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Too much Sade, not enough de Sade

Sri Lankan erotica comes of age (prematurely)

Blue: stories for adults
ed. Ameena Hussein

It is practically impossible to write good erotica. By which we mean literary porn. By which we mean ‘even DH Lawrence couldn’t really pull it off’.

In the UK there’s actually an annual Bad Sex Award, routinely won (‘won’) by mainstream writers who succumb to the temptation of a spot of raunch in their novels and are adjudged, in the process, to have suffered the wordsmith’s equivalent of brewer’s droop.

There are literary exceptions, of course (Sebastian Faulks has a quality blowjob scene in Birdsong). But erotica per se is formulaic stuff: the men are always ‘hard as a rock’; the women all ‘wet’; and everyone, regardless of gender, ‘moans’.

Blue: stories for adults is the collection that proves the rule. As Roger McGough’s critic once said of the curate’s egg: ‘It’s all bad, / but especially in parts.’

 

When Perera Hussein first broadcast the call for stories [sic.], two years back, it seemed an entertaining idea. But the execution – 11 short fictions, plus five poems and (even less explicably) some photographs – has been a shambles, and they’ve wound up with curate’s egg all over their faces.

From the get-go, the project lacks coherence on the very issue of what erotica actually is. Ameena Hussein’s giggly introduction boils down, after three vague pages, to ‘something for every mood’. How many moods of erotica can there be? We are not told. Moreover, there is a world of difference between adult fiction (e.g. Jilly Cooper), ‘stories for adults’ (Roald Dahl), erotica (Richard Burton and every other eminent Victorian), and even – emphasis mine – ‘stories on sex’ (David Foster Wallace); but these terms are used interchangeably.

Between these covers erotica consists in chat-rooms, porn mags, Mills & Boon nostalgia, pseudo-rape, middle-aged affairs, prostitution, romantic poetry, repression, adolescent courtship… or ‘a little bit of everything for everyone’. We are, at least implicitly, OK with gay and straight, romantic and trade, some 69ing, a little light masturbation; but nothing even mildly transgressive (appliances, gender-swapping, bestiality, mutilation; even – heaven forfend! – a threesome).

Also boding ill is the disjunction between Hussein’s naïve coquetry – ‘my depraved mind’ (oh please…) – and over-earnest content: ‘a serious effort to document the changing patterns of what we write and what we read.’ Bollocks. Blue is titillation, plain and simple. It’s just not very good titillation (failing to put the ‘tit’ into… etc.).

Most disastrously of all, though, Blue promises to ‘combine literary writing skills with truly erotic story telling.’ Suffice it to say, it fails horribly on both counts.

 

I’d like to say that the only thing worse than the bad sex is the bad writing, but the two are inextricable.

Perhaps of necessity, Hussein vaunts the arrival of ‘new writers’ in this collection. But sustained erotic writing – like the activity it narrates – requires dedication and practice. As the Good Book warns, better not, in fact, to be in the dark with the foolish virgins.

Register and tone are all over the place. Words like ‘botty’, ‘nodule’, ‘smorgasboard’ [sic.], and ‘Gruyere’ (no jokes: as in ‘she tasted like…’ – a good thing, apparently) do not belong anywhere near a sex-scene. And the words that do belong there, aren’t. The English language runneth over with synonyms for the pudenda, but a lady’s special zone is really not called ‘her sex’. Not unless you graduated before the Kinsey Report.

Bad narrative pacing is rife. Stories lurch from Ceylonese matinée hand-holding to graphic money-shots without any of that embarrassing, sweaty, in-and-out business which is, er, the whole point of erotica (‘the sweetness of the romance’ trills the introduction).

There are one or two neat lines; but good writing is invariably about irony (a commodity that, in itself, fits awkwardly in the bedroom): and these guys forgot to bring the irony. An order of magnitude separates the good bits from the catalogue of erratica [© Smyth 2011] seemingly plucked from some camp music-hall act:

‘Her finger gently pulled at my curly strands’ (head hair); he ‘came over Mary’ (it means ‘lay on top of’); ‘This smells like a Pandora’s box’ (you’ve seen Notting Hill?); ‘A small guest house cum hotel’; a hero called Fahmy (repeat if necessary); and the young soon-to-be-gay ‘Bookworm’ who reads – no kidding – the ‘Hard Boys series’. To quote but a few.

Technicalia, too. How exactly do panties ‘drip’ when the occupant is sitting down? Which nervous lesbian debutante straddles the object of her desire (her teacher, no less) and then goes in for the kiss? And how does a man propose to his lover when she’s sitting on his face? (Sure, it’s just two words; but you wouldn’t want to fluff it.)

It’s pretty hard to take erotica seriously when you’re laughing. As far as Blue is concerned, it’d be fair to say there’s more erotic clout in the tale of the young woman from Ealing (hint: rhymes with ‘ceiling’). Harder still when you’ve begun to wonder just how little time these authors have spent en lit. Or, as Carl Muller so delicately put it to Candace Bushnell: ‘Have you had much of sex?’

 

There are two exceptions: Shehan Karunatilaka’s ‘Veysee’ and Hussein’s own ‘Undercover’.

‘Veysee’ is a grubby tale of chatrooms and hookers and the fact that girlfriends rarely look like Hustler centrefolds. Seediness and embarrassment are literary paydirt – especially for male writers. But ‘Veysee’ is not overt erotica (the only story not purpose-written for this project?), and that’s why it works as a story.

In ‘Undercover’ a maritally-frustrated Muslim woman, ashamed of her urges, wraps herself in a cloak (do you see what she did there?) on illicit trips to the cinema, where she gets off with an anonymous lover.

Hardly ground-breaking in terms of content; but what separates these stories from the also-rans – apart from basic authorial talent – is the fact that sex is the motif and not the core function. (cf. ‘What is erotica?’)

 

The rest is down to fundamental failures of craft. Shaky tone; slap-dash allusion; too much telling-not-showing [reprise virgin gag here]; clunky Singlishism; literary name-dropping; bullish contemporaneity (general tip: to write like Joyce, you have to be a genius like Joyce).

Or failures of literacy. Typos; bad punctuation; weird and inconsistent syntax; verbs changing tense mid-sentence; mangled metaphor (‘The door had been opened. All he had to do now was play it by ear.’); the drafting not undertaken (‘She could be saying anything for all I know and I wouldn’t know…’); the unnecessary clause not excised.

In short, all the oft-lamented hallmarks of contemporary Sri Lankan English literature.

Where, you cry, was the editor? And just how bad were the submissions that didn’t make the cut?! (A handful of Colombo literati are Acknowledged for their help in reading and ranking the original three-dozen offerings. Said literary patsies were apparently not informed that their names were to be used as intellectual collateral for stories they had dismissed as – and I quote – ‘crap’.)

One of Blue’s poems contains the lines ‘You gotta be an artist in this game.’ and ‘Poetry and originality? / Zilch! / What the fuck were you thinking?’ What indeed.

 

Pace Hussein’s assertions, these stories do serve one socio-anthropological purpose. The coy narrators, the covert relationships, the schoolgirl unworldliness, the men impressed by their ability to undo a bra (pity the women!); the paucity of established writers, the pseudonyms, and the abysmally soft accompanying photographs (no, it’s not sexier with the clothes on) – all reveal Sri Lanka as a place very much not in step with contemporary sexual realities. (Yeah, who knew? Attempting to Google ‘bad sex award’ I was blocked by a porn filter.)

And if one accepts that the book, as a social ‘document’ (ngh!), does at least attempt to ‘challenge stereotypes of Sri Lankan sexuality’, we must also accept that it does nothing but confirm the certainties of Sri Lankan English literature. If ‘the stories give you Sri Lankan erotica as it is written today’, there is little cause for celebration. Blue may have flung wide the doors of the closet – but only to reveal that the closet was bare.


Published in Ink.

One Comment

  1. Palmyrah wrote:

    Just spreading the pox…
    http://notesfromceylon.blogspot.com/2011/05/blotched.html

    Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

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