30 June 2005

Susie Bright Presents: Three Kinds of Asking for It

Below is the first of a series of guest reviews of forthcoming or recent books, this one a collection of erotic novellas reviewed by Torger Vedeler. If you're curious about his own fiction, Torger is the author of Intersect: A Love Story.

Susie Bright Presents: Three Kinds of Asking for It
Reviewed by Torger Vedeler

"Be careful what you wish for." We've all heard these words, have all had them told to us at one time or another. They form the basis of cautionary tales, of warnings, a healthy counterpoint to fantasy stories where there is a happily ever after, a reminder to us all that in the real world few stories end like Cinderella. Fantasies, of course, particularly sexual ones, desire a happy ending, an orgasm, true love. They are based ultimately on the desire to get what you wish for, to have that thing you cannot actually have.

And so it is with more than a touch of irony that the three novellas in Susie Bright's erotica collection Three Kinds of Asking for Itdeal not with the satisfaction of sexual fantasies but rather with their limitations, with the collision between the real world and the fantasy one. In this way they cannot be considered pornography, as it is an essential feature of porn that the audience (or more to the point the intended audience) achieve satisfaction by having their desires met, their fetish or fantasy, whatever it is, played out as the most amazing and perfect thing ever, with no consequences.

But in the real world, getting what you want does have consequences, and this is one of the main things that separates literary erotica from porn. This is what makes the three offerings here more than simply something to turn you on.

Eric Albert begins with Charmed, I'm Sure, the tale of David, a man who wants simple sex, easy sex, sex without risk or effort. He wants the fantasy of it, and one day he gets his chance: magic, of course, will grant him this, for a price. Here the price is monetary, a swipe of David's credit card and anyone will do anything sexual that he wants them to. And so, a few thousand dollars poorer, he launches into an ever more complicated spiral of sex with anyone and everyone, graphic and ongoing.

But the price goes up too, because David's acts have consequences. To be able to command sex brings up questions of consent, of rape, and he must pay to make those he has sex with forget what he has done to them, must pay to erase the reality of his own uncontrolled desires. He must pay to prevent pregnancy and disease. And on and on he pays, until he discovers that the one thing he most needs is a thing he cannot buy.

In Greta Christina's Bending we see a different sort of desire, a fetish. To Dallas, sex is about bending over, about being bent over, about her bottom and things her partners do to and with her bottom. Fetishes, however they manifest themselves, are a common feature of human sexuality, far more common than most people or psychologists are willing to admit, appearing in everything from panties to cars to feet to knives. And so even if we do not share Dallas' predilection, a part of us cannot help but understand it, and the dilemma of it.

For the key to a fetish is that it can never be entirely fulfilled, just as actually living our deepest fantasies usually serves in the end only to cheapen them. Dallas tries nonetheless, with the help of lovers and friends. She becomes her fetish, and only her fetish, again in graphic detail. The result are consequences, both for her and those around her. The real world intrudes. The fetish is fun, but in the end it is a finite thing.

Jodi K, by Jill Soloway, is in some ways the most ambitious of the three works in this collection. The protagonist, Jodi, is fourteen, at that awkward age when sex is real but society denies that it is, when anxiety and vulnerability are so very close to the surface, when there is so much yet to discover about ourselves. Jodi is remarkably real, speaking in the language of a fourteen-year-old, issues of friends and school and boys being very large to her, when she discovers herself fantasizing about her best friend's father. Like many fantasies, this one has no reason behind it, no clear and logical cause; it simply is, and like all fantasies it exerts tremendous power over her.

The reality, of course, is very different, as she discovers. The reality is that if she seeks out her fantasy it will impact those around her. It will have (there's that word again) consequences.

What is most interesting is that despite the skill of each of these writers at writing sex, these stories are less arousing than we might think. David and Jodi quickly become unsympathetic as they pursue their desires with little thought of the people they are using, and Dallas, by becoming only her fetish, her bottom, is far less interesting as that fetish than she is when she discovers its limitations. While unsympathetic characters are usually seen as a bad thing in any story (especially one meant to arouse us), here the effect is positive, as these stories provide us with insight into the real world of sex, the one that inevitably intrudes on our fantasies.

And that's the key to this collection: reality intrudes. Stories about sex are commonplace these days, especially with the rise of the internet; a big erotica/porn site like Literotica.com (adults only, please!) has literally tens of thousands of erotic tales to suit almost any predilection. But the majority of such stories end there, with the orgasm or other satisfaction, and we must ask: could they and would they have been written for reasons other than simple arousal? Do we learn something about ourselves from them? Charmed, I'm Sure, Bending, and Jodi K give us more than just sex; they give us complexity and show us that sex, even sexual fantasy, exists in the context of our broader lives. None of these novellas argue against having fantasies, even naughty ones, but they do remind us that fantasy, sexual or otherwise, needs to be kept in context. These stories remind us that to be human is to be sexual, and that to be sexual requires taking responsibility for it, neither to suppress our feelings completely nor to give in to them completely. What we do with sex and what we do to get sex have consequences, like anything else in life.

Be careful what you wish for.


  1. That is one of the paradoxes of erotic fiction. by making eroticism and pleasure the ostensible subject, you unmask the artifice (that is one of the themes of my own erotic fiction project--see my not safe for work URL).

    erotic fiction--like other genres-- is about inventing a scenario and set of characters and being creative within a formula (while trying to subvert it). People who do it for a long time may find that the fantasy-reality question becomes more interesting than the question of titillation (although maybe their readers will disagree!)

    Susan Sontag's essay on the pornographic imagination treated arousal as a sufficient aesthetic response to literature, and I don't think erotica needs to be anything more. However, banality sets in. Much online erotica is serial in nature (after all, how do you develop characters if they're always having sex without guilt or reluctance?). Also, short forms predominate. This is completely at odds with what's going on in the publishing market.

    There are many reasons to be alienated from erotic fiction, but I would argue that online erotic fiction has been doing a lot of things that go beyond fantasy/titillation. (And this is not a criticism of Ms. Bright's fiction, but story forms via the Internet have gone way beyond that of the deadtree novel).

    1)Journal fiction/erotic blogging allows for an unprecedented amount of interaction between audience and reader. The effect of this is not always good, although it is fun and thrilling. People do erotic blogs to show off and (for females at least) to gain virtual adulation, (not necessarily of the literary sort). While reading these things, we're never quite sure of how close to reality these erotica personas are.

    2)lots of "tell your own stories" sites ensure that amateurs are posting their stuff online, and that everybody is getting to read about everyone's proclivities. (paralleling DIY porn videos, another mixed blessing). In an age where so much free adult content exists, people need intelligent and interesting approaches to the subject.

    3)fan fiction/slash fiction, as far as I know, started in erotica, and I would argue that the emergence of this type of story has good effects: it challenges the right of media companies to control derivative works, and it provides a contemporary set of mythological figures (and we need our mythologies to transcend ourselves).

    Finally one thing about erotica is that despite complaints of a decline in reading habits, people are still reading erotica in record numbers. ASSTR, my webhost, usually brings 5 or 6000 unique visitors to my site a month. That's more than I could ever get with a mainstream fiction site.

  2. Very good points, Hapax. Sexuality is an ever-evolving thing, both in each of us and in the societies we inhabit. That's why erotic art (however it manifests itself) always somehow manages to remain vibrant.

  3. thank you so much for such a detailed and thoughtful review.... this is susie writing. I'm going to forward your link to the authors, and I'm sure they'll be very interested. It is such a treat to have someone be so thoughtful in their review...

    susie bright