Friday, August 31, 2012

The Sweet Guy Tells All

The Sweet Guy Tells All

I’m sick of being the Sweet Guy. You know the guy I’m talking about. In every cheap romance novel there’s the Heroine, the Hero, and, among other lesser players, the Sweet Guy. The formula hardly ever changes; he’s always written as the sensitive male friend—not gay but might as well be—the ever-present shoulder to cry on, the one the Heroine always turns to when the Hero is being an asshole, the one she feels comfortable with sharing her feelings and deepest secrets, the one she always hugs while saying something like “Oh, you’re sooooo sweet. . .” before she goes off and porks the Hero.

I am sooooo tired of being that guy . . . and yet, women insist on telling me their stories. . .

Will the sweet guy finally get lucky? Or will his life continue to imitate art?

I wrote The Sweet Guy Tells All very quickly in the summer of 2004. Back then, I dreamed of seeing one of my stories in the pages of Playboy, which at the time was one of the best vehicles for unknown writers trying to break into the big time. The magazine famously championed a brand of lyrical, edgy, male-centric fiction in which mysterious women and poetically choreographed fist fights were de rigeuer. At a bit under 5,000 words, my story was formatted according to the magazine's submission guidelines, and sent off to Chicago with high hopes and a self-addressed stamped envelope just in case.

Of course, the typescript came back a few weeks later under cover of the standard rejection form. But, to my great surprise, one of the editors at the magazine had taken the time to scribble out a friendly note in the margain. Seems they very much enjoyed my story--thought it was pretty good, in fact; funny and well crafted. The problem from their point of view, so the helpful editor explained, was this: my male character--the Sweet Guy of the title--was too weak. No story gets into Playboy unless the main male charachter is "stronger" than the main female character. This is an immutable principal of Playboy fiction, and I was not the first writer to have a story rejected for violating the rule. No less a figure than Harlan Ellison once notably complained about having one of his best short pieces rejected for this very same reason.

The ultimate upshot of this rejection was . . . encouragement! My immediate goal had been to get published; but, I realized, I had achieved my ultimate goal, which was to write a good, entertaining, funny erotic story that readers could connect with. I never revised or resubmitted the piece; never succombed to the temptation to change the characters or their story simply to see it in print. I finally published it as a Kindle book earlier this year, complete with a beautiful blinged-out cover designed by Andre SanThomas and Sharazade.

The Sweet Guy Tells All is free on Amazon Kindle for four days, from Friday August 31 through Monday, September 3. Check it out and see what you think.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Review of James Wood's "The Doctrine of Venus"

Much of contemporary literary erotica defies easy categorization. Beyond the headaches of harried bookstore managers, this vast perplexity of unsorted subgenres, crossover hybrids, boutique flavors, designer titillations and kink-specific niches; all loosely—often lazily—clustered under a single all-encompassing rubric, seems to be perpetually expanding like the Universe itself. For potential readers, trying to find something new in the erotica section can easily become an exercise in futility leading to the very edge of mania; less rewarding—but no less tedious—than the search for a new planet; more often akin to shopping for toothpaste or shampoo with their myriad variations, targeting every conceivable point along the spectrum of taste and turn-on. How does one go about making sense of it all?

And who, for that matter, will comprise the “market segment” for this unusual little book? James Wood’s The Doctrine of Venus won’t be for everybody; but once found by its own small band of “proper observers,” may well assume the cachet of a cult classic, inspire costume parties and role-playing games, dedicated on-line chat rooms and secret societies. Simply enough, the author pretends to have unearthed a scandalous handbook from the Edwardian era (roughly 1901-1914); a manual or ‘vade mecum’ detailing the practice, style and manner of “civilized” bondage and submission, copiously illustrated with “racy” vintage glass-plate photographs. What readers will find here is a ‘facsimile’ of this mysterious tome, said to have languished for years in the restricted section of a large public library somewhere in North America. Brief narrative sections set in the present day serve as bookends for the manual, and provide context.  

A neat idea to be sure, even if not, strictly speaking, a wholly original one.  Erotic historical fiction is hardly a new phenomenon; there have already been quite a few works of period-homage, contemporary fiction posing as long-lost literature; intimate pseudo-biographies revealing the supposed hidden sex lives of great and famous figures of the past, from the imaginary memoirs of body slaves in ancient Rome to diaries of royal courtesans who never were; Victorian-era confessions of guilty pleasure, or ersatz first-hand accounts of life on the down-low in Gilded-Age Boston. 

Still, suppose someone was to toss a copy of John Norman’s Imaginative Sex into a time machine and send it back to 1907. What would the most daring souls of the post-Victorian period make of Norman’s infamous 1974 BDSM manual? How would they re-interpret it, taking pains to maintain that all-important veneer of public respectability while employing the language of their own reticent times; flowery, prettified—occasionally stilted—unfailingly polite, freighted with euphemism?

The Doctrine of Venus makes for an easily digestible primer to Wood’s contemporary stories of bondage and submission; Taking Jennifer, Sharing Lucy, and Amy’s Choice. Those already familiar with this fine body of work will recognize the author’s style of nostalgic reverence; the longing for an imagined more elegant past, where elaborate language masks society’s rigid, often cruel moral dichotomies. Wasn’t being “naughty” more exciting—more fun—in a world that painted its mores in the starkest blacks and whites? When taboo really was taboo, and quite literally unspeakable? When the possibility of getting caught came with real-life consequences, scandal and ruin?  

On the downside, taken all at once, the manual section can make for some rather dry reading. The book as a whole might have been more interesting had the author expanded the contemporary narrative portions, interspersing them with excerpts from the vade mecum, the better to delve into his characters’ backstories and relationships, showing how each of them found out about the old book, and how reading it affected and changed them in different ways.

And yet, Wood’s concept works because it connects with the part of our imaginations that can’t resist the urge to wonder “what if?” While, alas, according to Snopes, the oft-repeated story about the Vatican Library’s massive porn collection is really just another urban legend—less embarrassment of riches than simple embarrassment—one can’t help but speculate about some of the possible undiscovered erotic gems languishing deep in the stacks of many a restricted section throughout the world. Perhaps there is a book very much like The Doctrine of Venus reposing silently beneath the dust moats, waiting to be rediscovered and brought into the light of a more liberated, albeit less gracious age.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review of Susie Bright's "Sexwise"

Dipping into Susie Bright’s Sexwise is like discovering a weird and wonderful time capsule chockfull of 1990s erotic pop culture memorabilia. Who under thirty even remembers the highbrow porno flicks of Andrew Blake or the faux-rotic novels of Nicholson Baker? Who was there—“no shit!”—to catch the hype and largely cooked-up kerfuffle over Madonna’s splashy coffee table book, appropriately enough entitled Sex? Who ever included Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game on their list of top-ten all-time favorite novels? (Not Susie Bright--that's for sure!) Yet, while many of the books, films and personalities featured in these short reviews, essays and interviews have long since faded to footnotes, the insights they inspired remain powerfully relevant today.

Bright’s style is always hip and engaging, often very personal; trenchant, thoughtful, and unapologetically political. She has an endearingly snarky way of cutting through the thickest piles of elitist BS to uncover truths the rightwing neo-puritans and their unwitting enablers on the “sex-negative” left still don’t want you to know. (Her scorching takedown of Catherine McKinnon has rightly been hailed as a classic of sex-positive feminist prose, and is alone worth the price of this book.) Then too, it’s interesting to see how many of her ideas—one-time potshots from across the barricades—have become part of the erotic-intellectual mainstream in the intervening decades, notwithstanding the country’s ever-more dangerous list to the right, and the concomitant resurgence of the most virulently toxic patriarchal reactionary tendencies in the body politic—a.k.a. “The War on Women.” What Bright had to say in the original introduction to Sexwise may be even more puissant today than it was back in 1995:  

 “I wonder how dedicated the oldest ruling class (and their heirs) will be to enforcing sexual silence. History, unfortunately, has not been a series of triumphs for ever-growing enlightenment. Sexual bigotry is still very much a religion, and the extent to which zealots and defenders of the faith will fight for their prejudices is always mind-boggling.

Right now, fundamentalists of all persuasions have only been titillated with a glimpse of the largely middle-class erotic renaissance. Yes, I know they’re appalled, but they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Frankly I’m sure my sex life could be better—so much better than I could possibly imagine—if their hands had never been around my throat.”

The erotic renaissance that Bright describes and celebrates in these pages is a diverse, vibrant, colorful phenomenon; a dream not yet perfectly realized, but well worth imagining. Her fresh, incisive critiques of erotic literature and film are, in themselves, eye-opening experiences; we feel our minds expanding in the most pleasantly liberating ways. Anybody who ever watched a triple-X porno video probably came away convinced that they could make a better one if only given half a chance; but who knew—who ever stopped to think—that what’s missing, most tellingly, in all those films is an honest portrayal of the female orgasm? As Bright relates in her groundbreaking essay Femm-chismo:

“I used to have one impeccable standard for what made an erotic story female-centered; the woman comes. This simple concept is so rare in traditional erotica that it overwhelms every other feminine consideration. Of course, we’ve all read stories where a woman is overwhelmed with the size of her lover’s penis . . . but how many times do you actually get a her-point-of-view orgasm? We read about how he sees her responding to him, but we don’t see inside her explosion . . .”

Damn! Seriously, it all makes so much more sense now; and this is only one of many brilliant observations to be found in Susie Bright’s Sexwise! Highly recommended.

TAS (Terrance Aldon Shaw)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How to have your book reviewed here

As I am receiving more requests for reviews all the time, I'd like to save a bit of wear and tear on my fingers, and post a set of guidelines. I'll "pin" these on a separate page as well.

1. Understand, I cannot accept every request. There simply aren't enough hours in a week, and I have other committments as well as a regular daily writing schedule of my own to maintain. Thus, I reserve the right to limit the number of books I will accept for review in any given month to no more than two. (I may take more or fewer as the demands of my schedule dictate.) 

2. I will only review titles for which I can give an honest three stars at minimum.

3. As such, I am looking for stories that are exceptional on many levels. For a start they must be well written, displaying proficiency in grammar, spelling and punctuation. Texts need to be properly formatted for fiction with standard paragraph indentation and consistent margins. Beyond that, there should be a compelling story with relatable well-rounded characters, and a habitable erotic atmosphere. I am consistently impressed, and very often turned on, by originality, craftsmanship and professionalism. Dazzle me!

4, If your book has been published on Amazon Kindle, send me a link to its product page so I can check out the "Look Inside" sample. You can reach me via e-mail at

5. Assuming I like what I see in your sample, I will ask you to send me the .mobi file for the book so I can forward it to my Kindle. This is important; I have a visual impairment and it is extremely difficult for me to read PDF files and some small-type hardcopies. I prefer to read on my Kindle Touch as I can easily adjust font size, Also, since I take copious notes while reading, the Kindle's bookmark feature is a huge time-, labor-, and lifesaver.

6. I will notify you when the review goes live, Generally, I post reviews simultaneously here on Erotica For The Big Brain and the Amazon site. I can also post the review (with additional editing) to the Barnes & Noble site, depending on the title's availablity.

So, if this sounds reasonable, send me your links and we'll see what's what.



Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review of I.G. Frederick's "Broken" and "Shattered"

We live in interesting times.

Even as stridently misanthropic, hyper-PC “feminists” like Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, or cluelessly detached “thinkers” like Robert Jensen continue to insist that the gentlest consensual sex act is tantamount to rape, BDSM has gone mainstream in a surprisingly big way, rising up from the dark subbasement of 1950s-era “criminal perversion” and “pathological disorder” to assume the status of acceptably edgy lifestyle choice for a brave few.  In the second decade of the 21st century BDSM seems to be where swinging was at back in the 1970s; the stuff of bourgeois weekend diversion and wildly best-selling “guilty pleasure” fantasy fiction; an exciting hobby, enthusiastically embraced if still not always well understood beyond the dungeons of its true adepts. 

I find Jensen’s position particularly troubling. He seems to believe that sex, by its nature, is anti-egalitarian, because, of necessity, one partner must be dominant while the other must be submissive. (Well, duh!) At one point in his writings he even describes how he “tried” homosexuality but found it no more satisfactory than heterosexuality as an expression of equality. (Apparently he’s never tried doing it sitting up, face to face either with a woman or another man. Tell me again why anybody takes this guy seriously?)  Given his well-publicized hostility towards pornography—and I would presume that he, along with Dworkin and McKinnon, is among that angry mob of blinkered intellectuals who reflexively conflate erotica with porn—I would hardly expect to catch him reading I.G. Frederick’s erotic fiction, certainly not in any sort of honest, open-minded way. If he did, it’s a pretty safe bet his head would explode. (And, boy! Would I ever pay to see that!)

Unlike those lofty ascetic know-it-alls, I happen to think that sex is a pretty positive thing by and large; I strongly believe that love is love regardless of the form it takes; fulfilling companionship and the diverse expression of affection occasions to be celebrated. Let’s face it; if two (or more) like-hearted people are lucky enough to find each other out of the teaming billions on the face of this planet, that is nothing short of a miracle—and who is anybody to gainsay or condemn such a rare and beautiful thing because it doesn’t take the “acceptably traditional” or “politically correct” form?

It may be unfair to judge I.G. Frederick’s “Shattered” and “Broken” as works of erotica even though both books are expressly marketed as such. I think these titles might more accurately be categorized as mainstream literary fiction with graphic descriptions of ritual domination and submission, and some explicit erotic content. But sex is not the real focus of these stories, and the sooner that is made clear up front, the better. Casual consumers of erotica bring a set of visceral expectations to any story, and have little patience for “meta-” anything. Needless to say, these books are not for that kind of reader.  Likewise, some fans of BDSM erotica and especially serious practitioners may be unhappy with the novels’ occasionally less-than-flattering portrayal of the subculture; Frederick delves into the philosophy and psychology of the lifestyle largely by showing us how it’s not supposed to be lived, and the often blatantly unethical, coercive behavior described in these stories can be downright disturbing (as the subtitles promise), teetering all too precariously on the edge of the “anti-erotic.” I believe the original publisher was extremely misguided in its approach to promotion, and did Ms. Frederick and her work a serious disservice.

Even so, both books have a decidedly “teach-y” quality about them; some readers may be left wondering whether they were meant to be entertaining, or were intentionally conceived as catalysts for controversy.  Occasionally the story-telling takes on the tenor of an apologia; many parts read less like artfully paced dramatic fiction than the contents of some dry psychological case study or an extended “information dump” in a textbook on the BDSM lifestyle, less erotic diversion than a rather clumsy vehicle of didactic illustration in the tradition of B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two.”

These two books seem to have begun life as a single, much-longer novel. “Broken” and “Shattered” feature many of the same players, and while the second book is perhaps more satisfying when analyzed solely as story, both are rather disappointing where one considers issues of character-motivation and consistency. Indeed, what I wanted most in these stories—what I kept hoping for as I worked my way through them—was a character I could relate to, or, at least, root for. Unfortunately, I came away feeling more perplexed than satisfied; having been offered a cast of characters I could mostly either choose to hate or pity.

The 1st-century Roman philosopher, Seneca once said “No one can be crushed by misfortune who has not first been deceived by prosperity.” Jessica has definitely been deceived by the illusion of her parents’ prosperity; and when her father’s Madoff-like house of cards comes tumbling down, she finds herself standing at his graveside, alone and destitute. The impression we get of this woman through the author’s words is a bit confusing; she is spoiled, fastidious, almost pathologically appearance-conscious; self-absorbed and coldly calculating while emotionally vulnerable; she takes a scholarly interest in issues surrounding the clinical treatment of depression, even as she appears to lack any semblance of genuine human empathy.

Jessica’s desperate need for money ultimately leads her into the repulsive clutches of the head of the psychology department; a vile, ethically-challenged sadist who promptly enslaves the young woman, and coerces her into a degrading life of BDSM prostitution.  Through a series of painful ordeals, graphically portrayed, Jessica eventually discovers her own talent for domination, which becomes a means to self-liberation of a sort. 

When it doesn’t read like a textbook, “Broken” feels like an outdated copy of the Nieman Marcus catalog, with more gratuitous luxury-product placements than a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The lavish, highly-detailed descriptions of fancy-restaurant lunches are more passionate and sensuously imbued than most of the sex scenes.  The characters seem pat, one dimensional, serving their function in the narrative like stock players in an old-time melodrama, baldly relaying information where needed, going through the stereotyped motions of their parts with a certain robotic efficiency. We are told far more than we are shown; the author cannot seem to resist the urge to explain her plot points and motivations at length—often repeating them several times throughout the course of the story, sometimes as dialogue, more often as narrative, as in this passage: 

 “Looking in the mirror, she stared at the chain links encircling her neck. She found it interesting that she could disassociate herself from everything that happened at Professor Branson’s house, but the mere thought of servicing Professor Lawrence made her ill.”

The only character for whom I felt even the slightest pang of empathy was Alyssa, the wise, “older” friend, who seems to function as the author’s avatar within the narrative, delivering meta-messages along with small essential tidbits of information where needed:

“That’s what I mean by symbiosis. I am a Dominant, a Mistress. But without my slave I have no one to serve me, no one to make me complete. Klark is a slave, but without a mistress to serve his life has no purpose, no meaning. We fill each other’s needs in a relationship that others might view as parasitic.”

Later, Alyssa ruminates on the downside of BDSM’s status as popular trend:

“The internet had perverted the lifestyle, permitting those with no experience to claim dominant status, and men pretending to be submissives to fulfill their sexual fantasies without offering anything in return.”

While this may be interesting to a curious outsider—even quite enlightening, it hardly makes for a compelling page-turner regardless of genre.  

Where, in “Broken,” we first meet Jessica as a rather shallow object of pity, a hapless victim, passively accepting her enslavement, by the end of that first book, she has literally shaken off her chains, realized her true potential as a FemDom, and found a kind of peace in the arms of a soul-mate submissive—a BDSM happily-ever-after if there ever was one. But what are we to make of the Jessica we encounter in “Shattered”?  Though now a licensed therapist, this same character has morphed into an ice-hearted monster with no qualms about victimizing others for her own selfish ends; cruel, manipulative, ethically detached, she is the true student of the sadistic professor who first coerced and enslaved her. It may well be that we become like those we hate and fear; but it might also have been interesting to see exactly how that happened to Jessica.

Zachary, a brilliant but deeply troubled young man comes to Jessica’s office seeking help. (The opening paragraphs of “Shattered” offer a pitch-perfect description of obsessive-compulsive behavior.) The victim of childhood abuse and deep psychological trauma, he drifts through life, lacking any meaningful focus or structure. Jessica sees the boy as the perfect guinea pig for a radical experiment;

“Some researchers have used pain to effectively treat depression. Pain causes the release of endorphins, which can reduce anxiety and stimulate your sense of well-being. They can also reduce serotonin levels . . .”

Jessica envisions bondage and discipline—“whipping therapy”—as a way of managing Zachary’s depressive cycles. Such blatantly unethical, unsanctioned experimentation surpasses mere unprofessional behavior, wandering into classic “mad scientist” territory. Fully aware of what might happen if her misconduct is exposed, she isolates and enslaves the young man, imprisoning him in her own personal dungeon. And when he is no longer useful to her research, she abandons him. 

One of the keys to a fuller appreciation of this narrative is to understand that “Shattered” is not about Jessica; it is, above all, the story of Zachary’s search for liberation and wholeness.  As Jessica fades from the foreground to become the one-dimensional off-stage villain of the piece, Zachary finds Alyssa, Jessica’s wiser, older ex-friend, a Domina who has suffered a terrible debilitating loss. It is through Alyssa and her profound grief that the young man realizes the horror of what has been done to him:

“She (Jessica) only mentioned one threesome; bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism.’ Alyssa reluctantly pulled her feet away. ‘No, there are three threesomes. Those, but also tops, bottoms and switches, and more importantly, safe, sane and consensual.”

Finding enlightenment and purpose with Alyssa, Zachary begins to understand himself and his own genuine needs; “A slave should always choose if, when, and who to give himself to . . .”

Notwithstanding its awkwardly contrived happy ending, much of what goes on in “Shattered” is quite hard to take; gratuitous degradation and torture, pain and abject humiliation, vividly rendered—and yet, we are left wondering, to what end. Seeing it all in our minds’ eyes, we can begin to appreciate the quote from Nietzsche on one of Zachary’s t-shirts: “In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence . . . and loathing seizes him.”


I do highly commend the author for endeavoring to bring a degree of seriousness and intellectual substance to her storytelling—almost totally unheard of even in the more rarefied examples of literary erotica. Ms. Frederick is conspicuously gifted, profound in her thoughtfulness; and clearly capable of brilliance. I sincerely hope that, in books to come, she may hone her story-craft to a point where it is worthy of her obvious potential.

Terrance Aldon Shaw