Writing Right with Dmitri: Adventures in the Skin Trade

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Adventures in the Skin Trade

Warning: The following contains explicit words like 'sex','kiss', and (gulp) 'abstinence'. Let the delicate of sensibilities beware.
A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

Yeah, we know what it's called: porn. Soft porn, hard-core porn, all kinds of porn. Thanks to Solnushka (you'll have to make a trip to Peer Review for the gem on Fifty Shades of Grey), we now know that there's 'mommy porn' – writing done to titillate 30-something career women who are also wives and mothers. Nothing wrong with that, we suppose.

What is porn, anyway? A US Supreme Court justice once famously said that he couldn't define it, but he knew it when he saw it. Not quite enough. Merriam Webster has three definitions:

1: the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement

2: material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement

3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction (the pornography of violence).
  –   Merriam Webster Online Dictionary.

Back in the 19th Century, definition #3 was kind of important. It was branded 'sensationalistic' literature when you wrote shocking stuff with overwrought emotionalism in. Nobody back then would dare write explicitly erotic material. Well, okay, they would, they did – they even photographed it, with 'French postcards' – but it was all very sub rosa, with one eye out for Anthony Comstock and the 'vice' people. Now, of course, a lot of the tamer stuff is practically mainstream: even respected writers such as Ann Rice have been guilty of erotica.

But what is that to us? To us, I mean, as responsible, serious writers who aren't aiming to titillate? Well, it might help us to know where the boundaries are, here in the 21st Century. And it might tell us why we get such odd reactions from readers if we dare to mention certain behaviours or topics in the context of our (of course) high-minded investigation of the Human Condition.

As it turns out, there are many kinds of porn, besides the hard-core and soft-core stuff. We won't go into all the variations of human intimate behaviour involved, but some of it is frankly bizarre: recently, we read the sad tale of a talented young performance artist who died far too young. The jarring factoid in her obituary was that she was referred to as 'the queen of Clown Porn'. Go look it up, if you don't believe us. But we advise caution in googling.

Near to the idea of porn is the much softer notion of Romance. Now, Romance used to be more or less squeaky clean, in that the only things the heroes and heroines got up to before marriage were unlikely to raise your blood pressure much. These days, if you want that kind of tease, you'll have to read Christian Romance, although we don't advise it. One variety of Christian Romance that astounds is, believe it or not, Amish Romance. Bonnets, buggies, bearded farmers, and, no doubt, bundling1. In some regions of the US, there are whole sections of discount-store book departments devoted to Amish Romance. Right next to the Bibles. Go figure.

A lot is apparently being said about Fifty Shades of Grey, most of it familiar to us old-timers. For instance, that publishing dreck like this contributes to the Fall of Civilisation and what the Germans call 'people-dumbing-down'. Experience teaches us that a book like this comes around about once a decade, when some bright writer figures out that, as HL Mencken said about the American people, 'You can't go broke underestimating their taste.' Apparently, the phenomenon is international in the internet age. Examples of earlier shockers: Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls, those Jackie Collins novels, and Samuel Richardson's Pamela.


Samuel Richardson was a contemporary of Henry Fielding's. (18th Century.) Fielding did not approve of Richardson one bit. In fact, Fielding wrote a parody of Pamela, called Shamela, as well as Joseph Andrews, just to mock this sort of thing. He found Pamela smarmy, dishonest, hypocritical, and bad for the mental health of right-thinking people. Fielding was not alone: there was a whole genre of 'anti-Pamela literature'.

What offended people about Pamela? Well, stuff like this:

I was proceeding, and he said, a little hastily – Because you are a little fool, and know not what's good for yourself. I tell you I will make a gentlewoman of you, if you be obliging, and don't stand in your own light; and so saying, he put his arm about me, and kissed me!   –   Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson.

Sounds mild, but it's not. The blackguard was taking advantage of a servant in his own house. I'm sure that sort of thing never happened in RL in the 18th Century. Phooey. What particularly upset Fielding is that the story teases out all this flirting, the while the 'innocent' Pamela (who is too naïve to be believed, or else very, very sly for a 15-year-old), manages to fob the guy off, and eventually makes the guy realise what a pearl she is, and how he isn't going to get what he wants without a proposal. Then Pamela triumphantly moves up in the world and becomes a lady. Wow, material wealth and the good-looking guy: add a house, and you've got the trifecta.

Is Pamela pornography? Depends on your definition. It certainly appeals by titillating: each letter from Pam to her parents contains another juicy titbit like the one above, followed by some return advice from the anxious parental units. Nobody reads this sort of stuff anymore, right?


Apparently, there's something called 'abstinence porn'. Critics of the teen-romance genre are labelling the Twilight series, with its romantic high-school vampires, as abstinence porn: 'sensational, erotic, and titillating', to be sure, but without any actual sex. Feminists point out astutely that this sort of thing fetishises sex far more than explicit descriptions would, and are uneasy about the lopsided power arrangements in relationships that border on abuse.

Are 21st-century readers more or less interested in reading about 'sexy' topics than those of the 18th Century? Somehow, we suspect it's about the same. Social and cultural factors may vary the kinds of dodgy topics there are: in the 19th Century, 'submissive' wives weren't considered unusual in print, but today, we scratch our heads and are uncomfortable.

Sooner or later, you're going to want to touch on touchy subjects, and it might be good to do a quick survey to see where the readers' heads are. After that, you can 'just say no' to 'abstinence porn'. And maybe bring in the clowns.

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

17.09.12 Front Page

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1Bundling is an Amish courtship custom of hoary antiquity, involving two fully clothed Amish people (one of each gender) in bed together. With a board in between. Wash your minds out. You can read more here, if it floats your boat.

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