Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Music in a Writer's Mind

Author Emmanuelle de Maupassant conducted a series of e-mail interviews with fellow erotic writers several years ago. What follows is the portion of her interview with me on the subject of music, and how it has influenced my writing.

Emmanuelle de Maupassant: Are there particular pieces, or musical styles, that stir you deeply, transporting you to an alternative (or enhanced) awareness of yourself?  Are you aware of particular musical pieces/songs/singers having influenced your writing directly?

TAS: I worked as a musician for much of my adult life, eking out a modest living as a singer and a classical composer. I was published (under my ‘other’ name) and had my work performed all over from New York to San Francisco and LA—and if I were to sit down and figure out my average income for those thirty years, I probably couldn’t have afforded a cup of coffee once a week.

But, yeah, of all the things that have influenced me as a writer, none is more deeply personal—intimate and elemental—or so essential a part of myself as music, and, particularly, classical music. (Don’t get the wrong idea, though; I’m not some sort of snobby elitist with a rod stuck up my pretentious ass. I like all kinds of music, from 70s prog rock to world folk, bluegrass and country (one of my short stories, Saturday Nights in the Middle of Nowhere features an aspiring country-western chanteuse) to grand opera, avant garde classical-influenced jazz, hip hop and rap.)   I’ve composed chamber music and symphonies, written sonnets and  poems in English and Hebrew that I’ve set to my own music, as well as not-very-good lyrics for country songs. I can say without hesitation that editing a symphony is a lot easier and far less time-consuming than editing a 70,000 word novel!

But, to get back to the point: there is nothing that equals the power of  music to express emotion, to evoke atmosphere, and establish mood. (This is why a film without a score often seems to fall short of its potential, lacking the full measure of visceral impact—just compare the scene in Jaws where the shark attacks the boat, first without John Williams’ music in the background, then with it. You’ll see precisely what I’m talking about.) Whether conjuring a sense of existential anxiety and dramatic tension, desolation or euphoria, claustrophobic horror or the sublime vastness of space, nothing comes close to music.

In talking about the way music has influenced my writing, here’s the thing: when you’re composing a symphony or an intimate piece of chamber music, you have to think multi-dimensionally; you have to conceive spatially and temporally as well as tonally, and you have to be able intuitively to discern structure. Plus, there are rules about spelling and grammar and syntax in music just as there are in prose. Melody, harmony, and rhythm all have to be coordinated to form a coherent statement. You can’t be a great composer if you only grasp what’s on the surface—even though that’s the only thing most listeners will ever hear. You have to appreciate the inner workings, the way these disparate elements all come together. You have to see it all from the inside.

Now, consider the added challenges of setting a text to music. You have to be mindful of the natural stresses of the language you’re setting—the way spoken phrases don’t always adhere to a single, regular meter (as so tortuously forced to do in far too many pop songs). You have to recognize the particular word or words that need to be given extra weight in order to communicate the poet’s rhetorical intent. The 20th century English composer Benjamin Britten was probably the most gifted  and fluent ‘text-setter’ who ever lived—and he was one of the composers who most strongly influenced me as a composer, and continues to inspire me as a writer. My little m/m story A Lovely Boy from The Moon-Haunted Heart was inspired by Britten’s setting of Coleridge’s Lines on a Child which appears in Britten’s song cycle, Nocturne Op. 60. I’d also have to cite Britten’s earlier song cycle Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Op. 31 as a work of art that truly changed my life—his settings of Keats, Blake, and Tennyson are truly magical!

Great music has a sense of flow, an inevitable logic, leaving the impression in the end that every constituent element in a score is perfectly coordinated with every other element. I can think of a lot of possible examples here, but what comes most immediately to mind are the great operas of Wagner, particularly Die Walküre and Siegfried from Der Ring des Niebelungen in which the music never seems to pause even once to catch its breath. I want that quality of sensuousness—that inevitable sense of flow—to permeate my prose and animate my storytelling. 

Always—always!—whenever I sit down to write a story, I consider the musical quality of the words, the prose-melodies that are created by the artful combination of words and phrases gradually built up into the literary equivalent of a symphony (that word, by the way, means ‘sounding together’). The way the writing sounds when read aloud is important; if it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t reach out and tickle the reader’s ear—if it doesn’t make music—it’s not ready to publish.

And how do you make music with words? A couple quick points. First, vary the length of your phrases, aiming for an artful asymmetry (like Mozart in his music). Never let your rhythms become too regular or predictable. Avoid falling into the same repeated syntactical patterns (it’s hard not to, but that’s what re-writes are for). Understand that each word (or each note) carries its own innate energy, like a charged particle. Each word has its own weight or mass that gives it more or less rhetorical value depending on syntax. If you arrange words carelessly, putting similar words too close together (apposition) you can end up draining them of their emotive power.   

Finally—and this is quite important, I think—don’t always play your music in the same key. Great music and great writing is enhanced by modulation. So, if one were to attend a concert or listen to a record where every piece on the program is in, say, C major, eventually the listeners’ minds will tire of C major and stop paying attention. In writing, what this means is, vary the mood and pace from time to time—especially in multi-chaptered works—occasionally, dark clouds need to roll in and, sometimes, the sun needs to break through the dark clouds, if only long enough to keep the reader interested.

I am a relatively slow-working writer. Sometimes I am in awe of those writers who can churn out veritable reams of fiction in a relatively short time. But—one final analogy from the world of classical music—there are two basic types of creative: there are the Mozarts for whom it all seems to come easily and fast, and there are the Beethovens who must struggle, sometimes for years, to achieve their equally-great ends. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and—unless one has deadlines to meet—there really is nothing preferable about one or the other. I’d also point out that being a slow writer is in no way the same thing as being a procrastinator—I get so tired of people who try to turn procrastination into a virtue!!!—nor is being a fast-producer the same as being careless or slap-dash. We all want to achieve the same goals, some of us simply take the scenic route.

There's one more thing I'd like to mention apropos my writing. After college, I got into a Master's program in musicology (and, before you ask, yes the way musicologists are portrayed in Peter Bogdanovich's brilliant neo-screwball comedy What's Up Doc? is right on the money!) While I didn't go on to complete the Master's degree (maybe I just wasn't weird enough to fit in), I did take away some extremely valuable lessons, which have benefited me as a writer of fiction; most importantly, the technique of describing music in prose. If you can write about a piece of music with a reasonable level of technical accuracy but do so artfully, in a way that is elegant, engaging, and, ultimately, inspiring, you can pretty much do anything in prose!  So, here, to end, is an excerpt from my short story Viaticum from The Moon-Haunted Heart:

I ask you to change the record. The melancholy of this music is more than I can bear. Finzi has always tugged at my heart, evoking the sublime agony of a soul that pines to soar, though still not wholly willing to depart. It no longer seems real to me—not in this hour of truth—a poignant irony that strikes too close to the spirit. I fear I shall heed its call at last, though I cling to you and to this moment with all my fading strength.
“Find the Berg concerto,” I whisper.
“Subtitled to the memory of an angel,” you read casually from the liner notes.
“He wrote it as a requiem for... I can’t remember now...”
“Manon Gropius?”
“Alma Mahler’s daughter with Walter Gropius—”
“The famous architect.”
“Yes. She died of polio when she was only 18.”
“How do you remember that?”
The music is at once a bitter cry of anguish and a soothing lullaby, a rhapsody of shifting shadows, terror and grief, daunting dissonance and ineffable sweetness, a journey through the wilderness of ‘why.’ We seem to stumble half-blind through this arid landscape, the sound of the violin our only guide, going before us like an aspiring spirit glowing in the gloom. Somewhere, at last, from out of the middle distance, muted as if from behind a veil, we hear the consonant strains of a Bach chorale, Es ist genug—it is enough—intoned by a choir of solemn woodwinds, wistful and mysterious.
‘Do you hear that?’ the violin seems to inquire, ‘It is enough. It is... enough. Perhaps... it is... enough... Yet see? The bitter pall has parted. The setting sun bursts through.’

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Thoughts on 'Disability' in Erotica

NOTE: the following article is substantially expanded from one of the Notes on Usage in the The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus. I am presently considering the idea of collecting many of the articles and reviews that have appeared here on EftBB over the last seven years into a book. This will allow me to expand on certain topics of particular interest, while editing and sprucing up some of my best work, and possibly bringing that work to a wider audience. Comments on this endeavor, along with the ideas in the present article are most certainly welcome! (TAS)

Writing ‘Disability’ in Erotica


When the forty-fifth president of the United States stood before a cheering crowd and openly mocked a disabled reporter; when that same president ordered the removal of Braille labels from the elevators in his properties, stating as his rationale that “no blind person will ever live in Trump Tower…” can we draw any other conclusion than that in this infantile, petty, vindictive, disgusting little man’s turd-pebble of a mind, the disabled are not entitled to exist? And what are we to think when such a benighted, ignorant, culture-less, clueless, classless fool has the real power to enforce his prejudices, making his execrable atavistic attitudes “socially acceptable” again?

For me as a disabled American—and I’m sure for many others as well—Trump is the fire-breathing embodiment of all our worst nightmares. Every horrible memory we’ve ever had of being bullied, put down, spat on, excluded, segregated, stripped of our dignity and denied our right to self-determination. He is the smug-smirking poster-turd for everyone who has ever patronized and insulted us, made ignorant, prejudiced assumptions about our abilities and talents, barred the gates of opportunity and blocked the path to a better life. He is the steaming fecal coil that haunts our dreams, and the prospect of his becoming president was and still is beyond terrifying.

My attitude has in no way changed, nor my apprehensions diminished, since the vile cretin assumed the office despite a resounding loss in the popular vote of 2016: That a substantial percentage of the population continues not to have a problem with any of this is an even greater cause for despair. So, the question must be: what can I as a writer of erotic fiction who happens to live with disability do to change those attitudes? How do I define the sphere of my own influence and power? If I speak who will listen? Other writers? Readers? And if these people do happen to listen, will they be moved to change and inspire others, in turn, to change?


The notion that people with disabilities can experience and enjoy full, even rich erotic lives—cerebral, visceral, and emotional—is even today somewhat novel to many in the broader “abled” community including a lot of writers. A dilettante eroticist once suggested to me that “if dinosaur porn can sell, why not disabled porn?” One is left speechless by the unfathomable ignorance reflected in this question, the sort of attitude—all too common—in which the disabled are doubly objectified, reduced to the equivalent of attractions in an erotic freak show.

It certainly doesn’t have to be that way. Effectively ‘writing the disabled’ is like writing anybody else. First, recognize that there is no monolithic ‘experience of disability’; we, too, are individuals experiencing life from our own unique points of view. Treat a disabled character as you would any character in your story. Eschew sentimentality and pity—especially pity—and strive to write interesting, complex, fully actualized individual human beings, people with vibrant colorful inner lives who simply happen to be disabled. Such characters should never be wholly defined, and certainly never judged, by their perceived handicaps or physical shortcomings, nor portrayed as cartoonish, two-dimensional ‘things’ to be talked past in the third person—there’s far too much of that in real life. They can be just as funny, witty, playful, brilliant or stupid, bad-tempered or sweet, gullible or stubborn, boorish or sensitive, naïve, willful, skeptical, extraordinary or common as any ostensibly ‘abled’ character. In any case, no character should ever be regarded as a mere object on which to project naïve notions of purity or helplessness, or as a kind of sentimental prop for a story—not, at least, by the author. Other characters within a narrative may display irrational prejudice, treating the disabled character with pity or scorn; but authors cannot—must not ever—condescend to any of their characters in such a way.

Pity precludes a relationship of equals, because,  as I put it in my short story Blind Date (Part 2): “the pitier always feels somehow superior to the pitied. The object of pity is just that, an object, a kind of pet, like a dog or a cat the master can project his own shallow, manipulative notions of dominance onto, his own imaginary nobility and righteousness.” In the mind of the pitier, the object of pity is forever fixed in its inferiority, and nothing said object may do—no matter how astonishing or brilliant—will ever alter that image. 

Some authors will shy away from erotic narrative, largely for fear of ‘ghetto-izing’ disability, debasing its rich narratives, and turning them into pulp for yet another subgenre. “Abled” people (who always seem to believe that they have our best interests at heart without ever once bothering to find out what we think our best interests are) seem enamored of the belief that people with disabilities are incapable of doing anything on their own, let alone succeed at the game of life without some form of paternal assistance. (In golf, they call this sort of special treatment ‘handicapping,’ giving a less-skilled player a few points at the outset of the game; the irony of which I find delicious.)  Thus, we are shunted into dead-end programs with feel-good names like ‘Very-Special Arts [insert name of your community here]’ or the modern-day equivalent of a Dickensian workhouse, where we are conveniently segregated from the professional mainstream, kept out of sight and well out of mind, ignored and ultimately forgotten.

One of the best decisions I made early-on in my professional careers (first as a classical composer and, later, as an author) was to insist that I would always “sit at the grownup table.” That is, my work would be judged alongside everybody else’s, rising or falling on its own true merits without any sort of arbitrary handicapping. I would compete with the top professionals in my field, and earn praise or approbation based on the quality, originality, craftsmanship, and professionalism of my work—not on other people’s prejudiced beliefs about what I was or was not capable of achieving. Whatever success I’ve had has been attained without benefit of special treatment.  

But even in the so-called “disabled community” there tends to be a certain amount of intramural nitpicking—more like pot-shot-taking—at authors who try to relate authentic experiences of sex from their individual points of view. Some people take strident umbrage at what they see as intentional mischaracterization of their erotic life—“that’s not how we do it!”—as if theirs is the only authentic experience worth writing about. But this kind of attitude is just as harmful as the rank, pity-steeped paternalism of the “well-meaning abled,” for both, in the end, would silence the individual.

Ultimately, if you write from a point of view that is uniquely your own—if you are the only writer in the world who can tell a particular story in a particular way in a voice like none other, the quality of your writing is all that ought to matter. If your experience of the erotic in the context of disability does not happen to jibe with other people's expectations, so what? The same could be said of every original erotic narrative ever written by abled and disabled alike. Those who snipe and nitpick and criticize, or complain that your experience isn’t like theirs and therefore cannot be true have one viable recourse; they can write a better book. The alternative is to embrace a narrow and almost-comically ineffectual form of identity politics, a futile waste of energy that ultimately empowers no one.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

On Becoming a Better Man

A couple things making the rounds on social media have got me thinking quite a lot lately. The first is another of those ‘share something about yourself’ games we see all the time on Facebook. In this case, people are invited to post two images of themselves, their first profile picture on FB alongside their most recent picture under the heading ‘How hard have you aged?’ The other thing is the important on-going discussion about toxic masculinity in society—a discussion that may be painful to many, unwelcome to some, still long overdue to others.

I cheated a bit on the FB game, and posted a photo that had been taken when I was twenty-seven, alongside a selfie I snapped around the time of my sixtieth birthday this last August. I was fascinated by the stark contrasts of these two images, yet even more captivated by their similarities; what of the boy is still recognizable in the face of the man?  It would be nice to believe that, at sixty, I am the fine oak-barrel-aged and mellowed distillation of that callow twenty-seven-year old, still outwardly recognizable as the same man, but inwardly—essentially I would hope—a much better one. Life has chiseled and sculpted my features to reveal a story that isn’t always pleasant to read. Yet, like a rock that has born the wear and tear of time, steadfast against all stresses, punishments and pressures, so my face with its scars and pits, its lines and wrinkles of laughter and of care is a record not merely of what I have endured, but a testament to the spirit with which I have endured.

And what of all that lies within--the things one does not see? What the camera cannot show is that this older fellow likes himself in a healthy way of which the young one could hardly imagine. Generally contented in his life, the older man is quietly comfortable in his own skin, and would not trade places with his younger counterpart for anything, for to do so would be to deny what he has worked so long and hard to become, the thing he was always meant to be, nothing more or less than a simple, good man.  

Regarding these two pictures taken some thirty-three years apart, I am reminded of experience gained, creative energies expended and renewed over decades, searing trauma and clinical depression, stress and sorrow and anger—so much anger!—joy and laughter and all-consuming lust, boundless rage and fathomless remorse. I think of how long it took me to learn how to listen, the years of having to be almost completely alone in order to cast off so many unhealthy habits and toxic attitudes, confronting my faults in trials of brutally-honest self-examination.

My twenty-something self clearly had a lot to learn, though I think even at that age, I was eager to learn anything and everything I could. The problem was I had yet to cultivate a habit of inquisitiveness—I was afraid to ask questions. I may have been self-assured to the point of megalomania, but I was also frightened beyond the brink of panic by the prospect of starting a conversation. An incoherent mass of noxious contradiction; aggressively arrogant, thoroughly convinced of the utter rightness of my own ideas, yet, at the same time, pathologically shy, socially awkward, uncertain, anxious, deeply afraid; loud, angry, torturously inarticulate, carrying a sense of self-entitlement because I was lonely and believed that companionship and sex were my rights as a man—all the while spouting platitudes about “being a gentleman” and “respecting women.”  The flame of my creative passions may have burned bright, but it burned too often out of control, and, more often than not, anyone who came too close.

They say there’s no fool like an old fool, yet, I wonder; what is particularly foolish about an old fool? Is it because he insists on believing, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the years have not changed him—that he is still the handsome young blade he was in his youth, having lost none of his juice? His magic mirror tells him precisely what he wants to hear, after all. But, in the end, he is no more enlightened or mature than the boy he imagines staring back at him. The old fool is incapable of giving up his jejune delusions, but, then, he never had sufficient self-awareness to begin with. Every old fool is a young fool who never grew up. 

And there are still a lot of young fools not growing up even in this day and age.

* * *

On my father’s side at least, I seemed to have descended from a long line of manic-depressive assholes, loud, overbearing good ol’ boys, straight, able, white males who took their privilege in society for granted. I inherited certain attitudes about the roles of men and women—attitudes which in many ways had not changed over thousands of generations. Indeed, when I was growing up there was still a broad societal consensus—seldom talked about because it was assumed as a given—that women were naturally subordinate to men, placed on this earth to be helpmates, servants, and providers of pleasure on demand. While one should strive, I was told, to be a “gentleman” and treat women with “respect,” there was some ambiguity regarding what such respect entailed. I remember my father teasing me one time when I had gone for a short walk with a young woman; “Why didn’t you make time with her?” he demanded, and to this I had no reply, though I understood that this was his not-so-subtle way of calling my manhood into question. By and large, the signals I received growing up said that it was perfectly OK to be sexually aggressive, to assert dominance, and never doubt one’s own prowess, so long as one didn’t cause a scandal—whether one’s victims were psychologically battered, traumatized or thoroughly creeped out, was mostly beside the point. Like the ancient Romans, it was a true man’s destiny--if not his duty--to dominate at all times, and penetrate whenever possible.

While I never did anything so extreme, I must admit to behaving towards women in ways of which I am now deeply ashamed. I have often thought in later years about seeking out those I hurt in order to apologize, although I know that this would probably only open wounds long scabbed over, memories best left unremembered for sanity’s sake. I was a creep and a coward, and I have lived alone for decades with regret for the things I did—things for which I have absolutely no excuse whatsoever.  

Not being able to change the past, all I can do is try and effect the present for good, living an honest, ethical life in accordance with virtue. So, I try to ask myself every day; what does it mean to be a good man? What are the characteristics of a healthy masculinity?

A good man is thoughtful, compassionate, dependable, caring, patient, ethical, open-minded, loving, sympathetic, encouraging. A good man is able to listen and willing to learn. He can be confident in himself but not overbearing or dogmatic. He may be independent and take pride in his self-reliance, but he is also cooperative, and strong enough to recognize when he needs help—with the courage to ask for it. A good man is a builder, not a destroyer; he is passionate without being self-absorbed, focused, yet always willing to consider the needs of others.

And that, my dear friends, is the man I aspire to be, the man I hope one day to become.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Aphorisms as Story Prompts

I’d like to begin this new year on an encouraging note. This is not as easy as it sounds. I’ve always had something of a reputation as a grouch—and who can blame me? Have you SEEN what’s going on in the world lately??? It’s hard to feel like my writing matters for a whole lot in a time when three quarters of the world seems bent on destroying itself, the people charged with governing cannot govern themselves let alone whole nations, bald-faced treason and rampant atrocity are “normalized,” blithely excused as “missed opportunities” or “no big deal…” Well fuck! So much for beginning the year on an encouraging note.

Some people turn to drink in times like these. I turn to great books. The drunks probably have more fun in the short run, although I am seldom hungover in the morning, and I almost always remember the night before. Reading acclimates the mind to inspiration, and if there’s one thing we need in these times, it’s inspiration! Great stories—great books—can change the world when people are allowed to imagine and to dream. Great books—great stories—can teach us how to think about thinking, sharpen our ability to reason, and inspire us to build without first needing to destroy. But before any of this can happen—going back to first causes as it were—there needs to be an idea.

I love writing aphorisms; they are to the essay what micro-fiction is to the short story.  An aphorism is the world writ small, a galaxy contained within a nutshell, the tiny icon contemplated by a mystic, who builds a heaven in his head. Someone—I think it was Lawrence Block in one of his books on writing—said that the short story, whatever form it might take, is, in essence, an exploration of an idea. So it occurred to me yesterday as I was desperately trying to come up with a topic for today’s post, that aphorisms can be so much more than snappy memes on Facebook. Aphorisms can make brilliant story prompts!

I write aphorisms about the things that interest me most deeply; human relationships, sex, religion, politics, creativity, and the craft of writing. Here are a few from the past several years, three or four of them even dressed up as snappy, Facebook-ready memes.

People who are deeply embarrassed by sex tend to treat it either as a joke or a crime, in either case, a transgression of the natural order.

Every discovery, no matter how small,  expands context

Ignorance is not a virtue. Willful ignorance is the most egregious of all mortal sins; it is the suicide of the mind.

In a Universe of unceasing change, permanence is unnatural

Monogamy—happy marriage in particular—makes for abysmal erotica

Men claim to be builders, but they are all too eager to destroy in order to get what they want. Women are the true Creative Force of humanity.

When the poor have nothing left to eat, they will eat each other—or so the rich try to convince themselves.

First step: get so good they can't ignore you. Second step: continue to improve to a point where they are compelled to take you seriously. Third step: keep pushing towards that point where you no longer have to take shit from anybody. Once at this exalted level you may comfortably rest on your laurels, safe in the assurance that your publisher will accept any random piece of crap you send their way. So long as they can sell something with your name on it, no one will ask any questions.

To be circumspect in the bald face of evil is to be complicit in that evil.

We are a strange mystical confluence of flesh and consciousness; a matrix of meat and bad judgment

We secretly delight in chaos—so long as it affects somebody else. Something deep within us welcomes anarchy. In a life that has become too predictable—too comfortable—we are thrilled by the notion of chaos, seeking change for change’s sake, no matter how disastrous such change might be when played out in reality.

The difference between a gentleman and a jerk is simply this: a gentleman does not assume that women were put on this earth to cater to his every whim. Companionship is not an entitlement or an inalienable right. If I am lonely, or bored, or horny, those are MY problems to deal with. Nobody is under any obligation to keep me company, or entertain me, or supply me with nooky on demand.

Our economic paradigm is nothing more than the old company store on a global scale.

I employ beautiful language in order to expose ugly truths.

I’m not writing about sex; I’m writing about people. It’s just that I don’t pretend that real people don’t think or talk about sex, or spend at least part of their time having it.

There is, I’ve found, a certain grounding value in music or writing that bores me benignly; that is, neither irritates nor annoys me so much as to be a distraction, but allows me to employ my imagination without wandering too far afield.

It is not necessarily a writer’s job to answer every question a reader may have. Better to leave a little mystery beyond the margins, an enigma that makes the story memorable, something to haunt the reader long after the book has been closed.

For me, writing has always been a means to self-knowledge. It is also the arena in which I endeavor to face down my demons. Through regular daily practice, I sublimate my fears, anger, and the ugliness of  depression into something cathartic, beautiful, luminous and self-edifying. Through my characters I imagine an alternate reality and a different past for myself. And so it is, that through the cursorily-glimpsed lives of transient characters, we may construct new worlds in which to escape the miseries of memory.

To survive is to turn and embrace the miseries that would overwhelm us. To live is to rise above them.

When describing inspiration, we often fall back on the Biblical metaphor of Pentecost, that is, a decanting from above of mental energy—thoughts, images, ideas, wisdom— gifted by some higher intelligence outside and separate from ourselves. A more apt metaphor may be that of a geyser or a volcano erupting within ourselves. Though inspiration may be initiated by external stimuli, those things—mentally abstracted—must come into contact with something uniquely the artist’s own. Inspiration comes, not from above, but from within.

Magical thinking is the confusion of a metaphor with the thing it is supposed to signify. One might artfully compare the human body to a mechanical system; but the magical thinker’s mistake is to take the comparison literally and believe accordingly, acting as if the body truly were a machine. 

When I was young I aspired to be a great man, and ended up being an asshole. Now I know that the highest aspiration is not to be a great man but to be a good one. I thought that being unusual made me great; but uniqueness is not the same thing as greatness. In the end, I would rather be a simple, good nobody than a famous jerk.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Best of 2018

BEST OF 2018

Perfect Strangers: A Memoir of the Swinging Seventies (Dorothy Freed)
Desire: Sensual Lesbian Erotica (Emily L. Byrne)
The Prison of the Angels (Janine Ashbless)
Viking Wolf (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)
Forget the Sleepless Shores (Sonya Taaffe)

A very short list this year. Whether this is due to a dearth of truly excellent books on the market or the fact of my own increasingly busy work schedule (completing The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus as well as a novel The Seven Seductions and several short stories, along with starting work on a new high fantasy novel in June) I couldn't say.  I don't think I'm reading any less this year, though perhaps my reading list has become more diverse with classic titles from J.G. Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Anthony Boucher, Walter M. Miller Jr. John D. McDonald, Kevin Brockmeier and so many more! It might be easy to lament the declining interest in erotica in general, the stresses many writers feel from the threat of corporate censorship, what appears to be the rise of a new Puritanism (partially in reaction to the excesses of the current occupant of the White House), and the perpetuation of an increasingly virulent moral panic surrounding sexually explicit content. It is easy to be discouraged, but we should also take time to celebrate the good, positive, and optimistic achievements of this past year, as represented by these five amazing books. (TAS)

Perfect Strangers  proves once again that real life is often farther-out than fiction. Freed’s story has all the elements of a well-crafted erotic page-turner, including the plucky heroine with a problem on her hands, a seemingly endless series of obstacles to negotiate, and conflicts to overcome—her storytelling all the more powerful for being true. As in any good tale, conflict  comes right at the beginning, in this case when Freed discovers her husband in bed with her best friend. Lacking the confidence that comes with experience, the young heroine is, at first, very much adrift: married at seventeen and a dutiful housewife for twelve years, her husband is the only lover she has ever known, though he never seems to miss an opportunity to remind her of what he perceives as her sexual inadequacies, particularly her (supposed) inability to achieve vaginal orgasm.

Soon divorced with two young sons to support, Freed made her way to the west coast in the mid-1970s. “If you come to San Francisco,” Scott McKenzie so famously sang, “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…” Had she known what awaited her there, Freed might well have arrived with bells on. Already the legendary mecca of seekers, and undisputed world capitol of the dawning New Age culture, San Francisco in those years was the very pulsing, exuberant heart of the Sexual Revolution, and Freed found her element—and herself—there, truly at home for the first time in her life.

The city is much more than mere backdrop in this narrative, with its sleazy clubs and peep shows, steaming bathhouses, velvet-upholstered swingers’ retreats, greasy bistros, head shops, and cafes, high-quality psychedelics, and easy sex—what Erica Jong notoriously referred to as the zipless fuck—San Francisco is the magical canvas on which the story of Freed’s quest for liberty and self-knowledge assumes vivid life.

As in any quest-narrative worth the telling, the heroine needs a guide or mentors to help her learn the workings of this strange, new, and sometimes scary world. Enter a series of fascinating acquaintances and “perfect strangers” to help Dorothy navigate the Yellow Brick Road. At one point, Freed informs us, she was simultaneously dating no fewer than seven men, and would ultimately have close to a hundred lovers in the space of four years. She describes a few of these encounters in frank, unblinking detail, the good, the bad, and the bat-shit crazy, along with what lessons were learned along the way. But probably the most influential and constant figure in her life at that time was “Jake,” Freed’s friend-with-benefits galore, who, in his constant challenging of her inhibitions and hang-ups, ever pushing the envelope of convention, was instrumental in helping her realize her true sexual self, the dazzling butterfly at last emerging from its cocoon of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Freed’s musings about the pitfalls of love, the search for deeper connection and meaning in life, are often extraordinary and beautifully written, rising to the level of the most memorable personal literature. Throughout, her language is direct, frank—but seldom brutally so—and never convoluted or confused. This is by no means a difficult book to read, though it is certainly an easy one to love.

In this collection of eleven finely-wrought f/f erotic romance tales, Emily L. Byrne offers readers a dizzying diversity of setting, vibrantly evocative, sharply-focused, and practically always unforgettable. From the tourist-choked thoroughfares of Viva Las Vegas (with its hot-to-trot Elvis drag kings) to the revolutionary Nicaragua of A Night in Estelí, the churches and art galleries of Florence in A Room with a View, and the wintry cityscape of Minneapolis in the hauntingly surreal Cherrybridge and Spoon. Nearly as dazzling and varied as her settings, Byrne seems to traverse disparate genres with the breezy nonchalance of a master, whether it be sci-fi (Diplomacy), sword and sorcery (Heart’s Thief), espionage (The Old Spies Club), realist mainstream (Summer Stock), or contemporary romance with a bit of magic thrown in for good measure (The Goddess Within).

But it’s her characters who truly make these stories stand out, from the lonely police detective in The Further Adventures of Miss Scarlet, to the environmental activist falling madly in love with the female park ranger in the delightful Treehugger; the once-burned (literally) in-love starship commander in Diplomacy, the empathic burglar in Heart’s Thief, the bewildered goddess-for-a day of The Goddess Within, or the young American activist stealing a dangerous moment of passion with an itinerant journalist in A Night in Estelí.

A fantastic collection from a fantastic writer, and an easy choice for inclusion on this year’s Best-of list!

The Prison of the Angels (Janine Ashbless)

With The Prison of the Angels, the final installment in her Book of the Watchers trilogy, Janine Ashbless brings this epic erotic-romance saga to a conclusion with a bang of near-apocalyptic intensity. And how could it be otherwise, given what we’ve come to expect thus far in the series?

In The Prison of the Angels, the scary feathered beasts come home to roost, the consequences of choices made must at last be faced, the price of love and freedom paid regardless of the cost. Yet, as always, Ashbless ties it all together with such style, such flare, conveying a sense of  inevitability—of ineluctable right-ness—with the plot’s every twist and turn, it’s hard to imagine all hell breaking loose quite so entertainingly! Needless to say, the sex is wicked hot throughout, and it is sex, after all, desire and lust, that have driven this story from the beginning, ultimately creating the critical mass from which it draws its power. 

But it would be wrong to dismiss this story as just another facile fast-paced sex-action-adventure franchise—though it certainly is fast-paced and often sexy as hell!

What I have always admired about Janine Ashbless’ writing is her ability to tell riveting erotic stories in a way that recognizes and honors her readers’ intelligence and curiosity—their willingness to look up the occasional word if they need to. The essential story is never weighed down by excessive literary vocabulary—the author’s voice, or need to prove how smart they are, overwhelming the narrative—but words are used correctly, precisely, and always with thoughtfulness and care. Big ideas are woven into the fabric of the tale with seamless craft to seem as natural a part of the whole as the action-packed set pieces and steamy bedroom scenes.

And—wow!—do I ever love the way Ashbless employs mythology in her stories, perhaps the true hallmark of her style. It doesn’t matter that we largely no longer believe in Zeus or Apollo, Thor and Loki, or the creation mythos of the Hebrew Bible; all these stories—always essentially metaphors—have outlived literal credulity; yet all are still exciting, still thought-provoking, brimming with narrative possibility. The thing Ashbless shows us about myth is that it is malleable; it can be molded and reformed, melded and spliced to suit any time and place. The fascinating angelology in her Book of the Watchers series comprises far more than the traditional (and rather staid) Judeo-Christian roster; but shows how different cultures may have interpreted the same archetypes in diverse ways. The Norse trickster god, Loki, becomes the tempter of Genesis, the fallen serpent-angel Samyaza; the Archangel Michael assumes the form of something out of Native American myth… It all makes for a wonderful, engaging, multi-layered story that touches the mind as well as the heart, yet is always fun to read!

In The Prison of the Angels, as in the books that preceded it, Ashbless has created an extraordinary new world, a “real realm of the spirit” that is a sheer pleasure to visit.

Viking Wolf  (Emmanuelle de Maupassant)

Another ultra-steamy winner from Emmanuelle de Maupassant, rapidly establishing herself as the undisputed queen of erotic romance, Viking Wolf takes up where the first book in the series, 2017’s Viking Thunder, left off.

Like its predecessor,  Viking Thunder is an eminently entertaining and expertly crafted piece of erotic historical fiction. In this exciting, and gorgeously-written sequel, the Middle Ages’ hottest couple, Anglo-Saxon Elswyth and her Viking lover Eiric return to the norseman’s home in Svolvaen. But it’s not all hearts and flowers in spite of the erotic heat generated by these two, darker conflicts loom, and, this being erotic romance, a virtual long-boat-load of heroinic self-doubt pads a goodly percentage of the narrative. Eirik’s elder brother, Gunnolf, jarl of Svolvaen turns his lustful eye on the Northumbrian beauty, and one can almost smell the testosterone in the air. When Eirik and his sister Hekla are conveniently sent off to a neighboring community in order to establish an alliance, Elswyth is without allies, a virtual stranger in a strange land, very much at Gunnolf’s mercy. With lots of political and romantic intrigue to go along with fascinating discussions of Viking lore and legend, the story is compelling, vividly related, and seldom dull.

Not erotica per se, yet this ravishing collection of literary stories should be on the to-read list of every erotic writer who claims to care about the beauty of language and the compelling allure of style. Taffe's stories are seldom "short" in the strictly commercial understanding of the term, they take their time to be told with however many words may be required, and some of them are quite long indeed. The language is not overly dense or difficult, the narrative seldom inaccessible or overly obscure, and yet, the writing is so dazzlingly fecund, so spendthrift in its vivid, varicolored descriptions, that the reader is immersed in wonder, engulfed like a drowning soul in a state of helpless bliss. Images of water and the supernatural permeate all these stories, forming loose relationships, a kind of magnetic coherency or some form of sub-molecular bonding. Water in all its ineffable forms, life-giving or lethal, calm or chaotic, rain, tears, tides, lakes, rivers, oceans, sea brine, blood, sexual fluid... Love-sick demons, the ghosts of the drowned, vampires, mer-folk, muses bearing gifts of madness and otherworldly inspiration. Wondrous! Rarefied! Ineffably gorgeous! Read it and weep with joy!