You may have noticed (casting a sideways glance at the inspirational book covers in the margin) that I write and edit erotica. Lesbian erotica, almost exclusively, although there have been some very rare exceptions; sometimes a story just has to go where it has to go. Right now, though, prompted by the anthology Sometimes She Lets Me: The Best Butch/Femme Erotica (edited by Tristan Taormino for Cleis Press,) I’m pondering on erotica in general, and lesbian erotica in particular. This isn’t meant to be a review of the book—I haven’t read the whole thing, just the pieces that originally appeared in volumes of Best Lesbian Erotica where I had stories, as well—but I’ll get around to the connection downstream a bit.
It’s probably a good thing that I hadn’t ever seen the old “PWP” (Plot What Plot?) tag applied to erotica before my writing drifted in that direction. Well, no, I’d just have taken it as a challenge, and I’m sure that many other writers I’ve come to admire had that same attitude. There are writers working under the wide scarlet umbrella of erotica as creative and skilled and outright brilliant as you’ll find in any other genre, and I’m proud to know many of them. (Hang on—briefly distracted by the concept of sex under an umbrella in a downpour. Later, muse, later!)
Erotica, smut, porn; all very subjective terms, and I’m not hung up on classifications. Some folks just don’t like to read scenes that cross a certain line in their own minds, and that’s fine. I draw lines myself when it comes to the darker shades of horror fiction, although extraordinary writing will lure me farther than I ever thought I’d go. But I’m on a crusade to combat the assumption that erotica is never worth reading because it’s always badly written. Sometimes, of course, it is badly written, but so is much of every genre, and even then, one reader’s dreck may be another’s rousing good romp.
It’s also true, of course, that one reader’s brilliant and moving writing may be another reader’s boring or pretentious drivel, but this is my blog, so let’s just go with my personal taste for now, and a bit of rambling.
Many, many (exponentially many) years ago, in Literary Criticism (LitCrit) class during my senior year in college, one assignment was to list three personal “touchstones” of literature, works or writers or passages that exemplified for us the height of excellence in writing. I have to admit that I don’t even remember what I chose. (I remember more clearly the “hoax” list that my friends and I turned in under a made-up name. We ferreted out truly awful examples from otherwise fine writers; it turns out, for instance, that Thoreau was no hand at poetry, however hard he tried, and James Joyce cranked out some painfully pedestrian prose before he let loose with his own unique “voice”.)
I do remember, vividly, the first time I read Alison L. Smith’s “Sometimes She Lets Me,” the story that provides the title for the recent anthology, and was originally published in Best Lesbian Erotica 2001. It was a revelation for me. I hadn’t known so much could be said, so simply and yet profoundly, in scarcely more than a page and a half. Tiny details built a clear setting and mood; there were just enough physical and emotional notes to strike physical and emotional chords in the reader; and the characters were subtly drawn, utterly real—and deeply erotic.
That story is one of my touchstones. So is Toni Amato’s “Grande Jete,” representing a very different style of writing, intense and at times lushly surreal. S. Bear Bergman is another writer in this anthology whose prose always impresses me, and so is Skian McGuire, in this case using a keenly humorous voice to augment the down-and-dirty fun. I’m rather sad that none of the writers I’ve mentioned are still writing erotica, as far as I know, but I understand the need to move on, and as an editor I’m happy to see new writers coming along and turning their own skills and creatively dirty minds to erotica.
Writers treasure kind words from readers. I won’t forget the woman who told me, after a reading in New York, that she often read my stories to her lover at bedtime. But I’m at least as thrilled by the beginning writer who said, after a reading in Boston, “I never knew you could do all that with erotica!”
I don’t aspire to be anyone’s touchstone, but it’s good to know that you’ve touched someone’s mind. As well as other regions.
(Yes, I know that sometimes we want erotica that bypasses thought and races along to pure feeling. That takes skill, too, and somewhere along the line I’ll be blogging about things like that. Stay tuned.)