The topic of how erotica is reviewed has actually been on my mind for a while, but I was inspired to write about it here at the ERWA blog after reading Lisabet Sarai’s post at her author blog on dealing with negative reviews, “You Are Not Your Book.” Lisabet makes some excellent points based on her experience as both an author and reviewer, and negative reviews are definitely a challenge for any writer.
However, over the years, I’ve noticed another aspect of the popular approach to reviewing erotica—the primacy of the “wet test,” or using personal arousal to evaluate the quality of a story. Go to any Amazon page for an erotic anthology, and you’ll see that a good portion of the reviewers makes a point to list their favorite stories. A few will also finger the stories they don’t like (pun intended). It’s almost as if someone passed out a template on “how to review erotica anthologies,” with a final exhortation: “Don’t forget to mention at least three stories that got you tingly/hard!”
For a while, I took enthusiastic recommendations to heart as the opinion of the erotica-reading public and would be sure to read the stories that were deemed the standouts for both market research and my own education in good writing. However, I quickly discovered that I did not always agree with the reviewer, that in fact my favorite stories would be completely different titles. (Although, in some cases, I did agree and was guided to some perennial favorites!)
So, you might ask, what’s the problem? People have different tastes in the kind of writing they like and the scenarios and dynamics that arouse them. One could see this standard pattern as a way for the reviewer to reassure the potential buyer that the book “works” as erotica, which is clearly the main reason one buys a book of sexually explicit stories. And yet, unless this buyer shares the reviewer’s particular hot buttons, the book might not “work” at all. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with this kind of review. I did a check of reviews for Best American Short Stories and found that those reviewers also feel compelled to list their favorite and least favorite stories as a way to validate their critical acumen. Maybe this is simply an inevitable way to evaluate a selection of stories by different authors.
And yet, part of me wishes that erotica would be viewed through many different lenses, not merely whether it arouses a reader. This might take a lot more analysis, or it might just involve viewing erotica as an experience which touches the reader emotionally, intellectually, and artistically as well as sexually. Erotica can inspire us to unzip and relieve our red-hot carnal lust on the spot. Or it can simmer in our imaginations for a while and invigorate our next lovemaking in a very unexpected way a few days later. An erotic story can also surprise us, make us sad or even angry, make us see love and sex in a new way, disturb us, show us a new side of our own desire. Certain stories can be sensual and erotic without having much sex in them at all. One of my favorite erotic stories–“Seduction” by Anonymous in Mitzi Szereto’s Wicked: Sexy Tales of Legendary Lovers–did not result in my yanking down my pants and diddling myself to a frenzy. But it did enthrall me with its formal daring, sharp humor, and brilliant insight into the sex appeal of Warren Beatty and the nature of celebrity in general. “Seduction” was a total turn-on for the social critic in me, and yet, like the narrator, I also found myself being drawn into Beatty’s magic web almost against my will.
But perhaps another reader might disagree with my opinion.
I’m not pretending that I have any right to instruct other people how to react to a book, but I think we’d all benefit if reviewers considered giving us a little more than just the titles they liked and the heat level of their response. With the advent of online booksellers, we all get to be critics, and I’m the last person to bemoan the breakdown of the literary industrial complex. However, it would be helpful to other readers and writers if reviewers gave more context for their opinions. Tell us why a story turns you on or intrigues you or disturbs you or lingers on after you put the book down. Treat erotica as a crafted tale as well as a masturbation aid. This would involve a little more time, but there are some great benefits to the reviewer as well. I’ve found that when I’ve delved deeper into why I like a story and why it turns me on, I’ve learned a lot about the workings of my imagination–to the benefit of my sex life and the quality of my writing.
Perhaps it is a far-fetched fantasy to think erotica could be considered and reviewed as literature in a sex-negative society, where anything that touches on sexuality is considered cheapened and base. But, hey, I have an imagination–and in that magical realm we all know anything is possible.