With books, you can come close, but you’re never the same reader when you return. All you’ve read and done and been comes between you and that first-time (and second time, and third time) reader of a book you remember fondly.
I’m exaggerating, as usual—there are some books so vivid, so absorbing, so beautifully written, that they grip you just as intensely on each reading as they did the first time. Sometimes you get even more from them because you bring more to them.
When it comes to erotic books, though, I wish I could remember more of them worth revisiting. In my teens I used to get erotic vibes from books like old pulp westerns and romances, more from what my imagination inserted between the lines than from what was explicitly there. On a more literary level, I recently re-read Colette’s Claudine at School (in translation, I have to admit,) a book I read several times in my youth. This time I enjoyed the voice and ambiance and clever prose at least as much as before, but it was hard to remember why I’d found it sexy. By college I was reading Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill, which were interesting enough, but didn’t really, shall we say, hit the spot.
Then came the era of bodice-rippers, first and foremost The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss in 1972. I just checked on Amazon and was pleased to see that her books are still (or possibly again, since they seem to have been recently re-issued) best sellers, but I don’t have any particular wish to revisit them. I do wish now that I hadn’t given away my historical romances by Roberta Gellis in a fit of austerity, especially her medieval books, well-researched and intensely erotic at the same time.
Then more books and magazines actually labeled erotica came along. I sampled what I could easily find, and felt, as I think most of us have, that I could write erotica that would appeal to me more than much of what I was reading. Lesbian stories were especially disappointing. A writer of my acquaintance described them as “mutual hair-brushing by moonlight,” which was not totally fair, but true enough to be more than just amusing.
Fortunately, by the time I started seriously trying to publish erotic short stories and had sold a few heterosexual ones with science fiction/fantasy/horror themes, anthologies like the Best Lesbian Erotica series from Cleis Press came along, and I was off and running. While I can’t just now think of novels that I’d return to again and again, there are individual stories from these anthologies that stick with me, and serve not only as touchstones of erotic writing, but of short-story writing in general.
I remember one particularly tough period of my life, after I’d just been diagnosed with a herniated disc along with a more serious spinal problem, when I found the most comfort in reading three stories from Best Lesbian Erotica 2002 over and over again. One was my own, "Of Light and Dark," which of course appealed to me at the time, but the other two were by Toni Amato and Allison Smith, both so beautifully written in very different ways that I was in awe of their skill as well as swept up in their stories. Toni’s took a leap into surreal, lush imagery that very few could have carried off so well, while Allison managed to tell a whole story, complete with layered characterization and hints of backstory and poignant evocation of setting, in just six hundred words or so. I can’t find my old copy of the book—somewhere in this house a whole carton of my contributor’s copies of anthologies is hiding, although two more are safely in my closet—and I can’t remember the name of Toni’s story, but I know Allison’s is “Sometimes She Lets Me,” which was reprinted in (and provided the title for) a recent anthology collecting previously published stories of butch-femme erotica.
Speaking of literary touchstones, I can’t resist a brief off-topic story. When I was a college senior taking the English Department’s core course on Literary Criticism, one assignment was to list and describe our own touchstones of literary excellence. Several of us got together to make up an extra paper to turn in under a made-up name, as a prank of sorts. We searched for really bad writing by famous authors, not an easy task in those far pre-Google days, but we managed. It turns out that Henry David Thoreau, for example, was a dismal failure at poetry, and so was James Joyce. I don’t remember what else we came up with, but they were all instances of people who wrote well in one area of literature, but stumbled in another one. This also happens sometimes when short story writers try to write novels, and possibly vice versa. I guess I should rethink having a go at the upcoming November write-a-novel-in-one-month movement. Just as well. I can use the time to go back and re-read erotic books I wish I remembered better.