Queers Were Here: Heroes and Icons of Queer Canada, edited by Robin Ganev and R.J. Gilmour (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2016)
This book is a charming little anthology in which a group of “queer” Canadians answers the question: Who were your role models when you were “coming out?” One of the editors teaches history in the same university where I teach English, and I attended the local book launch.
In the introduction, the editors explain: “Our guiding purpose was the conviction that queer pioneers who challenged the dominant culture and fought for greater tolerance needed to be remembered and celebrated.” It seems that the 1980s were a crucial decade for most of the contributors, as they were for me. (I “came out” then too). Most of the contributors seemed to have been drawn to the “gay scene” in Toronto when they were young, and I recognized their references, even though Toronto seemed as far away from my prairie town as San Francisco or New York City.
The contributors are both male and female, and none of them emphasize the differences between gay-male and lesbian culture, but the differences are clear. Much of the urban “gay culture” described by the men seems exclusive to them.
This book fits into a pattern of recent histories of LGBTQ life in Canada since 1969. All of them discuss the long-term influence of the Omnibus Bill that was passed that year (under a previous hip, sexy Prime Minister, father of the current one), a sweeping piece of legislation which decriminalized sex between men throughout Canada, among other reforms. And of course, no book on “gay” life could avoid mentioning The Plague: the trickle of AIDS deaths in the early 1980s that soon became a flood.
Both these events left lesbians fairly untouched, except as concerned bystanders. In that sense, these events were parallel to the U.S. government’s drafting of young men into a war of imperialism in the 1960s, which supposedly inspired the rebellions of the Baby Boom generation and motivated American families like mine to move to Canada. I was a teenager at the time, but I didn’t need to “dodge” the long, uniformed arm of Uncle Sam. I was a girl.
Here in Canada, the Omnibus Bill has been described as another thing that helped to define a generation. Like the Stonewall Riots in New York City in the same year, the bill paved the way for “gay rights” by modifying (not completely ending) the legal persecution of male-male sex in Canada. This change was groundbreaking, but it had no direct effect on women.
Female-female sex has never been mentioned in the Canadian Criminal Code, which had its roots in Victorian England. There is an anecdote that Queen Victoria refused to sign a bill which would have criminalized sex between any two or more people of the same gender on grounds that “ladies wouldn’t do that,” but I have my doubts. I suspect that the gentlemen who wrote that legislation simply thought that whatever sexual games women could play with each other were unimportant (even if unladylike), and should therefore remain unnamed, even as a crime. At that time, few women had the rights of adult citizenship, so the law-makers probably assumed that improper behavior among girls or women could be privately dealt with by fathers or husbands.
Regarding the Plague, various writers and lecturers in queer venues in the 1980s tried to frame AIDS as a threat to everyone on the margins of society. An earnest lesbian acquaintance once tried to convince me (during a long car ride) that we should all start using dental dams and gloves in bed with each other because transmission of the virus from one female body to another had not been disproved. While I admired her good intentions, I felt as though she were advising me on how to protect myself and my dates from hurricanes and earthquakes, none of which happen on the Canadian prairies.
The Plague reached my town several years after I first read about its effects in larger cities, and I was sincerely upset when it destroyed the lives of men I liked and respected. I was disturbed when I read about the effects of AIDS on heterosexual women (or those who couldn’t avoid unprotected sex with men) in African countries. In the 1990s, I joined a drama group, directed by my sweetie, that went into schools to perform educational skits about HIV prevention. I wished there was more I could do.
Nonetheless, the Plague didn’t seem any more universal in the world than a hurricane slamming into a Caribbean coast. Where were all the HIV-positive womyn-loving womyn? Where was the evidence that AIDS-related deaths were cutting a swathe through the Amazon Nation?
I came to realize that lesbian sex (not to be confused with lesbian life) is the free lunch that we have all been told does not exist. Women don’t get each other pregnant, except when this is mutually desired, and one woman wields a turkey baster. Even then, the sperm has to come from someone else. Women are less likely to spread sexually-transmitted infections to other women than any other sexually-defined population. Although lesbians, even in Canada, have faced discrimination based on gender identity and general nonconformity, sexual activity between women here has largely occurred below the radar of police intervention.
The relatively conflict-free nature of lesbian sex becomes clear to me when I am deciding what kind of sex to describe in a story. Conflict in some form seems necessary to move the plot along, and in some scenarios, it’s easy to find. Sex between men and women can result in unwanted pregnancies, as well as disease. Women have reasons to fear violence from men. Men have reasons to fear manipulation from women.
Sex between men seems much less stigmatized now than it used to be, but HIV is still around. Plus there is still a feral, homophobic, straight-white-male subculture which seems especially dangerous now that it is less socially accepted than before. I don’t want any of my gay-male friends to seem too obvious among strangers.
Conflict between women in an erotic story usually has to come from something other than their sexual orientation. A story about the seduction of an innocent maiden by an experienced dyke is likely to seem unbelievable if set in the current era. How many young women, fresh out of high school in the 21st century, are unaware that sex between women is possible? How many are inclined to faint when they figure it out? (Fainting from pleasure seems like a different thing.)
I sometimes wonder why more erotic writers, of various genders and sexual inclinations, haven’t focused more on lesbian sex as a set of activities with a high ratio of immediate pleasure to negative consequences. Maybe it’s because lesbians are still often seen (if at all) as a subset of some larger demographic.
I just returned home to Asia, after a two week sojourn in the United States. Needless to say, I have many concerns about what’s going on in my native country these days. Missile strikes and the mother of all bombs do not leave me feeling sanguine.
One aspect of my trip made me smile, however. In my wanderings through New England and New York, I visited a number of independent bookstores. I found them to be thriving, despite the influence of the eight hundred pound e-commerce gorilla we authors love to hate.
In Exeter, New Hampshire, we spent a happy half hour browsing at the Water Street Bookstore (http://www.waterstreetbooks.com/). Housed in a hundred year old building overlooking the tumultuous water of an old mill canal, this shop highlights the work of local authors. Though it was quite early on a Saturday morning, we were far from the only customers. I dawdled in the fiction section, while my DH perused the history table. I particularly liked the handwritten review quotes and blurb snippets posted on brightly colored paper beneath many of the volumes, which made it possible to get a feeling for a book without even picking it up from the shelves. Of course, there’s a deep pleasure to be found in handling a physical book—admiring the cover, flipping through the pages, breathing in the scent of fresh ink.
Though we really didn’t have room in our luggage, I couldn’t resist purchasing a copy of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which has been on my to-read list for a long time. It was the least I could do. After all, the shop not only boosted our spirits but also gave us a welcome respite from the cold April wind.
A few days later, we dropped in to The Bookstore of Gloucester, one of two indie bookshops on the picturesque main street of that historic fishing city, to join locals and tourists browsing there. This store specializes in books on maritime topics. I was very tempted by a volume about the great Boston molasses flood of 1919 but this time I managed to keep my wallet in my pocket.
Our voyage concluded in New York City. For us, no trip to the Big Apple is complete without at least a brief stop at the Strand. Three floors—reportedly, eighteen miles!—of books await you at this marvelous landmark.
I wandered dreamily among the stacked tables, noting titles and authors I’d never heard of, as well as many old favorites. I found it comforting, even uplifting, to happen on brand new editions of The Moonstone, Rebecca, and She. Thousands of new books may be published daily, but they don’t necessarily erase previously existing titles. They just add to the world’s literary richness.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, the Strand was packed. It was actually a bit difficult to make my way through the crowds to the cashier. Yes, even though our suitcases were stuffed full, locked, strapped and waiting to be collected at the hotel, we still purchased a couple of titles—new offerings from Alice Hoffman and Jonathan Lethem. Considering how much we paid to get to the U.S. in the first place, we figured we should take advantage of the opportunity!
I know many brick and mortar bookstores are struggling these days. Still, it’s clear that some are thriving, nurtured by their communities, welcoming those of us who love the written word. In these dark times, they are oases of light. Maybe I’m naive, but bookstores still give me reason to hope for humanity.
I admit it. I made a terrible mistake putting “Republican” in the title of my column last month. Could you choose any better word to dash cold water on a reader’s libido even if it was paired with the magically profitable and compelling duo of “Fifty Shades”?
I hope, however, to make up for my previous misjudgment this month by discussing a topic of timeless allure: a woman who takes her clothes off for the sake of art.
My inspiration for this column is Audrey Munson, the model for numerous artists and sculptors in the early part of the twentieth century. Interpretations of her nude form appear in New York City as Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building, on the Maine Memorial in Central Park, as the Spirit of Commerce on the arch at the end of the Manhattan Bridge, and as Pomona in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. As James Bone writes in his biography of Audrey, The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous and Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, “Wherever you go in New York City, Audrey is looking at you.” (Bone, 3) In 1915, at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, she was even more ubiquitous. Seventy-five percent of the statues and murals adorning the fairgrounds were based on modeling sessions with Audrey. “’America’s greatest sculptors are ready to admit that she is the most perfectly formed woman who ever posed in an American studio,’ the San Francisco Chronicle gushed.” (Bone, 110)
James Bone’s book tells the tale of the life of this early-twentieth-century supermodel, but also of the familiar challenges faced by a female muse in a world controlled by men: artists who projected their own visions of perfection on her body, wealthy playboys who collected models like trophies, theater managers who punished actresses for rejecting sexual advances, and unscrupulous film producers who publicized but never paid lavish wages. Audrey’s subjective experience of these adventures and misadventures is captured to a degree in newspaper interviews and memoirs, usually ghost-written by a male author. But after a career as a chorus girl, model and early film star, she spent the second half of her life in a mental institution, receiving only rare visits from family members until she died in 1996. In Bone’s biography, as in the marble likenesses of her body, Audrey is there–yet she is not there. All around New York, we may indeed gaze upon Audrey, but in truth, her eyes are, and have always been, blank and blind.
Still many aspects of her story felt surprisingly relevant today. Sexual politics are as timeless as the appeal of a beautiful body au naturel. There is much to discuss in her life about beauty, power and art, but for brevity’s sake, I’ve chosen two of the aspects of her story that struck me in particular as a female reader: the significance of the moment when an artist first persuades a young beauty to pose nude and the possible reasons for Audrey’s popularity among artists in the 1910s.
The artist’s model has been a stock character in erotic fiction from nineteenth-century tales of Bohemia and Anais Nin to steamy stories in multiple recent editions of Best Women’s Erotica. Sometimes, the model is a woman of experience who enjoys her work, has many lovers and feels no shame. However, the initiation of the innocent has always had particular power in erotica. Seductions often begin with the man convincing a woman to pose for a painting or a photograph in artistic drapery and then, with further coaxing, in the nude. Bone’s biography, although not erotica per se, dwells upon that moment of Audrey’s transformation from respectability to, depending on your perspective, fallen woman or transcendent muse.
Audrey’s modeling career began when she was approached on the street by Felix Benedict Herzog, a photographer who asked to make studies of her face. Her mother Kittie accompanied her to his studio to make sure her daughter’s virtue was not compromised. Kittie had divorced Audrey’s father over ten years before. After running several boardinghouses in Providence, Rhode Island, Kittie and Audrey ended up in Manhattan where Audrey found occasional work in the theater. Herzog took “artistic” photographs, but Audrey was always properly draped in costume and cloth.
It was Isidore Konti, a sculptor from Vienna, who first persuaded Audrey to pose “in the altogether.” Konti was working on a sculpture called Three Graces for the Grand Ballroom of the Astor Hotel, but had encountered sculptor’s block. The very sight of Audrey gave Konti the inspiration to continue—he would use her figure for all three of the Graces. But first he had to convince Audrey to take off her clothes.
“It cost Konti a Herculean effort to convince the stubborn Kittie that her tender teenager was safe in his care. Every day, Audrey would arrive to pose with her mother in tow, and Konti would explain to Kittie why artists did the things they did. There was nothing wrong, he argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’ In those studio sessions, Kittie, as much as Audrey, was being inducted into a new way of life. The life of art.” (Bone, 39-40).
According to Bone’s accounts, artist after artist would be struck at first sight by Audrey’s potential and use her form to produce a masterpiece. Konti introduced Audrey to Adolph Weinman, who immediately asked her to take her clothes off. Still a novice, Audrey stood shyly before him, eyes downcast. Weinman asked her to raise her arms as if she were fixing her hair and made quick sketches of her pose. These sketches later became the sculpture Descending Night—renamed The Setting Sun for the Pan-Pacific Exposition (and pictured at the beginning of this essay).
Bone emphasizes that Audrey insisted she only worked for professional artists and was no “natural” exhibitionist. “She developed a mental trick to help defeat her shame at appearing before a stranger in the altogether. ‘In position, holding a pose while a sculptor or painter worked, I thought of myself only as a model—a mere piece of human flesh,’ she said. ‘The moment the artist dropped his brush or mallet or modeling tool I became the human young woman again, ashamed to have my body seen.’” (Bone, 41-42).
Note, of course, that none of the art works for which she modeled is called “Audrey Munson.” They are named after mythological figures—Three Graces, Venus de Milo, Phryne—or abstractions—Maidenhood, Spirit of Commerce, Mourning Victory, Star Maiden. The erasure of individuality and subjectivity was the price of portraying the nude form in early twentieth-century America.
“Audrey learned the unspoken rules of thumb for posing in the buff. ‘No model posing undraped must ever smile. If she does the representation of her becomes common, disagreeable, offensive,’ she said. Even odder was the widely held belief that motion itself suggested sexuality. Censors allowed static ‘poses plastiques’ in the theater but balked at any moving nudity.” (Bone, 74)
Nevertheless, other details of her story suggest a more complicated dynamic. Rather than a passive object, Audrey was an active advocate for her career. She tirelessly visited studios throughout New York to offer her services. Recommendations from other artists as to her professionalism helped secure more work. She claimed to avoid being entrapped into affairs with the pseudo-artists of Bohemia, best identified by their luxurious studios and expensive clothes. Real artists wore dirty smocks; their workplaces were cold and Spartan. In her interviews and memoirs, Audrey insisted that her work had a higher purpose: “That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue—my willingness that the world should gaze upon my figure unadorned.” (Bone, 41)
If the classic erotic scene in the studio–with the artist invoking “duty to art” as he charms or bullies his reluctant, maidenly model into disrobing–is not totally accurate in Audrey’s case, what about the reason she was chosen by so many artists as the “It” Girl of the 1910s? The press would have you believe it was for a simple, objective reason: she had the perfect female form, no argument allowed. Syndicated health columnist Dr. Lillian Whitney attributed her popularity to Audrey’s ample bosom. (Bone, 74) In our age of breast implants, Audrey appears rather middling in that regard. As for timeless perfection, would Audrey receive a second glance from photographers and artists in our modern age?
They’d probably say she has to work on her thighs.
In fact, if you examine more than a few of these statues, the figures and faces are not exactly alike. Sometimes the breasts are full, other times they are smaller. Arnold Genthe’s photograph of Audrey above shows a different figure in flesh than in the stone of Three Graces. Might it be that the artist projects his own image of beauty onto the model? That “perfection” is an agreement between male artist and male critic rather than an objective measurement? If so, can we “know” Audrey through a sculptor’s image of her? Or can we only know something of the artist himself, the concrete representation of his fantasies?
Again Audrey’s professionalism is downplayed. She clearly had the talent of posing for long hours day after day, not a discomfort every person is able or willing to endure. The emphasis on the artist’s agency—persuading the woman to disrobe with invocations of duty to high principles, creating the work of art from his vision and skill—also undercuts the fortitude and attitude of the model. The sensibility of early twentieth-century America did not allow for any celebration of Audrey’s professionalism. We will never really know if she had appetite for transgression or “natural” exhibitionism. Audrey herself had to cloak her posing in high-minded abstractions: Beauty, Art and Timeless Immobility.
In conclusion, I am reminded that erotic writing by, for and about women only really came of age at the end of the twentieth century, around the time of Audrey’s death. In modern interpretations of the artist-model dynamic, the subjective desire of the model is finally given a voice—indeed the artist’s gaze can even be a female. Best of all, women eroticists don’t have to be cajoled, convinced or fooled. We create art with our eyes open. That is something to celebrate!
My kids weren’t the type to act out, as they say today, at school. For the most part my two girls got glowing reviews from their teachers, but then the apples don’t fall far from the tree, and I had my share of being called to school to discuss something or other one of my girls said or did in class.
For instance, there was the time my older girl asked me how the Easter Bunny manages to carry all those Easter baskets to homes the night before Easter. After all, Santa had a big sleigh and elves to help him out.
It seemed a reasonable question deserving of a reasonable answer. So I explained how the Easter Bunny subcontracted to thousands of other rabbits who then chartered hundreds of buses to bring them and their baskets to the neighborhoods. And that’s why, I told her, it was so hard to sleep the night before Easter with all those buses idling their engines.
She nodded and seemed to accept my explanation, and that’s the last I ever expected to hear on the topic again. How did I know she would repeat the story to her classmates, that it would turn viral, as they say today, and that several parents would become upset and complain to the school when their children brought the story home?
So I ended up discussing the matter with the assistant principal and my daughter’s teacher, both of whom subjected me to the dread hairy eyeball. I wasn’t sure what they expected of me, an apology perhaps. But then I asked them, “How do you suppose the Easter Bunny manages to carry all those millions of Easter baskets …. hmm? We left it with my promise never, ever to repeat the story. At least, not in front of children.
But then it came to pass that my daughter and her classmates were assigned an oral history project. They were instructed to interview a grandparent and ask what they did for entertainment when they were children. My daughter eagerly interviewed my mother.
Some weeks later, during open house, my wife and I were whisked into a private meeting with the teacher. The subject was my girl’s oral history report.
“Quite frankly, Mr. Buckley, I found some of the passages disturbing,” she said, with that gravitas that only a spinster middle school teacher could deliver.
Oh-oh. This presaged a faux pas weightier than some fanciful explanation of the logistics of distributing Easter baskets.
She indicated an account of my mother attending weekend minstrel shows at her neighborhood movie theater.
“Minstrel shows? Is she talking about …?”
“Yes, ma’am, performers in black face speaking in exaggerated black dialect and accompanying gestures and song.
Then I demonstrated, “You know: Mr. Bones! Yassah, Mr. Interlocutor!”
“But … that’s so racist.”
“Yes, but it was the 1920s, and my mother wasn’t thinking of sociological ramifications. She was a kid thinking it was all funny.”
“And this …” She began to read a passage from my daughter’s report. “My Nana and her family used to live across from the old Charlestown State Prison, and on summer nights when they were going to execute someone they would go out on the porch and watch for the lights to dim.”
She had this look, as if she were pleading for me to say it wasn’t true, but alas, my mother had told me the same story.
I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s all true. But again, it was the 1920s; it wasn’t that distant from public hangings in this country, so watching for a dip in the lumination while someone was getting juiced in the electric chair seems pretty benign for the times.”
She remained appalled. She informed me they wouldn’t be entering my daughter’s report in an in-school competition.
Was there a problem with the writing? No. Had she not carried out her assignment? Yes, she had.
I then told the teacher that when she assigned her students to look into the past, she should have been prepared for some appalling revelations. Did she think kids ran with barrel hoops through the streets and played tiddlywinks all the time?
My mother was a child of her time with a world view and values in tune with her time. We regard ourselves as enlightened, but I wonder if folks even a hundred years from now will look down on us as crude and barbaric. We’re barely beyond a time when it was thoroughly acceptable to regard homosexuality as aberrant, depraved and even a psychiatric disease.
Seriously, what will people think of us for putting that guy in the White House?
My mom was a person who took everyone as they came; a contrarian who made it a point to stick up for the bullied and picked on. She took in strays, both human and non-human. She thought minstrel shows were funny … because they were funny. She liked Stepin Fetchit too, and W.C. Fields.
I read stories set in the past and cringe at the golden age often portrayed in them. This doubly applies to stories set in the recent past when the unpleasant attitudes of an age are air brushed out of the picture. You don’t honor the past by ignoring its warts.
By Ian Smith
Most regular participants in the ERWA “storytime” workshop group will know I’m quite enthusiastic about writing flashers, our in-house term for flash fiction.
Broadly speaking, flash fiction can be a short story of up to 1200 words, but lower word counts are often set for competitions and calls for submission. Being the ERWA, and up for a challenge, we limit flashers to no more than 200 words, ideally including some form of character development and a complete story arc, so that they feel like a complete story.
No, telling a story in only 200 words isn’t easy!
Before I joined the ERWA, the word count was only 100, and I’ve been really impressed by how much story could be told in some of these older pieces.
Yes, I know there’s the familiar idea that you can tell a story in four words, typically something like “Wedding dress, never worn”. Personally, I don’t think that’s a story. It would be a great title or first line, but for me the story is why the wedding dress is unworn.
So, why write flash fiction at all?
I think it’s great fun. The challenge for me is to think about exactly what shows my story unfolding, and how economically I can share it with a reader.
Writing flash fiction has become an integral part of my development as a writer. On the rare occasions when I’m on-form, I can sit down and write two or three different stories in a couple of hours. I’ve found flash fiction to be a really handy way to sketch out an idea which can be developed into a longer story. Two of my flashers ended up being developed into longer scenes in my as-yet-unpublished novel. The characters in one 200-word flasher stuck in my mind and to date I’ve written three novellas about them, with others to follow.
Think about your story idea as a TV commercial rather than as a show. Drop us right into the action and push us into running with your characters.
How little do you need to say about the setting, to describe your characters, or tell us what they’re doing? Every word has to count, to tell us something, so use really specific nouns and verbs to show us your story. People don’t use perfect grammar in speech, so you can get your characters to tell us something in dialogue in fewer words than you could in narrative.
Be ambiguous and invite your reader to create the details. The two words “threadbare sheets” may be enough for your reader to imagine a squeaky, worn-out bed in a cheap and grubby hotel. Maybe even a flashing neon light outside the window?
Think about the ending being like the punchline in a joke – hit us with a twist. Naughty, nice or nasty? Well, that’s up to you.
To save on words, use “action tags” to indicate who’s speaking a line of dialogue, and these can sort of imply more. For instance:
Ella sat up. “My husband’s back.”
This only actually tells us Ella sat up. But as it’s in the same paragraph as the dialogue, it’s clear that she said those words. And, given the context, one could easily imagine her sitting up abruptly, looking alarmed and sounding worried, maybe even getting out of bed and grabbing some clothing. And she clearly has company, presumably someone she hopes her hubby doesn’t know is with her.
I think Malin James hit every nail on the head during her presentation on writing erotic flash fiction at Eroticon 2017. She generously posted a copy of both her slides and script on her blog, which are well-worth reading.
I’ve found the tricks I’ve learned writing flash fiction can be just as useful in longer stories. They can help keep the story moving by engaging the reader and leading them along. Using action tags really can help with this.
Writing economically can really show us your character’s experience. For instance, in a short, fast-moving action scene, how much would they be consciously aware of? I’ve read stories with action scenes described almost like step-by-step instructions for a dance move. Stopping to recreate it in my mind took me out of the story.
So why not think about a short story idea and see if you can whittle it down to its bare bones? If it’s no more than 200 words, please share it with us on a Sunday in the ERWA storytime workshop.
I want erotica to vanish, to disappear as a literary genre, to utterly and completely GO AWAY.
Am I biting the hand that’s fed me? Sour grapes? Making noise for the sake of noise? It’s none of the above, so hear me out.
Erotica exists because a need wasn’t being met. Readers looked around at movies, books, television, and every other medium and noticed that something was missing. Rob and Laura Petrie had twin beds, and Ricky Ricardo and Lucy pulled off a trick not seen since Mary got knocked up by a ghost: a virgin (as far as we know) birth. If a book managed to actually talk about what happened behind closed doors and under the sheets, it was immediately banned, burned, or branded INDECENT.
So then came erotica: a peek behind those doors and under those covers. Sex was out in the open and, more importantly, it was profitable. Sex sold, and very well – and with anything that sells well, the people doing the selling began to make more and more and more of it.
That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. After all, if sex didn’t sell we wouldn’t have MTV, Fox, beer ads, Britney Spears, Ron Jeremy, the entire literary erotica genre, or even the Erotica Readers and Writers Association and my column. But all this and more is popular, and remains popular, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Pick up a book, switch on the tube, plop down half your paycheck for a movie ticket and sure there might be hints, suggestions, or allusions, but that’ll be it.
Meanwhile, out here in the wild woolies of smut writing, we continue to write books and stories that address what no one else seems to be talking about: sex. The problem is that for the longest time, we were part of an opposite but equal problem, which was talking about nothing but sex.
Luckily, this has been changing. It used to be that just simply writing s-e-x was enough, but as the public started to get more, they also began asking for more. Editors, publishers and (more importantly) readers have responded by demanding erotica with depth, meaning, wit, style, and sophistication – and writers have been doing exactly that, pushing the boundaries of what sex writing can be.
The result? Erotica writers have created a genre worthy of respect and serious, non-genre attention. This is a great time to be working in this field, because for the first time writing about sex is not a guarantee of condemnation or exile to a professional Elba. Erotica writers are breaking out and otherwise mainstream publishers are beginning to pay serious attention to the marketability of sex. Because of what’s developed in the genre, they can sell it without blushing.
This is a good thing for another, more important reason. It’s crystal ball time: as erotica becomes more and more refined and mature, more elegant and accepted, it may very well begin to be accepted as a valid and respected form of literature. But what I really hope will happen is what’s happened with many other genres: assimilation. It used to be that anything to do with time travel, aliens, or space travel was exiled to science fiction. Then came a renaissance in that genre, and a subsequent use of the old elements in new ways – Kurt Vonnegut comes immediately to mind. The same thing has happened with mysteries, horror, romance, comic books (excuse me, ‘graphic novels’), television, and so forth.
As the sexually explicit techniques and methods developed in erotica permeate other genres, the need for erotica as its own separate, unique place in bookstores will fade, and then vanish. Erotica will become what it always should have been: a part of life, legitimate and respected – not something to be ashamed of, hidden away, or even just separate.
How will that serve us in the erotica-writing world? Wonderfully, I think. Erotica is fun, and I definitely believe that, but it’s only one genre. As we become better and better writers, trying new things, new techniques, and dipping our toes in new pools, other venues will open up, other – better – playgrounds to frolic in.
Sure it might be scary, once erotica merges with the rest of the world and fades away as a genre in its own right. But think of how much better that world will be, a place where sex is something to be talked about, celebrated, and understood without fear or shame.
Our genre may disappear, and could utterly and completely go away – but we will have accomplished something remarkable:
We changed the world.
By Ashley Lister
More than three years ago on this blog I mentioned the swifitie. Because I still think it’s a lot of fun, I figured it was time to revisit this writer-friendly parlour game.
Tom Swift was the central character in a series of books produced between 1910 and 1933, the majority of which were attributed to author Victor Appleton. One of the characteristic (and much parodied) features of the narrative in these stories was the speech attribution. These attributions, usually adverbial, have become the source of an entertaining parlour game where the attributive adverb has to be linked to the content of the sentence, usually with a pun.
“We must hurry,” said Tom swiftly.
“I’m working as a security officer,” she said guardedly.
“I have a cold,” he said icily.
“Do you want to see my pussy?” she purred.
“But I asked for a cabernet sauvignon,” Tom whined.
“I was just looking at pictures of my mother,” Oedipus ejaculated.
Take a shot at producing a small handful of your own swifties in the comments box below. It goes without saying that these swifties are entertaining as a writing exercise, and a great way for warming up your pen hand and getting words on the page, but they should not enter into serious attempts at fiction unless you’re determined to stop your readers from enjoying your work.
I genuinely look forward to reading your swifties.
I love editing. Always have. I know many writers don’t share the love, but I think editing is one of the sexiest parts of the writing process. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that, for me, if the editing process doesn’t feel like good sex, then I’m not doing it right.
Take it off!
Since I’m not precious with my words, one of the first, and probably easiest parts, of editing is taking it off. What I mean by that is stripping my WIP, undressing it, getting rid of unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, phrases, even whole chapters — anything superfluous or repetitive. I need to be sure I don’t repeat what’s already been said or what doesn’t need to be said. I need to trust my readers’ intelligence. They’ll get it the first time. Readers are as anxious as I am to get on with it, to get to the good stuff. That means I need to pop the story’s cherry and move on to the main act. So my first editing goal is to undress my work, get it down to the story beneath, to what really matters, what will turn my readers on. My job, at this point, is to expose that story and then let it seduce me. If it can’t seduce me, then it’s not very likely to seduce my readers.
Tweak, Touch and Play
Once I can see what’s underneath, what’s really there, then I can begin tweaking, touching-up and playing. This is the time-consuming part. This is the point at which every single word matters. I learned how important each word is by writing shorter stories. When you have only 2K, every word has to matter – even more so with something as precise and boiled-down as poetry. Writers of novels – myself included sometimes forget this because we have a whole novel’s worth of words to play with. This is the point at which I remind myself that I’m making love to the story, and I want my readers to be seduced by what I’ve written. Every word is an erogenous zone. Every phrase can be stimulated and heightened and engorged until it literally bursts with meaning, with intrigue, with seduction for the reader.
Beware of Distractions
I don’t want phones ringing or knocks on the door from the mailman when I’m having sex or when I’m editing. I don’t want anything that will pull me out of the moment. I especially don’t want anything that will pull my readers out of my story. That includes distracting words, actions that are out of character or excessive use of words and phrases. (My inner goddess definitely frowns on that sort of thing.) That also includes replacement words. I’m far less likely to be pulled out of the story by multiple uses of breast, and tits than I am by globes, orbs, mounds, hillocks. Fingers, fingers, fingers, please! Digits are for numbers and for anatomy lessons. If I can’t find a word that won’t distract the reader from the seduction, then I’ll try to rephrase.
While exploration is a part of the tweak, touch, and play process, it’s also the place where I discover hidden meanings, hidden tidbits, sometimes whole bits of story that need to be teased and written or rewritten and brought into focus. I can’t count the number of times I’ve discovered depth in my characters, secrets, quirks, emotions I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t made the effort to make love to my story during the editing process. Exploration is searching out the little moles, the scars, the sensitive spots that turn the story – and the reader — on.
Bring it to Climax
All of this effort is heading for the big climax, the pay-off — the story version of the Big O. While that’s true, the story is also about the journey, making it last, sustaining the pleasure and building it. The biggest part of editing, for me, is making sure that the journey, the tweak and touch and play are so gripping to readers that they’ll want it to last just a little longer, just a few more pages. I don’t know about you, but on a great read, I find myself slowing down near the end because I don’t want it to end. I want to make it last, even as I can’t wait for the pay-off. I need to have that experience while editing my own work or how can I ever expect the reader to have it? I need to feel that journey to the very end, right down to the blaze and fireworks of the climax. After it’s over, when I’m basking in the afterglow, I need to feel slightly bereft as the experience lingers in my mind, hopefully, long after the fact.
If I feel that way at the end of the editing process, then I’m confident I’ve done my job as a writer, and it’s now time to lean back on the pillow, have the imaginary cigarette and ask my readers, ‘was it good for you?’
by Jean Roberta
My actual posting date was March 26, but my post wasn’t ready then, and someone else’s post conveniently appeared. I hope I can slide this into an available date.
One aspect of sexually-explicit fiction that doesn’t seem to be discussed much is its connection to parody (or in some cases, libellous caricature), or imitations of work that is usually taken more seriously. Sex is a funny activity in some literary traditions, dating back to Lysistrata (ancient Greek comedy from approximately 450 BC). The British tradition of the Christmas pantomime is always advertised as family-friendly, but there is usually a “Dame” (over-the-top female character played by a man in drag) and a lot of double-entendres intended to amuse the adults while going over the heads of the children, who are entertained by the fast-moving plot, which often occupies the same territory as a Walt Disney movie: a familiar story such as Aladdin or Cinderella. Adding sex (even in the form of mildly naughty suggestions) to a traditional story tends to debunk its seriousness.
In the lead-up to the French Revolution of the 1790s, Queen Marie Antoinette was apparently a favourite subject of satirical writing, some of which focused on her “furious womb” or supposed inexhaustible appetite for sex with people other than her husband, the last of the French kings named Louis. The purpose of this type of porn was clearly to ridicule the contemporary Court, and it didn’t help that the Queen Consort was originally a foreigner from Austria. I don’t know how much influence this kind of underground fiction had on the actual revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille and dragged much of the aristocracy (including the royal family) to the guillotine, but it certainly didn’t encourage the kind of respect for the hereditary upper class that lingers on in Britain to this day.
There is a parallel tradition in porn films, which I discovered when I held a position on the local film classification board in the early 1990s. Some porn films are deliberately based on popular mainstream movies of the time, which is why I got to watch Edward Penishands, among other epics. The relationship between Hollywood and the porn industry seemed to be friendlier than that of Marie Antoinette’s detractors and the ancien regime. As far as I could tell, the people who produce visual porn often want to comment on popular culture, not necessarily to sneer at it.
Two literary traditions that have contributed to sexually-explicit art (both porn and more complex erotica) are fan-fiction (including “slash”) and tell-all paperbacks with titles like: I Was Joe Rockstar’s Sex Slave. When I was starting out as a sex-writer, just before the beginning of this century, I didn’t think I was influenced by either of those genres.
I learned about Kirk/Spock “slash” in the 1980s, and I was intrigued that some writers were willing to spend time and effort constructing a love affair between Captain Kirk and the half-alien Mr. Spock from the Star Trek TV series, even though stories about copyrighted characters couldn’t be “published” for sale. They could only circulate in the form of little ‘zines, and then on-line, among devotees. I liked Star Trek, but I didn’t feel moved to write about a male/male affair between two major characters since I didn’t have male plumbing myself, and didn’t think I was likely to get the details right.
In 2000, an anthology titled Starf*cker: A Twisted Collection of Superstar Fantasies was published by Alyson Publications. It was edited by a major sex-writer, Shar Rednour, who collected other sex-writers’ fantasies about actual people whom they hadn’t actually fucked, or vice versa. I was aghast. To this day, I don’t know why that book didn’t give rise to a flurry of lawsuits. This seemed like an updated version of eighteenth-century porn about Marie Antoinette.
I had already promised my Significant Other that I would never violate her privacy by describing her in my stories about sex. I thought I had even less right to describe sex scenes starring real people I had never met in person. I prided myself on being saner than a celebrity stalker.
However, the popular culture of today and yesteryear has a huge influence on sex-writing, and every literary tradition involves a certain amount of imitation. Anne Rice’s homoerotic vampires of the 1970s are clearly descended from the nineteenth-century vampires of Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu, even though every writer seems to have a slightly different take on the bloodthirsty undead. Writers with a distinct style and an appealing imaginary world tend to spawn imitators.
Over time, I wrote two stories based (at least loosely) on Lewis Carroll’s dream-like novel, Alice in Wonderland (1865), a BDSM fantasy based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a story about a contemporary woman who composes raunchy little ditties in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan (who wrote comic operettas in late Victorian England), a lesbian fairy tale based on “The White Cat” by Countess d’Alnoy (circa 1690s, pre-revolutionary France), a modern lesbian threesome involving a version of the Shakespeare romantic comedy Twelfth Night for a Shakespeare-themed queer anthology, and a sexually-explicit story about the conception of King Arthur, based on the brief version in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (from the 1480s, itself based on French sources).
After all this frolicking in the imaginary worlds of earlier writers, I was prepared to write something more clearly satirical, even if it didn’t include explicit sex scenes. In late December, I tried my hand at a Sherlock Holmesian mystery story which suggests more scandalous sex than it delivers. (Several women are found naked and murdered, but the thickening plot reveals something much different from Victorian conceptions of lust, adultery, or perversion.) I don’t know yet whether this story will be published in the foreseeable future.
In the winter of early 2016, I read a call-for-submissions that had been cooked up by a publishing couple at an annual literary con in Baltimore, Maryland, named Balticon. The working title was “Inclusive Cthulhu” and the stories were to be based on the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). The editors asked for stories which would horrify Lovecraft himself by deliberately challenging his prejudices: racism, White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant chauvinism, class snobbery, misogyny, homophobia. The stories needed to be Lovecraftian in some sense. I wrote a story and sent it off. After several months, I was asked for revisions which I was glad to make (the revised version gives my plucky heroine a happier ending). I waited some more.
At last, the editors have sent out contracts and announced that the book, now titled Equal Opportunity Madness, is due to be launched at Balticon near the end of May 2017. I’ve never been to this con, and I would love to go. (Baltimore is the setting of the comic musical Hairspray, about the cultural Spirit of the Sixties. I experienced that as a teenager.) I bet Baltimore has good weather in the spring, and a trip could be inspiring.
Alas, I’m afraid to cross the border from Canada under the current political regime. Before I could board a plane, some new ban would probably be in place. As a Canadian citizen who was born in the U.S., I could be treated with suspicion even if I travelled with no electronic gadgets whatsoever.
I’ll just have to stay in my own real-life setting until the regime changes, while visiting others only in my imagination.
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her three cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.
Her new m/m erotic medical thriller Roughing
It is out! This book is a sexy cross between The X Files, The Andromeda Strain, and Outbreak. Read her short erotic story Babes in Begging For It, published by Cleis Press. You will also find her new novel No Restraint at Amazon. Enjoy a good, sexy read today.
My first blog post goes way back – Sept. 3, 2003. Back when dinosaurs ruled the Internet. LOL Back then, iPhones hadn’t even been imagined let alone invented. Internet piracy was a new thing. NCIS, Arrested Development, and Two and a Half Men were new TV shows. Adam and Jamie in Mythbusters started their schtick. Usenet (Newsgroups) was at its height. Blockbuster was thriving. Video tapes were still a thing. As far as I remember, CNN was the only 24 hour news station. Fox News was not a thing yet. AOL was at its peak. And I still remember what dial-up sounded like.
I had read about blogging in the New York Times, and it fascinated me. What a weird term – blog. It sounded like a shoe or some type of awkward dance. Or the sound a cat makes when it’s throwing up furballs. LOL But I wanted in. How could I become a blogger? Where could I find blogs? The articles I read sent me to conservative blogs like Instapundit, which was the first blog I ever read. It didn’t appeal to me much because I’m a flaming liberal, but it was a sane, intelligent read so I read it regularly. I did find the liberal and feminist blogs. Each day over the years I devoured Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, Body and Soul, Scrappleface, Kevin Drum, Echidne of the Snakes, and many more. I wrote several times per day and I had over 1,000 hits per day. This was the heyday of blogging.
Blogging back then was much more like The Wild West. As a political and feminist blogger who concentrated on family law issues, I made quite the name for myself. I was trolled. I made many friends and fantastic networking colleagues. I received hate mail and death threats. It was fun! LOL My blogging led to non-fiction political writing jobs for reputable and respected publications like the Ms. Magazine Blog, Alternet, American Politics Journal, and On The Issues Magazine. It was different back then. Not everyone and his brother was a blogger. It was easier to make a name for yourself. I’ve since stopped political and feminist blogging and concentrated on sex writing and entertainment. Burnout was a huge factor. I also enjoy sex blogging and entertainment much more. Both are much more relaxing and considerably less stressful.
Today, writers are told they must blog in order to gain readers. Is this really necessary? The problem is there are so many blogs it’s hard to keep track of them. In my opinion, the ones who do best are the ones who have been around for close to a decade and therefore have developed a large following. The first ones out the gate who survived do best. If you start up a blog now, you’ll be lost in a sea of blogs with very few readers. I think that group blogs with a huge readership are the best way to go if you are a writer looking to attract readers. The blog for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association (this one, heh heh) is a great example of such a blog. You have the advantage of a huge audience that reads frequently. Fans of better known authors will read your posts and possibly buy your books as a result. When I set up my own blog tours, I go to group blogs most often. The key is to find a blog with a large audience. That’s not always easy to do. Write about something other than your book unless the blog’s owner requests such a post. I write about writing-related topics and anything fun that may appeal to my chosen audience. Then I include a blurb, excerpt, cover, and link for one of my books. Don’t spam. Talk to your audience. If you can get a conversation started in comments you’re already ahead of the game. Conversations – or arguments, if you want to be more accurate, LOL – on my first blog (the political/feminist one) could go on for days. That isn’t as common anymore unless you’re an established blog.
Blogging is useful today but it’s not the way it was when I first started. Granted, I was writing in a different and volatile genre but things have changed. Find a few group blogs or busy individual blogs and try to write for them. Blogging is a great way to get word out that you exist, but only if the blog has a huge following. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. Above all, have fun blogging. You’re chatting with people about what interests you. Enjoy it.