Damage by Josephine Hart: a review

Damage is a tale of desperate erotic obsession, and its inevitable path to destruction.

The narrative, told by the male protagonist, eminently respectable, and respected, cabinet Damage Josephine Hart a review minister Fleming, is clinical in its formality, in keeping with his social position. His life revolves around public service, and the care of his family and, at the heart of this seeming ‘order’ he is deeply unhappy.

This very formality, with its lack of true passion, has suffocated him, so that we have some understanding of his leap from empty order into consuming chaos, into the danger of an affair with his son’s fiancée, Anna.

The icy detachment of this narrative is a perfect foil to Fleming’s inner turmoil and the depth of his catastrophic infatuation. His spiralling descent is forever tempered by a façade of civility and order. Josephine Hart’s sparse, simple, even elegant language balances the fevered undercurrents of Fleming’s psychological state.

DAMAGE_610‘… my life would have been lost in contemplation of the emerging skeleton beneath my skin. It was as though a man’s bones broke through the face of the werewolf. Shining with humanity he stalked through his midnight life towards the first day.’1992 film Damage Jeremy Irons Juliette Binoche Josephine Hart a review of the book Emmanuelle de Maupassant

His affair with Anna is both an awakening and a dream-state, a loss of self to the intoxication of desire, and a finding of the self.

Fleming tells us: ‘I eased her gently to the floor. Leaving my elegant disguise on the sofa I became myself.’

We are left in no doubt that destruction is inevitable, that Fleming is at the precipice. There are no mitigating circumstances, and we know that there will be no happy ending, or forgiveness. What we see is a chillingly honest portrayal of sexual obsession, and our potential for destruction: lives damaged, or soon to be so.

Many will be familiar with the wonderful film of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons and 1992 film Damage Jeremy Irons Juliette Binoche Josephine Hart a review of the book Emmanuelle de MaupassantJuliette Binoche, directed by Louis Malle, in which we witness more of the sexual nature of the affair. In her book, Hart does not describe sex at length, and yet we are left in no doubt that the acts are intense.

Fleming tells the reader: ‘We were made for other things. For needs that had to be answered day or night – sudden longings – a strange language of the body.’

They involve a degree of mild violence and of domination (there are references to slavedom, to being tied, and blindfolded, of Anna giving herself over to his will, of being physically ‘arranged’). These scenes leave us with a sense of the brutality of Fleming’s sexual desire, and of Anna’s desire to submit to it.

… there would be time for the pain and pleasure lust lends to love. Time for body lines and Damage-film-still-007angles that provoke the astounded primitive to leap delighted from the civilised skin…There would be time for words obscene and dangerous. There would be time for flowers to put out the eyes and for silken softness to close the ears.’

This is a love story of sorts, as Fleming proclaims in the closing lines, but the journey is heartbreaking, unsettling, terrifying. It is a nightmare from which the protagonists cannot wake. We are shocked, horrified, even to the bitter close, but cannot look away.

Hart reminds us that, when tragedy strikes, as when Anna’s brother Aston kills himself ‘silence, separation and sadness… become a way of life’ trapping us ‘in the unresolved agonies of long ago’. In some part, this is offered as a reason for Anna’s detachment, but we are not invited to judge, only to witness.

We see Fleming acknowledge his folly, cruelty and deceit. He takes full responsibility, never Josephine Hart Damage review by Emmanuelle de Maupassantattempting to apologize or make excuses. He is in the grip of what he knows will destroy him, and we abhor him for it. And yet, we see that he is powerless, just as Anna is powerless.

They are presented as equally culpable and yet, equally, without blame. They are damaged and are destined to destroy not only themselves but others.

At one point, Fleming asks Anna: ‘Who are you?’ and she replies: ‘I am what you desire…’ While Fleming fantasises about the possibility of leaving his wife and living with Anna, she realises that their relationship is outside of normal bounds and social conventions. It is only there that it can exist.

1992 film Damage Jeremy Irons Juliette Binoche Josephine Hart a review of the book Emmanuelle de MaupassantJosephine Hart achieves something rare in this novella: a helplessness that speaks deeply to the reader, a knowledge that, however sane and ordered our life, we carry our own destructive flame, the potential for our own acts of ‘damage’.

Lines in the Sand: transgression and censorship

This article looks at the nature of transgressive fiction, and tackles issues of censorship, including the paradox of themes being permitted for exploration in other genres (such as young fiction and horror) but not in fiction classed as ‘erotic’. It is a transgression and censorship taboo erotic fiction Emmanuelle de Maupassant authors writers readersstarting point for discussion rather than offering any definitive answers.

To learn more about the 130 participants who contributed to debate on these subjects, visit here.

The Nature of Transgression

Erotic literature has traditionally worn a face of transgression, of the defiant questioning of cultural norms, based on the premise that knowledge is to be found by pushing to the edge of experience.

Adrea Kore notes her authorship of erotic fiction as a political act, as well as a creative one. She asserts that finding words for women writing and speaking about their own desire is still seen as taboo in corners of Western culture, let alone in cultures where women are more repressed ideologically, and socially. She stresses, “The political aspect of it, the desire to confront and subvert is a strong motivation for me – as strong as the desire to seduce and arouse.”

Erotic fiction offers not just a dissection of pleasure but of the painful consequences of our actions. We can argue that an exploration of the erotic is best served by striking at what discomforts us, by questioning our assumptions.

Remittance Girl states that, according to Bataille, ‘landscapes of transgression are places of discontinuity’, where our sense of self Jonathan Kemp fiction quote author Emmanuelle de Maupassant transgression taboobecomes disrupted’, through ‘extreme pleasure, pain or mental anguish’.  (more here)

Jonathan Kemp adds, “For Georges Bataille (and Foucault), transgression was a limit-experience.” [an experience on the edge of limits, where divine horror and divine ecstasy meet, where rules are broken until a place beyond all rules is reached]. He continues, “For Genet it was a slap in the face of the Bourgeoisie; and dependent upon the status quo remaining intact. Arguably, transgression was easier for Bataille and Genet, for they (amongst others) have paved the way for serious, literary attention being paid to the erotic.” Kemp adds that  ‘contemporary erotica isn’t necessarily transgressive (for example, Fifty Shades of Grey)’.

Malin James underlines, “While a great deal of erotica falls Remittance Girl erotic fiction quote Bataille transgression Emmanuelle de Maupassantinto a realistic vein, much of what people actually want is that which they can’t (or don’t feel they can) have in real life. This is why rape fantasies, incest and other transgressive sexual acts continue to sell erotica and generate clicks. The appeal of the forbidden is as old as the Bible, when Eve and the apple laid the foundation for centuries of sexual taboo. The fact is that we get pleasure from doing that which we’re not ‘supposed’ to do… While some taboos have been neutralized by an expanded notion of sex positivity (for the most part, gay couplings, anal and oral sex and extramarital situations don’t pack the transgressive punch they historically have), the amount of incest porn, tentacle porn, bestiality, non-con and various forms of edge play being consumed has risen…” Malin notes that, as such acts are ‘still taboo’, they ‘retain the power to arouse in ways that non-transgressive acts don’t tend to’. 

Janine Ashbless adds, “I’m turned on intellectually and erotically by stepping outside my comfort zone for a little while. A cozy tale of sex between two familiar lovers simply does not do it for me – there has to be tension. So I use my discomforts and my many fears to bring power to my erotic fiction. I challenge myself, and if that means challenging my readers then so much the better.”

Raziel Moore tells us that, when he writes to challenge his reader (or himself), he focuses on either challenging ‘preconceptions’ in how people behave or ‘to expose some raw thing, some ugliness living under my (or your) half buried log, and expose – and wallow in – its fundamental eroticism’. He notes, “I like writing characters at once repulsed and drawn in to some carnal transgression. The various wars between intellect and sensation, mind and body, and the subversion of one by the other in the short or long term is one of my favorite Raziel Moore author quote erotic fiction transgression Emmanuelle de Maupassantthemes. Not only am I turned on by this objectionable thing – I want to think about why I am.”

Zander Vyne asserts that ‘overturning assumptions’ is far more interesting than writing stories just for ‘fun’. She likes to explore ‘what we think we know’, challenging expectations, with the hope that the reader will ‘emerge with new feelings and understanding… [of] who we, and others, really are’. As she underlines, ‘why write a boring story when you can do all that?

LN Bey notes, “Great art challenges—our intellect, our beliefs, and most of all our perceptions. With erotica, we have unusual opportunities to look into the human psyche, the human condition, that other genres do not possess.”

Sorcha Black asserts her goal of challenging assumptions about gender roles and sexual attraction by avoiding ‘stereotypes’. She explains, “A lot of my characters are sexually fluid and are also into kink, so I don’t have to limit myself to what’s expected. It’s far too easy to paint caricatures.” Sorcha notes also her portrayal of  ‘the subjectivity of good and evil’, and emphasizes how point of view influences our interpretation.

Shanna Germain states, “I’m all about subversion and ninja-sneak-attacks. I want the reader to be so engaged with the story and care so strongly about the characters that they don’t even notice that I’m challenging their assumptions or attempting to stretch their boundaries until it’s all over. I think that it’s very easy for some people to be on the defense if they feel like you’re going to preach at them or try to change their mind about something, and I want them to walk into a story with all their shields down and their hearts exposed.”  

Remittance Girl asserts that it is possible to find something morally repugnant and still be fascinated by its psychological ramifications. She refers to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, set during the Stalinist Purges of the Soviet Union, which explores the developing relationship between the main character and his interrogator. She notes, “The sustained mental intimacy of one person prying violently into the mind of another produces interesting behaviour patterns. I was interested in exploring the fracturing of the self. Psychological extremes are intimate places.” (more here)

Malin adds, “There is always going to be a difference between what people fantasize about and what they actually do. Transgression and sexual taboo by-pass what many consider to be ‘realistic’ sex and appeal to that portion of sexuality that is driven by fantasy.” She believes transgression to be a driving force in erotica for two reasons: appealing to ‘our attraction to the morally and socially forbidden’; and allowing us, as readers, to ‘dance on the line between fantasy and reality’ in a safe way. She acknowledges the value in creating a ‘grey area’, in which we can examine ‘the tension between social conditioning, morality, transgression and taboo’, exploring ‘what would otherwise bring only repression and shame’.

Inner Limits

In our Western world, fiction including sex scenes is widely available, accepted readily as adult reading material (albeit read discreetly at home, or via Kindle on public transport). Accordingly, very little may be genuinely considered ‘transgressive’, pushing us into zones of discomfort (and therebyRemittance Girl erotic fiction reader author Emmanuelle de Maupassant inspiring deeper levels of reflection). This may be why historical erotic fiction is so popular, since the setting more immediately confers a transgressive stance: a feeling of ‘taboo’.

Since our modern society is accepting of most expressions of sexual behaviour, the transgressive perhaps has more significance as an exploration of inner limits (those we place upon ourselves: our own, self-imposed lines in the sand).

Jonathan Kemp tells us, “Homosexuality, which is the form of erotic behaviour my own writing mostly explores, is hardly taboo these days in most circles, so the question becomes how to make it feel transgressive? How to make it work against the norm? In ‘London Triptych’ I chose to write about male prostitutes from different points of view – two from the perspective of rent boys themselves, and one from the perspective of an older man whose sexual repression prevents him from paying for the services of the rent boy he is falling in love with. In the context of the world and characters I was describing, love became transgressive.”

Cari Silverwood highlights the importance of reader point of view, noting that interpretation can vary greatly. Our individual lines in the sand cannot but affect our response to what we read.

Our interest may lie in watching characters struggle and push through their inner-sanctions, and in watching them deal with the consequences: ‘guilt, mistrust, fear and emotional wounding’ as Remittance Girl writes. We see the character obliged to ‘reconstruct their identity in the light of what they’ve done’. (more from RG here)

The fingers of the erotic not only stroke us to pleasure but rend us, exposing our uncertainty and our inconsistencies.

Cari Silverwood tells us, “I try to take readers somewhere they may not have gone before. The unexpected is always in my sights.” She asserts that her stories aim to make us question our ‘relationship with the world and humanity’, to the point where we are ‘uncomfortable and, even, disturbed’. In writing ‘dark fiction’, she believes that ‘there is an inherent moral challenge’. Acknowledging storytelling’s intent to entertain us, she emphasizes her desire to engage readers viscerally, by immersing characters in conflict.

Remittance Girl adds that some of the most moving and thought-provoking writing involves ‘characters presented in extremis’, inviting the reader to consider morally ambiguous questions.  She believes, “It is my very discomfort as a reader Emmanuelle de Maupassant author quote erotic fictionthat has triggered deep and serious introspection on many topics. These are the books that will stay with me for life.”

In her review of Siri Ousdahl’s Constraint, Remittance Girl states: ‘In order to transgress a law or a taboo, one must recognize the moral authority, the intrinsic value to society, of the law or taboo being broken. Conversely, concepts like consent would have little importance or sacredness for us if they weren’t fragile and vulnerable to profanation. If we had no fear of the taboo of rape, gave no moral authority to the supremacy of consent, this story wouldn’t be truly transgressive.’

We can assert that transgression has no fixed ‘location’. Cecilia Tan, having been writing for many years, notes that the nature of ‘taboo’ has changed greatly. She explains, “Consensual BDSM and bisexuality used to be exotic but they’re now becoming more commonplace.”

Remittance Girl reminds us that DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was transgressive because ‘it was socially unacceptable for people of such different classes to have a sexual relationship (especially where the woman was upper class and the man from the working class).’ (more here)

Jonathan Kemp notes that, in ‘Twentysix’, he ‘wanted to explore the romance of promiscuity, the almost-spiritual (for want of a better word) dimension of anonymous encounters’. Kemp explains, “The sexual acts I describe may seem transgressive to some (fisting, watersports, group sex, rimming), but within the context of the sexual subcultures I am representing they are a norm, so the transgression, for me has to come from elsewhere… from how the erotic is represented.“ He explains that he chose to create a ‘narrative transgression’ by using amulti-voiced and multi-valenced prose styleappropriating other registers, other voices’.

Transgression exists only in relation to our sense of ‘norm’, which is shaped by the ideologies we grow up with, by the social expectations placed upon us, by the lines we draw in the sand, for each other and for ourselves.

As Remittance Girl puts it, ‘The hand you push into your pants or under your skirt is stained with the everyday world you live in’. (more here)

Censorship

Jonathan Kemp comments of the ‘twins’ of transgression and taboo, “I might reconfigure them in one body, as two conflicting impulses: action, or restraint.” He imagines censorship, then, as ‘the nanny or governess of this child struggling with a desire to do something and a moral sense or fear that prevents the desire from transgressing into action’. He adds, “Censorship, in a sense, is like the Freudian superego: punitive, disciplinarian, body-hating. Censorship tries to control the transgression of taboos, to hide the body’s excess, its radical jouissance.” [a paradoxical pleasure, reaching an almost intolerable level of excitement].

We might imagine that publishers specialising in erotic fiction would be most open minded, most daring, most willing to ‘push the limits’, offering readers a feast of the surprising. Of course, some are attempting to do so, as far as they believe themselves LN Bey author erotic fiction quote human psyche Emmanuelle de Maupassantable within the limits set by major retailers (we cannot escape the fact that publishers are in business to make money).

However, in many instances, submission guidelines fail to encourage innovation. Rather the reverse. Larger publishers, whom we might imagine are best placed to take the occasional commercial risk, are often most guilty of playing safe, seeking out the same romance tropes and happy-ever-afters.

Siri Ousdahl notes the position of mainstream publishers and retailers, stating that they have a bottom line to consider, so it’s no surprise if they balance potential earnings against risk. As she notes, “The erotic books they’ve embraced in recent years had proven track records online, so the risk hasn’t been significant. When Random House or Penguin ‘take a chance’ on erotica, the works are far from transgressive.”

Publishers and retailers have, largely, taken an extreme stand on the portrayal of sex in fiction, creating their own, arbitrary, list of what is deemed appropriate for readers to encounter, as if the reader were incapable of exercising discernment, or were incapable of processing the words as fiction.

Where does this leave us as authors? Writing repeatedly down the same avenues, afraid to offend, or challenge?

Even independent erotica publishers are prone to request ‘light and fun’ stories, ignoring the huge potential of the genre to take us into the deeper, darker (arguably far more compelling and fulfilling) spaces within the human psyche.

Patrick Califia notes, “I think the difference between commercial, bland ‘erotica’ and radical sex writing is the author’s willingness to challenge limits… Most editors and publishers will refuse to touch the subject of young people and sex, and there is a whole list of other things they won’t put into print as well.”

In fact, publishers regularly reject plots involving extra-marital affairs, or those featuring characters displaying disabilities or who fail to meet general ‘standards’ of attractiveness, or who are older in age. Also ‘unpalatable’ are references to sexual thoughts/acts by or involving characters below the age of 18, Remittance Girl quote fiction reality author erotic fictiondespite the majority of countries worldwide (and the majority of American states) setting the age of consent below 18 years.

Coming of Age

Opinions on the appropriateness of telling characters’ sexual stories before they reach the age of 18 are perhaps even more divided than those revolving around non-consent.

‘Coming of Age’ stories are seen as a minefield, since there is no consensus of opinion on the age at which it becomes ‘morally’ acceptable to acknowledge sexual awareness. Is it permissible to describe the sexual thoughts of a 17, 16, 15, 14 or 13 year old? In Young Adult fiction, the answer is yes. Reference may even be made to sexual acts. In any work of literature classified as erotica, the answer is no.

For predominantly commercial reasons, few authors of erotic fiction attempt to write into this sphere. There is no graduating scale of permissibility. Rather, there is an umbrella ban on the mention of anyone under the age of 18 in relation to sexual thoughts or acts (within fiction categorized as ‘erotic’). Within the categorization of erotic fiction, it is a publishing no-no for anyone over the age of 18 to be shown to have sexual thoughts about a character under the age 18, regardless of whether such thoughts are acted upon. In fiction, it appears, thought is as damnable as deed.

This article makes no attempt to provide definitive rules for application. However, as many authors point out, if we may not explore concepts through the inventions of fiction, what avenues remain?

Wade Esley believes, “To ignore this important developmental period is ridiculous and, frankly, dishonest. How can you tell a more honest and heartfelt story than to describe the magic and wonder of experiencing something for the first time? The fear and excitement of venturing into the unknown is fertile ground for developing rich characters and compelling stories.”

Laura Antoniou is among those who express a desire to explore the sexual histories of characters before they reach the age of 18, while Krissy Kneen takes this further, in being keen to delve the psychology behind some people’s compulsion towards sexual acts with those not yet of legal age. She mentions that her latest book (not yet published) ‘takes some small steps towards exploring this area’. She asserts her concern about public reaction. “It is as if we can’t even speak of it,” she comments.

Patrick Califia underlines, In America, we eroticize youth to an insane extent and yet have draconian punishments for anyone who dares react to all that idealization.” Moreover, he adds, “We’ve become less and less realistic about the sexuality of young people. The penalties for raising these issues are huge and hideous.” As an aside, he notes, “I’ve written only a couple of articles attacking age of consent laws. To all intents and purposes they do not protect young people from abuse. Most molesters of children are family members, not strangers, and the current law enforcement focus ignores this completely. I will keep on talking about this as much as I can because I was abused as a child, and I’m very angry about the way my family’s dysfunction was rationalized or ignored by everyone around us. It took all the strength I had to escape from that world, but I was ill-prepared to leave home, and barely survived the transition from adolescence into adulthood. I think it is a crime that queer children have no mentors, so little help.”

In such cases, where publishers deem particular elements to be ‘non-commercial’, authors have often turned to self-publishing, to allow them to reach readers more freely. However, as is well-known, retailers also impose rules, making their own judgements as to what is ‘appropriate’ reading matter.

Most authors agree that censorship of fiction, in the name of ‘protecting’ readers, is nonsensical. While reading of murder or torture may disturb us (and, we would imagine, rightly and intentionally so) thinking, writing or reading about such acts is not the same as committing them. Rather, reflection on matters of moral dilemma is encouraged as emotionally and intellectually enriching.

The same logic can be applied to the writing of sexual behaviour (even, or especially, where it contravenes the law of whichever country the reader resides in).

Ironically, fiction is the very place in which we are ‘safe’ to explore deeds we would never indulge in real life; it is the realm in which we may muse on all the ‘what ifs’.

Nya Rawlyns states, “My writing is and isn’t me. I channel characters within my imagination. They constantly surprise, shock and delight. Some cause fear, others dismay, a few I Emmanuelle de Maupassant erotic fiction censorship author quotedespise. They all answer one question, without hesitation… what if?”

Defending a non-censorship position, Janine Ashbless asserts, “Fiction is a sacred space, where the rules of real life do not apply. It’s a safe area in which to let our darker selves, our fears and our desires, out for a little exercise…”

Of Amazon’s banning of certain subject matter, LN Bey states, “I’m entitled to fantasize whatever the hell I want. No one gets to dictate the ‘propriety’ of my fantasies.” Stressing anger not only as a writer but as a reader, LN declares, “They’re keeping me from reading what I might enjoy. That is simply not their right to do, and I take offense at that… I will read and write what I damn well please.”

Zander Vyne notes that writers are prone to self-censorship through fear of penalty, and laments that, once a book is labelled as ‘banned’ readers’ perceptions become tainted. She stresses, “The censor’s falsehood replaces the writer’s truth.” Zander adds, “At its best, writing is ground-breaking. Revolutionary. Writers should have no barriers to creativity, and no subject should be off-limits.” She urges publishers (and retailers) to be braver, taking more risks, under the knowledge that readers are capable of making their own choices. However, she makes note that, as a mother, she does believe in ‘controlled accessibility for minors, and in the necessity for clear labeling to inform’.

Noting that we should be free to exercise our reading preferences and that it’s important to allow readers to make choices for themselves, LN Bey continues, “Avoiding a work of fiction is different than trying to stop it from existing. We’re in a bizarre age in which sexually explicit material is more available than ever before… but we are also in the age of Taking Offense. And when one Takes Offense, nowadays, one takes full, righteous action—this thing that Offends me cannot exist. “

Double-standards and Lack of Consistency

Regardless of which themes, we, as authors, choose to explore, and which sub-genres of erotica we tend to gravitate towards, we desire to be free to write as we choose, just as we desire to read ‘as we choose’.

Christina Mandara highlights double standards between genres, saying, “You can read all sorts in [the] horror [genre] with rape, incest, axes buried in skulls etc – but non-consensual erotica is frowned upon. I can’t understand why eBook stores are being so censorious in the erotica genre, but not horror.

Tilly Andrews echoes this, saying, “I could write a very graphic scene of torture and murder for a horror novel and this would not be censored. However, if I add a sexual element and include in an erotic book I am sure that this would be slammed.”

Delores Swallows voices frustration, noting a desire to write a story incorporating plot devices of abduction, torture and murder, and lamenting, “I’m not allowed to include themes like that in erotica – only in the mainstream!” KD Grace raises the same issue, declaring, “I always find it frustrating that those taboos are only in place for erotica writers and don’t apply to any other genre.”

Meanwhile, Remittance Girl notes, “I am free to eroticize staggeringly violent acts, but there’s no publisher that will touch a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find his wife dead, and in a moment of intense grief, has sex with her body one last time.” (more here)

Siri Ousdahl mentions the obvious paradox of our willingness to watch films and television programmes, and read fiction, depicting serial killers, yet our apparent unwillingness to engage with non-consensual sexual acts in fiction. She muses that this may be ‘because many more people are affected by real-life rapists than by real-life serial-killers’. 

Ashe Barker tells us, “I wrote a non-con scene in one of my earlier books, and my publisher insisted it be toned down to dub-con. I have never really warmed to the altered version, my first approach was the one I felt was right for those characters. Now, as a more experienced writer and working with a wider range of publishers I might well stick to my guns and either self-pub or find a publisher who shared my vision. I find non-con fascinating and harbour a desire to write something darker than my usual stuff.”

A significant number of readers appear to condemn the writing of such themes (not only non-consent but stories looking at the compulsion towards incest, or sexual themes for under-18s) in the same manner in which they would condemn them as ‘real-life’ acts, rather than recognizing them as themes being explored within fiction.

As Anne Rice notably stated in The Guardian newspaper (2012), we need much more freedom for erotica writers. With particular reference to women, Ms. Rice writes:I’m supportive of equal rights for women, and that includes the right of every woman to write her sexual fantasies and to read books filled with sexual fantasies that she enjoys.’ 

In the same vein, Christina Mandara notes, “It seems that women, particularly, must have consensual, hearts and flowers stories.”

 While accepting that publishers have the right to avoid investing in work they don’t think will sell well, Sorcha Black notes that many of the books named as ‘too graphic or taboo’ are those aimed at women. She believes, “The policing of women’s sexuality still includes censoring what we read.”

Cari Silverwood voices an opinion shared by many authors regarding the lack of consistency in Amazon’s approach to censorship, making particular note of how this is manifested in the seemingly random acceptability of covers.

Shanna Germain asserts the position of publishers and retailers, stating, “I believe that in a free market, publishers and retailers are a business, and they can choose what they do and don’t want to provide as part of that business. To me that’s a business decision, not censorship. They’re not blocking something from being read, they’re just not offering it as part of their business model. As an author, I choose publishers that publish the things that matter to me. As a publisher, I don’t publish material that is racist or homophobic or misogynist. I’m not censoring those books by not publishing them. Someone can buy them elsewhere if that’s their thing, but I am saying, ‘those LN Bey author erotic fiction censorship Emmanuelle de Maupassantbooks don’t fit my personal beliefs, my business model, or my audience, so I’m not going to publish them’ and that has to be okay.” 

However, she adds that, where the market is dominated by a single retailer, the position takes a different slant, since ‘they are potentially blocking all kinds of things from being available’.

Raziel Moore notes the arbitrary and capricious rules of the major retailer(s) but, more significantly, the not-long-past crisis of payment companies refusing to process transactions, effectively blocking independent authors’ sales.

In the genre of ‘Literary Fiction’, it appears that almost anything goes. In the hallowed high-brow halls, are any subjects taboo? There, may even the most transgressive of themes be explored, and their authors applauded for innovation and daring? May incest and non-consent be explored in ‘Women’s Fiction’, necrophilia and extreme violence in ‘Horror’, and coming of age themes in ‘Young Adult’? All are off limits within erotic fiction.

We may debate the propriety of how themes are handled, and the way in which they may be ‘appropriately’ eroticized, but the fact remains that fiction is the realm of imagination. Fiction is not reality: it is a place of reflection and exploration. To write, and read, of what we find unsettling, uncomfortable or disturbing can provide us with valuable opportunities to better know ourselves, and our world.

Further Reading

  • You may like to view this post, on the ‘Male/Female Hand, in which readers are challenged to identify writers’ gender.
  • Men Reading Erotic Fiction‘ – looking at why men seek out fiction in this genre, and their preferences for style and content.
  • The Erotic Vein: the male pen – on trends in men’s authorship of erotic fiction.

Coming Soon

  • Authors’ Recommended Reads

My thanks go to the following authors for giving their time and for their candid answers; my thanks also to authors who contributed their views anonymously.

Special thanks are due to Remittance Girl, whose numerous articles have been my starting point not only for this article, but for the entirety of this survey. Her website is a dazzling treasure chest of insight and challenge.

Tobsha Learner, Laura Antoniou,  Susan St. Aubin, Shanna Germain, Remittance Girl, Malin James, Janine Ashbless, Adrea KoreKristina LloydJonathan Kemp, Patrick Califia, Maxim Jakubowski, Cecilia Tan, Donna George StoreyKathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Raziel Moore, Will CrimsonSorcha BlackCari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, L.N. BeyZander VaneTamsin Flowers, Krissy KneenZak Jane Keir, Jade A WatersAshley Lister, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya RawlynsTerrance Aldon Shaw, Sessha Batto, Rose CarawayAllen Dusk, Tabitha RayneMarc Angel, Elizabeth Safleur, Jeremy Edwards, Spencer Dryden, Devi AnseviNicholas Tanek, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina MorataFinn MarloweElsa Holland, Elizabeth SchechterAleksandr Voinov, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis AlvarezR.V. Raiment, J.D. Lexx, Lily HarlemThomas Roche, Madeline MooreRia Restrepo, Scarlet DarkwoodWade Esley, Victoria Bliss, Jane GilbertJim Lyon, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Chase Morgan, Lee SavinoC.P. McClennanElizabeth BlackC.J. Czelling, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette HugoFrank Noir, Amelia SmartsNobilis Reed, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra ShawArdent RoseSylvia Storm, Renee Rose, Rachel de Vine, Cherry Wild, Patient Lee, Pandora Spocks, Suzette Bohne’ Sommers, Molly Synthia, Charlie Bee, Meg Amor, Lizzie Ashworth, Cara Bristol, Finn Marlowe, C.A. Bell, Brantwijn Serrah, Aubrey Cara, Kathleen BradeanJay Willowbay, Stormchase, Lisa Fox, Allyson Young, Vinnie Tesla, Emma Jaye, Dennis Cardiff, Dee Maselle, Frank Lee, Christina Mandara, Big Ed Magussun, Sue Lyndon, T.J. Vermillion, David Flint, Delores Swallows, Vanessa Wu, Ian Smith, Rebecca BranchJaye Peaches, Molly Moore, Ashe Barker, Tilly Andrews and Catherine Mazur.

The Lure of the Forbidden

‘I am a forest, and a night of dark trees.’

― Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 

I am a different person by night.

I breathe more deeply.

What I thirst for is not the reflection in the mirror but something beyond and behind, only visible when there is no light: a realisation of my shadow side.

Thoughts of revenge, debasement, danger, fear, pain and violence, is this my ‘real’ self?

It is, although other selves exist too. They have the daylight.

All are mine: dark and light.

As Jung said: ‘How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.’

My self beyond the mirror desires what cannot be spoken, and what cannot be attained. This ache may be soothed but it cannot be satisfied. Whatever I imagine, it will never be enough, for my desire is always to want more: to grasp at what is out of reach.

I walk a balancing act between light and shade, between my ‘civilised’ self and that which flickers and dissolves at the edges.

‘I am terrified by this dark thing

That sleeps in me;

All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.’

― Sylvia Plath (Ariel)

In Joseph Kessel’s Belle de Jour (1928), Séverine knows well that her indulgence of her ‘dark’ self – which wishes to lose its conventional, public identity and surrender only to desire and sensation, without thought of consequences – endangers her ‘social’ self.

Belle de Jour film poster

The story is best known through Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal of the icily beautiful housewife, in Luis Bunuel’s film (1967). Compelled by desires she cannot articulate, let alone share with her husband, Pierre, she is drawn into an alternate sexual world, choosing to spend each afternoon working at a brothel.

The greater her revulsion with her clients, the greater her satisfaction, yet she seeks continually, without finding true fulfillment. She experiences little ‘conscious’ choice, driven almost mad by her need to act out fantasies of masochism and debasement: to be forcefully subdued, to ‘lose’ her usual sense of self.

Her desires make no sense to her; she only knows that she must serve them.

The story’s tension lies not in her compulsions but in her knowledge that they are incompatible with her ‘other life’ and her love for Pierre. For him to discover the truth is inconceivable. She sends one of her lovers, Marcel, to murder the man she thinks will betray her and it is upon this moment that Fate twists the course of the story, turning the blade towards Pierre.belle de jour

The shock of almost losing him drives Séverine to renounce her sexual yearnings and devote herself to the long-term care of her terribly injured husband.

The final tragedy is that her desire, and her shame, live on sufficiently to drive her to confess all and, in so doing, bring to pass the very reaction she most feared: Pierre’s revulsion and his repudiation of her. In the closing lines of the story, we are told that he refuses ever after to speak to her.

Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, also examines ‘unbridled’ desires, including concealment of the truth and feelings of guilt. A woman tormented by relentless dark fantasies involving a man she encounters briefly, reveals the details to her husband: a scene intimately constructed in the film, whereby Nicole Kidman whispers her confession of her ‘raw self’ to Tom Cruise.

Eyes Wide Shut - promotional film posterAroused and resentful, he allows himself his own act of transgression by entering a twilight world: attending a secret, orgiastic gathering, at which he is an intruder. It is for this segment that the film is best known: its glitteringly dark, dream-like depiction of a sinister, masquerade sex party. Much is left unexplained, elevating the sense of danger.

What these books (and the resulting films) share is their portrayal of the lure of the forbidden. However much we experience and possess and taste, it is never quite enough, because our imagination always craves more.

We feel, almost instinctively, the seduction of what lies on the darker side of the mirror, where the norms of social behaviour no longer apply.

George Bataille (in Guilty) wrote: ‘Eroticism is the brink of the abyss. We’re brought to the edge by uncontrolled ecstasy. This is the stage of rupture, of letting go of things.’

Similarly, he said: ‘The need to go astray, to be destroyed, is an extremely private, distant, passionate, turbulent truth.’

And here it is. In fiction, we seek both to ‘escape’ and to ‘find’ ourselves. We seek an echo of our nature within the pages, while hoping also to set aside the constraints of ‘reality’: to ‘lose’ ourselves, as we do in ultimate moments of sexual arousal.

We want danger.

We want extremes.

We want the duality of pleasure and pain.

We want the forbidden.

In Japan, diners delight at the tingle of poison on their lips from the carefully prepared puffer fish, knowing how close they are to danger, to death.

So it can be with our erotic nature.

What greater triumph is there than to feel your mortality and to conquer it?

In reaching a heightened sexual state, we are of the flesh and beyond the flesh: we are corporeal and spiritual. We feel our mortality and we transcend it. At that moment of sublime ecstasy, we ‘defy’ death, becoming more than bone and blood.

We see beyond the mirror.

We see the hidden self.

 

Bibliography

Joseph Kessel: Belle de Jour (1928)

Arthur Schnitzler: Dream Story (1926)

 

To taste my own darkly erotic pen, visit my Amazon page.

 

F. Leonora Solomon kindly first hosted this article as a guest blog on her site.

Many thanks Leonora xxx