Scan Magazine: 2003-12-15

Tobsha Learner

In June this year I was invited to participate in the Sydney Writers festival on a couple of panels, one of which was a panel primarily to discuss the craft of erotic writing. The other participants were Sarah Dunnant, Anne-Marie Jargose, the lovely Linda Jaivin (chair) and the infamous Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

These panels are always a mixed bag and are orientated towards the reading public (as well as book promotion), so academic or craft-vigor are never at the top of the agenda. But several things occurred to me during the Debate, which inevitably became another promotional tool for Ms Catherine M, who, despite, very reasonable English in the green room, had insisted on speaking through a translator ? thus eating up more time. The most obvious was the schism between the current fad for autobiographical reportage ? particularly if it?s the sexploits of the author - and the actual modernist concept of the writing of erotic fiction as a craft.

Eroticism for me is inherently caught up with the visceral, the imaginary, the fantasy ? it is not intellectual or ever dispassionate. It is always subjective not objective, in that personally, both as a reader and as a writer, I have to be engaged emotionally with my characters while they?re having sex. I have to know what they are feeling both emotionally and physically.

The set-up ? the emotional foreplay, desire between characters before they have consummated their lust - is as erotic for me as the act itself. Therefore environmental detail ? geography, the space between flesh, clothing, the anticipation, the power play, pain and pleasure ? are all elements I use as writer to maximise the excitement I hope my readers experience by the time my characters get it on. All of which I suspect have been traditionally attributed to female sensibilities ? an outmoded view. I count many men amongst the great writers of erotic fiction ? Henry Miller, Marquis de Sade, Brett Easton Ellis amongst others. All of these feature foreplay whether it be cultural or emotional. Personally I like to combine graphic physical detail of actual intercourse with the emotional. As a reader there is nothing I find more frustrating than a kind of romantic ambiguity.

Perhaps this comes from my extensive experience as a playwright, training that has left me as a writer very character-driven and with an actual sense of place and the space between the characters ? the heat if you like.

I have no conscious political or intellectual/ post-modernist agenda in my erotic writing. The eroticism is an extension of the psychology of the characters and sometimes the metaphor or underlying allegory. For example in "The Woman who was tied up and forgotten" (Quiver) the narrative is really a study of how powerful people (architect=executive) often under great stress will seek out sadomasochism to be rendered ?powerless?.

I found Ms. Millet?s book particularly tedious. It seemed to fail on several counts: one as arousing fiction, and two as a psychological study of a woman who voluntarily subjected herself to many sexual acts she seemed utterly physically and emotionally indifferent about. Perhaps I am simply not enough
of a voyeur as a reader ? in the sense that nowadays the notion of celebrity
has begun to be incorporated into the reading itself. I just wish that the marketing of personality - the sexual adventures of the author - didn?t cloud the whole comprehension of erotic writing. It is a skill and requires craft, emotional dedication and choreography ? just like any decent love-making.

Tobsha Learner is the author of Quiver, a book of erotic short stories. Her current book is The Witch Of Cologne (Harper Collins). She tutors in Writing in the Media Department, Macquarie University.