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The Best of Best American Erotica 200815th Anniversary Edition
This is the fifteenth anniversary of The Best American Erotica series, and my last turn as editor.
In this volume, I've invited some of my favorite storytellers to make an encore appearance. I interviewed each author, and asked:
What inspired you to write your story in the first place? How do you see it, now, compared to when you first wrote it?
When Debra Boxer first penned "Innocence in Extremis," she was deliberately and publicly a virgin. When Greta Christina wrote "Are We Having Sex Now or What?" she demanded to know what authentic sexual connection was made of in the first place.
I think my answer to Greta's question was, "If you have to ask, you're probably in the thick of it." Editing this series, for example, is one of the best sexual experiences I've ever had, and I'm not being coy.
So how have I changed, as BAE's editor, in the past fifteen years?
When I was thirty-five, I had a new baby on my hip. I got a phone call from an editor in New York who said, "I hear you know more about erotic literature than anyone else in the country."
I shifted baby Aretha to the other side. "Well, if that's true, that's pathetic...but you're probably right. Most people have no idea what they're missing."
What were they missing? Honesty, for one. Goodsex stories were in hiding. For a lot of readers at the time, "American erotica" was an oxymoron. It appeared as either some well-worn Fanny Hill-style paperback, or a plain-brown-wrapper novelty that revolved around a nymphomaniac and a pizza delivery boy. Not a bad start, but hardly the whole works!
Women erotic authors at the time were virtually unheard-of. Queer writers were underground. Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence had been consigned to the stuffy scholars' corner of academia. Not a bright or accessible picture!
But I'd discovered something new since I started publishing small-press women's erotica in the 1980s with Herotica and On Our Backs. There were new writers willing to speak as frankly about sex as any other part of life -- to hell with the smarmy stereotypes. They were inspired by Beat masters, S.C.U.M. manifestos, and Penthouse Letters, but had fashioned their own new breed of storytelling.
Some people wished that the "best erotica" would hold court as a romantic walk on the beach with a soft-focus ending. But the best authors I've worked with were outlaws, nonconformists, walking short planks on fantastic piers. Those are the waters where the "best" was swimming. Nobody'd ever heard their names before.
There were a couple of famous exceptions. When I started BAE, I wrote personal letters (e-mail was not something most people used!) to Nicholson Baker and Anne Rice, thanking them for using their real names to write unabashed and eloquent erotic novels. They came from such different worlds, but they both put their reputations on the line. The early 1990s were still a time when most "respectable" writers avoided distinct or frank sexuality.
Nowadays, I don't think there're mainstream novelists who haven't been asked what role sexuality plays in their fiction -- or why they're pussyfooting around, if they continue to avoid it. It's the stuff of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners.
It's not so much that erotica has made a narrow genre successful -- although that's true too -- it's that writers now don't hold back "the sex part" anymore when they write about...anything. The omission was always unnatural and deceptive, and now the lie is laid bare. Sexless stories about human relationships are dishonest. How did anyone write about love, life, or death and manage to avoid it so neatly? It was a hoax, and thankfully behind us.
Success and innovation in contemporary erotica bred fantastic originals -- and also exploitation and mediocrity. Not exclusively, but certainly exponentially! That's the sign of how big American erotica became -- it's admired, envied, and the butt of any number of literary jokes. But the proof of the erotic literary revolution is all around us, in cinema, on the Web, in our music.
Since I started BAE we've seen so much happen in American sexuality. Â-There's been the dominance of the Christian fundamentalism in public policy, the fear -- and then ghettoization -- of the AIDS epidemic, the revolution of the Web, porn chic, kink liberation, the rise of multicultural literature -- and gay literature, the end of the thriving independent American bookstore era, two wars, an impeachment vote, 9/11, and a national abstinence policy direct from the White House that is designed to keep us chaste until marriage, no matter how old we might get. The trench has been dug. There's a war on the ground, and a war for minds and hearts that reaches into the deepest American roots of Puritanism, individualism, and rebellion.
I don't know if we could have survived it all if it wasn't for some great erotic writing. No one wrote with more poignancy about New York and 9/11 than Tsaurah Litzky's "End-of-the-World Sex." No one captured the religiosity of sexual guilt better than Greg Boyd at his "Horny" best.
And the message of redemption -- when you've done everything to screw the pooch -- can be seen in the agonies of stories like Alicia Gifford's "Surviving Darwin."
What makes a piece of erotic fiction remarkable, even legendary? Probably the biggest factor is its unpredictability, the miracle when it transcends formula.
I couldn't resist Marian Phillips's "Three Obscene Telephone Calls" because it so neatly dug the "nice girls" grave. Thomas Roche innovated the trans-noir thriller with stories like his "Up for a Nickel." Nostalgia for the innocence that preceded labels, before consciousness of the world's judgments, is spun like honey in stories such as Patrice Suncircle's "Tennessee."
There're a few stories in this collection that I never got to include in BAE before because they predated 1993. I hungered for them; I cursed my tether to our annual tradition. First among those yearned for was "Blue Light," the novella by Steven Saylor, writing as Aaron Travis, which is perhaps the most fantastic supernatural erotic thriller ever written. Edgar Allan Poe would find a telltale cock pounding in this one. At first, I couldn't go to sleep from reading it, and then I couldn't rest until I published it! I'm so happy to finally have the story here.
The best erotic lit is always highest comedy and deepest tragedy -- both in the cut, at times. I laughed at Eric Albert's "The Letters" when I wasn't moaning at his protagonist, "You've got to be stopped!"
Erotic prescience illuminates places and times that couldn't be captured any other way -- like New York on a high-wire down low in Nelson George's "It's Never Too Late in New York."
And sometimes, you just need to laugh -- a helpless, naked, wet belly laugh -- at it all, like Joe Maynard's "Fleshlight."
The shaming prejudice about sex writing is that it's supposed to be so porny, so stupid, so obvious that "anyone" could write it, craft unnecessary.
But how many people can perfect its satire and get you off at the same time, like Serena Â-Moloch's "Casting Couch"? How many chick-lit authors can turn a "Manicure" into a descent into the S/M looking glass, as Martha Garvey does? And who could articulate the dilemmas facing woman's sexual choices like Susan St. Aubin in her "This Isn't About Love"? Without their direct erotic approach, it wouldn't have been said nearly as well.
I also have some memorable new stories in this collection, too. I'll never say "Fuck me, Santa!" again without thinking of Steve Almond's "A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve." Haddayr Copley-Woods's haunted house made me creep to my bed the night after I read it and felt the floors whispering to my soft feet.
Jennifer D. Munro had me howling with size-queen irony in "Pinkie," and Eloise Chagrin reinvented a cuckold's tale in "Playing Doctor."
Erotic literature is made to break taboos -- that's its promise. Rowan Elizabeth's "Halves" transformed a Hansel and Gretel-style fairy tale into a way of seeing unbreakable desire. Author G. Bonhomme reconstructed the male libido in his "Program," and Susannah Indigo throws every Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous rule out the car window in her "Year of Fucking Badly."
I, however, am ending my tenure as your editor a little sadly -- although with great affection and respect. At the back of the book, you'll see I've included a list of all 272 writers I've worked with in our series to date -- it made my jaw drop as I reviewed the list from top to bottom. I've also provided a Readers' Directory of the most influential editors, publishers, 'zines, and Web sites Â-that've made erotic lit something to celebrate.
There's one person in particular I'll be missing as the series goes on -- that's my dad, who passed away as I was first composing this anniversary edition.
When I was asked to start Best American Erotica in 1993, the number-one most excited person in the world was my father, Bill Bright. He was an editor, a linguist, a poet -- and the greatest reader I've ever known. That's not daughterly affection; probably everyone he knew would say the same thing. His descriptions to me of the history of American erotica, and censorship battles, were something he'd taught me since I had my first questions about "banned books."
When I was a little girl, he would sit me up at his desk while he was proofreading the galleys of his linguistics journal, Language. He'd give me a pencil and tell me to look for e's and a's that weren't closed up, serifs that had broken off. It took me pages and pages to find one, but what a treasure to discover a real mistake!
He proofread every one of my BAE manuscripts, which offered plenty of new grass to mow. His expertise and enthusiasm in world languages and writing systems were invaluable to every character in this series who spoke a line of dialog. Between the two of us, we covered a couple centuries of popular culture, idioms, and historical references.
In August 2006, Bill was proofreading the latest of my galleys, up to page 125. The next day he went into the hospital for brain tumor surgery, and he did not recover. The day before, at his desk, was the last time he used his red pen.
The following winter, I was back to work at my office, and I said to my daughter, now eighteen, "It just won't be BAE without him."
Aretha looked at the pile of unread manuscripts that sat on my desk, and started writing little notes all over them. And so the apple falls to the ground. I'll treasure her Post-its as I have every one of my dad's red-ink remarks.
Thank you to everyone, for all your letters, counsel, sexual inspiration, and surprises over the past fifteen good ones. I can't wait to see what's going to happen next; and I'm sure you'll find me in the thick of it, for many years to come.
Copyright © 2008 by Susie Bright
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