The language of love is probably French, or maybe Italian. It’s no coincidence that so many of histories great romantic figures have had a Latin background. Casanova. Valentino. Don Juan (all right, he was a literary invention, but you get the idea–he wasn’t Mister Jones or Herr Helmut).
But there’s also a tradition of erotic literature in English that might have become a bit of a “mommy-porn” joke on the literary side thanks to the antics of a certain Mr. Grey, (although I suspect that EL James is laughing all the way to the bank, because the books are big business).
But there was a time when erotic literature was not a laughing matter, and publishers and authors could face real consequences for dabbling in the genre, anything from fines to imprisonment or, more recently, to literary ostracism. But the pull was always there, and the books got written.
There are likely uncountable reams of bad erotica sitting on dusty bookshelves, but there are three books that, to me, have always been the landmark classics of English language lewdness: Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.
Man, was I in for a surprise.
John Cleland, unlike Lawrence, doesn’t just describe sex as a mechanical activity, but actually brings eroticism to bear. You can tell the author, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, took the time to research his subject exhaustively, and then went on to describe what he’d learned.
Free writing tip: if you’re writing erotica, this is probably the the most enjoyable approach.
As a piece of pornography, Fanny Hill is infinitely more successful than Lady Chatterley. To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t just trying to write himself into obscenity law history but also to make a statement about class distinctions in Britain. The reason the Cleland is a better book is because Fanny Hill is unconcerned with politics–pushing your politics as a central theme of your book is a sure way to soporific stultification (see what is happening in the science fiction genre today for a vivid example of politics making it difficult for literature to shine).
Is Fanny Hill a great book? Simply put, no. It’s a great bit of pornography, and I’m not surprised that it’s now considered a classic because it’s very good at what it does. I think the next well-written pieces of literature to do it so well (at least in English) were produced in the middle of the twentieth century. But like pornographic movies, it gets a little repetitive after a while because the underlying story is paper thin (despite the fact that Cleland was clearly a gifted writer).
Also, as a purely modern critic, there is very little sexual variety in the book, which, even if you updated the sometimes archaic language, would date the book to a less adventurous era.
Still, hats are off to the spirit of Mr. Cleland for setting the bar so high that it would take Henry Miller two centuries later to surpass it. Of course, that’s an assumption that I need to get my hands on Tropic of Cancer to confirm.
I suspect I’ll enjoy that.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who isn’t afraid to put a little heat into his books. Timeless is an excellent example of this, and you can check it out here.