4 min

A case for erotica

I don’t want to say that television is the main reason we should all appreciate the value of lesbian erotica, but it’s at least up there in my top 10. Picture it: there you are, watching the same stupid TV drama (Grey’s Anatomy) you’ve been watching for two seasons now, all so you can catch a glimpse of these two, vaguely queer women on the show (Torres and Han) kissing. And what do you get for your troubles? A sparse scatter of kisses.

That’s progress!?

Forget it, I say, reaching for my bookshelf. Television knows nothing of hotness, of steam and lust. Even a show like the L-Word is only really good for drama and boob. If you want to see some real action, or at least read about it, the best source is still heartfelt to hardcore works of lesbian erotic fiction.

Of course, not everyone will agree with this statement, and I’m not just talking about diehard L-Word fans. There’s a wee bit of stigma that goes with the writing that goes all the way, and not because of its x-rated nature. For some, the problem with erotica is that it’s not all that great a read. It’s lame, your friends tell you, and it’s full of embarrassing references to dolphins and ripe mangos.

For the most part, in my experience, this assessment of erotic fiction is based largely in rumour. It’s possible that this view of porn as being bad writing has some carry from the theory that erotica is like porn, created, and more importantly performed, by people who couldn’t necessarily cut it in the mainstream. Porn = bad acting. Erotica = bad writing?

Writer, filmmaker and burlesque performer Amber Dawn’s exploration of erotica was in part spawned from her creation of an erotic reading series in Vancouver, Femmes Read Porn. The series provides Dawn with an opportunity, as she describes it, “to show audiences how sexy my mind could be — even sexier than my tassel-clad titties.”

As the co-editor of the erotica anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, as well as the upcoming Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire (to be published by Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press in 2009), Dawn notes that the linking of sex writing to bad writing is done both by readers and by writers.

“Well, coming from an MFA program in Creative Writing,” she notes, “I have certainly learned that much of the literary world does not consider erotica to have literary merit.”

Author Tamai Kobayashi, who recently appeared at Toronto Xtra’s Writing Outside the Margins festival, and is the author of the erotic novel Quixotic Erotic (also published by Arsenal Pulp) also points to the divide drawn in the literary world between writers of erotica and mainstream fiction. “We are the poor cousins to the ‘literary novel’,” Kobayashi laments, “fun but not taken seriously.”

The assertion that erotica is somehow a less than legitimate form of writing should lose some credibility when you consider that writers of erotica are, more often than not, not solely writers of erotica. In fact, women of acknowledged literary ability write lesbian erotica. Specifically, many fabulous Canadian authors of erotica write, and write well, in a variety of genres. Kobayashi has written and published works of poetry and short fiction. Writer and editor Karen X Tulchinsky, who has edited a myriad of erotica anthologies, for Arsenal Pulp, Cleis Press and Women’s Press, has also published some acclaimed works of fiction, including The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky, a finalist for the Toronto Book Award.

It makes little sense to suggest that these women, who excel at their craft when writing about things other than sex, would suddenly just decide, for no apparent reason, to drop the ball when it comes to writing about stuff that goes on above and below the waist. So rest assured, when you pick up a collection of erotica, a strong contingency of the writers who have crafted the stories inside take their craft very seriously. The goal is not to write any old story that goes all the way. Really good stories about sex are not just stories about sex, but stories that use sex to connect to something beyond the bedroom/stairwell/leather bar/etc. “I believe that human sexuality is the epicenter — if you will — of human nature,” Dawn explains, “and therefore erotica can absolutely portray deep and very human stories.”

Which is not to say that all erotica hits the mark. As Tulchinsky, who is also a writer and story editor for film and television (including the amazing Showcase series KINK), notes, “All good stories start with interesting, well developed characters. Erotica that does not begin with interesting characters is boring. If I don’t know who each of the characters are, and what their relationship to each other is, or what their story is, I don’t really care who puts whose hand where or on whom.”

Still, it’s not enough to just say that erotica is not as poorly written as its critics claim. It’s also worth reading because it’s hot. Most importantly, in my opinion, we should all support erotica because it’s fiction that has, and has always, dared to explore what is central and fundamental to queer culture: sex. I mean, yes, queers are more than just people that have sex.  But, as Tulchinsky, notes, “it is because of who we love and have sex with that homophobes use to justify their hatred and discrimination.”

Sure, it’s nice that we can see some lesbo action on mainstream television. It’s even nicer, every once in a while, to dig into some stories that at their core are about more than throwing in a bit of lesbian lip-locking to bring us back for next week’s episode. Instead, I want stories that imagine censored sex lives into fruition. “Imagine,” Kobayashi suggests, “and we can make it so.”

Ideally, potential erotica readers should start their imagining with something in an anthology, which is where the majority of queer erotica can be found. Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press offers a variety of anthologies of both gay and lesbian erotica. And there is almost always a sprinkling of Canadian queers in the US anthologies out there. Kobayashi’s short story, “Different Girls,” recently appeared in the Cleis Press anthology Best Lesbian Erotica 08. It’s an awesome (and very hot) read.