Oscar Brodney, James Edward Grant, Robert St Clair, Jay Tobias, Norman Hudis, ‘Pinky’ Wolfson, Norman Houston, Ken Taylor and, most recently, Edmund Crispin. We’ve encountered a lot of professional writers whose works repeatedly return to the subject of spanking, in word and deed. And in each case the question that seems habitually to be asked by spanking enthusiasts is, ‘Was he one of us?’
As I pointed out last week, it’s natural to suppose that each of these writers had an interest in spanking, and that this was the reason the subject keeps coming up in their work. But that’s a mistake – by which I don’t mean the hypothesis itself but the act of making it. Whether or not that private enthusiasm existed in any particular author isn’t really relevant, because what they were writing wasn’t private work for private gratification: they were writing for the world at large.
We can make this distinction clear if we think a little more about Edmund Crispin. His other claim to fame, under his real name of Bruce Montgomery, was as a composer of movie scores, notably for Doctor at Large (1957), in which Dirk Bogarde does this to Barbara Murray:
He does it without the accompaniment of any incidental music from Bruce Montgomery, but that is in itself incidental. The novelist and musician’s other, other claim to fame was as a close, long-term friend of the great English poet Philip Larkin, who was posthumously ‘outed’ as a closet perve and spanking enthusiast. Now, the fact of the friendship doesn’t prove that Montgomery/Crispin was one too, and even if he were, it would still be none of our business. But it does form the basis for making a comparison.
In 1943, when Larkin learned that Crispin’s first detective novel had been accepted for publication, a streak of jealousy led him to try his own hand at genre fiction. In his case, the genre in question was the schoolgirl story, and by all accounts Larkin’s efforts were liberally endowed with spanking scenes. But although their origin lay in rivalry, these were works of a completely different order from Crispin’s published crime writing. After finishing one of them, Larkin declined to send it to Kingsley Amis: he wouldn’t allow it out of his sight, he said, because it was ‘too incriminating’. You can now check the stories out for yourselves, if you’re so inclined: they were published in 2002. Personally I’ve never felt any desire to read them, because of what they obviously are: porno juvenilia, written purely to gratify a personal interest without any engagement with the world outside Larkin’s sexual imagination.
So in these pieces (though of course not in many others), Larkin wrote private fetish fiction, whereas Crispin, whether or not he too was a spanking fan, wrote about the subject in a public, vanilla context. And my point is that the true interest of the material lies not in its origins in a putative sexual inclination of the author’s, but in its destination with a general readership that wasn’t reading the books for fetish reasons. So when Crispin writes scenes in which various young women who behave badly are thought to deserve a spanking, or a teenage daughter is spanked by her father, these things are deemed to exist in the spectrum of what everyday readers will accept as ‘normality’ rather than some private fantasy of the author’s. Crispin makes the point himself in Frequent Hearses, when Valerie Bryant is heartily smacked on what can only be the seat of her panties, and it has the desired effect because it’s something she finds familiar: ‘it belonged to an order of things with which she was more or less at home’.
And because we are talking about ‘real life’, there’s another dimension we must also consider. In Holy Disorders, when we arrive just too late to witness what happened to the fleeing Josephine Butler, we first learn of it in the form of a question: ‘Do you think children should be spanked?’ asks her elder sister Frances, thankfully qualifying it with, ‘Girls of that age, I mean.’ She goes on to add that she herself was spanked when she was a teenager, which wasn’t all that long ago; but the important thing is that the subject is broached as something about which reasonable people can have differing opinions.
This is even more explicit in The Long Divorce, where no question is asked, but three answers are given. The amateur detective tells Penelope that he’d ‘whack’ her if he were her father, and the man who is her father and actually did slipper her says it’s what any man would do. But Dr Helen Downing thinks differently: ‘fathers who are imbecile enough to spank their sixteen-year-old daughters deserve everything they get’; she later mentions the spanking as a minor item in a catalogue of Penelope’s misfortunes that drive her to near-suicidal despair towards the end of the story.
It is sometimes said that spanking enthusiasts have a latent but powerful desire to justify their own kink, and one manifestation of this is the way bits and pieces of behavior, or scattered references, are brought together and presented as ‘evidence’ that a particular author or celebrity ‘has a spanking fetish’. There are obvious flaws in that argument when applied to Crispin, and so perhaps to others. In assembling a body of ‘evidence’ about him, it would be easy to include the fact that he worked on a film with a spanking scene, but in reality he played no part in the decision to include that scene: it was the scriptwriter, Nicholas Phipps, who decided to alter the novel he was adapting and turn a slapped face into…
So the collocation with Crispin’s novels is just a coincidence that reinforces the ‘normality’ of the spanking trope as something that will ordinarily appear from time to time without the need to suppose any furtive special interest in anyone concerned.
And secondly, if Crispin were just gratifying a spanking fetish with his recurring references, it is striking that he doesn’t act true to the supposed type: the care he takes to handle the subject in a three-dimensional way means that he introduces viewpoints of a kind that some committed, insecure spankos brand, rather risibly, as ‘anti-spanking propaganda’. That phrase implies a preference for the subject to be treated in a way that is ‘pro-spanking’ or, at least, leaves the matter of its rightness or otherwise out of the question; it is consistent with the hypothesis that spankos crave legitimacy, and indeed with the relentlessly univocal tendencies of spanking porn.
And there’s the rub. We spanking fans tend to instrumentalize every reference to the beloved subject, taking it primarily in erotic terms because that is its impact on us. But we should beware of projecting that response back onto the author, of assuming that the only conceivable reason for introducing the spanking trope, and its only conceivable interest or appeal, is fetishistic. In doing so, we elide the distinction between porn and mainstream – or, if you like, between Larkin and Crispin. To ask, ‘Is this author a spanko?’, is not only to invade their privacy, but also to demean their work. We should stop doing it.