Let’s shed that “erotic” label, OK? Sure, L.S. Hilton’s books include scenes of plentiful hot sex, but they’re also brainy thrillers about the art world that stretch across the most glamorous of European locales. Whatever the label, these are the type of books from which big advances are born.
Hilton’s first novel, Maestra, published in 2016, was an international bestseller and introduced readers to Judith Rashleigh, a steamy twisted mix of Patrick Bateman and Tom Ripley and Anaïs Nin. Her follow-up, Domina, was released in July and continues Judith’s adventures in the art galleries and private collections of sinful Europeans with more money than morals.
Hilton’s books can serve as an excellent primer on Caravaggio and European art history, but it’s the good parts that tend to drive sales, so let’s get to those first. While it’s a truism that writing well about sex is one of the hardest things to pull off on the page, the good parts in Hilton’s thrillers are actually, well, good. She knows it, and she’s quick to call bullshit on the double standard that exists in the labeling of male and female writers when they describe that most fundamental act.
“When a man writes about sex, it’s called ‘literature,’ ” she says. “When a woman writes about it, it’s ‘erotic.’ There’s something diminishing about that label — ‘erotic.’ It kind of prettifies and slightly alienates at the same time. Why is this described as an ‘erotic thriller,’ when if it was written by a man it would just be a thriller?”
Just as her character Judith discovers, so too has Hilton found that beauty is often the priciest commodity of all. That’s true of the masterpieces Judith covets, and it’s true in the book business. There’s not much that’s erotic or titillating about the image of a schlubby, middle-aged male author composing sex scenes. But when they’re written by a beautiful, blonde British woman, the mere existence of those scenes can overshadow the rest of her work. Is it a double standard? Yes, no question. Is it an effective sales tool? Yes, again.
The co-founder of the Voice, Norman Mailer, wrote some of the filthiest sex in all of fiction; take An American Dream, for example. Yet the word sex is not mentioned once on the back cover of that novel. Mailer, like Henry Miller before him, was anointed an artist, while Miller’s companion, Anaïs Nin, was never able to shed that “erotic” tag in descriptions of her fiction.
Mailer’s misogyny is well established, and he would probably scoff at any comparisons to a “mere” thriller writer, but when you place his scenes alongside certain passages by Hilton, you’d be hard-pressed to identify those that are supposed to be erotic and those alleged to be literature.
Outside of her guise as “author of erotic thrillers,” L.S. Hilton is an Oxford grad and an established art historian. When her first book, Maestra, came out two years ago, much was made of her respectable buttoned-up “other career.” In a catty review, the New York Times’ Janet Maslin alleged that Hilton “wanted to give voice to her inner babe.” Maslin dismissed the book as “a pornographic shopathon travelogue,” and the claws came out from there. The review clearly stung; Hilton brought it up early in our conversation, noting that it came off “slightly hypocritical” in its stance. But what really bothered her was that the Times failed to mention the most basic fact in these books: They’re about art.
Passages about art — or pictures, as Judith refers to them — outnumber the passages about sex by about ten to one. They’re passionate earnest takes on artistic creations that provide Judith with her only source of faith. As Hilton notes, “It’s the only meaning she finds in the world.”
She might be a killer and a sociopath, but in that sense of purpose she gets from art, Judith is not alone. Many of us get more inspiration from a centuries-old work of art than from any crucifix. The pictures sustain her; thrust into a decadent world of amorality, they are her only ethical reference points.
For those inclined to reflect on such things, there’s much to be found in this series. For those more interested in the “erotic” thrills, there is that too. As Hilton says, “The thing with writing about sex is that it can be ludicrous, sordid, delightful, impossible, satisfying, transporting — often all in the same twenty minutes.”
Not unlike the best fiction.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons