The Ivory Tower vs. the Garden of Vulgar Delights: The Feud Continues

by | June 26, 2014 | General | 10 comments

by Jean Roberta

I’ve written here before about my comfortable niche in the English Department of the local university, where I teach nuts-and-bolts composition and literature to first-year students plus the occasional course in creative writing. I have access to funding for writing-related travel, which includes erotic writing conferences, readings, and award ceremonies. Every three years, I submit a Faculty Review Form on which I brag about my accomplishments, including publications. Before I compiled my list for 2011-2013 inclusive, the friendly department head told me that I don’t brag enough; he advised me to list every review and blog post I’ve written, as well as every erotic story I’ve had published and every panel I’ve sat on. His summary of my latest Faculty Review begins with a statement that I am a model of productivity for the whole department.

My personal experience leads me to hope that writing about sex is no longer something that anyone needs to keep hidden under a fake identity, complete with over-the-top pen name (Scarlet Veronica Filthy-Mind) and manuscripts/publications in a lockable trunk.

But I seem to be living in an oasis of exceptional acceptance. Here is the latest piece of evidence that scholarly endeavor, as practiced in universities, is still widely considered far above – or at least far separate from – sex-writing of any kind.

In March 2014, the friendly department head circulated an announcement to the rest of the English Department about a one-day conference to be held at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, on June 3. The event was titled Reforming Shakespeare: 1593 and After. Here is the description:

“This is a one-day scholarly symposium on the kinds of alteration that have occurred to Shakespeare’s writing as it has made its journey from author to readers and playgoers. ‘Reforming’ may take the sense of being given new shape as authorial or non-authorial adaptation, rewriting, borrowing or allusion and arguments about any of these processes in connection with Shakespeare fall within our purview. ‘Reforming’ can also suggest correction and improvement, including censorship, editing, and tidying up of text to make it conform to new conditions of reception, and contributions on those topics are also welcome. Send proposals for 15-minute papers to Prof X and Prof Y.”

My first reaction was: How cool is this! I noted that the conference was:

– Not being held at one of the ancient, prestigious British universities (Oxbridge)
– Apparently not dedicated to bardolatry, or reading/teaching the works of Shakespeare according to some time-honoured method, and
– All about work that could be described as Shakespeare fan-fic, innovative performances, parodies, and other spinoffs.

I wished I could find a way to get to Leicester for this event. But alas, I didn’t see how I could justify travelling all the way there from the middle of Canada while I was teaching an intense, six-week course.

I decided to spread the word, especially to my fellow-contributors to an erotic anthology: Shakespearotica: Queering the Bard, edited by Salome Wilde (Storm Moon Press). This collection, I thought, would fit in perfectly with the theme of the one-day conference. All the stories involve “queer” (lesbian/gay/bisexual/gender-bending) characters in Shakespearean plots, and some of the stories are quite faithful to the originals. There is much same-sex emotional intensity and gender ambiguity to be found in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as much bawdiness. He wrote plays in a time when all the female parts were played by males, some of whom continued to cross-dress when they were not onstage. Whether the Bard was “queer” himself has never been decisively proven, but there are mysteries in his life that have never been completely cleared up.

I contacted Salome Wilde, U.S. editor of the anthology, and asked if she could spread the word to the rest of the contributors. I was hoping that one of them might live close enough to Leicester to make the trip worthwhile. Salome asked me for the name and contact information of one of the organizers, so I sent it to her.

A few days later, I got this email from Salome:

“Just an update to say I contacted Prof X.” This person apparently claimed there was no way to make use of the book, “as there will be no display or way to share it, and as it is in early June, I [Salome] can’t possibly attend. . . I was even thinking of giving an eBook to everyone who attended, or perhaps sending a flyer.” Apparently Prof X didn’t see how a book like Shakespearotica could possibly be included in an event named “Reforming Shakespeare.”

Sigh. I couldn’t help wondering if I (as a Canadian English instructor/erotic writer) could have bridged the cultural gap between a British Shakespeare scholar and an American erotic writer/editor, but maybe not. That gap might be unbridgeable, or I might not be the right person to bridge it. I can’t help feeling as if I threw Salome Wilde under a bus after she graciously accepted my story (loosely based on the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night) for the Storm Moon anthology.

Maybe I should be grateful that Prof X didn’t erupt in rage over the proposal that a discussion of Shakespeare spinoffs should be contaminated by “smut.” Even though I remind myself in these cases that things could be worse, I don’t feel grateful at all.

William Shakespeare (or whoever wrote under that name) knew in the 1590s that sex was a part of life. I wonder when the scholars who study his work will figure it out.


Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:



    *long sigh* I suppose he wants to wax poetic about 10 Things I Hate About You and Kiss Me Kate.

  2. Anonymous

    Erotica? Written by women-folk?? Angels and ministers of grace defend us!

  3. Fiona McGier

    Old Will was an expert at human nature. He knew what people's hot buttons were, and what kinds of stories they liked. He created characters out of stories he'd heard, and brought them to life so explicitly that we still read his plays. Of course there's more sexual innuendo and sex puns than at a National Lampoon convention. But you have to be able to understand "olde English" in order to get all of the jokes. For anyone to act as if Shakespeare was "high-falutin'" is ridiculous, since he was the "reality TV" of his day, writing for the masses of the "great unwashed" who loved his earthy humor. I'm sure he's whirling and twirling in his grave over the idea that your book, which he'd probably have totally enjoyed, won't be discussed.

  4. Lisabet Sarai

    Sigh. You *are* a bit spoiled, Jean. I wish someone would look at my erotic output and give me KPI points for being a model of productivity!

    I'm not surprised at the Leicester prof's reaction. Actually, I would have expected a more extreme response.

    It would be fun to show up at the conference anyway and start waving the book around!

  5. Jean Roberta

    Anonymous, I'm sure you would be shocked. 🙂
    Fiona, you're probably right. Lisabet, if I had lived closer to the conference, I would have been tempted to show up, and find out whether I could set up a book table, or share one with someone else.

  6. Jean Roberta

    I think I am spoiled, but it's partly because of the non-erotic work I do. I'm in a separate category from most of the profs in my department – this category was set up in 1999 to provide a solid core of instructors to teach the mandatory first-year classes, and we instructors teach more classes than the regular tenured profs. This is partly what the department head meant by saying I'm a model of productivity, since I'm not really expected to produce anything aside from my teaching. (The "real" profs are largely judged by the quality of their research.) I wish I could pave the way for other hybrid academics/writers to get the same level of acceptance, but it sems unlikely. There were 7 instructors in 1999 — now there are 2 of us left after promotions, resignations and retirements. When I retire, I'll prob. be the last one standing , and the position will probably become defunct.

  7. billierosie

    Oh, for goodness sake — what is wrong with Prof X? I'm glad I was not taught by him, I would have been bored to tears. Will Shakespeare is lively, contentious, universal and extremely sexy. There's outrageous smut too — bestiality! What is going on with Titania and that donkey? I was taught Shakespeare by people with spirit. They let us be creative with the text — who knows if our ideas were what the Bard intended — we got talking and laughing and learning about humanity and living in the real world.

  8. Jean Roberta

    Billierosie, I think the way you were taught is the way to encourage students to take a lifelong interest in the work of Shakespeare. From time to time, I hear about a movement to remove Shakespeare plays from the secondary-school curriculum in Canada and/or the U.S., on grounds that they are no longer "relevant." I can guess that the Shakespeare-haters who defend this argument were prob. forced to memorize lines that had no meaning for them.

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