Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Joy of Sex Writing (By David Amsden,

Note of the captions: Two books mentioned in the piece, Best Sex Writing 2005 (Clies Press), and The World’s Best Sex Writing 2005 (Thunder's Mouth Press).

Two bold collections of essays about the most intimate of acts prove that good sex makes a great memory, but bad sex makes a great story.

Jan. 01, 2006
All good sex is the same; each instance of bad sex is bad in its own way.

This, at least, is the message I came away with after reading two recently published anthologies, "Best Sex Writing 2005" and "The World's Best Sex Writing 2005."Despite titillating covers featuring, respectively, a topless brunette straddling an anonymous lad and a pair of nylon-clad legs slipping into stiletto heels, it turns out that both collections are governed by a somewhat curious philosophy: that the best sex writing focuses on the worst of what sex has to offer.

Of the 47 pieces between the two -- an eccentric mix of memoir, reportage and essay -- only a few are concerned with presenting sex as a human experience from which pleasure and happiness can bloom. The rest are a compendium of what could be called anti-erotica: taking readers on an endorphin-depleting tour of bruised egos, thwarted submissives, destroyed friendships, deceased feminists, reluctant porn stars, sketchy sperm donors, mutilated genitals (by the hands of both plastic surgeons and malicious tribesmen) and murdered transsexuals, among other topics that, for this reader, amounted to a compelling case for the return of the chastity belt. From time to time I had to put the books to the side, close my eyes, and flash on some archival footage of lustful collisions to remind myself that sex remains an activity that people enjoy for a variety of righteously dizzying reasons.

I hope the editors take this as a compliment, not a complaint, because both have put together fresh collections that are far more complex and compelling than their saucy covers let on. "Analyze any human emotion," wrote Freud, "no matter how far it may be removed from the sphere of sex, and you are sure to discover somewhere the primal impulse, to which life owes its perpetuation." This is the dictum being explored at the heart of these collections, both of which take a vaguely academic approach to sex, presenting it, as Susan Sontag may have put it, as a cultural metaphor. "These stories are daring, exciting, harsh, and relevant," writes Violet Blue, the excellently monikered editor of "Best Sex," in her introduction. "They open a revealing window into the human condition, and into our sexuality as a culture." Mitzi Szereto, the editor of "World's Best," echoes this outlook, positioning her anthology as "an engaging critical commentary on the sexual culture of our times -- on where we are today, and if we should even be here." (Full disclosure: A piece of mine was picked for "Best Sex 2006," though after this review was written.)

This turns out to be a wise approach, given an unfortunate irony that the best sex, like the happiest families, has a tendency to come off as dull and saccharine on the page. Why? In part, I suspect, it has to do with the nature of writing and reading: They are the least instinctual of activities and therefore less than ideal for expressing our most basic instincts. And then there's the nature of those who choose to write about sex: Thanks to some Darwinian law, they tend to be of the hyper-curious, exhibitionistic sort that make for good drinking companions, and even better lovers, but not necessarily the subtlest of prose stylists.

Or perhaps the power of sex to render language temporarily obsolete is simply a testament to how splendid it can be. The critic Anthony Lane put it best: "One of the great glories of sex is the difficulty of talking about it -- no other human activity, not even love, is so resistant to the assaults of language. Talking during it has never been easy, either, especially if you were brought up not to speak with your mouth full, but nothing can quite match the verbal shortfall of erotic anticipation and remembrance; struggling to say what we feel, we plod from the lachrymose to the smutty via the obstetric, and never seem to get any nearer."

Other, more visceral, art forms, come closer. Photography, painting, cinema, hip-hop: These are mediums that, in the right hands, manage to be both carnal and clever without coming off as pat. Writing, though, is inherently cerebral, introspective, neurotic, more professorial than prurient. After all, part of what makes "Lolita" so scandalous after 50 years in print is that it remains a great piece of writing that, to the discomfort of many a blushing intellectual, is genuinely arousing. Generally speaking, writing is not about indulging in one's desires so much as questioning them, over and over, until the onset of vertigo. And so the very hang-ups and insecurities that can ruin a good romp between the sheets are, paradoxically, the very ones that make for excellent writing.

Let's turn to the texts. For first prize I nominate, from "World's Best," a hilarious essay titled "Performance Anxiety," in which Steven Rinella tells of going to a strip club to watch a friend's wife strip; coming in at close second is, from "Best Sex," Timothy Archibald's comically dreary journey through a sex-machine factory ("Sex Machines"). Are they explicit? Very much so. Sexy? Not in the least. Essential? Certainly. Written with wit and precision, both are cautionary tales about the commercialization of sex and the extent to which we can become depersonalized in our never-ending search for connection and escape. This is far from sunny subject matter, which makes it all the more impressive that the essays are so entertaining. Both writers manage a deft little stunt: coming across as lewd, absurd and detachedly knowing all at once.

Rinella's first paragraph -- slapstick, erudite, a touch melancholy -- is a pitch-perfect approach to the topic: "There's an old saying: 'You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose.' I've never tried to pick a friend's nose, but I recently found myself in a situation that brought the saying to mind. Afterward, I tried to update the saying with a more adult theme, but sadly, my revision lacked the lyrical quality and poetic tidiness of the original. But here goes anyway: 'You can pick your friends, you can watch your wife masturbate, but you shouldn't watch your friend's wife masturbate.'" And here he is staring at his friend's wife, while his friend is seated next to him: "I was glaring into the moistened passage where Bruce had undoubtedly found countless pleasures. I assumed the facial expression of someone looking at a painting in a gallery: unequivocal appreciation, but also objectivity." It's one of these essays that you want to read to your friends, which, as it happens, is just what I've been doing for the past week or so. In the end, the awkwardness of the situation is too much, and a fledgling friendship meets an early demise, making the piece, exposed breasts and spread legs and delicious wisecracks aside, a quirkily modern morality play.

Archibald's essay is a touch darker, exploring as it does the way technology corrupts man's notions of how sex should look and feel. His style is elegant and reserved where a lesser writer would veer into either the alarmist or sensationalistic or both. "Each machine," he writes of wandering the factory, "appears to be some type of cartoonish male icon: mechanical, grandly phallic, perpetually hard, obviously devoid of emotion, and looking like its parts were all found at any local hardware store." When the author finds himself in a room filled with sex machines thrusting into the atmosphere with metronome-like frequency, he muses on a quintessentially modern paradox: how willing we are to dehumanize ourselves while (ostensibly) pursuing the most human of thrills. "Their sound fills the room with a mechanical, repetitive hum, and their movements look frightening," he writes. "The machines' movements are so confident and determined in their attempts to re-create a human, sexual thrusting that in a way they are overdoing it, doing it stronger, faster, more precisely. And these attributes are the very things that make the machines seem like things I just don't want to touch." Call me a throwback, but in our pornographized, Viagra-girded era, it's refreshingly welcome to hear a man longing for the fumbling clumsiness that good old-fashioned sex has to offer.

On the flip side, the anthologies suffer most when, against their better instincts, the editors feel the need to approach the subject of sex -- how shall we say? -- head on. Probably this is inevitable, given that both editors typically deal with more straightforward erotica. Violet Blue has written a variety of how-to manuals on oral sex as well as adult video guides, and Szereto, under the name M.S. Valentine, is a best-selling erotic novelist. Perhaps I'm simply unenlightened, but I've never quite understood the desire to turn to writing for the same reasons one would turn to, say, pornography -- or, better yet, a willing partner. It seems a bit misguided, like trying to quell one's appetite by skimming a cookbook.

Take, from "World's Best," the excerpt from Toni Bentley's memoir, "The Surrender," in which the Balanchine disciple chronicles finding, through anal sex, the God her daddy denied her. "Despair hasn't got a chance when his cock is in my ass, making room for God," Bentley writes. "He opened up my ass and with that first thrust he broke my denial of God, broke my shame, and exposed it to the light." Say what? Forget, for a moment, the subject matter; this is simply despicable prose: a string of bottom-feeding clichés that amount to nothing. Am I supposed to be turned on by the above? Or happy for Bentley? Or am I meant to question the true motives lurking behind my own atheism? Honestly, I have no idea. If such drivel says anything about our culture, it says it indirectly, and by sheer accident. That such writing was not only published, but taken seriously, is a clear sign that even in the 21st century there are plenty of repressed, prudish bookworms who are either (a) too shy to go out and rent the movie version or (b) too scared to indulge in their darkest curiosities.

Given that both anthologies set out to present the "best" sex writing from last year, it's worth noting that not a single piece appears in both volumes. In fact, surface similarities aside, the two books approach the conversation from such different perspectives that they're best read as complements to each other, not competitors. "Best Sex," taken as a whole, is primarily interested in delving into sexual subcultures mainly through first-person, somewhat experimental, appealingly unflinching pieces. It's a fun, nimble book that never loses its sense of humor about itself. In "Sperm Bank Teller" Polly Enmity strikes the tone of jaded whimsy that pervades the collection as she debunks various misconceptions about life in a sperm bank: "Women want to think of their donors curing AIDS and healing sick kittens, not sitting on the couch in their (loose) undies and eating chips. The ever-popular job title of 'film director' should be interpreted as 'marginally employed young chap who wears the same shirt every day'; 'small business owner' means 'janitor'; and 'student' means 'I have no income other than my donated sperm.'" Which isn't to say the collection lacks weight. Another not to be missed is "A Beginning," a rawer, more transgressive piece in which porn star Shirley Shave documents how she got into the "industry" by responding to a seemingly innocuous classified ad during a less-than-tranquil phase of her life. "Nothing violent inspired me to get involved in porn," she writes, tersely explaining that the pull can be more universal than is typically assumed. "I just had the gun of boredom and poverty to my head."

"World's Best," on the other hand, is a far more sobering book, dominated as it is by the intersection of politics and sex. Among the pieces are an elegant obituary of feminist Andrea Dworkin by Katha Pollitt; an alarming if not particularly well-crafted piece about the rise of "cosmetic vaginal surgery"; and a New York magazine article about the quasi-fictitious AIDS supervirus. Informative as such contributions are, many lack the imaginative spark and fizzle of "Best Sex," reading more like very good magazine articles trying to pose as great pieces of prose. I wouldn't call the majority of them the "best" writing, but I would say I'm a better person for having read them. Still, at times I couldn't help but wonder if "World's Sex" was trying to be too many things at once. It's tough, for example, to read "The Big Ooooooohh!" --Jonathan Margolis' breezy anthropological exploration of the orgasm -- when a few pages later you're in the middle of "Focus 19," the story of a teenage Iranian girl who, sold into prostitution by her parents, is now facing death for the "moral crimes" she had no choice but to commit. The orgasm, so harmless a moment before, suddenly entered the realm of the criminal.

Then again, the juxtaposition between the frivolous and the humorless, jarring as it is, may be the point. What makes sex such an eternally compelling topic is, after all, the schizoid role it plays in our lives. Sex is all about pleasure, except when it causes pain. We are freest when naked, except when it puts us in jail. The very act responsible for our birth can, under certain circumstances, result in untimely death. In America we celebrate cartoonish images of sex (pop princesses, porn stars, etc.) to keep it permanently ghettoized in the realm of fantasy, the better to pretend it doesn't really exist. The great thing about primal impulses, though, is that, finicky as they are, they can be repressed and intellectualized for only so long. Eventually, the mind hands over the reins to the body, at which point the real fun begins. But that, of course, is a chapter better left unwritten.

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