Reviewing erotica is a difficult task, and maybe a futile one. Unlike sex scenes in literary novels, which (as I was reminded at a superb AWP panel) can convey much about characters’ inner lives and power dynamics, sex in erotica is meant to arouse. Period. And what turns each of us on is as personal as things get.
So I could tell you that the first short book in the New Lovers trilogy, published by artist Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited press on the occasion of Chan’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim, for the most part didn’t do it for me. How to Train Your Virgin, by Wednesday Black, involves many mythical creatures — not really my thing. But it’s someone’s! I was most drawn, by far, to a great incest scene. Who knows why? (Freud.) You might’ve hated it.
Or I could tell you I was kind of ridiculously titillated by the second novella in the series, We Love Lucy, by Lilith Wes, in which Lucy is fucked by her gay best friend and his boyfriend. (Hint: they’re not really gay.) Fantasy of being the one woman sexy enough to change a seemingly 100% unavailable man? Yes, please!
I could critique the writing, and perhaps I should. We Love Lucy probably gripped me not only because of the subject matter; I also found the characters well drawn, the language fluid, the storyline compelling. Lucy’s longstanding best friend, Nicholas, and his boyfriend, James, decide to surprise her with a threesome for her birthday. The book doesn’t shy away from the potential ramifications of this major shift in their friendship, which ups the sexual tension (and release) along with the drama. The sex is, in my humble opinion, rendered pretty hotly:
Nicholas groaned and pulled my skirt down over my hips in one powerful tug. “Take these off,” he ordered, sliding a warm hand under the waistband of my panties. “Oh my god, you are so fucking wet,” he said in amazement as his finger ran down my slit.
OK, one more:
James placed his forehead gently against mine while he slipped two fingers inside my already soaked cunt. His thumb came back to my clit, circling it firmly, and we stayed that way until Nick returned and crawled back to his former position. Submerged, that’s the best way to describe how I felt as Nick’s long fingers began to pull at my nipple while James finger-fucked me slowly with his own plan in mind.
How to Train Your Virgin, which follows the queen of a mythical realm as she attempts to seduce the two human virgins her husband has fallen for, doesn’t land as well. The fantasy world is drawn too incompletely to enable real suspension of disbelief, and the plot feels unnecessarily complex. The third book in the series, God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, by Andrea McGinty, compelled me even less. Eva, a neurotic artist newly emerged from rehab for alcoholism, sleeps her way through Europe while also pining after a man named Aabel. Reading, I mostly felt impatient, unconvinced by Eva’s purported neuroticism. Sentences such as “Einar unbuttoned her blouse, revealing her supple body” and “He leaned down and kissed her firm mounds” did not arouse.
But this critique is only so relevant. Good craft can get erotica somewhere, but so much of its success depends on tapping into a reader’s particular fantasy life and desires. Maybe you found the two longer passages I quoted above a major yawn. Maybe you like the “firm mounds” far better.
More important — vastly important — is that books of this nature have a forum and a champion. Traditionally taboo fantasies — incest, bestiality, a desire to watch your friends fuck each other — must, must, must have a safe airing ground. Badlands Unlimited is facilitating the exploration of such unusual tales, and of female fantasies in particular. (Three more New Lovers books are due out this fall.) We need this space; we need many such spaces.
I have argued before, and continue to ardently believe, that fantasy does not, by nature, incur reality. Our imaginations are places where we explore, where we test out versions of ourselves, where we try to figure out what we want. Yes, taboo imaginings are taboo for a reason: they scare many of us, maybe bring out fearsome desires and capacities in ourselves. To argue, as many do, that someone’s fantasy life makes him or her actually dangerous strikes me as simply an extension of this fear. It is the curbing of fantasy that is truly damaging, even dangerous. To that end, bravo, Badlands, for creating a safe space for these writers to imagine.