Yes, The Best American Erotica series is having its last hurrah this year.
The last edition, BAE 2008, comes out this month, January. It features interviews with authors on why they wrote their story in the first place, and even a piece by me, "The Story of O Birthday Party."
I'm going on a "farewell tour" to see as many BAE authors, readers, fans and critics as possible. I've never been to Maine before, and it's been ten years since I was in New Orleans. Many miles to be covered!
I've started a BAE web site to keep our legacy going.
Will there be a new editor next year?
My tenure as editor of the series is done, and the publisher tells me there is no forthcoming book in 2009.
Am I happy about the series ending?
No, I'm sad and distressed about it. But it was my decision, and given the circumstances, the right one, I believe.
What happened? Was it a business spat between author and publisher, or is something harsh happening to erotic literature?
It's both. The "lit" part is more significant than the business end. It's not just erotic literature that's taking a beating, it's short stories themselves, and the nature of book production these days.
Was it really any different when you started BAE?
When I started BAE, in 1993, independent bookstores were still king-makers in publishing. A bookstore was a cool place to hang out and browse, lose yourself, and every one was a little different.
People talked about books they were reading, as a popular pastime. Newspapers and magazines were thriving; there were book reviews aplenty. There were about 500 books published every week— as opposed to today, where there are more than a 1000 pumped out. The editorial process was exacting.
It was difficult to get into publishing, but if you did, you could make a living as a writer/editor, as surely as you could make a living as a plumber or a schoolteacher.
Writing erotic fiction, however, was considered dicey, that it could "ruin" your career.
Barnes and Noble? I was dimly aware of them. There was no "online," no Amazon, and virtually none of my friends had email.
BAE was the impertinent child of an unprecedented feminist and gay explosion in literature and bookselling. My biggest problem the first years was coaxing mainstream booksellers into having the nerve to shelve BAE where it could be found.
There was no such thing as an "erotica" or "sexuality" section, because sellers were afraid of obscenity convictions and cult-like protests. Men were supposed to go to a dirty bookstore to get "that kind of thing," and women were presumed not to be interested.
Gay literature had never been mixed with straight.
With no competition and the sex-positive phenomenon busting out, BAE did well out the gate. Those first years were national bestsellers.
What were the writers like, in the beginning?
The artists I worked with were masters at short-story writing, and also on the bleeding edge of mind-fucking.
That's still who I look for. Online community is where you find
that energy now. But the sense of urgency and movement, of this type of
writing being on the edge of social change, and the physical gatherings of
people all talking about it— that's not happening outside of academia.
Twenty years ago, writers were expressing sexual character and plot-turning moments in contexts that were so deep, it made you wonder how we'd managed to ignore the obvious for so long. At the same time, AIDS killed so many colleagues and friends, you could feel the sting of their dying breath on the page. Women were coming into their own with sexual literature, eviscerating every romantic convention. It was heady, and we're still thankfully working off of that steam.
How are writers, or erotic short stories, different now?
The short story, and its tender home, the "collection," are on life support. Erotica is in its new unfortunate "Harold Robbins" phase, and is largely formulaic. There are dozens of erotic anthologies turned out at great speed for nickels and dimes. The feeling that we were breaking down doors has been replaced with authors desperate to buy a few hinges for their own sanity.
I read what Stephen King's essay "What ails the short story?" last fall, and it is exactly true for erotica:
It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.
Well, how do other writers feel about that? Isn't King an exception?
Writers know that that the short form is elemental to our craft, it's the foundation of storytelling— but without readers, where do we go? We can only talk to ourselves for so long.
Every long-running series and popular author (including King) has seen their sales contract or collapse in the last fifteen years. When I look at the exhaustive book tour itineraries I went on the 90s, I see that less than 1 out of 10 places I visited is still in operation. Imagine being a cook and watching nearly all the restaurants close except Burger King. That's how it feels.
Don't people still read for pleasure?
Book reading is not in vogue any longer, it's eccentric. No one would even bother to have an obscenity fight over text, because so few people would be in "danger" of reading it.
If I go to a supermarket in any big American city, and ask my fellow shoppers, "Do you know where a bookstore is?" most of them will offer an apology and say they have no idea. A few will admit they haven't read a book since they were last in school, as a requirement.
King wrote in his essay: "Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale."
People are still getting their story fix, but from a different source. Reading is happening online, voraciously, but it's an unformed creature with an insatiable appetite. People look to movies and films for their stories, both long and YouTube short form.
But without compelling writing, cinema and the internet suffer too.
How are professional writers staying afloat?
All our "old" forms of supporting ourselves have shriveled.
There's a minuscule spot, on the head of a pin, to make a decent living in books and freelance writing today, using traditional formulas. Far more prevalent are authors who write, write, write, for little or nothing, for the Internet and the publishers who embrace terms that make quality writing, editing, and mentoring— all but impossible. The McDonald-ization of book publishing has given us a bellyache that just won't quit.
I wish I could say there was a "slow books" movement that matched the power of "slow food." The art of writing is holed up in a corner right now.
Whatever happened to the brilliant starving artist?
They never really existed. Being hungry and isolated doesn't do anything for your chops. Writing without a base of support is not a boon for the craft or the English language. The time and consideration it takes to write well, edit well, produce a well-crafted and produced work— it's a luxury today.
It's a communal problem, not an individual one. One individual's patron or trust fund doesn't solve it. Patrons are NOT "audiences," and that's what it takes to thrive.
How can you tell writing is going downhill, and that you're not just sulking?
Well, I am in a bad mood about it, that's for sure. But I think my reality check is accurate.
The cult of amateurism has swamped the writing room. Its spoils pass for mainstream entertainment.
It's obvious how it affects the storytelling. Half the films I saw last year had NO ENDING; they just fell apart. The third act has apparently retired.
Conclusions require a knowledge of your arc. The author has to decide how the chips fall, with all the requisite tragedy and comedy. Instead, we get "what-the fucks?" like the the notorious Sopranos flame-out. Writers are urged to make their money and your message in their first sound bite, and then get the hell out.
The way I can "tell" as an editor, is that my own slush pile has changed character, and so has every other editor's, who looks for diamonds in the rough. The challenges for The Best American Erotica are mirrored at every editor's office.
What happens to the inevitable gifted talent that crawls through the barb wire?
They're evolving in a very small world, an elite. Some of the most remarkable authors I've read this past year have virtually no feedback on their work in the public eye. They never get to take a bold new step based on the confidence that comes with thriving literacy. It's like being Rapunzel in your tower, with all your great golden braids that no one knows about.
Don't you bear some of the responsibility, if you want things to change?
I should've gotten feistier about BAE earlier, and not just thought, "Oh dear, I'll just have to make do with a little less money, everyone's got to pinch their pennies." By lowering my expectations and ambitions, I grew more isolated and forsook the risk-taking that made erotic lit something to be contended with.
I couldn't turn things around by myself, but I could at least throw up a flare. That's what this is.
If you're a professional writer, you're faced with the practical difficulties of making an income— and then the further outrage of losing your voice. Like nightingales, writers sing. That's what we do. We want to be listened to, our song goes on because of that listening. We have to eat, but we have to be read, as well.
Every two years, for a long time, S&S would present me with a new contract for two more years of BAE. They had cut back on my advance, and the marketing budget for BAE, for a few contracts running.
This year, it got to the point where I said, "Wow, at my age, with my family, I can't afford to do this. And I can't degrade the quality of the book to make it work for me financially without shaming me and everyone connected with it."
At first I was panicked about the money. But as it dawned on me that I can always get another gig, I realized that showing some editorial leadership was more the issue.
Why didn't you fight to reinvigorate the series, and keep on?
I made counteroffers, of course. I wanted to try out some online marketing and unorthodox sales strategies that I find promising. I thought we could leverage aspects of BAE's reputation and author support that we haven't tried before. I believe the erotic storyteller has a big place in what's going on the world right now, so I want to go out on a limb for it.
I wanted to change the look of BAE, too. I wanted to figure out surprising ways to distinguish ourselves. I am the early-adopter type, and even if it wasn't for the financial pressure, I would be intrigued with this puzzle of how to get the stories through.
What did your publisher argue?
They said no. They don't share their candid thoughts with me. To be kind, I think publishers have heard from a lot of authors over the years who plead, "If you only buy me a new suit and put me on The Big Show, I just know I can sell this book again!"
Most of the time, those author's idealism and hopes are unrealistic. My publisher likely thinks it's preposterous that I would know more about the business end than they do. They might be pretty jaded, I imagine. Or maybe they know something I don't! I believe my ideas are worthy, but I didn't inspire S&S with my arguments this time. We were in a rut.
Why don't you take the BAE series elsewhere?
S&S owns the title. I can't pack it up and leave with it. It was originally the idea of an editor at MacMillan, and then S&S bought them when they went under.
I asked if I could be granted the title, or if I could license, or purchase it, but no one jumped at that proposition.
What is S&S going to do with BAE, then?
Nothing, for the time being. I thought they would quick scoop up a new editor with modest needs, to continue the series, but that hasn't been in their plans to date.
What else can you do?
Turning 50 this year has made me a little more audacious. I asked myself, "What would I do, if I did the best thing for my writing, the best thing for my editing, the best thing for making a contribution to the erotic dialog?"
The answer to that is: Write my own books, as if my life depended on
it. Choose original editorial projects with people I believe in.
Publish something that makes a difference, that kicks another door in.
I want to try out the ideas I've been arguing and prove to myself whether I'm all wet or right on. I probably have about twenty more years left in my life, and I've always been the kind of person who gets inspired by a deadline.
Have you done anything new with erotic lit so far?
Yes! One of the things I always wanted to do for Best American Erotica was to start its own blog and web site... so I did it. Come take a look! There's so many great writers and stories and interviews, you'll get dizzy.
I wanted to go back out on tour, to connect with as many people as I could, to talk about these questions, so I'm doing that too! Here's my book tour schedule so far.
I've been talking and working with new publishers, who want to do something novel with erotic literature— who share my early adopter/geeky marketing inclinations. More on that later...
Oh, I'm a big tea leaf reader:
Amateurism, Plagiarism, and Bullshitting-Your-Way-Through-It-All has NOT PEAKED yet.
JT Leroy will be surpassed. Good writers will make unhappy compromises. Until good writers can figure out a way to support themselves and get the damn time to write and edit, this state of affairs is inevitable.
Readers are becoming a writer's first editors.
Genre fiction writers and bloggers are in the process, whether they intend to or not, or making a new model. Stories and full length works are being created online, with the readers involved from the beginning.
The experience of "Books in Hand" can't be replaced by onscreen reading
Book writers don't have a lot to fear from "file sharing," because the experience of holding and reading a book is different than the onscreen tease. When you've got a great story, your readers want to keep feeling it. They want it in their bathtub and their bed and the don't want the battery to fail. There's a need for reflection and character, for depth, that isn't sated by news. Stories, epics, legends, aren't built with news summaries.
Writers without Internet platforms (like blogs) will find themselves increasingly in Work-for-Hire hell, or out of writing altogether.
You have been warned.
There are still extraordinary writers/exceptions that keep everyone else's hopes alive.
That's the elite I mentioned earlier. Geniuses and freaks will cling together and survive, barely. Thank god JK Rowling knows how to write an ending. My latest epic favorite is Vikram Chandra. If we lived in a book thriving culture, his name would be a household word as well.
Bookstore acquisition is being determined outside the book and book-critic environment altogether.
If your book or your record lands at Starbucks— or any coffee shop— you are suddenly reaching people. If your book cover is seen in a three-minute video, and it's like getting an old-school five-star review.
People love to read... when they can find what they want, where they want it, in their daily lives. They want to escape into the story world; they want a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just because capitalism is having a little problem with "bookselling" right now doesn't make those desires go away. Maybe it's time for a new Bookmobile.
The art of bookmaking, rare and precious bookmaking, is hot.
Books are too sensual to go away. The book as objet d'art, as something you long to hold in your hands— as well as to read— is the future of the physical book. I deal in used books, and although the money is no big deal, the palatable excitement people have about holding something precious to them, is. I want to create that sense of "hand lust" in my own books.
There's a steampunk future for the book.
I'm obsessed with online novels and letterpress printing simultaneously. So are a lot of people.
Eroticism is going to continue to be most boldly examined in film/video, because that's where the economy is the most viable, at the moment.
But that still requires...writers. As the WGA strike has contended from the beginning, story is not unadorned improvisation. If the writers' union wins something out of these companies, it will be a victory for every writer. Does our work has value or not? — that's the question. We work all our lives to be masters at this. Erotic writing, at its most memorable, happens not only because of rare gifts, but because others heard it and gave a damn.
I'm funding it, so that's a new inspiration. I'm cultivating the damn-givers! I want to hug and have a meaningful conversation... with everyone who ever had anything to do with this series. I want to stay in touch, and keep our element alive in the coming years. I'd like to hear where you'd like to see erotic writing going, who you think is inspiring.
What are you going to do next?
Write a memoir.
Publish original erotic literary fiction collections.
Cultivate my favorite writers.
Make ebooks and really fancy print books.
Blog my ass off, as usual!
Special Note to BAE Authors: After 15 years, I might not have your up-to-date address! I'd like to reconnect with you, if it's been awhile! Anything I can do to promote your work on the new BAE site, let me know. Interviews, links, guest columns, story excerpts, you name it. Write me.