Sunday Review: What Makes a Novel Pornographic?

In this week’s review, I’m really quite stymied by the book I encountered, the French Michel Houllebecq’s Platform. This novel is a little difficult to summarize, but the main trajectory of its plot has to do with the rising popularity of “sex tourism” among Europeans in Asia and Latin America. That in itself could be an intriguing world for a novel to explore, and the book is filled with wry, astute comments about the shallow, exploitative nature of tourism and the slightly bitter, depressing side of the false relationships that arise when on vacation. If that were all that occured in the book, I’d have very little to say about it. But the fact remains that Platform is a novel that really made me question that vague, blurry definition of what pornography is.

Nearly every scene in Platform is a sex scene, and each is extreme, explicit, graphic, and idealized. These are the sort of things that would make me normally define something as pornography, as opposed to erotica. The plot begins to seem a mere service to the sex scenes — another characteristic I think is intrinsic to most pornography. The only things that make me doubtful are the quality of the prose and the non-objectifying nature of the sex scenes. Generally, these scenes are a meeting of equals and are not objectifying to either the males or females involved. The prose is also of the highest caliber. So by the end of Platform, I was left baffled — a little embarrassed to be reading the book on the subway, too — but mostly confused about what sort of book I was really reading.

French writers can often treat sexuality in a more permissive way than American writers. In fact, the main character of this novel comments often on the prudishness of American attitudes toward sex: for Americans, the character argues, sex is more often a moral matter, and still tightly wrapped up with shame. The characters in this book, by contrast, see sex only as part of the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure is never wrong. It may be my American sensibilities talking, but ultimately I was left cold by Platform because its romantic scenes left me with the feeling that pornography does with a reader: it is ultimately the depiction of physical acts entirely stripped of their intimacy or meaning.

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