Erotica is dead.
I've felt her cold little fingers tap-tap-tapping on my shoulder all year long, occasionally reaching over to pinch my tits and laugh at my irritation. Then just to show how really far gone she is, when Erotica got sick of all my denials and rationalizations, she'd take my head away from my computer screen, turn me toward a full moon shining outside my window, and begin to HOWL.
Best American Erotica 1996
Introduction by Susie Bright
You see, when I say erotica is dead, I certainly don't mean lifeless, quiet, or finite. I don't mean that the literary lovers are all wearing black, that what once was a stroke book is now a vale of tears. It's just that certain tenets of the genre have finally kicked the bucket.
Chief among those dead mysteries is "What is the difference between erotica and pornography?" No one can stay awake for that one anymore.
There's a new question about sex writing and it comes straight from the authors to the readers: "Did I move you?"
The Erotic vs. Porn debate is the modern version of an ancient set of class distinctions that are also wisely bowing out of the picture. That old chestnut was whether REAL literature could be sexually explicit, or if REAL porn could be literary.
A lot of writers have been in hiding for years over this taboo, their pseudonyms hovering like protective cover.
But now the bell has tolled. Those pretensions and snobberies are yesterday's hangover and no one wants to hear them anymore. The questions readers put to writers today are: Were you honest? Was it real? The sex doesn't always have to get us off, each and every one, but we damn well better believe it had its author by the short and curlies.
Erotica's death is a rebirth, a bonfire of old values and a kick in the pants to the end of the century. The artists writing about sex today are writing more prolifically and competitively about sex than ever before.
There is a spontaneous consensus gathering that contemporary erotic writing is not about a warm, trusting glow or "expert" lovemaking, but about the hair-raising, erection-bolting, clittingling chills coming at you from behind. Erotica is dead, not like a doornail, but like a grip that you can't shake.
Some of the new school of erotic writing does flat-out embrace horror and the supernatural.
In past editions of The Best American Erotica, we've seen Anne Rice's notorious vampires, Nick Baker's antihero possessed by a horny succubus, a werewolf making his match, and assorted other blood-loving Casanovas. Their adventures were a pure gothic delight-- and so romantic we couldn't help but fall in love with them too.
But now, naturally, the ante has been raised. Many characters in this volume of The Best American Erotica 1996 are non-gothics, as alive as you and me, but like their supernatural predecessors they are not afforded redemption. The flame is never extinguished. Neither the protagonist nor the reader ever makes it off the hot seat.
When I first read Lucy Taylor (her story "Choke Hold" represents her work here), she had me so bug-eyed I didn't know whether to call a cop, a priest, or just turn the vibrator up a notch.Taylor's work represents a new genre-- erotic horror-- that takes every precious notion of the intact body and punches right through it.
Another example this year is Aaron Travis's story "The Hit," which mixes a grisly crime thriller with hungry sadomasochism. (Travis is famous Roman historian Steven Saylor's pen name in erotic fiction).
Travis told me his story was rejected by the gay leather mags that he routinely publishes in-- not because of the sex, but because of the "crime"-- the moral outrage out of the bed rather than in it.Travis was ahead of his time, a predictor to the pop cult sensations of films like Pulp Fiction.
Another prime example is this past year's most talked-about erotic crossover novel, in the cut, by Susanna Moore. Moore is just as relentless as Travis in her deliberate-- and heterosexual, this time-- mixture of suspense, fatal attractions, and the erotic persuasion of submission and domination.
The power of sexual desire to take us out of ourselves, our normal behavior, is legendary. The very nonsense of "normalcy" is really what the erotic funeral is all about here, because authors of the new school are spitting on the grave of conventionality, of moribund expectations.
Sometimes I think this volume is one angry answer to that chart-topping rightwing bestseller, The Book of Virtues, by William Bennett. Bennett, the "Drug Czar" under President George Bush, offers a list of character traits that make a man great, the qualities that make for a stand-up sort of life.
He's got the WASP work ethic down to a "T," but his list is a list for a toy soldier, not a person. It completely omits the fire that makes us creative: our sexuality, our erotic thumbprint our desires so fierce they defy what is expected of us.
If William Bennett were to critique the turn in erotic fiction today, I think they would say that the reason there is so much PERVERSION, VIOLENCE, and CYNICISM man in today's fiction is that "this whole country has gone to hell" in a handbasket woven of MORAL DECAY. If everyone would just take a good hot BATH and refresh themselves in the Ten Commandments, GET A JOB AND STOP BELLYACHING, then we would see stories about good old-fashioned romance and marriages that last.
But there are no jobs— not the way Americans ever understood a "job" to be, a place of security and opportunity. The very notion of "job" sounds like a retro item, something to pitied and escaped from, as writer Doug Tierney's protagonist does in "The Portable Girlfriend."
As for bellies aching-- well, they are. We have the ache of need and betrayal among the have-nots, and the ache of fear and loathing among the haves. Bellies are churning, period.
"Perversion" is the right-wing code word for gender chaos, the alarm that boys and girls are not keeping their pink and blue uniforms on at all times. Ken and Barbie don't live here anymore, and there's no putting that fragile little relationship back together again. Women have had it with the Madonna/Whore game, and authors in this volume like Amelia Copeland, Camille Roy, Linda Smukler, and Shar Rednour prove it.
Over on the boy side, there's a similar antipathy for the double standard. Men know that the only thing more terrifying than being swept away is to never have been lifted off their feet. See this year's authors Estabrook, Robert Glück, and David Shields for more persuasion. Word is out; to succumb is bliss.
Next up on the conservative's naughty list of literary topics is "violence." Liberals are similarly alarmed. Sex-and violence is that two-headed dog with a wet and very sensitive nose that won't go away. Every time we try to push him away, say he's not right, he comes back even more persistently-- he can smell you and knows you're hiding something.
You've heard all the standard explanations about the whys and wherefores of sex and violence's allure. Wonder why they still leave you doubting? That's because no one has really got this number pinned— not the shrinks, not the cops, not the media executives. They're equally desperate to keep the lid on, with their various punishments, medications, and dubious statistical reports. Whatever their lid is, their suppression has become one of the most important elements in proving the power of sensation's appeal.
The erotic combination of sex and violence has this in common: they both assume an entrance into our body.
Before sex, before a violent act, our bodies are closed, there is no tear in the fabric, we are intact-- a safe, but impenetrably blank, place to be. It's only when a thread comes undone, when we unravel, that our peril and pleasure spill out: the come, the blood, the tears, the shit, the cries. We can't not be affected, and of course, our real bodies can only spill so much.
In our erotic storytelling, though, we spill over and over, on a vicarious level that we can't live without.
Finally, we have the smudge mark of cynicism, the black humor in erotica that I find so prevalent in all fiction these days. Cynicism begs the question "Ask me if I care?" and the thing to pay attention to is not the question, but the begging.
My favorite book title in 1996 was The New Fuck YOU: Adventures in Lesbian Reading (from which I've excerpted "Morning Love" by Linda Smukler, in this volume). I can't help but smile every time I pass the title on my bookshelf. My sex pistol is in my own pocket, loaded, ready to squirt at all the lies and delusions I'm asked to digest on a daily basis about what is great literature, great beauty, great politics, great religions.
Mainstream media agit-prop has reached surreal proportions. Who honestly believes that supermodels are the essence of feminine power, or that the White House is the leader of democracy, or that Christianity is about the righteousness of one man over another?
Our literary cynicism is a necessity-- because the gap between the advertisement of our culture and what's really going down is so gigantic that all we can do is free-fall, laughing and bellowing all the way down.
Some corners of our erotic minds are still soft and precious. In a story like Bonny Finberg's "Light," the erotic experience is about being so innocent, such a pure infant in the world, that all love is erotic, all body is sensuality, there are no definitions yet. Sometimes erotic love is that
Continued in Best American Erotica 1996, "Introduction"
Photo: Phyllis Christopher, Nothing But The Girl