Hotness. It’s currently a thing in romance novels. Has been for a while. So what I’m saying here isn’t new. It’s rather that the story I’m reading at the moment has prompted some thinking.
Hotness: No Escalation
I’m talking about stories that start: Boom. First page. Sometimes the first paragraph. Maybe even the first sentence. The hero or heroine is in complete lust with the object of desire. No checking him or her out, considering the possibility. No cognitive activity involved in assessing, “He’s a tall glass of water /She’s a damn fine looking woman.” No warming up. Libido already in fourth gear, engine revving, smoke billowing from under the hood.
The heat level clocks in at – consult the title image – Trinidad Scorpion or Carolina Reaper. In other words, already towards the top of the scale for Scoville Heat Units for the levels of capsaicin in peppers. Where is there to go? Only Pepper Spray and Pure Capsaicin are left.
Every line of dialogue between the hero and heroine will be punctuated with inner monologue on how one or the other of them is trying to keep their raging libido in check. Until one or the other – or, really, both – can’t contain themselves any longer, somewhere down the line. An aesthetic is at work. Outsized lust fills story lines that support outsized emotions (grief, anger) featuring stark life/death plots.
I have no problem with such a story. It’s a taste. No different than any other kind of taste. There are those who crave the bring-me-to-tears pain/pleasure of a neutron bomb hot sauce exploding in their mouth.
I happened to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) for the first time this summer. There is certainly a lot to say about it and, indeed, much has been said about it. As far as the book goes, I will confine myself to noting that it’s the story of a middle-aged man who lusts after a 12-year-old girl, Delores, nicknamed Lolita.
I’m more interested in Nabokov’s afterword “On a Book Entitled Lolita.” He observes that some scenes in the beginning of the book might have misled some readers into thinking they were going to be reading a lewd book. In Lolita they were to be disappointed. The erotic scenes stopped.
“… in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated ….”
Here I imagine a Pizza Guy porn video. It’s a collection of what Nabokov would call passages of sutured sense. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one start to finish. But I have a clear idea of what one is. I can even hear the music.
“Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.”
Good to have a definition of pornography.
Hotness: Not Pornography
According to Nabokov, the Boom. Hotness! storyline is not pornographic. Since there can be no crescendo in sexual tension, the story turns towards the danger the characters are in. Yes, they do get it on at some point. But that’s not the point. The resolution of the life/death plot line is.
I noticed a similar phenomenon in BDSM novels. They often begin with an intense sexual scene in a kink club, one witnessed by a large audience. It’s on-beyond hotness, shame and inhibition. It’s all about release.
One. BDSM is the acronym for Bondage-Discipline, Dominance-Submission and Sadism-Masochism. The D and the S do double duty. A person involved in a BDSM relationship isn’t necessarily interested in the play involved in all of the initials.
Two. These novels are not pornography in Nabokov’s definition. The most interesting among them strike me more like cultural anthropology. The reader discovers a foreign world, one with dramatic sexuality, sure. But the customs in that world have equal weight: the terminology, the dress, the psychology, the strict rules for keeping the play “safe, sane and consensual.”
Three. In the BDSM world sexuality is not an end in itself. It is the means to increased honesty and intimacy.
So my thought is this: When a story puts in-your-face sexuality on page one, it’s likely about something else.
How about that, huh?
Hotness: Final Thoughts
One. In the case of a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, pornography was famously characterized as “I know it when I see it.”
Two. Nabokov’s parenthetical bit: “in a Sade play they bring the gardener in” is pretty funny.
See: All My Thoughts
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen