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The Vulgar and the Divine: A Conversation about Erotic Literature
The magic of encountering the erotic in literature occurs when the reader bears witness to a character’s essence: to the marrow of their inner life. This inner life is populated by secret desires. It betrays a terminally human condition at once hopeful, petrified, and ravenous. In drawing out a character’s essence through details of sexual contact, the writer renders emotions palpable and imbues sensation with poetry. The power of the erotic, I suppose, is that even at its most basic, it portends to evoke at once the vulgar and the divine.
As I desired to bring a light to a type of writing which is far too often cast in shadow, I recently spoke with five writers whose work in various ways renders the erotic in fiction. Included in this conversation were: Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart: , a memoir of working as a dominatrix in New York City; Amber Dawn, author of the writing-and-sex-work memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life, and the Lambda-award winning novel Sub Rosa; Jill Di Donato, author of Beautiful Garbage, a novel best compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s if Holly Golightly lived in the seedy underbelly of New York’s 1980s art world; Rachel Kramer Bussel, a writer of erotica who has also edited upwards of fifty anthologies ranging from tales of lesbian awakening to entire collections about male submission; and Ella Boureau, whose erotic debut, a story by the name of “Cottonmouth”, was selected for the Best Lesbian Erotica anthology then immediately, and somewhat infamously, rejected. Cottonmouth tells the story of two young female cousins who share in their first lesbian experience. The encounter involves a snake.
While each of these authors writes in a style distinctly her own, their work shares a particular focus on sexual experience. As such, I asked them to think back to their early experiences of sex in literature, and to recall their influences. The result is a discussion ranging from Victorian poetry to the eroticization of female madness and BDSM in which we consider the work of anyone, from James Baldwin to Anais Nin to V.C. Andrews, with equal weight. We do so in the democratic spirit of erotic writing, and with the hope of illuminating a thing or two about what it is, exactly, that makes a work of literature sexy.
Whiskey Blue: In 2013, Flavorwire compiled a post-Fifty Shades list of the sexiest books of all time. Starting from number one, the top three all-time sexiest books were Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Nicholson Baker’s Vox. What are your top 3 sexiest books? Have these influenced your writing?
Melissa Febos: Nin and Miller definitely made an impression in my late teens, but I can’t say whether or not they influenced my writing. I’m tempted to say not, but that seems hubristic. The most influential sex in writing exists as a kind of enormous collage for me: sewn-together pieces of all those books I devoured as a girl, snuck from my parents’ shelves, from the library, thrift stores in my hometown; all before I knew what sex or writing were. I only knew the swelling impulses in me, how they crashed and crashed and quieted only when I read. Among that wildly divergent list would be A Garden of Sand, The Color Purple, The Rubyfruit Jungle, Clan of the Cave Bear, Lolita,My Secret Garden, and many of those chubby paperbacks that I now see ladies on airplanes reading, books that are direct descendants of Valley of the Dolls.
Jill Di Donato: I’m in awe of Anaïs Nin’s writing, which I find sexy, intelligent, progressive, a little manic, and somewhat elusive. Little Birds is a gem as well as Delta of Venus. I like reading Neruda and Rilke. Andre Breton’s Nadja is also a favorite because the sexiness is mixed with female objectification and madness, and it’s all very cryptic. In life, I don’t find female objectification sexy, nor am I a fan of the male tendency to fetishize female “madness.” But in literature, I give myself carte blanche to explore whatever I like. Sometimes, especially when I’m reading, I want to feel owned: I find suspense intriguing, as well as the tension between vulnerability and independence. I’ll never forget how fast my heart was beating the first time I read Pride and Prejudice as I was waiting for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to get together. Perhaps my desire for sexy romance comes from the fact that sex is displayed so graphically in everyday life; I want to do a little work. In turn, I want my readers to work for the sex I give them.
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t fully read these erotic classics; the erotica I started out reading was more modern; mainly short story collections. Virgin Territory and Virgin Territory 2 edited by Shar Rednour were very powerful for me; they are both true lesbian erotica first time stories, which I read long before I slept with a woman for the first time. What struck me about those collections was how varied the stories were. Also, on account of being true stories, they had a different tone than most erotic fiction. They had details about the women’s lives that you wouldn’t normally find, and the vividness of those stories and variety of sexual descriptions and scenarios stuck with me.
What I consider some of my best stories are pretty much 90% true, and are often the darkest ones, such as“The End,”a breakup erotica story that made it into Best American Erotica 2006, and“Espionage,”which is based on a true story about going to a party at the home of a man I was having an affair with. I learned from those anthologies that darkness and deep emotion have a place in erotica. Of course the tone is going to be different than in more humorous or happy stories, but those real, sometimes sad or painful emotions, can make erotica all the more powerful because people relate to it.
Amber Dawn: The book that still remains the most titillating to me is Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. I’ve always found Victorian poetry perverse, but the allegedly-lesbian poet Rossetti so overtly eroticizes the relationship between two sisters and their dark otherworldly desires.
“She cried ‘Laura,’ up the garden,
‘Did you miss me ?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeezed from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me.’”
That’s my kind of nursery rhyme!
I think we should all be grateful for Macho Sluts by Patrick Califia for joyfully portraying some of the still under-spoken stories of kinky queers. When I was younger I was desperate to read about all the spitting and boot licking and kneeling and whipping and crying and loving. In the late 80s/early 90s, Canadian Customs repeatedly prevented this book from being shipped across the boarder to Little Sisters’Bookstore in Vancouver—which makes Macho Sluts even more alluring to me. Getting my hands on a copy was a victory act.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is not an erotic novel. It’s a dystopic future survival drama. What compelled me while reading this novel is that the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, has hyper-empathy, an“illness”that allows her to feel a heightened sense of empathy and connectivity to the people around her—she is especially aware of other characters’pain. Despite being burdened with heightened empathy, she doesn’t push people and strong emotions away. Instead, she draws them closer. With very few sex scenes, this isn’t exactly a sexy book; it’s a very sensual book. The heightened empathy of the protagonist impacted me as a reader. I felt sensually stimulated in a way that I don’t always experience when reading erotica.
Ella Boureau: Another Country by James Baldwin, La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc, and Dorothy Allison’s Trash. It was in reading Another Country that I realized it was possible to write a serious work of fiction without leaving anything out. And you know, Baldwin doesn’t mess around. He gets right to it, and too bad if you aren’t ready. The sex scenes in that book are integral to the story, and they crackle with tension and wanting; the characters and their motivations deepen; the power dynamics are made clear. In reading it, I felt just as naked as any of the characters.
I think all of these authors have in common the fact that their narratives move in and out of sex organically. It would be impossible to cut it out, because the stories wouldn’t make sense anymore. Erotic longing is entrenched in their understandings of fear, humor, adventure, power, desire. It is so rare to see that in literature, and yet, it’s undeniable that we are all sexual beings, so why are we so bad at writing sex? Is it really so much harder to avoid cliché in sex than any other topic? I would say no, I think it has more to do with the fact that we both trivialize sex and are trained to “turn a blind eye” to it because it makes us uncomfortable.
Whiskey Blue: When you think of sex and literature, what kind of writing comes to mind? Is it The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, or the Marquis de Sade? Anais Nin or John Updike or V.C. Andrews? I want to know what erotic literature means to you.
Melissa Febos: (V.C Andrews totally should have been on the above list!) You know, I taught a class recently called Carnal Knowledge, which focused on sex and literature, and writing, and my reading list wasn’t much different from that of any other class I’ve taught. The literature that I love, and that I have learned the most from, acknowledges sexuality in real and myriad ways, but it does not take sex as its focus per se. It never presents sex as existing in any kind of vacuum. It integrates it into an examination of the human experience that mirrors the way we encounter it. Which is to say, I don’t think of erotic literature. Not as a genre, anyway. The erotic is a part of literature, as it is of life. Sometimes handled well, and sometimes not. Sometimes occupying a lot of space, sometimes a little.
Jill Di Donato: I love that you include The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. I had some very special moments with that book when I was a teenager. I can still quote lines from it; that and Judy Blume’s (wait for it) Forever. I’d pass these books around with my girlfriends, and you’d think we were smuggling drugs from the illicitness of it all. What elicits desire tends to be very subjective, and I think in literature, as opposed to pornography, there’s more room to play and come to your own conclusion. Pornography can be a bit more didactic and impose hegemonic views of desire and sexiness, and that can be dangerous. For erotic writing to be considered literature, I think the writing has to hold up to the standards of thought-provoking prose. A change has to occur within the story, and it is through the exploration of sexuality that we chart the dramatic arc.
Rachel Kramer Bussel: The books that have made the most lasting impact on me are of the more modern erotica genre, such as the classic Herotica series and Best American Erotica series. Herotica especially spoke to me because the stories were about a wide variety of women dealing with both everyday activities and the more fantastical, which is something I’ve carried into my work. I love writing that combines sex and the everyday, because to me that’s true to life. I especially appreciate novels where sex is woven into the story, not necessarily in a “sex scene” but as part of the character development. So two novels that spoke to me because the sex was so perfectly a part of the plot are A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, about a women who comes to London from China and is learning both the English language and about British culture, and Addition by Toni Jordan, about a woman with OCD engaged in her first romantic relationship. Guo especially uses language for sex that in another author’s hands would sound hilariously bad but in Z’s voice is tender, romantic, erotic and captures the wonder of first-time sex.
Amber Dawn: So many titles come to mind. Anne Desclos’The Story of O, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, and anything by Fiona Zedde. I look for all the elements of a good story in erotic literature: description that appeals to the five senses, fine images that support the story as a whole, a pathos-worthy protagonist with a clear goal, a narrative voice that invites me (the reader) to be actively curious, and decisive pacing. Even further, I want a protagonist who overcomes barriers to desire: shame, intolerance, isolation, and so on, followed by triumph through sexual experience. To quote such a triumphant moment in Patrick Califia’s Macho Sluts: “If you live in a society that wishes you didn’t exist, anything you do to make yourself happy disrupts its attempts to wipe you out, or at the very least, make you invisible.”
Ella Boureau: Susie Bright! For so long, she was the only person I knew of who wrote about sex, politics, and culture in a way that made any sense to me. She refuses to see them as separate things. They are all entwined for her. Too often we are made to believe that sex is separate. We are forced to compartmentalize ourselves falsely, but even when we do, there is a waviness created by the underworld of sexuality, like heat on pavement, that Bright picks right up on and exposes to the light of day. Anything can be seen through the erotic lens. Her essay“Jimi Hendrix and Why the Little Dykes Understand”is eye-opening, as is her essay “Runaways,”and her “Bisexual Manifesto: Blind-Sexual.” You can find them on her blog. There is truly no one like her, and so much of how we think about sex and literature today is because of her.
Whiskey Blue:What’s the most difficult part of writing erotic scenes for you? How, if at all, does writing sexual and sensual material differ from the experience of writing other kinds of prose?
Melissa Febos: Writing scenes is hard to do well. Capturing any universal human experience with the defamiliarizing specificity that only you can offer is difficult. Creating scenes of joy, grief, heartbreak, death, and all those animals of love, is our challenge as writers. I think sex gets pulled out and propped up as the hardest one to write, but I don’t find that so.
We live in a culture that isolates and emphasizes and distorts sex, so I think it makes sense. Not that sex is hard to write, but that it is hard to see clearly, as people living amidst this treatment of it. And yeah, that saturation and emptying and fetishizing and commercializing and all the other –izing we do to sex doesn’t make the writing of it easier. But it is our own complicated relationship to sex that makes the writing of it difficult – our own tendency to reduce and aggrandize it, to isolate it. It’s convenient to treat it as a problem of vocabulary. Like, all those words have been ruined; there are none left! The English language has an enormous vocabulary. We can’t blame the language for our failure to face, or reconcile, any element of our experience. That’s like blaming your broken glasses for your blindness.
I think good sex scenes operate by the same conditions as any other kind of scene. When they work, they are an expression of the characters’ nature and desires, a progression of the narrative’s plot—an event causally linked to the events and actions preceding and following it. And they are meaningful, as sexual experiences always are, as every scene in a story must be.
Jill Di Donato: The challenge of writing erotica is to keep it fresh and surprising and not to rely on received ideas, imagery, actions, characterizations, or thought. So in many ways, writing erotica is no different than writing solid prose. When writing a sex scene or something that’s meant to be sensual, I like to be very strict about the type of vocabulary I allow myself. I make a list of all the words or phrases a reader is expecting, and try to avoid them as much as I can.
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I actually find writing erotic scenes some of the easiest things to write. Usually the plot comes to me first and I work from there. Writing about sex is different in part because so many people approach reading about sex with preconceived ideas about what sex is, what should turn someone on, what’s acceptable and what’s not. This can be a challenge if you’re trying to tell a story about something that isn’t necessarily culturally accepted, which many of the BDSM stories I’ve written – about things like face slapping, erotic choking, professional submission, spanking, for example – do cover. The trick though is to get the reader invested in the characters, whatever it is these characters are doing.
One of the biggest fallacies is that you have to be“into”a given subject to appreciate a story about it. I’m not into killing people but I love murder mysteries. Sometimes erotica has a bigger hurdle to face in terms of walking the reader through a given fetish or kink or type of sexual turn-on without breaking the tone of the story, and I think it’s the writer’s job not to make assumptions about how much a given reader will know. So that can be a challenge, but it’s a welcome one.
Amber Dawn: The process of writing an erotic scene is exactly the same as writing any other scene. I ask myself what I want the scene to accomplish, what the scene needs to be, and then I write and write until I find the words and images that best conveys the scene’s intentions.
Ella Boureau: I don’t understand this blindness to writing about sex. It deserves the same level of deep technical thinking that any other scene requires. And it’s more fun! Because when you’re done, you have something that gets you off. And if it doesn’t get you off, you’ve done something wrong.
I mean, for me, there is no difference between writing about sex and writing about other things. You still have to think about the mechanics of the thing. You have a vision and then you set out to plot how to get from A to B. Did you use the word pussy too many times? What is the best way to describe cum in this situation? Or, uh-oh, you realize person A was just eating out person B but is suddenly being fucked by a dildo without any kind of transition. It’s almost the way real sex functions, in that you don’t magically get what you want, you have to communicate it, decide how it’s actually going to work in the physical world. It can be awkward, and the best way to get through it is to keep doing it over and over, and hang on to the vision.
Whiskey Blue: Is there a book, story, or scene you’ve come across whose erotic content was in some way too much – too graphic, too controversial, too charged – for you to continue reading?
Melissa Febos: No.
Jill Di Donato: If you pick up a book of erotica, you have to understand what you’re getting into. I love Rachel Kramer Bussel’s collections and writing because she has that talent for finding and writing sophisticated smut. She has more guts than I do in terms of using “those words” but she pulls it off because behind every sexual choice, there’s a character motivating it. The more human we can make our characters in erotica, the better, because humans are sexual beings.
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I’ve definitely read things that weren’t my cup of tea, but I think often the stories that push buttons are the ones that are worth reading. I also think that I don’t necessarily have to be personally turned on by a story to appreciate it as a story. The one thing that turns me off the most is outright misogyny. Sometimes when I’m reading submissions for my books, it can creep in, especially when it’s a book about female submission, which the misguided can mistake for weakness or an excuse for men to be literally brutal to women. Especially in BDSM erotica, I think you have to make it very clear that both parties are giving consent. Beyond that, it must be clear that the top, whatever their gender, has the bottom’s pleasure in mind as well as their own. That doesn’t mean you can’t get off on providing erotic pain or torture or torment within the context of consensual BDSM, but if it’s not crystal clear to the reader what makes it hot for both parties, you’re going to lose your audience right there. You can still play with edgy and taboo subjects, like age play and rape fantasies, but you have to be very careful to draw the distinction between what’s real and what’s fantasy within the story.
Amber Dawn: I’d like to say “no” but in fact I never made it through Attic by Katherine Dunn. Like many readers I was smitten with Geek Love so I looked to Dunn’s other books for more. I could tell after a few pages that Attic would leave me unhinged. I’m all for stream-of-consciousness writing, but the disjoined sex, violence, mental chaos and emotion in Attic was difficult for me. I guess I do need a bit of a security touchstone in a narrative.
Ella Boureau: Not really. I probably haven’t looked hard enough. I remember the film Lust, Caution being difficult to watch. It’s about a dictator and a double agent posing as his mistress so that the band of dissidents she is spying for can eventually kill him. It’s difficult to watch because the dictator is so horrifyingly violent to the mistress on every level, and he comes to have such a hold on her. Throughout, you are uncomfortably unsure whether she likes the brutalization or not, and you decide she’s just suffering through it for the greater good, but then in the end, she can’t betray him because she has compassion and he does not. She is changed by the intimacy of that sex, of being dominated by him, and he is not. It’s so hard to sit through. But it’s incredibly powerful. What is it about his domination of her that forces her to acknowledge his humanity, while he can continue to ignore hers? What is that process? There is a truth there about female sexuality that is incredibly hard, as it were, to swallow.
That movie had the power that I think Pasolini was grasping for in his film Salo, but couldn’t get to. Both films are about the horror of political dictators’ brutish sexuality, and through this sexuality, we are supposed to see how it is possible for dictators to dehumanize entire populations. Only, in Salo, it isn’t erotic or disturbing or enlightening; it’s just a lot of people eating each other’s shit and then being set on fire. It’s almost comical, like some five year old’s idea of what true perversion is, of what it is to slowly strip another of dignity.
Whiskey Blue: Movement, imagery, language: what is it, exactly, that makes a story sexy? I want to know.
Jill Di Donato: I interviewed women for an article on erogenous zones a couple of years ago, and one region that kept coming up again and again was the brain. I tend to agree. Use of imagination is what makes a story sexy – or re-imagining the scene that the author has laid out for you. You get to be the director, participant, voyeur, and exhibitionist depending on how you position yourself to the work. I love when I write something unconsciously hot – like when the imagery or metaphor of some kind of action takes me by surprise, which can happen often when you’re under the writing spell and the words are just coming. So I suppose my answer is the element of surprise.
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I don’t know if there’s one single factor that makes a story sexy, but for me much of it is about the meaning of the sex to a given character. Whether it’s their first time or thousandth time, I want to know why this moment is so memorable and powerful and necessary that it’s being told in this way at this time. I’m especially a fan of stories that highlight something unusual for a character (or society at large) or turn what we think we know about sexuality on its head.
There’s a story by Shanna Germain called “The Sun Is an Ordinary Star” that I published in my anthology He’s on Top, about a couple dealing with the effects of cancer and how each person’s perception of the other’s sexuality has or hasn’t changed. The woman who’s had cancer wants to be treated with the same kinkiness (and nipple clamps) as she’s always been, and that causes a rift in the relationship.
There’s also a story I tout in my erotic writing workshops called “Chemistry,” by Velvet Moore, from my book Orgasmic, about a woman who’s turned on by chemistry. Moore’s descriptions of this woman’s fetish are so vivid. They blew me away. And I almost failed chemistry in high school. But Moore was able to take something that’s not traditionally thought of as sexy and turn it into a powerful erotic story.
Amber Dawn: All three, of course. Sex scenes are action scenes where the characters are (often) transformed. Characters enter the scene being or feeling one thing, and they (hopefully) exit the scene being or feeling something further. How incredible is that! The author has to make the writing sensual and image-rich, and also unique to the characters and their journey within the scene. Exposition is a turn off. Don’t tell the reader what the characters experience; show the reader.
Ella Boureau: What makes a person thrill inside? When someone does something they know they shouldn’t. When they transgress. Breaking taboo is thrilling. It’s scary. Adultery, incest, rape, interracial sex, public sex, homosexuality, transsexuality, DILFS, MILFS, and all manner of intergenerational fucking: to varying degrees, each of these crosses the line of what is culturally or socially acceptable in some way. This is the stuff porn dreams are made of. It’s all over the Internet. It’s popular. So popular that we know it’s not just members of NAMBLA watching this shit. It’s not just Johnny Trenchcoat. It’s you and me. It’s us. Humans are drawn to perversity. Personally, I’m not interested in whether it’s right or wrong. It simply is.
Whiskey Blue is the author of Brooklyn Love, a collection of literary erotica available everywhere ebooks are sold. In her other life, she is a contributor to Psychology Today. She has also written for The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, AfterEllen, Curve Magazine, Bitch, and more. Whiskey holds erotica in the highest regard. Follow her @topshelferotica.