Maybe I’m jaded from reading so much erotica for so many years. Or maybe the Best Lesbian Erotica series, compiled every year since 1995, has set me up to expect every story to be brave, experimental, poignant or multi-faceted.
Whatever it is, the latest edition seems to have an excessively high ratio of sex scenes to plot, character development and settings. Of course, you could say. It’s erotica. In all fairness, these stories are well-written. In this sense, the series consistently lives up to its title of Best Lesbian Erotica, if “best” means written by competent professionals to produce the desired effects.
Here is my beef, as far as I can explain it in words: things have changed.
When the series was launched in the mid-1990s, graphic descriptions of lesbian sex were harder to find than descriptions of sex between men and women, or men and men. Sex involving transgendered folks was rarely even imagined. (To a large extent, this is still true.) As Tristan Taormino, original series editor, explained in her first introduction, references to lesbian sex before that point were characterized by euphemistic lines like the famous description of the consummation of a lesbian love affair in The Well of Loneliness (1928): “And that night, they were not divided.”
In 1995, detailed accounts of what could be done to stimulate, tease, torment or satisfy women’s most sensitive parts were a fairly radical thing even in a heterosexual context. When the graphic sex was woman-to-woman (or when it involved more than two female bodies), it was downright revolutionary. Anyone who remembered the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s was blown away by the vulgar, joyful, “male” (according to some feminist definitions) energy of this stuff, yet it was clearly not written by males. For one thing, the erotica in the Best Lesbian Erotica series showed a knowledge of female anatomy that few male writers (who are not also medical doctors or transmen) seemed to have. This writing looked like a message straight from the clits of the Amazon Nation. Or maybe from the g-spots.
The high-energy, high-impact quality of the erotica in this series has been maintained, but erotica has diversified since the 1990s. Probably more to the point, explicit sex has slithered into relatively “mainstream” fiction, including lesbian novels and short stories. “Mary fucked Sue” (and/or vice versa) is no longer the kind of plot which would get a lesbian writer kicked out of every lesbian-feminist community as well as her blood family.
I love the Best Lesbian Erotica series, and I have felt deeply honored to have my stories included in past volumes (in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009). However, it becomes painfully obvious over time that there are only so many ways to describe female plumbing and the things that can be done to or with it. Lesbians have sex, and we also have lives. My favorite lesbian fiction is the kind that acknowledges what sex is like in a complex, real-world context – or on Planet X.
In short, I would like to see a little more depth and diversity in the lesbian erotica of the second decade of the 21st century. I’ve probably been spoiled.
To give an example of the sexual descriptions in this collection, here is part of a scene from “Hot Yoga” by Anne Grip, a story that moves from a yoga session to a sex club:
The next thrust was so deep it made her scream. Or sing. Or cry. Tears poured down her face. Or snot. Or lube. Or come.
The theme of we-shouldn’t-do-this-but-we-can’t-help-it runs through several stories, including the ironically-named “Vacation” by Ali Oh, in which the lovers must be discreet in an overcrowded family home:
She doesn’t do this, not in her mom’s house. After a whirlwind of movement, I’m perched on the counter tiles, boxers on but stretched to allow her mouth. She wrenches my legs apart and pushes me against the cabinets. Her head is between my legs and I grab a handful of her hair as my blood heats up, and I feel myself get wetter as her tongue circles my clit, as she flicks languidly up and down, over my slit.
In story after story, women burn, melt, thrust, gush, gasp, stretch and scream. Reading this book is like watching a sex show combined with an opera. As in past editions, several contributors to this one are performance artists, and it shows.
The most memorable stories in this volume contain something besides (or instead of) uncontrollable lust. The opening story, “Touched” by Amy Butcher is a brilliant take on a standard “coming out” trope: the schoolgirl crush. There is no sex at all here, if “sex” means genital contact, yet one girl feels as touched by divine energy as Saint Teresa of Avila, and the reader believes her.
“Blood Lust” by Giselle Renarde features a mysterious woman whose back is as covered in graffiti as a bathroom wall, all cut into her flesh. She shows the narrator how to add her own mark without leaving a single drop of blood on the carpet. This scene looks like an acting-out of the impossible deal in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: the merchant owes the moneylender a pound of his flesh as collateral, but the merchant’s clever female lawyer (disguised as a man, of course) points out that the contract doesn’t allow for the spilling of blood. In the world of Renarde’s story, pains morphs into pleasure, and the unbelievable becomes real.
Speaking of female blood, “Skin Deep” by Anna Watson is a realistic look at that touchiest of lesbian characters: a butch having her period. She doesn’t want to talk about it, but her understanding friend-with-benefits knows what she needs.
There is a refreshing amount of humor in some of these stories. “The Produce Queen” by Michelle Brennan is a lightweight anecdote about a woman’s fondness for raw vegetables. It’s not a new topic, but the author has a deft touch.
“Maid for You” by Deborah Castellano and “On My Honor” by D.L. King are entertaining scenes starring service submissives. In Castellano’s story, the “maid” is a friend-of-a-friend who shows up unexpectedly like a fairy godmother who materializes to relieve the narrator’s stress after a day of work, and in D.L. King’s story, the submissive has gone to a sex club on “uniform” theme night dressed as a Girl Scout.
“Never Too Old” by DeJay is the last story in the book, and it perfectly complements “Touched.” In DeJay’s hilarious romp, a sixty-year-old butch is taken aback when her “wife” of over thirty years discovers the world of sex toys.
On a more serious note, Sharon Wachsler’s “When You Call” is a subtly heartbreaking story about a disabled woman’s realistic fear of being left (again), and the patience of her committed lover. “How He Likes It” by Xan West, “Envy” by Lulu Laframboise and “Neck Magic” by Nancy Irwin are meditations on the emotional complexities of BDSM.
But if you like your lesbian erotica focused on a steady, uncomplicated climb to an earth-shattering orgasm (or several), there are plenty of hot quickies here. The one-handed stories work perfectly well. They might even work better for some readers than the more nuanced stories I prefer.
This annual anthology remains the gold standard of the genre.
This annual anthology, originally edited by Tristan Taormino and a consulting editor, is now edited by Kathleen Warnock and a consulting editor. This year, the guest editors are the three members of an all-female band, BETTY. As Kathleen Warnock explains in her introduction:
How did I get here? I knew Tristan when we were both starting out as writers, and on the downtown New York city queer and women's rock/literary/whatever scenes. I bought copies of her 'zine Pucker Up, and thought I might try to write some of that lesbian erotica stuff. . .
In that monumentally creative downtown scene, I sometimes ran into Tristan at a popular lesbian rock party called Fragglerock, where woman-fronted and all-girl bands were featured, and fabulous musicians played in all-star pickup bands, doing tributes to their godmothers and godfathers. One night, I watched Elizabeth Ziff of the band BETTY lead a Queen tribute that included about forty people doing a cover of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' with a full chorus.
Ya had to be there, I'm sure. Series editor Kathleen goes on to explain why she invited BETTY to choose the stories for this edition of Best Lesbian Erotica:
Songwriters have the task of telling a life or a moment in a couple of dozen lines. It's a form that requires form, as well as style, craft, tempo, rhythm and talent to pull it off successfully. So I approached Elizabeth (who had moved on to work on a television show you may have heard of: The L Word), and she told me she was being treated for breast cancer, and recommended her sister, Amy. And, well, if you've got Elizabeth and Amy, you've got to have Alyson.
Later in the introduction, the editor notes
a strong international wave of submissions this year: this volume contains the work of writers from Ireland, Australia, Sweden, France and Germany (as well as someone who lives in my neighborhood).
Introductions like this always leave me with mixed feelings. Incestuous relationships among creative types who are all in the same "scene," however defined, shouldn't shock anyone. And lesbians who have been "out" for more than one relationship are aware of belonging to an army of ex-lovers; sometimes it seems as if every one of us is less than six degrees (i.e. six dykes) away from every other one of us.
But still, can a New York editor who inherited the position from another New York editor and who shared the honor with a local band honestly claim that the series has an international scope?
When Kathleen Warnock first experienced BETTY in the 1980s, much of the soundtrack of this reviewer’s life was provided by a three-woman band from the Canadian prairies, where I live. They were/are known for their beautiful harmonies, and their song, "The Woman Warrior," was at one time an anthem for Canadian lesbian-feminists. But it seems unlikely that they will ever be asked to guest-edit an anthology such as Best Lesbian Erotica. I’m just saying.
Now I've said all that, I'll admit that no one's taste is objective. By definition, taste involves discrimination. The stories in this year's BLE are all competently-written, as usual, but otherwise they are a mixed bag of cliches, poetic but porny descriptions of sex with a near-absence of plot, fabulous topical humor, witty fantasy, insightful realism, and spiritual allegory.
My favorite stories in this collection are by previous contributors to the series. "Jubilee" by Betty Blue is an atmospheric piece about a backwoods preacher, a "passing" butch who attracts women as honey attracts bees. Ruby, a juicy blonde damsel in distress, asks the Reverend for salvation, and her prayer is answered. The plot twist at the end surprises both the reader and the Reverend, who is reminded (like us) that everyone has a secret.
Probably the most memorable story (because it is the most unusual in this context) is "Uppercasing" by Charlie Anders, a San Francisco writer who chronicles (or satirizes, if that's possible) the local genderqueer/postmodern performance art scene. This story first appeared in Fucking Daphne: Mostly True Stories and Fictions (Seal Press, 2008). In this comic story, a farm girl from New Jersey named Daphne Gottlieb goes to San Francisco to find "herself," and finds a performance artist by the same name who takes her under her wing.
The more famous Daphne explains "uppercasing" to her protegee:
'We're all born with normal capitalization, but our task in life is to create the block-caps versions of ourselves. And most people never even try. Most people stay mostly lowercase, their whole lives.'
The narrator (the more lowercase Daphne) asks "if she had succeeded in becoming DAPHNE GOTTLIEB. . . But she said no."
In order to help her namesake achieve an uppercase identity, the narrator consents to be tattooed, exposed, bound and fucked in various public places as a kind of doppelganger or other-half of her mentor. Daphne the mentor, however, teaches the narrator to expect the unexpected.
"Self-Reflection" by Tobi Hill-Meyer is a powerful fantasy about a transwoman's encounter with her future self. The catalyst that brings the future self into the present narrator's life isn't explicitly described, but by the end of the story, it seems clear that the narrator is less likely to commit suicide. While relationships between aspects of the same person are often presented as dangerous expressions of narcissism, this one is literally life-saving.
On a slightly more realistic level is "Blood Ties" by Alex Tucci, about a lifelong, near-incestuous attraction which is finally consummated after a wise mother-figure has written a prophetic letter to be read after her death.
"Lives of the Saints" by Holly Farris is a hilarious surrealistic look at a sexual fetish which is parallel to a traditional Catholic fetish for virginity as a sign of spiritual purity. On the feast day of an obscure female saint, the saint and her lover/tormentor show up in the kitchen of a troubled modern dyke to give her a message.
These are the stories I will probably remember long after writing this review. Then there is a set of lush, lyrical sex fantasies on familiar themes: sex at different times of day ("The Rendezvous Series" by Colleen C. Dunphy), first-time lesbian encounters ("In the Sauna" by Stella Watts Kelley and "Tasting Chantal" by D.L. King), a fantasy in Home Depot about a handywoman ("The Kitchen Light" by Nicole Wolfe), multi-person trysts ("Shameless" by two authors, Kymberlyn Reed and Anais Morten, "Thanksgiving" by Molly Bloom), a travelogue about dykes-on-bikes before Stonewall ("Girona, 1960" by Stella Sandburg), a tale of seduction in a library by a wheelchair-bound narrator ("Pinup" by Vanessa Vaughn), a story about the eroticism of hair ("Brush Strokes" by Elizabeth Cage), one about a kind of role-reversal ("Ridden" by Natt Nightly), one about sex on camera/film ("Flick Chicks" by Allison Wonderland), and one about a mysterious woman who could be a stalker, a phantom or a hallucination ("The Purple Gloves" by Gala Fur, translated from the French).
"From the Halls of Montezuma" centers on the narrator's intense, immediate reaction to a butch stripper who performs in the uniform of the U.S. Marines with a more traditionally femme counterpart in a club before turning her attention to the narrator. This fantasy is well-paced, well-written and satisfying for all the characters, including the narrator's supportive friends.
Like other stories set in specific locations or cultures, however, this one seems to need a footnote. I wonder how many readers outside the U.S. would recognize the title as part of the anthem of the United States Marines ("From the halls of Montezu-uma/To the shores of Tripoli/We will fight our country's ba-attles/On the land and on the sea").
Erotic stories with very specific references have their own charm; they can appeal to readers who have been there as well as to those who haven’t, and who therefore find the setting, the culture or the kink exotic. People have specific kinds of sex in particular contexts, and the context can be crucial. However, the references need to be clear to the intended readership.
The two stories I would have eliminated from this anthology are "Sexting: One Side of a Two-Way" by Kelsy Chauvin and "Amy's First Lesson" by Dani M. The latter is a traditional classroom fantasy in which a young university instructor shows her baby-dyke student the ropes. This story shows promise, but this ground has often been covered before, and with more style (if the fantasy is obvious wish-fulfillment) or more complexity (if the story is presented as realistic). "Sexting" is essentially one side of a generic telephone conversation. Future editions of BLE might well include evocative stories of encounters or relationships told in text-messages, but this one looks like a script that simply falls flat on the page.Best Lesbian Erotica continues to be one of the better annual "best of" anthologies. As a series, it is still deliciously ground-breaking (as in "the earth moved") and trendsetting, but not everything in it meets the same standard.
Where to start discussing this collection of goodies?
Normally, I review the Best Gay Erotica release and Jean Roberta reads Best Lesbian Erotica, but this year we switched to keep things interesting. While Jean probably has some nice things to say about Best Gay Erotica, I'm so glad that I got to read this.
As I read through an anthology, I bend down the page of a story that interests me. When I read the final story of Best Lesbian Erotica, nearly every story was marked by a bent page. That should tell you that Best means something in this case; it's not just a title. I read a lot of erotica. I get burned out. And yet, page after page in this book is marked.
So again, where do I start to discuss this anthology? Do I mention the anticipation of reading the contributions by Xan West (“My Precious Whore”), Sinclair Sexsmith (“A Quick Fuck in a Shadowed Corner”), or Catherine Lundoff (“Tree Hugger”) when I see their names in the table of contents? And oh, how they delivered. Xan and Sinclair each have a talent for powerful sexual imagery in hot dominance scenes. Catherine's forest ranger was the right balance of authority and down to earth sensuality, but the narrator got a huge smile from me for keeping her focus on what mattered to her.
As mentioned in the forward, many of the stories in this year's anthology feature butch/femme couples. Is there anyone as endearing as a sweet butch under the spell of a hot femme? Giselle Renarde's “Pointed Nails and Puppy Dog Tails” is laugh out loud funny with some hot foot worship by a rockabilly goddess, while in DL King's “Walk Like a Man,” it's the rockabilly boi who gets taken for a ride in his cherry 1958 Mercury Park Lane by a femme who knows what she wants.
In Kiki DeLovely's “The Third Kiss,” a woman uses social media to seduce the woman sitting across the table from her in a coffee shop. Is this a comment on how we're losing the ability to look someone in the eyes and talk to them? Or is this just the latest spin on the fine art of love letters? Is standing under a balcony really all that different from sending an instant message? Maybe the language changes, but in the end, conquest is conquest.
I must mention Betty Blue's “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” In a short story, it's hard to build a fantasy world, but Betty Blue manages to do it in style with a tale of a cross dressing girl and the exotic dancer she loves to watch. Rich in detail, with a hot sex scene, this tale will enthrall lovers of the fantasy genre and maybe convert a few readers too.
Do you want more? Yes, there's so much more. Artists, women in uniform, a tantalizing glimpse into life in India, basketball, ex-sex, latex, desire, love, and lust. How can you not love this book? Two thumbs way up.
Contributions by Renee Strider, Anamika, Xan West, Kiki DeLovely, Betty Blue, Sinclair Sexsmith, Kristy Logan, Kenzie Mathews, Giselle Renarde, Charlotte Dare, D.L. King, Theda Hudon, Nairne Holtz, Catherine Lundoff, Gala Fur, Sarah Ellen, Rachel Charman, Erica Gimpelevich, Heidi Champa, and A.D.R. Forte.
Oh, I am a happy reader tonight! Best Lesbian Erotica 2013 sits on my Kindle, just finished, and I’m in the warm afterglow of some great stories. How to choose which ones to talk about?
I’ll admit to being a flat out sucker for stories like “La Caida” by Anna Meadows, “Homecoming” by Anamika, and “Crave” by Fiona Zedde that take me to other landscapes so rich in sensual delights that I can smell the air and the food. I share a longing for older butch women as the narrator in Sonya Herzog’s “I Have a Thing for Butches,” or younger butches with active imaginations as in Penny Gyokeres’ “Morning Commute.”
If you’re in a more reflective mood, “She Never Wears Perfume” by Sid March is lovely. “The Invitation” by Maggie Veness also evokes longing, but not quite as melancholy. “Daffodils” by Sally Bellerose is sort of also about lost love but the part that enchanted me was the recognition that even comfortable sex with a longtime lover can be renewing.
As much as I enjoyed the offerings in BLE this year, my two favorite stories were, surprisingly, paranormal tales. It’s so difficult to world build in a short story but both “Woman-Time,” by Rebecca Lynne Fullan and the unusual but effective “Underskirts” by Kirsty Logan managed to create wonderfully evocative tales.Every year I wonder how the Best of Collections are going to measure up, but with the guest editors helping to choose stories a theme always emerges that makes it a very different experience each time. Once again, Kathleen Warnock has brought together an anthology worth your attention.
One of the wonders of Best Lesbian Erotica is the range of women depicted in these stories: Desi, black, white, femme, butch, cancer survivors and disabled, skater girls and knitters – even skater girls who knit. What unites this disparate group of folks is desire and hot sex.
Since this is a Best Of anthology, there’s really no such thing as a bad story here. It depends on your taste. Do you want an unlikeable narrator who gets hers? Try Sharon Wachsler’s “Imaging.” Like BDSM? Xan West’s “What I Need” is intense, while DL King’s “Big Lesbo Cupcakery” is told with a lighter heart. Or maybe you like intense longing of the heart along with the sex, in which case I recommend “Run, Jo, Run” by the always good Cheyenne Blue or “Stich and Bitch” by A. L. Simonds.I’ll admit I was hesitant about the last entry, “Mommy Is Coming” by Sarah Schulman and Cheryl Dunye because it was in screenplay format, but it’s more readable than I thought it would be and it definitely evokes visuals.