Sometimes you come across a novel that sounds so weird that you cannot help but consider reading it. For me, while browsing the shelves of Avid Reader, a delightful indie bookstore in Brisbane, I came across Krissy Kneen’s novel The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine. The premise was simple, a young woman who wears a True Love Waits ring finds herself joining a sex book club. They dedicate themselves to exploring the so called classics of erotic literature. Upon reading this novel, I found this to be a delicious romp of genre blending and surreal sex. In the vain of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure but with a blue glow emanating from her vulva. This fact I discovered early in the novel with the line “She wondered what Jack would think on their wedding night when he lifted her skirt to find her glow-in-the-dark vulva providing subtle illumination of their final act of love”.
One of the joys of this weirdly surreal novel was the way Kneen managed to explore the journey of sexual awakening while also recommending some good erotica to the reader. I compare this book with Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (or shall I call it Fanny Hill) simply because it explore this journey into sexual pleasure in a similar way. While one book feels more about the empowering nature of desire and the other a perverted fantasy written by someone stuck in prison.
I will admit my experience into erotica is very limited, from a perverted start into the website literotica to a mild curiosity in this genre. One key difference I have found between modern erotica and the classics is intention. For popular authors like Tiffany Reisz, Sylvia Day and E.L. James, their books intend to explore a fantasy, hoping to titillate the reader in one way or another. While in the case of the classics, it was more about exploring something much deeper. Whether it be a sexual awakening (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), the pleasures of the flesh (A Sport and a Pastime) to just using sex for symbolism.
I still have gaps in my reading for this genre, for example Anaïs Nin or Marquis de Sade. Though I am curious to explore it in greater detail. Thanks to Krissy Kneen and her novel, I now have a list to work from. I was pleased to see James Salter kicking off this wonderful novel and I was eager to write down a list books to read…only to find them listed in the back of the novel as well. In my never ending efforts to be well read, I now have some direction when it comes to Erotica.
While I adore the voyeuristic nature of A Sport and a Pastime, I was pleased to see some transgressive erotica gracing the pages of The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine. One could argue whether these picks should be considered erotic in nature but they do explore sex in an interesting way. Take for example Lolita, there are some beautifully written erotica writing in the novel but this is countered by the disturbing nature of Humbert Humbert. Dolores’ own sexual awakening will be forever tainted by the predatorily nature of Humbert. This can also be explored in Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor and Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa which takes on the idea of the fantasy of sleeping with the teacher. However for further exploration into this I would recommend a memoir; Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz.
Then you have something far more disturbing in nature with Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille, which takes sex to a far more depraved level. While this novel will indeed shock and sicken you, the symbolism to be found is what I found undeniably appealing. With the help of some essays combined with this novel called “The Pornographic Imagination” by Susan Sontag and “The Metaphor of the Eye” by Roland Barthes, Story of the Eye transforms into more than a surreal erotic. As I read it, I was disturbed by the mind of Bataille but now I feel sympathetic to his pain.
I was not surprised to see Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer) or Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour) was neglected from the pages, I was expecting Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs to make an appearance. Sex in Burroughs represents power and could have added an interesting dynamic, though this could be just a projection of my love for surrealism. It is pleasing to read a novel that mirrors fragments from the classics. Kneen not only recommends books to Holly White and the reader, she was able to pay homage to the greats.
While my journey into erotica seems to be focused on the classics, I am all too aware that I have not considered literary erotica. I would like to think that a more literary erotic novel would closely resemble what I am interested in rather than just a fantasy aimed to arouse. I know I need to read Affection and Triptych by Krissy Kneen but I do need to try other authors. More research is needed for me and recommendations as well as I continue down this rabbit hole, who knows I may write more about erotica in the future.