On my retirement, or something like it

Recently, NaughtyWords approached me for an interview about being an editor of erotica anthologies. Since the interview, which is really interviews, plural, with several folks including Susie Bright and Rachel Kramer Bussell, woven together so that our viewpoints on the various questions are compared, has begun to run on the site, I thought I’d first point to it and then mention something that isn’t anywhere in the interview.

So. Pointer given. Which means that now I want to talk about Sir Not Appearing In That Interview, namely, the fact that I’m actually a retired editor of erotica anthologies. This is something I’ve been letting people know gradually over the past few years, and the reactions have been fascinating. A few people, like my mother, have seemed relieved. A few more people have nodded understandingly and said something along the lines of “good on ya, I’m glad to see you doing what you need to do.” But many people have reacted with a certain amount of shock, and demanded an explanation. The NaughtyWords editor did that, in fact, when I agreed to the interview with the caveat that I was no longer working in the genre: I’m stunned! “Severine” is one of my all time favorite erotic stories! Why would you of all authors quit?!

The answer is pretty simple: I said what I came to say and I did what I came to do. I did not set out to climb to the peak of Mount Smutverest, drive my flag into its summit, and survey the world from its eminence. I certainly didn’t sent out to do erotica as my one and only literary pursuit.

I never set out to do anything as a literary pursuit, period. My first book, Big Big Love, was written because the publisher had heard about some workshops I was teaching and had seen a fat sexuality ‘zine I did at the time, and asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on the topic. (Me, I was minding my own business at the time, trying to get through my doctoral qualifying exams.) Being of the “try anything once” mindset, I said yes. My second book, Zaftig, was an anthology I did because having written Big Big Love, I thought it would be nice to have an erotica anthology to essentially put its money where Big Big Love’s mouth was.

By then I’d realized that I kinda liked this writing thing and I wanted to do more of it. Having realized that it was possible for me to get people to hire me to write and edit books, and having stumbled into having a track record of writing about sex and editing smut collections, I decided it would be worthwhile to see if I could get people to pay me to learn how to write fiction, and some other people to pay me to learn how to be a better editor. The immersion learning method has always been good to me… although honestly, I think it may be more that I thrive under certain types of pressure. Having to fly by the seat of your pants to produce worthwhile books, knowing that a publisher has taken a chance on you, is definitely that kind of pressure.

In the process, I figured, I would try to make some interesting books that I hoped would make the world of erotic writing a more interesting, nutritious, and better-written place. This was admittedly not the world’s most difficult goal to achieve, given that then as now, there’s a lot of crappy writing out there in the erotica genre, a fact I attribute to the “spoonful of sugar” powers of arousal — even I can read and actively enjoy some absolute swill as long as it pushes my “this is my bulletproof kink” buttons hard enough. But it was nonetheless challenging, in part because I was very aware of the whole “spoonful of sugar” problem and refused to lean on it. I demanded a lot and I got it, both from my authors and from myself, and if I do say so myself I turned out (in one case with the genial and incredibly competent help of co-editor Raven Kaldera, with whom I did Best Transgender Erotica) some pretty good books, ending with Unruly Appetites, which was a collection of my own work that I published with Seal Press.

That was when I realized I was bored. One of the problems with having a voracious intellect — and believe me, I am not trying to flatter myself, it’s not a trait I necessarily enjoy having — is that if you don’t feed it new challenges it turns on itself. I started to find the idea of writing or working on any more erotica to be downright depressing. Not because erotica was depressing. Not because sex wasn’t interesting. Because it had become too easy.

I’d learned an awful lot about writing, and about erotica, in the process of the books I’d done and the pieces I’d written. But erotica is by its nature a very limited genre. In some very real ways it’s a lot like a literary paint-by-numbers set. You know from the start, generally speaking, where it’s going. There are only so many ways to get there, at least effectively speaking. Experiments in form and style tend not to work terribly well in erotica. The same limbic involvement that fuels the “spoonful of sugar” problem also prohibits too much literary risk-taking, because if erotica fails to engage the libido in some way then it fails, full stop. Although there are those rare birds who whack off to James Joyce or Kathy Acker, most readers do not find themselves capable of simultaneously parsing unconventional prose and enjoying a hard-on. I’d run into that wall a handful of times with my own work, and a handful more with some wonderful pieces I’d had to turn down for publication because I knew they were just plain too weird to succeed with my publishers or my readers.

To make a long story short, I wanted more than just a lot of hot sex. I wanted to be able to write bigger, more complicated, more difficult stories about anything I wanted, without having to tie them to a sexual narrative unless it seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to explore topics that had nothing to do with sex. I wanted to work in other genres. I wanted, as well, not to be locked into the smut ghetto by publishers who might perceive me as being someone who only did smut books — because I knew, as I still know, that I have the ability to write (or at least learn how to write) pretty much anything I put my mind to. It didn’t make sense to me, despite several attractive opportunities I was offered to do more erotica books, to get stuck in a smut rut. It’s all too easy to find yourself in a pigeonhole in this business, and frankly, I am allergic to pigeonholes.

I didn’t retire from erotica because I look down on it. I don’t. I am in fact massively grateful to it, because it provided me with a sandbox in which to learn any number of things about writing, about editing, about publishing, and about genre work. There are a number of exceedingly talented writers who work in the genre, people whose work I deeply admire, including a few who only write smut by preference. I think the world is a better place for their work, and I think that erotica continues to be an important genre, one whose impact on people’s lives is often deeper and more profound than most people are willing to give it credit for. But as for me? I had, and have, other things to say, and other things I want to do. I am thrilled that I have been able to come full circle, a bit, and write a big book that brings together my interest in sexuality and my background in academia and history. Working on Virgin really made me feel like my brain was firing on all cylinders for all three and a half years that I was working on it, and that’s saying a lot. The next big book I have planned is another similarly humongous intellectual history of a sexuality topic.In between? Well, in between I’ve been making with the learning-by-doing thing again and writing novels. Genre novels, even. I’ve finished two since I finished Virgin, and I’m just starting a third. None of them have found publishers yet, but I’m hopeful that they will. In the meantime, I’m learning an awful lot, I’m writing an awful lot, and my brain is happy.

And when my brain is happy, I’m happy.