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 desiccated-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 co-opting 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!