Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review of "Addictive Desires" by Big Ed Magusson

“There’s a richness of experience where desire and addiction collide,” Big Ed Magusson tells us: 

This richness is rarely explored in erotica because it challenges one of the core principles of the genre—that sex is good. The problem is, sex is big. Our moments of naked wanting are too large to be restricted to simply the good. They’re too broad to even fit into the dichotomy of good and bad. The vastness of sexual experience cannot be remotely categorized, labeled, or defined. The erotic is meant to be experienced—if not in person, then through the stories told by others.

The twelve stories in this bold, surprising, sometimes shocking collection will certainly challenge those readers too long addicted to the jizz-stained tropes and dog-eared familiarities of mainstream erotica, those diffident souls afraid to venture too far beyond the narrow comfort zone of fossilized adolescent fuckery. Addictive Desires is not an “easy” read or a quick stroke, and, for once, the “adult” label is not some smarmy, cynically-applied euphemism. This is, quite literally, a book for grownups.

Big Ed Magusson has been turning out a steady stream of competently crafted erotic stories for more than a decade, and many of these can be found on his exemplary website Big Ed’s Place. In October 2012, I reviewed his novel The Ugly One, along with the short story collection Unexpected Sights and the superb short Irie No Kabutsu, which I later included on my Best of 2012 list here at Erotica for the Big Brain. Where I dinged The Ugly One especially for what I deemed too conventionally predictable storytelling and characters who were far too “nice and agreeable”, Addictive Desires is written with a greater confidence, freedom and the daringness to disturb. The narrative voice is more assured, less stiff, the language flows more fluently—the author has begun to make the words work for him, and it all feels much less caged-in and canned.

There are still a few spots where the dialogue is a bit too rigid, conversations too direct and lacking subtle subtext. I’d have wished for exchanges outside of group therapy sessions where the participants occasionally talked past each other, interrupt, change gears, and start off on dead-end tangents, or were more artfully reticent, using effective “stage business”, gestures and silent pauses where they would  ignore hard questions or avoid direct answers altogether. There’s a fine line between “showing” or revealing character through dialogue and employing those characters as mere devices for injecting large amounts of data into a story. Granted, to his credit, Magusson isn’t trying to write like Elmore Leonard, but dialogue in which people always say precisely what they mean, listen respectfully before answering each other directly, honestly, and thoroughly, can get a bit old in fiction, even if it’s what we might wish for more of in real life.

Still, when Magusson’s language is “on” it is solidly “on the money”, as in this descriptive passage from More, the fourth story in the collection:

But that didn’t mean I liked the video booths. They weren’t that clean for one. Yeah, you could see where the attendant took a mop to them every night, but he never got the corners. The faded paint had probably once been off white, but now it just looked off. The dingy single overhead bulb didn’t help.

But the worst was the smell. Half-rotted fish mixed with BO that had found an old sneaker to crawl into and die. The air freshener masked it about as well as the cardboard covered the glory hole in the walls. It always took me a long time to grow inured. Kelli didn’t seem to care.

But why should she? Once we walked in the door of that adult novelty store, she became queen bee. I’m sure the truckers from the stop across the highway and the lonely salesmen with territory to cover couldn’t believe their luck. A college girl in here? Dressed like that? They dropped chins so low I could count their gold molars.

“I enjoy stories about misfits”, the narrator of Old Dogs tells us, and he himself is a kind of archetypal misfit, like many of his fellow characters. At their most starkly realistic, their stories can send us reeling, dredge up the messiest, most painful memories, or trigger terrifyingly vivid flashbacks. To admit the horror that lies within, to come face to face with one’s demons, to be hollowed out in order to be filled with something healthier if not to be healed, whether in the relative safety of therapy or in the scary, spontaneous wilds of everyday existence, may be the most profoundly painful and deeply humbling experience of one’s life. In the end, anyone strong enough to admit his past wrongs, the hurts he has inflicted and can never again not feel himself, is faced with a stark choice; if we use our past as an excuse to shrink from life, we will end up having never lived. (So it is for Gordon, the narrating main character of Every Seven Seconds, who misses out on the possibilities of real human connection because he wastes too much time lost in fantasy—this story, the first in the book, has the feel of a fable, complete with an ironic “moral”.)  

For many, including myself, writing can be a very effective form of therapy. Some writers manage very well to sublimate their fear and anger, the ugliness of their own self-loathing pasts into something cathartic, edifying, and hopeful.  But this process, too, is not an easy thing, it can be knotty, excruciating, soul-wrenching, despite the slick craftsmanship and assured professionalism of the end product.  Probably the best, most original stories in this collection are also the toughest ones to take.

White Knuckles is a masterpiece of inner monologue. The reader eavesdrops on a young man’s  ethical and physical conflicts as he argues with himself about whether to take advantage of a faithless “friend” who lies naked before him, drugged and passed out at a frat house party. This writing is highly realistic, morally complex,  and light years beyond the simplistic “angel on the shoulder” black-and-white movie-of-the-week dualism that passes for morality in the popluar conscience nowadays. As Magusson remarks in his afterword: “That speedball mix of emotions? It includes rage”, and he has brought that rage home with devastating effect.

Methadone may be one of the bravest pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered—and one of the most singularly disturbing. A man who molested his daughter, struggles with his unquenchable obsession for her, going so far as to hire a roll-playing sex-worker to reenact his crimes. We are disgusted and sickened by this man, and yet, by the end, we cannot help but feel a certain sorrow for him, even a tinge of pity for his helplessness, his utterly pathetic plight.  

And suddenly it’s too real. Claire, Jenny, Jennifer—they blur together and all the bad memories explode in my brain. Jennifer’s words ring in my ears. Pain smashes into desire and longing. Shame envelops and overwhelms me.

I burst into tears. Claire rolls away from in alarm, “What the fuck?”

I sob deep, and then sob some more.

“What the fuck is going on?”

I shudder and try to catch my breath, but fail on the first gasp. After the third, I look up to see Claire has backed away from the bed and is staring at me.

“That’s what she said,” I spit out between sobs. “Those were her exact words.”


“My daughter’s”

“The oral wasn’t just a fantasy?”

I’m too shaken to reply.

“I can’t do this.” She gathers up her clothes. “This is sick. I thought I could but I can’t. I’m not doing this again.” She heads to the door. “Don’t call me ever again.”

“Wait!” I shriek. I lunge forward, which makes her flinch. “I need you!”

“You need help.”
. . .

This is one of those stories that should be read widely, but very probably won’t be given the public’s enduring dread of conflict and controversy.  For all its sickening horror, it is a story that needed to be told, though its effects are grimly haunting, deeply sobering, saddening, and, for some no doubt, it will stir up a good deal of anger.   

My favorite story in the collection is probably Wolf, an insightful, realistically positive portrayal of a successful older man who must keep his sexual appetites at bay “one day at a time”. “My place isn’t here, but it’s where I am,” he tells us. Where he presently is is at his son’s wedding, and the story follows him through the chaotic and joyful day, looking back on the sordid defeats and strengthening struggles of his past while revealing the temptations that still spring from that past like toxic weeds in the present. The ending is positive and uplifting, and, after reading it, I am convinced that Big Ed Magusson is a man with his eyes wide open, a storyteller with the brutally honest sensibility of a realist, along with the abundant empathy of a hopeful idealist; a writer with an abiding affection for humanity, and a powerful gift for illuminating the fraught, bewildering complexities of the human condition.  

Highly recommended. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Royally Screwed--a short story by TAS

This little story was inspired by a song from the British folk-rock group Steeleye Span, which you can listen to hereRoyal Forester tells the tale of a young woman who is raped by one Erwilian, an arrogant prick who boasts of the "immunity" his connections at court afford him. However, instead of lamenting the theft of her maidenhead, the woman pursues her rapist relentlessly, all the way to the king's high court where she demands justice for herself. This is the kind of strong, no-nonsense, ass-kicking heroine I like! 

My treatment is something of a "fractured fairy tale"--think Steeleye Span meets Mel Brooks. The character of the king owes a lot to Dom Deluise' Caesar and Brooks' own lecherous "It's good to be the king" Louis XVI in History of the World Part 1, with an extra dash of Ron-Jeremy sleaze for good measure and fun.   

While the story is humorous, it is not meant to make light of rape, but to celebrate the intelligence, fortitude and determination of a woman who refuses to be a victim. 



Royally Screwed

The great oaken doors of the King’s High Court were thrown open with a resounding boom. A fair young damsel stood in the breach, breathless and flushed, her comely bosom heaving for all the court to behold—and boy! Were they ever beholding!

“Don’t just stand there gawping at my jugs like a bunch of dirty old men,” she cried, “I would have word with His Majesty—actually, two or three hundred words if you want to get technical about it—for I have been wrongéd, and that full sore.”

The herald scratched his head. The king’s guardsman scratched something else. No one moved to aid the damsel, whose hair was red as blazing fire, with eyes as green as the emeralds that adorned the king’s scepter. She was well formed with a noble bearing despite the gnarly disarray of her simple peasant’s bodice, straight of stature, long of neck, and most pleasingly ample of ass. Well and truly stackéd was the term that came most easily to the minds of the horny courtiers milling about the hall, though nobody actually had the stones to say it out loud.

“Why are you all just standing there?” she cried, “Do I have to spell it out for you? One of you fine upstanding gentlemen thought he could get away with plunder and despoilment—that’s rape to you, numbnutses!  So where’s the outrage? Which one of you fuckmented shitjizzles is going to let me in to see the king? Convey me to the Presence this instant, for I would have justice done anon.”

After she had explained the definition of ‘anon’ to the guards, the girl was ushered before His Majesty, who was busy being measured for a new codpiece. “Who the hell are you?” he asked.

“If it please your Majesty,” she said, bowing low from the waist, “My name is Rosoridy-Anne, the daughter of a humble blacksmith.”

“What lovely introductions,” drooled the king, dismissing the tailor and his assistants with a rude gesture. “No, no! Don’t straighten up just yet, my dear.”

“As you command, Sire.” said Rosoridy-Anne, knowing how these things work.

“Perfect! Mmmm! Now . . . what would you have of us, child?” said the king in a particularly paternalistic tone of voice, nodding slyly at the highly stylized, ludicrously exaggerated phallic totem between his legs, “As you can see, we have much to occupy our attention.”

Exasperated, the damsel heaved a heavy sigh, which took everybody else’s breath away. “If it please Your Majesty,” she began again, “I have been robbed, and robbéd full clean—or should I say robbéd full dirty?—by one of your own chancellors.”

“Truly? And, this man of mine, has he stolen your horse? Nabbed your purse? Snitched your clothes while you were bathing in the river?”

“No, Sire, none of the above,” she said, “He’s taken something a bit more . . . personal. Something I’m not likely to replace.”

“What? Like your class ring?”

“A bit more personal than that, Sire.”

“Uhhhh.” The king scratched his head, which seemed to be much in fashion at court that season.

“Is everybody thick around here?” she cried, stamping her foot, “He’s robbed me of my freakin’ maidenhead! You know: my hymen, my cherry, my virgin’s knot, my maidenhood, my chastity, my virtue! Just took it without asking; burst in through the front gate like a bandit in the night, and now it’s gone, and another I cannot find . . .”

“So,” said the king, “you’re telling us that this guy—”

“Raped me. Yes! Hello??? Do I have to spell it out for you too, Your Grace?”

“Probably,” he said mildly, “We usually have servants to do that for us. In any case, honey, why don’t you sit here on the royal lap so we might console you as you tell us all about it.”

“I’ll pass on the pervy lap-sitting, if Your Majesty will pardon me for the nonce,” said Rosoridy-Anne with another breathtaking bow, “Yet I will tell you what happened.”

“Very well,” the king could barely mask his disappointment, for the girl’s beauty was truly quite distracting. “Go ahead then.”

“OK,” said Rosoridy-Anne,  “So, there I was in the forest, minding my own business, reading Le Morte d’Arthur, when this doofus comes up behind me. Asks me what I’m reading, never mind that he’s standing in my light. So I say ‘Malory’ and he thinks that’s my name. Then he wants to know what the book’s about. So I give him the CliffsNotes version, hoping he’ll get bored and go away. No such luck; he just stands there, looking down my dress, totally eye-banging my foobs like a teenaged creep. Finally, I turn around and say ‘Was there something you wanted?’ and he says ‘Hey girl! Nice rack! Wanna fuck?’And I say ‘Whoa! Back up the non-sequitur cart, there, Jack!’ And he says ‘Who’s this Jack guy?’ And I say ‘Jack’s what you know, dipwad,’ and then he says ‘So, was that, like, a yes?’ and I say ‘No, that was, like, a no; in fact, it was most definitely a no. I am clearly and unequivocally refusing to offer consent.' 

“Apparently the guy couldn’t take a hint even if you dropped Canterbury cathedral on his balls with it. Apparently he also missed a lot of school because he didn’t seem to understand the whole concept of taking no for an answer—or personal hygiene for that matter. Grubby little spunk-trumpet keeps going on about how he’s some big high muckety- muck at the king’s high court. Says he’s called Erwilian, like I can’t figure out that his name is really Willie. Claims to be the royal forester, but I figure he’s nothing but a glorified gardener, probably an assistant glorified gardener at that. Says I should be flattered to let him pop my cherry, like I’m just another airheaded noble-title-groupie who’ll get all wet in the smallclothes being that close to some pompous puffed-up cum-guzzler from court—no offense, Your Majesty. But hey! We all know poor blacksmiths’ daughters are functionally illiterate bimbos who wouldn’t know Latin unless it was in the Biblical sense with a landing party from the Armada. I am so fucking sick of these bullshit sexist, classist stereotypes! Who perpetuates this medieval crap anyway?”

“We shall have that looked into,” said the king, “Perhaps appoint a Royal Commission. Go on, my child.”

“Right. So, before I can say ‘I’ve got pepper spray hidden in my cleavage,’ Mr. Legend-in-his-own-mind has laid me down upon my back and askéd no man’s leave, let alone mine. Says, ‘don’t worry, babe,  I’m only gonna stick in the tip, then pull out before I come’ as if that would make it alright. Has his way with me right there upon the sward, all the while going on about how I was askin’ for it by wearing such a provocatively low-cut dress, and being all come-hithery by playing hard to get with my snooty nose in a literary novel. (You can’t win no matter what you do!) Then he blows his wad inside me on purpose and tells me I should feel honored because he’s the only son of some earl I never heard of before. Sheesh! There’s thirty-five seconds of my life I’ll never get back. Anyway, when it’s over, little Willie says ‘It’s been nice knowing you, slut!’ like he just made the cleverest pun in the whole history of bawdy comedy, and rides off. I said “Oh no you don’t, fuckwit!” hiked up my skirts and ran after the bastard as fast as I could.

“He thought he’d lost me at the river. Said, ‘It’s too deep for you, bitch! No way you’re getting across.’ But I waded through anyway, and kept after him. Seemed like hours, chasing him through forest, field, and meadow, running up hill and rolling down dale yada yada yada. Finally, tracked him here to the castle. Pretty easy, actually; just had to follow the stank of entrenched male privilege.”

“So,” said the king, “what is it that you ask of us?”

“Justice!” cried Rosoridy-Anne.

“Tall order,” replied His Majesty, “And we can pretty much guarantee you won’t like your options.”

“Try me,” said the damsel.

“If only!” the old man leered.

“Focus, Your Grace!”

“Oooo-kay, well, if he’s a married man, we’ll hang him like a common criminal, take him down from the gibbet still alive, draw and quarter him, and leave his arms, legs, and torso impaled on sharp stakes for the ravens to feast upon in public view of all the realm—”

“I like the sound of that,” she said.

“While, you, my dear, being no longer a maiden, will be summarily packed off to a nunnery.”

“What? That hardly seems fair.”

“If you think that’s unfair, you’ll love the second option,” the king hesitated slightly before going into detail, “Uhhh, if . . . if he’s single, turns out the law says the two of you have to get married.”

“Oh gross!” she made a finger-down-the-throat-to-induce-vomiting gesture, “I’ll castrate the jerk with a rusty spoon on our wedding night, and force-feed him his giggle-berries for breakfast!”

“Eeeew!” the king shuddered, reflexively covering his own miniature set of crown jewels, “Remind me never to get on your bad side, Rosoridy-Anne. In any case, I know the guy you’re talking about. This Willie—Erwilian—is kind of a waste of skin to tell you the God’s honest truth, but whatcha gonna do? He’s sort of fun at parties; does this thing where he belches and farts the tune to  Suner is icumen in—totally hilarious, though I suppose you would have had to be there—and besides, the Crown owes his dad, the earl, a fuck-ton of money—all that dicing, whoring, and declaring war on our neighbors gets expensive pretty fast.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” cried the girl, “marry this rapacious asshat in spite of the outrage he’s done me? Bear his insufferable, half-witted whelpling? Play the devoted little housewife while he goes off to tomcat around with the boys every other weeknight? That, or end up in a convent with a bunch of bitter, dried up old hypocritical holier-than-thou hyper-puritanical flesh-mortifying sadomasochists?”

“You can say that again,” said the king, “No, actually, those are your choices.”

“Well, no thank you!” the damsel held her head high, “This girl’s gonna have a life.

“Speaking of which, you sure you don’t want to have a sit-down on the royal lap?” asked the king, hopefully, “We are rather taken by the cut of your jib.”

“No one’s taking my jib anywhere, thank you very much,” Rosoridy-Anne spoke defiantly.

“Have a care!” said the king, “Jesus! Where have you been the last thirty-five centuries? Slowly evolving in a cave? If His Royal Majesty says ‘shite’ unto one of his subjects, said subject may reasonably ask only three questions; ‘when, where, and how much, Your Grace?’ And if we should command you to plant that bodacious bahookie of yours upon the royal lap, than plant it there you shall.”

“Are you commanding me, then, Sire?”

“Let’s just say that for right now we’re—I’m—asking nicely,” said the king.

“Well . . .”

“Aw, c’mon! Don’t be a drag! Be our queen  if only for the next fifteen minutes or so . . .”

“You totally stole that from somebody, didn’t you?” she said.

“Busted,” said the king, who seemed to have a deep and abiding fascination with all things boob-related, “But you wouldn’t tell anybody, now, would you?”

“I think we’re getting a bit off track here, Sire,” said Rosoridy-Anne, “What about my problem?”

“Well, we could probably have the guy hanged, drawn, quartered, and all that good stuff. And maybe we could give the Bishop a wink and a couple hundred sovereigns to fix the matter of your being forced into the nunnery. But that still leaves us with two or three knotty dilemmas—or dilemmi or dilemmae or whatever the fuck the plural of that word is—problems! Let’s just say unsolved problems. No matter what, the exchequer’s still going to owe the little jerk’s daddy, and you can bet the service payments on all that debt will go right through the roof once we’ve had the idiot son kacked, and who’s gonna get blamed when inflation inevitably kicks in? Plus, we’ll have incurred additional debt in the process of bribing His Excellency the Bishop, who just between you, us, and the lamp post,  is one of the sickest degenerates you will ever meet. Man! The stories we could tell you involving a flock of six black sheep, five male prostitutes, four call girls, three French maids, two hermaphrodites, and a drag queen decked out like a partridge in a pear tree!—good times! Good times! And, lastly, there’s the whole question of what’s in it for me—I mean us, by which I mean me—you feel me, I mean us?”

“I get it, You Majesty,” said Rosoridy-Anne, “In truth, I get it all too well. In order to obtain justice after being sexually assaulted, abandoned, and traumatized by one of your employees, I must succumb to your lecherous advances, or choose from among two completely odious and equally unpalatable options. I think I “feel” you quite accurately—and I know when I’m being groped up the tailpipe. Seems like some things will never change.”

“Hey! Welcome to the Middle Ages,” said the king, patting his knee “We didn’t make the rules—well, actually, we sort of did—but you know what we mean.”

“Ugggh! Alright,” said Rosoridy-Anne, “But no funny stuff. No French kissing—I can smell the eel-and-onion pastie on your breath from all the way over here! Keep the grab-and-tickle above the waist—definitely no feely-meely below the navel.”

Reluctantly, she crawled on to his lap, and bid him do whatever he fancied within the hard limits she had outlined. He fondled her comely gamungas, and slipped a greasy paw into her bodice to play with her ever-so perky nubinses. “Nice!” he whistled, trying to sneak the other hand down on to her booteus maximus.

“Naughty, naughty!” the damsel shooed his hand away, “Remember, Sire?”

“Oh all right!” he sighed like a petulant child, “But we’re definitely gonna suck one of those tits before this is over.”

“As you wish, Sire,” said Rosoridy-Anne, unlacing her bodice partway. And for a while the only sound in the chamber was that of the king’s gluttonous pie-hole, smacking and slurping like a toddler at its wet nurse’s teat.

“So, Your Grace,” she ventured meekly, “What do you know of Erwilian’s parents and family?”

“Huh? Oh, his mother died like two years ago; pneumonia or something incurable like that we think—little sociopath’ll probably try to use that as an excuse for what he did to you today—and the father? Handsome guy—nice full head of silver hair, of which we are totally envious, by the way. Richer than God Almighty, of course, and considered one of the most eligible widowers in the realm. Aside from that, we don’t know much, for it is as we’ve said; we’ve got people to keep track of these things for us.”

“Truly, Sire? A rich, handsome widower, you say? And are his manners better than his son’s?”

 “Couldn’t tell ya,” said the king, belching noxiously,  “Would you mind shifting over a little to the left, honey? That’s the ticket!”

“Your Majesty,” the damsel cooed, “I might have a way to, as they say, kill several birds with one stone.”

“Good for you,” said the king, “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I mean, Sire, that I have a problem, and you have several, and perhaps there’s a way we can solve them together, and both end up with something we want.”

“You have our attention,” muttered the king, his mouth full of luscious freckled dumpling. “Go on.”

“Well,” she said, “I’d see the son well hanged ‘tis true; yet if the father’s well hung—”

“What?” the king touched his new codpiece, “You mean?”

“Verily—that is to say, yes,” Rosoridy-Anne replied, “if the earl is still vigorous, well-spoken, wealthy as you say, and willing, chances are I’m already knocked up with his true heir in any case.”

“You’re totally insane!” the king laughed, “If we were thirty years younger, ten stone lighter,  still had all the royal hair, and were single—”

“—You’d nail me like a common ho,” said Rosoridy-Anne. “and we both know it. For, although no ho I trough, common-born I am indeed, and such, alas, is the way of the world. Yet, by all that’s just, the bun in my oven shall not pop out a common one. I’m thinking more along the lines of a Kaiser roll . . .”

“You’re right,” said the king, “we would definitely have tapped that back in the day. For in truth, we really got around when we were a handsome young blade. But we see where you’re going with this. It’s totally brill! You get justice for little Willie’s outrage against you, yet still avoid the nunnery, becoming, instead,  a wealthy nobleman’s wife in a single stroke. Chances are the guy won’t even miss the benighted little assclown once he’s raven poop, and his lordship might even forgive a big chunk of the debt we owe him just for us having introduced the two of you.”

“T’would seem like a win-win, Your Grace,” said the damsel. “And—not to mix anachronistic metaphors here—but the ball’s in your court.”

“Right!” said the king, “Page! Call the earl of—whatever the hell he’s the earl of—into our presence. There’s someone here we would have him meet.”

“Pardon, Sire,” the little page piped up timidly, “Which earl do you mean? There are so many here at court.”

“When, where, and how much!” roared the king, “How many times do I have to tell you? The earl of . . . oh! you know the one I mean, ya little snot! The tall one with the good hair! Godiva! That’s the one. Lord Godiva, the Earl of Pizzlethwaite—or is it Jizzleford?  Summon the schmuck to appear before us on the morrow, alright?”

“As you command, Sire,” the page bowed stiffly and withdrew. 

“We’ll get you all dolled up for the occasion,” said the king, “bathed and scrubbed, powdered and perfumed till your own mother wouldn’t recognize you from the smell. Get your hair put up nice, and deck you out in all the dopest bling, a total shitload of jewels, gems and pearls. And we shall find for you such a dress as will turn the highest-born bitches  in the realm all green with envy, whence they’ll  bewail their bravest finery as naught but thrift-shop schmatta! Shit! One look at you and the earl’ll be creaming his pantyhose, I guaran-damn-tee!”

“Mmm! I like the sound of that, Your Majesty.”

“And I love it when a plan comes together,” replied the sovereign, dandling the girl upon his gout-ridden knee until her glorious jiggle bags began to do their thing, bouncing up and down in the most enchanting way imaginable. “We’re of a mind to name you royal counselor for this, my dear.”

“You honor me, Sire,” said the girl, “even as you make me seasick.”

“So what?” laughed the king, “Tomorrow you shall be known as Lady Godiva.”

“No shit, Your Majesty,” Rosoridy-Anne smiled sweetly.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Purloined Experience (The Stories We Are Entitled to Tell, Part 2)

Folks, this is a long piece (about 2,500 words in total). I'd thought seriously about breaking it up into two discrete posts, but I feel that the first section dovetails aptly enough with the second to justify leaving the whole thing intact. If you find it too long for one sitting, please, by all means, bookmark the page. I've numbered the two main sections, so that you can easily find your place when you return. Also, you can read the first article in this series hereTAS


Some time ago I received a heated communication from a person—let’s just say, someone fairly well-known in the erotica community whom we shall refer to here only as X—demanding that I take down a review I’d posted of a book by an author we’ll call Y. (Be aware that I will be employing gender-neutral pronouns in parts of this piece.)

X insisted that Y was deceiving readers by not being honest about who Y was in real life, and should therefore “not be supported.” X even went so far as to “out” Y to me, revealing the supposed real-world identity of the person behind the literary double (which I myself shall NEVER reveal).

When I invited X to post their complaints (sans the outing) to the comments section of my blog, they demurred—which told me pretty much everything I needed to know about X’s motives.  

Nonetheless, I took some time to analyze and ponder what X had written, doing my best to separate X’s obvious extreme, personal, and deeply visceral dislike of Y from X’s professionally-couched objections, which ultimately boiled down to this: X claims that Y is a middle-aged man masquerading as a much-younger woman in order to sell erotica, and doing so (in X’s view) is tantamount to an insult to honest, hard-working women authors who struggle to have their authentic voices heard and taken seriously.

Not denigrating X’s broader feminist concerns in the least, but I still had to ask myself: (1) does knowing this (or hearing it alleged) alter my opinion about the quality of Y’s writing? No. The writing is still demonstrably very good, regardless of whether it came from a man or a woman.  (2) Did Y plagiarize or steal another writer’s work? No. (3) Did Y tell a good, compelling, original, authentic-feeling story? Yes. (4) Have other writers—especially writers of erotica—assumed diverse personae and alternate identities over the centuries? Yes. Of course! (5) Is such a practice considered irregular, dishonest, deceptive, or malicious in the literary world? No, of course not! (6) Is Y assuming a pseudonym for the purpose of cheating or deceiving readers? It does not seem so. (7) Would X have a similar problem with, say, a younger woman writing as an older man? Or an older woman assuming the guise of an adolescent boy? (It’s been done, probably more often than you think!) What about a straight woman writing m/m romance (quite common), a het man writing f/f porn (also fairly common, if almost always awful), or a gay man writing het erotica? A straight cis-male telling genderqueer stories from the POV of a bisexual transwoman? What about a drag queen, for that matter—don’t drag queens compete with honest, hard-working cis-female performers? (Of course they don’t!)

In fact, I suspect X would probably cringe at being accused of such blatant intolerance. I can’t imagine that X wasn’t at the forefront of protest when that snarky little turd of a blogger outed E.L. James a year or so ago. (Whatever you may think about Ms. James and her writing—and I try to think about both as little as possible—you have to admit, that was a pretty shitty thing to do.)

First, let me say this: my problem is not with the author Y. My problem  is squarely with X.

Could X conceivably be jealous or resentful of Y? Possibly, but that is irrelevant and in no way excuses behavior that was childish, petulant, petty, unprofessional, and patently unethical. In erotica authors assume literary doubles or choose to work under pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, whether because of professional or commercial considerations, or, sometimes, to protect themselves and their loved ones from the very real possibility of retribution, which may include threats of violence, prosecution, imprisonment, or even death in extremis. Occasionally, authors may adopt a writing persona or avatar that reflects the way they truly perceive themselves; for example, a cis-male who has quite honestly come to regard themself as female; or some broken or marginalized person who must project wholeness and confidence in order to be taken seriously by the world.

But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter why. If, as a community, we adhere to no other collective ethical tenet, it is that an author’s chosen pen name is inviolate. The only person who has the right to reveal the “real name” behind a nom de plume is the owner of that nom de plume—period. The only possible exceptions to this would be in the case of incontrovertible evidence of plagiarism, the proven violation of intellectual property rights, intentional identity theft, or the real, imminent endangerment of a minor.

I want to say one more thing before we move on. I personally do not believe that authors are in competition with each other. Competition, like jealousy, is a rather childish, and mostly useless concept, which, nonetheless, the purveyors of “bread and circuses” skillfully employ to divide and conquer the masses, artificially choosing “winners and losers”.  I believe that, as creatives, we can challenge and stimulate each other to do better and greater work, but the idea that one author making a sale somehow robs another author of a sale is nonsense. I am the last person on earth anyone would ever accuse of being a free-market fundamentalist; but I do believe that readers of erotica—who are, after all, the market—really will sort things out—not necessarily in a way most of us will always like, but, truthfully, is there a better way?   


This whole distasteful affair does conveniently dovetail with the discussion we’ve been having here about “other-ness” in erotica. In my last post, I wrote about experience, imagination, and authenticity in erotic fiction, specifically, what roles do experience and imagination play in the creation of authentic characters who are nonetheless not always “like us”? Do writers’ experience—their direct empirical knowledge—limit them to draw on “what they know” alone? Or is experience refracted and expanded through imagination? Can we write authentically about something we have not actually experienced, but have only been told about, witnessed from afar or done a spot of research on? Experience is not merely the sum of “what physically happens to us” after all, nor is imagination only “what we are able to think up” on our own. Consider those early vivid dreams that the memory often cannot distinguish from waking reality. Did this really happen to me? one wonders, and the mystery itself is fascinating enough to inspire a whole genre of its own. 

(Please note, I’m not here to run down the whole history of  the philosophical Idea of Experience from Locke (“the mind is a blank slate upon which experience writes”) to Ward’s tripartite concept of mental experience, or William James’ notion of “pure experience”. For the purposes of this piece, the concepts and terminology are my own.)

The human imagination is uniquely suited to what composers call variation form, that is,
taking a pre-existing idea and riffing on it, improvising, transforming or transmogrifying, expanding or compacting, grafting or pruning, remodeling or reshaping, sometimes producing an end product virtually unrecognizable from the original germ of an idea that inspired it. Stravinsky once quipped that “great composers don’t borrow, they steal . . .” and it could be argued that the subtle stealing and distilling of vicarious experience is the work of a great writer as well. Where this process of distillation and refinement is skillful and empathetic, it can result in fiction that resonates with the ring of truth—feels, in other words, authentic. Where such theft is blatant, and, especially, where creative and technical rigor are wanting, the storytelling will reek of dishonesty, coming off as little more than a cynical mercenary endeavor.

A good deal of contemporary genre fiction is based on what I call synthetic experience—think the classic “if a Martian were going to write an erotic romance” hypothetical. Synthetic experience consists of things a sheltered aspiring author might pick up from reading a general encyclopedia, or every title in the romance or mystery or historical fiction sections, watching cop shows or legal dramas on TV, or playing intense first-person-shooter video games. (I always think of the late Father Andrew Greeley trying to write steamy sex scenes in those sickly self-righteous sacerdotal soap-operas of his, which always felt forced and artificial.) Still, there’s nothing technically dishonest or even “wrong” with an author drawing from what is in effect a shared cultural wellspring, and such stories, when well researched and plotted, can be quite entertaining. A deliberate, critical reading of this type of fiction is generally not what I would consider a deeply rewarding endeavor, however. The author is simply too detached, too glibly dispassionate to strike a deeply resonant chord--the language seems "borrowed".  (Personally, very little pisses me off faster than stilted, coyly-written historical fiction, though desicated-BS techno-thrillers by jingoist wannabe-soldiers and armchair martinets run a close second.)

Observed experience is what so many writers rely upon for their ideas. Shy people with sharp, insatiably curious minds, sitting in corners, listening and watching, soaking in the scene. Writing based on this kind of acute, sometimes brutally honest third-person observation can have the electric thrill of voyeurism, it can be revelatory, startlingly perceptive, trenchant, deeply enlightening. But there is a fine line between other lives honestly observed and stolen experience, that is, simply coopting another person’s story without permission and telling it from a first-person point of view as if it were one’s own—like a baroquely fictionalized serial killer wearing their victim’s face for a mask. In effect a writer “plagiarizes” another person’s life-narrative, if not their literal words. Technically this may not be illegal, but it certainly raises—or ought to arouse—a number of heavily-charged ethical conundra. The question that concerns us here is this: Are writers being dishonest or stealing experience when they write from the POV of a different gender, or sexual orientation, or culture, or race other than their own, or are they merely—more or less innocently—relating synthetic or observed experience?

One of the most attractive and compelling aspects of working in the erotica genre is the license writers are granted as a matter of course to explore all manner of diverse points-of-view. It is not at all uncommon for authors to assume the guise of the other in this genre. It is practically expected of an author who would be regarded as particularly talented or versatile. To be sure, this “mask-changing” is such an accepted practice that we are sometimes taken aback when reminded that, for example, a man writing a female character is “writing the other”, or a woman writing a male character is also “writing the other”, just as surely as a middle-aged white male Midwesterner writing a young African-American woman from the deep south would be writing (and no doubt wronging!) the other.

As a public person, I have never pretended to be anything other than a visually-impaired middle-aged white male Midwesterner (though, thankfully, as an author not so monumentally, insufferably arrogant as to try anything like the last hypothetical example cited above). When writing about observed experience, approaching characters who are not like me in one way or another, I generally try to maintain a respectful distance by employing the third person—even though my point-of-view characters may be young, or female, or a person of color, or of another culture or ethnicity, or “unquestioningly-straight” or gay, or “abled”. Occasionally—however briefly—I’ve tried getting into the heads of “other-ly” characters, and I don’t know—because no one has thus far ever offered constructive feedback about it—if I’ve come off as authentic or phony, sincere or merely silly. All I know is that the story wanted to be told. The imagination, like the wind, takes me where it will, and I can choose to come along for the ride or not. The worst thing to be is afraid. I am never compelled to publish what I write after all—but  to self-censor before I even start writing would be the equivalent of creative suicide.

I frequently write in third person with female POV characters. The novel I’m currently working on with the aim of distilling some of my experience as an ex-Catholic and monastic postulent, is told from the POV of a young woman from rural Nebraska who becomes a nun, all the while struggling with her natural hyper-sexual drives against the rigid demands of her family and her faith. I feel that I know Gretchen, her people and her place well enough to tell my story through her. Catholicism is a shared ethos, and we have breathed the same cultural air. I have struggled with the same spiritual and sexual demons (physically manifested in the novel), the same cognitive disonances where natural desire and the expectations of celibacy are concerned, and I have been an unwelcome outsider in the stuffy, insular world of clerical culture. She and I have spoken the same language, and I think I may have some insight into how she feels, too. I believe I can write this character honestly because, in many ways, she is me. Where a non-fiction account of my real experience would simply put people to sleep, by employing Gretchen as “a metaphor for myself” (to borrow an idea from author Emily Tilton), I can add layers of imagination, richness, and vibrant color to what is, in essence, a true story.

Then too,  once in a great while, as in my story Becoming Roxanne I try my hand (or head) at female first-person. I would not dare to do this with just any female character. The 17-year-old girl of the title is from a place I know fairly well, and the sort of cultural and socio-economic mileau with which I am reasonably conversant. I’ve met and talked to lots of young woman like Lois/Roxanne;  I have at least a little insight into their thinking, their backstories and their hopes for the future, their dreams and desires. In this story, as in A Girl From White City (from the same collection), I wanted to capture something of the breathless, overwhelming desire a young woman feels (very different from the way a young man experiences desire, at least based on my observations). My curiosity to know what Roxanne’s feelings “feel like” spurs me to take a risk with this story. I have tried my best to be honest, even if I cannot guarantee that what is on the page will always strike the reader as authentic. In any case, I could not—and would not—try something similar with characters who were too far removed from my understanding and experience.

In the end, I say be bold! Write what you know in the broadest possible sense, but never fear to let the imagination soar!


Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Stories We Are Entitled To Tell

The advice to “write what you know” and the exhortation to “let your imagination soar” are not mutually exclusive. If all we ever wrote about was “what we knew”, at best the world would be glutted with second-rate confessional autobiography, or, in the worst-case scenario, backed up to overflowing with indigestible vocational manuals. (Some might argue that we are already overwhelmed by a virtual tidal bloom of mediocre memoirs by glib alcoholics and dubiously-gifted ex-junkies, though, I suppose, but for the contributions of functional addicts, the whole Marketplace of Letters would probably implode overnight.)

The point is that imagination is how we understand and refine experience, and thus, the two are inextricably bound up together in the creative process. In fiction, the narrow beam of experience is refracted through the prism of imagination. fanning out into a glorious spectrum of story, an infinite continuum of emotion and conflict, passion and prejudice, love and hate, knowledge and wisdom. The extreme, invisible ends of the spectrum, the hot, seething infrared and the cool, introspective ultraviolet are the mysteries of human nature itself, an abiding source of fascination for writers of erotic fiction.

This past week, in the wake of the banal farce that is the Rachael Dalziel affair, and the very real soul-crushing tragedy of the Charleston massacre, many of us are reexamining the way we write about “other-ness” in our fiction, particularly how we talk about and portray race. I have been thinking about this as well, though, for me, a consideration of “other-ness” must also include my own personal, life-defining experiences of disability and the discrimination I have born because of that disability. The question I ask myself is this: what stories am I entitled to tell?

We don’t often think of being “entitled” to write a story. In theory, anybody can write about anything they want, from any point of view they choose, and, in practice, this is not uncommon, especially in erotica. We talk a great deal of noble talk about never self-censoring where erotic description is concerned. But are there instances in which, perhaps, an author should exercise prior restraint when contemplating the creation of fictional characters that are unlike him or her in terms of gender-identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, ideology, culture, and, particularly, race?

In considering some of the cultural and racial components of my own work, I’ve come to the conclusion that I do not fear approbation, or even the possible accusation that I may be a racist, a misogynist, a pornographer or a pervert. What I fear is the complaint that my writing—my characters—will come off as inauthentic.

Authenticity is harder than it sounds. To achieve it, a writer has to balance the scales of genuine, honest experience, and the subtle nuance of imagination. A truly imaginative writer doesn’t just write something because “it sounds like it would make a good story.” Astute readers can smell inauthenticity from a mile away, and there are many stories that clearly don’t pass this “smell test”. Purloined experience has a particularly stale odor to it, and  sensitive readers quickly get their nostrils full of it, along with the indelible impression of writers whose lives consist of little more than channel surfing, a steady diet of TV drama, and tabloid pap. Yet, sometimes, even a gifted, thoughtful, ethical writer can relate a true story—that is, true to his or her understanding of observed life—and still be accused of inauthenticity by people, upset that the narrative does not jibe with their particular personal understanding of a similar experience. (I refer you to Remittance Girl’s recent essay,  Stealing Pain; Writing the Other.)

So, I ask myself again; what stories am I entitled to tell? And, perhaps, more importantly, whose stories am I entitled to tell? Now, I have to get a little personal, which generally makes me uncomfortable, especially in this world where social media is designed to elicit instantaneous shallow responses, and actively discourages thoughtful deliberation and cumulative reflection. (And, let’s face it, some people “can’t be fucked” even to accept praise with grace!) I am not doing this to elicit sympathy, but to try and get to the heart of my own artistic struggles, and, perhaps, offer a few useful examples of what “other-ness” means in fiction.

Here are some (by no means all) facts that have shaped my experience:

I was born legally blind. I was bullied because of it; held back in school—at one time, even being classified as retarded, and threatened with banishment to the intellectual gulag  of “special ed” which, at that tender age, would have spelled certain death for all my potential. Only my mother’s intervention saved me from this fate. Nonetheless, I was denied opportunities “normal” kids were given as a matter of course, barred (even in college!) from taking classes that interested me on the assumption that I couldn’t handle the visual material, and, ultimately, discriminated against in almost every area of endeavor, often by well-meaning but ignorant people who thought they were protecting me from myself. I have been discouraged even from volunteering. I have been literally spat upon for being blind (by an African American, somewhat ironically), and cursed (or, far worse, pitied) by so-called “people of faith” who still labor under the atavistic misapprehension that blindness (or deafness or any “handicap”) must be the outward manifestation of some inward moral defect—I highly recommend the 9th chapter of the Gospel of John to any idiot who actually still believes this horseshit!

I learned early on to compensate for my limited vision by carefully observing and digesting every perceptible detail around me. I was inspired in this by reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes when I was 8.

My father was a Protestant minister, and the family moved around quite a bit. I grew up decidedly unprivileged, perpetually poor and pissed on, in a drab series of tiny farming towns in remote parts of the upper Midwest; towns where nobody had ever seen a person of color in the flesh, where, nonetheless, the “n-word” was thrown about like parade candy on the Fourth of July. In one place, the local Lion’s Club produced an annual black-face minstrel show well into the 1970s!  (I refer to these experiences in my short erotic story A Girl From White City. Though, I freely admit, the handsome African-American who becomes the title character’s lover is reduced, if not to a stereotype, to the level of sexual object in her telling of the tale. The point of the story is that many people never realize how prejudiced they truly are, and for the title character, growing up as she did, a one-night fling with a black man would be tantamount to the ultimate sexual taboo.)

Fortunately, for the most part, my parents rejected this kind of overt racism—would that they had rejected homophobia and sex-negative thinking half so vehemently! This “in the world but not of it” attitude didn’t help me fit in with the other kids at school, and the isolation I experienced because of my visual-impairment was only exacerbated by being a preacher’s brat. Only when I got to college did I begin to feel comfortable around people of color—but, again, my inability to read people’s gestures and body language put me at a terrible social disadvantage. (I discuss these issues in my soon-to-be published erotic story collection Dark Ménages.)

I was physically and psychologically abused at home, and sexually molested in one town by a man who was under the tacit protection of the local police. My parents never learned about this, and wouldn’t have done a damn thing if they had, as raising a stink would only have compromised my father’s already-precarious standing in the community. I grew up constantly being told to “be nice” no matter what. Not surprisingly, I suffered from clinical depression, Bi- Polar II, and undiagnosed PTSD for over forty years. I had my innocent bi-sexual questionings bullied and Bible-thumped out of me, leaving me hollow and even more alone. (This experience was fictionalized in my story All The Things They Never Got to Say). The cruelty of Middle School and the feral hormones of puberty nearly drove me to suicide. I was labeled a “disruptive influence” and put on Ritalin to become docile and more easily controlled.

I converted to Catholicism at 23, lived in a Benedictine monastery for a while, liked it, and thought about becoming a priest. (More on celibacy and self-loathing in a later installment!) The monks, however, decided that my visual impairment made me unfit for a religious life, and I got the same spiel from the Franciscans as well as several other minor orders—this at a time when they were all clamoring for new vocations! (Talk about “medieval attitudes”.) All this was just as well as I could not have kept any of the vows; I believe that poverty is a curse, I hate authority, bridle at the notion of unquestioning obedience, and I really, really enjoy sex to the point of being hyper-sexual. I converted to Reform Judaism at 35 and learned Hebrew well enough to write simple original poetry in the language. I now consider myself an agnostic—having been screwed over by three of the world’s great religious traditions.

I have lived in tiny lifeless villages and large soulless cities, colorful, diverse, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and stifling, whitebread suburbs. I have no special attachment to any one place or person or group. I am not a joiner or an identity-politics crusader. I do not care what people believe or do not believe. I do care deeply about how they act, speak, and write. In the end  I choose to associate with people of good will or no one at all. Privileged, wealthy, self-absorbed, helplessly impractical  people are of no interest to me as potential characters.

So, given these experiences, what stories am I uniquely entitled to tell? What stories can I relate that come from a genuinely original point of view, refined in a distinctively-formed imagination—stories that only I can tell in a particularly honest, authentic voice? The answer is a good deal less clear than one might think.

Most people who read my short story Night Vision assume that the narrating main character is black. He is an ex-jazz DJ with a beautiful James-Earl-Jones voice, but now somewhat down on his luck. He is a near-sighted, middle-aged loner who discovers that his very ordinariness renders him invisible. I did not necessarily set out to write a black character, but someone, much like me, who loves music, and art, and beautiful language, feels isolated by his impairment, and yet also discovers that his near-sightedness gives him a special way of perceiving the world around him. This is one of my very favorite stories among those I’ve written, and I do think that, whether or not readers imagine my character as African-American or white, or something else, the emotions are universal, and real, and—honestly!—what else matters?

I’ve written from the point-of-view of a 16-year-old Jewish kid with a speech impediment in Summer of ’69.  Nate’s feelings of isolation, of being an outsider, are emotions universal to adolescence, regardless of race or culture, and echo my own turbulent teenage years. But his “handicap”, the impatience and the hostility of the adults in his life, add an additional layer of conflict, and his struggles to be normal, to be accepted, to be loved,  give this story a heart. I also happen to love Hebrew and Yiddish, and this story afforded me a delightful opportunity to indulge that love.

In my novel A Song for the Girl with the Almond Eyes, the title character is a perky 22-year-old Asian American girl from Orange County California, and the object of my whitebread Iowa-native narrator’s near-manic sexual obsession. I have tried my best NOT to portray May-Lin as a one-dimensional object. I have given her intelligence, agency, self-awareness, a profound sense of her own desires and the active--if sometimes seemingly perverse-- exercise of free will. She is by no means a predictable character, or a shallow stereotype. The things she talks about, and her way of seeing the world are based, affectionately, on a blithe, charming Chinese-American woman I knew in college. Then, too, Sammi from Mr. Friday’s Midlife Crisis is a fascinating, smart-mouthed Amerasian coed who speaks with a seductive hint of an east-Texas drawl—and I have no idea where that combination came from. As in all my stories, I have tried to refine observation through the honest filter of imagination, from the cynical Serbian chamber maid, Branka, and her dalliance with her boss, Mr. Patel, to the conservative WASP title character, and Sammi's maddeningly diffident Caucasian boyfriend.

The point here is that if I insisted only on “writing what I know” or tried to play it safe by never daring to court controversy, none of these characters would ever have found their way onto the page. And that would be a pity, because I love them all. I love them for their diversity, and their uniqueness, and the things they think and do and say in spite of all my efforts to make them conform to my ideas of how a plot ought to proceed. In the end, for me, it is this love—probing, unprejudiced, all-encompassing, non-judgmental, unconditional love—that makes the difference between a stereotype or an object of pity, and a believably real living creature; it is love that informs the stories I am entitled—and compelled—to tell.  

(You can read PART TWO here)