Sylvie on erotica in Writer’s Block Magazine

Writer’s Block Magazine – Winter 2002
By: Lorie Boucher

erotica: n. intentionally erotic literature or art

erotic: adj. 1. of or pertaining to sexual love
2. tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement

~Canadian Oxford Dictionary

The reader’s noble quest for dirty knowledge ends thusly in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary; searching for sexual desire is fruitless. It’s not as though valuable dictionary real estate cannot afford one more compound word related to sexuality – the COD includes definitions for sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual interference, and sexually transmitted disease. If one were in the habit of highlighting coincidental omissions to suit his or her own theses and had no aversion to non-scientific, correlative deductions, one might wonder whether the absent definition for sexual desire is deliberate. As the Canadian language authority, is the COD making a statement about the Canadian sexual consciousness by circumscribing the points of reference to abuse, assault, harassment, interference, and disease?

Luckily, the COD does not have the last word on Canadian sex language. A new body of writing is emerging and exploring all of the corners of Canadian sexual expression, and contributing to a growing genre that was born outside of our borders but that is flourishing within them – erotica.

Set to Defrost

In the late 1990s, Carellin Brooks and Brett Josef Grubisic presented their paper “Rapacity and Remorse: In/de-ferring Heteroglossic Homoeroticism in Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush” to an unsmiling CanLit: Conversion, Inversion, Subversion panel in Los Angeles. Theirs was the only paper to discuss sex, which did not come as a surprise to their host, a former-Canadianist-cum-L.A.-script writer. The treatment of sex in CanLit, he argued, has an abysmal history. From Susanna Moodie (“that bloody Victorian iceberg”) to Sinclair Ross, Hugh MacLennan, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley, Mavis Gallant, and Alice Munro, this raunch-free roster is an embarrassment to Canadian literature. If sex is mentioned, he continued, it usually carries dire, destructive consequences: “God forbid anyone has a decent orgasm without losing an eye.”

And so, motivated by equal parts defensiveness and curiosity, Brooks and Grubisic solicited erotic fiction submissions from Canadian writers. Surely, they hypothesized, sexually liberated Canadian writers born during and after the 1960s would not shy away from visceral, fleshly prose. The resulting anthology, Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions, hit the shelves in 2000. Unfortunately, this first collection of Canadian erotic writing did not shatter preconceptions of our collective frigidity.

Most reviewers of the anthology agreed that the stories are good; some are even excellent. Without the preface however, it would not be clear to the reader that these are erotic stories. They are well-written, provocative stories that explore ideas about sex, its social influences, and its consequences, but erotic? With a few shining exceptions, these are serious and often disturbing stories to be admired, reflected upon, learned from – not stories to be photocopied and sent to your lover, highlighting the dirty bits and scribbling cartoons enacting them in the margins. Many a Carnal Nation reader has certainly been reduced to flipping through the pages, scanning the text for sex like a ten-year-old flipping through a dictionary for the swears.

Literary commentary on the collection encapsulates the tone of the anthology more clearly than can be extracted from one story:

Moreover, the stories collected in Carnal Nation rewrite the heteronormative impulses of mainstream representations of sex in radical and often socially challenging ways. In doing so, the writers not only acknowledge the centrality of sex to Canadian identity overall but also engage in a radical rewriting of the Canadian subject itself, locating its origins and influences not in narratives of nation, geography, history, capitalism, or other ideologies but in narratives of sex.

– Peter Darbyshire, “Sexing the Beaver: Sex, Nation, and Identity in Carnal Nation,” Essays on Canadian Writing, Fall 2001.

Unless you’re a holed-up CanLit PhD candidate, there is nothing sexy about heteronormative impulses. If you read carefully, you can almost tell Darbyshire is talking about sex. And so it is with Carnal Nation. Call me a filth-loving harlot, but I don’t want to squint to find sex in sex writing.

A less than victorious first battle, Carnal Nation does not thwart a revolution. Thankfully though, erotica is gradually integrating into the Canadian litscape in other publications and venues, through other voices. Undeniably, the boundaries are edging slowly outward.

Ottawa: The Other Big O
The best way to measure the progress of CanLit’s slow thaw is to stick a thermometer up the tight end of what is perceived to be one of Canada’s most clenched, conservative cities: Ottawa. Remarkably, things are heating up in the capital city. In the last two years, Ottawa has hosted the launch of an erotica anthology and an erotica reading series, and in early 2003, the city will become the site of a new series of women’s erotica-writing workshops hosted by a local sex store.

Published in the fall of 2002 by Ottawa’s Boheme Press, Grunt and Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex suffers none of the distant, disengaged representations of sex found in Carnal Nation. In his preface, co-editor Matthew Firth narrows the focus of the anthology to the exploration of the connections between work and sex: “We are slaves to work. We are slaves to sex. Payday and the next orgasm: these things gnaw at our brains incessantly.” Grunt and Groan does not self-reflexively set the standard for Canadian erotica; instead, by concentrating on a unique relationship between the elemental driving forces of work and sex, it manages the reader’s expectations, surprises with its insight, and thrills with its visceral detail. Refreshingly, sex is also addressed with humour:

“Have you ever done salmon roses?” she asks me.
I blink, thinking she’s talking about a drug, a sex position, then look down at the plates I’ve been making.
“I don’t think so,” I tell her.
“I’ll show you. We need a hundred and fifty for tonight.”
Her quick fingers lift of a strip of salmon from the waxed paper, roll and twist it until it is a perfect”¬¶something. A mass of curved petals, pink and fishy.
I can’t help it – I laugh out loud.
“What?” she asks, smiling.
“It looks like”¬¶you know.”
“I don’t get it. What?”
“Well, what’s the opposite of phallic? Vulvar?”
She looks down and gets it.

– Joy VanNuys, “Spawning”

Readers of Grunt and Groan don’t expect a subversive anti-canon of erotica, and what they get is so much better, anyway: a strong collection of accessible, well-written, down-and-dirty stories with a unifying theme.

Accessibility, style, and humour also figure prominently in another Ottawa-based initiative. The brainchild of local writer Nichole McGill, the Durty Gurls reading series brings erotica to the spotlight of the stage, featuring readings of erotic poetry and fiction by Canadian women writers. An open-mic segment precedes the scheduled performances, giving yet-to-be-famous-but-nonetheless-durty gurls an opportunity to read their own works aloud to a receptive audience. The variety of voices and performance styles featured at the readings reflects the diversity of the genre and the willingness of both writers and their audiences to open the staid gateways of CanLit to literary smuttiness. Reading from her collection of spoken word poetry, Hoxton Square Circles, resident smutter Sylvie Hill brought the energy of spoken word to one Durty Gurls stage:

Looks over. Dreadlocks. Looking like the ideal. Like the precise depiction of the kind of guys that would be good in bed simply for the wad of conversation piece on their heads, right. So. She goes over to him. Says. “Nice hoodie. Wore one exactly like that myself when I was over in Britain.” Met with a dope smile, a nice smile. The kind that says. I’m down and cool with it all. I’ve seen it baby and now I’m gonna show it to you. Right. So. Squishing in between this guy and another. His brother. She orders a drink. He says. I’m Jeff. This is my brother. She gives him the I’m Gonna Burn Your House Down smile. Yeah. Whatever about the brother right. Thinking on this dread-Jeff. On that stud underneath his bottom lip. Like hers. Narcissist.

– From “Conversate,” Hoxton Square Circles, Starfucker Press, 2001

Durty gurls who are less willing to subject their work to the open stage have yet another option: to hone their smutty scriptures in an erotic writing workshop designed for women. Venus Envy, a local sex store “for women and the people who love them,” intends to launch a series of Women Writing Eros workshops beginning in January 2003. With small class sizes of a maximum of 10 students, writers will be invited to participate in erotic writing exercises and to read their own work in an intimate environment.

Stoking the Embers
Carnal Nation might not sweat anyone’s palms, and Ottawa’s new love affair with all things erotic might not signal the dawn of an all-out Canadian sex party, but the introduction of Canadian erotic writing into the literary sphere is neither meek nor localized. Canadian erotica, as a body of literature, is expanding and developing, supported by forward-thinking publishers such as Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp and Toronto’s Gutter Press. Canadian writers have a unique opportunity to shape a valid genre of provocative writing in its early years. As Canadian writers continue to contribute to the erotic genre, Canadian erotica will find its place in the legacy of Canadian literature. It may not be ready to blow up the literary world in high, showy flames, but the development of the genre will benefit from the slow burn.

Lorie Boucher lives and writes in the other Big O. She is a Contributing Editor for Writer’s Block.