The Singular “They”

They1And we’re back to the heavy topics. No, it’s not sex. It’s not atheism. It’s not the relative merits of “Harry Potter” versus “Lord of the Rings.”

It’s grammar.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been deeply buried in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I plan to blog about it as soon as I finish it — but one of his tangents reminded me about a rant I’ve been wanting to make about the third person singular pronoun. In the section where he talks about the consciousness-raising potential of Darwin, he makes an analogy to the consciousness-raising potential of non-sexist language:

“Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote — English too often seems to exclude woman. When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like ‘the future of man’. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised.”

HeThis sums up neatly, I think, both the sexist insult of using “he/him/his” as the generic third person singular personal pronoun — and the clumsiness of trying to be both politically and grammatically correct by using “he or she.” (Douglas Hofstadter also does some excellent writing about this in Metamagical Themas — including a mind-blowing essay in which he uses “whites” as the generic term for people instead of “men.”)

So what do we do instead?

Many people have invented gender-neutral pronouns to replace “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers,” etc. And not one of these pronouns has caught on. The problem (according to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, anyway) is that, while we invent new words all the time and at an astonishing pace, it’s nearly impossible to invent replacements for words that perform complicated and largely unconscious grammatical placeholder functions. Those words get learned very young, they’re deeply rooted in our brain, and trying to replace them is like trying to uproot an oak tree with a toothpick. They evolve very slowly, if at all, and the most we can do is to shuffle them around a bit.

Simple nouns and verbs and adjectives? Absolutely. We make them up on a daily basis. Pronouns and articles? Not so much.

And “it” doesn’t work. We clearly see “it” as referring to objects, and using it to refer to people is, well, de-personalizing. Dehumanizing, even. Like in Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.”

They2Which is why I’m advocating the singular “they.”

It’s not a made-up word, so it has much more potential to be adopted. In fact, in its current usage (third person plural), both its literal meaning and its grammatical placeholding functions are extremely close to the meaning/function I’m advocating — so close that expanding its meaning/function would be relatively painless.

In fact, not only can it be used this way — it’s already being used this way. In casual conversation, anyway.

And this, I think, is the best argument going for it. No other gender-neutral third person singular personal pronoun has made anywhere near as much headway as the singular “they.” Not only can it be used this way — it is being used this way. You can’t say that about any other alternative.

I think the singular “they” is the best solution we have. And I think we should move towards incorporating it — in casual conversation, but also (gradually) in more and more formal usage as well. I’m not saying we should get rid of “he” and “she” — gendered pronouns are useful, too. But when we want a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown, I think “they” is going to be our best bet.

Now, the big argument against the singular “they” is that it’s ungrammatical. “They” means third person plural, the argument goes, not third person singular, and that’s the end of it.

YouBut I have two counter-arguments to that. One is the argument from precedent. We already use “you” to mean both second person singular and second person plural. And we do so with minimal confusion. Our grammar is obviously capable of using the same pronoun for singular and plural — there’s nothing in the structure of our language to disallow it.

In fact, “you” wasn’t always both the plural form of the second person pronoun — it used to be the second person plural only, with the now-archaic “thou” taking the second person singular. Clearly our grammar is capable, not just of having one pronoun for both singular and plural, but of allowing for a switch from one to the other. (A quick shout-out to Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope,” for pointing out the plural-singular shift of “you” in a discussion of this very issue.) The singular “they” also has centuries of literary precedent, including Shakespeare, Thackeray, Austen, the King James Bible, and others.

The second — and probably more controversial — argument is my general descriptivist approach to language. To say that a word or usage isn’t correct because it isn’t grammatical is, in my opinion, circular reasoning. It’s grammatical if it’s generally accepted as such by everybody who uses the language
 as long as it doesn’t violate the basic structure of the language (and I believe the abovementioned precedent proves that the singular “they” does not). Grammatical is as grammatical does. Language changes — in fact, change is essential to the way language works — and usages that were considered incorrect 100 years ago now are now accepted without argument by even the most passionate prescriptivist. (And vice versa.)

(BTW, if you’re unfamiliar with the arcane lingo of linguistic squabbles and don’t know what the hell “descriptivist” and “prescriptivist” mean, Wikipedia has an excellent entry on the subject. Short version: Prescriptivists tend to think people should use language according to rules set out in grammar books, and are more likely to resist changes in language; descriptivists tend to think grammar books should describe the rules of language as it’s used, and are more likely to embrace changes in language. The difference is often described as if it were between two clearly opposing camps, but in fact it’s more of a shades-of-gray spectrum.)

Now, while I am a fairly ardent descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what words mean (not to mention the structures we put them together with), then the language just becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth debating whether any given change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and graceful.

They3But I think the singular “they” is all of the above. It’s needed, it’s wanted, it’s simple, and it works. And the more it gets used, the less awkward it will sound, and the more quickly it’ll be accepted as standard usage.

So let’s use it.

Tag, You’re It!

TagI just got tagged with this, and found it pretty entertaining, so I’m passing it along. I am now tagging Charlie Anders, Jill Nagle, and Carol Queen. Play if you think it’d be fun, don’t if you don’t. This is not a chain letter, bad luck will not follow you if you break the chain of this silly game. (And if any of the rest of you think it’d be fun to play, please do!)

It’s a blog game. I’m supposed to pick three bloggers I know and ask them to:

1231) Pick up the book that you are nearest to with 123 or more pages. (According to early versions: Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.)
2) Turn to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth full sentence in that page.
4) Copy that and the next two sentences that follow.
5) Tag three more bloggers to do the same.

I got tagged by Iamcuriousblue, and got this result:

The closest book to me was a graphic novel, and page 123 did not have five full sentences. So I started counting with the first full sentence on that page and went to the fifth sentence after that, which took me to Page 125.

Crepax“And if eroticism needs the extraordinary, the new, then your innovations are a threat… some day all the variations will have been played out!”

“Your fears are vain, my friend, since eroticism is not inherited… it’s a personal adventure!”

“At this point you are seeing the second law of erotica… the need for asymmetry!”

It’s from the graphic novel “Emmanuelle, Bianca, and Venus in Furs,” by Guido Crepax. The really entertaining part: I was at work when I got tagged. This book really was the closest to me on my desk. Sometimes I love my job.

Best Erotic Comics 2008: Call for Submissions

Last_gasp(Note: This news has now been updated.)

Last Gasp is seeking submissions for an anthology of adult comics, Best Erotic Comics 2008 (the first in a planned annual series). The series is intended to showcase the most artistically interesting — and most sexually arousing — recent erotic comics, from both the literary comic side of the field and the smut comic side. We believe that the divide between literary comics and adult comics is unfortunate and unnecessary, and we plan to make “Best Erotic Comics” enjoyable both as a literary and artistic exploration of human sexuality… and as a fun dirty book.


Thus begins the call for submissions for my brand-new book project, “Best Erotic Comics 2008.” (The complete call for submissions is on my Website, but I’m also including it at the end of this post.) If you’ve talked to me in the last couple/few months and I’ve said I had a potential new book project in the works but was cagey about the details… this is it.

I am dying of excitement. I am so proud of this project — and am having so much fun with it — that I could just fall into hysterics at any time.

And here’s why I’m doing it.

Black_holeIf you’ve been paying attention, you know that the last 20 years or so have seen a tremendous blossoming in the world of comics and graphic novels.

Bae2006And if you’ve been paying attention, you know that those same 20 years have seen a similarly fabulous blossoming in the world of erotica, especially erotic writing and photography.

But erotic comics have not been getting their props. Adult comics are very much ghettoized in the comics world, shunted off to the side with the expectation that its readers want jerk-off material and nothing more. As a result, the work has suffered, in the same way that stigmatized, low-expectation, commerce-driven art forms and genres have always suffered.

Lost_girlsThere’s good work being done, though. There are adult comic artists doing work with excellent literary and artistic merit. There are serious art/literary comic artists and graphic novelists creating some wildly hot and dirty scenes in their work. And Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s impossibly beautiful Lost Girls (drool, drool — but that’s a post for another day) has made the potential for this field — and for the fusion of its literary/art side and its dirty side — unmistakably clear.

The time is clearly ripe for a blossoming in the field of adult comics. With the “Best Erotic Comics” series, I want to help foster that growth. I want to spotlight the good work that’s currently being done — and I want to encourage comic artists to do more of it.

So if you’re a comics fan and you have suggestions for work you think should be included in this book, please look over the call for submissions, and send me your suggestions/nominations. If you have friends/colleagues/etc. who are comic artists, please pass the call for submissions along to them. And if you’re a comic artist, for the love of God, check out the call for submissions, and send me your work.


Best Erotic Comics 2008, to be published by Last Gasp

Last Gasp is seeking submissions for an anthology of adult comics, “Best Erotic Comics 2008” (the first in a planned annual series). The series is intended to showcase the most artistically interesting — and most sexually arousing — recent erotic comics, from both the literary comic side of the field and the smut comic side. We believe that the divide between literary comics and adult comics is unfortunate and unnecessary, and we plan to make “Best Erotic Comics” enjoyable both as a literary and artistic exploration of human sexuality… and as a fun dirty book.

In keeping with this vision, submissions to “Best Erotic Comics” should be both:

a) Hot.

b) Interesting in some way in addition to being hot.

Here are some more details:


Submissions to “Best Erotic Comics” should not simply be hot sex comics. They should have some literary and/or artistic quality, as well as being arousing. We are looking for hot sex comics that are also thoughtful, insightful, engaging, funny, poignant, political, and/or exceptionally well-drawn.


Submissions to “Best Erotic Comics” should not simply be about sex. They should also be hot. We are looking for thoughtful, insightful, engaging, funny, poignant, political, and/or exceptionally well-drawn comics that make the reader want to have sex and/or whack off.


Excellent! Send us your best work.

We are looking for a wide variety of erotic content — straight, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and other; kinky and vanilla; from the points of view of women, men, and others. Both single-panel and multi-panel comics will be accepted. We are primarily looking for black-and-white work, but will be including a limited color section. We are accepting both original and previously-published comics; previously-published work should have been published or reprinted fairly recently, ideally after January 1, 2000. You can submit individual stories or excerpts from longer works. Work should be in English or wordless. Deadline for submissions: November 30, 2006. The pay starts at $20 a page, depending on length and other considerations.

The editor of the anthology is Greta Christina. Greta has been writing about sex professionally since 1989. She is editor of the anthology “Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients,” and author of the erotic novella “Bending,” which appeared in the three-novella collection “Three Kinds of Asking For It” edited by Susie Bright for Simon & Schuster. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Ms., Penthouse, and the Skeptical Inquirer, as well as several anthologies, including Best American Erotica 2003 and 2005. She has worked for Last Gasp Books and Comics since 2002.

Please send submissions to:

Last Gasp
Attention: Best Erotic Comics
777 Florida St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Do not send originals, or your only copy. All submissions with SASE will be answered, but submissions will not be returned. Deadline: November 30, 2006.

If you have any questions, please contact

The Death of the Novel?

Matisse_woman_readingMy friend Kanani and I were talking about books last weekend, and one of the topics on the table was the fact that, even though we’re both voracious readers, neither of us reads very many novels any more. (Not contemporary ones, anyway.) This brought up an idea/rant I’ve been wanting to blog about for some time — a response to people who complain about the fact that almost nobody reads serious novels anymore, and who bewail the impending doom of literary fiction.


Pride_and_prejudiceThis is going to make me sound like a Philistine. But I think that living in the late 20th/early 21st century and griping about the fact that nobody reads novels anymore… well, it’s a bit like living in the early 19th century and griping about the fact that nobody reads sermons or epic poetry, because they’re all reading those darned newfangled novels.

Guns_germs_and_steelWe are living, right now, in a time of tremendous blossoming in the field of non-fiction. There is just an enormous amount of amazing non-fiction out there right now — compelling, insightful, allusive, funny, petrifying, inspiring, and beautifully written. (BTW, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most exciting and interesting cinematic form right now is the documentary…)

PersepolisAnd we’re extraordinarily lucky to be living in a time when an entirely new literary form is blossoming like mad — the graphic novel.

MausYes, yes, I know. Graphic novels aren’t all that new, and comics as an art form have been around for a while. By the same token, the novel had been around for a while by the early 19th century as well — and I’d still peg that as the time when the form really began to come into its own. At the risk of sounding like an SAT question, I would argue that the last 20 years or so is to comics and graphic novels what the early-to-mid 19th century was to the novel: not the time when it was born, but the time when it began to really flourish and take hold as a serious — and seriously recognized — art form. (Art Spiegelman is to the graphic novel as Jane Austen is to the novel? Okay, I’ll stop now.)

Sim_cityOf course, fiction hasn’t just been losing readers to non-fiction and graphic novels. It’s also been losing readers to TV and video games and the Internet. I get that. (Although I’ve seen some interesting defenses of video games as a new and valid art form..) And of course, something dear and precious would be lost if the novel dwindled away completely… just as I’m sure something precious was lost when epic poetry began to fade.

Lisa_saxophoneMy point is this: If one creative form is in fact diminishing in impact and importance, that’s certainly sad if you’re attached to that form. But it doesn’t mean that creativity itself is disappearing. Creativity seems to be hard-wired into the human brain, and as long as we’re around, I don’t think it’s going anywhere.

Tee Corinne, and my other mothers and fathers

Corinne_dreamsSomeone I never knew died on August 27, and I sat at my computer at work yesterday writing an obituary and trying not to cry.

Corinne_cuntIn case you’re not familiar with her, Tee Corinne was one of the earliest pioneers of the modern lesbian and women’s erotica movements — in photography, writing, and art. She’s probably best known for the “Cunt Coloring Book,” but I mostly knew her from her photography. She was one of the first women to create sexual images and writing for women, from a woman’s point of view, outside the male-driven porn machinery — and to do it publicly and shamelessly.

And by “one of the first,” I don’t mean she was doing it before it was cool. I mean she was doing it before it was being done. Her doing it is one of the things that made it possible for the rest of us to do it. She paved the way. She made a space.

I never met Tee Corinne. But she’s one of the people who made my life easier.

Corinne_intimaciesNo, strike that. She’s one of the people who made my life possible. I’m not a pioneer — I’m an early adapter, but I’m not a pioneer — and I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have had the nerve to step into those woods if there hadn’t been Tee and people like her cutting through the brush and stamping out a trail first.

I feel bad that I never took the time to write her while she was alive and thank her. So I want to do that now — not just Tee, but all the people who’ve made talking about sex, and making art about sex, and providing/getting accurate information about sex, that much easier. I always get pissy when young sex writers/artists act like it’s always been this easy and don’t acknowledge the debt of gratitude they have towards the people who came before them. So I want to say thank you now.

Corinne_intricateI want to say thank you, not only to Tee Corinne, but to Joani Blank and Betty Dodson, to Pat Califia and Honey Lee Cottrell, to Felice Newman and Frederique Delacoste, to Priscilla Alexander and Scarlot Harlot, to Michael Rosen and Mark I. Chester, to Layne Wincklebleck and Kat Sunlove, to the founders of San Francisco Sex Information, to Nina Hartley and Annie Sprinkle, to Isadora Allman and Susie Bright. And I know there are more. I know I’m forgetting some people, and for that I apologize. If you think you should have been on this list, you probably should have.

To all of you I want to say: I am not an ungrateful child. I am more grateful than I could possibly say.

Hide and Seek: Dirty Found Magazine, issue #1

Dirty_found_1In my continuing attempt to keep this sex-writer’s blog at least marginally focused on sex, here’s another smut review I wrote for Adult Friend Finder magazine — my review of “Dirty Found” magazine. I do have a couple of rants-in-progress that I was hoping to finish this weekend, but with three parties plus picking up my mother-in-law at the airport, somehow having a life got in the way of writing about it. I promise to be out in the next few days with my rant about people who disrespect science while drooling over exciting techy toys. In the meantime, you’ll just have to settle for porn reviews. Enjoy!

Hide and Seek
by Greta Christina

Dirty Found Magazine, issue #1
Davy Rothbart & Jason Bitner, editors

I can tell you this for certain: it’s not like any other dirty magazine you’ve seen.

Found_1Here’s what it is. Have you ever heard of Found Magazine? It’s a magazine of “found” art and writing: love letters, to-do lists, snapshots, doodles, diaries, etc. People find stuff on buses, in garage sales, at cafe tables, even just on the street or in the trash — and they send them in to the magazine, which publishes them. It’s a cool thing, a fascinating glimpse into other people’s secret hearts and minds.

Dirty Found is the same thing, but… well, dirty. The letters, the photos, the drawings, the to-do lists, the email printouts… all of them have to do with sex. The photos found tucked into used books show people proudly displaying their naked or half-naked bodies. The drawings found on the street depict naked people, explicit sex, bizarre erotic scenarios. The journal found in the trash pile gives meticulously explicit details about the journal writer’s wildly kinky sex life — and the extreme sex fantasies that even she’s scared of.

Dirty_found_4In a way, it’s like a magazine of amateur porn: like letters written to dirty magazines, or photos published with adult personal ads. But unlike amateur porn, the stuff in Dirty Found wasn’t meant for public consumption. It’s not about what writers or artists or photographers think their audience will find hot. It’s about what ordinary people personally and privately think is hot. It doesn’t show the sex lives people deliberately show to the public — it shows the sex lives people meant to keep to themselves and their lovers. (There’s arguably an ethical problem with making this material public; but the magazine does make an effort to conceal people’s identities, with names blacked out in the writing and bars over the eyes in the photos. Anyway, if people wanted this stuff kept private, they probably shouldn’t have left it lying around.)

So like I said, this is definitely not your grandfather’s porno mag. It’s much more personal than that, more intimate. Dirty Found is like a secret spy camera in a motel room, like being a fly on the wall in dozens of bedrooms at once. It’s a peek through a keyhole at the dirty freaky things people do but never tell anyone about; it’s the naughty, nasty, voyeuristic thrill of seeing things you aren’t supposed to see.

At the same time, it’s unbelievably sweet and touching. The photos especially: the people in them look so pleased with themselves, so proud of their bare asses or their sexy underwear or just their cocks and cunts. And it’s so ferociously personal. Seeing these pictures and reading these notes, you almost feel like you’re the one they were meant for. It’s as if you’re the naughty secret lover these folks were thinking of when they scribbled their fantasies in a notebook, like you’re the giggling, dirty-minded boyfriend or girlfriend who snapped the picture when they took off their clothes and spread their legs for the camera.

Dirty_found_3_bedAnd the variety is staggering. There are love notes about sexy moonlit walks, and love notes about vibrators and jacking off. There’s a carefully typed story about watching a neighbor girl undress, and hastily scrawled notes about doing meth and getting gang-banged. There are drawings of women being pissed on, and of medieval gay orgies, and of schoolgirls fucking themselves with high-voltage vibrators. And there are photos. Oh, my God, are there photos. There are photos of naked girls with their legs spread, and of guys in bondage getting enemas; girls on all fours and guys with their hands in their pants; close-ups of hard-ons and close-ups of feet; women in lingerie and men in lingerie; and photo after photo of plain old ordinary happy naked people, in beds or on sofas or God knows where.

My personal favorite is the journal. Several pages of this one journal are reproduced in Dirty Found, the journal of a writer/performance artist/dirty dirty girl that someone found in some New York trash. The journal describes this woman’s kinky sexual adventures with her lover and her fantasies about him, adventures and fantasies that would put many a smut writer to shame. She writes about ordered to dress up like a slut and display her ass, being ordered to lick his asshole and beg to get fucked. She writes about pissing on her lover, and getting pissed on by him, and fucking him with an enema nozzle before she delivers the enema. She writes about the freaky shit fantasies they talk about while they’re fucking, and the even more freaky shit fantasies that she thinks about when she masturbates. (She draws, too, so some of these stories come with illustrations.)

But this is a journal, not a smutty novel… so not everything in it goes right. For instance: She describes a moment where her lover began to beat her bare ass with a belt; but he hit her too high, it was unpleasant and un-erotic, and she made him stop. Now, in a smutty story, this could be jarring, the sort of thing that jolts you out of the fantasy and back into the yucky real world. But here, the real world is the whole point, and the mis-strokes and awkward bits just make the image even more real, more immediate — and therefore, a whole lot more hot. I love what a shameless pervert this woman is, how intense she is about her dirtiness and how much she enjoys it. And I like her style — her journal is unpolished but quite well-written, probably the best-written thing in the whole magazine.

Dirty_found_2_drawingWhich leads me to my next point, and a bit of fair warning. The smut in Dirty Found isn’t professional, and as a result… well, it isn’t professional. The writing is badly spelled and often rather trite; most of the drawings are kind of cheesy; the photos are poorly lit, and the people in them are pretty average-looking for the most part, and their sexy poses are often awkward and less than entirely flattering. I’m not saying this as a criticism — if it were all super-professional and well-made, the magazine wouldn’t be what it is. I just want you to know what to expect. Don’t get Dirty Found expecting slick stories of perfect fantasies, or beautifully lit photos of exquisite models. Get it expecting a sweet, sloppy, vivid, unsettling, funny, tacky, and utterly true picture of what’s going on inside other people’s libidos.

For Better or Worse: “Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples”

TabooIn an attempt to inject some more sex into what is ostensibly a sex writer’s blog, I’m going to start posting some of my smut-and-sex-toy reviews here. Don’t worry — I’m not abandoning the rants and musings about skepticism and politics and music and weird dreams and Harry Potter and stuff. But since I am primarily known as a sex writer, I thought some of you might want to read some of my thoughts about, you know, sex.

This review originally ran in Adult Friend Finder magazine, where I’ve been writing for about a year and a half now. I’ve done a lot of good work for them, but this is one of my favorites. It uses a dirty book review as a jumping-off point to think about the anatomy of a dirty story, and how porn fiction works — or doesn’t. Enjoy!

For Better or Worse
by Greta Christina

Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples
edited by Violet Blue
Cleis Press, $14.95

OceanI realize that calling an erotica anthology uneven is like calling the ocean wet. It’s practically built into the definition of the thing. When you have a couple dozen or more stories by a couple dozen or more writers, you’re going to have ups and downs, higher points and less high points. And in an erotica collection, you’re naturally going to have stories that turn you on and ones that don’t, stories that cater to your favorite delectable desires and stories that cater to other people’s weird-ass kinks (or their totally boring ones).

But while all erotica anthologies are uneven, some are more uneven than others. Some hit a consistently high note, ranging from damn good to fucking great; others wobble about in the range from mediocre to pretty decent. And some, like Taboo, are all over the damn map, with stories that send you flying… and stories that make you wonder why even the writer cared.

Sweet_lifeTaboo was put together by the editor of the Sweet Life anthologies, and it’s in a similar vein: stories about (and for) committed long-term heterosexual couples acting out fantasies and exploring new sexual possibilities, aimed at a couples’ audience and meant to both arouse and inspire. But Taboo has an important twist. While the fantasies in the Sweet Life books are on the gentle, not-very-threatening side — first-time spankings, three-ways, dildos, and the like — the stories in Taboo are kinkier, edgier, more extreme. Taboo has public sex, public kink, medical scenes, rape scenes, gender-fuck, sex with strangers, sex with guns, and heaps upon heaps of heavy-duty hard-core dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. It’s all about couples consensually exploring fantasies together — but there’s a huge variety in the fantasies and fetishes that the couples in the stories are exploring.

And there’s a huge variety in the quality of those stories. Taboo is so interestingly uneven that you could almost use it in a writing class, an object lesson in what makes porn fiction work — and what doesn’t.

SpeculumLesson 1: You can’t write a good porn story by just describing a series of physical events. Really effective porn gets inside the characters’ heads and bodies, makes the reader feel what they’re feeling. “After Hours” by Dante Davidson does this exquisitely. One of the better and more twisted stories in Taboo, it describes a medical scene between a doctor and a nurse, a gynecological exam with a sexual edge that gradually crosses the line from nasty, forbidden thoughts to nasty, forbidden deeds. Davidson does a remarkable job of conveying how the doctor feels, the line he walks between detached professionalism and intense arousal and invasion — so much so that it takes a while to figure out that this is actually a consensual, planned-out scene between an established couple. And Davidson doesn’t just get you inside the doctor’s head — he gets you inside the nurse’s as well, conveying not just the man’s excitement but his awareness of the woman’s as well.

CucumberOn the other very disappointing hand, we have “Forbidden Fruit” by Pearl Jones. This is a prime example of the “series of physical events” theory of porn writing. In it, a couple has a series of sexual encounters involving fruits and vegetables. The woman masturbates with a cucumber, and later on her husband fucks her with a cucumber, and then they go to the grocery store and buy more sexy fruits and vegetables, and then he goes down on her with the cucumber inside her, and then they eat raspberries off each other’s bodies, and then she cuts a hole in a melon so he can fuck it, and then… and it goes on like this. Jones gives detailed descriptions of each act, occasionally even describing the couple’s physical sensations… with no sense at all of what it means to them, what it is about fucking their produce that they find naughty or sexy or special, how it all feels to them emotionally as well as physically. Admittedly, the “sex with food” thing doesn’t do much for me (and frankly, I’m hard-pressed to see what’s so all-fired taboo about it). But I’m not particularly into the medical fetish, either; yet “After Hours” got me inside that fantasy — and made me feel exactly what was hot about it.

Which leads me to Lesson 2: A porn story should be… well, a story. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it should have a narrative arc: it doesn’t have to have a lot of non-sexual plot, or indeed any, but the characters should be in one place at the beginning of the story, someplace else at the end of it. You can get away with a series of disjointed sexual images in video porn, since it’s such a visual medium; but unless it’s written by an exceptionally good experimental writer, a porn story has to unfold, with some suspense about where things are going. This isn’t just a literary nicety — it makes the porn hotter, making it easier to identify with the characters, and giving it a sexual tension right along with the dramatic tension.

James_deanFor an excellent example, take “James Dean, One Thousand Bucks, and a Long Summer Night” by Emilie Paris. “James Dean” starts out as a fairly standard (albeit unusually well-rendered) fantasy about a couple picking up a street hustler for a voyeuristic three-way. But as the story unfolds, the wife changes her mind about what she wants — and takes charge of the scene, directing it into an area she and her husband hadn’t anticipated or even agreed on. The moment when the wife takes control and shifts the fantasy from the standard “man watching his wife fuck another man” to the rather less commonly-seen “newly dominant wife watching her straight husband get fucked by another man” is a moment that’s both unnerving and fiercely exciting. The story gets across the essence of what makes taboos hot — not simply breaking society’s rules and boundaries, but breaking your own, with the excitement of genuinely unfamiliar territory that might actually change your life while it’s getting you off.

And of course, any good narrative has to have conflict. This may be the lesson Taboo was in the greatest need of. Far too many of its stories gloss right over the hard parts: couples venture into three-ways with never a blink of jealousy or insecurity, and try freaky new fetishes with pure eagerness and no hint of anxiety or doubt.

BabysittersI could once again cite “Forbidden Fruit”: a twelve-page story, packed with multiple sex acts, in which absolutely nothing happens. It’s a near-perfect example of how the lack of development or conflict makes for truly boring smut. (I’m sorry to keep harping on this one story; it was just so pointless and rambling and dull that it actually stood out, making me wonder what on earth it was doing in an erotica anthology with obvious aspirations to quality.) But I don’t want to keep hammering on this one poor sad piece of supposed erotica. And I actually have a better example of bad conflict-less porn: “Sometimes It’s Better to Give,” a “couple fucks their babysitter” story by Bryn Haniver. It’s a fun fantasy (or it could be), loaded with potentially hot taboo elements: the depraved older couple seducing the innocent girl, the wicked employers taking advantage of their employee, the moment when the young woman’s surprise and resistance turn to curiosity and lust, etc. etc. But the author goes to an absurd effort to de-fang the nastier parts and make it all safe and nice. The babysitter’s actually their ex-babysitter, a horny and flirtatious college girl with loads of sexual experimenting already under her belt, and when the couple propositions her, she says yes with barely a blink of an eye. The author didn’t let her be shocked or reluctant or even surprised, not even for one paragraph. As a result, there’s no suspense, no conflict — and no tension, sexual or otherwise. And it’s not even remotely plausible.

Dark_alleyAdmittedly, I have a personal bias towards smut fiction that’s plausible. It’s hard to lose myself in a sex fantasy if I’m picking holes in the backstory or thinking, “There’s no way she would do that.” But my desire for porn with real conflict and problems isn’t just about believability. It’s about sexual tension, the heat created by personal friction. As a marvelous counter-example, there’s “Dinner Out” by Erin Sanders, one of the best, scariest rape fantasies I’ve read. It works because it lets the rape be both terrifying and safe. It’s clear to both the reader and the “victim” that this is a couple acting out a rape fantasy and not a real rape — and yet it lets the victim feel panic and helplessness, violation and pain. And it doesn’t shy away from the tension in her own feelings, the unsettling and exciting disconnect between feeling violated by a stranger and feeling cared for by a loving partner. There’s also “In the Back of Raquel” by P.S. Haven, an entirely different “couple tries a voyeuristic three way” story that lets the scene be imperfect, that explores and even revels in its weirdness and jealousy and competitiveness — and that finds the fierce, driven, urgent intensity at the heart of the weirdness, the almost-angry tension that makes the story both arousing and believable.

Exam_tableAnd while we’re on the subject of plausibility, we have our final lesson: respect for the fetish or fantasy. The two medical-play stories in Taboo are perfect examples of what I mean. I’ve already talked about “After Hours,” (the perverse and lovely doctor/nurse medical exam fantasy) and how it made the gradual unfolding of the story feel like exquisitely tantalizing foreplay. But the story also works because it lets the characters get into their roles and act as if they were real. Their nasty thoughts and feelings are clearly there from the beginning, but they act like doctor and patient for a good long while, keeping the reader in suspense and sticking within the fantasy’s boundaries until almost the end. It lets you believe these dirty dirty things could really be happening, in a real medical exam — and this lets you have the fantasy, lets you crawl inside it and feel it down to your blood vessels.

Nurse_bootIn contrast, we have “Medical Attention” by Skye Black. In this one, the medical attention doesn’t get to be clinical and detached even for a minute before it becomes blatantly and explicitly sexual. It has no patience, doesn’t let you believe that this could really be happening even for a paragraph: it jumps to the sex right away, giving you the barest taste of the fantasy — and almost immediately smashing it to pieces.

Okay. All this babbling about the anatomy of a porn story is all very well and good. But it’s not helping you decide whether to buy the damn book or not. What’s my final verdict? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Taboo_1On the whole, I’d say thumbs up. While Taboo is seriously uneven, enough of the stories are good to make the book worthwhile — and several of the stories are better than just good. If you like porn that’s about taboo sex and edge play, do check it out. And if you’re intrigued and inspired by the idea of acting out edgy taboo sex fantasies in solid long-term relationships, then this is your baby. Just be prepared: you’re going to have to do some skimming. Even more than you usually would with a porn fiction anthology.

P.S. You can buy Taboo at Powell’s.

Why I Like “Harry Potter” Better than “Lord of the Rings”

Harrypotter1LordoftheringsI’m not arguing that “Harry Potter” is actually — in some objective sense — better than “Lord of the Rings.” (If it even makes sense to say “in some objective sense” when you’re talking about art.) I get that “Lord of the Rings” is probably Great Art, and I’m not sure that “Harry Potter” is. (Talk to me in a hundred years, when we see if kids are still reading it.)

What I’m saying is that I enjoy “Harry Potter” immeasurably more than “Lord of the Rings.” With “Harry Potter,” I eagerly look forward to each new installment in the series. I re-read the books frequently and with pleasure; I have an extensive memory of the story, and can discuss its finer points at length; and I have an elaborate and probably unhealthy fantasy life centering around the Potterverse.

“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand, I slogged through twenty years ago out of a sense of duty. I found it tedious and unengaging, and skimmed through long sections of it; I’ve never had the slightest desire to re-read it even once; I have only the vaguest memory of the general outline of the plot (ring, Mordor, lots of battles, yada yada yada); and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than four or five characters — and that only because those names get tossed around so much in conversation. (Yes, my friends are nerds.) “Lord of the Rings” is like Wagner or Bob Dylan to me — I recognize and acknowledge its greatness, without actually liking or enjoying it.

And I think this is a defensible position.

So I’m going to defend it.

Here’s what I think “Harry Potter” has that “Lord of the Rings” doesn’t.

Snape1. Moral complexity. I may be being unfair here — like I said, I have only the vaguest memory of “Lord of the Rings” — but the characters in LOTR seemed to line up into clearly distinguished Good Guy/Bad Guy camps. Who then proceed to fight each other. For three long books. With the exception of Frodo — and are we ever really in doubt that he’ll do the right thing? — the battle of good against evil is always external. Evil is Out There, and you kill it with an axe or something.

“Harry Potter,” on the other hand, has genuine moral complexity. The battle against evil is often internal, and the right thing to do isn’t always clear. Good people do bad things, and not always for good reasons, and sometimes with serious consequences. Bad people turn out to have surprisingly decent and sympathetic sides to them. And perhaps more importantly, there’s a continuum of good and bad. There are people who are jerks but aren’t actually evil — and in some cases who have strong and important good tendencies, or who are at least understandable and somewhat sympathetic. And there are people who are likable but weak and selfish, and who screw up a lot. Forget comparing it to other juvenile literature — there’s more moral complexity and shades of gray in “Harry Potter” than there is in most adult fiction.

Corneliusfudge2. Political relevance. There are times when “Harry Potter” reads like Chomsky for kids. In “Harry Potter,” people in government ignore real threats that they don’t want to deal with; magnify fake threats to make it look like they’re taking action; use fear-mongering to solidify their power; make alliances of convenience with people they know are evil; serve their rich friends instead of the people they’re governing; manipulate and even censor the press; and use the education of children as an opportunity for propaganda. The book is like a civics lesson at the most left-wing junior high you can imagine.

“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand… well, I suppose it’s not fair to critique the books for creating an entirely fresh and imaginary world. That’s one of its strengths, after all. But I didn’t feel that LOTR shed any light at all on my life and the world I live in. This is just a personal preference, but I strongly prefer fiction — including fantasy/sci-fi — that has some relevance and connection to me and my world. Sure, I like escapism, I like being taken out of my life… but I like being taken out of my life for the purpose of stepping back and getting perspective on it. I didn’t get that from “Lord of the Rings”… and I get it in trumps from “Harry Potter.”

Hermione3. Female characters. There’s been some debate about whether the Harry Potter books are sexist. And I’ll grant that the female characters in “Harry Potter” — and their place in the story — have some problematic aspects.

But here’s the thing about female characters in “Harry Potter”:

It has some.

More than a couple, even.

And those female characters aren’t just sidelines or afterthoughts. They’re central to the plot, they’re in positions of strength and authority, and they take an active role in making things happen. There are times when “Harry Potter” is a bit of a testosterone-fest… but compared to “Lord of the Rings,” it’s freakin’ Adrienne Rich.

Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What do you think? Arguments, agreements, questions, outraged objections, and other comments are cheerfully encouraged.

How Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life — what does it mean?

FredflintstoneSo if you read the New Yorker, you probably read the Opal Whatsername parody in Shouts and Murmurs, How Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life. I spent much of Mother’s day with Ingrid, her mom, and her mom’s partner trying to figure out all the literary references… but although I usually think of myself as somewhat well-read — and think of Ingrid and Judy and Lori in that category as well — we could only come up with maybe a third of the them.

I Googled the title, assuming someone somewhere would have out an answer key online… but I couldn’t find one.

So do you know any of the literary references in this parody? If you do, please post them here.

The ones we got:

“Afoot and lighthearted, he took to the open road…” Ingrid thinks this is On the Road, but none of us are sure.

“Stonecutter for the world, toolmaker, stacker of meat…” Chicago by Carl Sandburg.

“It was the best of times, it was the first of times…” Tale of Two Cities, Dickens.

“Keep on truckin’” – Robert Crumb.

“See Dino run. Run, Dino, run.” -Whatever the title of that stupid Dick and Jane book is.

“Let us go then, Hominidae…” Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot. (I almost wrote “Love Scone.” Oops.)

“What makes Fred run?” I assume this is What Makes Sammy Run, but haven’t read it so am not positive.

“Wilma, light of his life, fire of his loincloth…” Lolita, Nabakov.

“Once again at midnight nearly, while Fred pondered weak and weary…” The Raven, Poe. (I can never hear this without thinking about the Simpsons…)

“And so he beat on, fists against the granite, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” -The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald.

So what are the rest of the references? Help, please!

Dream diary, 5/4/06: Voldemort’s glasses

PotterI dreamed that Harry Potter had found Voldemort’s glasses, and was convinced that this was a major key to defeating him. He was trying to contact the other members of the Order of the Phoenix to let them know about the glasses, but was having trouble getting around, since BART had just added a new line and the maps were confusing.

I woke up thinking, “I need to get a life.”