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Checking the pulse of modern erotica

By Ellen Fox

MARCH 6, 2000: 

The Best American Erotica 2000 edited by Susie Bright (Touchstone Press), $13

The Good Parts: The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction edited by J.H. Blair (Berkley), $12.95

Is sex out yet? I'm tired of feeling ashamed because I don't want to sleep with people, or, to be more specific, feeling like an unhip anomaly for not wanting them all to go down on me.

Sex-advice types, particularly gay man Dan Savage, just love setting straight men straight about clit power, gleefully -- often scathingly -- um, shoving in their faces the maxim that oral sex is what every good boy should know how, and enthusiastically volunteer, to do. Tune into "Love Lines," and Adam's telling a newly-married Mormon boy that "the two things women want... are jewelry and oral sex."

What I want is to sign up for ballet lessons, and to motivate myself to vacuum that hairball out from under the futon. I want cheap airfare to California.

Then, maybe, I'll buy some jewelry.

As beneficial and well-intentioned as this didactism may be to our sex lives, I think some of its appeal also rests in the fact that it ha-ha-humbles straight men -- as does the often-accompanying suggestion that they try taking something up the ass.

Power is still very much a sticking point with sex; nobody wants to feel used (even the people who say they do often need to negotiate that understanding first), and nowhere is that more evident than in the new, enjoyable batch of stories served up in "The Best American Erotica 2000," edited by Susie Bright.

From the first tale to the last, sex fantasies are often the backdrop for redistribution of power: There's just as much staked on fulfilling the ego as there is on sating the id. In Debra Boxer's "Innocence in Extremis," a 28-year-old virgin claims that, after ideal sex , "I will look at him and think, I have spent this man's body and I have spent it well." In Adam McCabe's hammy "The Maltese Dildo," a private dick who wonders "How could anyone want to have another man up his ass?" winds up getting precisely that -- as part of a revenge plot masterminded by his ex-lover. Most transparent of all is "Big Hungry Woman," in which a woman devours a cocky white-boy with her man-eating vagina.

But power is not the only inspiration, and the most memorable pieces here are the ones that still achieve a sense of transgression (like bringing home a homeless, legless vet for sex) -- no small feat when seen-it-all sexpert Susie Bright's your editor.

The ballsiest example is Michelle Tea's "Ten Seconds to Love or, How Motley Crue Popped My Cherry," a backstage, underage, two-girl gangbang with Tommy, Nikki and Vince! This story rocks because, while it goes without saying that mainstream, erotica-shunning folks don't want their daughters to grow up to be fuck-groupies, I'd reckon that even pro-kink Dan Savage and Susie Bright couldn't abide their 16-year-olds getting it on with the Crüe. Groupie sex doesn't have the same self-awareness to it that socially-sanctioned S & M activities and silly, Anne Rice vampire stuff does; it harks back to those dark times when young women cared more about being with famous assholes than they did about having their own orgasms.

But this fantasy's OK, mom and dad, because these girls come! In fantasyland, everyone comes, and everything feels good: sex with strangers, sex without condoms, sex that smells bad -- even sex that feels a little bad at first winds up feeling great. If there's one fantasy that binds all these stories together, it's the yearning for intuitively good sex. Sex without trial and error. Sex without someone saying, "Ya know, that doesn't feel so good," or "Hmmm... that was a mistake," or "You're on my hair." In a perfect-sex world, there is not only no AIDS, there is no awkwardness.

While the conceit of another new anthology of erotic writing, "The Good Parts," isn't awkward, it also fails to reach fever pitch. Passages are excerpted from the works of modern writers, including Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow; for the most part, though, these naughty bits just can't stand on their own.

There are moments of titillation: Stand-outs in the collection include Robert Olen Butler's "They Whisper," which follows a lone American at a topless, Swiss sun-bathing pavilion, where "everyone here is trying to turn nipples into elbows and wrists." Then there's A. M. Homes' "Chunky in Heat," detailing the backyard nudity of a suburban girl with Judy-Blume-like forgiving.

What ultimately blew it for me was the book's editor, Princeton-based J. H. Blair, who is not only a bad writer, but a dingbat, too. From the preface, where he shoots for credibility with New York-y nostalgia for his erotica days ("my friends Danny Franceschini, Mark Feingold and I took the slow, sunny local out to Flushing... "); to his lavish praise for Roth, Bellow, et al; to the way he loves to mention many writers' Ivy League alma maters -- this guy's got Lifetime Subscription to New Yorker written all over him.

I began to relish his empty, rhythmic exaltations that introduced each passage. For example: Joyce Carol Oates is "a boldly original spinner of tales who is totally unique in her relentless and deeply insightful probing of America's dark side." Siri Hustvedt, he writes with glee, "is married to the author Paul Auster (so, naturally, she lives in Brooklyn)."

In truth, I found myself flipping ahead to read more intros, as if these were "the good parts." And the more I grew to dislike him, the less I wanted to read the things he cherished, as so often happens with good books and bad associations.

So if you're shopping for pansexual erotica, pick up "The Best American... " and skip "The Good Parts": While most of the pieces in the former are short stories in their own right, "The Good Parts" serve up very little context to engage the imagination. And, when it comes to sex, context is everything.

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