Anaïs Nin: 50 Shades’ Foreplay

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You would think, based on all the brouhaha surrounding the previously published fanfic “50 Shades of Grey”, that erotica was a new phenomenon.

You would be wrong.

Columns, Guest Column, Homepage Feature  •  Aug 08, 2012

by Pavarti K Tyler

You would think, based on all the brouhaha surrounding the previously published Fanfic Master of the Universe (now titled 50 Shades of Grey), that erotica was a new phenomenon.

You would be wrong.

Erotica, in all its forms, has been around since the cave paintings—and some of those were downright dirty. What’s new, however, is the access readers have to erotica, thanks lately to the Indie Revolution and ebook technology.

I recently came across a fact that was the source of surprise, and it validated me in a way I hadn’t been expecting. Anaïs Nin, the bestselling French-Cuban writer best known for her erotic stories, was in fact an indie author. Finding it difficult to get her erotic works published, Nin helped found Siana Editions (“Anaïs” spelled backwards) in France in 1935.

It isn’t surprising that Nin found it necessary to self publish. Art which challenges peoples’ notions of sexuality is always difficult to find funding for, especially the type which deals with women’s sexuality. Cutting-edge literature like “The New Fuck You” found it’s home with indie publisher Semiotext(e); “Femininity and Domination” with an academic press. Now that the movement has gained some momentum (the sales velocity for 50 Shades has been called “unprecedented”), more and more small presses are popping up to represent erotica authors.

Historically in the US, erotica has had tremendous difficulty finding an audience. In 1939 Nin had best-sellers in Europe titled “House of Incest” and “Winter of Artifice”, both deeply psycho-erotic pieces. When she moved to America with her second husband, she found her titles had almost no market and were unavailable to the general public. Meanwhile, Henry Miller’s infamous works “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” (also initially self-published) were achieving critical and financial success. What is interesting is that as crass as Miller’s prose can be, it was always considered ‘literature’, while Nin’s much more poetic style carried the less commercial label: ‘erotica’.

Despite the backlash the release of her diaries inspired, there’s no doubt when it comes to ground-breaking erotic literature, Nin’s writing was pivotal. Bruce Watson, in his article “Claiming Ownership—Issues in Nin criticism,” takes note of the feminist backlash after the release of Diary I.  Prior to that she had written primarily short stories and penny-a-page erotica. In her diaries, Nin explores both her real and fictional desires in much more detail and variety. Nin’s version of female sexuality wasn’t always pretty and the author explored ideas of power and fantasy in ways that could be considered down right anti-feminist in the traditional sense.

Nin wrote things few other women during the 20s and 30s were willing to say, perhaps because, in the end, female sexuality is an exploration of power.  Transgressive by nature, erotica was dismissed by traditional publishers because it challenged the conventional notions of sexuality and morality. And that’s still the case, when you consider that despite the atomic landing of 50 Shades, it is still dismissed as nothing more than “Mommy Porn”.

The current surge of erotic literature is not a new phenomenon, it’s just the natural conclusion of the freedom of expression that self-publishing affords authors. Despite the apparent leniency to borderline soft-core porn in tv shows like “True Blood”, various reality shows and the recently returned “Dallas”, the female experience of those stories are still usually that of the victim, the martyr, and/or the bitch.

Like all indie published books, erotica comes under attack for a lack of quality and editing. Of course indie authors struggle against this misconception all the time, but even traditionally published erotica authors do so more than those writing in other genres. The flip side of this for many indies—but especially erotica authors—is that there are no longer boundaries. Much like Anaïs Nin’s collection of short poetic works “Under a Glass Bell”, indie erotica doesn’t have to fit a mold of what “erotic” publishers think it should be. The result is that we are seeing smarter, more challenging and yes, more deviant works coming to light.

The traditional publishing industry is being asked to confront the difficulty of discussing the raw realities of female sexuality. Earlier this year Smashwords had to push back against PayPal’s attempted restriction on erotic content, and Amazon is regularly being called to the carpet to defend the reasons why self-published stories are being pulled. This is a good thing.  Anytime the established power institutions become uncomfortable with what women are saying feminism takes two steps forward.

Despite poor writing and ethically questionable publishing practices (a thorough analysis on the “Dear Jane” website asserts pretty persuasively that 50 Shades is just a reworked version of Twilight), the title has brought erotica into the forefront of the publishing dialogue. While its original popularity was a combination of fanfic fans wanting copies of the book for their shelves and the result of its being an ebook whose title could be easily hidden, its paperback incarnation—first published through a small indie press and now with Vantage—has been flying off the shelves at bookstores world-wide. So much for being embarrassed.

The erotica genre remains a small part of the indie book market, but thanks to authors including Selena Kitt, Remittance Girl, Laurie Laliberete, Eden Baylee and Paige Aspen, the category is healthy, and dare we say, growing. Anaïs Nin would be proud.

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Pavarti K Tyler is an artist, wife, mother and number cruncher. Award winning author of Transgressive Multi-Genre Literature, Pavarti’s work ranges from a Muslim Superhero novel to an Erotic Horror short, with many pieces filling in the spaces in between.

Pavarti graduated Smith College in 1999 with a degree in Theatre and after graduation, moved to New York, where she worked as a Dramaturge, Assistant Director and Production Manager on productions both on and off Broadway. Later, Pavarti went to work in the finance industry as a freelance accountant for several international law firms. She now operates her own accounting firm in the Washington DC area, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and two terrible dogs. When not preparing taxes, she works as the Director of Marketing at Novel Publicity and is busy penning her next novel.

  • http://trashystreasures.wordpress.com/ Amelia James

    I had no idea indie authors had been around so long. :)

    “Female sexuality is an exploration of power.” Yes, it is. And that’s why Nin had to self-publish, and current works get dismissed as ‘mommy porn’. Erotica is empowering. The success of 50 Shades has made that power accessible to the masses. Yay!

  • http://lenoreskomal.com Lenore Skomal

    Excellent insight with depth and historical context. Erotica is hardly new…and I agree that if “Fifty Shades of Gray” truly does breakthrough barriers, then for that alone, it’s a positive. Despite the lame writing.

  • Margaret

    I enjoyed this post! I have been a fan of Anais Nin for years and it was interesting to learn a little more about her here.

  • http://eightysixthepoet.blogspot.com Eighty Six

    Feels like I’m back in college again because this was so smart and well researched. I’m excited and intimidated by my piece for your Penny-A-Page anthology. I hope dudes can write this stuff too. Pretty sure I’m going to have a male narrator. It will be an original, I just hope it’s good also.

  • http://www.edenbaylee.com eden baylee

    Pavarti,

    Excellent article about the greats of erotic writing and their place in the history of self publishing. I agree that the ’50 Shades’ books appear to have given legitimacy to a genre that has been around almost as long as sex has been. In Medieval times when sex was considered taboo and obscene, I can understand why erotica both fascinated and shocked. It was hidden, secretive, and society was sexually repressed. In the year 2012, I’m perplexed by the phenom. What it says to me is, regardless of the perceived ‘openness’ in society today, there will always be a large segment of society that views erotic writing as taboo. E.L. James’ books have not changed this fact, though she has managed to bring excitement to a genre.

    In the long run, my hope is that the cream of modern-day erotica authors rise to the top.

    I’m humbled to be mentioned in your article, Pavarti, and offer you my sincere thanks,

    eden

  • http://www.karleenemorrow.com Karleene Morrow, Author

    Perceptive article, Pavarti, well done. As Historical Fiction is my forte, it’s a long way from erotica – which I don’t read. I do agree, however, that the fiction world has room for everything, including erotica. As an aside I might say that I’m not sure I agree to bestiality and the rest of the heavy stuff though. I did read Anais Nin years ago and was interested in the information you presented about her. Anyway, good job on this article, well presented,

    I also want to mention that I read your latest interview and thoroughly enjoyed it. Laughed out loud in a few places. Sometimes you are a hoot. Loved the interview. xoox – Karleene

  • http://www.facebook.com/chinaportrait CHINA

    Thank you very much for posting this, Indie Reader! Finally, someone dares to publicly defy the 50-Shades hype. I can just imagine all those housewives face-palming over your article: “I told my soccer mom book club that E. L. James was the very first female indie erotic writer!”

  • http://sylviahubbard.com/ SylviaHubbard1

    Awesome article. the sudden popularity of the genre has afforded good financial opportunities, but I’ agree. it’s been around for a long time and a lot of people before the 50shades knew I was an erotic suspense author. Now the same people are coming up to me saying, you jumped on it before everyone else. I tell them i’m nothing new because there were even authors before me that were “doing it.” (no pun intended.) That’s always amazed me about history and people and how they think things are new when even Shakespeare has said there’s nothing new under the sun.

    But no complaints about the sudden popularity and I’m interested to see who’s going to be “The next big thing.”

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