Books played an integral role in my sexuality. Stumbling upon smutty passages in YA novels, I felt the first confused and clumsy stirrings of my sensual self. These passages were like delicious, little secrets, I could read them anywhere with a knowing smile—-they don’t know what’s really going on here.
So, I was beyond thrilled when Good Vibrations sent me Best Lesbian Erotica 2014 from Cleis Press in exchange for an unbiased review.
Collections are my favorite type of books, the format allows pieces to converse and resonate and clash with each other. This also relates to the reader. There are so many opportunities for the text to resonate: different voices, modes, tones, positions.
With Best Lesbian Erotica 2014 the connections and flows between pieces are well crafted by editor Kathleen Warnock. She remarks on these connections in her foreward “Editing a Life”:
And even though this is a ‘best of’ book, there always seems to be a theme, something that’s on everyone’s mind. This year, there seems to be a lot of reaching, of needing, of people fighting themselves to get what they need (ix).
As Warnock notes, this collection connects through the resistances to needing and wanting that the characters face. The friction between need and that which keeps it from being fulfilled provides the core of this collection, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
What was really great about this anthology was its vast range of characters. So many different women, of different ages, gender expressions, abilities, nationalities. They are not always likeable. Or politically correct. Or self-assured. But, they are well developed. They have their own histories, opinions, and ways of making their way through the world. That alone makes them hot.
The book begins with the percussive bang, as heavy-hitter Sinclair Sexmith drops the reader in with the opening line to “A Good Workout”:
You check out my ass in the mirror across from mine, and that’s when I know that you want me (1).
This first piece is electric with the funky rhythm of a first person voice. It’s quick and intense. “Reunion at St. Mary’s” slows the pace for an elaborate fantasy to unfold. “Reunion” is possibly my favorite piece in the collection—-its dark, quirky, funny, and unbelievably hot. I may never set foot in a Catholic church, but I think many can connect with Bridget’s second chance at hooking up with her high school crushes—in a twisted and sacrilegious scene.
Like “Reunion at St. Mary’s,” many of the stories deal with the idea of “returning.” Or more specifically, the ambiguity that often accompanies a return of either the self or a lover. Part of what makes stories like “Hey Stranger” and “Imaging” compelling is that the “return” isn’t a cookie-cutter romance prototype. They’re complicated, fraught , and sometimes disturbing.
Many authors made some interesting stylistic choices. “Call for Submission” follows the relationship between two erotica novelists—-and their power struggle with fantasy and authenticity. Nairne Holtz winks at the reader, sometimes blending the character’s voice with the authorial voice. After a super sexy lap dance, they pause:
Her brows tilted into a frown. “Wait, are you going to write about this?”
I stood up and reached for my glasses and put them on. “Honey, what do you think?” (119)
This sort of layered authorical/character voice also manifests in Amal Arabi’s “Tongue in Cheek.” The narrative mimics the content in a refreshing, but not overbearing, meta way. Arabi focuses on the messy relationships between ethics and pleasure. It resonated with me on so many levels, as the character repeats her intense want of women and her simultaneous fear of ever making an unwanted advance toward a woman. She presents these tensions, makes them a part of the erotic content and ultimately, never resolves them. I love it.
This is where I find Warnock’s work as an editor to be quite remarkable. The piece following “Tongue in Cheek” begins with an unforgiving, relentless drive:
I need to be inside you. This minute, no waiting, no preparation. Fucking taking off any clothes, fucking finding an appropriate place, fuck finishing this conversation; I need to pull my dick out of my pants and be inside you immediately (140).
Xan West’s “What I Need” begins with the crazy intense climax Arabi denies her readers; relieving the frustrations encountered by our last hero. West’s piece is a bold BDSM scene that manages to be so full of intense sensations and images, yet vulnerable and loving and comforting at the same time. It’s one that I re-read often.
I liked that the anthology featured several different of arrangements of butch-femme. Being a predominantly femme-on-femme top, I am often frustrated that many writers produce predominantly butch/top femme/bottom stories. Which is not to suggest that I don’t find them hot, or intriguing, but I do like to see things shaken up and/or more reflective on my own fantasies. “Birthday Butch” by Teresa Noelle Roberts totally tickled my fancy. The slow femme seduction of a young mild vanilla butch—-sign me up!
And then I kissed her, letting her taste the remnants of my lipstick, letting her feel me claiming her the way a butch like her needed to be claimed (78).
I also found the more traditional femme in Lucien C. West’s “Lake Travis Steam” to be so alluring. Part of what makes for good erotica is an ability to take the banal (or the authentic representation of the everyday) and point to its magic—to where I and you begin and end and are and are not. Illness is a very much a part of our lives, and one that affects how we connect and relate. “Lake Travis Steam” is about the navigation of illness, of survival—-and the connections between survival and need. It combines this with a butch-femme dynamic of care and pleasure. It was really refreshing for this reason, but also because its characters are in different places than the 20 somethings that tend to dominate the genre.
My only real problem was the final piece, an erotic screenplay by Sarah Schulman and Cheryl Dunye. Initially, I was really excited about the inclusion of a screenplay. It’s a bold choice and one that I admire (especially because I love Cheryl Dunye and the cast of the film features some of my all time favorite performers.) I’m finishing my Masters in Film Studies, so I like to think that I can read a screenplay and figure out what’s going on. I struggled, however, to grasp the plot until about midway through. Even still, the problem, I think, resides in the sparseness of a script, as a textual mode. What makes it more difficult is that the piece, while being quite funny, is a comedy of errors with lots of entrances and exits. These are the most difficult to visualize. Ultimately, it was a unique way to end the book, but I ended up just purchasing a copy of the film.
Best Lesbian Erotica 2014 is an excellent collection that I highly recommend. It’s well crafted in how the stories are arranged, the stories are diverse, and the characters are well developed. As a whole, it reflects upon on the pleasure of a struggle—the friction between what we need and our ability to fulfill not just our own needs, but the needs of lovers.
Go grab a copy at Good Vibes
Many thanks to the folks at Good Vibes!
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