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Literary prostitutes | Aeon

Writer Anaïs Nin at her printing press in New York in the 1940s. Photo reproduced by kind permission of the Anais Nin Trust

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Literary prostitutes

I self-published erotica to make ends meet. Could I follow in Anaïs Nin’s footsteps or was I doomed to churn out filth?

by Sam Mills + BIO

Writer Anaïs Nin at her printing press in New York in the 1940s. Photo reproduced by kind permission of the Anais Nin Trust

The pack: that’s what they called it. A secret guide, discreetly passed to literary authors in need of money to sustain their ‘real’ art. Compiled by such an author, happy to share their experience of publishing erotica on Amazon, it offered advice to avant-garde writers keen to turn their hand to this lucrative genre. According to the pack, popular topics included:

ABDL /diaper stuff – if you’ve got the stomach for it, I would recommend writing things in this genre for immediate gratifying sales.
Gender swap/mind swap/transformation/etc – these are kind of like a teenage boy’s fantasy. Usually a man waking up in a woman’s body. These do really well.
Shifters – sort of the same as above, but more about people changing into bears/werewolves/etc – these do very well, but are quite story-led and you’d probably need to do a series to start getting some good sales.
Billionaire stuff – a dominant ridiculous billionaire and a trembling submissive hero or heroine.
Orgies/threesomes/ménage.
Historical – these sell like hot cakes! A strict baron or Lord, disciplining a servant girl or stable-hand.

The list was both reassuring and nerve-wracking. Which genre should I pick? I weighed up my own predilections versus the need to sell as many, as quickly, as I could. People tend to think authors are either loaded (with J K Rowling as the norm) or very poor. My income had been a rollercoaster over the years; now, in summer 2019, having enjoyed a luxurious view, I was zooming downwards, winds of warning hissing through me, stomach lurching with fear of the future.

I lectured myself: I should have saved during the good times. Excited by the rare pleasure of money, I habitually blew it. Now for the budgeting. There were things I could give up easily: fancy notebooks, a trip to the cinema. But some were addictions too: books, writing in cafés. I considered increasing my freelancing, but, if I edited other people’s work full-time, I might be in a mushbrain state for my own writing by the end of the day. I needed something that would be languid on the mind, leaving me plenty of ideas-fizz. At a point of desperation, I requested ‘the pack’.

I wasn’t the only author who’d had to resort to moonlighting as an erotic writer. One of my literary heroines, Anaïs Nin, had done this, as had William Burroughs, Henry Miller, George Barker. These were names that could elevate my sorry predicament by romanticising it as part of a grand literary tradition: the starving artist prostituting herself in order to sustain her ‘real’ art. Nin, who began writing erotica in the 1940s, used a similar argument, noting in her diary that ‘France had a tradition of literary erotic writing, in fine, elegant style’.

Anais Nin in 1944. Photo reproduced with kind permission of the Anais Nin Trust

This was a question I also grappled with: could my creative prostitution involve high art, be the literary equivalent of Belle de Jour (1967), stylish and sexy, or would I have to roil in whorish filth, using cheap metaphors and knocked-off cliches? It was a question of energy, of whether I had a surfeit left over after my proper writing; of the market and my readership; of whether to be proud or practical.

Nin met the American writer Henry Miller in Paris in 1931. He was middle-aged, homeless and, largely due to his devotion to his writing, broke. Miller lived a bohemian life, begging meals from friends, sometimes resorting to sleeping on a park bench. Nin was in her late 20s, living out a rather dull, bourgeoise existence with her husband, the US-born financier and filmmaker Hugh Guiler, in the suburb of Louveciennes. She and Miller began a love affair. During these years, she supported him by siphoning off money from the allowance Guiler gave her, and gifting Miller notebooks and music, ink and paper.

During the Second World War, Nin and Guiler relocated to the United States, where she found that ‘everything becomes harder, more cruel’. Nin, whose love life was habitually complex and adventurous, now had two main extramarital lovers: Miller, a starving artist returned the US, and Gonzalo Moré, a starving Peruvian bohemian Marxist. After dividing her allowance between them, Nin was left having to ‘cheat, lie, intrigue, borrow, steal the rest of the time’. This extraordinary generosity was motivated by her ‘joy’ in giving to others, her tendency to mother her lovers, and also, perhaps, from a desire for power; in an era where women were economically dependent on men, it gave her a chance to turn the tables.

Then Miller was approached by Barnett Ruder, a collector of rare books. He said he had a client who was ‘an elderly man, very rich’, with ‘no sensual life at all’, who wanted Miller to write erotica for him. This was a growing practice in the 1930s – in Bookleggers and Smuthounds (1999), Jay A Gertzman describes how ‘Booksellers and literary agents would approach professional writers of fiction to provide stories for either wealthy individual customers or groups of readers.’ One such was an Oklahoma millionaire who ‘commissioned pornographic short stories, which he needed to keep in constant supply, because each one brought him to tumescence only upon first reading.’ Miller and Nin speculated whether this patron really existed: was their collector Ruder himself?

Like Nin, I too was now part of a writers’ group penning filth

Soon she was sucked in. Initially, Nin wooed the collector for work by giving him a volume of her diary from the 1930s, Henry and June. After spicing up a few more diary volumes, her short stories followed. Her diary entry of February 1941 illustrates the desperation that motivated her:

The telephone bill was unpaid. The net of economic difficulties was closing in on me. Everyone around me irresponsible, unconscious of the shipwreck. I did 30 pages of erotica.

A group of writers gathered to feed this client’s desire – novelists, poets, painters, including Caresse Crosby, Virginia Admiral, Harvey Breit and Robert Duncan. They wrote for a dollar a page, a good wage in that era. Nin supplied paper and carbon, delivered the manuscripts, and protected everyone’s anonymity. Comically, she referred to herself as the madam of a ‘snobbish literary house of prostitution’. In her diaries, she emphasised their need for money – Moré, for dentistry and new glasses; Miller, for travel; Barker for booze – he was, as Nin, put it, ‘writing erotica to drink, just as Utrillo painted paintings in exchange for a bottle of wine.’

Like Nin, I too was now part of a writers’ group penning filth. I reassured myself that they were committing the same sins as me. I typed and proofread, created a lurid cover, hit the ‘Publish’ button on Amazon – and then, mechanically, began all over again.

The year is 1863. A young woman in an aristocratic family is bored and restless, aware that she will soon be married. Her mother organises lessons for her in Greek and Latin. Soon her handsome teacher is instructing her in declensions and the loss of her virginity; in both instances, he is strict but loving.

When I published my bodice-ripper on Amazon, my mentor quickly admonished me. I’d categorised the book as ‘Erotica’ – a death-blow to sales. A few years back, my mentor explained, Amazon, perhaps embarrassed by a book chart abundant in red-hot titles, decided to discount erotica from its bestseller charts. Writers adapted, calling their work ‘Romance’ – the equivalent of a brown paper bag around a bottle ­– and offering stronger characterisation and plotlines that hit the genre’s classic beats, though sex still drove the story. In response, some successful romance writers redefined their writing as ‘clean’ to differentiate their work.

When Maurice Girodias set up the Olympia Press in Paris in 1953, publishing the Traveller’s Companion series in an era of censorship, he wrapped his erotica in green jackets, figuring that such innocuous covers wouldn’t be investigated by the French police – a strategy that worked. Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) was marketed with the same trick: instead of the usual murky woman in suspenders favoured by its predecessors, E L James’s book jacket featured a bland tie (the anonymity of ebooks also helped sales: who was to know you weren’t sitting on the Tube reading Dostoevsky…) Then a new trend in romantic covers began, depicting a sexy male with a bare torso, six-packed to caricature. It signified a shift in recent decades from the traditional male connoisseur of porn to the new, and ever-swelling, female appetite for erotica.

Heroines were in a state of financial desperation, with sex presented as transactional: love in an age of capitalism

When Barker began writing erotica, Nin noted that the enterprise amused the poet; it was ‘much more humorous and inspiring than begging, borrowing or cajoling meals out of friends’. And here I was, sitting in a café opposite a friend, staring down at my sandwich, grill marks on its breaded top like leering teeth – a treat that would wreck this week’s accounts. The bill came. My friend put down a huge tip, cheerfully saying that he wanted to share his wealth now he was doing so well. I put down a few last coins from my purse and felt simply the poison of resentment. It shocked me. I reminded myself that he deserved his money; he was working hard. I was choosing to be poor, to embrace writing full-time. If only my erotica would hurry up and sell! (Just 10 copies had shifted to date, earning me £15.) I was used to that nervous backdrop hum over what the future might (or might not) hold. But now it became soprano-shrill, warning me I would need to reshape my life in the coming weeks.

Money was a theme that dominated the romantic erotica I read for research, perhaps reflecting the impact of a decade of austerity. Many stories depicted heroines in a state of financial desperation, with sex presented as transactional: love in an age of capitalism. In Georgia Le Carre’s The Highest Bidder (2019), college student Freya is so broke that she joins an exclusive London club to auction off her virginity; there, she signs an NDA and struts out on stage, naked, while unseen male billionaires bid for her. Fortunately, she’s the subject of an intense bidding war, selling for £1 million, and doesn’t end up with an old git with ‘saggy, liver-spotted skin’, but a young man who looks like a ‘Greek God’ and whom she knows from her childhood.

The rags-to-riches element gives these stories a Cinderella feel, but fairy godmothers are conspicuously absent, and alchemy and magic is achieved through the heroines’ debasement. It is, perhaps, a device to make them more sympathetic to the reader: their wretched poverty helps us understand why they might go through such humiliations, and this in turn gives us permission to find pleasure in their trysts. In Jade West’s Buy Me, Sir (2007), Melissa is 21, her parents are dead, and she juggles bringing up her baby brother while working as a cleaner for a law firm. She is determined to seduce Alexander Henley, the criminal lawyer who owns it; finding out that he has a thing for Debbie Harry, she dyes her hair blonde and makes a sexy video of herself masturbating for his ‘dealer’, the man who solicits women for him.

The romantic heroes in these books have a peacock display of wealth: yachts, helicopters, huge houses, often described in prose flushed with wealth-porn. These heroes who have, in effect, bought their heroines, also control them during sex: in Buy Me, Sir, Alexander has a fetish for asphyxiation and chokes Melissa to the point where she passes out. However, the sex in these books is always consensual and the heroines never fail to achieve climax. Just in case readers fear these heroes might seem a bit too sociopathic, their authors make sure to give readers an unexpected nice side: they might do good work for charity.

These sorts of stories cause horror and confusion to both the Left and the Right: why, in this day and age of fourth-wave feminism, are women consuming sexist fantasy in art form? There was a huge fuss over the Polish film 365 Days (2020) – based on an erotic novel – from columnists who seemed unaware that its book equivalents sell online in great quantities daily. Furthermore, much of the erotica I read for research was set in the workplace, at a time when harassment has become a concern. My response was complex and confused – like many women’s – torn between the urge to defend these stories and to criticise them. It is too simplistic, surely, to argue that a fetish for being dominated in the bedroom must imply a wish for a parallel dynamic in everyday life. Men certainly don’t. A male friend who fantasises about being subjugated by a woman says he sees himself in the same niche as successful male CEOs whose fetish is being whipped by a dominatrix: they’re so burdened by authority in their work that they seek submission in sex. Perhaps in this age where women are doing it all, a natural female fantasy might involve the relief of letting go. That loss is not necessarily about taking pleasure from a loss of power, but from a loss of responsibility. We permit men these paradoxes in their lives; we allow them to be complex.

On the other hand, perhaps these stories merely serve to reinforce patriarchal structures that we, as women, have been brought up to digest, and then regurgitate. It brings to mind Angela Carter’s argument in The Sadeian Woman (1978) on pornographic novels, many of which are:

written in the first person as if by a woman, or use a woman as the focus of the narrative; but this device only reinforces the male orientation of the fiction … Pornography keeps sex in its place … pornography modelled on that provided for the male consumer but directed at women, does not mean an increase in sexual licence, with the reappraisal of sexual mores such licence, if it is real, necessitates. It might only indicate a more liberal attitude to masturbation, rather than fucking …

This is where Nin was a pioneer. She wrote erotica several decades before the 1960s obscenity trials put John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748) and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) in the dock. From its early origins in 16th-century texts, such as Thomas Nash’s naughty verse Choice of Valentines, or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo, erotica had been the domain mainly of male writers. In February 1941, Nin mused: ‘I had a feeling that Pandora’s Box contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate.’

Nin’s characters awaken sexually, discover their fetish, and let the power dynamics shift in surprising ways

Many of her stories – though written for a male collector – give us sex from a female viewpoint, in elegant prose that is sharply sexy and sings with emotional intelligence. Nin is particularly good at building anticipation, seducing the reader slowly and softly. The opening of the story ‘Elena’, for example, speaks of a young woman hungry for experience, who is awakened by reading Lawrence on a train: ‘It was the submerged woman of Lawrence’s book that lay coiled within her, at last exposed, sensitised, prepared as if by a multitude of caresses for the arrival of someone.’

As with contemporary erotic romance, there is plenty to be disturbed about in Nin. In the story ‘Lina’, an inhibited, sexually confused woman is opened up by a male acquaintance who puts on some incense which makes her ‘sleepy’ and then initiated into a threesome while semiconscious. We can condemn such details, but also understand them in the context of Nin’s era. And, as she herself noted, while Miller wrote with ‘explicitness’, Nin was good at exploring ‘ambiguities’. Her erotica is subtle, her characterisation strong; rather than characters being secondary to sex, desire evolves out of character, giving rise to narratives that feel unexpected, as characters awaken sexually, discover their fetish, and let the power dynamics shift in surprising ways.

And so it seems prudish, even patronising to disapprove of women who are enjoying erotica – whether high art or smut – as if life must imitate art because women are not smart enough to differentiate between the two. Despite the ongoing issue of male violence, we don’t condemn men for reading crime fiction or write fretful pieces about how we should burn the latest thriller. We accept that men can tell the difference. Besides, disapproval only gives these fantasises more forbidden frisson: as the French philosopher Georges Bataille pointed out, the taboo is inherently erotic.

‘Write for yourself; forget about a reader’ is a common piece of writing advice bandied about to liberate authors from blocks and inhibitions. But writing erotica must involve an acute awareness of the readership – and their libido.

Nin and her group found writing for the collector a struggle because they had to narrow down their writing to titillate one psyche; meanwhile, I was writing for a mass market. Both present different challenges. Miller found it a strain because he didn’t want to use any of his life experiences in his erotica, but save them for his ‘real work’. Barker wrote 85 pages of erotica but the collector found them ‘too surrealistic’. Nin herself was told off by the collector, who telephoned her after reading her first story and complained that she needed to ‘leave out the poetry’. The group became united in hatred for him. Nin eventually wrote him an angry letter, declaring:

Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone … The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion … Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feeling, inventions, moods, no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasises, music, dancing, opium, wine.

In many respects, it would have been easier if I had a collector, one sole mystery figure whose fetish would dictate and shape my stories, rather than the vast, blurry readership whom I was attempting to seduce. I began to get good reviews for the books, but there were criticisms too. When I dabbled in the historical genre, I researched the Regency/Victorian eras with care, having seen Amazon reviews of the kind where a pernickety reader would give a one-star rating for a wrong date or an aristocratic etiquette mistake. I found myself spending hours researching underwear to make sure that one spanking scene worked – there were so many layers that needed to be stripped away before a bare hand could meet a bare bottom. I felt I had to bring the period to life, yet some readers complained that I wove in too much description – too much poetry.

She enjoyed ‘explosions of poetry … writing erotica became a road to sainthood rather than debauchery’

I was also advised that it was crucial to be prolific. This meant there was little time for polish and craft. I told myself that this was an advantage, that I could split my literary sensibilities, keeping my real work week pure and sacred, purged of commercial considerations, while the erotica was merely smashed out, first draft, careless, filthy. This turned out to be a fallacy.

Within Nin’s circle, Miller was the first to pull out of the enterprise, on the grounds that it interfered with his serious writing. While Nin also said that she set aside her real writing for her literary ‘prostitution’, she found that the strict constraints of the genre provoked a resistance that became inspiring: she enjoyed ‘explosions of poetry … Writing erotica became a road to sainthood rather than debauchery.’

I found myself in Miller’s camp. There were no firework displays of imagination for me; I had no energy left after spewing out 10,000 to 15,000 words a week, attempting to keep pace with successful romantic erotica writers who put out a book of 50,000 words each month. At first, I’d enjoyed the anonymity of my pseudonym, a relief from the pressures of the writerly role, which these days involves needing to have strong opinions, post beautiful pictures on Instagram, and compose striking Tweets. But I was starting to feel isolated from my friends, in my own haggard sex-soaked cave of existence. Nor was the sacrifice paying off. I feared my timing was too late: after the goldrush of 2015 (when the most successful authors could earn $50,000 a month), word spread, Reddit threads had gone up about erotica being an easy way to make beer money, and things had become fiercely competitive.

So many people were piling into self-publication – tens of thousands of self-published works were being uploaded on a weekly basis – that it now involved investment: glossy covers, Amazon ads, payments to sites that would distribute your work to readers and claw in ‘impartial’ reviews. I admired any author for making a success of self-publishing, for they had to be their own editor, publicist, web designer, marketeer, as well as having the technological nous to monetise Amazon’s algorithms. I realised that I could not do erotica by halves: I would need to produce book after book, month after month, to build my readership. What was supposed to be a hobby would have to become a career.

Nin sat on her erotica for 35 years before uneasily agreeing to publication at the age of 73. She regarded her erotica with shame and embarrassment, advising her editor that it was ‘purely a parody of masculine pornography’. She had also recently learned that her mysterious collector was ‘a myth’. It turned out that ‘he’ was ‘actually an underground business, one of several operating in New York during the 1930s and ’40s, that commissioned erotica and then sold the copies of the manuscripts privately.’

After decades of career disappointment and rejection, of being overlooked and even having to resort to self-publishing, Nin had finally found fame in her 60s with the publication of her diaries, albeit heavily censored. Celebrated as a feminist icon, she feared her reputation would be damaged by the erotica, and the success of her diaries sullied. However, towards the end of her life, as she battled cancer, she felt concerned about providing for both of her husbands after her death. (Nin was married to both Guiler and to the American actor Rupert Pole, living a ‘trapeze’ existence between a ‘West Coast’ life and an ‘East Coast’ life.) It was Pole who persuaded her to give the 850-page manuscript of her sexy stories to John Ferrone, her editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. This was in 1976, and by this point, Nin was too weak and sick to edit them, so she told Ferrone: ‘Do anything you want with it. I trust you.’

Ferrone was far more impressed with her erotica than Nin expected. He found himself ‘not prepared for the poetic quality of the writing’, and impressed by an ‘elegance of style and feminine sensibility applied to a literary form that was often gross, dehumanising and superficial’. He recognised that they were only first drafts and needed thorough editing – ‘she sometimes lost track of bodies. I began to count arms and legs and other parts, in case there were extras, and for one entanglement, I found it necessary to draw a diagram’. But they were of good quality, and Ferrone felt that ‘despite the injunction of her client, she hadn’t been able to “leave out the poetry”.’ He argued that this lay in part due to Nin drawing on her own life and her journal – one story, ‘Artists and Models’, was inspired by her early years as a (chaste) model herself.

Miller’s borrowing might have thwarted a potentially good novel that then never emerged from Nin herself

When the first collection, Delta of Venus, was posthumously published in 1977, it remained on the New York Times bestseller lists for 36 weeks and received critical acclaim, all of which Nin – who, until the publication of her diaries had felt overlooked and undervalued as a writer for a long, long time – would have found ‘bittersweet’.

‘After 25 years of diary writing, she had developed extraordinary facility for narration and psychological insight,’ Ferrone explained of Nin’s success. While I see the sense in this argument, I wonder if it’s worth looking at the struggles Nin had with writing fiction. I adore her diaries, but I find her novels (which are also autobiographical) rather strained. Deirdre Bair’s 1995 biography records how Nin, struggling to write fiction, went away on holiday in 1932, had a creative breakthrough, and wrote 40 pages of detailed notes about June, Henry Miller’s wife. When Nin showed them to him on her return, he was impressed by the subtle, nuanced portrait. ‘Would you mind if I borrowed these?’ he asked, incorporating the material into his novel Tropic of Capricorn (1939). During their affair, Miller did give Nin vital writerly encouragement, praising her diaries and editing her work, but the borrowing might have thwarted a potentially good novel that then never emerged from Nin herself.

Meanwhile, the analyst she was seeing at the time, René Allendy, chided Nin for trying to surpass men in their work and, on reading her notes on her dreams, was concerned about the strong ‘masculine’ quality in her writing which he feared was a flaw. It can’t have been easy to be a female writer trying to find confidence and a literary voice in the 1930s and ’40s.

I wonder, then, if Nin’s erotica gave her a certain freedom, a release from inhibition, allowing her talent to unexpectedly flourish. By contrast, I could enjoy a privilege won by decades of feminism. Like all women writers, I have experienced certain frustrations in my writing related to gender: hence I opted to chop my name down to Sam to enjoy an androgynous identity. However, erotica didn’t offer me any particular freedom that I couldn’t enjoy in my ‘real’ writing. For all her doubts, Nin’s erotica was high art, worthy of praise; mine was not. Perhaps the question of ‘real’ art is really one of sincerity.

Nin might not have been proud of her erotica, but she cared about its quality, else she would never have been so furious at the collector. Similarly, the successful erotic writers of today might vary wildly, but they write what they burn to write, and that creates readers. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt over and over, when I’ve suffered financial desperation: that trying to make money writing what I think will sell never works, while the writing I produce out of love often brings in an unexpected income. My erotica was a flop. When a publisher came calling with an advance, I unpublished my filth and gladly went back to my old life.

Stories and literatureBiography and memoirSex and sexuality

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