A couple of days ago I was involved in a brief exchange of view on the meaning of the word "erotica" - used to tag novels on Amazon. Tagging is when readers select a category for a book, so other readers interested in the category will be able to find the same book.
During the exchange, which took place on Kindle Boards, I was caught out being knee-jerk defensive over the meaning of a word - and I was a little impolite to boot.
This rather brought me up short. I am somewhat inclined to pontificate (that's what this blog is for, after all), so I need to be called on it from time to time. After all, I am all for definition by consensus and I support rather than resist changes in meaning.
In UK English, hopefully, is used idiomatically to mean 'I hope', as in "hopefully it won't rain tomorrow". People of my parents' generation (including one or both of my parents) are sometimes offended by this, and almost always take a dim view of it. Decimate means to reduce in number by a factor of ten. It is usually used in modern English to mean "destroy", "obliterate" or just "defeat". As far as I'm concerned, that's just fine.
Nonetheless, I did get uppity about "erotica" being used to mean "anything that can cause sexual arousal in some people". I'm well aware that most of the time in English, erotic is used as a fancy synonym for "sexy". And most of the time, I suspect, that usage does no harm to the general (if rather vague) denotation of erotica.
If I got uppity, it was not, at the time, justified. But it set me wondering whether there were situations where defending the nuance between two very similar and highly subjective terms is justifiable. I think it may be that in tagging on Amazon, a case can be made for some sort of moderation of meaning. I suggest that in tagging a book I'm not just saying what I think of it - as I would if I used the same term in a review. The act of tagging is one of communicating - of suggesting, proposing, offering - the content of a novel to other potential readers.
If I tag Judy Blume's Forever as "erotica" because it contains a positively portrayed sex scene, then I am doing a disservice to Ms Blume, all her readers all her potential readers. Because her book is not about sex. Nor is it any kind of exploration of the psychological, emotional, physical or sentimental content of sex, even though each of those does feature. I am also doing a disservice to all those readers who are looking for "sex presented in a literary context as opposed to explicit pulp titillation" - the former I would describe as erotica, the latter I would describe as porn.
Thinking about this post, I began to realize just how difficult it would be, even dealing with tags that are not already muddied with the coyness derived from taboo. If you tag a book "horror" because you find it horrifying, someone else tags it "violence" because although they were not horrified, they were aware of a level of violence that they felt needed signaling. I for one don't find "Lady Chatterley's Lover" either erotic or sexy. I believe it is classed as the former because it was written by an established writer of literary fiction, but contains sexual words. Which would show that the traditional means of classification is itself corrupted with prejudice and favour.
On the whole, in the end, I come down in favour of consensus definition. At least on the Amazon page you can see how many times it has been tagged with a given word. I do worry that most of what is tagged as "erotica" is actually porn - Amazon.com has 2500 titles tagged as "porn", but over 24000 tagged as "erotica". Those numbers aren't enough to convince me that my understanding of the meaning of erotica is wrong (or even that its meaning is changing). They tell me that the American public is more comfortable buying something labeled "erotica" than something labeled "porn". Valuable information in my opinion.
For your consideration, I have linked to a collection of stories that is resolutely "erotica" in the Old Skool sense.
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