Friday, June 26, 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Stories We Are Entitled To Tell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(You can read PART TWO here)


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Review of "Katie in Love" by Chloe Thurlow

It is the clothes that cover us that stir desire for what lies beneath . . . A girl in primitive times was the victim of male lust and the guile required to survive and flourish is the mask she subconsciously wears today. Love is war, and clothes are our armour . . .

Being naked for a woman isn’t the same as it is for a man; our clothes acquire different associations. We don’t dress in clothes, we masquerade in the robes of contrivance: too tight, too small, the contours outlining shapes and displaying slivers of flesh like promises, like the trailers for a film. Nudity is a logical progression.

from Katie in Love

Chloe Thurlow clearly enjoys being a girl—and her readers are all the more richly enlightened for it. Katie in Love is Thurlow’s sixth erotic novel, albeit her first (and I would have to say quite auspicious) venture in the realm of independent publishing. It is also a masterpiece on many levels; a romance that transcends the surly bonds of genre convention; a trenchant novel of ideas that skillfully entertains; an acutely-observed comedy of manners in which even the shallow characters are imbued with a certain sympathetic depth; a classic Bildungsroman (novel of education) with clever nods to Herman Hesse, Anais Nin, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, Georges Bataile and George du Maurier, the creator of Svengali. Thurlow seems to have taken Mahler’s notion of the symphony to heart, ingeniously applying it to a work of literature that is “like the world, containing everything.” If this is “erotic romance”, it is erotic romance with an awe-inspiring intelligence.

And what is it that turns a work of smart, broadly appealing fiction into “erotica”? The author and editor M. Christian says that erotica is fiction in which the author “does not blink” or turn away with distaste or discomfort when it comes time to describe the sex act. An amorist at heart, Thurlow has, for all practical purposes,  given her readers an accessible, first-rate literary novel that “does not blink”; a work in which sex is treated as an essential element of a compelling story, not as some unpleasant afterthought or demeaning literary chore. “Erotica” the eponymous narrator tells us:

is an untapped well of human mystery and potential, the seam of gold hidden below the fault lines of a culture that imposes limitations on our true nature. If erotic writing is to be regarded as literature, the taste and cadence of the words must embrace the senses, ignite the passions. The emotion is integral to the story. Readers must be stripped naked and led to a warm bath perfumed by sex. They must feel as they dress the softness of silk and the chafe of leather. Each description is a portrait so fresh and vivid they can hear the adagio slap of flesh against flesh, the rattle of chains, the snap of the whip, the sound of one hand clapping against willing buttocks.

Readers should be inspired to seek in their lovers new erogenous places, the enchantment of roll play, masks, ball gags and bonds. In the heat of the night when you allow the brain to rest. the body lives a life of its own . . .

Erotica holds up the mirror to a society where those things damned and outlawed are secretly desired. The erotic explores human extremes, lost love, impossible love, innocence and purity mingled with decadence and debauchery. All human fears become clearer analysed under the microscope of erotica. As I keep telling mother, erotica is about feeling, not fucking.

At first glance, a basic description of the plot is not especially promising: A handsome physician with a clouded romantic past hooks up on New Year’s Eve with an attractive, if slightly self-absorbed writer of erotic fiction. The doctor is a dedicated do-gooder, working in the Third World with the poorest of the poor, and he must shortly return to his frontier practice after a short holiday in London. The sex is better than good, and there is clearly a spark between these two—or, at least, the heroine thinks there might be. But, of course, there are obstacles, both real and imagined, trivial and serious, to that proverbial happily-ever-after, and therein lies the tale. 

This could easily serve as the framework for almost any potboiler romance—I sometimes suspect that certain authors keep a template on their computers in lieu of an outline, making it fast and easy to fill in a set of blanks, different names and slightly altered details here and there to suit. It’s the way such basic plot-skeletons are fleshed out that, in the end, makes the difference between the merely amusing and the genuinely enlightening, the disposable and the indispensable, the generic remainder and the future classic; ultimately separates the hackish has-been from the undisputed mistress of her craft.

And—wowzer!—is Chloe Thurlow ever the latter! This is highly original storytelling of breathtaking assurance and awesome craft. Especially impressive is the way the author integrates essential backstory into a highly-elaborate, almost symphonic structure, gradually revealing her character’s pasts in a kind of grand, sweeping arc —wholly visible only at the end—expertly overlaying and bridging the narrative of the here-and-now. (I was reminded of those massive, but always tuneful, late-romantic symphonies, say, Mahler’s  3rd or 7th, Bruckner’s 4th, 7th, or 8th.).  And yet again, as in any well-conceived symphony, the intimate phrases, the solo passages and moments for small ensemble are as deliciously memorable and moving as the mightiest tutti.

There is no forced conflict here, no contrived melodrama. Katie’s self-doubt may be de rigueur in the genre, but this is not the shallow, formulaic wool-gathering of the typical romantic heroine fresh from central-stereotype casting. For once, we are treated to genuine introspection. This author respects her characters—and herself— too much to treat them like mere ex machina plot facilitators or pawns—and she gives her supporting players a chance to shine as well, portraying them as real people with real passions and real things to say, rather than convenient constructs, employed to inject odious or disagreeable alternate points of view into the story, thus eschewing preachiness and propaganda—the conjoined-twin buzzkills of otherwise-intelligent storytelling   

Thurlow’s writing is very much like her main character;  moody—by turns melancholy and reflective—beautiful, sensuous and cerebral. This is “writer-ly” writing to be sure, the sort that stirs serious critical buzz and garners shelffuls of prestigious literary awards—or would if life were fair. Not that there isn’t a good deal of authorial absolute certainty here—the sort of “let me dazzle you, dear reader” assertions brooking no contradiction that judges for those awards seem so thoroughly to adore. One sometimes gets the sense that Katie is as much the author’s thinly veiled personal  avatar as her creature. And yet, there is a depth to all Thurlow's characters—a feat in itself—but, even more impressively, a sophistication—a real, complex dimensionality—to the world they inhabit, a compelling richness that transcends the banal mechanics of genre scene-setting.

And what a world it is! There’s grit as well as glamour here; a hefty dose of moral complexity to go with the simple thrills of lust, a certain seriousness to balance these lovers’ candy-floss flirtations with all their delightfully glib sweet nothings. They are not so blinded by love as to be willfully ignorant of the turmoil that surrounds them. They delve the issues of the day, discuss geo-politics and macro-economics, lament the cancerous inequality in a society grown so rich that it can no longer see the poor; the clueless high-rise-dwelling haves and the hustling ant-like have-nots below, so far apart that one can never truly comprehend the life of the other. The author does not blink at the painful contradictions in her own heroine’s heart, feeling guilty about her own privilege, but also helpless in the face of need she has never been encouraged to consider.

Things come, more or less, to a conventional head; the characters arrive at a cusp and must decide what to do with the rest of their lives. At first glance, the leisurely leave-taking of the penultimate chapters feels like a let-down after what has gone before, the tying up of all the loose strands of the narrative in a bow that seems overly elaborate. Yet, without this dreamlike bridge, the ending itself might have seemed too abrupt, too pat. In retrospect, it is just right. Along the way the author seems to play a set of elaborate variations—something like one of J.S. Bach’s mind-bending masterpieces for the harpsichord—her deft fingers gently pressing the keys of our imagination until we can only groan with delight.

As the stunning—and stunningly clever—heroine of Katie in Love reminds us, the great 20th-century English literary critic Cyril Connolly once said “whenever you start writing a book, you must set out to write a masterpiece . . .”

In this, Chloe Thurlow has surely succeeded.

Passionately recommended!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How it Began; How it Ended--a short story by TAS

How it Began; How it Ended
a short story by Terrance Aldon Shaw

Molly Morse was not a knockout or a bombshell by any stretch of the imagination.  On first impression, I pegged her as kind of homely. Not ugly or repulsive, but simply “just there.”  Her open friendly face may have seemed a bit too round and plump, her eyes a little too small and close together, her nose perhaps a tad too big, her limbs tending towards the thick side like the old stereotype of a farmer’s daughter, her long brown hair constantly flying into her face despite all efforts to pull it back and “look professional.”  She had strong shoulders, broad hips, a pleasingly meaty caboose, and ample, peasant-girl breasts.  She also had a broad, open, honest smile that made her plain face come alive and seem angelic.  And when she laughed in that husky, throaty, sincere, infectious way of hers, she became, as the song says, simply irresistible.

Ideals of beauty are ever in flux but always cruel.  Molly was hardly fat or Rubenesque, except, perhaps, by the modern cadaver-like standards of anorexic fashion models and bulimic starlets. Back in the forties or fifties, she might even have been considered skinny. Classically voluptuous Marilyn Monroe in her heyday certainly filled out larger dresses. But my generation has taken cruelty to new levels; weaned on an endless stream of waifish eye candy, we’ve been conditioned to despise the ugly, and simply ignore the plain.  You can fuck somebody you hate as long as they’re good-looking, and it’s certainly possible to have very intense, physically satisfying sex with somebody you despise. But ordinary-ness dooms—especially women—to indifference and invisibility, or, maybe, the occasional round of blind-drunk pity sex, and the truth is that you will never find yourself in love with someone you feel sorry for.

Very few people have the maturity to understand that it’s our flaws, our slight imperfections, our deviations from the norm that make us interesting.  These are the things that pique our curiosity and, ultimately, kindle our desires.  Something about Molly caught my eye right away, and kept me curious.  It took a long time to figure out exactly what it was, but when I did, it almost knocked my socks off. Plain, unassuming Molly Morse had the inner glow of a truly beautiful woman.

We talked only for a few minutes the afternoon of our first meeting, standing in one of those endless lines at the DMV. Talking to Molly was easy, like breathing; it wasn’t hard to see why she’d become a therapist.  I felt completely comfortable with her, and totally free to be myself.  I didn’t have to put on a facade of cool-ness to make her laugh, or pretend to be something I wasn’t to impress her.  I was lulled into a happy state of easygoing unselfconsciousness, and suddenly, without even thinking, found myself asking her out; “Maybe we could have a cup of coffee or something sometime?"

I couldn’t believe the words had come out of my mouth.  I was even more surprised when Molly lit up the room with that solar-powered smile of hers and said yes; “I’d love to.  The next five or six weeks are going to be pretty busy; but a little ‘or something’ about the middle of October would be great.  Why don’t you call me then?  I’m in the book.”

She was older than me, 37 to my 20, but when had that ever stopped me? Besides, you get a guy in his late teens or early twenties together with a woman in about her mid-thirties and there will be fireworks, I guaran-damn-tee. You’ve got two people at their sexual peak, the energy of youth and the knowledge that comes with maturity; a combination like that is utterly mind-blowing—as I was soon to find out.

I’d never been with anybody who so craved closeness without being clingy, who hung on for dear life with so much genuine passion—and compassion—so much warmth, and so much joy. The same profound empathy that made Molly such a good therapist made her an extraordinary lover. There was a wildness in our couplings, an indescribable vital force that seemed constantly to feed upon and renew itself every time we were together. Molly was full of an energy she could not burn by any conventional means; listening to people for hours and hours, inarticulate, clueless, hopeless, broken; listening with as much sympathy and understanding as humanly possible, but unable, in the end, to really do anything that could truly effect change. And the frustration, the feeling of uselessness, emptiness, impotence, the unrequited love of ungrateful humanity, it welled up within her and sought out the surest path of release.   

So, week after week, we’d come back to my room, barely able to contain our excitement, unable to keep our hands off each other; naked inside of seconds, on the bed and fumbling to put on a condom before she guided me in, I’d ride her strong pale hips like a jockey, her ample breasts bouncing rambunctiously this way and that with the momentum of each forward thrust, and later, laying quietly together, her abundant warmth enveloping me, drawing me close as we made love again in a long slow dance.

I don’t know—didn’t want to know—if she loved me, or if I was in love with her. At any rate, the “L” word never passed between us. You could say we were fuck buddies, but there was more to it—a lot more—than mere itch-scratching. I honestly didn’t want to define what we had. As soon as you try to define things they stop growing, become static and uninteresting, and we were both content, having too much fun to want things to change.

Sometimes though, actions speak far louder than words, and affairs, like all living things, must inevitably evolve or die. One night, after the wildness was out of our systems, she put her hand on mine as I was reaching for another Trojan. “You don’t need that tonight . . . not with me  . . . I want to feel you in me . . . really feel you!”

“Are you sure, baby?”

She nodded. There were tears in her eyes. I leaned down and kissed her as tenderly as I knew how. She held me tightly until her tears were spent, and then we made love, unhurried, unguarded, vulnerable, full of passionate newness as if it were the very first time for both of us. I’d never felt so completely naked before, and it was more exciting—more profound—than the wildest, hottest sex my lurid, teeming imagination could ever have dreamed up.

For the first and only time, she stayed the night, cuddling with me in the narrow bed, her head on my chest as we slept. In the morning she gave herself to me with a doubly-renewed passion—again waving off the condom I offered to use, turned on even more mightily by the idea of my jizz sloshing around inside her. She took that part of me with her when she left early in the afternoon, and it was a week or so before I heard from her again; this time, to tell me that she had taken a new job out of state and had to start almost immediately.  There would be no time to say goodbye.   

And that was the end of our affair, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just a little too dense—and way too turned on—to comprehend the subtext, and Molly was too considerate a lover to beat me over the head with it. But she had been trying to tell me something that night nonetheless; that she loved me, that in a perfect world we might have been more than mere fuck buddies; but that in this world she still wanted to feel like she belonged to me in some small way, and I to her, and perhaps realizing that this simply couldn’t happen, she’d opened herself completely, let me in literally and figuratively for one brief amazing moment of pure synergy, if for no other reason than to satisfy a deep psychic curiosity about what might have been.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review of "Drawn That Way" by Bronwyn Green

Die-hard fans of erotic romance will find lots to like in Bronwyn Green’s Drawn That Way.
While the story adheres closely to long-established genre conventions, it’s just different enough—and smart enough in exploiting those differences—to rise above the ordinary. Green tackles some intriguing issues here; rampant sexism and misogyny in the video-game industry; society’s impossible double standards where female body image is concerned, and the treacherous minefield of workplace romance. Yet the storytelling never becomes preachy or propagandistic—this is definitely not a novel of ideas—nor does the author stint on the sex.  There’s a lot of it—even by erotic romance standards—and the steamy encounters are consistently well thought out, always logically integrated into the broader narrative, deftly-written, refreshingly mature, and always—always!—entertaining.  

Pretty Tristan Weaver, a young guest worker from Wales, is employed as an accountant for an American  company that produces popular video games.  One day, her comment on an employee survey catches the boss’s attention:

Tris shrugged “ . . . It’s true. I haven’t seen a single female character come out of this company that wasn’t drawn like the average uni boy’s wank fantasy. Giant gravity-defying boobs, waists so small they couldn’t possibly hold up those chests and giant bubble arses—all I’m suggesting is a little diversity. A more realistic view of women in video games. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Tris’ boss is Rory Brecken, a creative soul still somewhat bewildered by his own success, caught between his genuine artistic impulses and the stifling limitations of commerce. A man who “doesn’t do relationships”, his sexual needs have been met in a string of one-off affairs outside the office. Stung by Tris’ criticisms, he recruits her to model for a new game, which will feature more realistic female characters, authentic body types, and greater diversity.

Of course, one thing ultimately leads to another, all good intentions fly out the window, and these two begin a steamy office affair taking the form of a fairly conventional D/s relationship with a bit of light bondage thrown in for zest. Tris proves a willingly apt pupil, but—thankfully—never a pushover. Bondage-sex, as Rory points out, isn’t supposed to be easy, but Tris learns quickly that a certain level of disobedience is part of the game; it adds to the excitement and heightens the thrill of sexual tension, introducing an element of unpredictability and spontaneity, delectably surprising to both partners, the after-burn—the soreness left over from a corrective spanking—a fading memento of pleasure.

Green’s main characters are refreshingly ordinary and always relatably down-to-earth—a huge plus in a genre now so heavily overpopulated with impossibly-perfect dark-secret-burdened billionaires and airheaded cardboard cut-out Barbie-doll naïfs. On the minus side, I was somewhat disappointed by the way the author under-employs her interesting supporting cast, bringing them on stage only when it’s necessary for exposition or when she otherwise runs short of ideas for moving the story along and getting the main characters into place for the inevitable denouement.

At times the writing becomes overly repetitious. Regular consumers of standard romance seem to expect a level of dramatic irony in which the characters spend much of the story trying to sort out their feelings and overcome their self-doubt—though the outcome is obvious to the audience from the opening pages. If I have a serious complaint about Drawn That Way, it is that these characters spend far too much time rehashing the same emotions, pensively pacing back and forth over the same ground, walking their apprehensions like worried dog owners with a constipated pet. There needs to be some artful variation on this theme, and, one would hope, ultimately some subtle transformation of it; but here the expression of self-doubt feels like a cloying mantra, repeated with almost exactly the same words over and over.

Still, on balance, Drawn That Way makes for a highly enjoyable, satisfyingly diverting, light, and very sexy read.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review of "Lips Like Ice" by Peggy Barnett

This fascinating erotic sci-fi novel was sent to me “over the transom”, otherwise I would never have known about it. And that would have been too bad; Peggy Barnett’s Lips Like Ice is an exceptionally well-crafted piece of storytelling, effortlessly melding  elements of classic feminist science fiction in the best tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood with an intriguing—albeit sometimes hair-raising—vein of extraterrestrial erotic romance.  

A young earth woman, Lydia, one day wakes to find herself transported to a cold, brutal alien world, where she has been consigned to the role of a pet for the spoiled, petulant, adolescent offspring of local royalty. The alien species on this planet, which Lydia can only describe as “Ice-Elf Monsters” is born genderless, and individuals eventually choose whether to become anatomically male or female, though that choice is often influenced more by political exigency and family expectation than the leadings of one’s heart. And woe to anyone who chooses “wrong”.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace—sometimes, perhaps, a bit too languorously—focusing on the heroine’s inner monologue, her torturous journey of identity accompanied by a seemingly endless cycle of self-doubt as she struggles to discern her place in this strange new world.

She wakes when the light of the sun, filtered through the amber window, puddles golden and warm on her face. The Prince is sitting on a deep, plush chair beside the head of the bed. The spindly table that had once graced its position has been moved between the two windows, flush against the wall. The lamp is still upon it, but Lydia’s writing desk is on the mattress by her feet. It must be the weekend again. She isn’t sure; she keeps forgetting to make a calendar. Her period is over, so that’s been four days at least.

She sits up blearily and rubs her eyes. The air is comfortable this morning, which means the Prince must be too warm. He is wearing only a loose pair of trousers that end well above his ankles and are held on his narrow hips by a silver sash. He has a loose, linen-like shirt on as well, but the neck is unlaced as far as it will go, the vee gaping obscenely and offering a glimpse of pointed collarbone and a glimpse of the dusky blue ridge of his pectoral muscle. He hasn’t any chest hair. Or nipples, as far as she can tell.

It seems strangely sensual and modest after he had stood before her in all his proud nakedness the other night. Knowing what is beneath the billowing drape of sleeve, the fold of belt, makes her feel sort of squirmy inside, like she is privy to a secret that she shouldn’t have even known is a secret to begin with.

Later, when the Prince asks Lydia whether she chose to be female, she finds it difficult to give a simple answer:

“We don’t choose,” Lydia says, “We’re born one or the other.”

The Prince shudders and stills. “So I would have been male right from the start?”

“Well . . . it’s complicated. It’s not . . . there’s biological sex, and then there’s gender, and sometimes they don’t match. Sometimes biological sex isn’t just one or the other, either; and gender can definitely be fluid. And that’s not even talking about romantic or sexual attraction spectrums. Humans are . . . we. we’re a fucking compli—ah! Ah! God, are you actually-- !”

Her eyes slide shut as another orgasm rocks his body, stiffens him against her, inside of her. More pulses of heat, sweet and dark.

“Biology class is sexy,” the Prince rumbles in her ear when he’s stopped clutching and shaking. He laves her sweaty neck with his tongue. Lydia falls into her doze with a chuckle . . .

Lips Like Ice offers readers adventure and palace intrigue, seeking out new life and new civilization with a thoughtful exploration of gender issues, and a probing reflection on the nature of free will, specifically, how one’s concept of liberty defines his or her humanity.


Friday, April 17, 2015

A new story by TAS on Madeleine Shade's site

Read my brand new story, The Fire-Hostage, debuting on Madeleine Shade's site as part of her Fairy Tale Friday series.