Metro Feature: The rise of erotic book clubs in London
This article originally appeared in Metro on November 29.
Fleshing out the story: The rise of erotic book clubs
Books clubs are getting ballsy. Literally. Thanks to EL James’s bondage-lite Fifty Shades trilogy, the new wave of sexual liberation – or, at the very least, a desire to go beyond a night in with a cheap bottle of Shiraz and a copy of The Joy Of Sex – has brought with it a renewed interest in filthy fiction. And in finding a place to discuss it.
London’s original Erotic Book Club has been running for more than three years at Bethnal Green’s The Bökship bookshop. Fanny Minka and her partner, Robin, have been hosting debauched discussions about risqué literature there ever since Robin bought them copies of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s racy classic Venus In Furs for their first Valentine’s Day.
The club attracts a group of like-minded people – ‘intellectual east Londoners in their late twenties to early thirties’ and, surprisingly, ‘a healthy mix of girls and guys’ – who turn up according to the choice of book that month. The ones they cover fall into two categories
‘We tend to switch between one lot with beautiful writing but aren’t that hot and the other lot, which are just “w**k-a-chapter” reads,’ says Robin. ‘Don’t expect any Fifty Shades-inspired lit, though. People try to link the two but it’s unrepresentative of what we usually cover. We’re about: you’ve read Fifty Shades Of Grey, now come and read something proper.’
There’s now also the new Mucky Book Club, which uses the catchline ‘good books with mucky bits in them’. Run by sex writer Betty Herbert, the night was originally a Wandsworth book club but has transformed into a bi-monthly ‘live lit cabaret’ at Hoxton Hall. Her first large-scale event last week combined talks from erotic authors, bondage demonstrations, a saucy crafts corner and a ‘kinky disco’. Unlike other erotic events in the capital, Mucky Book Club is for the curious, not the connoisseur.
‘I suppose “mainstream” is the word,’ says Herbert. ‘I think there is a huge interest in nights like these but, on the other hand, there’s a nervousness; a lot of people worry that they’re going to feel insecure. We try to make talking about sex feel fun and safe. The atmosphere is like a really good chat with your friends down the pub.’
Herbert’s club also doesn’t focus on contemporary erotica. Instead, it is ‘very much about quality literature that happens to turn us on’. Continuing this theme, Herbert’s next event, on January 13, hones in on the new flood of sexed-up classics, such as Jane Eyre Laid Bare, and asks whether the original novels are sexier anyway.
For literature really laid bare, poet Ernesto Sarezale’s Velvet Tongue in Shoreditch is just the titillating ticket. He started his quarterly open mic night dedicated to erotic writing in February 2011 and attracts nearly 100 people to each event. He also performs naked.
‘Anyone can turn up and read, perform or do whatever in their five-minute slot,’ he says. ‘There’s no quality control but I like it because it makes it a more exciting event.’
Velvet Tongue’s success has inspired a spin-off in Dalston. Naked Boys Reading was devised by R Justin Hunt and Alexander Karotsch and is bi-monthly at gender-bending Stoke Newington club Vogue Fabrics. It does exactly what it says on the tin: a nude literary salon of readings by local boys with – ahem – ‘a well-endowed library’. ‘I thought London’s gay scene was missing a quasi-intellectual event that was a bit debased,’ says Hunt.
‘It’s just debased enough that it’s cute and funny but it’s not gross and weird.’ But anyone, he adds, is welcome to attend its steamy second event on November 29, featuring gay porn star Ashley Ryder.
While EL James’s BDSM smash isn’t the best-written sex novel by any stretch, it has helped turn its legions of fans on to the ‘proper’ erotic books covered in Herbert and co’s events. And, in turn, these events add another facet to London’s erotic scene: a refreshing, clothes-on way to explore sex – and, better still, discuss it.
‘I’m so glad that Fifty Shades… hit the mainstream like it did,’ says Herbert. ‘Learning to talk about what turns us on in a book is really liberating and it has let people have conversations that they’ve been waiting to have for years.’