I’ve been reading the Best American Erotica series for over ten years now, long enough to feel that I “knew” it well, knew enough to expect certain things, including the unexpected. I did note that the kinds of authors and publications changed somewhat over the years. More New Yorker/Granta names were included, Dani Shapiro’s being the first to catch my attention, as well as a wider variety of contributing publications, such as the literary journal Missouri Review.
Having my work be part of it this year, however, made me look at BAE more carefully. You might say I was considering its makeup from a broader perspective, an editor’s point of view, although I don’t feel qualified to be an editor (they remain very much Other for me!). The task of assembling the “best American erotica” seems to be more complex than choosing the best short stories or essays. Certainly all of these involve politics and editorial decisions that are to some extent arbitrary, but the “erotica” part adds a necessity to consider the broad range of the erotic life of “Americans.” Susie Bright does come through for us in this regard. BAE always has a skillful mix of orientations: vanilla het, lesbian, and gay, authors divided among female, male and everything in-between. There is always a range of tone from romantic to humorous, wistful to downright scary (though I would say wit edges out the others slightly). I get the impression the editors of Best American Short Stories need not be so inclusive beyond what moves them personally, although perhaps they do try to balance experimental and classic, suburban angst with rural/urban underclass experiences.
I also became more keenly aware of a trend toward a broader definition of erotica since the days of being swept off my feet by BAE 1997. A look at the list of authors reveals that we have two main classes. The first is work by some of American’s most prominent writers such as John Updike, Steve Almond, and David Sedaris—that is, the best American writers take on erotic themes. The other group consists of people like me, who aren’t at all famous on the national scene (although many, like Gwen Masters and Rachel Kramer Bussel are renowned in erotica circles), but who caught the editor’s eye with a story that appeared in a publication devoted specifically to erotica. As a contributor, I don’t feel I have the perspective to determine if there are significant differences between the two, even something as simple-minded as the first group writes better and provokes more thought and the second group is hotter and nastier and provokes more zipper action. This may become clearer on later readings, if indeed the question still seems worth asking.
Another question I ponder is how the typical reader takes in his/her recently purchased copy of BAE. Does s/he go straight for the Names or read from start to finish? Does s/he pick and choose from similar orientations or go for a stretch? I personally began at the beginning with “Coyote Woman Discovers Email,” amusing, clever, certainly thought-provoking in its juxtaposition of an ancient myth with modern technology. Without challenging editorial decisions, I moved right on to the second piece, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favors,” which is a witty and multilayered spanking story if there ever was one. Then I got a little rebellious and skipped to my first Name, Lynn Freed, who teaches creative writing at nearby U.C. Davis and is known as a tough critic, especially on those of us fledging writers unfortunate enough to be perceived as slim on talent. Perhaps because I’ve never encountered her withering gaze in person, I liked the excerpt from her novel a lot and I see why Susie was expecting some fallout because it concerns a sexual encounter between a curious underage white girl in South Africa and a dark-skinned working man. Those of us in the erotica field must be super careful to avoid these topics—every character must be at least eighteen and one second old—but “real” literature allows the probing of these sensitive and shocking issues. What impressed me about Freed’s piece is her willingness to allow the girl sexual feelings (of a complex nature of course, along the lines of the protagonist in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina).
I then jumped to Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “The End” which is one of those stories you climb onto and let it take you for a ride. The momentum of the piece is lyrical magic, and I hope I don't ruin it by quoting a favorite portion of the poetry: "The end is like what they say about death, when your whole life flashes before your eyes. I see moments, fragments—my hand up her skirt on the street, taking her in the doorway of a friend’s apartment, so fiercely she can barely sink down to the ground, her on her knees in my bathroom, surprising me as she buries her face into me, no room to protest, grinding the edge of a knife along her back, slapping her tits until they are raw and red—but they seem so far away right now, like a movie, like someone else’s pornographic memories. They don’t make me smile, and I don’t want them anymore. I want to bury myself in her and never let go, hold on to that something that has just fluttered away in the wind, fine as the glittering sparkles she wears on her eyes, miniscule and almost opaque, too minute to ever recapture." The a love story as much as erotica, and a good example of the range of the book, especially when you compare it to Mr. Sleep’s terse “Beatings R Me” for example.
Gwen Masters’ “Fifteen Minutes,” a clear-eyed look at groupies and musicians on the road, stayed with me for a while as I pondered the nature of power and sex and self-destructiveness and callousness and how we armor ourselves against pain. (Aw, man, am I deep or what?) Not that there aren’t wild and provocative sex scenes in the story that would provide productive fantasy fodder, just that the lingering feeling was sadness. And Susie Bright is not afraid to show us this face of the erotic as well.
Then I went on to the famous people. I remember the John Updike selection from the New Yorker a while back, and as always, beyond the exquisitely elegant writing, I feel Updike is opening a door into the past for me, showing me the sexual mores and longings of my parents’ generation. Ah, sex in the forties and fifties, I am for the most part glad it’s gone—The girdles! The guilt!—but I’m also fascinated to see how it lingers still in our Puritanical American sensibilities. (As an aside, I can never listen to the “Hokey Pokey” without thinking of a Couples’-like spouse swapping party, where ladies with beehives and men with slicked hair put their right feet out and their back sides in….) But yes, the writing: “Often afterwards he would remember details of this hour…her gleaming eye-whites; his sense of her slithering into the space above his head like a silken kite, like an angel crammed into an upper corner of a Sienese Nativity….” Yum.
It was getting late and I knew I had time for one more story on my first sitting. I skipped to the finale, Steve Almond’s “The Nasty Kind Always Are.” Along with Updike, Steve Almond is yet another of that rare breed of straight white male who is able to write about sex in an interesting way. I was certainly drawn into the clever social critique of the L.A. scene, such as the protagonist making a living as a “Mood Consultant” or "High Priest Headshrinker to the Neurotic Autocrat"—what thinking person wouldn’t be? My favorite writerly passage is his description of changing fashions in pubic hair: “They all trimmed themselves today, like the porn stars. In his youth, women hadn’t thought to do more than a little pruning at the edges. To do more was considered suspect. The vagina remained, even in nakedness, something mysterious, veiled, pleasingly inconvenient: the coarse hairs that tickled the throat, the rash that pebbled the groin, the powerful funk of genuine muff. It was all gone today, shaved or waxed or singed off with chemicals, leaving the labial folds exposed, a kind of glistening origami.” Hmm, so although his character’s attitude toward women doesn’t exactly give me hope for the future of improved gender relations, I do feel like I’m inside a man’s head, feeling his truth, and that’s always interesting, if not consoling. “Nasty Kind” ends with a bang…or should I say “splat”? It took my breath away for a moment. And that’s what a good ending should do.
More later on the other stories—in the meantime, maybe you can read them for yourselves? ;-)