Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The gift of (sexual) fantasy

Writing erotica is hard.

For starters, writing a good story period is hard -- but erotica presents special challenges on top of that. An erotic story should be arousing to at least a good portion of the audience, yet different people are turned on by vastly different cues and story lines. To make matters worse, what's hot to one person is icky to another (and vice-versa). (I gather some people found my bad public sex stories arousing, even if that wasn't exactly the intention.) On top of all that, one's sexual fantasies are an incredibly personal thing to share. For myself, I usually invent my own situation and characters (with an elaborate and detailed back-story, etc.), but I'd hesitate to write them down -- because of what people would think. Hell, I even hesitate to tell you which storie(s) from The Best of Best American Erotica 2008 made me read them one-handed (so to speak), and I like writing about sex!!

Naturally, I was impressed with Susie Bright's "Best of the Best" anthology. As I explained in my top 10 erotic books post, after reading some of the more famous/popular erotic works (that didn't happen to match my particular kink), I kind of put the whole genre on the shelf. But this anthology is a better starting point than complete erotic novels if you'd like to give erotica a try -- it contains so many different types of scenarios that there's a high probability that at least one will tickle you in just the right way. And even the ones that don't have you reaching for your toys or partner are interesting enough to read just as stories.


Well, since this book is already the product of winnowing down fifteen years of erotic literature to just "the best of the best," I hate to winnow it down further. But I'll mention a few of my favorites:

Blue Light is one of the most fascinating as a story. I didn't find it arousing since (contrary to recent findings that straight women are aroused by all gender/orientation combinations), gay sex stories (of either gender) kind of leave me going "Meh, whatever." The Desires of Houses is at once beautiful and entertaining, while Tennessee is poignant and moving. Fleshlight is fun; Horny is intriguing. The well-known essay Are We Having Sex Now or What? is thought provoking as always -- so much so that it's inspired me to put up a related discussion (about Mormon sexuality) over on The Visitors' Center.

I think my favorite was probably The Casting Couch. Here's what the author says about it:

I liked writing a story that worked the way fantasy does -- switching points of view, starting and dropping story lines and scenes.

In my opinion, she succeeded at that goal. So, not only is it a fun fantasy, but the author really did capture the flow of a fantasy and make it work as a story rather than trying to squeeze a fantasy into a standard story format. I'll admit that when I mentally replayed it I recast the evil boss as a guy (which totally destroys any rainbow-friendly aspect and makes the story not-at-all P.C., but c'est la vie).

And now, the obligatory seasonal question: Should you get this book as a Christmas (or other holiday) present for all your closest friends?

It depends on how intimate you are (or want to be) with them. ;^)


Susie Bright said...

Wow, what a treat. I can't wait to show your review to the authors. They will be so touched. I'm sure you know how rare a real review is, nowadays!

xoxo Susie

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Susie!!!

I also love your books of essays (such as Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World)!!! :D

Anonymous said...

I was going to write something about how one of my friends once got paid to compile a list of the top ten erotic novels, but then I saw that you included a link explaining that, so no need.

Anyway, I am not always turned on by erotica, but I find your review pretty intriguing. In particular, I like the fact that there's an ESSAY in the collection--that there's an attempt to create erotica not merely out of fantasies, but out of actual experience.

I liked the post on TVC inspired by the essay, but you don't say much about how the piece works as erotica, and I sort of wish you would.... Was this piece a turn-on? Did it do its job better or worse than fiction, in your opinion? You mention that your favorite story was all about fantasy, so how did an exploration of "the truth" work?

I plan to pick it up eventually but might not get around to it for a while, and I'd like to know more about what you think.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

Yeah, it's interesting that not all of them were fictional stories. Most were fiction, but -- in addition to that essay -- there were a few that were short memoirs (or at least partially true), and then there was "Fleshlight", which is a cross between a personal narrative and a sex-toy review.

For myself, I sometimes find nonfiction essays more arousing than stories. Not that one in particular, though -- perhaps something about religious sexual repression, like this discussion of Christian dating tips.

I also like all of the sex parts of the books I read on primate behavior (if that's not TMI). But it's not at all a question of thinking it would be hot to be with an ape or monkey, rather -- like the article on straight women I mentioned above -- it's a question of being aroused by erotic stories that I don't have any place in myself.

Anonymous said...

the discussion of christian dating tips was fabulous--though I found it more amusing than arousing. Which is interesting, since I (like most people) find a great sense of humor a real turn-on in other people. I totally want to do Jon Stewart.

btw, the magic code word I had to type in is "austicka." Which sounds like it could be a term from a horrible porn film about Nazis.

Anonymous said...

Those Christian dating tips are funny. It's funny how the concern is to keep men from becoming aroused before they can fulfill their urges. The assumption seems to be that "sexual temptation" is a bigger issue for men than for women. Yeah, right.

C. L. Hanson said...

Yeah, those are great, aren't they? And it's true about sense of humor being a turn on.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chanson--

I just saw this interview with the editor of Nerve, on an anthology from its first ten years. In particular I was struck by this exchange:


Salon: In the book's preface, you write that Nerve is a reaction to the sad extremes of the smut spectrum: pornography and erotica. Why hasn't either genre managed to get it right?

Nerve: Most sex writing and photography -- either on the porn or erotica side -- has a very narrow objective, which is to arouse people. It's an important service, and there's nothing wrong with it. But turning people on, particularly men, is just not very complicated. It's kind of like making lampshades. That's not what we wanted to do.

It's hard to write well about sex. It's also hard to take truly original photographs of naked people. There's a minefield of clichés and euphemisms out there.


I haven't read much of Nerve, but if you have, or if you decide to check out this anthology, I'd like to know what you think.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Holly!!!

I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds fascinating!

For the sake of positioning and publicity, however, I think they may be exaggerating their distance from the rest of the smut media:

"I think what makes sex writing interesting is the fact that we still -- despite all these many decades of sexual liberation -- struggle with taboos and a sense of guilt and shame over parts of our sexualities. One of the ways Nerve has always been different from the pro-sex contingent is that we think the taboos are what make sex interesting."

I'm not an expert, but I think the dissonance of shame and desire that comes from tickling taboos is pretty standard fare. Even if these guys do it more artfully than most, it's not fair to claim that everyone else is just ignoring or erasing taboos.

Let's take this book I've just read (The Best of the Best American Erotica 2008) as an example. It covers plenty of taboos (incest, gay dom/sub sex involving decapitation and dismemberment, incest + voyeurism, religion + shame, hermaphrodites, etc.), and not in a manner that's always comfortable or that's just a boring cliché.

Plus, both collections include Debra Boxer's "Innocence in Extremis" -- and (according to my copy) that essay was first published in the 2002 edition of this same series (Best American Erotica). Considering that, I don't think it's very charitable for the Nerve folks to say (as they do later in the interview) not to bother with any other erotic anthology but theirs...

Anonymous said...

Interesting critique. Makes sense.

I will admit that what I read of Nerve made me profoundly uncomfortable in ways that the erotica I've read didn't. But I haven't necessarily read enough of either to analyze why that is so.