Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Erotica 101: Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts

Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts by Joanna Russ

This is a bit of a cheat, since it wasn't on my original reading list for this project. But I've been on a serious Joanna Russ kick lately, and here, finally, her work intersected with the erotic aspect of my work.

In some respects, this book was difficult for me. There wasn't a lot of pro-pornography feminism when it was written, and Russ's definition of porn as using women is definitely too narrow, and should rather have depended on the material in question. Having said that, she does acknowledge that this is a contentious issue and she might not be qualified to write a verdict on. It still says something that she was willing to bring it up and discuss it at length. It's incredibly instructive to see a feminist struggle with the tricky issue of pornography, moving from one side of the argument (for/against) to the other, and being unsatisfied with both. I have never seen a tightrope act like this before: she respects both sides of the porn debate, and elegantly explains why.

For all that she is sometimes misguided, or maybe just ill-informed, there is no denying that Russ's writing is sublime and spiked with wicked humour. A small sample: "Question: why is it so hard making friends in group therapy and so easy making friends at writers' conferences? Answer: because writers are crazy."

She's clearly not all that comfortable with larger, political broad strokes, although she is aware of the importance of these issues. Instead, she focuses on her own life to provide examples of what desperately needs to be changed. Her account of her struggles with her homosexuality and feminism in a time where these things were simply unacceptable is heartbreaking, brutally honest, and inspiring. Even when I don't agree with her, her analysis of feminism and its goals stirs me, and re-awakens the necessary anger to keep striving.

And all this leads to a discussion of what true sexual liberation would look like (Answer: Beautiful enough to make you weep). I can't even begin to explain what she says here, because Russ's way of phrasing things is half the joy of her writing, but it centres around liberation as a universal, all-encompassing concept.

Now, I have to talk about the reason I bought this book. Her essay on Kirk/Spock fan fiction, and fan fiction in general, is wonderful and is rightly famous. Don't believe me? After explaining what K/S is to her pre-internet readership, she follows up with, "If your automatic nervous system does the nip-ups mine does upon reading merely the premise of this material, it's quite irrelevant to talk about the beauty of friendship or the necessity of compassion in human affairs."

As if that wasn't enough joy for one essay, she goes on to analyze what fan fiction represents in the minds of its writers, in this case its female writers. Basically, it's fantasy. Pure, unadulterated, I-would-not-actually-want-this-probably fantasy. This is a terribly important moment for literature and women's writing and erotica and sexual expression. That sexual fantasy is fantasy, and not vicarious reality is something that can be overlooked and cause misunderstandings of intention. She gets to this point so clearly and simply that you're there before you realize, and you can see it clearly and agree completely.

I also love how fair she is to both male and female sexuality, and the troubles everyone has in a society where the attitude towards sex, and sexual fantasy, is ambivalent at best. Russ was never a misandrist, although she was unequivocally anti-patriarchy, and she knows that men is hurt by patriarchal bullshit as much as women are.

This book is, shamefully, out of print, but you can get it used in tons of places online, and relatively cheaply. If you want to read a respectful, literate, smart analysis of fan fiction, pornography, erotica, queer issues, and feminism, go get this one. I feel richer for having read it.

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