What makes literature erotic?
On a recent road trip with my younger sister, I needed a little help staying awake. She volunteered to read to me from the last few pages of a novel I had brought along. This was my first experience with D.H. Lawrence, which is just as well because I think at a younger age I would never have made it through his deliciously drawn-out descriptive prose. My new favorite Mormon curmudgeon, Arthur Henry King, had recommended Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent to me in one of his speeches from Arm the Children. He assured me that it wasn’t as obscene as Lawrence’s contemporaries complained. My sister, however, was promptly scandalized. Not even three sentences into the book, she paused.
“Uh oh. This is about to get dirty.”
I, having already finished most of the novel, including the part where an incarnation of Quetzalcoatl gives the protagonist advice on marital intimacy, was pretty confident that it wasn’t going to be dirty. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say that the next sentence uses the word voluptuous.”
“The word voluptuous is dirty?” I asked her Socratically.
“Well,” she said, blushing, “yeah.”
“I don’t think it is. Keep reading.”
We finished the end of the novel and successfully made it past the voluptuous, sensual and phallic parts. None of them were obscene; most of them were figurative. We skipped back and re-read a passage of the book I had particularly enjoyed – it defined the distinction and relationship of the sexes in a way that I’ve rarely seen in 20th century literature. The way Lawrence views the roles of male and female is remarkably akin to LDS doctrine. I then talked with my sister for a while about what she thinks makes literature dirty. She’s fairly open-minded and an English major, but she’s young, and we came to some interesting conclusions. It was an excellent opportunity for me to vocalize and evaluate honestly my opinions on what literature I find worthwhile for filling my head.
With Lawrence still swimming around in the murky Mexican lakes of my subconscious, I began reading a new novel a few days later. I must admit that I read this book with the express intent of hating it; I’ll state my bias now, but my opinion of the book did not improve upon reading it. Stephenie Meyer is somewhat of a phenomenon in popular Mormon culture these days. The BYU grad emblazons her About the Author bookflaps with those lofty Provo credentials and then ships her books out to the national teenage market. Maybe the Twillight series is not intended to be interpreted as “Mormon Lit;” its marketing strategies and the fact that you’ll find it in bright endcap displays at Deseret Book seem to argue otherwise. Regardless of its “Mormonness,” it is perceived as a Mormon Book and should be considered one. Anything that young girls are reading at the recommendation of their Mia Maid advisers has a responsibility, in my opinion, to reflect and uphold church ideals. Twilight does a dismal job.
Online reviews I’ve read of Twilight emphasize the “squeaky clean,” “necessarily chaste” relationship of the teenage protagonist and her vampire boyfriend. I would argue vehemently otherwise. Meyer doesn’t once use the word voluptuous, but her novel is one of the most blatantly erotic books I’ve read in a long time. Whether or not a sex scene ever occurs in the lines of the text, the erotic effect can be judged by how many sex scenes occur in the mind of the reader. Meyer’s characters Bella and Edward never do anything technically sexual, but she positions them right at the cusp and holds them there – getting just close enough to titillate her teenage readers without ever using any words she’s not supposed to. In contrast, D.H. Lawrence, the notorious libertine, accomplishes an entire novel on the complex intimate relationship of the sexes without once ushering the reader into the bedroom. Sex scenes occur between Lawrence’s lines, but they are private, quiet, appropriate, and never exploited.
Meyer’s novels aren’t considered serious literature by any scholars that I’m aware of. However, their nearly universal presence in our Mormon culture is something we need to watch. Violating nearly every standard in For the Strength of Youth, Meyer still manages to market herself as a worthwhile, squeaky clean alternative to “worldly” forms of entertainment. I would much rather my teenage sisters read novels that would elevate their worldviews and deepen their respect and appreciation for human intimacy than see them swooning over the abusive, controlling vampire character of Edward Cullen. I would recommend that any parent read these novels for him or herself before passing them along to a child. And I would hope that we, as an LDS community, could recognize what is “lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy,” whencever it comes, and promote higher standards in an increasingly wicked world.