I cry at the drop of a hat. I take everything a bit too hard. I’d join one of those groups for overly-sensitive people but I can’t imagine anything more taxing.
And yet, I have a rather goofy reaction to the literary hate letter.The following letter in my postal box today gave me a giggle fit:
Dear Ms. Bright:
I am an avid reader of erotic fiction.
I found the stories in Best American Erotica 2005 to be a load of ‘crap.’
I found quite a few of your ‘erotic’ stories to be quite ‘smutty.’
As I bought your book through my book club, I felt quite cheated, and unless you can show me otherwise, I will not be purchasing any further books through my club. You can contact me.
Ms. B.C., Australia
I will forward B.C.’s letter to Jane Smiley, Mary Gaitskill, Bernice McFadden, Nelson George, Carol Queen, Simon Sheppard, Bill Noble, Thomas Roche, Cecilia Tan, Greta Christina, , and all those other clowns in BAE 2005 who thought they were writing... something.
Every author— no matter how many decades they’ve put into their craft, no matter how many accolades they’ve received— still has that voice that wakes them up in the middle of the night and whispers, “What if you ARE just a load of crap?”
Ms. BC has cut right to the quick!
I’m impressed that she wrote me from overseas, and spent the considerable postage to administer her spanking. BC seems to hope that I’ll write her a letter back. I will; I’ll direct her to this post.
Her missive is actually the filled-out copy of a reader survey I’ve put in the back of BAE for the past 15 years. I’ve often wondered if I should stop including it, because the results have been predictable since the first edition. People rarely write when they are satisfied or impressed. They WILL write when they are pissed off. Especially when it comes to sex, they cannot wait to tell you what they don’t like.
When I teach porn analysis classes, I often ask the students to write down something they LIKED about the film we’ve just screened, no matter how small or fleeting—Just a moment that appealed them aesthetically, sensually— some kind of sense memory. You’d think I asked them to remove a nail. Everyone is champing at the bit to tell you what sucks— it provides so much cover.
But does it really? It’s much more powerful, in sexual matters, to admit that you are turned-on, even if it’s only that soft place under the knee.
I am in recovery myself from the cult of naysaying. Being on the receiving end of the Great Offended has revolutionized my practice. I now give praise and encouragement to strangers who make life amazing with their labor. It’s nothing short of a tonic.
BC didn’t tell me any book she’s ever fallen in love with, or any author she admires. Her sexual and literary preferences remain an enigma. Her disdain is supposed to reveal— what?
It would be awfully fun to send her letter on to the folks who wrote me and said that BAE‘s problem is that it is in dire need of smuttiness. I’m dying to match these people up.
When I did the first issue of On Our Backs in ‘84, we were greeted by five distinct kinds of mail:
- This is not remotely erotic. If you want to see an example of a sexy girl, get a copy Penthouse. (This was written by lesbians, by the way).
- This is so naughty and shameful I can barely handle it-- Enclosed is my phone number.
- I know I should admire women-created, noncommercial porn, but instead I feel guilty and anxious. What if your centerfold is a racist? What if that girl on page six wears dead animals? What if the story on the last page was written by a bisexual? I can’t deal with the dread that it’s all going to turn out badly, and you’ll only regret you did this.
- You are a bunch of wusses and if you want to see hardcore, come over to my house.
- Sex is a beautiful thing and you’ve ruined it.
The reaction to Best American Erotica has been pretty much the same.
For a certain amber population, the standard of great erotica is Penthouse Letters. When I was nine years old, I felt the same way. I can still summon the nostalgia, but I can’t live on it. It’s rather incredible that Penthouse has virtually gone out of business when as far as mainstream Boomer America goes, they epitomize the libido in word and photo. Bob should just keep printing the same Canonical Pizza Boy & The Nympho story until it becomes as rote as the Pledge of Allegiance. Needless to say....forever and ever... Amen.
The biggest critical group after the Penthouse fans are the people who want a book called, "Best American Erotica Except for Homos and People Whose Freak Makes Me Feel Funny in My Pants."
Unfortunately, this accolyte is going to have to make a special edition just for themselves, because no one else is privy to their latent treasure chest. Let Miss BC lead us to her temple!
The hardcore critic— and this type seems to get the most lucrative assignments to go public— is the one who’s appalled that sex has been infiltrated by literature. Their oath: if it makes me hard, it’s not art. They don’t want a Masterpiece to give them a Stiffy. If it gets him off in a giant spurt, he can proclaim it a fine piece of filth, but don’t go asking for respect, because that would RUIN it.
Dammit, I really am going to yank that survey. I started out laughing about BC’s airmail, but now I’m hot under the collar. I've been reading this same letter for more than a decade, like an earnest kindergarten aide on a field trip who tries to keep plucky no matter how many kids throw up in the pool.
Thank you, Miss Down Under Dom, for bringing me to my senses. I am laying down my load of crap. The coup-counters will have to find themselves another feather.