Zola and pornography

La Grande épidémie de pornographie  (1882) is a caricature by Albert Robida first published in La Caricature. It is reminiscent in form and content of Pornokrates[1] by Félicien Rops, which appeared three years earlier.

The litho fits squarely in the late 19th century debate on naturalist literature and the writings of Emile Zola, which were equated at the time with pornography. There is a fine caricature titled Naturalisme[2] by Louis Legrand which illustrates the ‘warts and all‘ naturalism which was criticized in numerous anti-Zoalist tracts. This anti-Zoalism is an important episode in the development of the etymologies of pornography and erotica, since the first traceable instance of the use of the term pornography as an expletive is in the essay “La littérature putride” (1868), directed against the French writer, although Zola never wrote anything even remotely pornographic.

This anti-Zoalist diatribe helped the notoriety of Zola’s “putrid” novel Thérèse Raquin. Zola capitalized on it for publicity and referred to it in his preface to the second edition. Then there was Albert Millaud who in 1876 denounced Zola’s novel L’Assommoir even before its publication was complete: ‘It is not realism, it is smut; it is not crudity, it is pornography.’ (“Ce n’est plus du réalisme, c’est de la malpropreté ; ce n’est plus de la crudité, c’est de la pornographie”).

Towards the end of the century, three complete anti-Zola works appeared: La Flore pornographique (1883), Le naturalisme ou l’immoralité littéraire (1894) and Zola contre Zola (1896). They were all written by the same author, a French bookseller by the name of Antoine Laporte. His pamphlets are most enlightening. Negative criticism is often the best guide to a work. Where else would we find out about the emasculation scene in Germinal?

French censorship largely left Zola in peace. No major trials are recorded.  In England, the powers that were reacted differently. English censorship was led by the National Vigilance Association who targeted Vizetelly’s unabridged mass-market translations of Zola’s work. A personal disaster for old man Vizetelly.

See also: Criticism of Zola by Max Nordau in his book Degeneration