Lethe Press

A Low-Key Book Launch

Today I officially launched my erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium.

A local independent bookstore, the Penny University Bookstore, in the main street in the Cathedral Neighbourhood (the “Greenwich Village” of my small prairie city) offers local authors a chance to hang out on Saturday afternoons and interact with customers, or to plan a more formal event in the evening, which carries a fee because the store owner has to pay her staff extra to work outside of normal business hours. I chose the Saturday-afternoon slot, and I was delighted when a few of my friends showed up. My loyal spouse was there too.

The bookstore owner, who previously ran a downtown coffee shop which occasionally hosted a pop-up bookstore, offered us free tea or coffee. I sat in the comfortable green armchair that I thought of as Author’s Seat, having attended someone else’s book launch several weeks ago. My friends bought copies of Prairie Gothic, I autographed them, and I read the opening scene in Chapter One, which is relatively work-safe. The owner made a video of my reading, and I hope I won’t find it cringe-worthy when I see it.

I really hope that such small, cozy independent bookstores never die out completely, although their numbers have been shrinking for a long time. The convenience of shopping for books (including digital and audio versions) on-line has almost eclipsed the pleasure of shopping for actual books on shelves in stores that host author events and book club meetings. This trend seems parallel to the gradual disappearance of the kind of community-based LGBT bars that I describe in my novel. Now, in the 2020s, people of all sexual flavours seem to find dates on-line, despite the danger involved in meeting total strangers outside a social context of shared work, shared hobbies, political causes, or friends. I’m not sure if recurring lockdowns due to the pandemic have accelerated this process, but I know that many human transactions have been moving on-line since the era of my novel (1999), when communication usually took place in-person.

I hope all you writers here can find a welcoming real-life place to share your writing with actual readers.

Reading as Studying

by Jean Roberta

Reading other people’s writing is a good way to see how many different ways there are to approach the same subject. And even if you specialize in erotica, reading outside your genre can show you various ways to get readers engaged with your characters, to reveal character and advance a plot through dialogue, to set up suspense (“foreplay”), to use imagery sparingly or generously, to pace the action in a way that feels natural, and to write a convincing climax (!).

I sometimes read in spurts because I’ve been asked to review someone else’s work, or I’ve offered to write a review for a specific publication. Sometimes I need to read several books quickly in order to choose one as a textbook for one of the university English classes I teach. Reading with the intention of writing a review, a summary, or a critique is a good way to remember details I might miss if I were only reading for pleasure.

Here is a list of my recent summer reading: very different books I’ve read recently for different reasons (in alphabetical order of authors’ last names):

The Marrow-Thieves (YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic Canada) by Cherie Dimaline (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2017)

So Lucky (slim book with autobiographical elements about the progress of an incurable disease, Multiple Schlerosis) by Nicola Griffiths (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

Does It Show? (quirky novel in a magic-realist style, second in a series about a set of working-class characters in northern England) by Paul Magrs (Massachusetts: Lethe Press, forthcoming in August 2018)

Perennial: A Garden Romance (slim book about second chances in love and flowers that return in spring) by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Lethe Press, forthcoming)

Warlight (historical novel set in WW2) by Michael Ondaatje, revered Canadian writer and academic (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).

Forget the Sleepless Shores (collection of poetically-written stories, most with supernatural elements) by Sonya Taaffe (Lethe Press, forthcoming).

Read by Strangers (stories in an American realist style) by Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press, forthcoming).

Even the spate of books by one publisher (Lethe, which originally specialized in LGBTQ speculative fiction) shows a wide range of styles and subject-matter.

As a reader/reviewer, I keep a set of questions in mind as I read:

1. What is the author’s aim, as far as I can figure it out?
2. Does the style seem to suit the subject-matter? (And if the style looks inappropriate, is that a sign of satirical intent?)
3. Do the characters come to life, even in a fantasy plot? (And there is a difference between fantasy elements in a narrative set in a very realistic or even gritty real-world setting, and “High Fantasy,” a story set in the Land of Faery, or Planet X, or some other completely invented realm.)
4. Am I tempted to keep turning the page? Are the mysteries and the tension eventually resolved?

Regarding the recent stack of books, I can honestly say that they all deliver what they promise.

None of these books are sagas of High Fantasy, but the stories with fantasy elements (The Marrow-Thieves, Does It Show? and most of the individual pieces in Forget the Sleepless Shores) seem no more far-fetched or implausible, in their way, than the narratives that reveal the strangeness of reality (So Lucky, Perennial, Warlight, and Read by Strangers).

The following are some of my impressions from my recent spate of reading, all of which can be applied to writing erotic fiction.

The same-sex attraction in several of these narratives (The Marrow-Thieves, So Lucky, Does It Show? several stories in Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) is presented in a plausible, matter-of-fact way that invites readers of all sexual orientations to care about the characters. Luckily, the current literary zeitgeist seems to have moved beyond the “coming-out” story as well as the interracial romance as something shockingly transgressive. In The Marrow-Thieves, each member of a makeshift “family” of survivors has a “coming-to” story about how they survived and found others like themselves, but these stories are not about wrestling with forbidden desires.

Characters who disguise their biological gender appear in Does It Show? and “The Creeping Influences” in Forget the Sleepless Shores. Whether such characters are cross-dressers, transfolk, or women just trying to survive in a men’s world (as in several Shakespeare comedies), they can easily come across as offensive stereotypes in current fiction.

In the human comedy of Does It Show? all the characters crave more glamour, excitement and love than they are likely to find in a small English town in the 1980s, but a supernatural realm is almost tangible beyond the illusions of “reality.” A transwoman in this context doesn’t seem more bizarre than anyone else.

In “The Creeping Influences,” a female character doing a man’s job seems downright mundane compared to the discovery of two well-preserved bodies in an Irish bog, both apparently murdered in different centuries.

Several of the authors of these books are widely known to be lesbians or gay men. In other cases, I simply don’t know anything about the authors’ love-lives. In all cases, though, same-sex attraction is simply presented as a fact. The worm in the apple is not internalized homophobia or the wrath of God, but miscommunication, or persecution in some form. This approach could be applied to more explicitly erotic plots.

Imagery (the description of anything which can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, touched or felt) is sensual by definition, and therefore erotic. Imagery is the heart and soul of both horror fiction and sex-stories. The two collections of single-author stories (Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) include both spine-tingling creepiness and realistic sex scenes.

Perennial, the one book defined as a “romance,” has no explicit sex, but this could have been added without detracting from the sweetness of a story about two lonely strangers getting to know each other, and supporting each other through hard times.

In Warlight, the eventual revelation of hidden truths on a personal and collective level is both jaw-dropping and characteristic of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. (The narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy when we first meet him.) There are no explicit sex scenes in the novel, but erotic attraction is shown to be a major motivator of human behaviour which might otherwise be hard to explain.

In short, reading and writing go together like – well, you can think of an appropriately raunchy set of pleasures. It’s probably no coincidence that when I haven’t been reading, I’ve written several stories this summer, and I have plans for several more.

Their Words Live On

by Jean Roberta

Halloween is approaching, and this means (according to some) that the veil between this world and the next is growing thin.

For the ancient Celts, October 31 (or approximately this date in their own calendar) was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), and it was the last day of the year. When Christianity was spreading throughout Europe and giving new names to old seasonal festivals, a Pope declared November 1 to be the feast day of all the saints, which made October 31 All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en. November 2 was declared All Souls Day, and it is still celebrated in Mexico as El Dia de Muertos, the day to honour all your loved ones who have passed on. (Picnics in cemeteries!)

‘Tis the season to think about the spirits of the dead, and whether they still contact the living.

Writers, in particular, tend to haunt their readers during their lives and long afterwards. William Shakespeare died on his own birthday in 1616, but his plots have circulated far and wide ever since. A writer’s death doesn’t change the relationship of readers to his/her words, but it ends the possibility of discussing them with their source, except in a séance. (“Will, when you wrote Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech, that wasn’t your own cynical manifesto, was it?”)

Too many writers have died since 2000, and I’m sure they are all missed by their fans. Since space doesn’t allow me to honour them all, I’ll just mention a few whose lives brushed mine, and who left us too soon, IMO.

In February 2003, I spent Reading Week (an annual break from classes for students and faculty in the university where I teach) in New York, where I took part in a reading from Best Women’s Erotica of that year in Bluestockings Bookstore. One of my fellow-readers was a writer and singer-songwriter known simply as “zonna.” She read from “What You’re In For,” an intense story of seduction in a women’s prison, and she invited members of the small audience to read the parts of minor characters. “Zonna” was clearly a performer, and she owned the stage. I was taken aback to hear that she passed away several months later. I haven’t been able to find much information about her, but I hope she is at peace.

In 2005, I was writing book reviews for an on-line site, “The Dominant’s View,” having been invited by “Kayla Kuffs,” whom I met in the Erotic Readers and Writers lists. I reviewed a witty book of non-fic, Painfully Obvious: An Irreverent and Unauthorized Manual for Leather/SM by Robert Davolt, a gay man and former Mr. Leather, who co-owned a bar in San Francisco. I spent Reading Week in that city that year, and took part in a reading from Best Lesbian Erotica. I was impressed when Robert Davolt showed up, and invited me to a queer bar down the street for a drink. He was perfectly sociable, and not intimidating. Later, I learned that he was diagnosed with cancer in April of that year, and by May, he was gone. When I first got the news from Kayla, I wasn’t convinced, especially since her informants all seemed to be people from BDSM chat rooms with single names like Slavegirl.

I took the liberty of contacting Patrick Califia, another famous BDSM writer from San Francisco, and he snail-mailed me a copy of The Bay Area Reporter, a newsletter-style journal that included a long, respectful obituary of Robert Davolt. I hope he was welcomed to the Other Side by a chorus of adorable slave-boys.

In 2010, a famously reclusive American writer passed away, leaving a small but well-known body of work. J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories made such an impression on my daughter when she was in high school that she decided to name any future daughter she might have after a precocious young girl in the story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” My granddaughter, Esme Stang, was born in February 2010. (I travelled to Toronto during Reading Week, when I met her two days after her birth.)

In 2011, the world lost a legendary pioneer in the world of modern lesbian literature when writer/publisher/archivist Barbara Grier passed away. I’m so sorry I dropped her torch.

I’ll explain. For six months in the early 1980s, I was a full-time employee of a collectively-run “alternative” bookstore which was literally underground, with a display window at ground level. I wanted to order more lesbian titles, including romances from Naiad Books, the company founded by Grier and her partner. I called the Naiad office in Florida and reached Grier herself. I placed an order, and we discussed ways to get the books across the Canadian border without interference from government censors.

I mentioned that I had typed up a list of lesbian books published since the latest edition of her own annotated bibliography, The Lesbian in Literature, came out in 1981. (The first edition of this list was compiled with Marion Zimmer Bradley in the 1970s.)

She said she was too busy to produce a new, expanded edition, and she hoped someone (me?) would continue this important work. For awhile, I actually tried to do this. I kept book titles and brief descriptions on file cards. In 1988, I ran off photocopies of my own typed, unofficial version of the new Lesbian in Lit to hand out at a local LGBT conference. Note that I had no access to a computer. By the 1990s, I realized that I couldn’t possibly keep up with all the new publications, and I hoped that information about writing with lesbian content was more accessible than when Grier and Bradley began compiling a list, beginning with the poet Sappho (circa 600 BCE).

Another notable lesbian writer, Victoria Brownworth, wrote a moving remembrance here:

Two other important women writers (both authors of fantasy/sci-fi) passed away in 2011. One of them, Anne McCaffrey, wrote a series of novels about the “dragonriders of Pern,” which I read in second-hand paperback editions. (Actually, there are 20 books in the series. I’ve only scratched the surface.) I loved her explanation in an interview that she moved from the eastern U.S. to Ireland because it was thousands of miles away from her ex-husband.

Joanna Russ, who also left us in 2011, was a more explicitly feminist and openly lesbian writer. She is probably best known for a novel, The Female Man, published in 1975, when Second Wave feminism was gathering strength. Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman named his annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction, “Heiresses of Russ.” I was honoured to be chosen as co-editor of the 2015 edition. (For more on the cultural significance of Russ’ fiction and non-fiction, you could read my introduction, or Google her name.)

In 2012, I was shocked to read that writer/publisher Bill Brent of San Francisco had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge some time on the weekend of August 18-19. I had met him shortly after 9/11, in October 2001, when new copies of Best Bisexual Erotica 2, co-published by Bill’s small press, Black Books (and Circlet Press of Cambridge, Mass.), were available to contributors, including me. He had stories in the Best Gay Erotica series from Cleis Press, and he also wrote The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men for Cleis. The bankruptcy of Black Books and of Bill’s zine, Black Sheets, must have been a blow, but after that, he moved to Hawaii, and all those who knew him hoped the change of scene would do him good. On visits back to SF, he apparently didn’t seem suicidal to friends. I wish them comfort.

In 2013, Rhodesian-born “British” writer Doris Lessing passed away. Although she moved to London in 1949, she always thought of herself as a colonial, an outsider with little formal education and no connections with the literary establishment. Nonetheless, when I began writing my Masters thesis on her five-novel “Children of Violence” series, I discovered a horde of fans, critics and academics who had discovered her before I did. When the final version of my thesis was handed in, it had a 12-page bibliography (single-spaced, 10-point font).

I always hoped I would meet her someday, and possibly even get her opinion of my analysis of her work. Now this can only happen on the Other Side.

I first encountered the fantasy writer Eugie Foster of Atlanta, Georgia, when we both had stories accepted for a doomed anthology of noir fantasy, Blasphemy, which was never published. By the time several other contributors pulled out of this project because it was taking too long, we were all exchanging messages in our own chat group, set up by the editors. I was the only one in the group who wrote erotica primarily; all the rest were writers of spec-fic. I found them intriguing, and they treated my genre with respect.

Later, I befriended Eugie on Livejournal and Twitter, where she posted updates about her beloved pet, a de-scented skunk named Hobkin. When Hobkin caught a respiratory infection, Eugie described her efforts (with her husband Matthew) to save him, but Hobkin passed away. Soon afterward, Eugie reported that she had been diagnosed with a rare form of sinus cancer.

Eugie’s passing on September 27, 2014 (which I remember because it was the day before my own spouse’s birthday) was unnerving, since she never lost hope of recovery, and continued to post tweets about her treatment almost until the end. Matthew Foster posted a brief announcement that she was gone, and added:

We do not need flowers. In lieu of flowers, please buy her books and read them. Buy them for others to read until everyone on the planet knows how amazing she was.

Here is a bibliography: www.eugiefoster.com fiction

Eugie and Matthew were both organizers of Dragon Con, an annual fantasy event in Atlanta, and Matthew has continued in that role. This con now features a Eugie Foster Award for the year’s best fantasy story of 20K or less.

On the theme of fantasy fiction, a giant in the field was Tanith Lee of England, who claimed in introductions and interviews that writing was the only thing she ever did well enough to earn a living at it. (She was living with her parents when her first novel, The Birthgrave, was published in 1975.) I taught her novel, Night’s Master (first of the Flat Earth series) in my fantasy literature class, Sympathy for the Devil, until the beautiful latest edition of that book suddenly became unavailable when the boutique publisher, Norilana, went out of business. (This version of the book featured stained-glass artwork by the author’s husband, John Kaiine.)

I was able to find numerous second-hand mass-market copies (with cheesier cover art), but since I couldn’t keep selling dog-eared paperbacks in class, I reluctantly replaced Nights Master with a steampunk mystery by two other writers.

I always hoped to meet Tanith Lee in a writers con some day, and discuss the publishing biz with her. Unfortunately, she passed away from breast cancer in May 2015. How ironic to die in the spring! However, she achieved an enormous amount before leaving this world.

In 2011, I received an email out of the blue from a legendary (at least to my mind) radical dyke of the 1970s, Jeanne Cordova. I recognized her as the editor of an early lesbian journal from California, The Lesbian Tide, which folded in 1980.

Her autobiographical book, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, was published in 2011, and she wanted me to review it. She had read my reviews in The Gay and Lesbian Review, and she thought I could do justice to her story. I was delighted.

I explained that neither of us could let the editor know we were in contact, since his policy was to let his stable of reviewers choose titles from lists of books received, and not to allow collusion between a writer and a reviewer. (In principle, I admire the integrity of this position.) I wrote the review, asked the editor if he could find room for it, and he did.

Later, Jeanne wrote to me from an email address under the name of her partner, Lynn Ballen, saying she enjoyed finally meeting me at a literary event. I was mystified. I wrote back to say that I was sure she met many people there, but I was not one of them. I hoped we could actually meet someday.

And then I read that Jeanne Cordova passed away from cancer in January 2016.

If I ever meet all the writers I would love to meet, it will probably be at a literary con on the Other Side that will be more fabulous than anything put on by mere mortals. I really hope that all the writers I’ve mentioned have vanquished the inner and outer demons they wrestled with in this world, and that they are enjoying what used to be called their “reward.”

For those of us who are still here, their work is waiting to be discovered.

Eugie Foster and Hobkin (together forever?)


by Jean Roberta

We erotic writers have not yet been completely accepted into the literary or social mainstream. From time to time, someone in this blog points out that we Don’t Get No Respect, or at least not enough. This claim is hard to refute.

The good news is that the solid wall between Literature (which sometimes wins prestigious awards) and Porn (which was largely illegal in the recent past) seems to have been crumbling for years.

The genre called erotica can now be mixed with any other genre, not only romance. Much has been said here about the uneasy relationship between erotica (fiction that focuses on sex as a means of transformation, or the focal point of a plot) and romance (fiction about the development of a relationship, usually heterosexual, usually with a happy ending). There have been laments about the ways in which Romance, as the elephant of the publishing biz, has steamrolled over literary erotica so that brilliantly well-written, poetic, hot-yet-philosophical works on sex per se are now harder to find than ever before. There is clearly some truth in this claim.

However, if explicit sex scenes are the hallmark of erotica, these can be included in works of fantasy (e.g. rewritten fairy tales or ancient myths), science fiction and its various subgenres (e.g. steampunk), historical fiction, murder mysteries or detective stories, social satire, and every other genre one can think of. Sex is so central to human life that sex scenes don’t have to be forced into a supposedly non-sexual plot. They can now be included in a kind of organic way, so that they serve the plot and the development of the characters.

Circlet Press was founded in 1992 to publish fiction that combines explicit sex (often queer in some sense) with fantasy elements, and this combination has since been taken up by other publishers. It’s even possible to find novels that combine more than two genres.

To give an example, I recently had to replace a fantasy novel in my “Sympathy for the Devil” English course (four fantasy novels by women, all with male protagonists). Unfortunately, a novel by Tanith Lee about an immortal kind of devil was suddenly unavailable. I replaced it with Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold (Lethe Press, 2013), a double-authored steampunk murder mystery with double (human) protagonists who must clear away a London fog of interpersonal misunderstanding while eliminating suspects in a complicated murder investigation.

I introduced this novel to the class by inviting my colleague, the local expert in the history of detective fiction, to discuss the genre. I suspect that his colourful, student-friendly, 75-minute talk was the condensed version.

If I knew any local experts in m/m romance as a genre (with its contested origins in Kirk/Spock fanfiction or slash, based on the original Star Trek as a television space opera), I would have invited her/him/them to speak. I would have given the same invitation to an expert in steampunk if I knew of any in my town. (I can easily imagine the English Department of the university where I teach acquiring a specialist to teach steampunk classes in the future, possibly as an offshoot of speculative fiction or Victorian studies.)

Death by Silver actually features a primary relationship which is sexual from the beginning, but IMO, the novel doesn’t qualify as erotica because the sex is dealt with in a traditionally British way, behind closed doors (usually in one line of coy dialogue or a short paragraph at the end of a chapter). None of my students seem shocked, and several have told me they enjoyed reading, despite the complexity of the plot. (This, rather than the frequent hints of “unmentionable” sex, seems to be the only thing that slowed them down.)

It is easy to imagine a sexually-explicit version of a similar novel, and m/m erotic romance is definitely a thing.

Cross-genre fiction seems to me to be the way out of the impasse created by the economic and cultural dominance of mainstream romance novels. (Not to mention the cultural dominance of Romantic Comedy as a popular film genre, i.e. “date movies.”)
Not only can descriptions of sex be smuggled into literary genres that are generally more respected than erotica, the importance of sex can be shown in work that can find its way out of a literary ghetto.

Rewriting “classic” novels to include explicit sex scenes is only one way to cross-breed genres. Those of us who started out as erotic writers, and who aren’t willing to ditch the sex for the sake of respectability, might not achieve critical respect any time soon, but we can have fun spreading our wings.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


Babysitting the Baumgartners - The Movie
From Adam & Eve - Based on the Book by New York Times Bestselling Authors Selena Kitt



Pin It on Pinterest