International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800-2000

By Lisa Z. Sigel | Go to book overview

Old Wine in New Bottles?
LITERARY PORNOGRAPHY IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY FRANCE

JOHN PHILLIPS

French culture has long been perceived by the English-speaking reader as somehow more "erotic" than Anglo-Saxon culture.1 This impression is partly due to the large numbers of pornographic publications that have been imported from Paris since the sixteenth century, first into England and later into the United States, but also to the peculiarly French association of pornography and subversion—hence, the fascination that the genre has held for well-known and highly regarded writers from Rabelais to Robbe-Grillet. This historical tradition of literary erotica was invigorated in the eighteenth century by the enormous popularity of libertine writing2 and, in the modern period, by the Surrealists and later by Roland Barthes and the Tel Quel group, all of whom vigorously opposed censorship and were responsible for an intellectual fascination with the Marquis de Sade, which had considerable influence on the twentieth century's artistic and cultural output.

The subject of this essay, therefore, is precisely this "literary" erotica that appears to be more deeply rooted in the French than in other Western literary traditions. My use of this elitist-sounding term partly serves to distinguish it from the popular erotic novel, as a separate genre, although the boundaries between the two are by no means clear, especially in the contemporary period. Pornography in general might be said to contain many elements characteristic of so-called popular fiction (e.g., erotic themes, violence, travel to exotic places, the extended use of colloquial, even vulgar, language). Indeed, the tendency of the pornographic text to cross generic and cultural boundaries is part of its subversive character, unsettling the conventions and expectations associated with social and cultural stereotypes. If the novels I shall refer to have a claim to be part of the literary canon, however, it is chiefly because they have a sophistication of form that makes them interesting on a textual as well as on a sexual level. On the other hand, the exclusion of pornography that lacks such formal properties can in no way be taken to imply that such writing is less socially or morally acceptable.

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International Exposure: Perspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800-2000
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