Friday, October 2, 2009

Book Review: The Collected Erotica

My copy of The Collected Erotica: an Illustrated Celebration of Human Sexuality Through the Ages was provided by Eden Fantasys this book can be purchased here, and they are a good source of all kinds of erotic material.

The Collected Erotica is a gorgeous book; trade paperback sized, with glossy white paper and lush full color illustrations. This work is collected from a previous set of three books edited by London-based Charlotte Hill and William Wallace. However the writing voice of the "narrator" throughout is unmistakeably a male one (with something of a fixation on erotica with clerical and religious themes, not that there is anything wrong with that).

The format is that of an art book with extensive long excerpts fairly briefly introduced and discussed by the editor. Each page also features pull quotes and illustrations. At 400-pages long most people will certainly get their money's worth. The overall effect is a technicolor buffet of what intelligentsia considered worthy erotica--with an epicenter somewhere in a later 19th century but examples stretching from antiquity to the modern day.

And by the modern day I mean 1996, because although this is an updated 2007 edition it does not seem to include any material beyond the early nineties. And by "what the intelligentsia consider erotica" I mean there is a severely disproportionate emphasis on accepted classics such as Moll Flanders, the Story of O, Lady Chatterley's Lover and the works of Henry Miller. This collection might be more informative for those who have not already read those works in full.

The back flyleaf states of the editors that "[t]heir desire is that this collection should be should be enjoyed as widely as possible, and as much by women as men." Well, that is entirely possible but the content reflects the proportions of the materials available, not the interests of a diverse audience (e.g. many female nudes, very few men). Also, this is a collection of erotic material that is historic or has artistic or literary pretensions. It is a world in which magazines, pulp paperbacks, pin ups, movies, and the internet in its entirety do not even exist.

There is nothing wrong with that but I think it would be naive to present the collection is representative by any demographic variable, including gender. The only female writer referred to at any length is the darling or the literati, Anais Nin, whose biological sex is treated somewhat as a curiosity--it seems that the many anonymous artists and authors are presumed to be male. Homosexual material is given reasonable, but not extensive, coverage thanks largely to Oscar Wilde. Other nations are covered in the areas traditional for such works, the Karma Sutra, Japanese prints etc. But this coverage is deft and evocative given the few pages each particular subject gets in such a dense collection.

The voice of the original text that is interspersed with the excerpts is surprisingly uniform and lively, but it is highly gendered and not in a SNAG or metrosexual way. At its best it this text has pathos and humor that helps pull together all the disparate material samples. For example I was particularly struck by the following description of antique erotica photographs: "However charming or erotic Victorian photographs are , whatever magic contemporary chemicals and lenses have made of flesh tones, they always have a poignant quality. These were people who once lived, who crimped their hair, who tried not to laugh at the photographer's props. Now they are symbols of the fin-de-siecle: a reminder of the 'great vital constants' -- sex and death" [pg. 139]

But on the less charming side this narrator make some rather unenlightened comments such as implying that Casanova's promiscuity indicates "underlying homosexuality". In fact, from a fully modern point if view some of the narrator's statements seem hopelessly uninformed, for example: "...would a woman find [a well written homosexual encounter] positively erotic as men do lesbian scenes?" Quite how a historian of erotica could fail to know the answer to that question, I do not know--for yaoi/slash/MM has a history of its own that even the casual of observer of the genre would tend to stumble across. The same ironic, almost Victorian, blinkers reappear with the statement "[m]ale interest in female masturbation has no real counterpart in women."

These perspective make sense only to a person who limits their interest exclusively to the high art realms in which female "agency", as artist or consumer, is very poorly represented. To generalise from this paucity to conclusions about women per se is, at best, naive--and at worst indicative of an "underlying sexism" that runs thought even books with an overt mission to be enlightened about sex and sexuality in both the ancient and modern world.

The greatest asset of this book is also its greatest limitation: refinement. There is the homosexuality of Greek vases, but no Tom of Finland, no Mapplethorpe. The black-and-white semi-nudes of China Hamilton appear multiple times, but no Marilyn Monroe, no Betty Page. The Collected Erotica is a good "starter" book for the curious neophyte, but only part of your complete diet if you truly want to understand the full breadth and depth of our erotic traditions--high-, low- and middlebrow.

11 comments:

Barbara Rae said...

A good review! However, I wonder what they were thinking, by not including the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Page. They would have made the book worth buying!

Emily Veinglory: said...

Thanks for reading :) This review ran on a bit ...

Caroline said...

I don't know if Erotic books, movies etc are my cup of tea but this was a interesting review.

CyberCelt said...

Good review. I would have expected Nancy Friday's books, among others, to have been mentioned.

corrin said...

Great review! And I love Eden Fantasy.

Karen said...

Interesting review.

Brad said...

I would never intentionally try to offend you.

I try to be supportive of all the writers I visit, but I can definitely say that the topic of your blog is definitely not my cup of tea.

Emily Veinglory: said...

Then I would suggest not visiting?

A. @ A Changing Life said...

Is the book by any chance based on the exhibition of art and sex through the ages that was on about a year ago at the Barbican in London? I would have loved to have seen that but missed out.

It sounds as though Charlotte Hill's name is there for effect. I think I would find the book more interesting with less of a male viewpoint, and less intellectual too.

power nubby! - helping handicapped pets said...

huh.. i would think that the name of your blog CLITerature would forewarn people of your content.. Oh well.

I think your review was very well written, and while I am by no means a literary fanatic, or a sex expert.. i would say that some of the assumptions that were written about in this book were.. well.. just assumptions and not based on much fact.

Awesome work.. Keep it up!!!

Maureen said...

I thought it was a good review-