Erotica is not porn. Here’s everything you need to know about the much-misunderstood genre
The genre offers amazing scope for subversion, and for women to reclaim the contested site of their own bodies, writes Rosalyn D’Mello.
Let’s stop mistaking smut for erotica, and let’s stop debating whether erotica is pornography. As someone who consciously operates within the genre of the erotica, one is often asked flippant questions about what it entails, and how one is to go about navigating its complex terrain. There are many dangers involved, the biggest being the propensity to be slotted. Still, the genre offers amazing scope for subversion, and for women to reclaim the contested site of their own bodies. This faux-instructive manual may answer some of the questions you might have had, or may arouse a whole new set of curiosities.
1 Do not mistake erotica for sex or sex for erotica. It is desire that resides at the heart of all erotic literature, desire in all its naked, unflinching, conscious or un-self-aware glory.
2 The Greek word eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for that which is missing,’” the poet and Greek scholar Anne Carson writes in chapter two of Eros the Bittersweet, her study of the concept of Eros in classical philosophy and literature and simultaneous treatise on the poetry of the lesbian poet Sappho. Desire, she concludes, is central to Eros, and this desire can only be for that which is lacking, not at hand, not present, not in one’s possession nor in one’s being. “Who ever desires what is not gone? No one. The Greeks were clear on this. They invented Eros to express it.”
3 Octavio Paz, in Double Flame, his discourse on love in literature, makes a compelling statement about the point of connect between eroticism and poetry: Eroticism is a metaphor for sexuality, while poetry is an eroticization of language. Throughout history, the most immortal literature has had the erotic as its subject; the erotic has always lain at the core of every great love poem. “There is no love without eroticism, just as there can be no eroticism without sexuality,” writes Paz.
4 It is the eroticisation of language that makes a work erotic, a feat that demands an intuitive ability to arouse the senses by way of linguistic devices. Ergo, erotica represents the pinnacle of literary craftsmanship. There is no good erotica or bad erotica. Erotica is the literary personification of our human capacity for desire and ecstasy. It can only ever be masterly. It must arouse and leave you wanting.
5 Who entered whom and how is inconsequential. Sex scenes are often unnecessary, even extraneous. Sex must never be gratuitous. The intention governing the act is usually of greater significance. The grave error lies in privileging description over insight. Invert the ratio. Therein lies the difference.
6 Pornography is preoccupied with sex. Erotica is more concerned with the subject of sexuality. This necessitates that your subject be given agency to operate, to self-determine, to exercise free will, to not be governed by the limits of the writer’s imagination. Add a dash of sensuality and mix until you arrive at a consistent texture; elusive yet marked by solidity.
7 Style is everything. You have to evolve one that is unique. It’s tricky at first, but not trickier than learning how to kiss someone you lust after on the mouth. It takes more than a few tries until you’ve configured the ratio of tongue to lip. Too much tongue and you run the risk of being received as sloppy. Not enough and you’ll be mistaken for a prude. It takes a good amount of practice to master this exactitude. It’s the same with writing erotica. It’s not as easy as it looks, but it’s not impossible to perform.
8 You learn, eventually, to be wary of revealing to the wrong kind of men that you write erotica. They will most surely interpret it as an indication of your promiscuity. Some men will want to kiss you in the hope that you may document their lips. Some will be afraid to kiss you because of precisely that possibility. In time you learn to separate the wheat from the chaff.
9 Deciding to dabble in erotica can be fun and sensational for a while. But to pursue it as a genre, as a discipline, as a political calling, a subversive re-appropriation of the “feminine” body is to incur a gamut of risks. You must familiarize yourself with the legal system. Befriend at least five lawyers. We live in a country that doesn’t take too kindly to women expressing their sexuality or expressing their agency. We are more receptive to the ownership of women’s bodies, to their depiction as items of property.
10 It is crucial to first understand the dynamics of the gaze before you can attempt to subvert or challenge it. You have to read voraciously; the poetry of the Bhakti saint poets, the bridal mysticists – Aandal, Meerabai, Akka Mahadevi, the passions of the Greek Lesbian poet, Sappho, Kamala Das, Anais Nin, Anne Carson, Jeanette Winterson, the Biblical Song of Solomon, Nigella Lawson’s recipes. None of them have too much to teach you about plot. What you’ll learn, instead, is how to play with words as if they were dough, malleable, capable of continuous restructuring, and existing in a continuum. Adopt feminism. It will give you a fertile ground to examine where you stand on the gender political divide.
11 To write great erotica, you must learn to interpret the world through the language of gestures. You must learn to live sensually. You must learn to love with abandon and be unafraid of hurt or deceit. You must learn to be vulnerable. You must allow everything you experience to seep into your bloodstream and inform your literary vocabulary, particularly pain.
12 Still, while experience will take you a long way in writing erotica, the boundlessness of your imagination will take you even further. Sometimes, the most glorious sex is the sex you’ll never have.
Rosalyn D’Mello is a Delhi-based art writer and critic. Her first non-fiction memoir, A Handbook For My Lover, was published in 2015.
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