The Craftsmanship of Arousal

by William Rand, Ph.D.
Copyright: 17 December 2012

We need to raise the level of craftsmanship in pornography. As soon as you stop laughing, consider something: What is porn or erotica but another genre? Genre is simply a method used to classify imaginative stories, be they in print, photography or video. In a broad sense, that puts porn next to Philip Roth, Anne Rice and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom have written what we classify as erotica. They are, of course, esteemed, talented writers, producing at a level to which we all aspire. Nevertheless, and talent aside, those writers put something into all of their work in various genres of fiction, of which we are all capable but what is too often missing in contemporary, popular erotic fiction: true craftsmanship. Online contests to see who can write a novel in two months do not teach the value of craftsmanship to young writers. Today’s writers of porn and erotica should try to instill more craftsmanship into their work and less of the assembly line—one orgasm per chapter—perspective.

I believe all of you writers have an idea of what craftsmanship is, and I think most of you, deep down, know why it is missing in today’s erotic and porn novels. What do I mean by craftsmanship? Building beautiful, old style, wooden furniture? Yes, that is part of the concept. For me craftsmanship is something beside art or, in some ways, above art. It is certainly distinct from the idea of writing and selling the most books possible in the shortest amount of time or in appealing to the surface desires of the politically correct majority. In the artistic sense, craftsmanship means paying close attention to detail—all of the details—necessary to produce something both beautiful and functional, including stories, novels, poems, plays and movies. Political correctness and commercialization have nearly deprived the word beauty of any meaning (everyone is beautiful; only skinny is beautiful; only shaved skin is beautiful; only expensive brand names are beautiful, etcetera), so I won’t bother trying to discuss that aspect of craftsmanship here to any depth. A simple application of the term to the present theme should suffice.

Despite feminist dogma, beauty is a relative adjective, and it does exist to a large extent in the eyes of the beholder. On an individual basis, beauty is not a politically or socially dictated absolute. Assuming that people generally do not like to look at or read what they consider ugly (the morbidity of car accident fascination aside), the “eye of the beholder” concept can suggest at least three ideas related to our present discussion. One is that beauty is not universal. You may disagree with someone else on the beauty, or lack thereof, of any particular person, thing or concept. Second, especially in light of the concept of art and most forms of entertainment, beauty is emotional, making it virtually pointless to argue it in terms of the first idea. Third, erotica and porn have the potential capacity of beauty. “How can you even suggest such a thing?” you are probably gasping with eyes bugged out and blood pressure climbing. Actually, good old capitalism suggests such a thing. In one of his comedy routines, Chris Rock said, “Porn is a three billion dollar a year industry, but nobody watches it.” The comedy routine is a bit dated, so I am sure the figure has risen. Therefore, in spite of the ranting and the socially and legally oppressive actions of the religious fundamentalists, feminists, FCC, HRS and PTA, a lot of people seem to be engaged in the art of porn and erotica—producing, writing, acting, photographing and consuming—suggesting that a fair share of it contains some aspect of beauty, at least to its audience. The real problem is that so little of it is relevant and memorable.

The politically correct of the United States use the force of legislation, the school and university systems, and social and economic pressure to try to push their ideas of beauty and “the correct” on the rest of us. They employ family tradition, community standards, federal and local obscenity laws, the word of God, the threat of the police, peer pressure, and university “speech codes,” among other weapons. That form of domination has changed little over the years and affected relatively little in the grand course of things outside the university campus. That is not to say that a lot of people, mostly straight men and other free thinkers, have not suffered for it, especially now on universities.

Such social oppression is addressed in the ideas of men’s issues. We have all been bullied in the names of morality, legality and equality, yet ideas persevere. Reactionary books are written. Individuals free in their hearts still know what they like and don’t like. We have simply, in open United States society, been ordered to accept or to consider “correct” certain ideas and to keep our mouths shut otherwise. You are probably thinking about censorship, but try to keep the word Fascism out of your mind. That could get us all in trouble. In any event, capitalism, political correctness or its resultant fear seem to have eroded the importance of craftsmanship in art, erotic or otherwise.

So what of the functional aspect of erotic craftsmanship? Cut that ironic grin. You are right, but I mean more than what you’re probably thinking. By function, I refer to narration, description and message. Narration in erotica is usually not a problem. In most of the erotica—and porn—that I have read, I can tell what is happening, when and how. The events of the stories are reasonably clear. Description, however, deals with not only the sensory details but also with current cultural expectations in literature. In the writing of descriptive details, try to remember to include the five senses, and remember that the temperature and humidity of a room, among other things, counts in the sense of touch. Including sufficient details is important, but I am not advocating a return to the romantic mode of spending three pages to describe a room. That much descriptive detail bores me, and I teach literature. However, you need enough description to create a vivid scene, so include the details that do three things: reveal character, advance the plot and lead to the message. Consider story questions about every descriptive and narrative detail. What does long hair or small breasts on a woman or a hairy chest or thin arms on a man say about the personality of your character, for instance? What kind of living room would a neat or disorganized character have? What does a sportscar, pet snake or Cuban cigar add to the plot? What do any of those things add to character development and to the ultimate message you want to convey with your erotic novel?

Why is the message important? In an erotic novel, you just want to get your reader turned on, anyway; right? Craftsmanship means more than that. Think about books you have read or movies that you have seen. I am sure there were times when you watched a movie and could not remember much of it a week or even a few days later. You picked up a book from your collection. You knew that you already read it, but you couldn’t recall much of the story. On the other hand, there were books or movies that you remembered clearly, years later. I would bet that most of the time, the difference rested in the force and clarity of the message. Think of the original versus the remake of the film Planet of the Apes, for example. Most writers want to say something to or about society: the effects of racism, war, pollution, men’s issues, feminism, political corruption, political correctness, poverty, or whatever. Astute readers want to see these things also, in addition to getting turned on or experiencing action or romance or horror or comedy.

Story action and descriptive details should mean something to the reader. Loosely sequenced sex, shoot-‘em-up or hack-‘em-up scenes mean nothing beyond brief, surface stimulation. Death and sex should have a purpose. They should function in character development, change and growth. They should express what a writer honestly believes and observes about life and society, not just about the character. They should make readers think, at least a little, in addition to making them come. Those extra aspects of character development and message explain how Star Trek and Fahrenheit 451 helped to revolutionize science fiction and why Pirates is a more memorable film than, say, Barely Legal 18. I am not suggesting that you put less sex in your erotic novels. And there is certainly nothing wrong with porn movies like the Barely Legal series or, more to my liking, the Horney Hairy Girls movies. What I am suggesting is that in erotic novels and movies, the sex can be more meaningful and less politically correct, less typical. Closer to the point, in addition to the sex, erotica can give readers or viewers more of a story: character development and a unique message about society.

Unfortunately, that moral or societal message is missing or unclear in many contemporary novels and movies. Many of them just lack a full story. Often, I wonder if it is because contemporary readers simply do not seek those things as much as before. They want the orgasm and care less about foreplay, and I’m not talking about the sexy, narrative kind. Perhaps some writers are simply afraid to speak out and have settled for trying to appeal to the politically correct to make money. I have also noted that more publishers nowadays set as many restrictions on story content as they do on the editorial quality or formatting of the writing. The reasons are yours to interpret. However, when the story is done and the credits roll, the quality of the details, the development of the characters and the clarity and effectiveness of the message make the difference between a slasher film and good, genuinely frightening horror or between slapstick and hysterically funny comedy or between jerk-off porn movies and truly controversial and engaging erotica. The same applies to novels. Of equal importance, including a unique message will make your erotic novel memorable, and you will have created something deeply arousing, beautiful and functional, if not rebellious. That is craftsmanship.

For more on this topic, see: “In Defense of Pornography.”

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