I'm the woman who loves mail too much. In porno parlance, I'd say I have a big blue box with a red flag that begs to be stuffed. Bills do not count. Flyers offering me 4.9 percent interest for six seconds or season-end catalogs for ladies' cotton underwear also do not count. I hate that trash.
What I like, and fortunately what I get nearly every day, is a letter from a stranger telling me what he or she thinks of my work. Sometimes it's one of those reader surveys tucked at the end of this volume. Other times people have the urge to go beyond those tiny sheets and send me a full page of opinion.
I bask in their praise. I also seem to soak neck-deep in their criticism until I turn pruney. I am driven to hear my critics without flinching, to have the fortitude to say, "You're absolutely right, and I'm going to change this." Yet I do have rebellious moments when I want to turn the tables, and say, "Oh, shut up." I guess this introduction is one of those moments.
The number one peeve in my complaint box is, "Why aren't there more stories in The Best American Erotica that get me off?"
I've written down the entire list of demands I've received on this count, including "No more stories about gays," "No more stories about weirdos," "Lay off the S/M," "More lesbo sex but drop the fags," "No yucky blood," "Can the fatties," and "Please, no more men with big throbbing thighs."
I have also noted the reader outrage that certain types of sex are not well enough represented in The Best American Erotica, to wit: "normal heterosexuals" (I'd like to see Exhibit A on this one), "normal intercourse," "lesbians who are really lesbians" (panty check?), and "men with extra-large penises" (who's measuring?).
Pleasing everyone has been hopeless, and yet on some entirely serendipitous occasions, a simultaneous pleasure. I would say the most popular story I ran in the last edition was certainly not about "normal intercourse," but it was the hands-down crowd favorite: "She Gets Her Ass Fucked Good." I couldn't pass up a story with a name like that either, and it was a thrill for me to finally find authors with the proud butt-sense to write a story where a woman thrives on anal sex instead of being disgusted.
In The Best American Erotica edition the year before that, "The Hit," by Aaron Travis, was the favorite. It's got blood, S/M, nasty gunplay, and an all-male cast, and it is also one of the best erotic crime stories I've ever read. I wondered, after I stopped screaming at its climax, "Will this be too much for BAE?" But I've learned over the years that if a sex story is so riveting you can't put it down, it doesn't matter what the content is, the reader will be captivated. It turned out "The Hit" was the most frequently praised story in that year's collection, and I'm certain that none of the fans who wrote me have experienced anything "normal" in real life like the Mafia hit job that author Travis described.
One of the first stories I ever published, early in my erotica career, was a story called "Rubenesque," by Magenta Michaels. People still write me about this story ten years after I edited it. In it, a woman with an ample figure and, in particular, queen-size thighs, finds herself at a literary luncheon where she gets eaten out underneath her heavy tablecloth by one of the hotel workmen. Now, this whole business of under-the-counter cunnilingus is not new, but this character's voluptuous innocence was so poignantly and sensually described that the story was irresistible -- to the slim as well as the fat.
I never tell people ahead of time what the "content" of my erotic collections will be. If I tell you I have fifteen heterosexuals, nine and a half lesbians, six men who may or may not be gay, and a partridge in a dildo harness, what does that tell you about whether it's hot or not? Likewise, I could testify to the number of come shots and detail the positions -- but who's to say any particular cock and clit will make music together? The best kind of sex writing takes me on an adventure I'd never dream of myself, and at the same time, gets me exactly where I live.
I also like to be selfish sometimes, and it's taken a hell of a long time to admit it. I think the worst personal criticism I ever heard as a child was, "You're nothing but the worst sort of selfish." I wanted the first slice of every birthday cake, and mourned for my toys and books when I was supposed to be doing the laundry. All of these were likely to get me branded with the big "S."
Now that I'm a mother myself, as much as I vowed I would never use that label on my daughter, it has come to haunt me -- the innocent audacity with which children will tell you just exactly what they want -- and that, by the way, they want it now. How can they be such thoughtless little pigs!
In due time, I learned as an adult all the vile niceties about how to say what you want...without really saying it. When that failed to make an impression, I blamed myself for daring to have a preference in the first place. It was the burden of my first years as a lover that I never revealed what would make me have an orgasm, I never touched my clit or asked for it to be touched. I wanted someone to just look into my eyes and turn on the magic. To say out loud how I wanted to get fucked would have been so humiliating! -- that is, until finally I got so frustrated (or was it just old enough?) that I blurted it out.
I had no idea that it was a turn-on to tell my lovers what aroused me -- now that was magic. The way they reacted to my trust and confidence could easily be the most passionate part of our time together. I simultaneously realized that being chastened for my fantasies by a lover was worse than a cold shower for ruining any chance we had for erotic chemistry.
I actually have two sets of ideas about erotic self-interest. If someone tells me in bed that they like it missionary style, I'm thrilled to know the details and I'm more than ready to pray and play. It's good for people to know what makes them come alive, and I envy those who know themselves without apologies.
But outside the bedroom negotiation, if that same selfish little brat tells me that I'm supposed to make an anthology of The Best American Erotica out of their strict formula -- well, I'm afraid that's where you have to learn to share. When erotic fantasy becomes literature, there has to be a spirit of generosity and adventure to keep the artistic momentum alive. This is a group experience.
The Best American Erotica isn't one of those handy stroke zines or Special Prosecutor Reports where all the juicy parts are labeled by page: "Cigar fantasies, pp. 5-7." When I was a kid, exploring my first erotica, this is what I was familiar with. It was so exciting to read something forbidden in my repertoire that I couldn't read enough, and I followed the signs and page numbers to all my favorite taboos. Until, one day, to my amazement, I realized that the same page number over and over again was not enough -- there had to be something in the writing to elevate me past the expected. I wanted to be surprised.
The Best American Erotica, I'll confess, truly does have an agenda. It isn't a dial-an-orgasm collection. The stories have to pass the wet test, but they don't aim for the broadest common denominator -- if there even is one in human sexuality. This whole business of defining what is "average," or worse, "normal," in erotic fantasy is a losers' game. We may have plastic surgery to make everyone's noses and tits look the same, but psychologically our erotic profile is unique, and there's no messing with it.
Instead, I like my Best American Erotica stories to be a portrait of the times we live in. I have daydreams of aliens discovering The Best American Erotica collection a thousand years from now and saying, "So this is what turned the earthlings on." I hope they have more tolerance and curiosity than the critics who write to me now and say, "If this is sex in America, then I'm a duck."
The doubters might as well start quacking -- or get out of the house more often. You better believe this is sex in America -- and if we weren't so pruney from our own long soak in censorship and shaming, that fact would be perfectly obvious.
Valentine's Day, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Susie Bright