Sexiness and the Sears Catalog
by Damon Suede
So... I was thinking.
As it happens, I'm on crazed, rushed assignment right now, rewriting a script that I've been asked to "make sexy" by a producer who doesn't seem to know what he's asking for; the demand for sexiness has filtered down to him from his bosses and their bosses and so on.
Rewrites are a large part of the way screenwriters make
their money. It's part of the ecology of the entertainment
business... a necessary and essentially stupid evil. Most people in
the industry know that if you look at great films, they derive from
great scripts and are
generated by committee with notes from any suit who has a corner
office. But my current producer's baffled demand for "more sexiness" as if it were a spice
that could be sprinkled into soup started me thinking about sexiness
as a literary expression, about the recent explosion of gay romance
as a genre within erotic romance... and thence the oft-cited line between
In turn, that made me start thinking about Life *gasp* before the Internet. This in turn made me think about life before ubiquitous DVD and VHS and other home entertainment distribution platforms. Then of course, the trail leads back before television, film, photography, the printing press, etc. Every successful media in human civilization has been driven by erotica. One of the prime historical markers of a viable new media is its ability to disperse Porn. Think about it. Even woodcuts and bas relief are successful because they can put fleshy bits where people can get at them repeatedly. Every gadget ever invented became ubiquitous through its connection to eroticism. Ditto printing, ditto photography, ditto the internet, all the way up to more modern techs.
Anyways, this got me thinking about the Sears Catalog. Now I'm dating myself here, because in fact the era of the Sears Catalog as porn derives from the generation before mine or the generation before that. My generation had ready access to magazines and paperbacks. In fact, with the first tendrils of the BBS phenomenon in the 80s, there was even a proto internet which let people pass stuff around that got them off. But back in the day, say the 70s or prior, it used to be that rural folks didn't have porn at the local jiffy mart or mail order that could be counted on for discretion, and erotica was something you found in the Sears Catalog underwear section which was for decades the main format for mass retail in thousands of rural US communities. Where else could you see attractive folks in a state of undress who weren't your direct relations?
Think about the Sears Catalog. You could even go to their website if you need a refresher; it's racier now than it was then, but would you ever call that hot?! Context is everything. In 1962 in East Texas, the bra section was smokin' and the Jockey ad offered a succulent bulge for some hayloft yanking by rural men with homo hankerings. Sex objects for the masses! And if the pictures were attractive well, hell, they were advertisements; they were supposed to be! Before pneumatically pert, assembly-line pornstars started being ground out in the post-AIDS 80s, before Playboy was something you could buy in a grocery store, the Sears Catalog was something you smuggled out of the house to hide from your folks. And masturbation cuts across every line: age, gender, race, class, etc.
Okay... now hold that thought. Back to erotica and romance for a sec.
Nowadays, anyone on the earth can track down the most shocking explicit hardcore pornography at any time of the day or night. There are literally fetishes waiting a click away as you read this, things that are literally illegal and even punishable by death in many countries. By the same token, Romance novels are (as has been pointed out repeatedly) the #1 genre in terms of sales volume and fan devotion. Romance is literally the prop that allows publishers to produce all those "other" books and booksellers to sell them and remain solvent. Even now (or especially now) with porn scratching at the virtual door, romance is a booming business and the percentages are starting to shift so that the gender divide is balanced. More men read romance now than at any other time in history. Obviously, Romance offers something that (much) erotica/porn doesn't, just as porn/erotica offers things that other genres don't. Porn (whether found like the Sears catalog or purpose-built) just isn't wired the same way, nor does it attract the same audience. Porn is about sex objects: objectification is its bedrock.
What is it that makes Romance so resilient and robust a genre? We could call it emotional resonance or meaningful context or sentimental wish fulfillment... but (I think) even the attempt to pin it down academically is doomed, because its effect is fiercely subjective, and (like human emotion) often illogical. There's a core in Romantic fiction that distinguishes it fundamentally from wank-fic. The emotional journey that we associate with Romance is a real bugbear for critics because fancy-pants types often hate the genre but can't dissect the success of genre classics by the same framework you might use for literary fiction. In Romance the internal landscape is often more significant than the external, and the emotional experience of the reader more relevant than that of the characters. One of the things I find strangest when reading erotic romance is the way that, even in some badly written stories, I find myself tearing up over the most mawkish, clichéd moments. It's like Romance speaks directly to the chinks in our armor of cynicism. Subjectification is its secret seed. It speaks to the hope that we nurture, however deep, buried in our featherless hearts.
My (awesome) beta reader, when handed her first gay erotic romance confessed after reading the first two chapters that she was surprised how little actual SEX was happening. It was erotic to be sure, and the transgressive desire was there, but the protagonists did not immediately commence humping. Essentially her discovery was, "Hey! This isn't Porn." As a writer, what was interesting about her comments was that going deeper into the book, she was sort of courted by the genre as much as she was by the story. In essence the idea of "erotic romance" seduced her, so that by the time the characters were engaged in Tab-A, Slot-B mechanics, her feelings were deeply engaged in the dirty bits. The sex was a point in the emotional arc, subjectifying rather than objectifying. The form of erotic romance snuck up on her imagination and pulled it under the covers for ravishment. The story couldn't BE pornographic for her because the characters were not objectified.
(I believe) This is the reason that we all get so annoyed when
an e-publisher releases a tired old porno story under the guise of
gay romantic fiction. Because porno exists only to get you off; any
emotion that might be mimicked only exists as a kind of lubricant to
get everyone fucking everyone else as quickly and wildly as possible.
The characters are interchangeable objects. Even the
idea of "characters" in porn is laughable; porn plots rely on a kind
of generic uniform interchangeability: hot cop, hot nurse, hot
teacher, hot wife, hot rancher, hot alien, or whatever. They are more
like Lego identities, so when we see a cowboy hat we know instantly
that the sex will be in the stalls, or a stethoscope means sex on a
gurney. The uniform is about as deep as characterization gets and
only provides a thin topic for dirty talk of the "Take my big hose"
variety. As a result, Porn consciously denies us the central "subjectifying" whatever-you-want-to-name-it that Romance has... Emotion? Textured
characterization and backstory? Powerful, meaningful sublimation
maybe? Bigger topic there. Porn
carefully avoids anything like human interaction or personal
connection, because those things introduce doubt and a certain
ambivalence which has no place in a world where every cock is hard
and every orifice is wet. Uncertainty equals impotence... and in
Porn, impotence (male or female) is death.
Now, after all that, back to the Sears Catalog.
As I've been doing this "sexiness"
rewrite what I've noticed is that all the suits keep asking for
things like tits or kink, but weirdly enough what they respond to is
the exact opposite. What they (secretly) crave is the context which
makes the sexiness personal to a given character. The context
produces emotion and the sizzle in the steak if you will.
They're shopping for porn, but secretly
hoping it's a Romance novel disguised in thigh-highs. It is
to request assembly-line sexiness, but it is about as satisfying as
assembly-line food. They don't want mail-order, but they want it on
tap, like people who hope to find a Rock Hudson wearing Gucci briefs
in the Sears catalog. It's a kind of wishful thinking that wishes
small out of trepidation. Ironically, the more I give my producers
what they say they don't need, the less they want what they claim to
crave. To put it another way, they really do want something that
makes their heart go pitty-pat, but they can only order the loin and
I think all this speaks to something at work in the world around sex and personal identity. I just don't know what, exactly.
Like rural farmhands yanking their uncut puds in 1962... The paucity of context, and the constant tits-n-ass consciousness of the entertainment machine has given us a world where nudity is everywhere, but in which we are forced to "wear" nudity like a costume, down to the homogenization of gym bodies and cosmetic surgery. The "perfect" body is shrouded in meat and silicone and as a consequence nudity is impossible. Imperfect bodies are thereby rendered invisible, by definition un-eroticized. Likewise, the transgression that would have been possible in rural 1962, is almost impossible to produce because we can have anything and see anything at any moment. Porn goes further and further to shock and titillate, but at core, what you are watching is things pumping in and out of other things. No subjects, only objects.
Now, when I read a great piece of romantic fiction, there may be sex. There may even be erotica bordering on Porn, but the thing that distinguishes it is a willingness to sublimate imaginatively. A world where a cigar is never just a cigar, but also where a penis is never just a penis, where sex between characters is an attempt to describe something fundamental to the way we feel things and interact with each other. The subject must be subjects.
When Romance fails, it is often because it has slid over the line into cookie cutter clichés in characterization or wooden faux emotions. Tread to close to objectification and the whole enterprise starts to look like Porn-in-sheepskin. We smell a rat and give that title a miss. Likewise, when Porn starts to meander into literary or subjectifying narratives or performers, it's rejected as being pretentious or (worse) unarousing.
Romance is NOT Porn and vice versa; they
are practically Boolean in their separate coexistence. Not to get
all theoretical and wanky, but that tension is the core of my
pleasure with reading and writing in the genre. The fascinating
thing about erotic romance is that it essentially forces the
reader and the writer right against this invisible margin between
objectifying and subjectifying effects!
I don't know if any of this is making sense. But I was doing these rewrites and felt like I was just at the edge of seeing something with such clarity. Maybe some of this blather will resonate.