Trash Lit8 December 2020
When I was 15, I wrote 11,000 words of Merlin fanfiction. To this day, it is the most successful thing I’ve ever written – I still get emails every time someone reads it and clicks the fanfic equivalent of the ‘like’ button. I was a virgin, I didn’t know how sex works, but apparently, I’d read enough smut to be able to write it convincingly.
When I was 16, I watched porn for the first time because I couldn’t figure out how scissoring works. Logistically. So, I sought out a visual aid.
When I was 17, I had to express great disappointment in my friends who went to see Fifty Shades of Grey at the cinema. I was shocked they would even be interested. Didn’t they know how bad it was? Didn’t they know it was trash?
It was at ‘trash’ that we hit a point of miscommunication. They thought I was critical because of the sexy sex stuff. Actually, I hated it because of the negative and inaccurate portrayal of BDSM practices, and glorification of stalking and rape. People had been talking about that for years, I thought everyone knew.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an interesting example of trash literature, sitting in both camps of fanfiction and the romance novel. These are two forms of writing that are automatically relegated to the lowest artistic tier because of the sexually explicit content. And because meme culture is a thing, the worst examples of writing in these genres are likely to become the most famous. Hence, trash.
The Western distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art is deeply rooted in sexual, racial and gendered prejudices. Art galleries are full of naked women, which is ‘high’ art because they are the object of the male gaze. The Rowdy’s catalogue is full of books about women getting naked, too, but this is ‘low’ art because a woman enjoying herself for herself is pornographic (but doesn’t porn serve the male gaze as well? The patriarchy strikes again!). Romance is overwhelmingly written and read by women. Paintings in galleries are overwhelmingly created and curated by men. In this dynamic, male sexuality is sacred, female sexuality is degenerate, and non-binary sexuality was only invented yesterday, according to the zeitgeist.
Even now that I’m a 20-something, my relationship with smut is still based on practical necessity. When I can’t sleep due to noise pollution because the possums living in the tree outside my house are horny as hell and want everyone to know it, I turn to the Rowden White Library’s catalogue of eBooks (brought to you by the Student Services and Amenities Fee!). Turns out, some good old-fashioned Scottish highlander smut is an exceptional cure for insomnia.
I catalogue my chronological interactions with sexually explicit material through the years because I’m part of a society in which people learn about sex by interacting with such content. My sexuality has been shaped by external forces; it’s hard to tell the difference between what is me and what is internet.
To add a layer of drama, there is a growing community of “romance readers” online who are getting sick of the reputation plaguing their favourite genre. Fans are more and more defensive on behalf of the genre, and content creators who trash-talk romance can now face big online backlash and get sucked into a whole week of arguments on Twitter.
The conflict between what is porn and what is art seems a lot more eternal than the conflict between smut and literature. But we don’t see communities of “porn enthusiasts” demanding to be taken seriously in the same way as romance readers. I am intrigued by these people who have decided to incorporate their consumption of erotic stories into their identity, a label for themselves to proudly wear in their Twitter bios. This could be a cultural turning point, an answer to the question: am I a bad person for reading smut, or am I only a bad person if I talk about it?
Perhaps this is one of those things we all do, but collectively pretend we don’t — like literary nose-picking. The thing is, the Rowdy wouldn’t stock so many romance novels if y’all weren’t so damn horny.