Monthly Archives: March 2015
I’ve been thinking about filters lately, going through one of my periodic stages of resenting smart phones, social
networking and all things techno. That may well be in part because I’ve only ever managed to master what it takes to survive in that online world. I’m a klutz on my best days. But sometimes I’m an angry luddite wannabe, who grumbles incessantly while I bury my nose in my kindle to lose myself in a good book … Oh the neuroses of my life!
When I’m lost in the world of navel gazing and trying to connect to what matters without losing myself in the detritus and the trivia of a world online, I often find myself thinking about the filters we live our lives through, and what being once removed from everything, while at the same time up close and personal with the whole world and all the information in it means to us as a civilization – to me as an individual.
I can go online and hear the background microwaves that are the remnants of the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe. I have done, have listened over and over with goose bumps crawling up my arms.
I can go to FaceBook or Twitter and have meaningful conversations with friends all over the world, people I’ve never met physically and yet I’ve connected with and feel somehow a kin to.
I can keep up on films and stars and gossip, I can join any group, be a fan girl, talk trash, be a part of any organisation with any cause imaginable – political, religious, medical, physical, magical, practical, any hobby, any sport, any obsession. It’s all there. All I have to do is log on. Easy.
When we were in Dubrovnik over Christmas last year, we found ourselves in a random café for lunch one day. The cafes that were open in the dead of winter were happy for customers, and when we arrived, we were the only ones there. About halfway through the meal a young man came in, eyes glued to his smart phone. He asked us if we’d read the reviews for this particular café. We said no, we’d just dropped in. The food was lovely. We had a local beer, local specialties, and the owners of the restaurant were friendly, and patient with us as we practiced our rusty Croatian on them. Meanwhile the man ordered without looking at the waitress, ate without looking at the food, all the time lost in communion with his phone. We left him that way.
Back out on the streets, after a wonderful walk in the sunshine around the medieval city wall, we stopped for coffee and once again were astounded by the number of tourists gripped by their phones even as they walked, obliviously, down the main street of the Jewel of the Adriatic, the sea the colour of sapphire and the sky a shade darker still, contrasting with the red tile roofs.
A few weeks ago we went out for lunch and observed three very lovely young women who came in and sat down at a near-by table, again completely caught up in whatever was happening on their phones. They barely spoke to each other during the course of their meal and never put their devices down.
I recently received an email from a friend of mine in the States, and I was saddened when the rather extensive epistle was all about what series she was now watching on telly. I know for a fact this woman used to be a librarian. We used to spend our time talking about books.
All of these events, and lots of others leave me slightly queasy, even as I sit here writing this blog post, hoping that a lot of people will go online to the ERWA blog and read it. It’s the filters that leave me feeling this way. They leave me wondering about our connection with the real world, about MY connections with the real world. I wonder if we’re now more connected, and I just don’t ‘get it’, or are we less connected because we’re joined at the hip with our devices. I’m guessing it’s probably a combination of the two.
The world I live in is totally dominated by the technology my profession depends upon. The first thing I do in the morning is get up my laptop and see what I missed over night. I do what I need to do for PR on twitter and facebook, I see what I need to do for the rest of the day, and some days that involves a good deal of being online and interacting with social media. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that I have some control over the promotion and sales of my books, no matter how little that may be. The feel that I’m at least doing something is worth a lot, even if it is at times only the placebo affect. In a time when publishing is entering the strange new world of self-pub, when the gatekeepers are no longer the guardians of all things literary, when the gates are quite literally wide open, I see how important it is to be present online. But I fear very much that being present online often costs me the simple pleasure of just being present.
On the 21st, I launched the latest of my novels as Grace Marshall, Interviewing Wade. That meant a great deal of my time the last two weeks and through the weekend was spent online or if not online at least writing blog posts and preparing for the launch. In the glorious sunshine of Sunday, the 22nd, my head was full of reviews and posts and tweets and status updates. When I realized, at last, that it was dinnertime, I went into the darkened kitchen to reheat the pasta from lunch and discovered something truly amazing. Through the kitchen window, I had the most exquisite view of the thinnest sliver of a new moon in conjunction with brilliant Venus, and for a few minutes there was the added pleasure of red Mars just about to sink below the rooftops of the neighboring houses. I was stunned. I couldn’t take my eyes off what I saw. I reached for the binoculars for a closer look
The moon was illuminated with earthshine and, through the binoculars, the darkened areas were visible with the brilliance of the sunlit crescent making the whole look almost dark purple, huge and 3D. As I tried to focus on the bright smudge of Venus, my heart beat kept jarring the binoculars, so I couldn’t resolve the phase, but I’m sure it was as close to full as Venus ever gets.
Venus is always in phase. How amazing is that! We never see the full face of Venus because it’s in between us and the sun, and it’s only full when it’s on the far side of the sun from us – something that’s only true with the inner two planets. Mars dipped quickly and was gone, but I stood for ages, trying to hold my breath and brace my elbows so I could look. But no matter how hard I tried, Venus constantly quivered through the binoculars with the steady beat, beat, beat of my pulse. I shifted back and forth between the shiver of Venus and the pock marked darkened surface of the moon with its crescent of brilliance at the bottom edge. When my arms got tired of holding the binoculars, still I stood.
It was one of those rare moments of being in focus, of standing with nothing in between me and my little sliver of the universe; experiencing a moment, one raw, naked, aching moment without anything in between me and my heart. That tiny shred of time felt like skin freshly formed over an abrasion. And I wanted to stay there forever in that little sliver of the present with nothing in between.
I couldn’t, of course. The moon set, and I had work to do. It occurred to me as I nuked dinner, that even that incredible few minutes of focus were filtered, brought closer through the lens of my binoculars. We’ve been filtering our world for probably as long as we’ve walked upright. Perhaps we can only be safe in – and from our little slice of the universe when we filter it, analyze it, look at it through eyes – and heart — well protected.
The next morning, online, there were more images of Venus and the New Moon in conjunction than I had time to look at. I was far from the only one bringing that moment into myself through filters that helped make sense of it, helped make it personal and, clearly, I was far from the only person needing to share it. Somehow that makes the world community seem just a little bit smaller, just a little bit closer. Somehow that makes the filtering of my universe and all the contradictions that involves set just a little bit easier in my mind. That and the knowing at least for a little while that earthshine, that sliver of moonlight, that conjunction with bright Venus was mine. All mine.
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and three cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.
Several years ago, I
made the huge mistake of applying for a writing job from an online site that
required a few “sample articles” as examples of my work. I was to
post them on the web site’s forum, and get as many views as I could. I wasn’t
about to write anything new, so I posted my old stand-by article about the time
I tested the Altoids
mints blow job on my husband. That post alone got more views than anything
else that was posted, and lots of people posted. I posted at least one other
previously published article, which also got an amazing number of views – more
than anyone else. I was confident that I had jumped through all the hoops and
was on my way to paid employment.
I didn’t get the
I didn’t realize
until later that the web site was farming for free content. I did all the
legwork proving the time and product as well as promoting my posts, and the site
didn’t have to do a damned thing. I learned my lesson. I have never again sent
sample articles to any writing job application that required them. That said, I
understand reputable companies need to see examples of my writing to determine
if I’m a good fit. I realize that. Instead of creating new content, I send
links to existing articles so the company may see what I have already
published. Sometimes I get a response, but I usually don’t hear back from those
companies. Now, I don’t bother to send anything to companies asking for sample
articles unless I can provide links. Burned once, shame on you. Burned twice,
shame on me.
Why are writers so
often asked to work for free? Or for “exposure”? Promising a vague
form of exposure is another way of getting free content. There are some things
I do as a means of promotion for which I am not paid. Writing on this blog is
one of them. I gain an audience writing here, and it keeps my name out there in
between books. I’ve written stories for charity anthologies because I like
contributing to a good cause. However, I will not simply give someone a free
story or article just because. No more content farming scams. No more free
writing for web sites that make scads of money from advertising and
Cassaro ran into a similar “opportunity” when he was invited by
Showtime – a company clearly needing to rub dimes together to pay for paper
clips – to join a design “contest” he felt was really only a way of
fishing for free content. The contest involved promoting the Floyd
Mayweather-Marcos Maidana boxing match. Those who submitted designs for
Showtime’s use could – to quote the message Cassaro had received from Showtime
– “be eligible for a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas and have your
artwork displayed in the MGM Grand during fight week!” He let Showtime and
everyone else within earshot know exactly what he thought about it, dripping
“It is with great sadness that I must
decline your enticing offer to work for you for free. I know that boxing
matches in Las Vegas as extremely low-budget affairs, especially ones with
nobodies like Floyd “Money” Mayweather. I heard he only pulled in 80
Million for this last fight! I also understand that a “mom and pop”
cable channel like Showtime must rely on handouts just to keep the lights on
these days. Thanks a lot, Obama! My only hope is that you can scrape up a few
dollars from this grassroots event at the MGM Grand to put yourself back in the
black. If that happens, you might consider using some of that money to
compensate people to do the thing they are professionally trained to do.”
Why are writers (and
artists in general) so often expected to work for free – or for
“exposure”, as the request is often sugar-coated? Would you expect
your dentist to give you a root canal for free? Do you pay the housecleaner?
The car mechanic? Do your plumber and electrician walk away without monetary
compensation once they do the job you’ve begged them to do because they are
professionals and you are not trained to do the work they do? So why expect a
writer to write for free?
writer Harlan Ellison had plenty to say about those who expect writers to
provide free content. A
DVD company asked him if he’d let them use a very long and very interesting
on-camera interview about the making of “Babylon Five”. He said,
sure, pay me. The woman who called was flabbergasted, as if she expected him to
just fork over his hard work for free – even though she received a
paycheck. Here’s a portion of what he had to say about it.
your boss get a paycheck? Do you pay the Telecity guy? Do you pay the
cameraman? Do you pay the cutters? Do you pay the Teamsters when they schlep
your stuff on the trucks? Then how—don’t you pay—would you go to a gas station
and ask me to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have him take
out your spleen for nothing? How dare you call me and want me to work for nothing!”
If you want to read his entire rant – and it’s
worth reading – check out “Harlan
Ellison On Getting Paid” at Print Magazine. There is also a link at
that page to a video of his rant. It’s from the film “Dreams With Sharp
Ellison is not alone. This “we won’t pay
you” schtick is something lots of writers and other artists hear. Last
year, hula hoop performer Revolva
was contacted by Harpo, Oprah Winfrey’s company, to perform at Oprah’s “Live
The Life You Want” event stop in San Jose, California. Revolva was
thrilled – until she realized Harpo had
no intention of compensating her for hours, effort, or travel. In fact, Harpo
intended to not pay any of the creative workers it contacted, despite the fact
to this event cost anywhere from $99 to $999 just to get in the door. The
events producers claimed they didn’t have the budget to pay performers. Yes,
that’s right. A billionaire’s tour didn’t have the budget to pay
performers. If Revolva and the other artists wanted To Live The Life They Want,
they could have it – without being paid for it. She chose to not perform. She,
like Ellison, had plenty to say about being not only asked but expected
to work for free:
to that spiritual lesson you had in store for me, Oprah. Maybe it’s because my
car broke down, and I’m struggling. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing this for
12 years, and after all the requests for free or discount work, the one by a
billionaire’s tour was the straw that broke my back. But I thought it through,
and achieving “the life you want” is not always easy. The risks we have to
take, to transform this culture into something more nurturing, involve looking
at the way things are and saying, ‘Hey, wait. That’s not cool!'”
It’s ironic that
this tour of Oprah’s was about realizing your self-worth. Apparently, you’re
worth a great deal – as long as you don’t expect to be compensated in cold hard
Stories like these
strike a nerve with artists, including writers. They grate my teeth. All of us
get these messages, and they really harsh our cool. It’s almost as if those
doing the asking think artists create the works they create only out of
“love” or an internal drive and have no interest or understanding of
how money works. Granted, some writers do write for the love of it, but not all of them.
As Tom Cruise
said in “Jerry Maguire”, Show
Me The Money!
The corollary to
being expected to work for free is being expected to work for peanuts. We’ve
all seen the calls for submissions on places like Craigslist where a potential
employer requires an assload of work – but will only pay $20.00 for said job. I
just counted three such jobs, including one that called for you to be available on weekends. Nope, nope, nope. The
other way of parting writers from their money are Get Rich Quick schemes – something
like “7 Easy Steps To Getting Paid As A Writer”. Write a book telling
people how to make money writing a book and watch the cash pour in. I’ve seen
these ads on Facebook, and the comments are always some form of “f—
There is an old
adage in creative work like writing – aim high and work your way down. Aim
first for the pro rates. Aim for the big publishers. Aim for the best agents.
Don’t start at the bottom and work your way up because you don’t think you have
enough experience or talent. Don’t downgrade yourself. Don’t settle and demean
yourself by doing a shitload of work for a paycheck that barely covers a Big
Mac, fries, and a Coke.
The sad thing is there
are plenty of writers and other artists who will eagerly take up these offers.
They tend to be newbies who are so green they don’t know any better. They may
not feel they have a right to ask for money. Or they fall for the
“exposure” line. They see stars when Oprah or Showtime contacts them,
and they happily give over free content only to inevitably get little to
nothing out of it, or at the very least not be compensated in a way that the
very wealthy company can easily afford. As long as these people exist, the free
content farms will continue to thrive. Don’t ask to be paid what you’re worth.
Demand it. You have that right.
by Jean Roberta
Every writer who has hoped to win a prize, but didn’t, should serve a kind of literary jury duty by volunteering to be a judge in a book award contest. It’s much like being an editor, except that the only payment is fame, glamour, and a sense of accomplishment. 🙂
Last May, I went to the Bisexual Book Awards in New York City, a fun event at which the finalists read from their work. (My “bawdy novella,” The Flight of the Black Swan, was nominated, and so was Twice the Pleasure, an anthology of bisexual women’s erotica, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, in which I have a story, “Operetta,” which one reviewer called “a meringue.”) I didn’t seriously expect to win anything, since this is the best attitude to adopt at such times, and I didn’t. However, I was invited to be one of the judges in the “Erotica” category of the awards for books published in 2014. (The ceremony will be at the end of May 2015.)
I was grateful for the honour, and I accepted. Little did I know that over the coming months, 22 books (most in the form of PDFs) would arrive in my inbox and my actual mailbox. They were more diverse than some readers might expect, although writers of erotica generally know how broad our field is. Francesca Lia Block and Alison Tyler of Los Angeles were among the authors of nominated books, and one book was set in Canada. There was BDSM and a multicultural cast of characters. There was historical fiction and suspense. There was magic and shapeshifting, not all of it cute. There was lightness (more meringues) as well as heaviness and graphic murder. There were several self-published books, and several from publishers I hadn’t heard of before; I found this informative.
Meanwhile, in my actual life, there were student essays to grade, pets to feed, meals to cook, and floors to mop. (My spouse and I have been the official cleaning ladies of the local LGBT bar/watering hole for several months. We get paid in money and compliments from bar patrons who find relief in washrooms that show no signs of the previous night’s debauchery.)
The deadline for the Erotica judges’ decisions was March 15, a Sunday. This meant a three-day marathon of reading for me and, I suspect, for the other three judges, one of whom politely resigned due to a personal emergency.
Living in the imaginary world of one novel can be a delightful experience, best enjoyed on a beach or a luxury hotel room. Rushing from the imaginary world of one novel to the next, 22 times, is like being a lunatic or a mystic who can’t turn off the voices in her head. Some of the books were – ahem – more effective on my libido than others, but I didn’t want the state of my crotch to be the determining factor in my decisions.
I added criteria of my own to the official guidelines. I ruled out several books that were thinly-disguised (or undisguised) examples of m/m erotic romance with no sex scenes involving women. One of these novels, in particular, was well-written, moving, believable, and was part of a series starring intelligent, compassionate, three-dimensional characters who change over time. However, I needed a somewhat objective way to eliminate titles until I was left with a choice that could qualify as bisexual in every sense, as well as being quality literature.
None of the books I read seemed to dramatize the tired old joke that bisexuals will jump on anything that moves. Few of them seemed to be written by horny teenagers. Bisexuality, it seems, has come of age.
I asked for a time extension of one day, but I was reminded that the judging had to be wrapped up, sooner than later. When I exchanged emails with the remaining two judges and the organizer, I was surprised at how much overlap there was among our choices for the top five finalists. One novel, in particular, appealed to all of us, so we reached a bloodless agreement to name it the winner.
So now my role in the decision-making is over, and I’m waiting – along with all the authors of nominated books – for the public announcement of the winners in all the categories of the Bisexual Book Awards, which will undoubtedly be scheduled (as it was in 2014) close to the Lambdalit Awards so that writers and fans can attend both.
One thing I know beyond a doubt is that judging, no matter how many rules the judges impose on themselves, is always subjective. And of course, the more nominees there are, the more competition there is.
If your book was nominated for a book award of any kind, but you didn’t win, don’t fret. It’s not you, it’s us.
by Kathleen Bradean
I know a writer–actually, I think every writer is tempted with these thoughts, but let’s pretend it’s just this one guy — who was fairly good at short stories, but he wanted success in the form of a highly acclaimed and commercially successful literary novel. The writer would never admit this out loud, but he secretly believed that there was a formula to creating these rare books, so he spent hours analyzing novels that enjoyed some critical acclaim and commercial success in an attempt to distill the essence of the magical formula hidden within. He wrote detailed outlines to analyze their pace. He picked apart paragraphs and plots and poked around their insides hoping to discover it. Year after year, he obsessed over this idea. He was looking to turn lead into gold. An alchemist.
I sympathized with the Alchemist. After all, wasn’t I once so frustrated by the publishing landscape and relatively low sales of erotica that I was tempted to try my hand at a romance novel? Not because I thought romance novels were easy to write, but because the market for romance is so huge and back then my definition of success having thousands of readers.* My brilliant plan was thwarted by the fact that I have zero ability to write romance. Believe me, I tried. Anyone who thinks it’s so simple obviously hasn’t sat down and tried to write one. (And anyone who thinks romance is formulaic should consider that murder mysteries are too.)
Then I was struck by an epiphany. I already knew what the literary equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone was. The Alchemist doesn’t need to spend hours trying to find this elusive magical ingredient anymore. *crooks finger* Come closer, and I will share this secret with you.
All he had to do was…
But first, a moment of ‘catty sounding but not really meant that way’ commentary on runaway best sellers such as The Da Vinci Code and Shades of Grey. Books that enjoy wild popularity like that usually aren’t well-written, which is confusing as hell to writers. Why do we struggle with our craft when it appears not to matter?* This odd dichotomy happens because to reach those levels of sales, you have to get non-readers to read the books, and non-readers aren’t as picky about writing quality as habitual readers are. Non-readers may even feel that those books are more accessible because the writing isn’t literary or artistic. They’re light, breezy reads that don’t challenge the reader. (And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sorry. I can’t support snobbery when it come to books.) Then there are books such as the Harry Potter series which are well-written (even though for a while there it was verrrrry fashionable for writers to pooh-pooh their artistic merit too) yet also sell heaps of copies and often to non-readers.
So what are the similarities here?
What’s the big secret to their success?
*Back into whisper mode*
It’s the characters.
Do you feel cheated? That’s no big secret. But if you’re the Alchemist, somehow, you’ve lost sight of this. Something about the characters in those best-selling books we love to hate make the story worth reading. Oh sure, a ripping yarn helps. A fantastic opening paragraph is also important. All the basics of a good story have to be there no matter how mediocre the execution. But I swear that no one would have bothered handing FSOG or Harry Potter off to a friend, saying ‘You have to read this!” if the characters hadn’t spoken to them. Characters are what we read for. We get wrapped up in what’s happening to them. We cry at their losses. So yes, pay attention to your prose, and your plot, but give your readers what they want – someone worth reading about.
What we should study is the way these authors created that spark that made their characters compelling enough to follow around for several hundred pages. For some reason, this is the art of the craft we don’t often talk about. Maybe it’s so obvious that we can’t see it. Or perhaps we feel if we get the grammar and the story structure prefect, it will make the character leap off the page, but I’ve read, and set aside unfinished, too many perfectly polished literary novels with drab characters to believe that’s true. Mary Shelly cut right to the truth of writing when she created an entire novel around the idea of sparking life into an inanimate body!
Oddly enough, the Alchemist already writes fairly compelling characters, so he has to tools to write a successful novel. Now if he’d only stop diagramming sentences of literary masterpieces and just write, maybe he’d turn out a decent novel.
* Success means different things to different writers. Your ideas and goals may change. And don’t let me imply that wanting to be number one the best seller’s list isn’t a perfectly legit dream for a writer, because you know I’d take that spot in a heartbeat.
Following on from my little rant last month about the dreaded sucknopsis, I thought I’d better do something more useful this time. And since, as you probably gathered if you read the previous post, synopses (??) are not my strong point, my natural progression was onto blurbs. Something I can do.
Yes, I am one of these rare writer-types that actually likes writing blurbs. Crazy, eh? I’ve even had folk pay me to write or re-write blurbs for them. I suspect my blurb writing skills come from the marketing side of my brain (my creative and marketing sides seem to live in a lovely harmony up in the old grey matter). When I graduated, I ended up in a PR & Marketing role and was immediately pointed in the direction of press releases, sales sheets and advertising copy, and told to “go create!”
Okay, those weren’t the exact words they used, but the bottom line is I was thrown in at the deep end. Fortunately, I discovered I did have an aptitude for writing copy that would entice consumers and retailers to buy products, and I think this is something I’ve continued to improve on over time. So now, when it comes to writing a blurb, I find it pretty easy. It does require a certain amount of distancing yourself from your work, though. It’s simple to think to yourself, oh well, this book is about X, Y and Z, if I just write that, people will get it, and buy the book.
But the thing to remember is that blurbs are meant to entice, to tempt, to intrigue. Not just tell people what the book is about (which is the difference between a synopsis and a blurb). You want to hint what the book is about (while giving enough information so that they know what the genre is, and if it’s their kind of read), but without giving away any major plot points or twists. Try and pick out the most important themes of your book and find a way to include them in the blurb. If possible, ask a question, as many people’s brains will be wired to want to know the answer to that question. And, of course, the way for them to get the answer… buy and read the book!
This may seem obvious, too, but mention your characters – or the main ones, anyway. Blurbs are fairly short and to the point, so you can’t give any great detail, but if you can present potential readers with enough information about your characters and your plot to let them know whether it sounds like a book they’d be interested in, with characters they’d like to read about, then you’re onto a winner.
Here’s one of my own blurbs as an example:
Their love is forbidden by rules, religion and risk. Yet still they can’t resist. [a lead in. Not necessary, but the publication the story was originally written for wanted a short, enticing strap line. This is what I came up with, and I liked it so much I kept it. It immediately tells you that it’s a love story, then goes on to indicate forbidden love, and risk. But then it teases – they can’t resist. So you know pretty much straight away that this is no straightforward love affair, and not a simple story.]
Captain Hugh Wilkes is on his last tour of duty in Afghanistan. [Now you know the name of the lead character, and that he’s military. You also have the setting of the story, not always necessary, but when it’s as interesting as a war zone, it’s probably worth a mention!] The British Army is withdrawing, and Wilkes expects his posting to be event-free [Now you know the character is a Brit, and that he’s expecting no drama on his tour.]. That is, until he meets his Afghan interpreter, Rustam Balkhi, who awakens desires in Wilkes that he’d almost forgotten about, and that won’t be ignored. [Now you know that the potential love interest is an Afghan national, which goes some way to explain the part about their love being forbidden by rules, religion and risk. The fact that the story is M/M is now fairly obvious from the names, but the cover has two men on it – so there should be no confusion there!]
And there you have it – hopefully my notes in brackets all made sense, and pulled out what I believe are important points for a blurb. Basically, keep it short and to the point, don’t give too much away, distance yourself from the story enough that you can see what will appeal to potential readers, and remember, you’re selling your story to someone, making them think “Ooh! That sounds interesting. Click.“
If you can, get someone you know and trust to be honest with you to read the blurb. Even better if they haven’t read the story already – if they then want to read the story based on your blurb, then you know you’ve done a good job.
As with most things, writing blurbs takes practice. All publishers are different – some will literally take what you’ve written and use it, others will work with you to improve it, and others still will write something themselves. But the person that knows your story the best is you, so you’ve got the knowledge, the background, to know what will excite readers and pull them in. So it’s definitely worth spending time on your blurb, especially if it’ll be used word for word. You only have a short amount of time to make them want to click that buy button, so don’t waste the opportunity!
I hope you find this useful. Of course, things like this vary from person to person, but you may find this works for you.
Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and
erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over 100
publications to her name, with many more in the pipeline. These include several
editions of Best Bondage Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica 2013 and Best Erotic
Romance 2014. Another string to her bow is editing, and she has edited and
co-edited a number of anthologies, and also edits for a small publishing house.
She owns Erotica For All, is book
editor for Cliterati, and is one eighth
of The Brit Babes. Find out more
Join her on Facebook
and Twitter, and subscribe to her
newsletter at: http://eepurl.com/gMQb9
By Lisabet Sarai
In addition to writing erotica and erotic romance, I’m also an editor. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve edited three multi-author anthologies, two commercial (Sacred Exchange and Cream) and one for charity (Coming Together: In Vein). As editor of the Coming Together Presents series, I’ve also been responsible for shepherding six collections of short stories by single authors into publication. Right now I’m working with Daddy X (whom many of you will know from ERWA Storytime and Writers) to help him put together his full-length volume The Gonzo Collection, to be released by Excessica in April.
Writing and publishing is hard work. From researching obscure details to wrestling the recalcitrant muse, endless self-promoting to surviving snarky reviews, being an author is not for sissies. You need the energy of teenager, the thick skin of a water buffalo and the self-discipline of a saint.
Sometimes, though, I think that the editor role is even more difficult. If a book you write sucks, that reflects on you alone. When you’re the editor, on the other hand, you hold the fate of others in your hands. It’s not just your own reputation that’s on the line. Your colleagues depend on you to polish their work and make it shine. If the book crashes and burns—gets horrible reviews, or turns out to be full of errors—you take the authors down with you. That’s a heavy responsibility to bear.
Hence I have to be far more careful editing others’ work than self-editing my own. After all, I can rely on my editor to catch those typos or repeated words or slips in logic that I don’t see no matter how many times I review my manuscript. When I’m the editor, there’s no backup. If I miss some mistake, nobody else is going to find it—except, of course, critical readers.
The trickiest part of editing is keeping a light touch. The utmost delicacy is required. Sometimes I want to suggest significant revisions, to improve clarity or flow, to tighten a description or enliven some dialogue. I have to hold myself in check, recognizing that every author tells a story differently. There’s a very real danger in editing—especially when the editor is also an writer—that revisions will dilute the author’s distinctive voice. Some changes I could recommend might improve the work from a technical perspective but do violence to the author’s characteristic style. There’s a constant temptation to impose my own vision on the manuscript, especially when the author’s approach to structure, language and punctuation differ from my own.
I hope Daddy X won’t mind me using his work as an example. I love the boundless sexual enthusiasm in his stories, the wacky scenarios, his over-the-top descriptions and his sly humor. At the same time, his prose tends to have less continuity than mine. Where I’d put in a scene break or an explicit bridging paragraph, he’ll jump from one outrageous set of events to another without batting an eyelash. He also tends to make far heavier use of dialect than I’d feel comfortable with. And he seems to adore ellipsis and interrupted speech. It’s rare for his characters to get out a full sentence that doesn’t include an em dash or two.
If this were my book, I’d strip out eighty percent of the ellipses. I’d avoid using “ain’t”. I’d add transitional paragraphs to clarify the shifts in point of view, and I’d never have a character emit vocalizations like “Anh” or “Ooooowee!” or “Ogeg.”
But it’s not my book. It’s Daddy’s book, Daddy’s stories. If I were to set my red pen loose the way I would on a student term paper, that might stop being true. The resulting book would be more correct, grammatically. It might be easier to read. It would certainly be more conventional. My heavy-handed editing process, though, might well extinguish the spark that makes Daddy X’s work special.
I’m picking on the current book because it’s fresh in my mind, but I’ve felt the same tension in all my professional editing work. I have to constantly remind myself that there’s no one “right” way to write. My job as editor is to refine the raw material of the author’s initial draft without reshaping it too much. Preserving the author’s distinctive voice is as important as fixing his or her grammar.
I know from working with some of my own editors how hard they sometimes push for changes that I think are wrong. The authors with whom I work know they can always push back—that almost every change I make should be viewed as suggested rather than absolutely required. I hope they feel free to debate those suggestions, or simply reject them, if they think those revisions weaken the story they’re trying to tell.
In the end, my name will be on the final result, but I don’t want anyone to pick up the book and think “Gee, this sounds a lot like Lisabet’s prose.” That would indicate a utter and complete failure.
Okay, spank me. (I wish!) I completely forgot to set up Sexy Snippets Day for February.
I won’t make that mistake again. Today is the 19th of March, which means it’s your day to heat up the Internet with your hottest erotic prose.
The ERWA blog is not primarily intended for author promotion. However, we’ve decided we should give our author/members an occasional opportunity to expose themselves (so to speak) to the reading public. Hence, we have declared the 19th of every month at the Erotica Readers and Writers Association blog Sexy Snippet Day.
On Sexy Snippet day, any author can post a tiny excerpt (200 words or less) in a comment on the day’s post. Include the title from with the snippet was extracted, your name or pseudonym, and one buy link, if you’d like.
Feel free to share this with erotic author friends. It’s an open invitation!
Please follow the rules. If your excerpt is more than 200 words or includes more than one link, I’ll remove your comment and prohibit you from participating in further Sexy Snippet days. I’ll say no more!
After you’ve posted your snippet, feel free to share the post as a whole to Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else you think your readers hang out.
by Donna George Storey
Just to bring closure to last month’s column, I did indeed see the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey and I enjoyed it just fine. No doubt Universal held back some extra sex scenes to add to the DVD release. I predict the movie will top $1 billion when it goes to instant download and DVD. Viewers who are too embarrassed to be seen in their local theater will indulge their curiosity—many of these viewers will be men—and if there are extra sex scenes, lots of people who saw it in the theaters will be back to see if this time Hollywood really, truly changes our lives forever with a choreographed show of two more or less naked people pretending to have sex. My fingers are crossed.
Now, I hear you, my dear readers, we’re all sick of Fifty Shades of Grey. But I’m still reeling from all the hate out there, which seems so out of proportion to its target—a humble erotic-romance novel that, in spite of its purported BDSM theme, isn’t nearly as violent as most of the stuff we see on TV. I’m kind of taking the hate personally, to be honest, as an erotica writer, a woman and a person who believes all of this fear, shame, and anger around sexuality is harming the world. Thanks to the bullying curriculum in today’s schools, I know an honorable bystander is supposed to intervene when they see someone being victimized. So to finish up my Focus on Fifty Shades series (this is my last column on this topic and that’s a promise), I felt I had to stand up for five special victims whose rights and well-being are suffering from the phenomenon.
Victim #1: Traditional Publishing
All of us here write and publish erotic books. So how come people all over the world aren’t clamoring to write scathing reviews about how our work is stupid and badly written and people only want to read it to masturbate and also destroy Western civilization, so the reviewer didn’t actually read it, but recommends no one else does either? We wish. Of course, first we have to sell over a hundred million copies of the various books in our trilogy, become a household word, and thus draw the attention of the voracious and endlessly snarky media. In fact, I’d argue that one of the more important reasons for all the snark is that the traditional power structure of publishing is under attack by hoards of sex-crazed women, both menstruating and menopausal.
Alas, the traditional ways were so elegant and righteous. Aspiring writers would genuflect before teachers and agents and editors and marketers and publishers who would tell them if they were good enough, mess with their stuff to make it more salable, skim off a cut, and conveniently blame the author if money wasn’t made. In return, the power structure would give readers deathless prose, edifying stories about family dysfunction and sex that is always punished, and an endless supply of the “new voice of our generation.” This indeed gave us many first novels by brilliant young men who masturbate with the English language, thus assuring that the reader is too confused to replicate the physical act at home. Morality was thus preserved.
But along comes E.L. James with a built-in fan base and the negotiating power to avoid the usual slave-labor contracts and insist the “experts” keep their hands off of her story. Plus her fans are not behaving like ladies. They are refusing to be shamed. Best-selling popular novels are not new, but novels that get there without the midwifery of the establishment are far more shocking than whips and chains. No wonder everyone in the literary establishment is in a bad mood about it, archly observing in so many words, “Maybe E.L. James will learn to write well after the Revolution.” I wouldn’t predict that editors and publishers will totally disappear, but the power dynamics are in interesting flux and many are running scared. Let us bow our heads for a moment for the passing of the old ways.
Victim #2: E.L. James’ Control in All Things
There is an irony in James’ desire to “exercise control in all things” Fifty Shades, or so the news stories present her as protective of her story against those who want to “improve” it. However, once any story becomes this popular, it belongs to everyone. Although Fifty Shades is soundly criticized for the weakness of its prose, sometimes an author’s distinctive voice can get in the way of making a story our own. Few readers can maintain hours and hours of pure admiration of someone else’s wordplay (Finnegan’s Wake?). We want a story that comes to life in our own heads.
Recently there actually have been thoughtful articles about the book and movie, some even by men. The few males who aren’t compelled to slam both lest their testicles shrink to the size of chickpeas do something similar to what fans do. They explore how the story is personally relevant to them. A.O. Scott’s “Unexpected Lessons From ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” compares the movie critic’s role to Christian and the audience’s unpredictable tastes to Ana. Robert Hoatson’s “Fifty Shades of Grey is about the trauma of childhood abuse, not sex” empathizes with Christian’s shut-down emotions. And Richard Brody’s “The Accurate Erotics of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” points out, without contempt, that one thing Fifty Shades has that most movies don’t is foreplay. The story has taken on the stature of public myth, becoming much more than itself.
I’d like to talk about one of the ways I personalized the story. I’m a hopeless analyzer. I get through the superhero movies my kids choose for family outings by analyzing the arc of the fight scenes and measuring the contrived sentimental punch of the scenes with dying parents and lonely, but gifted children. Perhaps not surprisingly, one of my favorite parts of Fifty Shades, book one, is that much-maligned contract Christian presents to his submissives. Many people call it boring, ridiculous and unromantic. For me it was the first time I felt a real connection to the book and decided to keep reading. Some readers and critics have been outraged that Christian would seek to control Ana’s schedule, clothes, grooming, eating habits, and sexuality, including masturbation, and justify it all as being for her own good. Around the “Availability” clauses, it struck me through the legalese that all women must negotiate these issues as we take our place in a patriarchal society. Ana’s lucky enough to be able to negotiate directly, but the rest of us have to find more creative ways to say no, some of which bring dire consequences to our well-being. And the enforcers in real life—our families, our peers, our religion and, worst of all, women’s magazines–are often more exacting than boyfriends. Throughout history and across cultures, women are constantly under scrutiny to look right, eat right, and limit our sexuality to the proper partner. The whole series of novels is about Ana’s negotiation of a contract, which she never signs. In real life women don’t have to sign to be shackled in those handcuffs.
By the way, there’s an equally problematic version of the social/sexual contract for men, including expectations about work, emotions, sexuality and so forth. It would probably be more authentic for a man to explore this in detail, but Christian’s character is a decent illustration of these expectations and how they can mess you up.
Victim #3: The Pretense that Women Get Respect in our Society
Some of the loudest voices calling Fifty Shades a danger to society are those that argue it encourages women to pursue abusive sexual relationships and more damaging still, read bad prose. In an effort to save us from this fate, so many commentators have felt compelled to insult women and female tastes without restraint. One particular critique amused me. Basically this man said we all know Fifty Shades is written badly and the story is stupid. But we also have to figure out why it works so well so we can duplicate its success. Excuse me, but how can you expect to understand, not to mention bank on, something if you despise it?
Now I know one of the main ways we define ourselves as cool is to feel contempt for others. But as a recovering I’m-too-good-to-read-Fifty Shades snob, I’m really glad I read the books. At the very least, it means I’m not a total jerk for opining about something I know nothing about.
As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in “Men, stop lecturing women about reading romance novels” (a rebuttal to William Giraldi’s infamously misogynistic screed against Fifty Shades in The New Republic), “Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.” Isn’t it the truth? All too often female characters are ornamental girlfriends, the reason for the hero’s quest, or the evil castrating witch, but seldom a character we can relate to and respect. Okay, maybe if we look good in a black leather bodysuit, we’ll get the token female lead in the superhero buddy film. In any case, Rosenberg continues, “Romance novels are a tonic, a form of reassurance that someone is interested in ordinary women’s inner lives and is rooting for us to resolve our conflicts about work, love, and what we deserve from our relationships.”
So, yes, if you want women to buy your writing—and women are the fiction market by a big margin–you have to create a compelling story that treats female characters and their concerns with genuine respect. Should be easy for you, right, buddy? Now go get rich.
Victim #4: Christian Grey
We’re all familiar with the characterization of Christian Grey as a stalker who creepily appears at Ana’s side at whim, due in part to his vampire ancestry. Some insist that thanks to the popularity of Fifty Shades, controlling, abusive men will now have women lining up outside their doors.
If we allow that the Fifty Shades novels are guides to real-life relationships as these critics apparently do, I think we need to look at Ana’s behavior as well. In the first book and movie, she insists Christian show her the worst the pain can be in his playroom. He–though not very wisely for a supposedly experienced Dom dealing with a very inexperienced sub–whips her six times with a belt on her bare ass with no warm-up. She then calls him a sick pervert and breaks up with him. Did this bother anyone else? Not the belt part, because Ana explicitly asked for something that. But if you pressure someone you care about to make himself vulnerable then immediately recoil at his repulsiveness without any meaningful discussion or processing, this is emotional abuse. So, to all the young men out there, let this be a lesson—if a woman does this to you, it is not a promising foundation for building trust in the relationship.
Except of course, it turns out to be the right move for a continuing relationship because (spoiler alert!) Christian decides to let her determine the nature of their sexual encounters, thus giving up the sort of BDSM he was trying to sign her up for. Yet Ana is hardly more trustworthy emotionally in the later books. From a “realistic” view, Ana is in her early twenties and has never had a boyfriend. But Christian gets blasted for his possessiveness and jealousy, when she is just as guilty. Her deep love is supposed to be the salve to heal Christian’s damaged heart, but she is jealous of every woman past or present who even makes eyes at her handsome but romance-novel-loyal boyfriend, so jealous that she regularly contemplates leaving him. The second and third novels swing between Ana wanting to save his wounded inner child with every fiber of her being then wondering on the next page if she should dump him when the going gets even a teeny bit tough. Another shockingly thoughtless act is when she forces him back to the playroom because of her own curiosity, although he has avoided it like a recovering alcoholic stays away from booze. Christian’s life was ruined by a “crack whore” birth mother and a Mrs. Robinson type who seduced him into the BDSM lifestyle at 15. These are bad ladies to have in your life, but I wouldn’t be so sure his luck with women had changed all that much with Ana.
Our young men deserve more maturity and kindness in their relationships. I hope the guardians of our social order will speak up for their welfare when the sequels come out and it’s Ana now jerking Christian around by the emotional leash.
Victim #5: Me-Too Books and Movies
There are some benefits to getting older. I know when something is advertised as the sexiest book or movie ever, it won’t be. Or when a magazine promises to teach me the four tricks that will blow a man’s mind in bed, I won’t learn anything new. And I know that because of the success of Fifty Shades that New York and Hollywood will green-light many projects that won’t do so well. The decision-makers will not conclude that in their rush to cash in, the appeal of Fifty Shades was not carefully analyzed and respected. They will more likely say that women actually don’t like sexy stories as much as we all thought or feared. Having lived through several cycles of excitement over the profit potential for erotica followed by disappointment when a project that receives no support doesn’t sell, I sense we’re bound for another round of the same.
I don’t want to end this column on a negative note by suggesting that all erotica writers will suffer when the publishing and movie industries make the same mistakes all over again. In other words, that we are victims of the Fifty Shades frenzy. I prefer standing up for the victim rather than identifying as one. Let’s just say I hope the clear evidence that women will pay good money to see their fantasies and desires portrayed in the media will create a permanent shift in our favor in the plans of the powerful scions of the Imagination Business.
In the meantime, we must keep writing what we love and support each other and a sex-positive culture. The fight for honest erotic expression continues!
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
I’m trying, at this moment, to imagine myself as a
Not as a transgender, no, not as a
female character in a story, no. I’m trying to imagine how life would be
different if I were to wake up one morning and find that, without explanation,
I had changed overnight into a natural woman. What would my body feel like
compared to the way it feels at this moment?
How does my male body feel as I write
I am sitting in my favorite coffee
shop, with a cold cup of coffee, sitting on a beach towel folded under my tiny
ass, placed on a hard chair with my legs crossed. I look down, I see the
keyboard, there are no breasts in the way of my view. Sitting with crossed
knees, if I flex my thighs a little I can feel the bulge of my balls down
there, my friendly and familiar dick which would like to be scratched a little.
My clothes which are manly clothes, my wristwatch, metal, big, self consciously
masculine in its brusque design. My full beard, which I have to frequently
color, itches; I reach up and scratch it a little, run my fingers through its manly
hairiness. The side burns reaching from my ears to my lips are of a different
quality from the hair of my chin, a trait which varies from man to man. My sideburn
hair is soft and of the same material as what hair survives on the top of my
head. The mustache and beard is thicker, like the beard of a schnauzer dog,
made of pubic hair, which feels thick, wiry, curly and coarse, and conjures up
images of back seat fumbling trysts as a kid. I have an unconscious habit of
twining my fingers in my public hair beard and twisting it in a Gandalfesque
manner when I am reading or sincerely lost in thought. Women slap my hand away
when I do that. It sheds too. I am conscious of having a beard from male vanity
because I have a weak chin like a frog and a beard gives me some jaw definition.
I am conscious of my belly and when I stand naked in the shower I look down to
make sure I can still see my dick. That’s the standard. I say if a man can’t see his dick, he needs
to lose weight.
What if I were a woman sitting here?
Typing this, would I have to see
over my breasts? I suppose although women don’t seem to have any problem
there. Would I feel vain about my
breasts, would I wonder how they look to other men? Would I look around the
room to see if any men are gazing at my breasts? If I had a husband and dressed in the morning
or came nude from the shower and yet never caught him sneaking a glance at them
anymore, would it hurt me? When was the last time he wanted to fuck me? Days?
Weeks? Did he spend some time on it or just quickies now? Maybe I should get one of those little yappy
dogs who goes loony with affection whenever I come home, and I would be one of
If I flex my thighs as a woman, so,
what would I feel differently? Some women can cross their legs as I am now,
flex their thighs, flex their thighs, flex their thighs and stealthily make
themselves come, even in the midst of a crowd. Girls love horses; they love to
straddle their thighs across all that living muscle, to feel it pumping at
their groin, moving steadily in rhythm, up and down, galloping with the wind in
their hair, this beast, this throbbing mountain of strength and potency between
their legs carrying them along? Unicorns, perfect and longed for in the dreams
of women and girls, these creatures a girl opens her legs to straddle and be
carried by, with that single, enormous, phallic horn, that beast for which
virgins were used as bait to capture.
I know how vanity feels as a man.
How does vanity feel as a woman? How does the world treat you when you move
through it as a woman? How does it feel when a man looks at you? Or doesn’t?
In so many countries the world is closed and narrow to you when you’re a
woman. Though you bring life into the
world, you’re barely considered human, or shallowly revered and kept prisoner
on a narrow pedestal of men’s fantasies. In so many places, women have only
other women to open their hearts to, as men can so often be such dull company
and who can share their deepest feelings with an oppressor? There are places
inside a woman only another woman can go.
And what is Eros for a woman compared
to a man?
It must be different, it cannot be
the same. A man makes love and walks
away clean, swinging his dick, moving on with his life. He doesn’t even have to see the woman again;
nothing in his life has to change.
A woman can die.
A woman can die a terrible
death. A woman risks her life bringing
life into this world. A man does
not. Eros has to be different when the
stakes are so different.
I know how a man experiences orgasm.
There is first the process of erection. As you get older this process becomes
more unpredictable and fearful. As a young man it was merely unpredictable.
What women don’t know about a man’s erection is that he has no more control
over it than a sneeze. It is something the body does, almost magically, not on
command but in response to a thought or a sight, or a touch. When a woman is
with her man and he is becoming erect, his body, not his intellect, is making a
statement about how he feels in this moment. Emphatic as an exclamation point,
urgent as a knife, he watches and feels it bloom and grow large beneath him as
if it were a separate thing with a life of its own. If I were to stop typing
and bring my imagination into the right place, it might bloom for me down there
below the table, but it would never be a willful decision like making a fist or
throwing a ball.
What does an erection feel like?
As it rises and swells, there is a
sense of pressure, a feeling of pleasure when the pressure is touched or
stroked, capable of being kindled into a kind of urgent flame that persuades. Persuades
and seduces a man that this feeling is more important than being on time for
work, or cutting the grass, or going to sleep, or getting out of bed, of if he’s
with the wrong woman, maybe worth throwing away his peace of mind for.
When touched, it wants to be touched
more, but whereas women prefer a gentle touch, a man’s phallus longs for
pressure. Pressure wants pressure. It wants to be in motion, to be active, a
hunting hound dog, a pressurized steam engine of thrust and action. This rapid ascent
towards something through pressure and motion persuades a man that this is what
he wants, the sweet, sweet, sweet pressure which wants release and relief and
there is something else, this experience which is closed off to women. The
experience of penetrating the offered body of another human being, to cross the
abyss of the senses, to satisfy and consummate the urge to penetration.
There is something about the act of
sex which on the surface is so primitive, so undignified in its animal
naturalness, so wonderful and so different from everything else that a man’s
life is forever divided between life lived before that moment he experiences his
first act of insertion and all of his life after. There is also this other
moment, if you are a man of some experience and not a boy, when you are about
to insert yourself, it is a feeling of the most exquisite anticipation, you
wait and linger to keep that moment for yourself, hovering before the gates of
paradise. Then beginning the act – the
tip touches, maybe in the wrong place and if the woman is kind she will take
that sweet high pressure pole in hand and guide it in like a ship to port. And
then you find the offered spot down there where you can’t see in the light of
the nightstand lamp or candle, or dashboard, or the moon, that spot which is
the black hole at the center of your male universe, wet, snug, but offered to
A little press and the sensitive tip goes in. You might hold it there,
feeling it in that wet snug space, feeling the sense of openness and waiting
and welcome. Examining yourself in the posture of the male with a woman, feeling
the moment in the act of beginning. To see the woman’s breasts, to feel her
belly touching yours, her eyes half closed, languidly if it’s that kind of a
night. And as you press in, feeling the warm and easeful, endless deepness, slicking
its way up the stiffened length of your shaft, not feeling the tip so much like
the prow of a ship cutting the waves, as this snug embracing welcome taking you
in and in and into that sweet mystery until your hairs meet and you come up
pressing into the flesh and can go no deeper, and that moment to me always
seems like a miracle. If God almighty were to ask me what the greatest thing in
all the world is, I would answer it is to experience union with woman. It is that moment. To press yourself so deeply inside another,
and she maybe puts her arms around you, presses her hands against your ass to
get that last inch nice and snug, all the way in, wanting all of it, enjoying
you, and there is the greatest feeling of being tender and the thrill of being
enjoyed by a woman, the thrill of being, in that moment, a man.
But how is it for a woman? I’ve
asked women, read articles, trying to get a feel for what a woman feels. How
must it be to have a man with a part of his body inserted in your own? How can
that possibly feel good? Is it vulnerable? Does it require a certain state of
mind first, a great trust of the man or is it a let down?
What a woman risks to have that
little moment. A man passes a disease so much easier than a woman can give
disease to him. A male of any species walks away freely, can move on with his
life with having to change anything. A woman risks her life, her freedom, her
health, her independence, her definition of who she is. Sex and death are bound
in a way for a woman that does not exist for a man at all. A man walks away,
swinging his dick. A woman can get pregnant. If it’s a healthy pregnancy, in
nine months her life, her emotions, her understanding of herself, will be profoundly
changed in ways she will never get back. The person she is at the beginning
will change over time. If all goes well, she’ll give birth, experience pain,
blood, messiness, occasionally terror and then there will be this life which
came from her, this entity which has experienced life only through her for
almost a year, every moment of every hour, through every activity, kicking,
turning over in its sleep, frighteningly still, annoyingly active, and now
revealed as a separate thing. Introduced forever. And if it goes badly, death.
This was a very common way for women to die, a bad birth, your loins exploding
inside of you like a bomb. Risking not only your life for love, but even a
grisly death. There is no experience like this in nature for a man except war.
The orgasm for a man, is of rising,
building up, creating a scaffold of aggressive sensation, the monkey awareness
of reaching that moment of no return when your head feels light and the
explosion is rippling up the length of your shaft like a great wave rushing to
crash into the rocks and now this wave is pulsing forward and out, pulsing and
pulsing and holding you for the moment in the grip of that pulsing feeling of
release. That explosion obliterates you for an instant, you can’t push it out
hard enough, you can never explode violently enough, there is always a huge
feeling of relief and an insatiable greed to make it more and more intense. For
a male the orgasm is assertion, insertion, exertion and finally that cannon
shot of release and relief. And then you feel like doing something else.
For a woman the urge to orgasm most
often doesn’t begin in bed. That’s my understanding, your mileage may
vary. It begins long before then, before
the notion of sex is even explored, during the day, or even the day before,
with considerations of courtliness and respect. There are goddesses and
feminists among us, yes, but a man loves a woman who makes him aware he’s a
man, and a woman loves a man who makes her aware she’s a woman. An intimate
conversation. A light touch. The little offerings building towards a single,
explicit gesture. Woman is after all, a being that risks her very life for Eros.
|Minotaur crouching over sleeping woman; Picasso, 1933|
I’m going to begin this essay by asking you for the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to ask you to assume
I’m not an insane or immoral person. I’m asking this of you because I’m about
to wade into the uncomfortable, murky waters of consent, intentionality and
biological imperative when it comes to sex – both fictionally and factually.
Attempts to unpack these issues, to examine philosophical, historical,
institutional, artistic and socially constructed understandings of human
sexuality reveal uncomfortable realities. They don’t always accord with the way
we want things to be or live up to our ideals. But I’d like to argue that approaches that seek to present the issue as uncomplicated for the sake of clarity, are not realistic or productive ones.
I just watched the documentary “India’s Daughter.” It
chronicles the events of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a woman
identified in the film as “Jyoti”. Some Indian feminist have
criticized the film because it allows a number of the rapists, their defense
lawyers and a few others to air, what to most Westerners and many Indians, too,
are deeply misogynistic views on where women belong in society and the part
they play in their own victimization. These statements are not directly and
immediately rebutted in the film – it allows the audience to be appalled at
them. The strategy works well in the context of a Western liberal audience that
is probably unaware of the extreme schisms of social attitudes surrounding
women. But for an Indian audience, where these views are not uncommon or unknown,
it fails. The Indian Government has banned
the airing of the documentary, ostensibly because it offers a platform for
views it wishes to eradicate. However, this decision might also have been influenced by a recent incident in which a
mob of thousands pulled an accused rapist out of a prison in Dimapur, and
beat him to death. The event is more complex than it appears. The accused was a
Bangladeshi, so there are both issues of religious and immigration tension that
have played significant roles.
I’d like to examine the myth that humans are at the mercy of
their animal instincts, driven by their biological imperatives; how old and
widespread this fallacy is and how deeply it has embedded itself into many cultures;
and what part it plays in both our fictions and our social norms.
It’s all Aristotle’s Fault.
Not really, but at least in Western culture, Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics has served, through the centuries as a font of great wisdom
on the matter of the human condition. In Part Seven of the Ethics,
Aristotle submits that, once in the thrall of sexual arousal, humans are no
longer capable of exercising reason, restraint or judgement. Historicity and
language is a bit of a problem. We don’t know what stage of arousal Aristotle
is referring to. Perhaps he was referring to the moment of orgasm, in which
case he’d be spot on. The problem is that our historical unease with the
specifics of the human sexual response led to very broad generalizations about
states of sexual arousal. This myth that a human in any given state of sexual
arousal is incapable of exercising choice, or control, or good judgment, has
been responsible for a millennial get out of jail free card when it comes to
Sorry, Different Department.
By the time we did get around to studying human sexual
response in the mid-20th Century, courtesy of Kinsey and Masters
and Johnson, the sciences had specialized. People who were interested in
philosophy, ethics, sociology or psychology had all been given their own
departments – nay – buildings on another campus. Let me tell you, interdisciplinary studies of human
sexuality are a rare, belittled, and underfunded species.
However, we know humans can and routinely do exercise
enormous control over their ‘animal’ instincts. We seem to be able to restrain
ourselves from peeing in our nests, we often find ways to negotiate our
territorial instincts, and unsurprisingly, we manage to restrain ourselves from
spending all our time mating – even though some of us spend an inordinate
amount of time thinking about it. There are men and women of diverse religious
orders who manage to live a life of complete sexual celibacy. Even
hormone-addled 16-year-olds don’t generally rampage through the countryside
raping every orifice they encounter. To look at it more quantitatively and at
more extreme levels of sexual arousal, practicing the ‘withdrawal method’ (27
pregnancies in 100) is still vastly more effective than using no birth control
method at all (85 pregnancies in 100). So, even at the abyssal precipice of
orgasm, it’s clear that we can and do have the capacity to exercise some
choice, some judgment.
Once We Were Dumb Mammals
Meanwhile, in the realm of society, we consistently ignore
that fact. Historically and to the present day, we create narratives about
humans helplessly carried away by the urgency of erotic bliss. Our literature,
drama and films are full of it. But, more darkly, so are our laws, our judicial
systems, our security structures.
We may acknowledge rape as a crime in theory, but even in the most
‘enlightened’ egalitarian social systems, it is astonishing how often
responsibility is shifted from the person who refused to exert control over
themselves and onto something or someone else. It was the clothes the victim
was wearing, the fact that she was out alone, the fact that she wasn’t
accompanied by a relative, the fact that she (or he) came up to the rapist’s
apartment, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, prison, porn, the prevalence of a
‘rape culture’. The list of reasons why an individual is not wholly, personally
accountable for their actions goes on and on. Whether you find yourself in a
culture that denies women autonomy, or one that offers them an equal legal
myth of the uncontrollable urge always rears its head.
We can control ourselves and we enjoy the lie that we can’t.
It’s not really that surprising: biological drives are compelling, and it takes
effort to refuse their call. It makes sense that humans would have fantasies
about respite from that control. In his book “Speaking the Unspeakable:
The Poetics of Obscenity,” Peter Michelson explains the liberating appeal
of pornography. It is, he says, a space where we can luxuriate in relinquishing
the very real control we have over our animal instincts. There is romanticism,
authenticity and empowerment in our fantasies of giving in to our animal
natures. I don’t wholly agree with Michelson on the specific mechanisms of
this, because I think our ‘animal natures’ are themselves a fantasy
construction. Nonetheless, he
presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing
control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised.
Meanwhile, romance often features motifs of being swept
away, overcome, overwhelmed, desiring beyond the boundaries of social
acceptability. The pursuer can’t help but want the object of his or her desire.
It obsesses them; it drives
them to extraordinary and unruly lengths within the context of the storyworld.
And the pursued, it usually turns out, cannot refuse the pleasure of being that
object of desire and, if all is well, return the feeling.
One of the reasons I champion
fictional, eroticized portrayals of reluctance and even rape is because to deny
that these ideations have semiotic power is dangerous. But also, to attempt to
force limits (i.e. to have rape fantasies is a betrayal of feminist ideology)
on what metaphors, what metonyms, what ‘signifieds’ might be is also futile. I
think fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies
and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals
we used to be. I’m not convinced of the veracity of that earlier state of
natural ‘innocence’, but it haunts us and calls to us nonetheless. Fantasy and
fiction are the only safe places we should give it power or credence. To
situate this myth of the uncontrollable urge in fantasy and fiction is to put
it exactly in the place it belongs – beyond the pale of the everyday world and
civil society, and to underscore that it is the ONLY place it belongs.
One of the stark messages of “India’s Daughter” is
that it is social attitudes, the tolerance of real world inequities, the historical
absence of women’s voices, their lack of power and the perpetuation of utterly
baseless justifications that create an environment in which crimes like this
are possible. The shocking testimonies of rape-apologists in the documentary
are offensive as hell, but they serve to remind us that these attitudes don’t
survive and are not perpetuated through fictional works, but through entirely
real-world levels of tolerance that predate ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and even