This blog entry contains sexual language and explicit imagery
– if this kind of thing offends you, stop here and exit.
Continue at your own risk, and only if you are 18 or over.
Late last summer I was buying some thriller-type paperbacks in a local book store and at the same time picked up a few romance novels. Why? I was taken by the cover art, which I wanted to add to my collection. But when I got home I decided I might as well deign to read one of these romance tales to see what they were like (I snickered to myself, haughty and arrogant as I was in the matter of such ‘schlock’.)
Actually the books I read weren’t that bad. Not The Heart of Darkness, to be sure, but certainly not illiterate. The narratives move along rapidly and, it quickly became evident, formulaically – but so did Homer and a lot of very fine artists after him, including contemporary thrillers and detective novels. These novels were not of the historical romance type but definitely about contemporary couples, usually upscale – lawyers, brokers, doctors (of both genders).
The thematic material of this kind of literature has a venerable ancestry, going back to the Greek New Comedy of Menander (4th-3rd century B.C.) and the romanized versions of Plautus (3rd-2nd centuries B.C), popping up in the romances of courtly love, in Shakespearean comedy, and anchoring much in nineteenth century novels.
Here we are dealing with complex family dramas, dysfunctional triangular affairs, adult children searching for lost parents, and on-again off-again relationships. And like all good comedy, the ending involves a wedding or the promise of one, the righting of a chaotic world by the orderliness and social harmony of nuptials.
But all of this is the narrative fig leaf that covers the erotic insets liberally sprinkled throughout the novels. These follow a strongly formulaic typology in both concept and execution, not least the stylized vocabulary for naughty body parts and naughtier acts in which these parts engage with such literate gusto. It’s all a kind of vicarious wet dream of soft verbal pornography.
Starting with the woman, let me count the ways. Her hair, whether dazzlingly blond or darkly black and all the colors in between, is invariably smooth, shiny, cascading, or glistening. Her eyes are black as obsidian or turquoise as the sea (and all the simile-associated shades between) and glistening. Her lips, covering teeth that are white, even, small, or glistening, more than other facial features, engage the writers’ formulaic imagination to the fullest: full, ruby, broad, luscious, delicious, inviting, moist, slightly parted, licked by the tongue, and – yes — glistening.
The neck, to which attention is often called as the climactic moment rushes on, is long, swan-like, bent back, arched. Her breasts have nipples that, having been touched, teased, tugged, licked, and/or sucked, grow hard, rise up proudly, or become taut. The waist is always thin and the belly toned and tanned, and within it glows an unquenchable fire of passion. The thighs and legs – to skip paradise for the moment – are long, lithe, and lean, and they come together at a junction covered with thick dark hair. Much ingenuity is given over to lyrical descriptions of the summum bonum — both its physical appearance and the various anatomical changes it rings due to heightened mental or physical (by either party) stimulation.
I am not mocking these passages or the lexicon. Truly.
The fact is that this has all been said before, starting with the great Greek poetess Sappho (late 7th – 6th centuries B.C.) who brilliantly co-opted the earlier military lexicon of the Homeric battlefield and eroticized it (thus, the penetrating spear, aching wound, and spurting blood of the warrior, for example, easily lend themselves to the lovers’ metonymic modulations, as it were). Indeed one might make a case that the modern Western vocabulary of sexual passion owes a truly inestimable debt to (Homer and) Sappho and her numerous imitators in Greek, Roman and later European vernacular literatures. And as with all formulaic literature, it is the grounded delight at meeting old lexical friends and thematic associates so to speak that keeps us coming back for more, be it detective tales or amatory narratives of the heart (in the case of the latter we have of course personal data from our own happy and unhappy experiences on the basis of which to take informed pleasure in art’s transforming ways).
The descriptions of the many shapes of male prowess likewise are heir to a vast tradition stretching back beyond classical Greek statuary and the pre-Homeric mists. Thus, his confidence and ego are larger than Kennedy’s johnson, the arms must be muscular, the torso hard and lean, the legs powerful. From the heroine’s point of view his member is invariably thick and long, or both, and, when angry, it is huge, throbbing, pulsing (or pulsating), astonishing, amazing and wondrous.
The act itself, accompanied by moans, groans, gasps and grunts, is either slow and gentle or hard and fast, and in either case the event is beautiful or unbelievable, leaving both partners variously exhausted, floating, giddy, sated, ecstatic, fulfilled, dreamy, smoking (yes, even in this day and age [the influence of those forties and fifties noir films is hard to eradicate]), and – always — eager for more.
Well, I think you’re clued on to the general drift here.
Again, although I don’t think this type of reading is great literature, who wants always to be reading great literature? I hereby confess that somewhat furtively I do now buy, on a somewhat regular basis, both from stores and Amazon.com, romance stories. I’ve grown fond of them, not least for the strictly academic pleasure of tracing … ahem … ahem … literary influences.