E. L. James’s impending literary domination is very scary for creative writing teachers. Writing about sex is difficult to start with; we have to contend with our self-consciousness, not to mention our mothers – “So the group sex with the ravening horde of Turkish Janissaries was that when you went on the package to Bodrum, dear?” For Erotica, as opposed to fiction with adult themes, we must write lots of sex; hot, kinky sex is de rigueur every four or five pages which is quite exhausting. Then there are the industry guidelines to negotiate: you have to find non-risible vocabulary for genitalia, somewhere between the nursery and the locker-room, preferably avoiding twee euphemisms like “throbbing manhood” or “pearl of great price” (the Black Lace imprint extolled writers to avoid anything too damp – “squelching love swamp”, for example, was not acceptable); we must write safe sex which accounts for the preponderance of bodice-rippers set in exotic historical times when anything goes and condoms haven’t been invented (if the aforementioned ravening Janissaries do a spot of rape and pillage it kind of goes with the pointy helmets but when writers set similar scenes in the local health club the reader is too distracted wondering if the hapless heroine will get a refund on her subscription to appreciate the erotic charge).
The possibility of enormous, pulsating piles of purple prose is pretty daunting for the writing tutor but the really contentious part is how to deal with it in class. We may all be over 21, sexually sophisticated, and averse to censorship but do we really want to read literary porn at 7 pm on a wet Monday evening? And what are the writers’ motives? An innocuous-looking retired handyman in one of my community classes insisted on reading out gang-rape scenes every week regardless of what assignment I’d set. He obviously hoped to embarrass his young, predominantly female classmates but, unfortunately for him, they were all South London media babes, working in telly, so their reaction was a blasé shrug, “Whatever”.
Another budding Anais Nin, a bespectacled Oxford undergrad, shyly handed me a story to read at home. It proved to be a bizarrely perverse account of an unfortunate youth who’s forced to dress up as his sister and get buggered repeated by Nazi Storm-troopers (the curious phrase “his penis smelled like a goat’s” remains with me as does my wonderment that the author had been able to get close enough to a goat’s throbbing goathood to sniff it). Slightly shell-shocked, I nonetheless advised the writer to address his poor characterisation – “Unless you create some empathy for your character, I don’t care how many times the SS roger him.”
On the other hand, Teacher can also reveal too much as I did when tutoring a group of Putney pensioners. I was quoting a passage from William Cooper’s 1950 social comedy Scenes from Provincial Life in which the writer skilfully evades the censor by implying a specific sexual activity between the narrator and his girlfriend: “I looked down on the top of her head. Suddenly she blew…”
“So,” I announced with confidence, “We all know what she’s doing.” To which the entire class responded, “No!? What is she doing?” which left me in a difficult pedagogic position. Still if I’d tried this on the South London Telly Babes, I’m sure the response would’ve been knowing and affirmative. As in all creative endeavours, when it comes to teaching dirty you have to know your audience.