This just went up at Street Carnage.
Sex is kind of weird, right? When you think about how many people out there are just awful at the third most basic of biological functions (after smoking cigarettes and punching people in the face), it’s sort of surprising that any of us even exist. Even weirder than the act of sex itself is talking about it. Just go ahead and try to have a sexy conversation with your partner (oof, that word) without feeling like a giant dork. Yes, it sounds hot at the time, but almost anything sounds hot when you’ve got a boner. You ever play that shit back in your mind when you’re done? Yikes. I’d rather watch a documentary directed by my father about what a loser I am than have to listen to a recording of my dirty talk.
Weirder still than talking about it or doing it is writing about it. You’d think we’d be better at this by now since people have been writing about fucking since the invention of writing and fucking. For the most part we haven’t progressed past the early first drafts where, like, a stick figure with a spear points his giant cave dick at a herd of dinosaurs. Even our good writers are shitty at writing about sex. Nothing ruins a novel for me more than when some fleshy, bespectacled baller like Jonathan Franzen starts dipping his purple, engorged manhood into the ink. The Atlantic recently had a pretty decimating takedown of his sex scenes in Freedom:
In vain does she yearn for husband Walter to “just bend her over the kitchen table some night and have at her from behind.” (And we wonder why young people would rather read about love in vampire fiction.)”Have at her from behind. Shudder. Updike too was fucking awful at writing about awful fucking. He got the Literary Review’s Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex writing a couple years back. They’re the journal who hands out the annual Bad Sex Award. This year it went to an author named Rowan Somerville for prose like this, as The Guardian reported:
The judges were also impressed by his nature notes, such as the pubic hair “like desert vegetation following an underground stream”, and the passage: “He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her.”
Long penis story short, writing well about sex is hard. And yet some people manage to turn us on against all odds. I asked Rachel Kramer Bussel, a senior editor at Penthouse Variations, columnist at SexIs Magazine, freelance writer and erotica anthology editor of titles like Surrender: Erotic Tales of Female Pleasure and Submission and Gotta Have It: 69 Stories of Sudden Sex, what it’s like trying to fuck thousands of people at once with her words.
|Rachel Kramer Bussel (Photo by Anya Garrett)|
STREET CARNAGE: Tell us about some of the stuff you’ve written and edited. There’s quite a lot.
RACHEL KRAMER BUSSEL: In terms of erotica, I’ve edited 38 erotica anthologies, so there’s a pretty broad range -– four of those are spanking anthologies with names like Spanked, Bottoms Up and Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z. One was on cross-dressing, and not just men dressing as women, but women dressing as men, butch lesbians putting on dresses, etc. It’s a chance to dig into a topic and seek out as many nuances of it as possible and make them sexy, plus a way to connect with writers from around the world. In my biggest book, Gotta Have It, I’ve got authors from the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand.
I really like Orgasmic, which features 25 stories about all different kinds of female orgasms, from a woman who gets off on chemistry (the science) to a woman riding a horse. I love editing anthologies because when you put a call for submissions out into the world (note: there are several on my site right now and the field is wide open), you never know where someone else will take your original idea. The creativity can be astonishing. I’m wrapping up a 2012 book on oral sex and if you think you’ve imagined every type of scenario for getting head, I think you’ll be surprised. That’s the best part, because what springs out of other people’s minds is just so varied and twisted, in the best sense.
I also write a lot about my personal life, which is kind of a blessing and a curse. I enjoy it because it helps me process things that have happened, whether crazy things, like a date I had with a guy who was on Top Chef and took his assistant on the date, or sex with a guy who was a grandfather, or a hookup during an overnight layover in the Atlanta airport. I don’t seek these situations out but try to write as honestly about them as I can when they do happen.
You’ve written for a pretty lengthy list of publications. Is it hard to switch between your sexy hat and your normal journalist hat? Ever accidentally slip in an orgasm metaphor where one doesn’t belong?
I think I navigate fiction and nonfiction pretty easily, that’s the biggest switch. I fight hard not to be relegated only to writing about sex, because I have plenty of other interests. I think the biggest challenge for me when I’m writing fiction is to not personalize it too much, and lately I’ve been trying to write characters who are very different from me, like a transgender man into erotic boxing in “Punching Bag.” There is always a little bit of myself in my stories though, even if it’s about, say, a gay couple competing in a “Sexathon.” It’s not that I’ve actually done that, but in some buried corner of my fantasies, it sounds fun, and in fiction I get to “be” all those people doing all those wild things.
What’s the state of erotic fiction like right now? Is it in the shitter like publishing in general?
I can’t speak for all of the industry but from what I can tell erotica is thriving, for the most part. My publisher, Cleis Press, recently upped the number of books they put out a year, and there are a lot of erotic romance and erotica publishers who are making inroads with the ebook market. Zane has had numerous New York Times bestsellers with her fiction and erotic anthologies, and has her own imprint, Strebor Books (not all erotica though).
I think the biggest problem with erotica is finding it in the stores. Some of the big ones have an erotica section (like, uh, Borders), but in Barnes & Noble erotica is in the Fiction Anthologies section, making it tough to find unless you know it’s there. I’ve been told the majority of my sales happen online, and I think we’re going to see more of that, especially with e-readers, because people can buy the books and no one else has to know. The good thing for authors about this lack of guidance in physical bookstores is that it gives you an opportunity to promote your books cheaply online. I try to put story samples and book trailers up and do as much as I can to make sure the people who might be interested in, say, bondage erotica, know where to find it.
Who is this stuff written for, and who actually reads it?
I think I have a pretty strong audience of men and women, though probably more women than men. There are couples reading these stories to each other as well. I don’t write or edit with a specific audience in mind, but I do like the idea of couples reading the stories together, either to each other, or one at a time and then sharing which stories they liked the best. It’s pretty mixed and that’s my goal; I don’t want to only be writing for a small subset of people, though of course I recognize that maybe spanking erotica isn’t going to sell as well as, I don’t know, Chicken Soup for the Soul.
So you think reading this stuff in public is a problem vis a vis boners/vagina boners in public syndrome?
Well, I actually don’t tend to read erotica in public, because if I do I’m pretty sure someone will want to talk to me and I’m not much of a public chatter. I feel strange reading books, even if it’s a romance novel, with a sex scene, on the subway because I feel like someone is probably looking over my shoulder. Then again, I have a friend who used to read lesbian erotica on the subway specifically so that she could get people to talk to her! I blush really easily so I think it’d be obvious if I were reading something racy in public but more power to the people who are bold enough to read it in public.
This is somewhat related: My favorite story from a reader is that she bought one of my books at a big chain store, got it home and found that some of the pages were torn out. I kind of have to admire the chutzpah/craziness of someone who was so enamored with a given story (unfortunately I don’t know which one) that they’d destroy a book and tear out just that story rather than steal the whole thing.
I think most people have an idea, but what’s your opinion on the difference between erotica and porn?
To me that will always be in the eye of the beholder, and so often it’s used as a distinction between what someone likes and what they don’t. I’m not offended if someone calls my books “porn” -– why would I be? I care more about people getting off, people remembering the stories, people wanting to read those authors again. I think, too, people have very specific tastes when it comes to their dirty reading material, and take it very seriously and personally, and I say that’s a good thing. Our sexuality is something that’s very personal. At the same time, I hope that people who might be new to the erotica world and are curious will try something that might be out of their comfort zone; they just might like it.
What do you think about the mainstreaming of porn in general?
I think there’s always been an audience for porn and now there are more options for finding out about what’s available and more work aimed toward women and couples, and it’s just overall less taboo. I think by seeing porn stars become more household names we’re also getting a better sense that they are, in fact, people, and not just sex machines. I think the more access people have to the kind of porn they want, whether visual or written, the better.