Jazz Age Beauties: The Private Nudes of Alfred Cheney Johnston

by | July 18, 2019 | 1 comment

When Alfred Cheney Johnston died in 1971 on his country estate in Oxford, Connecticut, only two people attended his funeral. Such was the sad end for a man who had once photographed the most celebrated women in New York. Johnston’s photographs of Ziegfeld Follies’ showgirls adorned the lobbies of Broadway theaters and the covers of fan magazines in the 1920s and 1930s. Daring society women paid over a thousand dollars (enough in modern terms to buy an automobile) to pose for the “camera artist.” In his heyday, Johnston was famous for capturing—and creating—the erotic vision of female beauty in 1920s America.

Johnston’s best friend, Arthur Sias, inherited the photographer’s belongings including studio equipment, glass-plate negatives, and prints. Also among the artist’s possessions were a set of boxes marked “private.” Inside were thousands of nude photos of women. The majority of Johnston’s photographs were sensual, even titillating, but with the aid of carefully draped lace shawls and silk scarves—Johnston was known as “Mr. Drape” in Hollywood—his images generally suggested rather than revealed. His skillful placement of hands or a veil was such that the viewer could only wish the model would shrug or shift but an inch and all would be exposed.

Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston is a catalog of the photographer’s public images along with a special bonus: a sampling of these private images where drapery finally gives way to bare flesh.

A serious-looking and bespectacled man himself, Johnston “felt that ‘all women were beautiful,’ and that his life’s goal was to portray them as works of art.” (Jazz Age Beauties, 262).

There’s nothing in “The Secret Nudes” section of the book that you couldn’t find in the Louvre. (I am refraining from posting a more explicit example here, but a search for the photographer’s works on Google Images will doubtless satisfy most curiosities). Some models have their faces draped in lace or black velvet, invoking the headless Three Graces statue from ancient times in a rather unsettling way. More evocative of the jazz age are the boudoir settings with models fixing their hair before mirrors or kneeling on beds wearing nothing but the long bridal veils of the era. The women’s bodies are suited to the slim flapper style with smaller breasts and long waists, but generous buttocks and thighs, truly a glimpse into the aesthetic of a very different age from our own.

In the lengthier first section of the book, “The Stars,” the showgirls and glamorous celebrities are named and given a brief biography. However, only a few of the models in the private section can be identified, among them Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Another less famous, but equally fascinating, “private” model was Justine Johnstone. During her years as a Ziegfeld girl, she posed nude for Johnston in the mid 1910s, but later studied pathology, helped develop the I.V. drip, and was one of the five researchers who were credited with discovery of a cure for syphilis.

Yet the identity of the majority of the nude models remains a mystery. Author Robert Hudovernik states that the most common guess is that the nudes were “audition” photographs meant to be seen only by Ziegfeld himself. Ziegfeld made the definition and display of female beauty his life’s work. Perhaps the auditions, rehearsals and multiple affairs weren’t enough to satisfy his need for beautiful women. Was a private collection of photographs of women, including amateurs, needed to fill in the empty hours?

Some suggest that the photographs represent Johnston’s own personal interest in exploring fine art nude studies. For me, the artist’s dedication to his own creative vision is more inspiring than the idea he was catering to the consuming desires of an insatiable celebrity producer.

Hudovernik gives us yet another intriguing explanation he discovered in a Popular Photography article from 1951:

“Soon society women, envious of the Ziegfeld girls’ physical charms, began flocking to his studio to be photographed revealingly draped or completely nude—at fabulous prices of course.” (Jazz Age Beauties, 61).

Reportedly these women of means would pay $1200 to $1400 to be transformed into icons of beauty by Ziegfeld’s court photographer. This photograph of his elaborate studio in the Hotel des Artistes at West 67th and Fifth Avenue consists of various “stations” where the ladies could pose without too much extra set up by the camera artist himself. It wasn’t a bad way to earn a living at the time.

However, Hudovernik attributes the ladies with a deeper cultural yearning in seeking out boudoir photo sessions in the early twentieth century:

“This was their ultimate fantasy, an expression of their freedom as newly liberated young women of the Jazz Age—to be captured beautifully by Manhattan’s ‘it’ photographer.” (Jazz Age Beauties, 61)

So we might wonder, too, if copies of the prints in Johnston’s “private” boxes could also be found secreted away in the intimate libraries and bedroom drawers of Manhattan’s luxury apartments. Were they gifts for husbands or married lovers? Or indeed gifts to themselves? What tales of pleasure, desire, heartbreak and joy lie hidden behind the glowing flesh and the elegant poses?

Perhaps there is a story in these pages for an erotica writer who is inspired to bring a Jazz Age beauty to life again?

Revise, Revise… Then Revise Again

by | July 12, 2019 | 5 comments

Two of the questions I see frequently posted in some Facebook groups for writers run along the lines of:

1 – I’ve written my story, now what?

2 – How will I know when I’ve finished editing?

My answers, which are much the same as those offered by many others, are:

1 – Revise it.

2 – You never do – you get to an “it’ll do” stage.

Questions like these are far more common in the groups for those with less experience of writing, and I phrase my responses in what I hope is an encouraging way. Let’s face it, every writer appreciates motivation to revise a story they’ve just spent weeks, months or even years working on. And are quite possibly a little fed up with…

I like the quote “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story”, attributed to the late Terry Pratchett, a writer notable for producing rather a lot of very popular books. When I’m working on a story, it certainly feels like that to me, as if I’m trying to write out something I already know, but can’t quite remember.

The participants in the ERWA “storytime” workshop have probably got used to my way of working on longer stories, typically writing and posting one chapter a week for comments anyone is willing to offer. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, and I find it really helpful to have the discipline of a self-imposed target. Yes, sometimes I realise I really needed to have introduced something in one of the earlier chapters. I recently finished the first draft of a 57,000-word story and only realised something important about my two main characters while writing the final chapter. So, something to work on during revision.

Once I’ve finished, I find it useful to wait a few weeks before starting on revisions. It’s always provided me with a slight “detachment” from the story, which seems to help me be rather more objective about it. For me, revision is about trying to tell the story to readers as well as possible. I pay attention to things like the time frame and chronology; consistency of locations, descriptions and characters (“continuity issues”); trying to make action scenes clear; clarifying who “her” and “she” are in scenes involving two or more women, and so on.

For me, character development is important; how do my main characters change as a result of their experiences, and how do I show that in my telling of their story?

My working practice is to work away and frequently save the new versions with different file names. There’s little issue with disc space these days – my current draft of a 49,000 word story is only 3.5 MBytes. And once I reach the end, I’ll review and revise it again, usually three or four times in total. Eventually, I reach a point where I feel I’ve done as much as I can, even though I’m sure it could be better. Or maybe I just reach the point where I’ve simply had enough of the story?

Before I submit a story, I want it to be in a good shape. I’d like the editors to think I’ve adopted a “professional” approach to my writing, as that might help them feel confident I’ll have the same attitude while working with them.

When a story’s been accepted, every editor I’ve worked with has helped me tell it better than I could have done on my own. Yes, of course I feel anxious when I got the first e-mail from an editor with their annotated copy of my story. But every time, the comments and suggestions were helpful and constructive.

Self-editing (or revising) is one thing, but editing someone else’s work is quite another. I’ve offered detailed constructive comments as a beta-reader, but never tried to edit even a short story. I think that anyone willing to invest that much time and effort into helping another writer develop their own story deserves our gratitude and admiration, as well as fair payment.

Even when the editor and I have agreed that it’s “done”, there are still things we could have changed. I don’t suppose many writers are ever completely happy with their published stories. As their experience grows, no doubt they realise they could have written things differently, added a few more scenes to give more depth to the story, and so on.

As my publisher recently gave up the struggle and returned my rights, I’m revising the three novellas involved to submit to another publisher. These were the first three in a planned series of five, and the first draft of the fourth is ready for revision, too. It’s interesting to look back on stories I wrote three or four years ago, now that these characters and their stories have developed in my own mind. It’s a chance for me to think how they and their relationships develop across the series, how things move on from one book to the next, and address anything I think isn’t as good as I can make it.

So, you’ve written your story? Great, that’s an achievement in itself – most people don’t finish books they set out to write.

You’ve told yourself the story.

Now revise it.

And revise the revision.

And maybe revise that revision.

Then you’re ready to let other people read your story.

If they’re beta-readers, you may find it helpful to ask for comments on specific things, like characters, dialogue, or the development of relations, as well as general feedback. Read and think about their comments, and revise the story as you think is necessary.

If an editor’s the next person to read it, you can expect to produce another revision or two… But at the end, you’ll have a better telling of your story.

As an aside, I’ve not tracked down the source of Terry’s quote, but I found this interesting article, a transcript of Terry Pratchett and Gerald Seymour in conversation with David Freeman at the 2001 Cheltenham Literary Festival. Clearly, Terry’s way of writing wasn’t quite what you might guess from the quote, and it neatly illustrates the contrasting ways these two authors found worked for them.

Ian Smith

ERWA Flasher and Quickie Editor

Six Ways to Promote Your Book Online

by | July 6, 2019 | 2 comments

By Ashley Lister

As writers in the twenty-first century, we are not just expected to write. We’re expected to write, edit, proofread and promote. The goal, I suppose, is to introduce our work to more potential readers, and secure a place at the top of their ‘To Be Read’ (TBR) pile. Below are a handful of tips that might help with achieving such a goal.

1: Use Social Media: FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, GoodReads and LinkedIn – and whatever other social media platform is currently in vogue at your time of going to press. Make sure your book is visible on that medium.

FaceBook allows you to have a cover photo and a profile picture. Use both of those opportunities to make sure potential readers know that your book is available.
Twitter has similar things, as well as an option to pin a tweet to the top of your page. Personally, I’ve pinned an image of the cover of my forthcoming title, as well as a link to its Amazon page. In the past I’ve pinned copies of 5* reviews.

I’m aware that some social media platforms treat erotica as though it’s the most leprous of genres. This means being canny in the way you approach promotion for different venues. For example, whilst we all know that FaceBook don’t like nipples, it makes more sense to avoid putting a nipple on FaceBook rather than railing against their arbitrary policies. As a rule of thumb, simply ask yourself which course of action is going to get you the most sales.

Keep in mind that Social Media, aside from being a useful way to stay in touch with friends and business contacts, is an essential marketing tool nowadays. Missing out on using promotion through any area of Social Media means you’re running the risk of missing out on sales.

2. Always include links to potential sales points. Have them as part of your email signature. Have them as part of the signature you use after commenting on a blog post. Have links to captions on images that show readers enjoying your book, or cats sitting on your book, or dogs eating your book. The modern audience has the attention span of a goldfish with a sore head. Rather than hoping they will remember how to Google your name, or fully recall the title of your work, give them a link so there’s no excuse for them missing a chance to buy your work.

3. Enlist Reviewers. Reviews work with algorithms to increase visibility. If you can get friends and family to leave positive reviews then you’re going to be in a good place to become more visible to potential readers. Some people ask me if this is ethical and my response is: if friends and family have read your work and believe it merits a five star review, then it’s completely ethical. I’ve heard some people say they don’t give five star reviews because they’ve never read anything of that superlative quality. To those people I say, get over yourself.
Get reviews. Share the reviews when they arrive so that all your contacts can see what other people are saying about your work. Once the buzz has started, you’ll be inching closer to the top of a potential reader’s TBR pile.

4. Blog. If you have a blog, tell everyone about your book through the platform that is your blog. Do a virtual blog tour. Get people talking about your book. Get reviewers to blog. Send content to fellow bloggers. Exchange links.

5. Write articles. This ties in with the aforementioned idea of blogging. Write articles for anyone who will take them. If the content relates to your area of expertise (and, as the author a recently published book you have several areas of expertise) then it’s not inappropriate to mention the title of your work or maybe include a direct link.

6. Use Amazon. I’m aware that some people believe Amazon is an evil monopoly that has crippled competition within the publishing industry. There are arguments about Amazon benefitting from taxpayer handouts. There are arguments about exploitation and the absence of ethical capitalism. However, whilst all of these arguments are interesting, do you want to argue about the injustice of a large corporation, or do you want book sales? There is likely a very strong ethical argument for eschewing Amazon but it’s not an argument that is going to get your writing into the hands of readers. As I mentioned before: simply ask yourself which course of action is going to get you the most sales – is it complaining about Amazon, or using their market dominance to your advantage?

Use KDP Select if it’s appropriate for your title. Use an Amazon Book Widget if you can. Make sure you have updated your Amazon Author Page. These features on Amazon are there to help you become noticed in the ever-growing ocean of competitors.

It might sound mercenary, and it’s almost certainly going to take you away from the important work of your writing, but marketing and publicity remain an essential part of the modern writer’s workload. Remember: if we don’t do everything we can to get readers, we’re cheating a large portion of our potential readers from experiencing the genius of what we’ve written – and that would be unforgivable.

Pride Month News

by | June 26, 2019 | 2 comments

June is Pride Month throughout North America and much of Europe. This is when the Lesbian/Gay/Transgender/Bisexual/2-Spirit/Non-binary community commemorates several hot nights in June 1969 when a sketchy gay bar (and they were all considered sketchy then) in New York City, the Stonewall Inn, was raided by the police. This was a fairly regular event in those days, but this time, the bar regulars resisted arrest and fought back. The “Stonewall Riots,” as they came to be called, are now considered the trigger that started the “gay rights”movement.

My Chilean-born spouse and I watched the rainbow flag being raised at the legislature of the province of Saskatchewan for Pride Month, and we also watched a similar flag-raising in front of the city hall of Regina, the small capital city where we live. We rode on a float in our local Pride parade. I posted numerous photos to Facebook under my full name, Jean Roberta Hillabold.

After a ten-day “Pride Week” had ended in Regina, we were passengers in our friend’s car when four of us went to Saskatoon, the other small city or large town in Saskatchewan, for THEIR Pride parade. Although Regina and Saskatoon have traditionally been rival cities, the organizing committees that plan Pride Weeks in both places always arrange to schedule them one after the other so that anyone who likes to travel can enjoy at least two weeks of Pride.

However, we weren’t all going to Saskatoon so we could party for another week. We were bringing a gay refugee to the nearest office of the government of Canada where refugees need to apply for official status, and permission to stay in Canada indefinitely.

Ramon, as I’ll call him, is from El Salvador. He just turned 28 during Pride Week in Regina. He says he finished secondary school in his country, but my Spanish-speaking spouse doubts it, based on the things he says and the way he says them. We first met Ramon several months ago, when he was brought to Regina by an international development organization. He told us he was afraid for his life, but felt he had to go back. Since then, he has kept in touch with my spouse Mirtha by telefono and correo electronico (email).

About two weeks ago, Ramon sounded desperate, so we bought him a round-trip plane ticket and arranged for him to be a visiting speaker at a Pride Week event, with Mirtha as translator. This was his official reason for entering Canada.

Ramon has been in our guest bedroom ever since, and we hope we can help him start a new life here. He told us that his own father threatened to kill him, and an American woman hid him in her house for six months because it was no longer safe for him to go to his paid job for a Salvadorean organization that educates people about AIDS. (As far as we know, Ramon is healthy.) Apparently his American friend thought he should stay in his country and fight the macho, Catholic homophobia. Mirtha and I believe that live activists, even those in exile, can do more good than dead ones.

Little by little, things are falling into place. We discovered that the friend who drove us to Saskatoon has experience in helping refugees navigate the system. A local “affirming” (queer-accepting) church has offered help. Someone already offered Ramon a job, which he can’t legally accept until he has legal permission to work in Canada. On that note, I recently got a nice raise from the university where I teach, so Mirtha and I have no problem supporting Ramon. I need to work on my Spanish, and having to converse with Ramon is very motivating.

Now that Pride Month celebrations have become huge, corporate-sponsored tourist attractions in the U.S. and Canada, it’s easy to forget how dangerous it is in many countries to be anything other than heterosexual and monogamous, preferably married with children.

I often wish that Mirtha and I could afford to rescue all the people who are persecuted for being any shade of queer, for marrying against their parents’ wishes, for having sex lives that aren’t considered acceptable in their homeland. For women in extremely male-dominated countries, any kind of sexual experience is likely to damage their reputations beyond repair, and make them targets of violence.

If everyone who can afford to host one refugee of sexually-based persecution would do so, this would relieve some of the pressure at national borders. Of course, conservative sexual values don’t account for all the human suffering that drives people into exile, but it does account for a lot. Do you think that corrupt military regimes and horrifying violations of human rights flourish in countries where women have considerable political power because they can lead independent lives without being condemned as whores? (Time will tell whether the gathering political resistance of American women will overturn the current reign of the right wing in the U.S.)

I’m celebrating something else this month: the release of my latest collection of lesbian short stories, Spring Fever and Other Sapphic Encounters. Most of these fourteen stories first appeared in various romantic and erotic anthologies, but some are virgins, never seen in public before. So far, this book is only available for Kindle, but I hope it can eventually appear in other formats, possibly including paper.

Here is the link:

New Year’s Resolution Going Down in Flames

by | June 24, 2019 | 4 comments

by Larry Archer

I must admit that I’m a failure at New Year’s Resolutions. Amid our annual New Year’s Eve Pajama Party, I made a promise to myself that I would focus on writing my porn and get stuff pushed out the door.

I didn’t promise to stop jerking off, lose weight or exercise more. Didn’t promise to stop beating my wife. The only thing I promised myself was to write erotic stories and get them published. One simple task and I utterly failed at it.

Being honest with myself, I have to admit that I have published two well-received stories in 2019 so far, Idle Hands and a box set, Swingers Box Set. While I did get those two stories out the door, I now find myself working on four stories at the same time and not being able to finish any of them as I can’t seem to focus on one story.

This is like in engineering, we have the expression, “There comes a time in every project when you have to fire the engineer and go into production.” Which loosely translates into, “Engineers are never satisfied and will continue to tweak something forever or until the cows come home.”

When you publish at Amazon, one of the things that you learn is the 30-day cliff. After about 30-days, Amazon will start sliding you further down in the search engine results. This means that when a reader searches for erotica, your stories will stop popping up in the search results no matter how good the story.

SmashWords doesn’t do this and ranks stories by popularity, no matter when they were released. For example, if you search for best-selling erotica in the SmashWords’ Menage/Multiple-Partners category, you will find my story, Crashing The Swinger’s Pajama Party is number sixteen in this category. The amazing thing about this is that this 80,000-word story was released in June 2018, a year ago and is still number 16 in the multiple partner’s best seller category!

As you might imagine, an 80,000-word story doesn’t just happen overnight, and there was a lot of work plowed into the story. If you publish at SmashWords, your stories get to stand on their own feet and don’t disappear in the distance after 30-days. To me, this tells me that my ROI (Return on Investment) is better at SmashWords than at Amazon. However, the fact that Amazon Kindle reaches millions of more readers than SmashWords will often make up the difference.

To accomplish the same type of ranking at Amazon Kindle, you need to publish often and at least once a month or more. This is why, at our New Year’s PJ Party, I promised myself that I’d focus and publish regularly. However, this resolution got lost in the orgy room along with my clothes as best I can remember.

Currently, I have four or five stories in various stages of completion, with most around 20,000-words or about half-finished at best. I just can’t seem to focus on one story and get it out the door.

What will happen to me is that I see something or get an idea for a story and cannot help but start working on it. I feel that I need to get my initial thoughts down before I get distracted by something else.

It’s like the curly headed brunette on the new Sally Beauty Supply billboards. I’m in love with her, much to my wife’s amusement. The truth is that being from Texas, we all love big hair and the girl on the billboard looks so much like Foxy that I can’t help but blow her a kiss every time I pass that billboard.

I will see something like the brunette and get an idea for a story, which is why I’m my own worst enemy. Once I get distracted, I will write madly away just like Don Quixote when he sees a new windmill, just without Sancho Panza.

Growing up on a farm, left me with the life-long curse of waking up at the crack of dawn only without cows to milk. Foxy reacts negatively to being woken before 9 AM, and so I’ll often lie in bed and think about my latest story.

I’ve found that I can let my characters act out their fantasies in my mind. I will slip out of bed, grab my laptop, and drive to a nearby fast-food restaurant for coffee. At that point, it’s just a matter of downloading my brain onto my trusty MacBook Air.

I fully realize that I’d sell more if I concentrated on one story at a time and got it out the door, but what I should do and what I actually do are two different things. Luckily, writing smut is not something I have to do to keep the wolf away from the door.

It’s been almost seven years since I published my first erotic story. Previously, the only thing I’ve done remotely close are presentations on how to throw a house party at Lifestyle conventions. Writing erotica allows me to take things we’ve seen and done and convert them to a story, which someone will hopefully enjoy reading and possibly wank off to.

Follow me at for more of my ruminations, and until this time next month, I’m off like a prom dress.

Playing with the Passive

by | June 21, 2019

Thou shalt not use the passive voice!

How often have you heard this commandment? Almost as often, I’d bet, as “Show, don’t tell”. However, like most things in life, it’s not that simple. The passive voice is a legitimate English construction. It is perfectly grammatical and exists for very good reasons.

I’ve found that many authors, and even editors, are confused about the passive voice. Recently I had an editor object to one of my sentences because she believed it was passive. The sentence had the form “she had spoken to her friend before departing”. This is not a passive sentence but the editor apparently thought it was, presumably because it includes a so-called helping verb (“had”). So before I go further and defend the passive (under certain circumstances), let me try to clarify the definition of passive voice.

A sentence is passive voice if the grammatical subject of the sentence is the logical or semantic object, that is, the recipient of an action rather than the actor.

Maybe this doesn’t help. Let me put it more colloquially. In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence doesn’t “do” anything; it is “done to”.

Some examples may help:


Active: The dog bites me.

Passive: I am bitten [by the dog].


Active: The vampire licked the tender flesh below her earlobe.

Passive: The tender flesh below her earlobe was licked [by the vampire].


Active: He had kissed her tenderly before he climbed onto his horse.

Passive: She had been kissed tenderly by him before he climbed onto his horse.


Active: I will eat my vegetables.

Passive: My vegetables will be eaten [by me].

In each case, the passive version reverses the active version, making the direct object be the subject, and optionally adding the former subject as the object of the preposition “by”.

The predicate in a passive sentence is some form of the verb to be followed by the past participle of the verb expressing the action. For regular verbs, the past participle ends in “ed” and has the same form as the simple past:






Irregular verbs, however, often have special forms for the past participle:






By the way, only transitive verbs can be involved in passive sentences. A transitive verb is one that requires a direct object. (Some verbs can be used in both transitive and intransitive situations.) If there’s no possibility of a direct object, then clearly the object can’t be made into a subject.

Note that just because a sentence includes a form of the verb to be does not mean it is passive. For example, the following sentences are all active voice:

I am an erotic romance author.

I was hungry.

I had been waiting for the bus for nearly half an hour.

Notice also that the question of tense (that is, at what time the action occurred) is independent of whether a sentence is active or passive. In my first four examples, (1) is present tense, (2) is simple past, (3) is past perfect and (4) is future. In the passive version, the form of the verb to be determines the tense.

So now that we know what passive voice is (and is not!), why is it so maligned? The primary reason so many books advise against using the passive is the fact that passive sentences can reduce the impact of an action. Active sentences are shorter, more direct and more dynamic than passive ones. Using active as opposed to passive voice is akin to choosing strong, specific verbs over weak, general ones: “stumbled”, “sauntered”, or “strolled” instead of “walked”, for example.

In fact, psychological research has demonstrated that passive sentences are more difficult to understand than active sentences. This makes sense. In an active sentence, the grammar supports and provides clues to the underlying meaning. In a passive sentence, grammar and meaning conflict.

Given these results, why would you ever want to use the passive voice? There are at least three situations in which the passive is desirable or even necessary:

1. The true actor – the logical subject of the action – is unknown.

As the door slid closed, I was knocked on the head so hard that I saw stars.

Many articles have been written about the perils of the passive voice.

2. You deliberately want to focus attention on the recipient of the action, because this is your current POV character.

Henrietta had been wooed by every eligible bachelor in the county, but she despised them all.

Buck was bruised and battered by the gang’s weapons, but he refused to give up.

3. You deliberately choose an indirect mode of expression for stylistic reasons.

Professor Rogers was a man of well-established habits, delicate sensibilities and refined tastes. He was enthralled by the soaring harmonies of Mozart’s Requiem and intrigued by the challenging arguments of Sartre. Rogers was confused when students insisted on sending him email. In his world view, words should be committed to paper and vouchsafed to the Royal Mail for delivery.

In the third example, the repeated use of passive voice reinforces the presentation of Professor Rogers as a fussy, overly-intellectual character, the exact opposite of a man of action. Even though this paragraph is not in fact in the Professor’s words, it sounds like something he might have written.

In summary, there are sometimes good reasons for adopting the passive voice. As a general rule, however, active voice tends to be more readable and engaging. What is is important is to be aware of your choices in this regard. If the passive seems right for the situation, don’t be shy about using it. Recognize the passive when it pops up in your writing and make deliberate decisions based on knowledge and craft.

The Power of a Pair of Pants: Mock Weddings and Dashing Coeds

by | June 18, 2019 | 2 comments

Back in April, I discussed the popularity of cross-dressing vaudeville stars in the early part of the twentieth century. Just as celebrities and ordinary folk have an interdependent relationship in our day, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that cross-dressing was also something the ordinary boy or girl “tried at home” a hundred years ago.

This month’s column is thanks to a trip to Moe’s Books, the sole survivor of a trio of wonderful bookstores on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley (rest in peace, Cody’s and Shakespeare and Company). The other day I was perusing Moe’s “gender” shelves when I discovered Women in Pants: Manly Maidens, Cowgirls, and Other Renegades by Catherine Smith and Cynthia Greig. Focusing on female yearning for the freedom of male privilege during the years around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, the book is a perfect resource for my research–and for anyone curious about genderbending in days past.

Women in the twenty-first century take our right to wear pants for granted. Pants offer more than just a fashion choice—imagine that you were always denied their physical freedom and flexibility, the warmth they provided on a cold day, the chance to wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. I still remember that I was forbidden to wear pants to school until I was in third grade in the late 1960s. At first we were only allowed to wear pants under our dresses on cold days, to be removed when we got to school. However, this concession proved a slippery slope to the eventual permission to wear pants throughout the year by fourth grade. My aunts all have stories of the moment they first appeared in public in pants in the 1950s. Although they feared condemnation from their neighbors, they received only smiles. Somehow, in spite of all of these women and girls walking our streets and schools in pants, the world continued to turn uninterrupted.

Yet, as Women in Pants attests with abundant photographic evidence, women of a hundred years ago also sought out the pleasures of a pair of trousers both for work and play. Young women in particular were known to have a bit of fun with an all-female “mock wedding,” wherein some donned their brothers’ or fathers’ suits to play the groom, father of the bride, and officiant. These parties were particularly popular at women’s schools and colleges, and the “mock” aspect continued in the irreverent tone of the proceedings. Sometimes invitations were printed up, such as that for the wedding of “Ima Freshman” to “Heesa Junior” in 1908. The vows included the bride’s promise to wash her husband’s fudge-pan (which the contemporary mind can’t help but find suggestive in a way that the girls of 1908 likely did not intend).

While mostly dismissed as good fun, one mother scolded her daughter for dressing as a man for school parties:

“I don’t care how much a male character is needed, nor how much fun it is, it is not to be done again. It is perfectly disgusting and revolting to me, and I am positively ashamed to think of all the letters that have gone to all the homes describing my own dear daughter dressed up as a man… I love thee too devotedly to be able to bear thy not being altogether womanly and lovely.” (Women in Pants, 134)

As more women attended college, concern grew over the harmful effect of study and independence on the fragile coed. Indeed, the young women seemed eager to experiment and push boundaries. Women in Pants reports that older students advised newcomers to borrow or “steal” a brother’s suit to bring to college so she might have the choice of dressing as a man for an all-female dance, mock wedding or school play. (Women in Pants, 140) Many young women took pride in pulling off the charade convincingly, of being favorably compared to brothers in their comportment, and indeed in taking on the male prerogatives of giving toasts, commanding authority, striding across a stage. Did this masculine charisma lead to more intimate pleasures? Story material for the writer of historical erotica set at Vassar, for certain!

The amusement our foremothers took in gender role-playing is touching in its implicit acknowledgment of the restriction of being female. Yet with their sartorial games and experiments, these young women laid the foundation for the greater freedom of women today. Mockery exposes hidden truths. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew this, too, a century ago.

Rude Anatomy of a Risqué Poem

by | June 6, 2019 | 4 comments

By Ashley Lister

As many regular readers will know: I love poetry. I think poetry can be an effective tool for writers as it helps us get a better command over our vocabulary, and it makes us think more acutely about the way we use words. I also believe that a lot can be said in a poem that makes us reflect critically on the environment that allowed such a poem to come into creation. Consequently, this month, I thought I’d share one of my poems here and discuss the inspiration and execution.

Granny pulled on her surgical stockings
She put her false teeth in the glass
She took the Tena pad out of her panties
And said, “Grandpa, could you please fuck my ass?”

The idea for this one came about because I’d wanted to write something that presented the act of sex in an unfamiliar fashion. As writers, I believe, we’re always trying to show the world to our readers in a way that goes beyond the familiar. I could go on here to discuss Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization, but those who know about that, know about that. And those who don’t know about that know about Google.

Writing about old people having sex struck me as being a humorous idea because we normally equate the sex act as being the domain of the young and the beautiful. We can see this in media, such as the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, where Gunnery Sergeant Hartmann famously tells Private Pyle, “You climb obstacles like old people fuck.” I’m not saying I subscribe to this idea of old age and poor sexual practices being relational. I firmly believe that good sex has nothing to do with youth and beauty. However, societal attitudes suggest that we treat those over a certain age as being past the need or ability for sex.

“I got horny last month at the bingo
When I called house on a sixty-nine.
It’s been decades since I’ve taken one hard up the chuff
And you ought to be there this time.”

“I got horny last week at the library
Whilst reading an old People’s Friend.
I saw an advert for polyester trousers
And it made my arse want your nob-end.”

“I got horny tonight in the kitchen
As I tuned in to Woman’s Hour.
I could hear the rain dripping on my cat flap
And I thought let’s try a golden shower.”

So, as we can see from the verses above, I’ve decided to include lots of placeholders that put this in the category of old people. There’s mention of Tena pants (a product for those who suffer from urinary incontinence). There’s mention of bingo. I identify People’s Friend: a UK magazine with a readership who are primarily elderly, with an average reader age of 71 years and 45% of readers being in the 75+ age group. There’s also mention of Woman’s Hour, a BBC Radio 4 programme that has been broadcasting since 1946. The demographic for Woman’s Hour is not necessarily old but, because it’s been broadcasting for so long, there is an association of the audience belonging to a more mature age group. There’s mention of polyester trousers, and later we’ll see mention of brands targeted towards a mature consumer, such as Steradent, the denture cleansing tablets, and Horlicks, the sweet malted milk hot drink.

These are all thrown into the poem to help create the humorous juxtaposition between a glamorised version of the erotic act of intimacy, and the cold reality faced by today’s modern elderly consumer.

Also note the way the three verses above are working to the rule of three. “I got horny last month… / I got horny last week… / I got horny last night…” We’re building to the present moment in specifically divided increments, moving directly to now. We’ve had mention of an array of sex acts from mutually reciprocated oral sex, a suggestion of cuckoldry, anal sex and urolagnia. Again, the humour I was aiming for came from the unnatural coupling of these acts, which we associate with youth, and the trappings of being elderly.

“So I’m here and I’m hot and I’m horny,
And my teeth are in the Steradent glass.
I slipped Viagra into your Horlicks
So please do me now, up the ass.”

It’s worth mentioning something about the structure here. Each verse is a four-line stanza with an x a x a rhyme scheme (where x is an unrhymed line). I’ve not kept to a particular meter because my intention was to write this as a performance piece, allowing me to pause or force pronunciation in some areas. You will notice that the punchline for each verse comes in that final line of each stanza, and usually in the final word.

Well Grandpa, he did try to please her
As she lay there with her legs spread wide
He gave her a cuddle, and a bit of a kiss,
And then teased her piles to one side.

This verse was there to exploit the notion of humour that comes from disgust. Studies have shown that we are able to laugh at things that are disgusting, as long as the thing we’re laughing at is benign. Because sex is usually presented as the glamorous union between two relatively attractive individuals, this suggestion of a flaw as unglamorous as haemorrhoids is meant to amuse. This is not me saying that I think piles are funny. I don’t. But I’m sufficiently familiar with humour to know that bottoms are funny. Want to make a baby laugh? Blow a raspberry: the same sound that comes out of a bottom. Want to make a toddler laugh? Tell a fart joke. Whether it’s slapstick comedy, where Charlie Chaplin is getting kicked in the buttocks, or is kicking someone else in the backside, or whether it’s the scatological literary brilliance of Jonathan Swift in his poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, which contains the immortal phrase, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”, we always have and always will find bottoms, and the things that come out of bottoms, amusing.

But poor Grandpa was having a problem.
Her desires had caught him off guard.
He rubbed and he tugged and he yanked and he pulled
But the old man’s old man wasn’t hard.

He imagined doing all three Beverley sisters
Trying to coax some life to his dick
He imagined doing Margaret Thatcher
But that made him feel a bit sick.

And Grandma was looking impatient
As she lay there consumed in her lust
He considered her bare flesh and liver spots
And her fanny: all grey curls and dust.

Apologies to my American readers. That final stanza includes one of those cultural anomalies that support George Bernard Shaw’s notion that ‘The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.’ In the US, fanny refers to buttocks. In the UK, fanny is a euphemism for the vagina. I used the word ‘fanny’ in this verse because it seemed playful and inoffensive. There are lots of euphemisms for vagina but, remember, I wanted to keep the content of this poem humorous and that humour comes from choosing the correct word.

I didn’t want to go with any of the usual expletives because, although the poem is written for an adult audience, there are some taboo words that can simply kill the mood of indulgent humour. Vagina is too medical and technical (and contains one syllable too many for this line). The idea of using potentially dysphemistic phrases such as ‘minge’ or ‘kebab’ or ‘flange’ might have worked, but there was the danger they would be seen as stepping away from the benign into something malign, which would impact on the humour.

It was true he still found her exciting
She’d take out both sets of false teeth to please
And whilst it sounds sick, he’d swear by his dick
Wrist jobs improve with Parkinson’s disease.

We can see the way the poem is starting to shift its focus now. Up until this point, the humorous final lines have all ended with vague or explicit references to the sex act. This stanza is replete with references to old people engaging in intercourse but the humorous sting of the final line comes from our limited understanding of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

There are three main symptoms for Parkinson’s which include stiff and inflexible muscles, slow movement and involuntary shaking. However, for a general audience, the symptom of involuntary shaking is usually perceived as the dominant symptom. When we’re discussing diseases for humorous effect, we rely on an audience’s simplistic understandings of medical conditions. For example, we perceive the main symptom of Anorexia Nervosa as being extreme slenderness or weight loss, rather than it being a serious mental health condition. We talk about Alzheimer’s as though it’s only a memory problem, rather than it being a chronic neurodegenerative disease with symptoms that include confusion and difficulty with familiar tasks.

The reverse of this simplification is when we contribute a single cause to the onset of a complex condition. There is more to the causes of diabetes than eating too many sweets. Not every cancer is caused by the sufferer smoking, or having being exposed to cigarette smoke.

But he stood there and looked rather sheepish
He said, “I’m sorry. I’ve just been with another.
I thought that you knew, when I put her to bed,
I always have a quick shag with your mother.”

Once again, notice the softening of the vocabulary. The innocuous word ‘shag’ is used here which is one of the milder euphemisms to describe sexual intercourse. Bonk was considered as a potential alternative, but the harsh consonant cluster at the end of that word, and the fact that it can be construed as potentially violent, made it seem a less palatable choice. It will also be remembered that the main character in the 1997 film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, used the word ‘shag’ repeatedly. I mention this because the film was released as a 12 certificate in the UK, which allows children below the age of 12 to view the material if accompanied by an adult, supporting the notion that this epithet is comparatively mild. The same certification was also applied to the film’s 1999 sequel: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Y’see, true love is based on two things
Forgive and forget say old timers
Grandpa knew she would forgive and forget
That’s the benefit of having Alzheimer’s.

This final verse was added a long time after the construction of the previous part of the poem. I’d performed the first eleven stanzas several times and, whilst I was pleased with the way the poem was received by audiences, I felt it was lacking the impact of a final punchline. I’m not trying to be reductive with this approach: I understand that poetry is not all about making rude jokes. But the piece is meant to be comedic and one of the essential elements in something comedic is the need for a punchline.

However, it was difficult to know where to go with a punchline. The sexual content had already contained some heavy-hitting variations from standard sexual proclivities, any of which would have been appropriate for the conclusion of the poem. I could have edited the content so that one of these subject areas was left as the conclusion but my worry was that the result would have looked like a patchwork at best, or cannibalised at worst.

Which is why I ended up going with the concept of the final verse: grandpa knows he can be unfaithful because grandma, conforming to the stereotyped dictates of our understanding of Alzheimer’s, is going to immediately forget his confession of infidelity.

I should point out that I’m not trying to suggest the poem is high art. I understand that this poem is little more than a rhyming collection of crude jokes, decorated with examples of poor taste and black humour. However, with the addition of this final stanza, it has been better received by audiences. Since this revision, it has often been the case that I don’t need to deliver the final line for audiences to groan, protest, or finish the piece for me.

To summarise, the poem came about because I wanted to entertain an audience with a poem that drew parallels between the expected positive conventions of describing the sex act, juxtaposed against the negative way our society perceives the elderly as being unattractive and prone to disease. The poem’s success, for me, lies in the way it is favourably received by audiences. Its main failing is that audiences dismiss it as trivial and crude, rather than seeing that it describes an inequity of standards and perception in our current society.

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