In his forward, Richard Labonte comments that this is his fifteenth year editing The Best Gay Erotica. It’s my third year reviewing it for Erotica Revealed. He states that his goal is to present stories blending sexual intensity and literary craftsmanship. Our goal at Erotica Revealed is to review erotica as literary fiction. Every year, this makes for some of my favorite reading.
Hank Fenwick’s “Holiday from Love” is a bittersweet look back at what might have been but never could be. Beautifully executed story with so much truth to it that you’ll inevitably think back to something like it in your own life. Regret was never so sexy.
The title of “I Wish” by Richard Hennebert makes it seem like fantasy fulfillment, although it’s reality for some. The narrator breaks free of mind-numbing domesticity for a night out with the lads that ends at a sex club where his wish is fulfilled.
Simon Sheppard switches between the points of view of an older couple and the hustler they pick up in “The Suburban Boy.” People get off on all kinds of weird stuff, but resentment is a new one for me. And yet it was so skillfully done that this was one of the stories I thought about well after I’d finished the book, and re-read several times.
Sometimes, sex is all in the mind. In Jimmy Hamada’s “fifteen minutes naked,” a man poses naked for a photographer. The photographer reflects nothing back – no desire, not even hints on how to pose. He lets his mirror do that. The model tries to get a response but only manages to turn himself on.
Every reviewer has writers they look forward to reading. Jeff Mann and Trebor Healey are friendly acquaintances as well as favorite writers. “Smoke and Semen” (Mann) and “Frazzled” (Healey) made my writer’s heart pang with envy, but as a reader I was, as always, in awe.
Contributions by Natty Soltesz, David May, Robert Patrick, Shane Allison, Tommy Lee “Doc” Boggs, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Thom Wolf, David Holly, Jamie Freeman, Jonathan Kemp, Rob Wolfsham, and Jan Vander Laenen, fill out this anthology. Each is worthy of a read, or two, as you find something that speaks to you.
This annual anthology, originally edited by Tristan Taormino and a consulting editor, is now edited by Kathleen Warnock and a consulting editor. This year, the guest editors are the three members of an all-female band, BETTY. As Kathleen Warnock explains in her introduction:
How did I get here? I knew Tristan when we were both starting out as writers, and on the downtown New York city queer and women's rock/literary/whatever scenes. I bought copies of her 'zine Pucker Up, and thought I might try to write some of that lesbian erotica stuff. . .
In that monumentally creative downtown scene, I sometimes ran into Tristan at a popular lesbian rock party called Fragglerock, where woman-fronted and all-girl bands were featured, and fabulous musicians played in all-star pickup bands, doing tributes to their godmothers and godfathers. One night, I watched Elizabeth Ziff of the band BETTY lead a Queen tribute that included about forty people doing a cover of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' with a full chorus.
Ya had to be there, I'm sure. Series editor Kathleen goes on to explain why she invited BETTY to choose the stories for this edition of Best Lesbian Erotica:
Songwriters have the task of telling a life or a moment in a couple of dozen lines. It's a form that requires form, as well as style, craft, tempo, rhythm and talent to pull it off successfully. So I approached Elizabeth (who had moved on to work on a television show you may have heard of: The L Word), and she told me she was being treated for breast cancer, and recommended her sister, Amy. And, well, if you've got Elizabeth and Amy, you've got to have Alyson.
Later in the introduction, the editor notes
a strong international wave of submissions this year: this volume contains the work of writers from Ireland, Australia, Sweden, France and Germany (as well as someone who lives in my neighborhood).
Introductions like this always leave me with mixed feelings. Incestuous relationships among creative types who are all in the same "scene," however defined, shouldn't shock anyone. And lesbians who have been "out" for more than one relationship are aware of belonging to an army of ex-lovers; sometimes it seems as if every one of us is less than six degrees (i.e. six dykes) away from every other one of us.
But still, can a New York editor who inherited the position from another New York editor and who shared the honor with a local band honestly claim that the series has an international scope?
When Kathleen Warnock first experienced BETTY in the 1980s, much of the soundtrack of this reviewer’s life was provided by a three-woman band from the Canadian prairies, where I live. They were/are known for their beautiful harmonies, and their song, "The Woman Warrior," was at one time an anthem for Canadian lesbian-feminists. But it seems unlikely that they will ever be asked to guest-edit an anthology such as Best Lesbian Erotica. I’m just saying.
Now I've said all that, I'll admit that no one's taste is objective. By definition, taste involves discrimination. The stories in this year's BLE are all competently-written, as usual, but otherwise they are a mixed bag of cliches, poetic but porny descriptions of sex with a near-absence of plot, fabulous topical humor, witty fantasy, insightful realism, and spiritual allegory.
My favorite stories in this collection are by previous contributors to the series. "Jubilee" by Betty Blue is an atmospheric piece about a backwoods preacher, a "passing" butch who attracts women as honey attracts bees. Ruby, a juicy blonde damsel in distress, asks the Reverend for salvation, and her prayer is answered. The plot twist at the end surprises both the reader and the Reverend, who is reminded (like us) that everyone has a secret.
Probably the most memorable story (because it is the most unusual in this context) is "Uppercasing" by Charlie Anders, a San Francisco writer who chronicles (or satirizes, if that's possible) the local genderqueer/postmodern performance art scene. This story first appeared in Fucking Daphne: Mostly True Stories and Fictions (Seal Press, 2008). In this comic story, a farm girl from New Jersey named Daphne Gottlieb goes to San Francisco to find "herself," and finds a performance artist by the same name who takes her under her wing.
The more famous Daphne explains "uppercasing" to her protegee:
'We're all born with normal capitalization, but our task in life is to create the block-caps versions of ourselves. And most people never even try. Most people stay mostly lowercase, their whole lives.'
The narrator (the more lowercase Daphne) asks "if she had succeeded in becoming DAPHNE GOTTLIEB. . . But she said no."
In order to help her namesake achieve an uppercase identity, the narrator consents to be tattooed, exposed, bound and fucked in various public places as a kind of doppelganger or other-half of her mentor. Daphne the mentor, however, teaches the narrator to expect the unexpected.
"Self-Reflection" by Tobi Hill-Meyer is a powerful fantasy about a transwoman's encounter with her future self. The catalyst that brings the future self into the present narrator's life isn't explicitly described, but by the end of the story, it seems clear that the narrator is less likely to commit suicide. While relationships between aspects of the same person are often presented as dangerous expressions of narcissism, this one is literally life-saving.
On a slightly more realistic level is "Blood Ties" by Alex Tucci, about a lifelong, near-incestuous attraction which is finally consummated after a wise mother-figure has written a prophetic letter to be read after her death.
"Lives of the Saints" by Holly Farris is a hilarious surrealistic look at a sexual fetish which is parallel to a traditional Catholic fetish for virginity as a sign of spiritual purity. On the feast day of an obscure female saint, the saint and her lover/tormentor show up in the kitchen of a troubled modern dyke to give her a message.
These are the stories I will probably remember long after writing this review. Then there is a set of lush, lyrical sex fantasies on familiar themes: sex at different times of day ("The Rendezvous Series" by Colleen C. Dunphy), first-time lesbian encounters ("In the Sauna" by Stella Watts Kelley and "Tasting Chantal" by D.L. King), a fantasy in Home Depot about a handywoman ("The Kitchen Light" by Nicole Wolfe), multi-person trysts ("Shameless" by two authors, Kymberlyn Reed and Anais Morten, "Thanksgiving" by Molly Bloom), a travelogue about dykes-on-bikes before Stonewall ("Girona, 1960" by Stella Sandburg), a tale of seduction in a library by a wheelchair-bound narrator ("Pinup" by Vanessa Vaughn), a story about the eroticism of hair ("Brush Strokes" by Elizabeth Cage), one about a kind of role-reversal ("Ridden" by Natt Nightly), one about sex on camera/film ("Flick Chicks" by Allison Wonderland), and one about a mysterious woman who could be a stalker, a phantom or a hallucination ("The Purple Gloves" by Gala Fur, translated from the French).
"From the Halls of Montezuma" centers on the narrator's intense, immediate reaction to a butch stripper who performs in the uniform of the U.S. Marines with a more traditionally femme counterpart in a club before turning her attention to the narrator. This fantasy is well-paced, well-written and satisfying for all the characters, including the narrator's supportive friends.
Like other stories set in specific locations or cultures, however, this one seems to need a footnote. I wonder how many readers outside the U.S. would recognize the title as part of the anthem of the United States Marines ("From the halls of Montezu-uma/To the shores of Tripoli/We will fight our country's ba-attles/On the land and on the sea").
Erotic stories with very specific references have their own charm; they can appeal to readers who have been there as well as to those who haven’t, and who therefore find the setting, the culture or the kink exotic. People have specific kinds of sex in particular contexts, and the context can be crucial. However, the references need to be clear to the intended readership.
The two stories I would have eliminated from this anthology are "Sexting: One Side of a Two-Way" by Kelsy Chauvin and "Amy's First Lesson" by Dani M. The latter is a traditional classroom fantasy in which a young university instructor shows her baby-dyke student the ropes. This story shows promise, but this ground has often been covered before, and with more style (if the fantasy is obvious wish-fulfillment) or more complexity (if the story is presented as realistic). "Sexting" is essentially one side of a generic telephone conversation. Future editions of BLE might well include evocative stories of encounters or relationships told in text-messages, but this one looks like a script that simply falls flat on the page.Best Lesbian Erotica continues to be one of the better annual "best of" anthologies. As a series, it is still deliciously ground-breaking (as in "the earth moved") and trendsetting, but not everything in it meets the same standard.
Of late I have had the pleasure of reading several excellent books for Erotica Revealed. They showed insight about the possible meaning of sex and eroticism as well as a measure of literary invention, unique style and structural grace. Dommemoir by I. G. Frederick is not one of them.
Dommemoir is a fictional autobiography of a dominatrix interlaced in equal parts with that of her slaves. The title itself is a clumsy construction in the mouth and a curious butchery of the French words from which it is cobbled. This structure of the book we presume is adopted to give us both ends of the lash, a convention that has been observed many times before. The narrative leapfrogs back and forth through their evolution from farm team flagellants to their ascendancy to becoming one of the great dommes of Greater New York; and her slave, respectively. This is Trumplike hyper-consumerism in the book’s effort to be trendy. An endless colloquy of details about branding the slaves supplements the plot.
If these amphibious leaps of focus from chapter to chapter were not annoying enough, we also get bulletins on her problems in acquiring suitably advantageous real estate deals in a bubble market. Her narrating slave by contrast has the dour tone of Lurch, but lacks his sense of comic irony entirely. He will lick anything he is told to lick but always with the same sense of unhygienic gloom. No one here is having much fun sexually or otherwise, including the reader.
The entire work has a petit bourjeois air about it as of someone trying to look couture while shopping at Target. The domme’s roots tend to show. As a headline it would read, ”Kinky Long Island Housewife Tells All. Bear Market Buttocks Tremble!” or on TV, “The Real North Shore Housewives of Kink.” That would be fine if the book had the deftness of camp, but it takes itself with the deadly earnestness of a community college creative writing class. The domme for lack of style comes off as a self-indulgent slob.
The simplest way to illustrate that is to quote Frederick who writes, “Lady threw back her head and laughed, reminding me of chimes tinkling together on a windy day. Kitty giggled. I just knelt in front of them, my hands trembling.” No wonder the poor fellow is trembling. He has spent quite some time licking pussy only to find himself surrounded by a roomful of hoary cliché’s. The worst of these bromides is a woman who “throws back her head.”
Think about that image. Either it is some sort of cornball gesticulation left over from the silent screen, or it is an activity best left to Ann Boleyn after the axe has fallen. Ladies whose laughter reminds one of “chimes on a windy day” have some sort of throat disorder if you ask me. Kitty quite rightly giggles at all this hammy stuff though it seems likely to cost her bottom some abuse; and the orally gifted slave? He just sits there with his hands trembling? Hands trembling? Why? Is this some sort of cunnilingually induced palsy?
The book appears not to have been edited, as it is full of clumsy sentence structure and fumbled word choice. The characters have no affective connection other than their sexual rituals and self-indulgent obsessions. Fanny Press bills itself as “Erotica with an Edge!” but reading Dommemoir is a desultory chore.
Followers of Erotica Revealed know that, at times, sex is the mirror of the soul. Sexual congress can be a spiritual experience, an act of rebellion, an expression of need or an existential confrontation with one's own mortality. The erotic genre explores the multi-layered nature of desire--its meaning for the individual and for society. Erotica can be inspiring, enlightening, shocking or educational.
Sometimes, though, it's just plain fun. Jeremy Edwards' novel Rock My Socks Off is a prime example.
Rock My Socks Off is a breezy tale featuring a brilliant, gorgeous and unrelentingly horny astronomy professor named Normandie Stephens. (“My parents called me Brittany, and when I turned sixteen in a sea of other young Brittanys, I said 'Fuck this' and swapped it for the next French province over.”) If there were a Nobel Prize for lust, Normandie would win hands down. Jacob Hastings is the lucky journalist who catches Normandie's eye at a grad student party and eventually wins her heart (with many and varied clinches along the way). Normandie desperately wants tenure--almost as much as she wants Jacob--and over the course of the book they concoct a half-way accidental scheme that wins her national acclaim, almost destroys her career, and brings them into contact (and I use the term advisedly) with a collection of other equally randy characters. These include Normandie's department head Kate (a savvy and salacious bisexual cougar), Jacob's photographer Susan (superficially shy but with a deep appreciation of the erotic--at both a professional and personal level) and the dumb but charismatic dance club god Brandon.
There's a lot of sex in this book. In fact the thin plot has little function other than to provide the sexual superstructure. This is clearly intentional rather than an artistic flaw. I have read other examples of Mr. Edwards work and I know he produces a realistic story with non-trivial conflicts if he has a mind to. Rock My Socks Off is a romp with a capital R. Everyone gets off, all the time, in a wide range of environments including in the traditional utility closet, on the department chair's desk, at a roadside rest area and in the audience of a TV game show. All the while, Jacob and Normandie engage in witty repartee, emphasizing the fact that Jacob is as enamored of Normandie's prodigious intelligence as he is of her pert ass.
In some ways, this book reminds me of classic Victorian erotica like The Pearl. It is pure wish fulfillment. No one is ever too tired to fuck. No one ever gets jealous. There's enough cock and pussy for everyone. Normandie is an educated man's dream (well, she'd be my dream if I were an educated man!): articulate, self-confident, funny and horny, with a streak of mischief a mile wide and a huge wardrobe of candy-colored bikini panties that are perpetually damp.
Curiously, my most serious complaint about this book relates to the sex scenes. They are frequent but often very short, a paragraph or two. Not only are they brief, but they are also short on detail, emotional or physical. There's little time to build up tension. When a character itches, he or she scratches--or gets a partner to do so.
The characters are revealed almost entirely through their conversation. We rarely if ever get a glimpse into their minds or hearts. Even Jacob, the point of view character for most of the book, rarely shows us more than his whole-hearted appreciation for Normandie.
On the plus side, I liked the fact that sex in this tale means more than just fucking. In Mr. Edward's fictional world, sex is a whole body experience. Oral sex, groping or kissing can be just as satisfying as whole hog penetration. Probably half the sex scenes involve something other than intercourse. Furthermore, the characters enjoy bringing each other off almost as much as they like coming themselves. Not every scene is symmetric and that's just fine with everyone involved.
If Jacob Hastings reflects his creator at all (and I suspect that he does), Mr. Edwards really adores women. Jacob is not in the least submissive, but he's almost awed by Normandie and willing to let her take the lead. He has a healthy attraction to other women as well, which Normandie encourages. She's smart and experienced enough to know that his attitude is rare and precious.
You’re not a little boy who’s trying to compete with me, and you’re not a big boy who’s trying to own me, and you’re not a selfish boy who wants me to just shut up and fuck. …Do you realize how special that makes you?
Mr. Edwards paints a delightful picture of a relationship grounded on mutual respect and mutual horniness. The result is satisfaction for all, including the reader.
If you're looking for deep insights or revelations, don't buy this book. On the other hand, if you're in search of some good-natured, cheeky entertainment, I recommend it highly.
Call me a Luddite but, when someone gives me a book of literary fiction, the first words that spring to mind are seldom, ‘Thank you.’
I don’t mind holding my hand up and admitting I’m not a literary fiction type of person. I enjoy stories that are exciting, entertaining and accessible. You don’t often get that with literary fiction. The words ‘literary fiction’ on a book cover are invariably an albatross tied around the damned thing’s neck, warning off those other poor damned souls who would potentially run the risk of being burdened with the tome. It’s like giving a DVD the accolade ‘Oscar winning’ which invariably means it’s a sleep-inducing crock of shite without any of the good things a person wants from a film such as near-nudity, car chases, serial killers or big explosions.
So I approached The Silent Hustler with a natural wariness. The back cover blurb describes the opening story, "Things I can’t Tell My Father" as ‘literary.’ It goes on to describe another story, "Burn the Rich" as ‘revolutionary.’ I described my reticence as characteristic.
But, on eventually delving into the book, I discovered I had no reason to be frightened away by the scary language on the outside.
"Things I Can’t Tell My Father" is a sensitive and erudite exposition of the stumbling relationship between Meriwether’s first person protagonist and an antagonist father. The language used is direct, realistic and uncompromising – yet the duality of the truth hidden beneath the words is still something of a revelation as Meriwether gives each brief entry his own distinctive interpretation. Good – yes. Literary – yes: but not in a bad way.
"Burn the Rich" is a gritty tale of brutal erotic realism, told in fragmentary snatches that mimic the central character’s libido-driven call-and-response arousal. Admittedly, "Burn the Rich" could be described as revolutionary because of its anarchic content, but please don’t let such epithets dissuade you from making a purchase of this book if you’re worried it’s wholly cerebral. Above all else "Burn the Rich" like every other story in this collection, is an entertaining, intriguing and well-constructed read.
Sean Meriwether is described as "The Naughty Harry Potter" because of his magical ability to create worlds with words. As nicknames go I have to admit this one is pretty cool. People used to call me "The Nasty Harry Potter" but that was only because I spent so much time playing with my wand, and the title didn’t have the same ring of dynamism that Meriwether’s name projects.
Those who enjoy literature in its traditional style (i.e. boring) probably won’t get much of a thrill from The Silent Hustler. Admittedly Meriwether does include stories that show his mastery of craft. "Knives and Roses" presents the story from an eerie second person perspective, making the narrative all the more compelling and convincing. The stream-of-consciousness interludes that demarcate episodes of "Into the Mouth(Becoming the Fly)" show a keen sense of character and its representation within literary forms. But the stories in this volume are also exciting, intriguing and enjoyable – far from the literary norm.
If you enjoy gay erotica that’s well written and presents a variety of challenging styles and interpretations, Meriwether’s The Silent Hustler is a title you need, to complete your current collection.