Monday, September 26, 2016

"For the Men and the Women Who Love Them" An Interview with Rose Caraway

Just in time for the release of the new erotic anthology For the Men and the Women Who Love Them on September 26, 2016, here is my interview with editor/narrator extraordinaire Rose Caraway. We talk about the project, about the editing process, about narrating audiobooks, and even a little about the future of the genre. Because of her unique position in the industry, I also wanted to ask Rose some questions that might be helpful to aspiring writers. I think you'll find it all makes for some fascinating reading. Enjoy! (TAS)

TAS: First, let’s talk some about this project, For the Men and the Women Who Love Them—of which I am so pleased to be a part! Where did the idea for an anthology of erotic stories for men come from?
Rose Caraway: The incredible listeners of my Kiss Me Quick’s Erotica Podcast have influenced every single anthology I’ve ever put together. They email and phone-in their appreciation, opinions, questions, and suggestions regularly. My Lurid Listeners have expressed not only their gratitude but their continued hunger for more stories that support masculine desire. The KMQ listening demographic was mostly male in the beginning, but over the last two years, I’ve been getting a lot more feedback from female listeners expressing similar sentiments. Couples started getting in touch, indicating how much they enjoy stories that appeal to both ‘him’ and ‘her,’ and would I be putting together a book? Well, once my husband, Dayv and I felt we were in a position to offer our audience what they were asking for, we took a hike. (Hiking is great for brainstorming.) As we hiked along the lake, we discussed how we’d curate an anthology that acknowledged the scope of male desire while at the same time appealing to our female audience as well. We needed to come up with a book for men, and the women who loved them. The title presented itself.
TAS: Around the time of World War II, the American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser used to say “See a need, fill a need.” (This maxim was borrowed for the delightful animated film Robots with Robin Williams and Mel Brooks a few years ago). Do you have a sense that you’re filling a need here?
Rose Caraway: The short answer is; yes. I absolutely do. I’ve spoken to male authors and what I’ve discovered is that many of them feel quite hobbled professionally; by Amazon, by other writers, and have actually been shamed for their fantasies. Male desire has been branded as too taboo. I didn’t want this anthology to be about fetishizing or exploiting men’s desire nor any particular fantasy. This project isn’t here to shock and awe. That’s not how it was conceived. It certainly isn’t here to represent all men either. For The Men represents a place where masculine fantasy is welcome within the erotica genre. It’s about putting men’s desires front and center in an anthology featuring well-crafted storytelling—both genre-based and literary based.
TAS: Emmanuelle de Maupassant—who also has a story in the collection—did an extensive survey recently, asking male and female erotic writers about their approach to their craft. Do you see significant differences in the way men and women deal with the erotic as writers and as readers?
Rose Caraway: I tip my hat to Emmanuelle for taking such a project on. Yes, I do see differences, but I also see tremendous similarities—tastes, tendencies, fantasies. And that is where my focus lies. I believe that male and female writers can write any gender they set their creative minds to. It doesn’t much matter the sex of the ‘pen.’ Gender, much of the time, has nothing to do with the how a character might behave. Instead of asking yourself, ‘What would a man think?” Take out the ‘man’ part (okay, that sounds ominous.) and give him a name. Instead, ask, ‘What would Kevin think?’ ‘What is Kevin’s personality?’

TAS: I’d like to ask you about the editing process—something that I find endlessly fascinating. I noticed when we were communicating about my story, Making Hay, that you had a very clear sense of what I needed to do to make the story better and more satisfying to readers. You felt that something was missing; that I hadn’t explained one of the plot elements in a way that would sate readers’ curiosity. You actually asked me to add a few more paragraphs—and here, I’d been so careful to stay within the call’s stated word count! I have to tell you that I was extremely impressed by your perception—your sense of what makes a story ‘click’, as well as your desire to turn out a quality product. Your passion really does shine through in your work—and it is infectious.
Rose Caraway: My goodness. Thank you, TAS. You know, there are many fine elements to Making Hay that I adore. And, as a narrator that I greatly appreciated, but we will get to that in a little bit. The edit that I came back for you was well worth going over the word count limit for. It’s incredible what that one little bugger of a question, ‘Why?’ can do for a story. And that is what matters to me as an anthology editor. I love my work and I want readers and listeners to love it too.
You see, a few years ago, I learned the value of beta readers. I sent out my very first short story which I intended to publish, to a handful of carefully selected individuals who were competent, accomplished writers. And, they were all total strangers to me, save one. I asked them specifically, to be honest in their opinions of my work—to give me the double-barrel treatment if necessary. I truly wanted to know what they thought before I put the story up for sale. Well, only one beta reader didn’t hold back, just as I’d asked. He shot my ass with buckshot and. Yes, my heart sank. For something like 2 days, I trudged through every single bright-red Word-tracking notation he made. Tears be damned. When I got to the very end of my document I noticed that my generous, shot-gun toting beta reader had written a final note. It has stuck with me ever since:
Chekhov’s gun. Look it up!!

TAS: So, let’s talk a little about what makes a story work or not work.  Are there certain elements that successful stories all seem to have in common? What ultimately makes a story good or even great?
Rose Caraway: Boy, if I knew the answer to that…
What makes a story work?
Well, I can definitely tell you what doesn’t make it work.
Lack of trying. Giving up.
Does the story pull the reader in?
As much as I hate to vomit clichéd sentiments, I believe that this one holds true, but that doesn’t automatically make it ‘great.’ Good, probably. Hopefully. But not necessarily great. Beta readers are a great resource for this kind of thing.
To me, a great story is one that a reader devours. But what one reader considers great, another might think, ‘meh.’
I think greatness begins with relativity. Can the audience relate to the characters? In Sonni de Soto’s Odd Man, she writes from the second person point of view:
You’ll know the second she sees him, her eyes—sweet and soulful, a brown as rich and dark as the earth—will light up like they used to for you. She’ll rush through the crowd toward him, leaving you to be swallowed up by the throng.
But she loves you.

You’ll stand there—dumbstruck—as they make their way back to you, her hand in his. Your teeth will grind, a sharp screech in your head. Your nails will dig small crescent-shaped resentments into your palm like Braille as your fists form.

You’ll want to hit him. End him.
Shake his hand instead as she makes introductions.
He’ll have a stupid name, something fake-sounding that couldn’t possibly be real. Or maybe a bastardization of a given name. Like Deek or Fin or Wen. Or Rand.

He’ll be bigger than you. Of course.

Comfort yourself in the fact that, at least, you’re better looking.

You think.

He looks…expensive, you’ll think as you take in the muscled wall of black silk and leather. Tall. Dark. Tailored. Manicured. He’ll look like an honest-to-God, spitting-image, leather-bound Dom.

You’ll look like a CPA.

Automatically we are in the main characters head. We are him. The second we begin reading de Soto’s words, we see and feel everything her main character feels because she’s made us participants. To me, that’s a great story. Editors of anthologies are some of the most open-minded people. They have to be. Otherwise, you get a shitty anthology. So, writers should aim to captivate. Immediately.
TAS: How fine a line is there between competent-but-mediocre writing and truly great, memorable writing? Is there a gray area sometimes? What do mediocre writers ‘not get’ that great writers do?
Rose Caraway: I think it comes down to clarity. How clear is the writer’s narrative? A memorable story is obviously one that sticks. We all know that a writer’s craft develops over time if they exercise it. Some writers have a wonderful concept, but they can’t execute a well-developed, realistic, or convincing character, or a working world. The difference between mediocre and memorable writing is the balance of elements within the story. Take Allen Dusk’s contribution, Wayward Drift, for example. His narrative is very relaxed, yet direct. His environment is easily visualized. His character’s movements within the world are easily followed:
Daikyu was the largest gas planet I’d yet encountered. From my perch in the cockpit, I could see alkali clouds storming beneath gleaming lithium rings belted around the equator. Bettie skimmed the ionosphere, struggling against gravity wells to keep her nose pointed toward Nippon, the largest of Daikyu’s eight moons.

“Any Black Armada ships pissing in the kiddie pool?” I asked through a prolonged yawn while stretching my arms above my head.

“There are no vessels bearing the Black Armada call sign,” my ship replied with her breathy, synthesized voice.

“That’s guaranteed not to last long, but I’ll take it. Hail the Kyudo Station when we’re three clicks out, and send them the supply list.”

“Yes. I will complete those tasks.” Her voice was always devoid of emotion. The hull could have been ripping apart, and she would have responded with the same monotone announcement. “May I complete any other tasks for you?”

“Yeah, you can. How about a blowjob? I mean, like a dirty, sloppy blowjob with a lot of drooling and ball sucking.”

TAS: Along the same lines, is there a difference between a great story and a commercially successful one? (Do you sometimes find yourself having to reject a good—or even a great—story because it doesn’t fit in with the commercial aims of a project?)
Rose Caraway: To me, if it’s a great story, it’s valuable. If it effortlessly conveys its reason for existing, its good. If a story is easy, ‘brain candy’ I like that too. Sometimes readers just want a nice easy (wank) escape. I don’t want an anthology chalk full of stories that challenge me. I like to cruise too, man. Commercially speaking, ‘easy’ seemingly works, but there’s a lot of those for sale. How many paranormal romance shifter books are out there are killing it right now? It feels like too many, good for them. There are writers writing literally for the consumer. I’ve never rejected what I would consider ‘a great story.’ If a submission didn’t quite fit my call, but it blew my socks off, I like to think that I would try to make it fit in the anthology, or save it for another call, or hell, offer to publish it myself. A great story is a great story is a great story. And it wants to be read, but that doesn’t equate to being a commercial success.
TAS: Beyond the stated parameters of any call for submissions, what do you look for first when deciding on what stories to include in an anthology? Is there a sort of instinct you have or a ‘gut feeling,’ or is it something more tangible—more measurable in a conventional sense?
Rose Caraway: This is a great question. The first thing I look for is to see if the writer has followed my call’s guidelines. It’s really the simplest thing, and has no bearing on the craftsmanship of the author, but if a story is posted in the body of their email, I sadly, automatically, pass it by. I dislike doing that, but have and will do it every time. My time is precious. Then I examine the story’s opening. I can tell immediately how well a story is going to be written. But it’s that first page that really determines whether or not I can make it to the end. If the story is going to be worth the public’s time. That opening determines whether a submission is going to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘possible’ or a ‘no.’
TAS: What are some of the things that an aspiring writer can do to ‘stand out’ in a submission call? What makes an editor sit up and take notice?
Rose CarawayFollow the guidelines. Get beta readers.
Before sending off your submission, get your story read by at least 5 beta readers. Sure, you can ask friends or family, but if you really, really want to be a good writer, then you need to bite the bullet. Ask for double-barreled honesty. It’s ridiculously easy to find a beta reading group these days. But you must tell them what you need from them. I personally recommend the Facebook group, The Slush Pile. I CANNOT stress how valuable beta readers are.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, how many publications you already have. Even Stephen King fucks up. Things get missed. Eyeballs, other than your own are essential. You don’t have time to dick around. When you are ready to email your submission, highlight to the editor, let them know that you utilized beta readers for optimum story quality. I also recommend that you beta read for others.

TAS: Let’s take a few minutes to talk about audio books and the spoken word.
Maybe because I was read to quite often when I was little, the spoken word is extremely important to me. Later, when I was in high school, I listened to a lot of the Talking Books for the Visually Impaired (Gosh! Could I go all fan-geek about some of the amazing narrators on those old phonograph records! Great voices like Arnold Moss and Alexander Scourby reading Don Quixote and Edgar Allen Poe…) and that made me conscious of the importance of the quality of the spoken word. I know that now when I write—and especially when I revise—I try to be very conscious of the physical effects of my words, a quality of rhythm, euphony and flow in the language.
Rose Caraway: I could tell immediately, TAS, that Making Hay was going to be a smooth narration. (My favorite storyteller voice was, Boris Karloff in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I loved David Attenborough and Lawrence Olivier too! Last year I found, Grover Gardner’s narration of Bury My Hear at Wounded Knee. Today, my favorite narrator is Kate Mulgrew. Her narration of NOS4A2 is fucking stellar.)
TAS: My question to you, as someone who wears both the editor and the narrator’s hats, is this: what do you look for—or listen for—in a story? Are there particular elements that ‘speak to you’—as if the story were begging to be read aloud?
Rose Caraway: When I go through the editing process, its automatic that I look for potential narrative hang-ups. I always have an audio audience in mind while editing and writing. The fact is, reading a story is a different experience than listening to one. But it all starts with the words. The better the writing craft, the easier the narration. The better writers don’t usually hear anything from me regarding audio fixes. No matter what, a story must flow easily through its scene transitions. Word repetition and sing-song narrative is bad form in writing, and it is horrendous to narrate (particularly in erotica) because listeners hear it, and it sounds silly, unprofessional. Unless it’s Dr. Seuss, there shouldn’t be anything sing-songy in the text. When we read to ourselves, those types of clunky moments are easier to miss, because inside our minds everything is silent. When a narrator gets hold of the script, we can find some whoppers. Keep in mind as you’re are writing that listeners will hear every cringe worthy rhyme. It’s why I recommend that writers read their work aloud. Another easy tactic for finding this kind of trouble spot is to use the ‘Control F’ function. You might even be interested in trying You shouldn’t have, for example, the word ‘pussy’ eight times in one paragraph. It really shouldn’t be in there more than once. Twice is the absolute limit.
Our dialog should occur seamlessly—naturally, without confusion as to who is speaking. It would surprise you how many times I’ve had to get in touch with an author to ask who is shouting “Fuck!” during orgasms. Internal dialog can be the most challenging to convey through narration, especially if it’s an extensive portion of the story or if it occurs every other line. Between character voices and narrative, if listeners aren’t obviously informed which character is actively thinking, the scene becomes muddied—worse, it loses the listener’s interest. There aren’t italics in narration. Listeners shouldn’t have to work to understand. Concise, clear writing is essential for narration. Generally speaking, when someone is listening to an audiobook, they are doing something else at the same time. They may get distracted while choosing the appropriate washing machine setting to use for their delicates. The point is, we want it to be easy for listeners to slip back into the story. That’s something you did really well in your story, Making Hay, TAS. Your dialog was natural—seamless:
Her brothers called me Blindy because of the patch over where my left eye used to be. Little berserkers were always pestering me, following me around the farm like month-old puppies chasing their own tails, watching without lending a hand, leaning on the fence-rail as I cleaned out the hog pens or tinkered with one piece of machinery or another.

“Blindy’s sweet on Gunni!” The oldest made kissing noises, and the other two joined in on the chorus, trying to get a rise out of me.

“Your sister’s one mighty fine filly,” I allowed. “Don’t know how she ended up being related to you homely little mouth-breathers.”

“Told ya he was sweet on ‘er!”

“Yeah! When’s the weddin’ gonna be, Blindy?”

“Who needs a wedding?” I pitched a shovelful of muck in their direction just to keep them on their toes. “Besides, a good little worker like Gunni could do herself a lot better’n some old one-eyed rambler.”

“So how’d you lose that eye anyway?” the youngest brother piped up.

“What else?” I said. “Got into a fight over a woman.”

Bull! That’s not what you told us last time!”

“Oh? And what did I tell you?”

“Said a crow come and ate it right out o’ your head—”

“‘Nother time you told us you lost it in a dice game—”

“Other fellow cheated,” I said, half under my breath.

“—time ‘fore that you said it got shot out in the war—”

“Naw! I swear fellas, this time, I’m tellin’ ya true. It was in a knock-down drag-out over the finest pair o’ jugs anybody ever saw.” Except maybe for your sister’s, I thought.

TAS: Can you talk a little about the place of dialogue in an erotic story that’s meant to be read aloud? How important is it? What makes it good—or not so good?
Rose Caraway: It really depends on the story. I personally love dialogue and think characters should speak as often as necessary. What makes it good is if it accentuates the scene or the moment. Especially in erotica where sexy talk is a major turn on. The not so sexy kind of erotic dialog is when it’s ill-fitting or forced. When it has no business being in the story. I will cut dialog if it’s useless. Whether I’m writing or editing, I run a test. If I feel inclined to cut any dialog out, I reread the text without it, to see if it makes any difference in the story. Sometimes, dialog does nothing but hold a story up. If it isn’t informative or if it doesn’t move the story forward, why is it there? If you have a really great line in your head that you absolutely must have your character speak, then make the character and the situation call for it.
In Tamsin Flowers’, Rope Burn, the female character answers with ‘yes’, repeatedly. Ordinarily I advise against that kind of thing, but Tamsin Flowers has been doing this a long time. She sets up her narrative so that it’s obvious that there is tension building, and that her male character’s questions are escalating, so I know exactly how each of those responding ‘yes’s’ should be narrated. No dialog tags required:

I closed my eyes, and he laughed. Gently, and slowly at first, he stroked my inner thighs and the rise of flesh below my belly. His fingers traced a path down one side of my labia and up the other; he teased me until I was panting for him. My hips pushed down against his naked lap and I nuzzled at his neck with my mouth. And as he explored me with eager fingers, I was rewarded with the feel of his cock getting hard again underneath me.

“Will you let me take you out riding and make love to you in the forest?”


“Will you let me eat your pussy in the back of my truck?”


“Will you let me tie you up again, Cally?”


“Will you let me tame you, wildcat?”

“No. Never that, Ray.”

TAS: Can dialogue mechanics—so essential in a printed story—sometimes get in the way of effective narration?
Rose Caraway: Dialog should only be considered essential if it is indeed, essential. Some stories have minimal dialog. Others are nothing but the exchange of dialog. When I’m narrating I should have a solid idea of a character’s tone. When dialog gets in the way it’s usually indicative of lack of writing skill. Writers should consider why their characters are saying what they’re saying. Again, ‘Why?’
TAS: How do you deal with characterizations, especially in a dialogue-heavy story? If you’re going back and forth a lot between a male and a female character, for instance, how to you effectively differentiate the voices?
Rose Caraway: If the writing is good, my part as a narrator is fairly easy. My ‘performance’ should never be distracting, nor should it overshadow the author’s story. In narrative, there is such a thing as over performing. It can be downright obnoxious. Male and female character’s voices are determined by what’s written. Their traits and personalities. While I don’t possess the vocal range of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, I can alter the tempo and texture of my voice. I thank Kate Mulgrew for teaching me that. My goal is to work within my range, and never distract. To perform a cast of characters in such a way that the listener clearly understands who is speaking.
TAS: So, assuming For the Men is a success—and let’s hope so!—do you envision a sequel, or even a series?
Rose Caraway: “Yes. A thousand times yes!”

TAS: Penultimate question, and it’s a great big messy one—sorry! At a time when many experienced and extremely gifted erotic writers are becoming discouraged, sometimes even to the point of dropping out altogether, what future do you envision for erotica as a literary genre? Where are things trending?  Where do you hope they’ll go?
 Rose Caraway: I really appreciate this question, and think it well worth asking. To any discouraged literary writers of the erotica genre; please, don’t give up. Please. And definitely don’t lose heart. Your ‘hearts’ are what make your ability to express the human condition so valuable. You show us strength and vulnerability like no other. I enjoy putting together anthologies that provide both the literary and genre fiction style stories. I specifically look for plot, theme and character driven stories. For me, variety is key.
Sometimes theme grabs me. (Breasted by Landon Dixon):

I clutched Samantha’s huge, creamy-white tits. Squeezed them. Kneaded them. Sucked on the rigidly pointing pink nipples—filled my hands and my face. The babe was stretched flat on her back, on the bed—me on top of her, all over her tits. I’ve got a raging penchant for stacked broads, and this one was double-decker material.

Sometimes a character does. (Labyrinth by Emmanuelle de Maupassant):

Under the moon, he guides her through the garden, towards the tall hedges. The shadows stretch out of sight. She moves as quietly as he, neither wishing to disturb the silence, so laden with possibility.

“All paths lead to the heart of the labyrinth,” he had told her. “There, you’ll find your true desire: what you covet most, or the inhabitants of your nightmares…”

“I’m not afraid,” she’d said. “I know my monsters.”

“If we go in together, you may meet mine.”

As far as trends go, they are like the tide. They are in, they are out. Then, they are back in again. I can say with utter certainty, that through my anthologies, literary erotica will always have a home.

TAS: Last question—the one I ask everybody and never get tired of hearing answered—what advice would you have for new writers, especially aspiring writers of erotica?
Rose Caraway: Reach out to other writers who’ve been in the business a while and whose tastes are similar to your own. Even if you are afraid to, ask for advice anyway, and ask more than one person. (What works for one writer may be total crap for another.)
This goes to new and aspiring writers: It is essential that you get your work out to reliable beta readers. Read your story out loud before submitting. If you are able, get your work copyedited. Follow your editor’s submission guidelines to the letter. Expect rejection. Submit again. And again. And again.
If you are an aspiring writer, start small. Something in the neighborhood of 3k words or less. Start with a short scene, or better yet—build a character. Strive to utilize and understand “the economy of words”. Invest in and read a few anthologies that interest you. It will help you with POV and guide you to finding your own voice. Put time into developing your craft. Social Media is a HUGE time suck. Be picky about which Facebook groups you belong to. It’s okay to say ‘no thank you’. Most groups out there are just noise and distraction—someone else’s agenda. Block that shit out of your life. Don’t worry about jumping into the water and trying to win the race. A good story is a good story is a good story. Get it written.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review of "London Triptych" by Jonathan Kemp

Jonathan Kemp’s 2010 debut novel comes as close to what I would call a complete work of art as anything I have encountered so far this century. London Triptych is a at once a poignant and sympathetically observed character study, a compelling work of historical fiction comprising trenchant social critique, and a vivid evocation of the eternally-unfinished,  perpetually renewed and renewing city of its title. Here, the stories of three gay men from three different times play out and sometimes overlap; Jack Rose, a young rent boy in the late Victorian period, Colin Read, an artist in the cruelly closeted 1950s, and David, a male prostitute, writing a letter to his lover and betrayer from a prison cell in 1998--a poignant echo of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis from a century earlier.

Jack’s search for pleasure and profit lead him into the shabby, exuberant demimonde of queer life in 1890s’ London, where he eventually meets an aging Wilde. Lonely and still deeply naïve at fifty-four, Colin lives a severely buttoned-up existence, in constant fear of being found out, only to be coaxed out of his shell by, Gregory (Gore) a beautiful young model. Growing up in the 1980s, David escapes the stifling conformity of small-town life to seek fortune and adventure in the city as a prostitute and porn actor. The three stories are neatly tied together by Gore, who, in the 1950s is acquainted with Jack, a man by then in his seventies. Gore goes on to become one of young David’s clients in the 1990s.)   

The stories may be as striking for their similarities as their differences: each of these characters makes the ultimate mistake of falling in love where love is forbidden or simply foolish, inevitably leading to betrayal and desolation. There are no happy endings, but only life continuing for better or for worse—fiction is seldom more real than this.

As readers have come to expect, Kemp’s writing is gorgeous, clear and confident with a rich vein of metaphor, often approaching the poetic, yet never becoming overly effusive or strained. Seldom has a debut novel been so well organized or cleverly thought out with such near-perfect economy of expression, eschewing the inessential so as to evoke a world like no other.

Wholeheartedly recommended!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

What I Read This Summer--And Why

We’ve been having a discussion over at the Erotic Literary Salon group on Facebook based on a question I posed recently: What ultimately convinces you to read a book? I’ve noticed that there’s a kind of natural resistance in many people—even people who read obsessively—to picking up a book on somebody else’s suggestion, recommendation or assignment. People have this cat-like quirk when approaching a new book: reading it must be their idea or it’s not going to happen. You can even put a free book directly into someone’s hands, and, like a cat presented with a shiny new toy, they will almost always turn their noses up at it, at least until they think you’re not looking.

The initial question has, thus far, elicited some interesting and fairly diverse responses. There are some readers who prefer to stay in their own literary comfort zones and seldom venture beyond a preferred subgenre. Some are excited at the prospect of a new book from a respected author, while a few are content to re-read their old favorites—there is an undeniable element of sentimentality where many readers are concerned. Others have more wide-ranging and adventuresome tastes, developed over lifetimes of challenging views and discussions with friends and colleagues. Some are influenced by customer reviews; others are mostly indifferent to the opinions of their fellow readers. The decision to read a new book can be based on a desire to “see what all the fuss is about” or it can be a gesture of defiance, a quasi-political act of intentionally “going against the grain”. Many readers do stress that quality of writing is paramount. As such, these folks often desire to dip a toe into the water before they commit, preferring to see a sample or an extended snippet from the book before they take the plunge.  

As for myself, I am an inveterate literary thrill-seeker. I am drawn to the new, the unfamiliar, and the out-of-the-ordinary. There may be no new stories under the sun, but there are near-infinite ways of rearranging the basic elements of story in new and exciting ways, and what I look for is that restless creative spirit, like my own, that will not be content with the same-old same-old. I read for inspiration, creative renewal, and cerebral re-creation—and I aspire to write original books that will do the same for others. I will read—and have read—almost anything, but what I look for, first and always, is excellence in writing, style, fluency, clarity, depth and complexity of characters and plot, originality and intelligence in the approach to storytelling. I recognize no sin other than the sin of bad writing.

Reading is essential to a writer’s creative growth and maturity. For a writer, the need to read the work of others is akin to the essential human need to imbibe water: it is not a question of providing fuel to the body, but of keeping that body properly lubricated. So, reading keeps the writer’s mind sharp and running smoothly, allowing ideas to flow more freely. (And, by the way, the notion that reading will somehow interfere with one’s own creativity is a myth embraced by amateurs and perpetuated by idiots.) As such, a writer should seek out the best available models. Over the summer, I tried to do just that, and the factors that ultimately convinced me to open those books can all be referenced in the list above. I picked up the short story collections Quiver by Tobsha Learner and Macho Sluts by Pat Califa based on glowing recommendations from respected colleagues. Jonathan Kemp’s 2015 novel Ghosting was a no-brainer for me after reading his amazing short story collection Twentysix (I will shortly be reading and reviewing Kemp’s London Triptych as well). I was drawn to a trio of anthologies based on the editors’ reputation for seeking out quality, originality and superior craftspersonship in short fiction: Laura Antoniou’s Best Lesbian Erotica 2015, Rose Caraway’s Tonight She Yours (Cuckold Fantasies), and Susie Bright’s Three the Hard Way. While I won’t be going into great detail about any of these titles, all of them are heartily recommended here and now.

First published in 1998, Tobsha Learner’s Quiver has gone on in the nearly twenty years since to assume the cachet of a modern erotic classic. This collection of a dozen exquisitely crafted short stories almost perfectly embodies my sense that before one can tell an exceptional story about sex, one must tell an extraordinary story about people. It’s the characters who truly make these stories memorable, from the frustrated artist in Man of Sighs and the disaffected porn star in Peel, to the very-publicly cuckolded symphony conductor with insomnia in Doubt—to mention only a handful. The writing is luminous, multi-textured, and occasionally disturbing, but almost always inspired and undoubtedly inspiring.

While not a work of erotica per se, Jonathan Kemp’s most recent novel, Ghosting, is an understated but highly assured piece of writing, a beautifully observed masterpiece of intimate gestures—what one might be tempted at first to call domestic magical realism, though ultimately the story and the characters who populate it are as down to earth as you or I. On a London street one morning, 64-year-old Grace believes she sees the ghost of her first husband, a man who abused her without mercy, and her emotional life is plunged into turmoil as she reexamines the painful past. A gorgeous, unassuming little novel of everyday life that rises well above the mundane, bright flashes of imagination shine through on every page, but it is Kemp’s deep sense of empathy that makes Ghosting a truly exceptional book.

One is immediately impressed by the sheer diversity of voice and style in the Laura Antoniou-edited Best Lesbian Erotica 2015. I was particularly impressed by those authors who drew on mythic themes for inspiration: Arachne by Catherine Lundoff, set in ancient Greece, and the depiction of a proud civilization in ancient Africa, Kiss of the Rain Queen by Fiona Zedde, both stories in which vivid, colorful settings enhance powerfully drawn characters. And, speaking of truly great characters, one cannot help but be intrigued and ultimately drawn into the orbits of intelligent, strong-voiced, and occasionally funny women, as in Behrouz Gets Lucky by Avery Cassell, Learning to Cook by Nan Andrews, The Bullwhip and the Bull Rider by Sacchi Green, Second Date by Miel Rose, Naming It by Jean Roberta, and My Visit to Sue Anne by Anna Watson. At about 6,000 words apiece, Antoniou has given her writers plenty of room to develop their characters and get those characters well and truly laid, often in something close to microscopic detail. (Some of the stories do get a bit sing-songy in places.) Small quibbles aside; this is nothing short of a great anthology,

The 13 short stories in Tonight, She’s Yours delve into what many of us of a certain age used to refer to as swinging, now sometimes simply calling it the cuckold or cuck fantasy. (Personally I despise the word “cuck” not only because of its unsavory associations with the political Alt Right in the US, but because it’s an ugly sounding word for what is supposed to be a consensual and fun activity, as it is portrayed here.) Some of these fantasies are quite steamy, indeed: Kate Ellink’s Michael’s Moment is particularly memorable for its priapic effect, as are Winfall by Tamsin Flowers, The Third Man by Emily Bingham, and The Tea Shop by Abigail Saint Clair. A few of the stories feel a bit too ‘safe’ to be truly transgressive or effectively arousing, but when the writing is good—when the authors’ imaginations soar— it is truly superb.

I’m still working my way through old paperback editions of the Califa and Bright collections. It’s very easy to see what a revelation Macho Sluts was to a generation of writers back in 1989. So many of the things that we take for granted in erotica now had never been said out loud before; the writing is fluent and engaging, but also relentless, unabashed, fearless, angry, in-your-face—the kind of writing that foments revolution and sends shockwaves through the literary space-time continuum. If this book appears on many writers’ lists of influences, there can be little doubt as to why.  

A tad more toned down, the trio of novellas in Three the Hard Way are well-crafted and eminently entertaining. Greg Boyd’s The Widow is a fascinating two-tiered narrative, while the always-entertaining Tsaurah Litzky’s The Motion of the Ocean is a delightful if somewhat disjointed romp through the sexual revolution as experienced by one woman between the 1960s and the early 2000s. I haven’t yet gotten to William Harrison’s Shadow of a Man, but am certainly looking forward to it.

So, now you know what I read this summer, and, perhaps, you have some insight into why as well.