Combining the Pornographic with the Literary: Dominque Aury’s Ability to Destabilize the Worlds of Pornography and Literature Through Story of O
By Clifford Haley (2019)
Published in 1966 under the pseudonym Pauline Réage, the French novel Story of O brought the taboo sexual practices of sadomasochism into mainstream fiction. The novel is centered around the fictional tale of a young woman named O who becomes a submissive sex slave to a variety of both male and female dominants, before falling in love with her mater Sir
Stephen. Aury’s Story of O revolutionized the American ideology of what sex looks like—as explored in “The End of Pornography” written by historian Amy Wyngaard. As with Wyngaard, I wish to examine the micro history regarding the book’s authorship and publication in order to extend her argument further in order to better understand why the novel was so provocative. In this paper, I will focus my findings on the American translation of the novel which was published a decade after the novel’s publication in France.
I will argue that the author’s anonymity attracted critical attention which lead critics to view the novel as a work of literature, thereby causing the novel to blur the lines between literary fiction and pornography. Iintend to analyze how Aury came to write the book as well as the response of publishers and the novel’s criticism to show how Aury tore down the divide between literature and pornography.
Part I: Writing and Publishing Story of O
Initially, Dominique Aury did not write Story of Oto be published, but rather as a challenge to impress her lover at the time, Jean Paulhan. Jean Paulhan was not “a towering literary figure, handsome in an imperious way” but also a much older, married man with whom Aury engaged in a passionate affair (Bedell 2004). Aury was plagued with insecurity, noting she “wasn’t young… wasn’t pretty” and therefore felt “it was necessary to find other weapons” to keep Paulhan’s interest, which “alas, were in the head” (Ciuraru 2011). Therefore, she began to write an intimate work of erotica, writing “it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him” (Ciuraru 2011). Initially, Aury did not intend the work to become a full novel ready for publication. Regine Desforges, who knew Aury, confirmed “that Aury had never initially intended to have what she was writing to be made public” (Bedell 2004). Aury only agreed to finish and publish the work in 1954 “on the condition that her authorship remain hidden, known only to a select few” (Ciuraru 2011). Desforges confirms this as well, stating that by the 1960s, “some 12 or 15 people know the true identity of Pauline Réage” (Bedell 2004). The anonymity of Pauline Réage is a major part of the novel’s literary success because, as I will explore later, it attracted the attention of critics.
The publication of a novel exploring taboo sexual desires and pleasures in the 1960s did not come without major obstacles. Yet, the pornography movement occurring in America in the 1960s greatly desensitized the public to explicit sex in entertainment, making Aury’s work easier to publish without obscenity charges (Wyngaard 992). It was this climate that incentivized French publisher and editor Jean-Jacques Pauvert to write to the Grove Press publishing house in the hopes of publishing the novel’s translation in the United States. Grove Press was well experienced in dealing with overtly explicit material. Taking on the task of translating Aury’s novel into English and publishing it in the United States was nothing new for Grove Press (Wyngaard 981). Beginning in the 1950s, publisher Barney Rosset of Grove Press, challenged the U.S. obscenity laws that halted the publication of a multitude of provocative works such as Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch. Though the road to publication of the novel in the United States was possible, it was nonetheless still riddled with cultural hurdles.
Obtaining the novel from France to the United States in the 1960s to begin the translation process proved to be difficult. U.S. customs stopped shipments of the novel because The New York Citizens Antipornographic Commission wished to “stop the flood of pornography now coming into the city”, (Wyngaard 984). This delay enabled other publishing houses, such as Olympia Press and Brandon House, to smuggle the novel into the US in the hopes of publishing its translation (Wyngaard 985). Grove Press had fortunately locked the translation into a three-year long contract and therefore was able to stop any other attempt to publish the translation (Wyngaard 982). After the issue was resolved, Grove publishers published a small segment of the novel in 1963 October-November edition of Evergreen Reviewand were delighted when no obscenity charges were brought upon it (Wyngaard 985). With this in mind, Grove Press moved towards publication. The immediate responses to the book’s publication in 1966 were mixed, but, overall the “book sold well from the beginning” and editors wrote to Pauvert reporting that there were “no legal problems in sight” (Wyngaard 988). By the end of 1969, it became a bestseller with Grove Press, “selling more than 450,000 copies” (Wyngaard 982).
Part II: Attracting Attention Due To The Anonymity
Since Pauline Réage was a debut author, people were instantly curious about her true identity, which increased the amount of attention given to the novel. This attention began in France where the pen name “provoked endless gossip in Parisian society” and “speculation about the author’s identity became a favorite sport among the literati” (Ciuraru 2011). The gender of the unknown author became the focus of early discussion and criticism of the novel. The “pseudonymous anonymity of the author … triggered critical responses… and placed responsibility for the text with the other: a mysterious woman or a fetishizing man” (Young 325). Some argued that the “authorial voice was too direct, too cool, to be that of a woman” while “others insisted that no man could have offered such a nuanced exploration of a woman’s psyche” (Ciuraru 2011). Overall, many people were fascinated with the potential identity of the author, exciting conversation all over. It is also important to note how many believed that a man was responsible for writing the text, despite how Paulhan revealed that the author was a woman in the novel’s preface.
This raises the question of how the pseudonym would attract the attention of literary critics to analyze the novel and later consider it a work of literature. In the world literary criticism, critics pay lots of attention in establishing the creditability of the works of an unknown author. The usage of a pseudonym “partially frees the text from the restrains of its author”, allowing the work, and its critical responses, to be free from the limits of the author’s identity (Young 322). As Young notes, French philosopher Roland Barthes claims that “to give a text an Author, is to impose a limit on that text” (Young 322). So, posing as Réage actually helped spur the novel’s literary analysis and criticism. It can be seen, as with novels and pieces of journalism, “the less literary prestige there is…the more chance there is that a serious effort of study and analysis will be made” since there is little “already accumulated capital of literary prestige” (Kappeler 126). The ‘discoverability’ of an unknown author exposes the author to literary critics who wish to establish an identity for the author, lending their work to critical attention.
The new and unknown nature of Réage therefore catalyzed critical responses, which Grove Press utilized in the novel’s advertising to further spur critical responses that treated the work as a piece of literature. The novel’s “sales were aided by two laudatory reviews appearing the New York Times andThe New York Times Book Review [which] succeeded in setting the tone for the American reception of Story of O” (Wyngaard 989). Albert Goldman in his review in the March 1996’s edition of The New York Times, applauded the religious symbolism present throughout the novel (Wyngaard 989). Specifically, Goldman calls it “a rare instance of pornography sublimed to purest art” (Wyngaard 989). By referencing the novel as specifically ‘art’, Goldman, as a literary critic, actively helps to shape the work as a piece of literature instead of pornography. The other review, by Eliot Fremont-Smith in the 1966 New York Times Review, “similarly highlighted the success of Grove Press… by emphasizing… the literary interest of the translation” (Wyngaard 990). Just like Goldman, Fremont-Smith specifically doted on the book’s literary merit through the novel’s usage of “traditional literary ends” (Wyngaard 990). These reviews attracted more attention, leading the Story of Oto gain the status of literature, despite its pornographic elements.
Part III: Combining Pornography and Literature
Grove press releasedStory of Owhen pornography and literature were seen to be at odds with each other. In these years, literary critic Susan Sontag noted that “pornography’s aim, including sexual excitement, [was] at odds with the tranquil, detached involvement evoked by genuine art” (205-207). Aury’s exploration of female sexuality and female psychology rendered it to be both pornographic and novelistic. Therefore, attempts to classify Story of Oas one genre lead to the binary between pornography and literature, which critics saw as mutually exclusive categories. The discussion of the novel’s genre thus required critics to reconsider the relationship between literature and pornography. In his article in the 1973 New York Times Review, Fremont-Smith claims that this novel “mark[ed] the end of any coherent restrictive application of the concept of pornography to book” (Young 326). In other words, Aury effectively combined pornography and literature in a way that no author had—reshaping the perceived limits of pornography. In this light, the novel was seen as “a serious piece of literature featuring hard-core sex written by a woman that not only defied the legal definition of obscenity, but that confused… the cultural distinctions between the erotic (sensual, artistic) and the pornographic (prurient, commercial)” (Wyngaard 991). Aury connected the erotic, seen as artistic and valuable, to the pornographic, seen as the vulgar and the commercial, thus revolutionizing the entire brand of both pornography and erotic literature.
More impressively, Aury blurred the line between pornography and literature as a woman. Authors before Aury, such as D.H. Lawrence and Sade, had explored sexuality in their works, but these authors were almost all men and focused their novels on the desires of men. Aury not only combined pornography and literature, but also created a work of literary pornography by a woman, for other women. Being “one of first of the explicitly erotic BDSM- themed female erotica to be published”, Aury became the leader of a literary movement that transformed pornography into something that could be accessible to women (Pillai-Friedman 2015).This links back to Aury’s purpose for writing the novel in the first place: Jean Paulhan’s opinion. Not only did Aury want to captative Paulhan’s attention, but Paulhan “was dismissive: erotica wasn’t thing women were capable of” (Bedell 2004). Aury created a “a profoundly personal work of art” and was “working with conventions as no one had attempted in quite the same way” (Ciuraru 2011). The lack of women writing literature of this pornographic depth was due to the fact that “pornography was largely defined against women – as words and images to which they were forbidden access” (Wyngaard 982). Men constructed the world of pornography their masculine desires and therefore the pornographic world excluded women. Aury’s ability to enter a male dominated world and combine two opposing genres was groundbreaking, makings the novel’s impact on both genres very significant.
Aury’s impact on the world of pornography and literature came with criticism and pushback, as critics were appalled at her revolutionary tactics. Wyngaard explains that “for such critics, the book designated the end of pornography as they knew it: a male-centered genre based on (heterosexual) male desire written for a male audience” (992). According to critics, the realization that the novel was written by a woman “transformed it into something non-pornographic” and “something entirely non-erotic” given “its failure the stimulate the (male) reader and its capacity to bore” (Wyngaard 992). In addition, a review in the Statusdescribes how the book “did not arouse [him] sexually” and further questioned, “for whom would it be pornography?” (Wyngaard 992). These responses, ironically enough, only further demonstrated how Story of O transcended both literature and pornography, blurring the lines between the two genres. Aury challenged the ability to explore sex in literary fiction while also challenging the male centric authorship and audience of pornography. Aury demonstrated that women can play an active role in the world of pornography and erotic literature, which American had not yet seen.
Through the history of the novel’s publication, it is evident the authorial anonymity attracted the attention of critics who identified her work as a piece of literature. Once accepted as literary fiction, Story of O brought to light how pornography can influence and be applied to literature. By blurring the lines between these two genres, Aury changed the limits of literary fiction and challenged the agency of women in pornography. The effect of Aury’s work reverberates to the modern-day publication of erotic fiction. Aury was able to write female oriented fiction and make it become “more socially acceptable reading material and enter into mainstream American culture” (Wyngaard 982-983). Many critics say that Aury’s work helped paved the road for E.L. James’ smash hit Fifty Shades of Grey. Aury’s novel, and the story behind it, therefore, can be viewed as a piece of remarkable fiction. Without Aury’s work, and Grove Press’s perseverance in the publishing her novel in America, the erotic romance industry would not be the subgenre it is today.
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