Ten US titles you need to read for the 411 on sex in America
Everyone knows that genre is bullshit, a lazy shortcut that glosses over the nuances of form. Everything is, in other words, a special snowflake, and that’s increasingly true as the state of culture becomes more and more of a grey area. Two arenas where this is particularly true are sex and literature, where formerly tight restrictions on what you could do and who you could do it with are loosening all the time; the former is radicalizing into a refreshing culture of “you do you,” while the latter is kind of doing the same thing. There’s certainly more freedom than ever before, and while that doesn’t mean the sexual and artistic climates are perfect, it does mean that boundary-pushing work in both can do some really cool things. Naturally, they often overlap. Read on for our primer on the books and magazines that have shaped sex in the past and for the future.
Published when she was just 23, Gaitskill’s first short story collection earned her a reputation for being an unflincher in the face of sexual politics that rarely seem to work out in female favor. There’s resentment, disillusionment, desire, and “Secretary,” the sadomasochistic romance that spawned the Sundance-approved movie, which starred James Spader as the dominant attorney to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s self-harming secretary.
Active from 1981 to 1996, Yellow Silk: Journal of Erotic Arts strove to make the erotic more visible (literally and literarily) in prose, poetry, and art, and under its nice-but-get-down-to-business motto, “all persuasions, no brutality,” the quarterly magazine featured some fairly heavy hitters in not-necessarily-erotic-literature: Ha Jin, Bharati Mukherjee, Octavio Paz, Sharon Olds, and more. Now, the best-of anthology, Yellow Silk: Erotic Arts and Letters, furthers the magazine’s ethos of orgasms for all, no matter your gender, race, religion, or proclivity. Unless it’s (non-consensual) brutality.
The playful aggression Bellamy dazzled with in Cunt Ups (that’s like “cut-ups,” the in-the-name technique popularized by Burroughs; get it?) is back as Bellamy turns her attention to the 1975 edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry: she transforms it into a vicious collection of erotic poetry that subverts the patriarchal canon as it celebrates it. Amateur cut-ups read like lesser, try-hard versions of their originals; Bellamy’s “cunt ups” are in an energetic conversation that creates something new both as a response to something old and as a text in its own right.
ON OUR BACKS
History time!: On Our Backs was the first female-run erotica magazine targeted at a lesbian audience. From its first issue in 1984 until its final one in 2006, the magazine published some of the most, ahem, exciting names in lesbian erotica (Susie Bright, Jewelle Gomez, Sapphire, Dorothy Allison, etc) as well as critical figures in discussions of sexual politics and sex-positive feminism—the mag was a response to off our backs, an anti-porn feminist newspaper at the time. You can also get some “best-of” anthologies online.
An at-the-time shocking (enough to have been seized by Canadian Customs) revelation of woman-on-woman kink, Macho Sluts is an S/M short story collection that created controversy in the queer publishing scene when it was published in the late 80s. Set in the dyke bathhouses, parties, and bars of San Francisco, the book is fiercely graphic and radical in both its language and content, which helped shape the lesbian leather community today.
It’s not the be-all, end-all of this crazy-successful short story collection by one of the most beloved modern self-identified lesbian authors, but Allison’s reflections on sex as a facet of class and gender and culture demonstrate—in deft, meticulous, sharp prose—how the topic is inextricable from other social and political factors, both in the American South (Allison’s home) and elsewhere.
Sex and storytelling are not mutually exclusive, though a lot of cliché erotica would convince you otherwise. Still: there’s hope. Whiskey Blue’s sex-and-sex-books-related interviews and commentary are fresh and insightful, and her self-published collection of three stories of “literary erotica” that take place in New York’s queer art scene follows suit—while also probably getting you out of yours.
Penned by David Lynch’s daughter, the Twin Peaks spin-off novel is essential juicy back-story for fans both obsessive and casual, but it also lays claim to a devastating plot in its own right. As the 12-year-old Laura descends into your usual teenage suspects—sex, drugs, the occult—knowing how it ends almost makes things more suspenseful.
This cult classic about desperation incest (maybe that should be a genre) was the first in the Dollanganger series that shot Andrews to the utmost success available to a writer whose most frequent theme is sibling-on-sibling action. In this one: when a beautiful, Stepford-esque family descends into ruin after the dad’s death, the kids end up locked in their religious grandma’s attic, where they eventually turn to, yes, each other. There’s also a really interesting exploration of family dynamics, but you know, tangential.
Di Donato’s edgy debut novel offers a female counterpoint to the male-dominated narrative of the New York art world in the 1980s. With echoes of Anaïs Nin and Jay McInerney, Beautiful Garbage examines the sexual politics that rise out of the convergent boundaries of glamour and grit, and there’s a hard-won sexual awakening in there, too.