In Defence of Smut

As some of you know, I work in the book industry. I am surrounded by the latest books on the market, often proofs before they are published. Back around January/February time, I got my hands on a white proof with a provocative black slit on the cover. The spine said simply Maestra. My boss put it on my desk and said, “It’s shit, you can have it if you like.”

I shrugged and read the back of the proof. “A world that drips with wealth. A dangerous conspiracy that opens doors. A woman who knows exactly what she wants-and how to get it. Shockingly original and darkly decadent, Maestra is like nothing else you’ve ever read…”

Don’t tell me you’re not intrigued. I was.

The advance information said that rights to the book had already  been sold in 30 territories, and that Columbia Pictures had acquired the film rights within seven days of the manuscript reaching America. I thought, OK, so whether it was shit or not, it was going to be a big deal.

I took the proof and placed it on the ever-increasing pile of books under my desk; all of them constant contenders for my reading attention.

For a few months, every time I came to picking something new to read, I held this proof in my hands for a second and then placed it back on the pile. I would get round to it one day.
A few days ago, I spotted a published version of Maestra in the office. I had just finished reading Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, which was a deliberately obtuse and haughty hipster tale of ornithology, hard drugs and sex. My mind needed a bit of a break, so I thought why not, let’s give Maestra a shot. As I looked over the book, my colleague whispered to me “I think you’ll love it.”

“Oh really, have you read it?” I asked.

She nodded slyly, shooting furtive glances around the office to see if anyone had noticed.

I was intrigued. So I started reading that lunchtime. The opening lands you straight into a dimly lit world of thick black satin and nude waitresses carrying small plates of tiny lobster pastries. Hm. I braced myself for a re-enactment of my reading of Fifty Shades of Grey. *reads to page three, says “what is this crap?” flings book across the room, never to be read again.*

However, the first chapter gripped me. It introduces Judith, a badly treated and underpaid assistant at a prestigious London Art auction house. She hails from Liverpool (appeals to my Northern soul) and is trying to get ahead in the competitive art world. As she struggles for money she moonlights doing night shifts at a hostess bar. At the auction house she is embroiled in a shocking fraud which leads her to losing her job. Desperate for cash, she accepts a trip to the French Riviera with an obese bar regular. This descends into disaster, and Judith’s journey around Europe chasing c*ck and cash begins. What follows is a shocking romp around the chicest holiday destinations in Europe; Portofino, Courchevel, Lago Como, all with an Hermès scarf tied around her Monoï oil scented hair.

The author, L.S. Hilton, is far from being a bored housewife like E.L. James writing erotic fan fiction from her kitchen table. Her website says “Lisa Hilton grew up in the north of England and read English at New College, Oxford, after which she studied History of Art in Florence and Paris. After eight years in New York, Paris and Milan she returned to England and now lives in London with her daughter Ottavia. In addition to writing, she also works as a journalist, lecturer and broadcaster.” Hilton has previously written historical biographies on French courtesans, England’s Queens and Nancy Mitford. Maestra is her first foray into the dark underworld of erotic thrillers. She has also written for The Times, The New Yorker, Vogue, Elle and other well-known publications.

My colleague told me that it was OK to read Maestra, but that I should never admit to liking it. I was slightly disturbed by this. Why shouldn’t admit I read whatever I want, even if it is low-brow?  So, you know what, I’ll risk it. I read Maestra, and enjoyed it. Now, wipe that righteous expression of shock off your face and listen.

I’ve read many scathing reviews of this book, which condemn the main character for being callously amoral, a status-seeking bitch who plays into men’s fantasies and power games, and for being obsessed with big brands and using sex to get ahead. And that she is. In the publishing industry I have seen people turn their noses up at it as a pile of trash. These are people who probably go home and indulge in binge-watching of Strictly and bemoan the BBC dropping GBBO. Middle-class ‘intelligent women’ trash which is acceptable because it doesn’t cross the lines into sex, power and money.

Even though I am a self-confessed feminist, and I agree the book does little for women’s empowerment, I thought it was a well-written and entertaining. It absolutely is amoral and shocking, but it has a tight and engrossing plot line, even if it uses the C-word a few too many times for my liking.

On my ever-more crowded bookshelves you will find a wide range of books, from best-selling novels to classics, from travel writing to biographies. My business is reading, and sometimes, I want to read trash. Well-written trash.

There are two things that disturb me about the criticism of Maestra. Firstly the literary snobbishness which hates on anything  that isn’t endorsed by a panel of literary prize-giving experts. I’ve read a few Booker Prize winners which were a lot less readable than Maestra – shock horror, I wonder if I will be extradited from the publishing world for confessing my smutty book sins? *gasp* Frankly, I don’t give a damn whether anyone sees me reading trashy psycho-thrillers on the tube. I will bite my lip slowly and wink at the literati if it shocks them. Secondly, I wonder if the reviews of Maestra would have been as scathing if it were written by a man about a man’s illicit pursuits? Maybe the public has a problem with women enjoying their power and sexuality? just mull over that for me, will you? Hilton won’t be the first educated, intelligent woman to be criticised for writing something smutty.

Even if I enjoyed this novel, it doesn’t mean I condone the character’s behaviour, or that I would indulge in even the lightest of her actions, and I’m hardly endorsing it as family reading. The book isn’t perfect, it name drops a lot, the sex scenes are a bit tiresome and over-written. It probably won’t go down on my list as a favourite, but it’s a good bit of entertainment. I think those who criticise L.S. Hilton for writing an intelligent and sophisticated sex romp, should be taken out and whipped, preferably on their naked buttocks. In any case, whatever the critics think, Hilton will be laughing all the way to her bank manager’s plush office, and I say chapeau.

maestra_book_cover
The book 

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “In Defence of Smut

  1. Reblogged this on ARC Books and commented:
    I have not read this book, and probably won’t since I’m not a fan of erotic reading, but I think anyone, male or female, has the right to both write and read whatever they feel connected to and to not be made to feel bad for it.

    Liked by 1 person

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