Get in, get out, don't linger.
It sounds like a pornographic maxim, but it's actually Raymond Carver's axiom about how to craft the perfect short story. Erotic literature, in our lifetimes, has usually fit his bill. It's short, all right. Sexy stories have typically been told in punch lines, bawdy tales, quickies from a raconteur. I've seen erotic anthologies that proposed to tell a story in under a hundred words, then under fifty. Erotic storytellers have beaten the devil, then the censor, and finally the clock.
There's an untold parable behind the quick and the hot. Sexual writing has suffered under a lot of shame, and that's made it difficult to thrive. In a great deal of America's publishing history, you had to be a beatnik or a pornographer to get your hands on any form of erotica, whether crude or existential.
A couple decades ago, when commercial literary publishers began to produce erotic volumes of their own, they did so with two caveats. First, the movement was led by women, who saw self-defined erotica as overdue emancipation. Secondly, the offerings were diverse, the essence of a variety pack. No one could predict what pieces would appeal or offend, so the book was full of surprises, and hopefully two or three would entice each reader. Appalled by the whore on page 38? Turn the page and maybe you'll appreciate the strange spinster on 39.
The "lots-of-variety, nothing-too-long" approach was successful. New male authors joined the female throng of nonapologists. New readers became erotically tolerant as long as you provided them with a diversity of subject and style in each package. It was either that, or you went the porno-niche route and published titles that indicated a single-minded focus: "My Best Friend's Horny Bisexual Wife." These titles are the very definition of seasoned pulp, but for self-evident reasons, they never were called literary. They relied on stock characters as much as stock titling.
Meanwhile, what did the authors think? Writers love short stories, it's part of our character. Not because we're lazy -- writing an exceptional short story can kill you -- but because the form is classic, demanding, and breathtaking when it works. It makes a big impact seem even bigger because it is accomplished with brevity.
Yet, with so many talented writers entertaining frank and original sexuality, why would longer-length stories not emerge? In the writers' mind, they certainly do. A few years ago, while editing an edition of Best American Erotica, I realized that I was receiving excellent manuscripts much longer than I could include in a normal anthology. Some of them were so good it was a shame they weren't novels in their own right.
I felt silly telling the author, "Dear Old Thing, Your story is delicious, and could easily be twice as long, but there simply isn't a publishing venue to accommodate it." Instead, I had to ask myself, "Why not?" Why can't we take a chance that someone has the chops to create an erotic story worth holding a novel's worth of attention?
The three novellas in this book do just that. Tsaurah Litzky, Greg Boyd, and William Harrison are all authors at the top of my list when it comes to prolific, uncorked inspiration. I met them in the course of my work on the Best American Erotica series. Harrison was suggested to me by a B.A.E. reader who spotted his work in the Missouri Review, a place that I was not searching to find erotica! Litzky came to me courtesy of Joe Maynard's Brooklyn zine, Pink Pages, which, in retrospect, divined some of the best erotic writers working today. And Greg Boyd is a seismic original of California bohemia, whom I first met when we performed on stage together. He had made up his body and costume into two distinct halves, one bearded, one not -- one dark, one light. His performance was perfect erotic schizophrenia, and I made up my mind to read everything he ever put on paper. I felt the same way about Tsaurah and Bill, and none of them have ever disappointed me.
I didn't ask for a particular topic when I called my authors. I didn't say, "Give me virgins -- no, dwarves -- and I want it in Greece." What I wanted were characters and visions that went beyond fable-length proportions. I knew there was an erotic zeitgeist percolating, but it wasn't going to have a facile categorization.
When I received the final stories, I got my first picture of what it was all about: Three the Hard Way. Each story is led by mature protagonists, characters who go through a personal sea change -- and not without a struggle. They aren't ingenues, and this isn't anyone's first time. They are actually antivirginal, a stake against superficiality. No spoon-feedings here, or games of "let's not and say we did." My friend Jackie Strano came up with our very apt title. This is the terrain where authentic sexuality is more memorable than a quick tease. These three gave me a tussle and a surrender that was mercifully...drawn out. I lingered, and I loved it. I'll be grateful to them, always, for fulfilling my jumbo-size imagination.
Original material copyright © 2004 by Susie Bright