The concept of the erotic was once snappily differentiated from the pornographic in a quote attributed to Isabel Allende: “Erotica is using a feather. Pornography is using the whole chicken.” That’s obviously not a dictionary definition, but it is a helpful one. This conveys a sense of erotica as a suggestive, intuitive, subtle, teasing counterbalance to the carnal cornucopia of pornography. But this is not in itself satisfying. Some definitions of the gap between erotica and pornography smack of the legalistic: in the visual arts, especially in movies, since the 1960s, the erotic is usually seen as portraying sex and sexuality, but edges into pornography when actual genitalia engaged in copulation is glimpsed. One can see how the outer edges of erotic art blurs constantly with the romantic and the pornographic, revolving as they all do around a seemingly fundamental human trait, and yet erotica stakes out an instinctive middle ground between the two. Romance (to use the modern, colloquial sense of the word rather than the older, specific literary genre) is a social process as well as an interpersonal one, a negotiation and an overture. As a form, romance obeys certain idealized blueprints, as does, in a different way, pornography. Where the romantic is defined by conventional forms that unite or divide potential partners who are attracted and attached by purposeful exchanges – words, glances, visual appreciation of physique, sympathy of mind, etc – the pornographic tends to be equally idealized in editing out emotional or social context, or at least the reduction of these to singular signs, and the enactment of fantasy, display for the sake of libidinous satisfaction, over mutuality and awareness.
The question of whether erotica, as an idea and form, excludes a female or non-heteronormative participation, as was recently posited to me, demands being considered on two levels, one theoretical, and the other in observing historical practice. In theory, in consequence of definitions offered above, such a limitation is non-existent; having defined the erotic as invoking the vast panoply of the human psychosexual experience. In practice, delineations through such terms as “homoerotic” reveal the way areas of erotic experience are commonly divided along traditional lines gender interest. The traditional verbiage of romantic writing evokes the act by a man engaged in an active quest in “winning” a passive female, whilst the struggle inherent in the erotic has generally been realised with force by heterosexual male writers like Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, stacked on the male side, with masculine prerogative almost idealised and yet also endangered, constantly endangered by sapped virility, or castration by various forces. Of course, homoerotic writing has mostly been forbidden or highly surreptitious since long before the modern era, and one often has to look back as far as classical sources to find a sense of the erotic as a dynamic, unsettled, unlimited thing. Women writers were for centuries discouraged from engaging in such writing (which is not to say they entirely obeyed). Yet one can observe the ways these delineations may become porous – the way lesbian erotica is often seen as a male stimulant, and even indeed vice versa – and the term “erotic” itself has been in my experience often described as merely the female version of pornography.
As reductive as all this is, it’s still perhaps revealing that some of the most noted and controversial erotic writing of the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries has come from female writers: Erica Jong, Marguerite Duras, Anaïs Nin, Pauline Reage, Elfriede Jelinek, and others. In such a light, erotic writing can seem like the battleground chosen by many women writers to war against the nominally sordid yet more pervasive and eminently consumable field of pornography. Of course, it’s not merely a rebuttal to a proposition to say that women and gay people might write erotic literature anymore than it is to say colonialism was trifling because the colonised worked for the colonisers, unless a transformative dialogue is inherent. But because of erotica’s capacity to be psychological, interior in scope, as well as associative and even cryptic, it gives free play to be ironic and critical as well as celebratory or arousing, therefore the expressive ground of erotic writing is inclusive in variegated ways. In the hands of a talented artist of any gender, the form can be stretched far beyond the immediately perceptible. And then again, of course, there’s the great wealth of generic erotic, from which most of the pictures you can see have been drawn. To each his/her own.