One of my favorite magazine editors of all time, Jim Petersen, just wrote a "Best Of" list for Playboy.com— the twenty-five sexiest novels ever written.
I was eager for debate, mutual swooning, and peculiar insights. I asked Jim if he would entertain some of my questions...
SB: How did this list come together?
JP: Stacy Klein is one of the dot.com brigade at Playboy. She called up one day and asked if I would do a quick list. The give and take proved fascinating. She would ask "What about...?" and off we'd go.
I did a long essay on the erotic power of paper, which we cut to a paragraph. I kept getting sidetracked: Amazon lists 3500 titles in its erotica section!
All those niches within niches: lesbian stories, vampire stories, harem stories, S&M stories, coming of age stories.
Remember when all you needed to be aroused was the rise and fall of a woman breathing?
Plus, now you can post the your favorite titles on a Wish List, like some depraved bridal registry. The entire world will know that you are desperately seeking a hard-on.
Finally, there's that Amazon tool, the SIP (Statistically Improbable Phrase) that tells you that the phrase "ass fuck" appears sixteen times in one book, or that "absolute dismemberment" shows up seven times in the Bataille Reader, as well as books on Heidigger, Hegel and literary economics.
JP: When I researched my own Century of Sex I had the wonderful experience of coming upon these books from the other side. I went chronologically through books, movies, and music of the past hundred years, and experienced what it must have felt like to read these books for the first time, and to appreciate the leap.
Fanny is still a wonderful read, and what it taught me was to look inside the sex act. Not to lie back and think of England, but to lie back and dwell on the moment of penetration.
As for the Lady, Lawrence had a sense of the swoon. Yes, it's creaky, but this is the creation myth, the arc of liberation— let sex take you from here, to there.
Court cases aside (which had as much to do with the lawyers as they did with lust), there is the cultural impact of these books (Remember the story of a couple taking the Lady into a bomb shelter in an experiment at Princeton in the 50s?)
SB: When it comes to your third choice, Miller's Tropic of Cancer, that's where my pleasure reading of old school erotica begins. I can't get over how contemporary his work still sounds. And it continues to gets me off, intellectually, and viscerally.
Out of all those, I'll distill it further... Miller and Terry Southern. What personality type does that make me?
JP: One of the conversations I had with Stacy concerned the generation gap: I can recall when checking a potential lover's bookshelf (as opposed to her medicine cabinet or myspace page) told me all I needed to know.
Literary taste reads like a list of prior convictions. There the people (victims of classical education or the seminary) who try to persuade us that the Bible is a sex book. Okay, naked in the first chapter, plants the idea of temptation, tasting your lover's fruit in the song of Solomon, yeah, yeah. Has anyone ever gotten aroused to Sappho?
What strikes me about your reading list is the power of the first ascent— these authors presented sex as discovery, new terrain, weird places, wonderful improv. They ask you to consider sex from weird vantage points (car crashes, frozen time, telephone calls, the permission of the pedophile, the focus of a fetish).
SB: Out of the pulp reads on your list, I'd pick Susanna Moore's In The Cut, which I reprinted in BAE. I like being scared as well as aroused, and sometimes both at the same time.
JP Yes—sex, danger and Moore's love of words. One of the standards for inclusion in our list was that you knew something about sex. That you had been there.
SB: Was there anything you privately hated on the list? But felt had to be given its due? I can't stand Roth's complaint. Sorry.
JP: Yeah. Erica Jong. Whine, whine, whine. Bad writing, party-line feminist complaints. Even her take on Fanny Hill shows almost no grasp of sex. (Put everything in capital letters to show excitement?) But in terms of cultural moment, she had to be there.
SB: I never read Endless Love by Scott Spencer... what am I missing?
JP: What it's like to be inside, out there. He builds an entire one-act play out of the physiological, the insight that sex is a way of gathering information, intelligence about a relationship.
It's not the Ike and Tina Turner/Mickey Spillane cliché of "first you do it tough, then you do it tender." A lot goes into an erection, or the gristle of sex— that's what had Miller going around Paris comparing cunts, or Roth trying to discover America through fucking.
The really good writers know how to fuck in character. (The only comparison I can make is Pierce Brosnan in two movies that weren't James Bond— the sex in The Thomas Crown Affair, and the sex in The Panama Tailor thing— that's exactly how those characters would fuck).
SB: Also Singular Pleasures... I never heard of it. Am I lame?
JP: This was one of Stacy's finds. It defies categorization. Closer to the prose poems of M.S. Merwin.
SB: You didn't get into gay erotica, which would have changed and overwhelmed everything, because there's been so much more great liteary work. I know it's not your Playboy beat, but could you add a few titles by gay authors off the top of you head?
JP: Marco Vassi once wrote that he could walk into a room of 100 people and be aroused by 98 of them, male or female. I can walk into a room of a 100 people and maybe find one of them sexually attractive— usually the woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Why that one? I wonder. I tend not to think of sex in terms of the broad categories, but rather the specific permissions, the autobiographical cues. What I've read of gay fiction doesn't linger, not even on the top of my head.
[Note to self: send JP Death in Venice, Boyd McDonald, City of Night, Alan Hollingsworth, Our Lady of the Flowers, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Edmund White, Women in Love, Mr. Benson, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon!]
SB: Hey is there no great LESBIAN erotic novel? I'm remembering piles of short stories instead... My god, let me think about this. The Well of Loneliness doesn't count, does it?— although it was thrilling at its time.
Aha! It's come to me. Jane DeLynn's Don Juan in the Village, is the best lesbian erotic novel of all time... and deserved to be on this list of all time greats.
JP: See what I mean? Now I have another title, or two, on my list. And when I order them from Amazon, the page will say, "if you are interested in these titles, are you in some kind of crisis?"
Staci and I argued over different categories. At one point we thought of structuring the list like the Oscars: Best Foreign Book (don't the French deserve their own planet?) Best Nonfiction. Best Woman's Voice. Best Male. Lifetime Achievement. We kept it simple and as you noticed, heterosexual.
SB: My friend Pam Rosenthal, who wrote Carrie's Story under the pseudonym of Molly Weatherfield, is thrilled to bits you picked her novel for the list. What made Carrie stand out among so many others of S/M romances that have been published since Story of O?
JP: I once went on a tour of San Francisco with a reporter who wanted my views on strip bars, fern bars, and gay bars.
There was a moment where we watched a string of topless dancers, and one woman came out and grabbed us by the eyeballs. She dominated. I could see "the intelligence behind the entertainment"— and that's why I responded to Carrie. I loved her attitude, intelligence, eye for detail. She was alive, compared to O— a story that is like watching a suicide. Water down the drain. Someone slipping through your hands and falling.
SB: Does everyone know The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an erotic novel? It takes a while to get there. I haven't seen it on anyone's erotic list before.
JP: A friend recommended Kafka On The Shore, and that led to Wind-Up Bird. The sex is spooky, almost out-of-body— the sex scenes stay with you for days.
SB: How come you picked Interview with a Vampire instead of Anne Rice's more explicit storybooks?
JP: I was in a lounge in New York. A woman got on stage and sang "Since I Fell For You." Over drinks she said, out of nowhere, "I'm looking for a new kind of sex." I gave her a galley of The Vampire L'Estat.
I find the Beauty books stilted beyond belief. Same with most bondage videos— you push the fast-forward button and they look like hummingbirds or weight loss exercise tapes.
SB: Carpetbaggers, Number 25? The last word? I found that odd. It's so quaint now.
JP: It wasn't at the time. That fertility stick dance is still walking around in people's sexual curriculum vitae— and I think it is the direct antecedent of Scooter Libby's book, i.e. Republicans go nuts over pagan-ritual-dildo-type things.
SB: What are your personal, vulnerable favorites?
JP: I am still aroused by print. Be true to your school. Certain of the books on this list rerouted blood.
SB: Is there anything that almost got your list but didn't?
JP: The next twenty-five titles would have all been by John Updike. How did I do a list without a book by Michael Ondaatje? The English Patient is sexy, but it's chaste, the sex is in the past, like an unexploded bomb.
My primary regret was shelving the nonfiction/biographical books. It seems that the most arousing writing these days is all in memoirs. That's another project.
SB: Let's do it! And you should really write your own, Jim. We want to hear all about that irresistable woman on the lunatic edge.