One of the things that former Jersey City resident Rachel Kramer Bussel learned as she edited her latest book on women’s erotica is that exploring personal passion can be very liberating.
Bussel, the editor of the Women’s Erotica of the Year series, will join women writers who contributed to the second volume for a frank discussion of craft and passion in a pre-Valentine’s Day event at the Word bookstore, 123 Newark Ave. in Jersey City, on Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Joining Bussel will be writers Abigail Ekue, Stella Watts Kelley, Vierra Lai, and Annabeth Leong in what has been called a “Galentine’s Day” panel on erotica, writing and culture.
These authors will talk about what makes a story a story sexy, the writing process, how to get published, and the cultural impact of writing stories that reflect a wide range of women’s experiences.
Often the general public mistakes erotica for pornography. While both deal with sexual subjects, erotica goes beyond titillation, exploring deeper emotional and sometimes even spiritual aspects of sexual experience.
Although it’s a vast overgeneralization, women writers tend to have a better handle on erotic writing than men, and manage to capture unexpected elements of sexual encounters often missed by their male counterparts.
Bussel’s anthology presents a surprising and often delightful range of experiences from a group of extremely gifted and sensitive writers, playing on every level of sexual encounter.
They take chances that allow readers to broaden their vision of what is possible and even desirable.
Bussel said she had not imposed a theme when looking for submissions, but grouped together stories as she got them. Later, themes emerged, sometimes surprising her.
The 21 stories in this collection delve into some areas of sexuality that might seem in other contexts extreme. But each story has a nugget of sensitivity and a certain level of tenderness lacking in much better known works such as “50 Shades of Grey,” even though in some cases they explore the same edgy sexual situations.
In nearly every tale, the writer explores the concept of relationship, even if it is fleeting, and the encounter brief.
From writer to editor
Bussel took over this series of books two years ago, after already establishing herself as a successful writer in the genre. She is the editor of more than 60 anthologies, and has written widely about sex, dating, pop culture, feminism, and body image in publications that include
The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, O, The Oprah Magazine, Salon, Slate and many other publications.
Currently a resident of Teaneck, she lived briefly in Jersey City.
“I’ve been writing erotica since 1995,” she said in a brief telephone interview in late January. “I started freelance around the same time.”
In 2004, she became a regular columnist for i>The Village Voice, and has moved on since to pursue a writing and editorial career in erotic fiction.
She said in past anthologies she edited there were fixed themes. But in this series, which already has another volume slated for release later this year, and a fourth due early in 2018, she said she wanted to make the subject matter as broad as possible.
“That’s the thing I love about editing short stories, there’s always a surprise in the things people write about,” she said.
For many writers, especially women, she said, this act of creation and imagination becomes an act of bravery, overcoming internal fears to capture some aspect of sexuality that might provide pleasure.
“Some women fear what others might think of them for wanting something that might be accepted in culture,” she said. “There is tension in that, knowing what they want and avoiding the feeling of shame.”
A person should not be ashamed of seeking something that might lead to joy, she said. And these writers move beyond inner inhibitions, allowing their characters to indulge and explore.
From these stories emerges a sense of something that is often hard to express, a quality of emotional as well as sexual satisfaction that evolves out of overcoming fear.
The language use in some cases is poetic, but without being sappy. These are not traditional love stories, although many of the pages blister with a passion that catches the reader by surprise. In some cases, a reader male or female may feel a little voyeuristic, getting the pleasure of reading of a character daring to play in ways some only wish they were brave enough to do, whether this be public sexual experience or the very private, very personal erotic acts done in utter privacy.
But often, the feelings engendered go beyond sexuality, often creating other associated emotional experiences that give depth to the stories and the characters.
Bussel said this writing is about exploring gender, relationship and culture. In some cases, the stories delve into what a character really wants and provides insight into something beyond just the sexual experience.
These explorations often test a character’s range of choice.
“Do you like women?” the character Jasmine asks in Winter Blair’s “At the end of the World.” Her lover’s response: “Among other genders.”
In some stories, such Stella Watts Kelley’s “Teacher Appreciation,” the story launches off a familiar dating game many have played in our youth, such as spin the bottle, but in this story evolves into something significantly more complex, exploring a variety in a multi-partner arrangement.
In Kate Sebastian’s “On the Calendar,” the buildup is almost an intense of the act itself, and evolves out of some need the main character isn’t even sure of, aging perhaps as part of a birthday celebration.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. Or planning. Or imagining,” she says.
One of the more interesting treatments in this book involves a bit of biofeedback in the a story called “Another way to start a fire,” by Kristie Harding, and a lesson of self-discovery and self worth that is associated with realizing that she is desirable.
“I read these individually and then looked to see which would work together.” – Rachel Kramer Bussel
Each tale has its own twist, and its own strange attractions, that in the context of this volume, makes what might seem uncomfortable extremely attractive.
More than just hot sex
Even though the volume did not impose themes, a number of common threads appeared in these stories, among which is the concept of passion.
“I read these individually and then looked to see which would work together,” she said.
While the stories approach sexuality from many different points, from the end of the world, from being part of a couple or from being single, in many cases the stories look at what a particular moment of passion means to the characters involved.
“This is not just about hot sex,” she said. “A lot of the stories are about transformation, with a woman thinking she might not be up to this or that, and when she discovers she is, she becomes emboldened, able to push past that cultural barrier. Often, a woman becomes more confident.”
There is intense drama in each story for each character, this sense of not knowing, looking for something, and then figuring things out. Relationships can last for an instant or a lifetime. Some of the moments are remarkably tender, but also drenched in real emotion, brief sometimes, but always evolving out of some common experience and exploration of boundaries, and moving beyond them.
“Sometimes people aren’t even in the same room,” Bussel said.
These boundaries can be explored in a number of ways from teasing to edgy bondage, and yet still be filled with passion and tenderness.
Bussel said people interested in learning more should come to the Word Book Store on Feb. 13 where she and some of the others will talk about their craft and answer questions that people might have. She said hopes to inspire other writers as well.
These books are published by Cleis Press, a Jersey City publishing company, and for more information you can go to Cleispress.com.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.