feeling. Writers of horror set out to scare the reader. The High Priest of Horror, Stephen King, has only recently been acknowledged as a possible literary figure. Mystery writers lure the reader into following the chain of evidence and puzzling over clues. Elmore Leonard is the latest mystery writer to make the cut as an artist.

We erotica writers are charged with the task of sexually exciting the reader. Anne Rice comes to mind as an author who has transcended the erotica and horror genres to take her place among the mainstream literary figures of the day. These days, she's writing about Jesus!

Genre writers only get to be artists when they're old. (Who wrote it and when.) Or, to put it another way, when they have amassed a quantity of high quality books. New writers who are published by the mainstream publishers have a shot at being considered artists. (Hard cover or soft.) Newer writers identified by their publishing house as genre writers, don't. (Hard cover or soft.)

These days, Black Lace is looking for literary writing and believable scenarios, more chicklit with our clitlit, if you will. Meanwhile, romance publishers are looking for more clitlit with their chicklit. Chicklit may be a perjorative term, but it's a name for the books that the female population wants to read, and that's exciting. Clitlit, of course, is just plain rude.

Artists are free to add dollops of incest and child abuse and alcoholism to their work, (Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald); it's almost de rigueur, these days, to imbue a book with substance by heaping on the substance abuse. Black Lace authors follow rules that prohibit that practise. Bestiality is another taboo topic for erotica genre writers that is used to good effect by literary authors. A Black Lace writer can't use it no matter how well-written it is. (No Bear by Marion Engle) for us! Our literary erotica guidelines forbid it.

We Black Lace authors are happy to move in the direction of literature, as much as the fairly tight schedule laid out in our contracts will allow. (Generally we get six months to complete a book.) If we create art, I know our editor would be overjoyed, as long as it's sexy art. But it isn't expected of us. We are expected to write extremely well and make our readers extremely horny. If we don't do that,it doesn't matter how pretty the prose is, we've failed. My book, Wild Card, like all erotica, is written for 'the one handed reader'. I think I accomplished that, and I think my editor thought so too. That's not only good enough for me, it makes me proud.

My friend said she wants her work to 'leave the world a better place,' and I said that my mission is 'to entertain, using my voice.' I also suggested that she is hobbled by her high ideals. While she struggles with the morality and message of her work, producing almost nothing, I write short stories (as Madeline de Chambrey)and novels (by Madeline Moore) that get published. There's no better way to become a better writer than to write.

In the volley of emails that ended a friendship, she had the last word. For the purposes of this essay, I thought I'd give the last word to Oscar Wilde...

'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.'

...but then I decided, to hell with it, I'll give the last word to me.

From Wild Card by Madeline Moore:

'"After you cover my feet in your creamy come, Ray, I will spread my thighs and let you sink your fingers deep into my hot steaming naked cunt -" she made her words as crude as she could. The sudden revelation of her inner predator could shock a weak man into impotence but it always had the opposite effect on a strong one.'

Madeline's blog
Wild Card at Amazon


Shanna Germain said...

Hurray! Great first post Madeline, and welcome to the Lust Biters!

I'm looking forward to the discussion on this one, but can't partake at the moment, because I'm off to do a radio program about writing for International Women's Day (where I have a funny feeling we'll be tackling some of these same issues).

Oh, but first, I have to say, I saw Stephen King speak recently on this topic as well. And he had this to say (or something like this -- my memory's shot): "As far as I can tell, the only difference between genre writing and literature is that genre writing sells more than a million copies and literature sells less than a thousand."

Thought that was pretty good!

Keziah Hill said...

My friend said she wants her work to 'leave the world a better place,'
Oh yawn! What about making the world a more interesting place, a more lust filled, pleasure loving, peace craving, to-busy-fucking-to-make-war place! Happy IWD!

Nikki Magennis said...

I second that, Keziah.

Great post, Madeline! Consider your lustbites initiation nearly complete. (There's just the ritual to go now. You know, the one we can't tell you about beforehand...)

As for if its art or not - well good christ on a bike. It's my art, and that's good enough for me.

'Only connect!...Only connect the prose and the passion.'

EM Forster

Eloise said...

I'm not sure I agree with your definition of art as something that evokes feeling - there is too much so called art (statues of David, Constable's paintings etc.) that just fail to do that in me. I don't have a better definition sitting around I'm around I'm afraid.

BUT, working within your definition, can good erotica be anything other than art? Can you write good sexy material that doesn't evoke lust, arousal, desire and the like?

Stephen King kind of has the right of it about the attitude of "the art establishment" to popular fiction too. Whenever I see that sort of quote, however apt I find it, it makes me giggle. There's this playwrite you've probably heard of, he's widely regarded as the best English playwrite of all time, Bill someone or another. In his day and age he was a hugely populist, bawdy (quite frequently in trouble with the censor) author. Give him 400 years of history and he's a lynchpin of the performing arts... I don't know if you'll be the same way in 400 years or not, but I do know you, none of you, are ruled out of being regarded that way - whether it makes you turn in your grave or your ghost feel all proud.

Janine Ashbless said...

I happen to write for the horror genre as well as the smut, so I'm used to being despised from two completely different angles!

Jesus, I loathe and detest the Rules. Why can't we just write what we want to say? Why is "what women want" dictated by marketing men and uber-reviewers instead of by readers and writers?

Nobody "wanted" school stories about a boy wizard until by freak chance JK Rowling got a shot. Nobody "wanted" a book on punctuation until Eats Shoots and Leaves came along.

Sorry. Glum mood. It was a great, thought-provoking post though Madeline.

Olivia Knight said...

My usual insanely megolamaniac ego comes to my rescue once again with this. Brought to you by the woman who posted "I am beautiful", this dramatically charged and egocentrically motivated post brings you the fresh arrogant phrase: "I'm a great writer. So whatever I write is art. 'Nuff said." (The fact that I actually believe this in the core of my soul might be scary to other people, but is a hell of a great principle to work from when you're sitting down to write something!)

Okay, to take a step back - the history of "art", of all mediums and genres, is littered with things that have been disdained at the time, then revered or reclaimed, or adored, then despised, then rediscovered, etc. The impressionists were despised at the time. Pre-Raphaelite paintings were enormously popular and now have most artistically-educated people reaching for a sick bag. (Personally I love them and my mother is distressed about that, but then her taste in poetry distresses me, so all's fair in art and war.) No-one has ever been able to provide a useful definition that will stick, whether to past art, current art, or a prediction of what future art should be, achieve, etc. Every era frantically tries to. In the end, art is in the eye of the beholder.

My original self-gratifying starting point really is it for me. I write other stuff, under a different name, that I would defend as art with my dying breath. When I write erotica, I don't suddenly think, "Oh, it's only porn," and abruptly lose all my skills and standards as a writer. I describe my erotica as "stories with the sex left in", as opposed to the host of stories that leave the sex out but find time to describe motes of dust in sunlight in infinite detail. As sex frequently changes one's life, relationships, and even home or country, and dust has comparatively little effect on the path of one's existence, I find this odd. The exclusion of sex can hardly be part of any definition of art. That would tear great swathes out of our literary and fine art heritage.

Yes, we work within specifications that say things like "no bestiality, no underage sex", but I'm not sure that bestiality and underage sex are hallmarks of art either. The notion of The Artist who works from a position of complete artistic freedom and relentless self-expression is a comparatively new and profoundly unhelpful one. (It only started with the Romantics, and look at what miserable lives they all led!) For one thing, it makes most artists too poor to afford the time or energy to do art. Previously, having a patron was a position of status for an artist, and the patron sure as hell had a few specifications of their own - the most common ones being, "Put me in the painting as the Arch-angel" or "Paint my daughter so she looks hot". Michaelangelo was hired to do the Sistine Chapel and hated every moment of it - it was a phsycial torture and he disliked the subject matter. He did it anyway, maybe thinking of it as "piece-work" to pay for whatever he wanted to do. (Actually he didn't even get paid much - the Pope was a bit miserly.) At the moment, I have two "patrons" - Black Lace is one, and the person I do ghostwriting for is another. They feed me, clothe me, pay my bills, let me spend my time doing exactly what I like. I don't feel I'm compromising My Art by sticking to a few specifications in return. If the Renaissance was funded by that system, and produced great stuff, so can I.

But because "art" is such a nebulous term, I think in slightly different terms - like well-written, containing some truths, reflecting some truths, richly textured - phrases like that. Five years of studying English Lit and literary theory have also made me deeply suspicious of the term "literary", so while I'd be delighted to be described as that by a reviewer, I think it's ultimately as unhelpful a term as art.

Finally - on genre. In film studies, it's becoming increasingly common to study and evaluate films according to their genre. So a fantasy or a western, a comedy or an epic drama, are not expected to all do the same things in the same way. A respect for genre is growing there that the literary analysts are only just starting to catch up with. I think people will catch up, eventually, and we should meanwhile protect ourselves with the thorny rosebushes of magnificent egos. And ask ourselves, when we write, "Is it good?" And never, ever think "It doesn't matter... it's just porn."

Oops. I wrote an essay!

Mathilde Madden said...

No bestiality?


Janine Ashbless said...

You weren't told that in advance Mathilde?

Apparantly Lycanthropy Is In but Bestiality Is Forbidden (and may not even be hinted at). Talk about walking a razor's edge.

Madeline said...

Well, bestiality as in 'no sex with animals.' If you're thinking of your werefolk, MM, that's a different thing entirely - or if not entirely, then enough to opt them out of the no animals rule.
Olivia! Good stuff! There's tonnes to be written on the topic, of course, but only so much that can go into the post itself. A lot of people don't know that the Sistine Chapel was painted by an atheist. Your point about patrons is a good one. In Canada we have a lot of gov't funding of the arts but that, too, comes with strings attached. I'd rather have BL as a patron, any day.

Madeline said...

And thank you for your compliments on the post, people. I bit off a big topic and I know I left a lot out, etc. but I'm happy with it, and happy to be *almost* through my initiation. I wonder what that secret rite might be...I'm sure whatever I can dream up will pale compared to the reality.

t'Sade said...

There was an article recently about being a popular writer and being a artistic writer. In that case, it was removing references to native Americans of various types in the story to make it more manageable to the general public. In that blog, which I can't remember where I read it or who wrote it of course, they said most writers come down to a decision: do you write for art or for money?

And, then you got the third category: do you want to sell more than a hundred copies? :) I'm in that last boat, my one and only book published sold 66 copies in 3 years. I suspect you'll do that in the first month, I'm beginning to really enjoy the Black Lace stories, though I only have 2 of them now (4 more coming on the way! *bounce*).

But, writing to make people happy is great. I, personally, may not be a very famous writer, but when you find a random person who you never knew and they squeal and tell you that you were on the best writers they have ever read, that makes you feel great.

In the end, I'm almost as happy with making one person happy (including between the legs) as I am selling a hundred books. So, I will continue to be a literary writer (low sales, obscure topics like horny mummys and gay werewolves) because it fits my path.

So, why I was randomly trying to say is, you are an artist no matter what you do. It doesn't matter if it is for a small group of people or the entire world, art is art and the creation of it is still one of the most important things in this world. :)

Good luck with your story, I'll probably be putting that on my wish list too. So many books...

(Hrm, I'm rambling today, TGIF.)

Mathilde Madden said...

I don't really care about questions of artistic or literary merit. I just like it when people like my stuff.

I like being at parties and having someone say: 'Oh my god, I've just realised who you are. You make my labia swell.' I like it when people say they look forward to me posting 'Coming Attractions' on a Sunday. I like it when people email me after they've read my books and tell me they want to spank the shit out of me.

That's good enough for me.

Madeline said...

Oooo, Mathilde, that would be good enough for me, too. WC is my first book, and I gave copies to my sister ('I kept wondering how you KNOW all that stuff') a friend ('really fucking sexy') my shrink (!) ('your editor was right, it is a blizzard of sex') and the artistic-pretension friend I talk about in the blog. In retrospect, I suppose I could have been more selective, but I was celebrating my first book and I wanted those people to celebrate with me. I didn't give it to ALL my friends, or ALL members of my family, I gave it to the people I figured could handle the content and would enjoy holding my book in their hands. From now on, I'll just tell them I have another book coming out and they can buy it if they want to read it - which is likely what I should've done in the first place.
Live and learn.
I've got stuff to do now folks, so I'll check back in later this afternoon to see how the discussion is going. Thanks for all the interesting comments and for your varied and fascinating points of view.

Kate Pearce said...

Why is it wrong to sell books and make money out of your art? I've never understood that. I write what I like to read and I also happen to make some money out of it, thank you very much. So I'm not going to apologize to anyone who thinks I'm a hack or a sellout or an inferior writer just because I'm relatively successful.

(Kate lets out her breath and steps down off her soap box)

Okay, I feel better now :)

I know my books make people horny and happy-that's good right? They are also as well-written and thoughtful as I can make them. That's good enough for me.

(Now off to deposit nice check from Ellora's Cave in bank)

Kate Pearce said...

Forgot to say-great first post Madeline!

Madeline said...

Right on Kate! And thanks for the kudos re: the post. I had to trim it way down,but that's okay because coming soon, and not penned by me, will be - Erotica vs Porn - so we can get all fired up once again. Like we're not all fired up most of the time, anyway, but you know what I mean.

Jeremy Edwards said...

I like being at parties and having someone say: 'Oh my god, I've just realised who you are. You make my labia swell.'

I think I'm pretty safe in saying that nobody's ever said that to me at a party. (At the post office, the supermarket or the bank, sure--but never at a party.)

Eloise said...

I also read science fiction and fantasy, and more relevantly SFX magazine.

Why relevantly? Well, this month's edition showed up yesterday with a bookmark that is advertising a book called "The Somnambulist" with the advertising tagline "Be Warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever"

Not saying it's fair, but in light of the discussions here it tickled my sense of irony and serendipity.

t'Sade said...

I only get people saying that in chat rooms. :P

Shon Richards said...

I am a firm believer that the only thing that determines if something is Art is time. If 20 years later we're still discussing and sharing a porn book, a horror novel or a mystery, than that's Art with a capitol A.

My other firm belief is that porn written from the libido does make the world a better place. Too many young and not so young people question their sexual desires till they see those desires reflected elsewhere. Seeing a book that talks about the same things that curl your own toes can help people come to terms with accepting themselves.

Erastes said...

I've had this argument thrown at me many times. Specially on places like The Erotica Readers & Writers Association where some (not all, by any means) writers and readers consider that erotic writing is only for making money and that Literature is High and Worthy and in another sphere completely.

I can't agree. What about Henry Miller? Nabokov? Sarah Waters? To name just a few.

My own mother - whilst being my greatest supporter and encourager (and I have to mention her, as it's Mother's Day over here today) dissaproved of what I wrote. She was quite convinced that it was "Just a Phase" and then that eventually I would write the next Great English Literary Work of Genius.

I'd like to think so too - but I can't see any reason why it can't be about two hot men in historical costumes falling in love (and in and out of bed)....