Would you touch up the Mona Lisa?
I read an article by the incomparable Remittance Girl yesterday that brought into my view something that I find disturbing. An erotica publisher is creating an imprint that will be giving classics an erotic makeover. Actually, a makeover isn’t the right word. They are having their authors write “missing” scenes and inserting them into the existing manuscript.
I found myself a bit stunned, and yet not surprised at all, by this news yesterday. In the light of recent events and the success of an erotic romance novel this gimmick isn’t surprising at all. And, as the founder of the company states in the Independent, I’m sure they will sell some of these things. There are many frantic business decisions being made in the publishing world trying to capitalize on a market that’s always been there but is now very visible, even as it’s made “safe” by calling it mommy porn.
As a reader and a writer, however, I find the news deeply disturbing. While Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Jules Verne, and the others getting this treatment may have been willing to write sex into their stories had they been writing in the current era, these writers lived in a very different time. Art of every kind is a reflection of the artist as well as the culture within which it is conceived. Whether you’re visiting a museum to take in the skill and artistry of paintings and sculptures or paging through one of the classic novels you’re experiencing the creator’s view of the world. Adding to these works is, to me, the same as the image above.
The concept of inserting scenes into another writer’s work ignores the integrity of it. There’s a pace to every story. A rhythm that guides or pulls the reader through it. In good books there are negative spaces left to engage the readers and allow them to be a part of the story, to give the readers a chance to invest some imagination. These are the books that people remember and read again and again. Because the story comes alive with the addition of the reader’s perceptions and understandings.
Any writer I know would be furious to discover that a publisher had their story “edited” in such a way. If I write a story and I’ve chosen to have a high level of sexual tension but little sex, that’s because the story is meant to be told that way. To go back and change another’s work just to make it more palatable to the public is the antithesis of what reading means to me.
These classics aren’t being made over or spoofed. They are having the arc of their plots and their storylines interrupted with sex scenes that are there purely for titillation. And, truly, that’s the only reason they are being added. They aren’t necessary for the story to move forward; the story is complete in its original form. They aren’t going to reveal some new aspect of the characters; the books were written to expose the characters as needed already. Every submission guidline I’ve ever read for erotica publishers states that the sex can’t be there just for the sake of it. It has to have meaning, it has to move the story along or reveal something about the characters.
When I started writing erotica the definition that made the most sense to me was that the story or the characters are exposed through sex. For me, that explained why so many of my stories in the past fell short; I was trying to keep the sex out of the story, thinking it didn’t belong. If the writers of the classics were trying to avoid sex they did it in a manner that doesn’t leave the story wanting. They told these tales in a way that has made them the books that they are.
So if a new group of people are exposed to the classics through these mock versions, are they really experiencing them? If the reader needs to have things written out so clearly, does it really matter that they’re reading Pride and Prejudice or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea?
One of the first things I thought about these new “books” is that if I were to end up with one in hand, I would skip the sex scenes. It wouldn’t take long for a reader to realize that there’s nothing to be learned, no plot devices, no story, in those scenes. I can always tell when an author isn’t using a sex scene well; I don’t read them.
It seems to me these books are less about exposing new readers to the classics and more about getting racy books out fast. How long would it take a writer to do a modern take on Pride and Prejudice? The original novel is more than 120 thousand words. Instead of letting that novel inspire a new take on it they’re just going to add some more words and push it through. No character development, no plot, no worries about extensive editing and so forth. It’s cheap, fast, and easy. Well. Doesn’t that sum up modern cultural expectations?