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!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The People Who Cry Porn! On Defending Our Turf

Last year I read a fascinating little tome with the attention-grabbing title Ethical Porn for Dicks by Dr. David J. Ley. It's a fairly fast but nonetheless richly-enlightening read, which, alas, will not be read by those in the most dire need of enlightenment. Teeming with insight and practical wisdom, the book is an unblushing, honest, straightforward discussion of the role of pornography in modern life, society, and mass media, and of the reasonable, ethical employment of pornographic materials as a means to a healthier understanding of ourselves and those with whom we seek to relate. I cannot recommend this title highly enough; suffice to say that it is essential reading for anyone interested in erotic storytelling, whether as a content provider or a consumer. I mention Ley's book in the context of this article because of his on-the-nail commentary about the contemporary--indeed never-ending--moral panic surrounding pornography (and, by extension, erotica). Here's just a snippet from the introduction:

We have internalized puritanical and negative ideas about sex, we have no models for honest sexual communication, and we rarely see diverse depictions of sexuality in any media. As a result, we've  all got hang-ups, misinformation, and insecurities, and we are afraid to admit that we have them, or look at why we do. So when someone else demonized porn, we can latch on and say 'yeah, there's the culprit.' Then we don't have to look at our unrealistic expectations about love and sex, our isolation and fear, our untreated mental health issues, and our outdated relationship models...

Anti-porn crusaders, many of whom have a vested financial interest in perpetuating moral panic, have effectively boiled the vast diversity of erotic content down to a set of highly-misleading, reductionist stereotypes. But that's hardly the worst or most insidious tactic in these neo-puritans' well-worn playbook: 

A relatively recent phenomenon is how porn consumption is conflated with porn addiction models by a growing part of the psychological/therapeutic industry...

Of course, the anti-porn crowd will point to this trend in their arguments, yet, it is interesting to note, as Ley explains, that there exists not a single credible peer-reviewed scientific study to bear out any of the extravagant claims and assertions about the psychological damage supposedly done by pornography or the "evil" consequences of its consumption.

But still, these claims continue to be made on an almost-daily basis. Porn consumption is blamed for everything from declining birth rates to wild fires in the west, divorce, child abuse, rape, bestiality, and the general decline of "traditional family values"--whatever the hell those ever were. And, largely, these assertions go unchallenged, even when there is compelling evidence to contradict them. One would think it possible to bury this puritanical nonsense for good, and yet very few knowledgeable, articulate people from the "pro-porn" camp ever seem to get a hearing, let alone a word in edgewise, before being shouted down. Why should this be?

John Michael Greerone of the brightest bloggers of our day, has written about what he refers to as thoughtstoppers. Here's how Greer defines the term:

A thoughtstopper is exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

(NOTE: A thoughtstopper in this context is not to be confused with 'thought stopping,' the controversial technique sometimes employed in cognitive behavioral therapy as a way of dealing with PTSD. Here, we are talking about the intentional use of distractions in discourse, a way to derail thoughtful discussions of difficult topics, or dumb them down to the point of irrelevance.) 

So, try to have a reasonable, mature discussion of erotica, all someone has to do is inject the word "porn" into the mix, and out the window goes any pretense of thoughtful debate. Try to write a serious, evenhanded critique of any creative endeavor involving sexual content, no matter how obliquely referenced, and the whole piece is dismissed with a single utterance of the word "porn." 
This particular thoughtstopper has become the favored fall-back of pretentious, indolent columnists posing as social critics, as well as jaded,  intellectually lazy (or terminally stupid) bloggers who want to come off as world-weary (seen-all-that) and coolly above the fray. And this is nothing new; writers from D.H. Lawrence to Grace Metalious to  E.L. James have all had their work dismissed (justly or not) as "porn" and that was the end of it till some subsequent, more open-minded generation could come along and have its say.

I point this out because it is high time that we as erotic content providers stood up and defended our turf. Particularly in these last few years, we have found ourselves under increasing pressure, our art under attack, with the real threat of censorship growing every day, and iwe would fight back against these trends we need to recognize the most potent weapons in our adversaries' arsenal. Never let one of these blowhards derail a serious discussion again. Stand up, make your point quietly, reasonably, and with pride in your work! Never let them shout you down again. Never let them cry porn!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Download a freakin' brilliant short story for free!

This weekend, Thursday November 29th through Sunday December 2nd is your chance to download my contemporary seasonal erotic short story, Eighteen with a (Silver) Bullet: An Erotic Christmas Carol  absolutely free!

Christmas Eve is Marla Jacobs' eighteenth birthday, but heck if she can remember anything about her past, especially where sexual experience is concerned. Will Marla find a cure for her erotic amnesia in time for her birthday party? Will she discover something about her past, present, and future as she shops for the perfect Christmas gift? Will a bizarre series of sexy twists and turns ultimately convince Marla to seek help in the most unlikely of places? 

Inspired by Charles Dickens' immortal holiday classic, 'A Christmas Carol', this contemporary erotic romp will entertain and titillate even as it tickles readers' literary sensibilities with a nudge and a wink at some of the sillier genre conventions of our time.

You can read more about Eighteen with a (Silver) Bullet here.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Twelve Notable Films "About" Sex

Notable films "about" sex, in which the cinematic storyteller has something important or, at least, interesting to say about erotic experience, as opposed to simply portraying eroticism, comprise a wide range of genres, styles, and moods. These are not necessarily the sexiest films ever made, nor is this list intended to highlight the steamiest scenes in modern cinema--there are plenty of websites for that already! The thing that all these movies have in common is that each in its own way treats sex as a normal, integral aspect of life, inseparable from human experience, neither an overblown mystery treated with such reverence and awe as to be rendered inaccessible, or some dirty joke guiltily whispered in the shadows, embarrassing all who hear it. The idea that sex is something perfectly-normal people do and often enjoy is a given in all these films; doubts about this fact are never the initiating event in the story, the "problem to be overcome" that confronts the protagonist at the onset of the narrative. With this in mind, here are a dozen notable films about sex, a list I've been compiling, mostly in my head, for the past few years, with no pretense of all-inclusiveness or critical opinion set in stone. You may recognize some of your favorites here, but if yours are missing, please, by all means, share them with me in the message section below. I look forward to hearing from you. Enjoy! (TAS)

Henry and June (Philip Kaufman, 1990)

Broadly based on the diaries of Anaïs Nin from 1931-32, a gorgeous film in all aspects, rightly hailed as a cinematic classic. Henry and June explores the beginnings of the relationship between Nin and American author Henry Miller and Miller's wife, June, in 1930s Paris. delving questions of art and propriety, the boundaries of sexual exploration and taboo, as well as the role of a liberated woman in society.

The Sessions (Ben Lewin, 2012)

Based on true events, funny, poignant, ultimately uplifting, The Sessions eschews pity and patronizing sentimentality to offer a refreshingly realistic portrayal of sex and disability. Superb performances, especially from Helen Hunt as a dedicated sex surrogate and William H. Macey as a sympathetic but often-befuddled priest/confessor.

9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom, 2004)

A film about four of my favorite subjects: sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and Antarctica, not necessarily in that order. What I find most to like about 9 Songs is its down-to-earth honesty and almost total lack of pretense. The story of a sexual relationship between two refreshingly normal human beings is framed by concert footage with emphasis on the shared experience of the audiences, and brief glimpses of the remote Antarctic ice fields, perhaps the most isolated places on the planet, posing the question what is the nature of loneliness?  To be sure, merely "not being alone" is not the same thing as being lonely when one can experience the most intense, agonizing sense of disconnection in a crowded concert hall, and yet find pure exultant bliss in the stark white wastelands of utter solitude. 

The simple mundanity of these lovers' lives comes as a big breath of fresh air after so many over-blown pretentious artsy-fartsy, supposedly "erotic" films about emotionally damaged people (Zalman King's Wild Orchid (1989)), Lie With Me (Clement Virgo, (2005)), In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisha Oshima, (1976)), Romance (Catherine Breillat, (1999)), and Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick (1999)) to name but a few). While the sex here is extremely explicit, it's hardly adventuresome or kinky, and decidedly not pornographic. These are real people with names, feelings, normal-sized emotions and body parts, imperfect and unenhanced, making love the way real people make love, sometimes passionate and ferocious, more often warm, gentle and unhurried. Viewers who like honest portrayals of real people sharing moments of celebratory intimacy, some decent contemporary "underground" rock, and subtle unobtrusive art, will not be disappointed.

Nymphomaniac (Volume I and Volume II) (Lars von Trier, 2013)

Lars von Trier seems to take a perverse delight in letting his audience know that he detests everything--particularly his audience.  One need only look at films like Antichrist (with its horrific scene of self-inflicted genital mutilation) or the aptly title Melancholia (in which the earth and all life is literally obliterated) to recognize a deeply nihilistic worldview, and this is driven home with an unnervingly intimate force in Nymphomanic. Volume I is a taut, thoughtful exploration of sex addiction and promiscuity, rich in metaphor and psychological insight. Volume II seems at times to meander off on tangents that aren't nearly as engaging. In the end, the director builds a dazzling thought palace, only to knock it down right before our eyes in the final thirty seconds of Volume II like some petulant god declaring "I can create, but it's so much more fun to destroy!" as he thumbs his nose at anyone naive enough to become invested in his "vision." The joke is ultimately on us, but, perhaps, the journey to the punchline is the point.

Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996)

Based on J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name, and cleaving unfailingly close to the source material, David Cronenberg's Crash is a darkly understated masterpiece. This bleak, brooding, sometimes gruesome film is an unexpected sensual exploration of modern fetishism refracted through the lens of urban ennui, exploring the characters' paraphilic obsession with fatal car crashes--the twisted metal and broken bodies of once-beautiful automobiles an irresistible metaphor for the erotic death wish.  Chillingly intimate performances from Spader and Hunter help build a sense of uneasy atmosphere that is never truly relieved. I highly recommend the un-watered-down NC-17 version.

Sex and Death 101 (Dan Waters, 2007)

A surprisingly thoughtful comedic treatment of love, sex, and mortality. Through a cosmic bureaucratic mix-up, our hapless hero comes into possession of a list of everyone he will ever sleep with with in his life, assuming that he must die after his encounter with the final name on the list. Contemplating this conundrum through a series of weird, awkward, and sometimes hilarious encounters, with the gentlest of morals at the end, Sex and Death 101 is a delight!

Bliss (Lance Young, 1997)

This one's a bit problematic: while Terrence Stamp is, as always, watchable and, here, wonderfully engaging, the young couple he counsels is nigh on to insufferable, and one wonders why the hell these people came together in the first place. Yet, for all its more annoying aspects, the script is peppered with interesting insights and even a fair measure of wisdom regarding sexual self-awareness, with the frank recognition that sex is an integral part of human existence.

Fading Gigolo (John Turturro, 2013)

The presence of Woody Allen in a supporting role will no doubt be a deal-breaker for some, and that's too bad, as this little film has some very thoughtful things to say about sex, the paradoxical nature of loneliness, the clash of cultures, and the search for genuine connection in a bewildering world so full of stilted eroticism, yet so often bereft of love.

The Oh! in Ohio (Billy Kent, 2006)

This delightful, gently understated comedy stands out from so many failed sex farces precisely because it starts from the premise that sex is a natural aspect of everyday life, not a strange or frightening foreign force. A seemingly compatible couple's inability to achieve orgasm together leads each partner on a search for erotic satisfaction, whence all sorts of pleasurable wackiness ensues! Especially charming is the portrayal of the relationship between Parker Posey and Danny DeVito's happy-go-lucky older guy. Maybe the way to find that Oh! is simply to lighten up and enjoy the high dive into whatever unexpected pleasures await us when we hit the water!

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)

An engagingly frank look at sexual awakening, carried off with such artful subtlety as to mitigate some of the more cringe-inducing aspects of the story. Set in late-70s San Francisco, Alexander Scarsgård is the older live-in lover of an aging flower child (Kristin Wiig), gradually insinuating himself into the daughter's intimate space. If that were all--if this had been played for taboo sensationalism--this would be a pretty forgettable, not to mention repulsive, undertaking, but the story is so relentlessly, honestly character-driven, exploring every aspect of the young heroine's emotions, her dreams and fears, whimsical artistic impulses, hopes and aspirations, along with her own burgeoning sexual independence, that the film ends up touching and enriching us in ways we could not have imagined at the beginning. Some very imaginative film-making brings the teenage girl's inner world to vibrant life, an aspiring graphic novelist, she carries on conversations in her head with her idol, undergrond comix legend Suzie Petrovski, who shows up as a cartoon version of herself at one point to offer sage advice. A stellar performance from young Bel Powley as the aspiring artist of the title. Well worth a viewing!

Labyrinth (Jim Hensen, 1986)

This may strike some as an odd choice--perhaps even a bit of a creepy one--to include on a list of films about sex; but this gentle children's classic, written by Monty Python's Terry Jones, directed by Muppet-creator Jim Hensen, and starring pop-music icon David Bowie as the Goblin King, and the then fourteen-year-old Jennifer Connely (in her first major cinematic role) has quite a lot to say on the subject. Indeed, Labyrinth may be seen as an allegory of adolescent sexual awakening--a young woman's coming into awareness of her own erotic nature. The shifting labyrinth of the title may be seen to represent the confusion and claustrophobic sense of aloneness a young person may experience in taking their first steps into adulthood. The goblin king's erotic interest in the girl--virtually undisguised--may strike some as off-putting or simply perverse, but a deeper interpretation reveals a universal human truth, the irresistible magnetic force that is the formative singularity of our humanness, the promise of mystery that is for the adolescent both a source of dread and ineluctable curiosity. Yet, as in all great fairy tales, these ideas are so subtly woven into the fabric of the narrative, as not to disturb the more tender sensibilities in the audience--or the sheer fun of the story! (I only first saw this film as an adult well into my fifties and the erotic metaphor was glaringly obvious; no doubt if I'd seen it first as a youngster, the subtext would have gone straight over my head.)

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996, Mira Nair)

Set in medieval India, this lavish, gorgeously-shot epic tells the story of a peasant girl, Maya (Indira Varma)--beautiful but hopelessly poor--who rises to become the favorite courtesan of a spoiled ruler, much to the chagrin of the young queen, Tara (Sarita Choudhury) Maya's childhood friend. Maya is tutored in the disciplines of the Kama Sutra, even as she becomes the love-obsession and muse of a handsome young artist, and so we end up with something like two intersecting triangles... It's all so hopelessly romantic! While there are no graphic portrayals of intercourse here, there are one or two pearls of erotic wisdom that elevate this above the typical Bollywood melodrama.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Now available: "Eighteen with a (Silver) Bullet: An Erotic Christmas Carol"

Eighteen with a (Silver) Bullet: An Erotic Christmas Carol is now available on Amazon.

This short erotic tale was inspired, in part, by Charles Dickens’ immortal classic A Christmas Carol, written and published in 1843, and now long in the public domain.  I have freely and unapologetically borrowed material from the novel, including the names of several characters. Those readers intimately familiar with the original text of A Christmas Carol will be sure to find many small—and even a few rather obscure—references to episodes and characters from Dickens’ novel here.

My purpose in writing Eighteen with a (Silver) Bullet was solely to entertain through the use of parody and social satire with a contemporary erotic sensibility. Prigs, prudes, and purists will probably not be amused; my unhallowed hands have most definitely disturbed the similes of Victorian propriety, though I doubt the Country’s done for as a result. We have reached an almost-absurd level of moral panic in these times regarding the portrayal of adolescent sexuality, to a point where it has now become de rigueur in erotica to beat readers over the head with the fact that imaginary characters are “eighteen or older” as they engage in fictional behavior, which harms no one in the real world.

Thinking about this, I envisioned a scenario in which someone “old enough to be a character in an erotic short story” might wake up on the morning of their eighteenth birthday with near-complete amnesia regarding puberty, adolescence, and the all-important years of their formative erotic experience. Of course, I play this scenario for laughs, even going so far as to break the “fourth wall” from time to time in the service of satire. Yet, in all seriousness, if we cannot learn to be honest about things that happen quite naturally every day, come to mature grips with our normal human desires, or, at least, develop some proportional sense of humor about ourselves as sexual beings, a lot more than the Country’s done for. 

from Eighteen with a (Silver) Bullet

Marla was eighteen to begin with. Eighteen with a bullet, there was no doubt whatever about that. She had the birth certificate to prove it, and that was good enough for any court of law in the country. She had the body to prove it, too.
Still, Marla was not entirely convinced.
We’re not talking barely legal here with eighteen in air quotes; some overeager seventeen-year-old using a fake ID to get into a club, or fudging her date of birth by a week or three in a plot to bring down the adult film industry. No, Marla was really and truly un-fucking-deniably eighteen, and today, Christmas Eve, was her birthday. She was old enough to vote or be drafted—assuming they ever brought back the draft. Old enough to be independent and make her own decisions—assuming none of those decisions involved the consumption of alcohol. Old enough to be a character in an erotic short story.
Oh yeah! Marla was eighteen if you know what I mean, nudge-nudge, wink-wink: you must understand this or nothing sexy or exciting can happen in the story that is about to unfold. Marla Jacobs was eighteen, and that was where the problem started: She couldn’t remember anything before waking up on the morning of the 24th—at least, nothing having to do with sex. Surely something must have happened between the ages of twelve and seventeen. So why was it all a huge blank?
Like a woman with no shadow suddenly appearing out of thin air, Marla had no erotic backstory.
If only I’d been a character in a detective novel, she thought bitterly.
She tried asking her parents at breakfast that morning, but nobody would tell her anything about the “time before”—it simply was not talked about. Her folks began to hem and haw when she hinted at the mystery of her adolescence, mumbling as if their mouths were full of mush.
“Some things are on a strictly need-to-know basis.” Marla’s dad pretended to glance at his watch before rushing off in terror. Her mom heaved a heavy sigh and changed the subject...