ReadingRoom

Was our short story “smut”?

Newsroom's latest short story - set in a Tokyo love hotel - angered some readers who described it as porn.

Newsroom is one of the last places you’d expect to find “smut”, but the accusation was made during a heated social media stoush this weekend following the publication of Saturday’s short story, Love Hotel by Auckland writer Colleen Maria Lenihan.

Her story was about two young men who work in a Tokyo love hotel, and use a hidden camera to spy on couples who enter one of the rooms. They include a schoolgirl and a salaryman, and a couple ending an adulterous affair.

“Pornography,” responded one reader, on Newsroom's Facebook page. Another: “Smut.” Also: “Wtf…unbelievable…X-rated.”

Their objections were mocked by some readers, while others pointed out that the story didn’t actually contain any sex.

One reader thought the message of Love Hotel was that “spying on people during sex is acceptable”.

Well, what did the author think about that? What was going through Lenihan’s head when she wrote the story?

She lived in Tokyo for a long time and became fascinated by love hotels, she said.  

“I got the idea for a hidden camera from anecdotes - for example, someone told me that he had a friend who’d found a hidden camera in a love hotel. Also, a friend of mine said she’d been on holiday in Thailand and discovered footage of herself and her boyfriend having sex in a Tokyo love hotel, on the local hotel porn channel. My friends and I had found a camera in a Roppongi bar toilet, so this idea of being watched and cameras being everywhere was very much on my mind at that time.”

Laura Borrowdale is the editor of Aotearotica, a New Zealand literary journal dedicated to erotic writing. As a kind of expert on the subject, what were her thoughts on the alleged pornographic aspects of Love Hotel?

She said, “It uses a single setting to show a range of couples (all conspicuously heterosexual) to highlight the differences and similarities between them, and while I don't believe that material designed to titillate and arouse is appropriate in a public forum, I also don't think this story is intended to do that. Love Hotel is the ultimate in 'fade to black' writing where the scene cuts out, at times is literally blackened with undergarments, before anything salacious occurs.”

But she was critical of the author's decision to write about a schoolgirl character.

"The concern that I have with the story is the inclusion of a schoolgirl. Aotearotica has a blanket policy of not publishing writing where age may be ambiguous. Literature exploring the sexualisation of children and minors, famously Lolita, and, more recently, books like A Little Life, spend significant time looking at the impact and effect of this sexualisation, something this story has not done."

Lenihan, though, said she took the idea for the character from looking around her when she lived in Tokyo.

"The disturbing rise of enjo kosai (compensated dating) - young girls exchanging sexual favours for designer goods and money from older men - was something I could readily see on the streets of Shibuya, so I knew I wanted to have a schoolgirl and a salaryman character. There is a lot of intense money worship in Japan and I wanted to touch on this."

Lenihan, who is of Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi and Irish descent, will include Love Hotel in her forthcoming collection of stories, published with the support of Huia Publishers and the Māori Literature Trust. She won the 2019 Surrey Hotel-Newsroom writers residency award.

She said, “Although the charged setting of a love hotel room is for the purpose of having sex, the running gag of the story is that none of the characters wind up doing the deed, until the very end, but even then the voyeur/protagonist is thwarted.

“The story is about intimacy issues, seeking connection, filling the void, and loneliness.”

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