Arifa Akbar: Erotic memoir or a publisher's wet dream?

The Week In Books

When the French art critic, Catherine Millet, published a memoir of sexual exploits from her first masturbatory fumbles to group sex, The Sexual Life of Catherine M led to the blossoming of a sub-genre of the contemporary 'sexual confessional' with a slew of kinky first person accounts published in its aftermath, from a suburban mother's double life as an escort (Dawn Annandale's Call me Elizabeth: Wife, Mother, Escort) to an Italian schoolgirl's adventures (One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed), the Belle de Jour series, and Tracy Quan's variation on a theme (Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, Diary of a Married Call Girl, Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl).

Most recently, the novelist Monique Roffey announced that she would be bringing out an erotic memoir, With the Kisses of His Mouth, next year, reflecting that "it's quite a rare thing, really, a literary account of the last ten years of my love and sex life – published under my own name." As compellingly written as it is likely to be, a rare thing it is not. According to Rowan Pelling, former editor of The Erotic Review, the popularity of such memoirs has peaked, although they tend to be written, tantilisingly, under a sexy pseudonym and not by a recognisable author. Often begun as blogs with material that blurs boundaries between autobiography and fiction, publishers have become astute to their selling power; the most viewed blogs are pounced upon and packaged in pink, spangled dust-jackets to be marketed at close proximity to chick lit, like Bridget Jones's leather-clad older sisters. What they often have in common is their 'primary research' into the sex industry, whether it be the insights of a high end call girl such as Dr Brooke Magnanti, or a professional dominatrix such as Kitty Stryker.

Peter Ayrton, the publisher at Serpent's Tail who brought Millet's book to the UK in 2001, says the appeal for publishers picking up on blogs was knowing this work had already created a buzz. On reflection, he feels the trend towards erotic memoirs is a feminist endeavour. The assumption is that their readers are "men in macs", but at Millet's book readings, fans were overwhelmingly female, he points out.

Others are not so unequivocal. Speaking at a 'Critical Sexology' seminar today, Dr Kaye Mitchell, from the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing, sets out to discuss whether the growth of such literature is a sign of liberated times, or if it is merely reflecting, as Natasha Walter's book, opposite, might suggest, the growing sexualisation of women.

Dr Mitchell says on the one hand, the genre gives expression to women's myriad desires - gay, straight or sadomasochistic; on the other, women's identities appear to be built entirely around their sexuality. "They've given women a voice to talk about their sexualities...but the emergence of blogs has come from what was originally a private diary form which is now out there, and public. So there's a sense that sex can only be thought of as a secret to be exposed." She also sees such accounts - as subversive as they first appear online - to bear out a popular romance narrative by the time the publishing marketting machine has finished with them, so they resemble 'Bridget Jones in a brothel.' Pelling has known numerous sex bloggers who are put under pressure by publishers to follow this narrative arc, in which the central subject realises, after "shagging the entire office, that she really was looking for her Mr Darcy, after all!" While Pelling is not calling time on the genre, there some insiders who are. Bitchy Jones Diary, an edgy, S&M blogger decided last month to sign-off from a genre that dwelt too much on 'what he likes, not what I like'. "Kink's broken. I don't really want to play. Something inside me does, but that something is trapped inside the meat of me that hates all this fucking pornified, PVC clad, patriarchy eroticising bullshit that stifles everything...good that kink could ever be."

P.S.It is highly ironic that the winning novel of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction - announced at a glittering ceremony in Abu Dhabi this week as Abdo Khal's Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles - is banned not only in his homeland of Saudi Arabia but also in the UAE. It does not do much in the way of good PR for the Gulf region, which is straining to reinvent itself as a liberal centre, and place itself, at great expense, on the international cultural map. Add to that an arson attack at the Jeddah Literary Club (where Khal sits on the board of directors), which further raised doubts about the advancement of culture and literature in the Kingdom, and you have a rather embarassing situation. Al-Jouf literary club was severely damaged by a major fire last Sunday afternoon, according to Arab News.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

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