Reading is a voluptuous, yet defiant act …
Reading is a voluptuous, yet defiant act, particularly in our increasingly time-poor society. Pages of a book can erect a little wall between yourself and everyday demands, whispering “later” to here-and-now concerns, and “yes” to deep time with the self. It’s a reason for lolling on your favourite couch with a pot of tea and home-made chocolate cake, or finding a mini-oasis of park green under the dappled shade of a tree.
I began this piece of writing with the intention of listing something like my ten most favourite works of erotica and stood, contemplating my bookshelf for inspiration. Yes, I have a real one, not a Virtual / Kindle one – to prove it there’s a photo further into the article.)
My bookshelf is an old-fashioned honeyed-wood thing of solidity that my father gave me one Christmas many years ago; five shelves high which means I have to stretch a little to reach the top shelf, and I like that feeling – of reaching for a treasured book. It makes me think of the feeling of yearning I get when I’m not reading; a yearning to sink in to the pages of a book and lose myself in story, and also the mental reach for the right word or image that one makes as a writer.
I keep my classics on the top shelf, just as a bartender will keep his top-notch spirits and liqueurs, gleaming and beckoning, on the uppermost shelf. There, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment sits next to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Bronte’s Jane Eyre leans, shivering a little, against Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This shelf is bolstered by Shakespeare’s Collected Works at one end and a weighty volume of Oscar Wilde’s prolific and genre-spanning writing at the other.
Language and ideas, once encountered, live inside you, and can effect changes, both subtle and catalytic.
Devouring and studying these classics in different ways during my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, studying literature at University and hurling myself headlong into several semesters of Shakespeare and Ancient Greek Theatre (text and performance) through my theatre degree gave me a deep appreciation for the almost-limitless fecundity of language. As importantly, it also cultivated an absence of fear of language. Wrestling with Grecian choric text, conquering the vocal delivery of iambic pentameters in Shakespeare’s work, finding contemporary sense in obscure medieval words, and unravelling complex metaphors to reveal depth, beauty and universal truths in works conceived of many centuries ago; these interactions with language absolved me of any hesitancy I had in seeking out any author’s ideas I felt curious about, and opened me to the power and potency of the written word. The ideas we consume contribute to our growth or our atrophy. Language and ideas, once encountered, live inside you, and can effect changes, both subtle and catalytic.
Words endure. And the feelings they conjure up in the body can endure too, leaving traces, imprints in the cells, the memory.
You can tell a lot about a person by looking at the books on their bookshelf.
Can you keep a secret? This top shelf is now no longer my favourite shelf. These kinds of texts have had their way with me; they’ve done their work. These … relationships I’ve had with texts such as these now underscore my new handful of literary touchstones. I’d like to introduce to you my new favourites – ones that have specifically coaxed me along a path of writing. Initially, some of these works allowed me to notice my love for sensual, voluptuous prose and searing imagery, simultaneously realising what I most felt drawn to reading was the feminine experience of the world, and also those stories of growth, transformation or dislocation, felt through and mediated by the body.
These were the things that I began to write about: Love and longing. Loss. Translating the physical arts I most loved into words: my experiences of dancing and life-modelling. Then, more arduously, carving out narratives of sexual trauma. Death. Then, the sensual pleasures. Sex.
Light, dark, light, dark. Always this dance, and writing has helped me embrace the totality in the supposed contradictions.
I realised it’s not been only my reading of erotica that has fuelled my desire to write erotica. As importantly, it’s been my reading of the following: non-fiction feminist texts and essays, strong, powerfully imaginative contemporary women fiction writers, play-texts written by female playwrights, and women’s short stories, in addition to a few core works of erotica read at crucial moments in my life journey. Then, throw in a few texts by male authors, and that would more aptly represent those voices that resonate and refract in my own writing. Sontag again captures my thoughts on the relationship between what one reads and how one writes:
“Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by writing.”
I have said before that reading Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus gave me the spark to write about desire, and almost a decade later re-discovering Jeanette Winterson’s sensual, searing prose gave me the permission. Something about Winterson’s work resonated with the language burning away inside me, threatening a slow smouldering consumption of my journal pages if I didn’t give my ideas some more space and light. And more eyes and ears. Susan Sontag writes in an essay called Writing as Reading that our writing too, is part of our reading; that ” to write is to practice, with particular attentiveness, the art of reading.”
This portion of my shelf houses a seemingly arbitrary, but indelibly meaningful personal version of the Dewey decimal system. My obsession with creative process is revealed by my collection of books on the craft of writing and creative process. After all, “writing is finally, a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways” (Sontag).
Honourable mention goes to Ray Bradbury’s (one of my lifelong revered writers, so he had to get a mention in this article somehow) Zen in the art of Writing and Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. (Want to know how to go about writing difficult, personal experiences of trauma and loss so you can re-frame your experience and let words heal the wounds? This is the book)
Then there are my feminist theory texts such as Naomi Wolf’s Vagina. There are more of those off-stage left, but I wanted a closer shot where you could also see some of the titles on the spine. There are two anthologies in which my own stories are published (Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 13, A Story-telling of Ravens) nestled next to works that inspired me to start writing erotica. There’s an incredible feminist re-imagining of Medea’s story by German author Christa Wolf. Margaret Atwood’s chillingly feminist work of speculative fiction The Handmaid’s Tale.
Missing in action is Tobsha Learner’s witty and sensual Quiver, also part of my chain of cause-and-effect of becoming an erotica writer. I fear this one went the way of an ex, never to return, though her other anthology Tremble is present. Also, I noticed with dismay I have no personally owned volumes of Angela Carter’s stories. That I shall have to remedy. There are more obscure erotic works such as Alina Reye’s Lucie’s Long Voyage and a comprehensive, gently academic and exhaustive collection of women’s writing called Erotica: An Anthology of Women’s Writing, edited by Margaret Reynolds. This one almost made it to my list, but it’s been more a reference book and an introduction to some of my favourite writer’s work, rather than one I’ve read cover to cover. This snapshot contains a good number of what I’d call my “Kore Reads”, but not quite all of them.
So here, in the order my subconscious tumbled them onto the page, is my bakers’ dozen (or my witches’ coven) of beloved texts of erotic inspiration. Thirteen is a powerful number with a contentious and misunderstood history, so perhaps that’s appropriate for a tracing of the articulation of female desire. Over time, I’ll add descriptions or reviews. If my writing resonates with you in any way as the reader, I hope you’ll feel intrigued to investigate a few of them. Or maybe some of these are your favourites.
- Delta of Venus – Anais Nin
- Lighthouse Keeping – Jeanette Winterson
- The Last Magician – Janette Turner-Hospital
- Perfume –Patrick Suskind
- Medea – Christa Wolf
- On Lies, Secrets and Silences: Selected Prose 1966 – 1978 – Adrienne Rich
- Women who Run with the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
- The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
- Quiver – Tobsha Learner
- What I have Written – John A Scott
- Vinegar Tom – Caryl Churchill
- A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments – Roland Barthes
These are a few of my favourite things. These works and their themes, language, ideas, imagery now live inside me. These are the words that fire my own.
“Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write – and rereading the beloved books of the past – constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And yes, inspiration.”
~ Susan Sontag