By Reece Hirsch
British e-publisher Clandestine Classics recently announced that it will be issuing sexed-up versions of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and the Sherlock Holmes stories, hoping to capture some of the readers who have made E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy a mega-seller. There is so much wrong with this concept that I don’t know where to begin. Does anyone want to see Watson’s man-love for Holmes portrayed as explicit scenes of, well, man-love with Holmes?
There is a note on the Clandestine Classics website that reads: “You pay only for the words our authors have added NOT for the original content.” What a relief to know that if this money-grabbing scheme works, the estates of those great authors will not benefit. If this is supposed to make me like you, Clandestine Classics, it’s definitely not working.
I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey so I will resist the temptation to bash it (even though, from everything that I have heard about it, it appears to be eminently bashable). But anyone who thinks that the E.L. James phenomenon will usher in a new era of popular erotic fiction is likely to be, well, unsatisfied, because it’s some kind of minor miracle when the term erotic fiction isn’t an oxymoron.
There is a reason why explicit scenes aren’t found in many great books, and it’s not just deference to the sexual attitudes of a time – it’s a matter of craft. The sex scene has been the undoing of even some brilliant writers (John Updike’s queasily clinical approach comes to mind). And after perusing some truly appalling excerpts from the new versions of Jane Eyre and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I can confirm that the writers involved in perpetrating the new Clandestine Classics are not aspiring to the mandarin prose of Updike.
One of the few examples of an effective erotic scene that I can think of is the library sex scene between Robbie and Celia in Ian McEuen’s Atonement. And even that walks (I was going to say straddles) a very fine line between the evocative and the cringe-inducing.
I think that Barbara Kingsolver got it just about right with her sex scene in Animal Dreams, which says it all in just four words. The narrator decides that if the man she is with has a condom in his pocket, then it’s her lucky day.
“He did,” she writes. “It was.”