“What is fear after all? It is indecision. You seek some way to resist, escape. There is none.”
If you look through my library, the only erotica you will find is my unread copy of “50 Shades of Grey”, and the Sleeping Beauty trilogy by Anne Rice. It’s not a genre I am interested in, but twisting one of my favorite fairy tales by one of my favorite authors proved impossible to resist. Once I started reading, it was equally impossible to escape. The story was one of love and hate, simply as gratuitous as it was likely for Rice to write. When I read, I look for a theme, a reason, a lesson to learn. I want to feel the impact of the story, hear the words, and see the images they create. I read knowing that it doesn’t matter the number of words, but the value of them in the story being told. The fear of reading erotica is that I will not find what I’m looking for. What is the value of erotica in literature, and how does The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty weigh when considering that value?
Erotica is an indulgent genre. It is written to excite and titillate, and it should be read for excitement and titillation. For one who wants their adrenaline pumping with fear, you read horror. For those who want to escape reality for something out of this world, you read sci-fi and fantasy. For those who want crime and intrigue, you read suspense novels. While some erotica can be serious contenders for literary praise, erotica is a genre where the reader must approach it for what it is. To be shocked by the content is like a reader of non-fiction complaining fantasy is not realistic, or readers of romance being disgusted by the lack of it in a horror novel. I approached The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by removing myself from my comforts, only expecting to read about sex in the writing style that is exclusively Rice. Going in with that expectation, I wasn’t turned off by the theme. In fact, I was quite surprised by the dark gothic flare injected into the fairy tale, riding a wave of imagination that was less titillating as it was shocking. It reminded me of literature that passed between the hands of the wealthy in the early years of the printed book. It was how women who were raised ‘politely’ were able to learn, or have nightmares, of what to expect on their wedding night. The vast majority of those books involved stories woven into exotic cultures or popular fairy tales. Not surprising Anne Rice’s erotica is met with either shock or applause just like books from that time; only now literary geeks appreciate the value erotica served during those eras and the significance they hold in the history of literature. It’s humorous of how erotica is still regarded with a turn of the eye, and a quick flush to the cheeks among readers today. Though that is what makes the genre intriguing, in my opinion. Though I am still not interested in modern day erotica, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty captured my interest because of the historical connection, as well as being woven into a popular fairy tale.
The story of Sleeping Beauty is a favorite for many who dreamed of having a prince come to their rescue, and with a simple kiss break a witch’s cruel spell starting the beginning of a happily ever after ending. Anne Rice has taken that beloved tale, and raped it. Instead of waking up to a handsome prince’s kiss, now that idea has turned into waking up to having all innocence stolen, the beginning of a happily ever after being ripped away, and an ending that looks as horrifying as the welts on a raped virgin’s backside. Not even having a royal title saves one from being used, abused, and treated like a slave in Sleeping Beauty’s reality. Suddenly, having the life of a commoner or a peasant is more attractive than being born into wealth and entitlement. Among the brutality, Anne Rice has managed to effectively scar my mind with a particular image of the statue Prince Alexi is punished with upon Beauty’s arrival. That image is as hard to get out of my head as scenes from the film, Caligula. Throughout the book, Rice relates brutality with pleasure, something that is a theme with all of her books. Just the same with her characters, in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty she creates an atmosphere of a love/hate relationship between the reader and every character. She exposes attributes that are impossible not to love, and flips it quickly to expose their faults creating conflict. She makes it easy to not relate to a specific character, but to feel like a silent witness in the story itself. What is being done to the characters can be personally experienced in some way by how well she describes every emotion being felt and every action happening in the story. For instance, I wanted to cheer Beauty on to rebel against the Prince, and as time progressed, I started to lose respect for her character in how she so willingly complied. Then when she finally did rebel, the one thing she did when placed in the carriage left me absolutely repulsed. That would be the last thing I would think of doing, much less expect. Another character I started to connect with was Prince Alexi, and I thought of his blossoming romance with Beauty a release from the rest going on. Though the moment he opened his mouth, and told Beauty his story of his experience in the castle, I couldn’t wait for him to shut up. I had no desire of seeing where their relationship went, much less of what happened to his character from that point on. Her description of their emotions, of each moment of pain and pleasure, in reaction to a vividly painted scene puts the reader in the middle of the story. Only if you let go of any barriers can you truly experience it.
With the theme, it stripped me of my comforts, making me feel exposed and uncomfortable as if I was left as bare as the characters in the story. Rice does poetically describe the sexual encounters, approaching each one as politely as possible. This again gave it the feel of erotica written during the earlier years of the printed book. While the sex is raunchy, painfully brutal in most, it is told in a manner that is not meant to insult, but to convey a sense of propriety. Sex is a part of everyone’s life to some extent or another. Some gain pleasure from pain, some prefer cruelty over tenderness. How we approach sex is different today because of technology. Erotica in literature is more taboo than, say a pornographic film, because our imagination makes it more intimate. We are not only just watching the act happen, listening to other’s voices, we are creating the scene in our own minds. What is being said is with our own voice. We are a witness to what is happening as it happens, and for some, an active participant if they connect with a character. We come to know the characters personally, knowing their private thoughts and desires. We create a more visceral response to written erotica.
For most bibliophiles, a book just cannot be abandoned. We cannot look away if we don’t like what we are reading. Our love for the written word is so strong; we will read a book from beginning to end even if it is terrible. It is that need to find that one thing that we can love about a book, and to know for sure it’s not there. An abandoned book simply haunts us. You cannot look up a review and know everything that happens in a book, you have to read every word to really experience a book. Every reader’s response to a book is uniquely their own. It is much like a viewer’s response to a piece of art. Art is a complicated system of forms broken into categories. Literature is art, and every genre of literature is like a style of art. Every writer is an artist, and every novel is a work of art. Some are praised, and some aren’t. You can’t look at a Pollock, and complain about it because it’s not a Rembrandt. You have to approach it knowing what it is, and any opinion must be how you react to it personally along with a critical assessment of the style it belongs to. A review of any book must be formed the same way – a personal response and a critical assessment of the genre it belongs to.
As a bibliophile, once I started The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, there was no turning back. I had to follow Beauty’s journey, witness every punishment and humiliation. Being that erotica does not interest me, this book kept me engaged as much as any other genre. I was drawn in by the manner of how the story was told, and the conflict between characters and within themselves. The sex was indulgent, but not in the way I expected. It horrified me, leaving me with images that are more shocking than they were titillating. I never knew what to expect, the story twisting and turning around every page. I really enjoyed the budding relationship between Prince Alexi and Beauty, and was disappointed when it was ruined by Prince Alexi’s convoluted and self-indulgent speech of his experience. Though I was absolutely shocked by the ending when Beauty rebelled, and upon seeing Prince Tristan decided to pretty much ride him all the way to the auction. This story seems written for shock value, rather than erotic romance. There was little variety to the punishments and humiliation, and the smacking with a paddle did grow quite tiresome. I would have liked to have seen more building of the relationships, a little more depth and more conflict between all the characters. More attention was placed on S&M that I read through it fairly quickly just to find more than the evolvement of sex. That ended in disappointment, however I now want to read the second book just to find what was missing for me in the first book. That might end up in disappointment as well because I am looking for depth in a genre that is all about sex. There are aspects to this book I love, and just as equally a number of aspects I hate. Did Rice keep me engaged? Yes. Though I am not sure if keeping me unsatisfied and wanting more than just the sex is her intention that will be rewarded further on in the series, or if I am only realizing the reason why I keep away from the genre. One thing is certain. I can’t keep away from this trilogy. So, it is to be seen if claiming a popular fairy tale in such a way will ultimately change my opinion of the genre.