Porn is posh. It is not explicit or pornographic: instead it is “libertine philosophy” (review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M in the Times Literary Supplement, no less). It does not need to be concealed from wives and servants (see Mervyn Griffith-Jones’ Opening Address for the Prosecution in Lady Chatterley’s Trial). It “exemplifies the power and range of the authentically feminine voice and vision” (see Evelyn J. Hinz on Anais Nin’s Diary). And it springs from “one of the most radical minds of Western history, one that touched, with an astonishing fusion of madness and cold rationality, on some of the most central aspects of psychic life” (Newsweek review of the 1989 re-issue of the Marquis de Sade’s The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, skirting around the book’s content in what looks like a desperate attempt to pretend there wasn’t actually any sex in it).
I’m not sure if this is necessarily a good thing, for the simple reason that I think it makes reading the rude bits less fun. Declaring a book a literary classic or a work of high art almost guarantees its inclusion on reading lists and arts programmes which inevitably leads to the whole drawn-out messy affair that is scholarly deconstruction. Transcendence of cultural bounds, literature as a measure of modern morals, and symbolism are moreish fodder for The [remarkably un-] Erotic Review, but they are not what gives porn its appeal. The trouble with such analysis is that it attempts to distance the book from its content. Somehow it can’t just be porn for porn’s sake: there needs to be some reason to read it other than for its lewdness. This is not to say that writers of good fiction should go unremarked – good writing is always much appreciated – but the interest is in the phallus, not its symbols. Explaining the reasons why a book is erotic seems to run counter to why it was written. The Marquis de Sade, for example, wrote for pure shock value – and was given successive prison sentences resulting in life imprisonment for the privilege – so it seems odd to dedicate tomes, longer even than the thousands of pages he actually wrote, to analysing why he wrote what he did. In a single paragraph he came as close as he or anyone else probably ever got to explaining himself, declaring: “Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change”.
Ironically, it is frequently those most opposed to pornographic writing that make it sound most enticing. In attempting to shame the jury into a guilty verdict, Mervyn Griffith-Jones succeeded in making Lady Chatterley’s Lover sound like the most erotic book ever written. “Members of the Jury”, he said, “when you have seen this book, making all such allowances in favour of it as you can, the Prosecution will invite you to say that it does tend, certainly that it may tend, to induce lustful thoughts in the minds of those who read it. It goes further, you may think. It sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse. It commends, and indeed it sets out to commend, sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages, and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity of thought and of language.” He went on to count the number of “good old Anglo-Saxon four-letter words” (“The word “fuck” or “fucking” occurs no less than thirty times. I have added them up, but do not guarantee that I have added them all up. “Cunt” fourteen times; “balls” thirteen times; “shit” and “arse” six times apiece; “cock” four times; “piss” three times, and so on.”). And later counted the number of sex scenes declaring, “twelve of them certainly are described in detail leaving nothing to the imagination. The curtain is never drawn. One follows them not only into the bedroom but into bed and one remains with them there”. Sounds good to me. Also sounds like no one could possibly enjoy the book as much as Griffith-Jones evidently did; it probably became required reading for both his wife and servants.
This lengthy preamble brings me to the book I was planning to write about, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Written by Anne Rice under the pseudonym of A. N. Roquelaure, it casts off the Disney fairytale and returns to what was apparently the original version of the tale: Beauty is woken, not by a kiss from her Prince Charming, but by being raped. The Prince takes her to his castle where she begins her training as a plaything and general dogsbody for the royal household along with the other princes and princesses who have been donated by the surrounding kingdoms as tributes to the Queen. Once they have completed their training to become roundly submissive creatures – a mishmash of femdom/maledom scenarios, a great deal of spanking, and other household duties – they are returned to their kingdoms “being enhanced in wisdom”. Beauty falls in love with Prince Alexi who regales her with stories of his own training in humility – his time at the castle being spent refusing to yield to the Queen before being broken by the crude catering staff and a stable boy, after which he allowed her to steer him around the grounds by the butt of a riding crop. Despite being collared, whipped, and fucked by every passing gentleman and lady, Beauty refuses to become an obedient plaything and is sold to the commoners in the nearby village as punishment.
Roquelaure doesn’t take it as far as de Sade – no one is blinded, killed, or made to walk on glass – but she has, I suppose, borrowed some from the array of anatomical logistics he concocted in his tales of slaves grateful for punishment and aristocrats only too happy to give it. The sheer volume written by him makes it difficult not to. Can’t say it did a whole heap for me: leering aristocrats have never really been my thing and successive spankings all tend to merge into one. I did learn one thing, though: should I ever be carried off by a knight in shining armour, I’ll be keeping my back to the wall. Unless welts and butt plugs are your thing, I suggest you do the same.