Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Hornet's Nest

Oh, Heck. Here we go.

I'm writing women's fiction with strong romantic elements. As best I can tell, that means that there is a lot of suffering, some really rewarding sex, and (eventually) a happily-ever-after. At least, that's what I'm writing.

And I find myself sitting here, wondering how to talk about the sex without sounding horridly cliched.

Backstory: I earned my Master's in Victorian Lit at the Ohio State University in 2000. The program operated on high rates of attrition, which eventually claimed me. But before I bowed out of the academia race, I struggled to find a niche where I could investigate new things to say about Austen to Dickens and everything in between.

This was during the end of Third Wave Feminism, where we were struggling to figure out what to do next. And the answer became: Pornography. This ranged from the "all sex is rape" position of Andrea Dworkin (may she, and her theory, rest in peace) to the full embrace of female sexuality that, sadly, gave rise to the likes of Paris Hilton (shudder, shudder).

I took a class in 17th and 18th c Pornography, which if you go back and read, isn't all so shocking these days. Analyzing representations of female orgasms in Fanny Hill as opposed to the Marquis de Sade (both written by men), looking at political tensions underscoring The Lustful Turk, noting how Victorian prudes were subverted in My Secret Life - I found a niche, and was briefly known in the English Department as the Porn Queen of Ohio.

Let's just say, after editing the papers for that class, my mother developed a very thick skin.

But back to the topic. 98% of what was considered "pornography" back in the day was written by men, from the Earl of Rochester, Sade (who was quite twisted), Wilmot, and countless anonymous writers. Heck, even the stuff that was proto-romance - Pamela (oh, so dull, so melodramatic, but you have to read it, because it was one of the very first official British Novels!) were written by men (and, I'd like to point out, mocked in satire by anonymous writers who were most probably women).

And there were three primary ways to talk about a orgasm. Dying and its corollary fainting were a popular option for female desire and orgasm. Animal spirits rushing down or taking over was popular for both sexes, and male orgasm was defined in terms of being a machine.

So, these days, 8 years out, when I stumble upon a woman 'dying' in a sex scene, I am forced to hoot in derision. But the sad thing is, it happens. A lot. One western romance I read recently said "She thought she might die, and then she did," for an oral sex scene. PLEASE!

Not much has changed in three hundred years.

Oh, we have so many euphemisms for having sex. I'm sure the numbers in the last twenty years (since I hit puberty) are in the thousands - doing it, knocking boots, so many that I don't even know since I'm over thirty - heck, anything said with the right intonation can be a euphemism for sex. Even Shakespeare had plowing fields.

And male orgasm isn't doing too shabby. I mean, one of my favorite rock groups back in the day was Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam!! Did you ever stop to think about that? Thankfully, my mother didn't.

But female orgasm? We're still dying.

There have been a few notable introductions. One I've seen a lot is 'being shattered into a million pieces.' Not a bad image, but the feminist English major in me wants to rip it to shreds for its implied violence and destruction. There are some standards like bells ringing (Have you seen the old British Movie Shirley Valentine? Great for the orchestra rising alone!) and fireworks exploding. In fact, explosions of one form or another seem to be quite in vogue.

So what's a women's literary fiction with strong romantic elements writer to do? I refuse to make my people die, and no one has animal spirits rushing around these days. Machines went out of style when Shaft did (yes, he says that in the original movie), and bells ringing is overdone. I've used explosions so far, in one form or another, but honestly, using any euphemism more than three times seems to be a cop-out to me.

It's time to come up with a new language, and I'm taking suggestions!


Andrea Dickinson said...

Wow! You sound exactly like the main character in the erotic novel, Incognito, by Lisabet Sarai. She is a graduate student researching porn in Victorian Lit.

I downloaded this book from as part of my research into other genres. Boy, I love research!!!

Sarah M. Anderson said...

WHAT?? Someone stole my life already?? Kidding!

Honestly, studying porn wasn't nearly as erotic as you might think. I spent most of my (utterly single) time veering between frustration and boredom.

Then, as now, the bad far outweighs the good.

Saadia Ali Aschemann said...

I kind of like the "animal spirits" thing--who cares if it's not really modern. You can make it modern. I have faith in you!