It is a fine line—the one between a literary novel where eroticism is richly imbued throughout and the more explicitly sexual prose of erotica. Sometimes, I can hardly see the line at all.
Image courtesy Sarahana Shrestha
Many of my first publications were in erotica anthologies under various names: I started writing erotica because I was writing stories where people had sex and literary magazines weren’t interested. I had no interest in writing stories without including sex. I discovered the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, an online portal for, well, readers and writers of erotica. Among other things, the site features calls for submission. I realized I could easily tart my stories up. I published my first erotic story in 2001, but before long, I was meeting with more acceptance than rejection.
Over the following years, I placed stories in three editions of Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica, Best Bisexual Women’s Erotica, Best Bondage Erotica, Best American Erotica 2004 and a lot of other anthologies. It was a rush to meet with this kind of writing success and these anthologies always paid, which only endeared me to them further. In 2010, I edited the anthology Girl Crush, and that was a nice culmination of that period of my writing life. In nine years I had learned why my stories were being rejected (it had nothing to do with sex) and became (I hope) a much better writer, and found ways to explore desire in my fiction without compromising the stories I want to tell.
It is a fine line—the one between a literary novel where eroticism is richly imbued throughout and the more explicitly sexual prose of erotica. Sometimes, I can hardly see the line at all. In James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, a narrator recounts the passionate relationship of a young couple—Dean and Anne-Marie. The novel revels in voyeurism and offers up exquisite details of this young couple’s intimacies. In an interview with The Paris Review, Salter said, “The eroticism is the heart and substance of the book.” That eroticism is one of the reasons this novel has been so enduring, so entrancing. At times, the sex is utterly banal and still, we want to know about Dean’s prick, and Anne-Marie’s breath, and the wantonness of their bodies as they couple.
Salter is particularly adept at making us forget just how sexual his novel is by interspersing intensely erotic moments with gorgeous turns of phrase and mundane details. On a visit to Paris, the young lovers take a bath and then, “He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath–it is almost a sigh–leaves her. Her white throat appears.” Salter has struck a balance, he has walked along that fine line—reminding us of these lovers and their human bodies, their attraction to one another, and still elevating the prose beyond bodily functions.
What has always struck me is that the stories I have written for erotic anthologies are not markedly different from my literary fiction. Certainly, there’s more explicitness. There are cocks and cunts, nipples and clits. The descriptions are warmer, wetter. The moans are more guttural. Still, there are stories holding these physical exertions together. The more I write, the more I realize that so many of the ways we try to categorize fiction are so limiting. This compulsion to create hierarchies is very human, but as writers, we can rise above this urge. We can rise above the need to define everything we write.
Each of the six stories here examines desire in an original, unexpected way. These writers rise above categories. They walk carefully along that fine line between the erotic and the explicit and do so with grace and intelligence.
For Guernica‘s first installment of erotic fiction, we have Jennine Capó Crucet’s “Magic City Relic,” in which a young woman recalls one of the last times she had sex with the boyfriend she was leaving behind on her way to college in New York. A young man grapples with his desires for other men and his overbearing father in “Boy, A History,” by Saeed Jones. I’ve also included a story of my own, one that previously appeared in an erotic anthology: In “Broads,” Jimmy Nolan is a man who loves broads and desperately wants a broad to love him. With the waitress, Greta, at his favorite diner, he just might get his wish.
For Guernica‘s second installment, I chose Brad Green’s “The Weight of Rose Petals,” in which Frank has suffered a nearly insurmountable loss, and is waiting out his infirm and bitter wife, while longing for the woman he truly loves. In “Café Flesh” by Ruben Quesada, a young boy learns a secret about his mother’s boyfriend as he tries to make sense of what it means to look upon the naked, splayed bodies of women. Delaney Nolan’s “How I Gonna Bare My Neck Outside in the Sweat-Scared Morning” is about different kinds of heat.
Together, these stories say, This is how we desire. This is how we want. This is what we want. This is how little we know. This is who we are.
Magic City Relic, by Jennine Capó Crucet
Boy, A History, by Saeed Jones
Broads, by Roxane Gay
The Weight of Rose Petals, by Brad Green
Café Flesh, by Ruben Quesada
How I Gonna Bare My Neck Outside in the Sweat-Scared Morning, by Delaney Nolan
Roxane Gay‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, American Short Fiction, NOON, Virginia Quarterly Review, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others.Her short story, There is No “E” in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We appeared in the October, 2010 issue of Guernica.