To indulge in erotic literature, one no longer has to wait red-faced in the queue at their local Waterstones with a copy of Agent Provocateur: 69 in hand, enduring the ensuing small talk as the cashier timidly scans the text and avoids any eye contact. Instead, from the privacy of a computer one may peruse Amazon for the latest erotic releases, or pore over “Kink for Kindle”, an online library full of free e-books ranging from the works of Marquis de Sade (the creator of sadism) to the latest erotica and audio books. All it takes is a discreet download onto an e-reader and your fellow passengers on the morning commute are none the wiser.
E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey, a novel that began as erotic Twilight fan fiction (in which necks aren’t the only things characters are sucking), has been the latest e-book to create a stir when this year it reached the top of USA Today’s Best Selling Book List. This has only ever been bettered by electronicised version of The Hunger Games trilogy, which is a remarkable feat for an e-book with a non-existent marketing budget. And just recently, upon the physical release of 50 Shades of Grey, the novel has become the fastest-selling paperback of all time, beating both Dan Brown and J.K Rowling.
The 30% rise in the sales of erotic literature has not gone unnoticed. It seems that society may turn a blind eye to the predominantly male domain of visual pornography on the internet yet when women whip out their Kindles on the Tube and clandestinely engage in a kinky tale, a critical and damning backlash erupts. If anything, it proves how our society is uncomfortable with a woman’s sexual needs.
Widely labelled as “Mommy Porn”, there seems to be an instinctive response of belittlement and mockery on behalf of society towards a married mother’s sexual needs and desires. However, this is nothing new.It dates back to far beyond the creation of the e-reader in 1998, the pornography on the Internet today, or even the first French pleasure films of the late 1800s. Just take a look at some of the following poets and novelists who have made brave forays into erotic literature across our history, and the various legal battles over censorship that have ensued.
“And may no woman better thrive
That dares prophane the cunt I swive”
John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, was an original libertine and member of the Court Wits, a social group close to Charles II. Renowned for exploiting the amorality of the court and the newfound sexual freedom under Charles’ rule, Wilmot’s collection of poems is an inherently sexualised representation of both men and women as mere objects of desire.
However, Wilmot appears to use his work to also promote sexual comportment and etiquette, and it is clear that beneath the shock value present throughout many of his works there is an inherent conflict between Wilmot’s tender, personal emotion and his position as a skilled raconteur.
In 1680, at the age of thirty-three and debilitated by the effects of alcoholism, syphilis and gonorrhoea, Wilmot made a deathbed renunciation of libertinism and turned to religion in an effort to ‘save’ himself from the hedonistic, bawdy and obscene work he penned during his lifetime.
However, this was to no avail, and having (as Samuel Johnson described) “blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness”, he died shortly after.
John Cleland (1749)
“I saw…not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant.”
Detailing lesbian encounters, heterosexual romps, mutual masturbation and masochism, it is unsurprising that the sordid memoirs of Fanny Hill’s brothel experiences became synonymous with the obscene. Published in its entirety in 1749, the bawdy display of female hedonism resulted in Cleland and publisher Ralph Griffiths being charged with corrupting the King’s subjects.
Its prohibition spurred underground activity until 1963, when following the Lady Chatterley Trial Mayflower Books decided to re-publish the text in all its former, unexpurgated glory. Again the text was banned under Section 3 of the Obscenity Act, but by then 82,000 copies had been circulated and the archaic disparity between publishing laws and the social realities of the 1960s was ever apparent. Following the announcement of the Miller Test, a three-pronged approach to measuring artistic obscenity, the ban was lifted in the 1970s .
Lady Chatterly’s Lover
D.H. Lawrence (1928)
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates, that the king of glory may come in. Ay, th’ cheek on thee! Cunt, that’s what tha’re after. Tell lady Jane tha wants cunt. John Thomas, an’ th’ cunt O’ lady Jane!”
Hailed as an “unprecedentedly unconstrained celebration of sexuality”, Lawrence’s novel focuses on Lady Constance Chatterley’s search for fulfilment as her desires lead her away from her paralysed husband and into the arms of her gardener.
The story is both beautiful and notorious; the tender portrayal of Connie’s love for Mellors is contrasted against the expletive-laden sex scenes Lawrence creates. Such was the explosive response to Lady Chatterley’s Lover that one contemporary critic claimed Lawrence to have so “diseased [a] brain and a soul so dark that it’d obscure even the darkness of hell”.
Embroiled in the famous Penguin Obscenity Trial in the 1960s, the novel was attacked for its frequent use of “fuck” and ten mentions of “cunt”, the prosecution deeming that these words devalued the literary merit of the novel. However, the landmark ruling on November 2nd 1960 was returned as “not guilty”, prompting Penguin to re-publish the text with a dedication to the twelve jurors in the trial who allowed Lawrence’s work to become one of the most commonly known pieces of erotic literature in our contemporary canon.
50 Shades of Grey
E.L. James (2011)
“Let me ask you something first. Do you want a regular vanilla relationship with no kinky fuckery at all?” My mouth drops open. “Kinky fuckery?” I squeak. “Kinky fuckery.”
This now notorious trilogy focuses on the antics of Anastasia Steele, a twenty-one year old student who engages in a relationship with a bondage loving billionaire called Christian Grey. Critics have slammed James’ quality of writing but the plot and themes of her novel (though somewhat lost in a fantasy realm somewhere between the Twilight and Harry Potter series) have triggered great debate.
Indeed, as the novel entered the media spotlight, Newsnight’s economics editor Paul Mason found himself discussing ‘genital clamps’ and ‘fisting’ live on air after somehow digressing away from his original topic of the financial double dips.
It too has added further fuel to the great feminist debate, with critics questioning James’ unabashed portrayal of Anastasia as weakly submissive at the hands of the powerful businessman. Regardless of the critical storm that James appears to have conjured however, one thing is for certain — as one of the biggest selling e-books and the fastest-selling paperback ever, no matter what anyone says about 50 Shades of Grey, its status as the nation’s favourite bonkbuster is already cemented.