Mixed sensations plus TV glitter, Anne French

Erotic Writing: A New Zealand Collection
Sue McCauley and Richard McLauchlan (eds),
Penguin, Auckland, 1992, $24.95

The Frontman: a Telethon
Peter Sinclair,
Penguin, Auckland, 1992, $24.95

Me, a prude? I wouldn’t have thought so. But Erotic Writing had me squirming with less agreeable sensations than vicarious pleasures. If you’re planning to buy a copy, I’d suggest you keep it tucked away out of reach of the children. It is by no means as rosily, healthily sensuous as the cover would suggest.

‘Oh, come now’, I hear you say, ‘it can’t be that bad’. Well, perhaps I have a problem with nomenclature. ‘Erotic’ to me connotes something pleasant and fairly harmless, lying somewhere between The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Portnoy’s Complaint – like the cover collage. How then to classify P D Cummings’s diary of homosexual predation, in which sexual encounters with strangers are described in detail: violent, mechanical, repetitive, and remote? Is this ‘erotic’ writing as far as homosexuals are concerned, perhaps? If so, it stands in stark contrast to the lesbian writing included in the volume, which is invariably sensuous and tender, intimate, personal. What does this indicate about sexual values? Part of the difficulty may lie in the construction of the anthology itself. If writing is to be truly erotic (as the Mills and Boon formula exemplifies) there must surely be some rudimentary exposition of character, some contrivance of plot, and the setting up of a sexual tension which is finally resolved. All of this takes time and space, yet an anthology demands brevity.

The most agreeable of these pieces manage to achieve something of the Mills and Boon formula in miniature. Norman Bilbrough and Jane Westaway get there in just over four pages, with the barest of essentials; Lora Mountjoy and Stephanie Johnson take eight more but add humour and plot, while Mike Johnson dons period clothing. The least successful stories are, in contrast, also the most impersonal, such as Cummings’s, or Wells’s, or David Eggleton’s ‘Salon of Refuse’ (which is just what it sounds like).

Sue McCauley raises some interesting questions about the relationship between pornography and erotica in her introduction. ‘We’re talking’, she asserts crisply, ‘of an industry that churns out literature about quivering quims and pulsating pussy pokers and appears not to be joking’. She hasn’t included any pornography in this collection, she thinks, merely acknowledging the darker side of human sexuality. I wish I could agree.

Peter Sinclair must be getting tired of all those pompous Dr Johnson reviews he’s had, more surprised that he can write than inclined to assess his achievement. Mind you, he has left himself open to a bit of this by dedicating the novel to Lawrence Baigent, his former English tutor, who evidently made him promise to do it, and by giving his publishers a photo for the cover which shows him fronting a telethon. But all that aside, I think this is a very promising start for a writer: a tightly written, clever first novel, full (almost too full) of striking similes, witty set-pieces.

Sinclair’s hollow frontman is lightly drawn, and embodies emptiness and failure of vision in a manner suggestive of both T S Eliot and David Lodge. But it is Lamb, the telethon producer, who is Sinclair’s most powerful character. A skilful manipulator of people, from personnel to crowds to the popular imagination, effortlessly omnipresent (whether sitting on the studio john or copulating with the frontman’s wife), he reeks of a cynicism so pervasive that it is indistinguishable from evil.

Lest you draw the obvious conclusion, Sinclair has inserted a note of caution in the prelims: this is a work of fiction in which no one has been drawn from life. And so I should hope, for it is a novel written against cynicism, against the commercial exploitation of suffering, against the tawdry glitter of television fame. If the medium is only half as bad as this it’s much worse than we thought.

 

Anne French is Publisher at Oxford University Press.

 

 

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