Rachel Kramer Bussel

Did Fifty Shades of Grey Kill the Erotica Revolution?

by Donna George Storey 

Remittance Girl’s farewell column this month got me thinking—as always and sadly for the last time here at the ERWA blog. What effect has the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon had upon erotica writers? When the tidal wave first hit back in 2012, there was hope expressed that the novels’ huge readership would seek out the works of other erotica writers now that they’d been exposed to the pleasures of sexually explicit stories. I also hoped we’d all rise together, but didn’t really believe it would happen.

All signs suggest it has not happened.

Not that Fifty Shades is the only oppressive factor in the radically changing publishing world, but it’s certainly played a role. I appreciate that this may be a romantic recasting of history, but my exposure to erotica began with the mainstream publication of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus in 1977. Of course I’d read Penthouse and more avidly its sister publication Viva, which was supposedly aimed at women, but Nin’s work showed that erotic stories could be beautifully written and gain some respect, or at least a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. That erotic writing could be intelligent and literary was a revolutionary concept for our society.

A decade later, literary erotica, especially that written by women, was much more widely available and I’d even say the variety and quality of writing was celebrated. In the mid-1990’s I was personally inspired to write erotica by Maxim Jakubowski’s 1996 edition of The Mammoth Book of International Erotica and Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica 1997. I was particularly taken with a piece in the latter entitled “Lunch” about a man who pays for a private luncheon show involving spinach dressed in the female lubricant of a woman who is aroused by a dwarf rubbing a scarf between her legs. Pretty creative as it goes, but the real draw for me was the friend who introduced the narrator to the show—a guy named Drew who was shamelessly intimate with his own sexual desires. I wanted to be Drew. Writing erotica promised a path to that self-knowledge.

After a lot of labor and the requisite callous rejections, I eventually began to be published by the erotica webzines like Clean Sheets, Scarlet Letters, Fishnet, Oysters and Chocolate and The Erotic Woman. Eventually my original inspirations, Maxim Jakubowski and Susie Bright, published my work, as well as great editors like Violet Blue, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Alison Tyler with publishers like Cleis and Seal. My work even got me checks from places I’d never dreamed I’d penetrate like Penthouse and the Playboy Cyber Club.

None of this ever made me rich. In fact, the day I got my Penthouse check, I was pulled over for running a “red light” while making a left turn (I swear it was yellow, but the cop didn’t buy it) and the generous fine ate up the entire payment for my story. Crime does not pay, obviously. However, I did enjoy being part of a vibrant community of writers, many of whom write columns here today.

Then, somehow, the webzines, the publishers, the interest in a variety of well-written erotic tales, it’s all disappeared.

Can we lay the blame on the Fifty Shades phenomenon? I think so. Certainly we can blame the publishing industry, which has seen that “erotic writing” can make tons of money, so therefore the only kind worth publishing is that which will make as much as Fifty Shades. Of course, since no one really knows why a certain work catches fire, publishers play it safe and back projects that are like Fifty Shades at the expense of other kinds of stories, ignoring the lesson of history that the real next big thing will not be a copycat, but will come from a different direction. Most importantly, we must remember that commercial publishing has never been about giving the public high-quality writing. It’s about making money with as little risk as possible.

In his column this month, Garce reminds artists that if we focus on being rock stars rather than musicians, we’ll lose our creative souls. There are some writers who genuinely love to create the kinds of stories that are seen as marketable today, and these people have found their time in the wake of Fifty Shades. For those of us who feel more inspired by stories about X-rated salad dressing, well, let me put my own cock-eyed optimism out there. The urge for erotic expression is always with us, no matter whether the official culture is Puritanism, Victorianism, Freudianism or FiftyShadesofGreyism. I believe our time will come again or at the very least, there are readers out there who will appreciate our stories.

Writing makes me feel more alive. It enriches my world in ways money never can. In certain moods I do despair that Fifty Shades has placed expectations on our genre that few if any can meet. But that’s only when I’m not writing what I love.

And writing what we love, what we were born to write, is always the answer.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Digging Into the Past—and the Future—of Book Promotion

by Donna George Storey

The New Year always inspires me to do some housecleaning, but this year I found myself craving a deeper level of de-cluttering. Of course, this involves more than just filling up the trashcan, it means asking a lot of questions, too. What’s in this box that’s been sitting on top of my filing cabinet for years and do I even need what’s inside? The answer led me on a little trip down memory lane, but also posed new questions for the future of writerly self-promotion.

The particular box I mentioned just so happened to contain my promotional materials for the original paperback edition of my novel, Amorous Woman, which was released in the US in June 2008. (Predictably, it’s been re-released with another publisher as an ebook and takes up no space in my office). This included postcards, bookmarks, a well-thumbed reading copy of the novel and a sample press kit as well as a stand-up sign decorated with Japan-themed stickers: “Take An Exotic, Erotic Trip to Japan with an Amorous Woman.”

Ah, the memories!

It was educational—and utterly exhausting—to promote my novel all on my own, as the majority of writers must. In some ways I still haven’t recovered, and yet I met so many wonderful, generous people and had countless adventures that still make me smile. Reading with “In the Flesh” at the glitzy Hollywood Hustler. Speeding past the junkies collapsed on the sidewalks of downtown LA in a decrepit taxi at 1 am after taping the Dr. Susan Block radio show. The countless emails, phone calls, guest blogs, radio interviews, bookstore readings, bookstore visits begging the owner to help out a local author. This experience, more than any other, made me feel like I was a real writer because my eyes were truly opened to the reality that writing a book is but the small first step in reaching readers.

With Eden Bradley at our exotic, erotic booth (that’s my kimono in the background)

The contents of the aforementioned box took me back to one event in particular—the West Hollywood Book Fair where I was part of a booth of “California Erotica Writers” in September 2008. (For anyone interested in a more detailed description of that hot, busy day, check out my blog post, The Last Hollywood Hustle).

Advised by a book fair veteran to provide freebies for the fairgoers to get their attention, I ordered some fortune cookies with my own erotic fortunes as follows:

Sip hot tea; swallow. French kiss your lover’s most sensitive spot.

Blindfold your lover; order him/her to remain still. Do things to make this difficult.

Caress your lover’s body with silk; try velvet, then your tongue.

Have your lover pick a number from 1 to 10. Caress his/her secret pleasure spot for that number of minutes.

FOR HIM: Sip crème de menthe; spread it over his member with your tongue. Blow gently.

Your lover’s been naughty. Maybe s/he needs a gentle spanking?

Give your lover an erotic book; mark your favorite passages first.

FOR HER: Don’t take off your lingerie tonight—make him (or her) “work around it.”

Have phone sex—even if you live together.

Make love anywhere but the bedroom. Be creative with the furniture.

The cookies–Would you like to try a grownup fortune cookie?–actually were relatively successful in getting the grownups to come over to the booth so I could chat them up about my novel. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a single person to listen to my pitch! Although I didn’t intend it to be self-serving, those who got the fortune suggesting you give your lover an erotic book smiled cynically, and I vowed to substitute a different fortune next time. (I still believe an erotic book is a good gift, and it doesn’t have to be my book!) While I would never call myself an outgoing person, for the sake of my novel, I took on the role of salesman as best I could. One athletic, silver-haired gentleman even asked me if I was from L.A. When I replied I was from the Bay Area, he smiled and said, “You seem like one of us,” which pleased me then, but feels more complicated as a compliment in retrospect.

Of course, I can’t let the rosy haze of nostalgia mislead you about the thrill of my self-planned book tour to Hollywood. I stood at that booth from 10 am to 5 pm and sold 5 copies total, all to strangers—which was the best record of all of my boothmates. And all the visitors weren’t so nice. One boozy woman monopolized my time for 20 minutes, driving away potential customers. Another older gentleman chatted for a long time without buying a book, but before he walked away, he did press his crumbled, uneaten fortune cookie into my hand as a return gift.

It was fun to sift through the contents of the box and reminisce, but my present goal to clean house called me back to 2014. Would I ever use a sign, a press kit or even the bookmarks again? Would I ever attend a book fair to promote my work or traipse around to local bookstores, discovering all too intimately which owners respected erotica and which seemed to take pleasure in sneering at smut?

This, Dear ERWA Blog Reader, is my question for you. Is face-to-face promotion a thing of the past? Are bookmarks and homemade signs merely momentos or worth keeping as tools in my arsenal for promoting my next book? I cannot say that a single event I attended resulted in monetary profit, although I came away with invaluable memories. It seems to me that for reasons of cost and convenience, the future of promoting now lies solely in the Internet ether.

In the midst of writing this month’s post, I happened to read Rachel Kramer Bussel’s column in Dame, “Why Is Self-Promotion Considered the Eighth Deadly Sin?” Most writers, including myself, are more comfortable sitting alone at their computers making stuff up, so it’s no surprise that many, even the successful ones who’ve gotten world-class promotional opportunities like Jonathan Franzen, bemoan the necessity to peddle our own wares. Online promotion certainly does offer real benefits to a writer who is more comfortable writing than soliciting fairgoers to come over to her booth for a chat-up. On the other hand, I sometimes feel that all the Facebooking and Twittering is too much like making faces at myself in the mirror.

Promoting my book is not about me and my wonderful talent, as the uninitiated might think. That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned from my first efforts back in 2008. Promoting is about making connections. In her article, Rachel has a great quote from creative badass blogger, Justine Musk:

“Social media is about finding a way to tell this ongoing, multiplatform kind of story that resonates with your so-called audience because it’s about them, it’s not about you. It serves the audience, not you. Not all marketing is bad marketing. Good marketing is about making an emotional connection with the people whom you are meant to serve.”

I couldn’t agree more. But I have to admit that thus far social media has not provided the same potential for intimacy—although I do feel all warm and fuzzy from the Facebook messages on my birthday—and as I look ahead, I know it will be a challenge to find ways to make a real connection amidst all the noise and distraction of the online universe.

If you have any words of advice, please share!

Wishing you a Happy and Creative 2014!

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Is Sexual Fantasy Hazardous to Your Health?

Sexual fantasy is dangerous.

Or so you’d think if you look around at the way this common human indulgence is handled in the media. My first realization of the way sexual thoughts were treated as incendiary was the uproar over Jimmy Carter’s confession in Playboy:

“I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.”

In retrospect, I’m not sure if the hubbub was just about Carter’s mental adultery or his rather chummy understanding with God to give the lustings a pass, but even as a freshman in high school, I sure remember the buzz. This was way back in 1976, but our attitude towards sex in the mind has hardly changed.  We’ve all read how internet porn is highly addictive, destroys real-life relationships and has created an upsurge in pedophilia (fears not born out by statistics), but even a happily married woman, as reported in Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? can be faithless enough to fantasize about baseball star Derek Jeter while in bed with her spouse—proof indeed that all women are naturally polyamorous.

In her recent Kinkly column, “Fifty Shades of Abuse?” Rachel Kramer Bussel discusses a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health, “’Double Crap!’: Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey” in which the authors studied the mega-bestseller for evidence of intimate partner violence and concluded that the novel “adds to a growing body of literature noting dangerous violence standards being perpetuated in popular culture.” Even friendly sexual self-help books, which nominally accept the healthy existence of sexual fantasy, abound with advice to cleanse the mind of any self-indulgent imaginings and be with your partner in the moment. It’s as if having sexual thoughts that aren’t explicitly about how much you spiritually love and honor your partner somehow taints the encounter with, well, something dirty like eroticism.

I’m willing to admit that an actual sex act could have serious consequences. Infidelity can stress or destroy a relationship. Power is often abused in human relationships whether sex is involved or not. And totally erasing your partner’s existence in bed probably indicates some intimacy problems that would best be addressed. But let’s remember that other kinds of fantasy itself can have negative consequences. The lottery, the diet industry, and pretty much every advertising campaign out there feed our fantasies about being effortlessly rich, thin and lovable while they slip their hot hands into our wallets.

But what’s so scary about merely thinking about sex?

The assumption seems to be that fantasies represent something we actually want to do and would in the blink of an eye if given the opportunity. Once we imagine, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, being intimately massaged by eight nubile members of the opposite sex all dressed in matching loincloths, we’ll jump up and start recruiting a merry band for the weekend’s pleasure. Maybe you’ve heard the story that all of the feed stores in Iowa sold out of rope after Fifty Shades hit the bestseller list–clear evidence of monkey read, monkey do.

Let’s just say I won’t believe it until I see the inventory statements.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that not all fantasies are treated so literally. If we experience an urge to eat a whole pan of brownies, but don’t, the guilt stops there.

In pondering the reasons why sexual fantasy is regarded as so dangerous to our souls, I remembered an observation in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, volume 1 concerning the evolution of confession in Catholic Europe. (As an ex-Catholic, this passage made an impression— the book is dense, but I do recommend the book for anyone interested in the topic of sex, language and power). By the 17th century, priests were urged to use indirect language when questioning the penitents about sex, even as the scope of the confession increased.

“According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told. A twofold evolution tended to make the flesh into the root of all evil, shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings—so difficult to perceive and formulate—of desire.” (History of Sexuality: 1, 19-20).

All the major religions have figured out this trick—make a natural human experience sinful, and the believers will always be sinning and on their knees in need of forgiveness. And no doubt, the confessions of their more articulate congregation members provided a forbidden pleasure of its own to celibate priests. But where does that leave erotica writers, who create sexual fantasy for shameless public consumption? Are we hazardous to the mental and moral health of decent citizens everywhere?

My answer? Nah.

In fact, I’d argue that fantasy offers a healthy outlet of expression for desires and dilemmas that are otherwise repressed from ordinary discourse. Too many ostensibly responsible, educated people read fantasy like a road map when it’s usually more like a fable, a fiction that offers us a coded story of our deepest desires. And here I’m talking especially about the weird stuff that embarrasses us, the dark and “dangerous” fantasies. I’d also argue that the erotic appeal in Fifty Shades and Derek Jeter fantasies is the power more than the sex. While sexual attraction doubtless informs many of our interactions throughout the day, as human beings, power informs all of them. In the highly indirect language of fantasy, the pleasure in being ravaged by a powerful man is less about rape than the desired object’s own power of attraction in trumping his worldly might. Imagine—a pretty, naive college student can captivate one of the richest men in the world and make him focus all of his billionaire attention on the humblest details of her life. Fantasy of every kind delights in overturning certainties, violating taboos, weaving images of absurd abundance, relieving us of all obligations and restrictions. As much as we might wish, rarely does it come “true.” For most of us, the pleasure lies in watching the transgressions unfold in our heads.

I find it interesting that as the legal and social restrictions placed on sex acts are loosened, the attempts to control sexual thought seem to be increasing. Fifty Shades of Grey, whatever its flaws, opened up the world of erotica to millions of readers. In response we have an apparently serious scientific study that tells us a fantastical novel promotes delusions about the romance of BDSM that could harm female identity. Surely there are more effective ways to improve female self-esteem on a societal level. Studies showing the benefits of equal pay? More status for female-dominated professions? The benefits of treatment for both partners in actual cases of abuse?

And last but not least, don’t we all have enough trouble switching from the stresses of daily life to passion in bed with our partners without having to worry that a fleeting hankering for a sweaty baseball star is the equivalent of a full-fledged affair? Attention sex journalists and self-help gurus: leave my imagination alone!

On the other hand, if sexual fantasies are so powerful, well, my fellow ERWA writers, that means we can and are changing the world with our stories. That’s a power play we can all enjoy.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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