Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review of 'Italian Sonata' by Emmanuelle de Maupassant

Emmanuelle de Maupassant’s latest foray into erotic romance gets an ‘A’ for atmosphere. There are so many gorgeously-written passages in Italian Sonata evoking a rich Gothic ambiance, like a moonlit night garden in full bloom, drawing us in with its cloying hypnotic perfumes, it's hard to choose which blossom we like the best. Maupassant elegantly distills the night-haunted tropes of nineteenth-century Romanticism to build a storyworld at once delectable and foreboding—a world in which shadows themselves seem to come alive, disgorging mystery and horror. This is hardly surprising in a novel where Dracula assumes the role of recurring literary symbol, Bram Stoker’s classic story with its powerfully erotic subtext opening dark doors in the naïve young heroine’s imagination. There’s a nod to the Bluebeard story as well, that oft-told tale of gruesome secrets refracted through the language of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber. Where Maupassant’s influences show, they are only the very finest, indeed.

Italian Sonata is set in 1899 at the cusp of the new century, a time of near-boundless optimism limited only by the obsolescent mores of the fading Victorian Age. A follow-up to Maupassant’s acclaimed first effort, The Gentleman’s Club, if anything, her style has become more assured, her language more fluent. The Italian setting is vivid and colorful with here and there a smattering of the native tongue to add a spicy dash of verismoI like the strong-willed female characters; not so much modern-day ass-kickers like Buffy or Xena recycled in Victorian corsets and bustles, or anachronistic ‘proto-feminists’ like Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart, but equally adventuresome in their own way, thoughtful, curious, questioning, unwilling to accept the stultifying status quo just because “that’s the way things have always been done.” At their best, Maupassant’s heroines have genuine agency unlike so many of their airheaded counterparts in countless pot-boiling bodice-rippers and Regency romps. (I liked the way the future granny from Maupassant’s Highland Pursuits makes a brief cameo near the beginning of this novel, remarked upon for her independent, adventuring spirit. Very cute!) These women are fearless when they must be, finding depths of courage within themselves they never realized they possessed until the moment of crisis calls it forth. from hearts that are better than they know. When Maupassant sets up her romantic m/f/f triangle, we know who we want to see on top!

All so fine so far. Unfortunately, there are a number of troubling flaws in the fabric of this novel—amateurish oversights unbecoming a writer of Maupassant’s well-earned stature. Where to begin? Casual head-hopping and inconsistent points of view, not once or twice, but frequently; anachronism, though thankfully rare ("It was super to meet you..." In 1899 it might have been "grand" to meet someone, but super? Probably not so much), and the occasional confusing arrangement of episodes without sufficient set-up or transition, especially later in the book. All rooky mistakes that a competent editor would have caught and corrected immediately. Alas, there's more: poor pacing around rising action, set pieces either too perfunctory, with action seeming to come out of nowhere, or fuzzily drawn without explanations for why or how certain things happen (like the door to a chamber suddenly, and very conveniently, being "kicked open" for no apparent reason, and with nary a "kicker" in sight). 

Maupassant’s philosophical digressions can be quite fascinating, but too many of them tend to inhibit the logical flow of action, so that, often, what ought to be the emotional high-point of a well-paced scene feels like deflated anti-climax. They can also feel forced, as if the author were using her characters to score ideological points rather than deepen the reader's understanding of inner conflict and motivation. (I am not a fan of the authorial "Mother Knows Best" voice.)  There are too many maddening examples of what I would call ‘exposition after the fact’ in which one character condescendingly explains “what just happened” or offers details of backstory that ought to have been foreshadowed or seeded in the reader’s mind much earlier on. (These passages have the stagy feel of old-fashioned melodrama, more quaint than helpful.) Add to this, the occasional example of jarring, artificial-sounding expository dialogue or inner monologue that read as if they had been deposited into the text almost at random.

As if all this weren’t enough, we are treated to contradictory character arcs, taking established traits and turning them around, if not ignoring them altogether. Yes, we admire the strong-willed women when they are allowed to be in character; but what are we to make of a heroine, having absolute proof of her would-be suitors utter unsuitability, vacillating and what-if-ing about marrying the monster anyway? (Shades of Anastasia Steele, unflattering to say the least!) And how are we to regard what is possibly the most disturbing turnabout-against-type in the entire novel: Madame Noire as a damsel in distress? Needing to be rescued by a MAN, after everything we learned about her character in the first novel? (It’s all I can do to keep my book-hurling reflexes in check!) Maude's dilemma—its cause un-foreshadowed, at least in this book—seems forced at best, an excuse to punch up action in the story without adding much real value to the whole. Narrative threads need to be taut after all; dramatic plotlines need to intersect dramatically, and these just seem to elide briefly before drifting off on their own flaccidly merry ways. 

Meanwhile, Maupassant’s men—particularly Maude’s husband Henry—are shallowly drawn, their inner monologues, such as they are, one-dimensional, uninteresting and predictably plodding. Worst of all, after the brilliant, icon-busting, psycho-sexual revelation of The Gentlemen’s Clubthis sequel seems to be reverting to the most disgustingly atavistic—dare one say Victorian?—notions about moral consequence; that a character, especially a female character, who is too free in their sexual attitudes and appetites must somehow, yet always necessarily, be punished for “enjoying it,” only truly happy once she’s been "brought to heel," domestically settled and married with children. Uggh! (Could Italian Sonata, in fact, be a cursory re-working of an earlier novel featuring these characters, one that predates The Gentlemen's Club?)

Many readers—particularly the ones who aren’t writers themselves—will have little difficulty glossing over these flaws, to the degree they notice them at all as the story carries them along. I read more deliberately than most, slowly and analytically with deep comprehension, and tend to catch everything—more’s the pity sometimes. As such, I try to seek out the very best writing if only for the sake of my sanity, so on that rare occasion when a good writer lets me down, it has the sting of a personal affront, if not an outright insult to my intelligence. My problem here is that I know damned well Emmanuelle de Maupassant can do so much better, because she has done so much better in the past. 

Yet in the end, I do think that what’s good here far outweighs what's not. Italian Sonata is recommended, albeit with the serious reservations already noted. I wish I could endorse it with greater enthusiasm, but that would neither be honest, nor fair, nor helpful. 




Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review of 'Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative' by Chuck Wendig


The poet Miya Angelou once remarked that people won’t necessarily remember what you said or how you said it, “but they will always remember how you made them feel.” The most memorable stories, Chuck Wendig insists, are the stories that make us feel. A good story can also make us think, and, quite possibly, entertain us along the way. But the way it makes us feel is paramount.  This may well be why so many badly-written books routinely make it to the best-seller list: whatever we may think about an author’s adolescent mangling of the English language, their torturously limited vocabulary, or the utter dearth of style in their stories, those stories managed to make readers feel something—and, rightly or wrongly, that trumps good grammar and proper spelling any day of the week. But it doesn’t always have to be that way; good writers can become better storytellers, and that is the aim and thrust of this fascinating and extremely useful new book. In Damn Fine Story Wendig lays out the elements of effective, powerful, thought-provoking, memorable storytelling—not writing per se, but storytelling, whether through books, movies, comics, or games—often with a surprising depth of detail, in a fresh, engaging, sometimes-salty style, never too far above our heads, but invariably enlightening.

Like so many others, I became aware of Chuck Wendig through the insightful, often breezy and hilarious postings on his blog, terribleminds, which has become a regular on-line destination for many writers today. I picked up Wendig’s book shortly after finishing two other exceptional volumes on writing; John McPhee’s superb Draft Nr. 4, which deals with the craft and technique of ‘creative nonfiction’, and Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, a brilliant, paradigm-shifting discussion of dramatic fiction that cannot be recommended highly enough. Insights gained from McPhee and Percy dovetailed beautifully with the ideas and concepts in Wendig’s book and reinforced them at a deep level. As a novelist and traditionally-published author of short fiction, I found myself referencing my own work-in-progress to discussions and examples in Damn Fine Story and this was immensely helpful! Following Wendig’s lead, I went back and chopped out a great deal of inessential material in my current novel, while working to tighten up the threads that bind the story together. This, for me, was worth the price of the book, along with Wendig’s 50 Storytelling Tips at the back, a concise summation of his many invaluable lessons. 

We’ve all heard that old chestnut, “write what you know.” But that’s really a rather nebulous and silly, if not completely meaningless, piece of advice. Instead, Wendig exhorts us to “write what you understand… Write who you are… We are at our best as storytellers when who we are…helps to inform the stories we write.”

And what goes into writing or telling a great story? Wendig lays out six concise rules—more like guidelines—to help us understand the process. Stories begin with change, for “storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo…a push between order and chaos, a battle between oxygen and the fire that consumes it.” The best stories are not about events, but about characters: “Between the character’s problem and the character’s solution to that problem lies the story” and it is “the small story [that] always matters more than the big story.” 

How do we raise the stakes in a story? How do we create conflict and build tension that will compel and thrill an audience?  Ask questions! “Conflict is, in itself, a form of question. Implicit in every conflict, in every breach of the status quo, are a bundle of uncertainties…” And questions keep an audience hungry—“always hungry but never starved.” Wendig gives us no fewer than thirty-three building blocks of narrative tension in a chapter that’s nothing short of a didactic tour de force! Along the way, he often illustrates his points with reference to several of the best-known examples of great cinematic storytelling; the first Die Hard film, Star Wars (the original trilogy in particular), The Princess Bride, and The Hunger Games. While Wendig’s constant reliance on the same material becomes a tad monotonous in spots, it is invariably to a valuable end. It’s when he goes off in a more obscure direction that things aren’t quite so clear—honestly! How many people even remember the rather ponderous film adaptation of The Last Airbender? (That movie certainly failed to make me feel anything.)

Of particular interest to me as a writer of erotic fiction were Wendig’s many practical insights into the narrative potential of sex—which ought to be studied and taken to heart by every aspiring author of literary fiction coming up today! “A scene of sex or violence,” Wendig tells us, “doesn’t stop a character from being who they are, it reveals it… The great thing about sex as a driver of tension is that so many outcomes are possible…” Sex “is ultimately about characters, and about the tension of what happens when you smush [characters] together…”

Sex, violence, taboo and transgression are all deeply rooted in character and all highly effective catalysts for conflict, tension and story. “Every interaction between two characters…works in similar ways… A fight scene and a love scene are a kind of conversation, and they follow similar rules.”

That’s music to my ears! And these are only a few of the great insights to be found in Damn Fine Story. Chuck Wendig has clearly thought deeply about the elements of his craft, and that works out wonderfully for us, too!

Enthusiastically recommended. 



Sunday, October 1, 2017

Burying Hefner...Plus 'The Centerfold Affair' a story by TAS

We are compelled—because we do not live on another planet—to note the death this past week of Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy magazine in 1953, and went on to project his own particular brand of fantasy across a vast cultural expanse, ultimately influencing, if not forming outright, the erotic consciousness of millions.

I come neither to bury the man nor praise him: the religious right had already consigned Hefner to Hell decades ago, and he, for his part, welcomed their hate. He would be somewhat more bewildered, if not wholly surprised, at the long lines now forming on the left, feminists and their allies eager to piss on his grave. The evil men do live after them, and Hefner’s legacy is fraught to say the very least.

Hefner is often regarded as a particularly successful example of self-re-invention, so dear to the American imagination. The nerdy art student, self-described son of puritans, transforms himself into the ultimate hedonist icon, the man of leisure smokes his pipe—imagining that it makes him look so much more thoughtful and serious—as he lounges in pajamas, surrounded by all the accoutrements of success, including a veritable harem of beautiful, unfailingly submissive women. In interviews, Hefner said that his relationships were “projections of his dreams” and he was undeniably successful in turning his own prosaic paracosm into a kind of reality, though mostly for himself. He did not seem to understand—or, at least, would not publically admit—that his dreams had a way of coming true less because of any innate brilliance or personal charm, than the simple fact that he possessed the means to make them so. Nor did he seem to grasp the notion that self-re-invention only works if one keeps at it, refining the invention from time to time. Self-invention must be an on-going, life-long process, otherwise it risks devolution into self-parody and cliché. So it was with Playboy. If Hefner's relationships were a projection of his dreams, then Playboy was a mirror of his aspirations; the magazine, its fortunes and its flaws were inextricably linked to the man, his tastes, his eccentricities, his fantasies and his failings.

The saving grace of the publication was its fiction. With its broadly welcoming submission guidelines, Playboy published some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and gave some their first major breaks—for this, if nothing else, Hefner deserves enormous credit. While style and subject varied widely, the writing that found its way to the page was seldom less than superb. Ironically, Playboy did not accept erotica per se, though strong sexual themes and situations were certainly welcome. Yet every story the magazine ever published did have one thing in common: the main male character always—always—had to be “stronger” than the main female character, perpetuating a not-so-subtle literary misogyny, itself a projection of Hefner’s atavistic  notions about the “proper order” of relationships between the sexes as characterized in his rambling, fuzzy-headed "Playboy Philosophy". (*)    

The fiction editors made no secret of this policy. Harlan Ellison famously had one of his best stories rejected because of it. The first short story I submitted to the magazine in 2004 was returned for similar reasons—though the editor was kind enough to make some very helpful remarks at the end of the manuscript, which ultimately encouraged me in my present career. Early on it had been a dream of mine to see one of my stories in Playboy, and I worked assiduously at that goal for some years, honing my craft, fine-tuning my style. Unfortunately, by 2006 when I was ready to submit my story Night Vision—still one of the best things I’ve ever done—the magazine was no longer accepting un-agented submissions, and a wild, wide-open era of literary democracy had come to an end.

Why, you might ask, would I have wanted to be published in Playboy? Aside from the fact that Hefner paid $5000 for a standard-length story of 5000 words—a sum that would, in a single payday, have eclipsed everything I ever earned in all my years as a published classical composer—there was a certain cachet that came with being a Playboy author. Where else could one be mentioned alongside writer-heros like Ellison,  Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Norman Mailer, John Updike, T.G. Boyle,  Ian Flemming, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asmiov, and on and on and on… If you got into Playboy, you were a somebody—a somebody who had arrived at that.

Yet, in many ways, the magazine’s literary reputation had been built, much like Hefner’s image as a sexual revolutionary, on laurels well past their sell-by date. Looking at Playboy with growing disaffection in the early twenty-first century, I sometimes wondered how it could ever have been considered cutting-edge anything. So much of what passed for non-fiction was little more than  autoerotic gobbledygook, while even many of the entertainment pieces were jejune, self-servingly pretentious exercises in quasi-literary masturbation. (Or was I expecting too much?)  All these nagging annoyances might have been overlooked—and more often than not, were—but for a deeper problem, or, perhaps, more accurately, a considerably shallower one.  Hefner’s ideals of feminine beauty were still trapped like some quaint artifact in a time capsule from the 1950s: his “girl-next-door” always perfectly made-up and painstakingly coiffed--if not tastefully airbrushed--seen but seldom heard, preferably in bleach-blonde multiples of two. This fossilized aesthetic sensibility inevitably metamorphosed into grotesque caricature, perhaps best exemplified by the deification of Anna Nicole Smith, a creature as brazen and vacuous as a cartoon balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. Where once the notion of a naked woman looking shamelessly into the camera with a knowing smile like Manet’s Olympia had shocked and inspired a culture, Playboy offered little more than softcore primpery, a predictable standard repertory of innocuous pouts, pop-eyed come-hither leers, and bubble-assed ennui. By the time the magazine announced it would no longer include nude centerfolds, most readers’ reaction seemed to be the equivalent of an apathetic shrug.

No, indeed, I do not come to bury Hefner, for, in truth, the man buried himself long ago.


(*) Regarding Hefner's "philosophy", as stated in the story below, little more than a pseudo-intellectual repackaging of  classic Hedonism, reminding one of some pompous college professor trying to talk his way into a naive coed's panties. Much like Ayn Rand's contemporaneous Objectivism, Hefner's Playboy philosophy was nothing more than a grandiose attempt at justifying his own selfish whims--a megalomaniacal self-entitlement extending to his final wish to be buried next to Marilyn Monroe, as if, in the end, he might lay claim to the one thing he could never possess in life.  (That poor woman! Hounded, abused, and tortured by users and creeps in life, now stuck next to the creepiest abuser of them all forever.)



* * * * *

I thought it might be apropos to include some fiction with this post, especially as this story deals with the formative experiences in which Playboy so often had a role. The experiences described here were quite common, I think, up to a certain point near the end of the century when the internet began to play a greater role in erotic self-discovery. The story—part of a chapter from an early draft of an unpublished novel—begins when Ben, a boy about 13, finds the magazine in his uncle Jerry’s bedroom. (Note that subsequent to 1991 when this story takes place, Playboy finally did feature a centerfold from Iowa, Jordan Monroe (Miss October 2006))


THE CENTERFOLD AFFAIR
by Terrance Aldon Shaw



Then I found it.

There, stuffed between the wall and the side of the bed, was a thick, glossy magazine, a real honest-to-goodness copy of Playboy. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! This was like coming on buried treasure. I’d heard guys effusing breathlessly about what they’d seen on these pages, swaggering and boasting the way obnoxious junior-high boys always do.

But here it was within my sweaty, trembling grasp.  Wait till I told the guys!

I opened it up to the centerfold, a dark-haired punk-inflected Euro-skank escapee from the Amsterdam red-light district. Her name was Lyka or Ilka or Rikka or something like that; the kind of name people on this side of the Atlantic usually reserve for their show dogs. I stared at the picture for what seemed an impossibly long time, ogling and drooling till what’s-her-name seemed to come alive in my imagination. Then she began talking to me: “Ben, my turn-ons include well-hung men in Speedos, steeplechasing on the beach by moonlight, and a good snuff flick.”

As she spoke, Miss June began to sway and shimmy, revealing the secrets of her body in a wild one-dimensional striptease. Before I knew what was happening, I’d reached down into my pants, touching myself in time to the imagined rhythm of the dance, the exotic enchantress urging me on. 

And before she could say “cum here often?” I found myself in the grip of a strange, shivering sensation, so surprising in its power, so overwhelming for the sheer pleasure of it, that I nearly cried out; it felt as if I were melting and exploding all at once. Indifferent to the mess I was making, my milky essence spewed, almost leapt, from my body as I collapsed into a kind of ecstatic twilight.

Later, I cleaned things up as best I could, put the magazine back where I’d found it, and tried to be as nonchalant as it was possible to be under the circumstances. But I wanted more; I was hooked like a junkie, all strung out, breathless for my next fix. Getting off was all I could think about. I wanted to feel that wonderfully intense build-up of pleasure, the almost unbearable tension that came just before the final moment of sweet out-rushing, and the near-nirvana of release. I tried again later that night after the lights were out and the house had grown still, tried to recreate the experience of the afternoon. But something was missing; I needed Miss Neked Netherlands of 1991, and she was sleeping with my uncle.

Next day, I crept back into the guestroom, tingling with anticipation.  I’d swiped a hand towel from the linen closet, smuggling it in under my shirt. I found the magazine where I’d left it, and got right to business. The centerfold started doing her one-woman production of Gypsy in my head, dancing and stripping, talking as she took it all off. “Men are like the stallions I enjoy riding on the beach at night.  I put a bit in their mouth, jump on their backs, apply the spurs, and tell them I have ways of making them enjoy it. Yet, somehow, they never seem to.  Why is this, I wonder?”

I was on the beach with Ilsa—or was it Ilka?—willing her to ride me through the pounding surf. The overwhelming newness of arousal flowed over me like breaking waves. “Ben, if you want to win me over you need to buy me the biggest plush dildo you can find; I’ll put a dog collar on you, and ask you to obey, and you can tell me how you Americans decide where to eat; you have so many crappy second-rate restaurants.”

Everything started to spin around. A rapturous warmth radiated through my limbs like a mainlined narcotic, powerful and addicting; an all-encompassing sense of connectedness, a feeling of being at one and in love with everybody and everything in the entire universe. I was gone.

But when my spirit got back together with my body, I realized that I was not alone; Uncle Jerry was in the room with me.

“Hey Ben, I see you’re getting acquainted with Miss June.”

“Aw Geez, Uncle Jerry!” I tried to cover up the evidence of what I’d so obviously been doing. “You scared the crap out of me!”

“Funny thing about Miss June; not one has ever gone on to be Playmate of the Year. Did you know that?”

“I’m really sorry, Uncle Jerry.”

“Neither has a Miss July—not once. And it seems like those June, July women are almost always brunettes. ‘Course, I don’t much care for this particular Miss June, myself.”

“I won’t do it again.”

“And did you know that there’s never been a playmate from Iowa? Funny thing.”

“Please don’t tell Mom and Dad.”

“Now, why would I do that?” said Jerry. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”


Somewhat later, it occurred to me.

“So, how come you don’t like this month’s centerfold?”

Jerry rested his chin on his fist like The Thinker

“Everybody has different tastes in women, Ben. Each month in Playboy there’s always at least one letter from a guy saying something like ‘last month’s centerfold is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!’ and I’m sure one or two guys will write in to say the same thing about this month’s Playmate.

“But to my eye, she’s kind of hard around the edges, almost gettin’ into butch territory, if you know what I mean. She reminds me of Sue the Shrew, or a naked Bride of Frankenstein; sorta scary.”

“Really?”

“That’s one guy’s opinion, Ben. I’ve been enjoying this magazine for over twenty years; I’ve seen lots of beautiful centerfolds. Miss June here wouldn’t even make my top twenty.”

“So who’s your favorite centerfold of all time?”

“That’s an easy one!”  Jerry said, “Vicki McCarty, Miss September 1979, hands down.”

 “What was it about her that you liked so much?”

“I’ve always preferred my women brunette and brilliant—funny how I always end up with dumb blondes. Not only was Vicki McCarty one of the most strikingly gorgeous  brunettes I ever saw in  Playboy, she was also very probably the smartest woman ever to pose for the magazine; a brilliant Phi Beta Kappa scholar studying for her advanced degree in jurisprudence at Oxford. Would you like to see her?”

“You still have it; the magazine from back then?”

“Yeah; it’s been one of my most prized possessions all these years. Had to keep it hidden from Sue the Shrew while we were married, but I think I managed to find a pretty good place.”

Jerry rummaged through the old army-surplus ammo box he kept at the foot of the bed.  It was crammed with paper, reams of notes, half-finished manuscripts, drafts of his ever-expanding but somehow never-quite-finished take on the Great American Novel. And, nestling down near the bottom of the pile, a battered plastic bag, sealed and resealed many times with duct tape.

Inside the bag, reposing like a treasured holy relic, was a pristine copy of the September 1979 issue of Playboy. The cover was cleverly designed to look like the front page of a daily newspaper; in the lower right hand corner a small eye-catching headline and picture; Playboy finds Phi Beta Kappa Playmate.

As he flipped through the pages heading towards the centerfold Jerry began to speak in hushed reverent tones like an eye-witness to history, somebody-who’d-been there-no-shit at Woodstock when Hendrix played The Star Spangled Banner or stood in line for hours to get Marilyn Chambers’ autograph at the premier of Behind the Green Door. “Back in the ‘70s a lot of the editorial content in Playboy had this annoying breathless nudge-nudge-wink-wink kind of quality that didn’t help you feel very smart or mature. It tended to sound like a bunch of guys sitting around a locker room snapping towels at each other and shooting the breeze about babes. ‘There’s something about blondes, ya know? They’re more—what’s the word?—errrr, willing.’ I started referring to that style as errrotica. From a literary point of view it was just godawful.

“But nobody was buying the magazine for the literary quality of the captions. It was the pictures, man, the pictures. Some of those images are still burned into my memory, like a spread they did once called Sex in the Great Outdoors. And the images were a lot more overtly copulatory then—you know what I mean?—with couples doing it left and right; boy-on-girl or girl-on-girl or girl-boy-girl-on-boy-girl-boy. Things were wild and wide-open back then, Ben.

“But after a while a couple of things happened. First the ‘80s happened. Reagan and the Republican Revolution came to town, and suddenly the people who’d been waaaaay out on the loony-toon fringes of the far-right were the ones in power, passing the laws and appointing the judges. People started paying attention to all the shit these crazy hypocritical pig-ignorant fucks were shoveling about morality and family values, all the outright lies they were telling about the so-called evils of so-called pornography.

“And as much as Playboy tried and still tries to fight back, they also caved to some of this criticism. They toned down a lot of the explicit content, tried to make it seem more respectable and artsy like a slightly racier version of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. It became almost like a trade publication for the lingerie-modeling industry. Now when you look at a copy of the magazine you’ll hardly ever see heterosexual couples in the act except in the movie stills or the cartoons. There’ll be twins or triplets taking a shower together or stuff like that but the old days—the wide open sexual frontiers of the ‘70s—are gone forever.

“The other thing that happened was a bit more subtle. Over time, the demographic had changed. Somebody figured out that it wasn’t just horny adolescent jocks who were buying the magazine to hide under their beds. There were older ex-nerds—like me—who’d been reading it since they were teenagers but whose tastes and outlook had grown up and gone to college. There were married couples reading it together. (Wish I could’ve convinced my ex to read the Adviser with me once in a while.) Many very politically astute—and some quite influential—people were reading it, too; university professors, literary types who’ve always appreciated the great short stories, feminists of the sane variety, YUPPIES, progressive activists, and a good number of Lesbians—which might explain all the girl-on-girl-in-the-shower shots.

“So gradually, but never completely, they did away with the errrotica, the worst towel-snapping-ain’t-sex-a-dirty-little-joke kinda shit, and cut back on the copulatin’ couples. Better researched and written articles on politics and sexuality replaced the bogus Playboy-Philosophy pieces, which had always been just a phony adolescent pseudo-intellectual repackaging of hedonism anyway. (It always reminded me of some horny, pompous college professor trying to talk his way into a naive coed’s panties.) You could still read some great short stories and check out the occasional interview with important thinkers or the more interesting, intelligent type of celebrity. And always, of course, you could open it up to the middle to see stuff like this—”

“Whoa!” My mouth fell open as Jerry spread out the centerfold to its full length.  A young woman with long dark hair and beautiful penetrating brown eyes, reclined causally in an antique swivel chair, resting her feet on an old oak desk. She was naked except for a small white stocking cap. The way she looked into the camera, with a soft but serious gaze, made me forget about Little Miss Dutch Treat right then and there.

“Pretty nice, huh?”  Jerry ran his fingers across the page. “Many of these photographers think of themselves quite rightly as artists, and if you know a thing or two about art history, you begin to notice how a lot of these pictures are composed to resemble paintings by Reubens or Titian or Rembrandt. The only difference being; Reubens and company had way better taste in lingerie.”

“Her tits aren’t very big.” I said.

“No, but see how beautifully shaped they are? See how they’re in perfect proportion to the rest of her body? Believe me, Ben; big tits are highly overrated. Who needs more than a mouthful anyway?”

We flipped through the rest of the Playmate spread together. “Notice something interesting about her, Ben?”

“Yeah!  It’s like there’s a different girl in every picture. I know it’s the same one, but she looks different every time.”

“Exactly! That’s the secret of a truly beautiful woman; she’s multifaceted like a finely cut gemstone. You could take a thousand different pictures of her, and every single one would show her off in a different way. It’s not a matter of the photographer telling her to do something different: 'Be coy!  Now pout!  Make love to the camera!  Be a temptress . . .’ No, my friend, it’s something much more down deep and mysterious, something virtually impossible to put your finger on.

A truly beautiful woman has a kind of glow, an inner light that’s always turned on, and never fails to show her off to best advantage. You can see it all the way across a room; it draws you, like a moth to a flame.  You can feel it when she’s close to you, and, believe me, that’s the kind of woman you want to be close to.

“But a lot of guys don’t notice, hard as that may be to believe. They don’t notice because they’re not paying attention to the whole woman. They’re too hung up on one part or another; tits, or ass, or legs, or pussy. The people who put out Penthouse magazine cater to that. It’s like the story of the mermaid and her sister; the mermaid’s a girl from the waist up, and the rest of her’s a fish; her sister’s a girl only from the waist down. You virtually never see a photo in Penthouse of the whole woman; it’s all mermaids, either tit shots focused above the waist, or twat shots from the waist down. Sorry, but in my experience that’s not the best way to appreciate a woman.

“Now, Ben, I can’t let you take this particular issue--though I  might will it to you someday. I do have one or two tucked under the bed that you can have for keeps. And I’ll share the new ones with you as they come out. Just let me have first crack at ‘em so I can read the articles, and jerk myself off a couple times with the new playmate. Then they’re all yours, OK?”

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Jerry was as good as his word, sharing the magazine with me for the year or so he lived with us. Later, he even went so far as to get me a gift subscription so I wouldn’t miss an issue--newsstands in Iowa being a bit iffy about selling innocuous softcore to minors. With the exception of pretty, red-headed girl-next-door Corina Harney—Miss August 1991, and later, Playmate of the Year—my favorite centerfolds were never the most popular. I fell madly in love with a trio of fabulous brunettes: Traci Adel, Miss July 1994, whose ambition was to write and play great rock music in the tradition of Elvis; Cynthia Brown, Miss May 1995, an aspiring environmental activist, whose come-hither pose on her back in a sea of spilled popcorn haunted my wet dreams for years. And, my all-time favorite, my goddess of goddesses, Alesha Oreskovich, Miss June 1993, a brainy bombshell of a beach babe who said that “clothes are a nuisance,” could not understand the male obsession with sports, and dreamed of becoming a college professor.




Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of 'Roadhouse Blues' by Malin James

Malin James had me from the first line of Skins, second of the eleven good, gritty, honest, bittersweet and beautifully-written short stories in Roadhouse Blues:

Cassie was born ten miles from the middle of nowhere in a town called Styx, if you can fucking believe it…

That line is keynote and key for this collection. All these stories are set emotionally, if not physically, in the same small place somewhere deep in the wilderness of the American psyche. Styx could be practically anywhere, and this, I think, is intentional on the author’s part. There is a sense of near-mythic wide-openness about the place, like the west Texas of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or the windswept plains of the lower Midwest, an arch nonspecificity invoking universality:  

A curtain dropped over her mind as Cassie walked downstage. She wasn’t in the theater any more. She was in the ugly brown heart of the dust bowl. She could taste it like a film in her mouth…

We’ve seen these box stores, garages, and greasy spoons, strip malls, strip clubs, factories, bars, and bedrooms a hundred times before, wandered through the dusty streets of the same stifling chicken-fried towns where everybody makes it their business to know yours, yet are utterly incurious where the secret pain of the heart is concerned. Where same-sex attraction is still the ultimate scandal, and tenderness more taboo than rage.

James shows us what’s really going on behind those closed doors and drawn drapes, inside her character’s heads. She sets her scenes with a few well-chosen details to conjure atmosphere, but it is the characters’ emotional landscape that interests her and us, that sense of being lost in the only place you’ve ever known, of fleeing the past even as you fear the future, of being trapped in a world where you are free only so long as you don’t stand out too much…  

Leigh imagined her ugly underwear, her ugly comforting armor, and reminded herself to breathe. Fumbling fingers on blue cotton hearts, pink Sundays worn on Mondays, lying so still, mismatched days of the week…

Reminiscent of working-class portraitists like Richard Russo or Stephen King at their keenly-observant best, James’ characters are refreshingly real, down-to-earth, mostly blue collar, sometimes not quite as articulate as they’d like to be. The soundtrack of their lives is more often rockabilly than pure country western, but we recognize a lot of the same themes; infidelity, loneliness, nostalgia, regret, and desire. So much desire. An auto mechanic carries on a life-long affair with his boss, who also happens to be his sister-in-law. His wife’s longing for a baby ultimately leads her to desperate measures. Later, the new mother contemplates the passions that have been awakened within her. Another woman sets out to exact revenge on a faithless lover, only to have the tables turned, when her anger is sublimed into pure lust. The owner of the local diner comes out of the closet, if only for one glorious night. The lover of a fallen soldier is consoled by the soldier’s widow. A waitress's encounter with a creepy late-night patron triggers memories of being young and crazy-in-love with a bad boy, and the insanity that inevitably followed. A sad-eyed stripper comforts a dying man who appears like the ghost of her beloved father. The bartender at the strip club meets the woman who shares the passions he cannot confess.  Life goes on, little changes, but dreaming makes it bearable.

Roadhouse Blues is recommended without reservation!



Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review of 'Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction' by Benjamin Percy

There’s a new volume to add to the first shelf of books on the craft of writing. Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction is worthy to stand alongside such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Ursula K. LeGuinn’s Steering the Craft; books that not only offer invaluable advice, but ultimately expand the mind, inspiring us to question our most deeply-entrenched assumptions about literature—what it is, what it isn’t, what’s good, what’s bad—our prejudices about process—what works, what doesn’t—all the creative-writing-course clichés and stultifying conventional wisdom that narrows our outlook and limits our potential even as it smothers the creative spark we hope to nurture.

What’s the difference between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, and are the two categories mutually exclusive?  The worst of genre fiction according to Percy “features formulaic plots, pedestrian language, paper-thin characters, gender and ethnic stereotypes and a general lack of diversity…” Literary fiction at its worst “features a pile of pretty sentences that add up to nothing happening…” A fairly grim, if acutely accurate, assessment; there seems precious little hope or redemption on either path, and even less possibility of reconciliation. “But why not flip the equation?” Percy asks. “Toss out the worst of genre and literary fiction—and merge the best…”  This is the extraordinary, some might say counterintuitive, premise of Percy’s argument, what makes ‘Thrill Me’ not only unique but indispensable. “If I’m going to align with anyone,” Percy declares, “it’s with … [those authors] who make an effort to be both a writer *and* a storyteller, someone who puts their muscle into artful technique and compulsive readability.”

And Percy shows us precisely what he means, offering generous examples of exceptionally well-written and  excitingly-told stories ranging across the literary/genre spectrum from Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, and Tim O’Brien to Michael Chabon, Ursula K. LeGuinn, and George R.R. Martin, not ignoring the rich vein of contemporary film and novelistic television. In each chapter, these examples are used to illustrate solutions to the problems every storyteller must face at one time or another; creating a sense of urgency in a narrative, finding the language appropriate to stage an effective set piece, dealing with issues arising from the portrayal of violence, employing setting and detail to “make the extraordinary ordinary’, designing suspense, knowing when to incorporate backstory (or not), the use of artful repetition…and so, so much more.

As in King’s On Writing, autobiography is employed as a vehicle for insight, a framework for instruction, the writer’s personal experience illuminating broader points about process in an engaging narrative that reads like the best coming-of-age fiction.  As a boy, the author relates, “I had too much empathy; it was a superpower (as a budding writer) and a disability (as a functional human being).” But Percy is wise enough to eschew the one-size-fits-all approach to creativity, the arrogant assumption that the experience of one individual somehow translates into universal truth.

Nor is Percy afraid to gore the sacred cows of contemporary fiction, fearless—and trenchantly precise—in his criticisms of semi-canonized writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Chabon, yet also lavish in his praise of those same authors where praise is due.

Percy draws strong parallels between music and writing, citing Aaron Copland’s description of the listening experience (on the sensual, expressive, and purely musical or cerebral levels) and showing how the same principles can apply to a reader’s enjoyment of fiction. Like LeGuinn in Steering the Craft, Percy explains how types of punctuation may be equated to musical rests of varying lengths. He invites us to appreciate the rhythmic richness of language, the visceral effects of well-chosen words, and the natural sense of momentum in a well-crafted phrase: “Tone refers not only to voice, but to music, the foot-tapping rhythm of the words. Dialogue is typically staccato [fast-paced, marked] while narrative is typically legate [smoothly flowing at a more leisurely pace]...”


Chock-a-block with eye-opening insight and practical advice conveyed in a fresh, down-to-earth style, Thrill Me is a must-read for all aspiring writers of dramatic fiction and the next best thing to a refresher course for more experienced authors. Enthusiastically recommended!  





Sunday, September 3, 2017

Pacing an Erotic Scene

I was thrilled this past spring to have a story of mine accepted for inclusion in The Sexy Librarian’s Dirty Thirty Vol. 2. Recognition is always nice, but to be included in a prestigious anthology among some of the best-known names in the business goes far beyond simple affirmation. I was, to say the least, elated.  Editor Rose Caraway clearly ‘got’ what I was trying to do in A Polite Fiction; it’s not a conventional erotic narrative—I don’t do conventional—and I understood from the start that it would not be everyone’s cup of love-tea. I submitted the story, confident that the quality of the writing would be enough to get me in the door, though I was somewhat doubtful about whether it would be sufficiently sexy to make the final cut.
           
As an editor, Rose Caraway is gifted with an extraordinary kind of literary X-ray vision. She has the ability to see directly to the heart of a story and understand with acute precision what makes it tick, why it works, or why it doesn’t. This goes along with an aptitude for perceiving potential in a piece of writing, a talent for recognizing and identifying that certain inchoate element, that mysterious unarticulated something that’s lacking in an otherwise interesting, well-written story. She clearly saw the potential in A Polite Fiction, liked the characters and the situation, appreciated my use of dialogue, and loved the ending. But Rose also recognized the story’s most serious weakness: the tale wasn’t steamy enough. Out of 3000 words, I’d only spared 120 near the end to describe the consummation of my characters’ relationship.

Ouch!

Being asked to do re-writes is seldom something to which an author looks forward with enthusiasm; the  request always comes at first as a bit of a gut-punch. But, deep down, I am a problem-solver. I see a request to do re-writes not as an affront to my ego or a repudiation of my “brilliant vision”, but as an opportunity.  I thrive on this kind of challenge; I actually love working an editorial problem insofar as it helps make a good story even better.

A Polite Fiction is set in the bedroom of a once-famous author, Dorian Hume. Summer, the writer’s young assistant, is helping her aging employer organize his papers. They face each other from opposite ends of a large waterbed where documents have been unboxed, spread out, and sorted into piles. In the bottom of a battered file box, Summer discovers an old pen-and-ink portrait of the author as a young man, and cannot help imagining what it might have been like to be with him in his heyday. Then Dorian makes a suggestion:

“I wonder,” he began, “would you…”

“Would I…?”

“Sit here?” The discard pile tottered precariously as he patted the mattress. “Be with me for a while?”

“Oh, Dorian—Mr. Hume—I…I don’t know.”

“I’d like to tell you a story,” he said. “Please?”     

She hesitated.

“We’ve been alone together before.”  His voice was a fine oak-barrel-aged baritone, rich and penetrating—like those eyes, she thought. Summer could not deny her attraction to this man, never mind their professional relationship or the fact that he was old enough to be her grandfather…

Summer wonders aloud how Dorian’s wife, Maude, might react to the knowledge of their being together. Dorian tells about the sexual adventures he and Maude used to enjoy in their youth, relating the story with a kind of wistful nostalgia. Then he reveals his true desire:

“It would be nice to know,” Dorian muttered.

“What?”

“That I still had it in me… That my words still had power.”

“I don’t understand.” She put the drawing down. “What are you saying? What are you—”

“Let me tell you a story,” he begged. “Let me make love to you with my words.”

Summer hesitates, but eventually joins Dorian on the bed. He whispers the story in her ear—a kind of Lovecraftian gothic tale of a damsel escaping a tower in which she has been imprisoned "for the sake of her virtue"--arousing Summer with the sound of his voice. I won’t reveal the denouement, but let’s just say these two characters definitely experience a happy ending…

In going back to do re-writes, I realized that the story’s lack of erotic impact had less to do with scenario, setting, description or atmosphere than with the pacing of the narrative. The clue is clearly there in the synopsis: Summer hesitates… Both characters in the original version were too unsure, too shy, to make a first move, and so consummation was constantly being postponed. Not good when you only have 3000 words to work with, and only so much time to keep the reader engaged.

Pacing in erotica is something we don’t often think about unless there’s an obvious problem with it. So what makes for effective pacing? In conventional pornography there’s never any question about whether people are going to end up having sex. It’s only a matter of how soon. There are no obstacles to the act, seldom much time required to get into the mood, very little build-up or 'gradually working into it' beforehand, and precious little foreplay when it finally does happen. There's hardly ever anything remotely like internal conflict to distract the characters or delay the inevitable. In short, there’s  no such thing as dramatic irony in porn. Sure, one of the characters may play coy for a second or so; there may be a bit of flirtatious forestalling, but everybody watching the scene knows damned well what’s coming—and if it doesn’t come quickly, they're very likely to demand their money back. When the starlet bats her eyes demurely and sighs “Gee…I don’t know…” the average viewer is probably shouting “Get on with it!” at the screen.

It may seem like a contradiction, but in erotica, sex isn’t always a foregone conclusion, nor is consummation inevitable. Of course it wouldn't be erotica without a sexual situation, or, at least, an atmosphere conducive to sex. But erotica also takes the very unpredictability of the human psyche into account. Where pornography portrays a kind of mechanical function, automatic once set in motion, erotica elucidates the psychological and emotional variants that make each encounter unique—and uniquely human.  

This uncertainty is part of the excitement in an erotic narrative, the build-up, gradual or swift, of sexual tension, rising states of desire, the not-always-smooth progression of arousal, crescendo and plateau. At some point the characters arrive at what I call an erotic cusp, a point beyond which doubt is banished, the floodgates are opened, and turning back is unthinkable. In submitting my re-writes to Rose, I put it this way:

I wanted to preserve what I see as the essence of this story; that is, a professional/intellectual relationship between two very different people who like and admire each other seguing into something sexual. The pacing has to be such in the beginning that Dorian and Summer’s eventual getting over this sexual cusp seems natural, and that what happens afterwards is all the more powerful for feeling inevitable—something readers believe these characters truly would do. 

In a good deal of erotic writing, the ultimate sex scene takes on the characteristics of a genre set piece. The language describing the sex act sometimes assumes a loftier, more poetic tone, bordering, too often, on the purplishly effusive. What’s happening in the scene may not always be obvious, but it’s torturously clear that the author got carried away. To be sure, so many otherwise gifted writers fall into a syntactical rut when it comes to writing sex itself. This is especially evident where the use of subordinate clauses is concerned: “Doing x, John did y.” or “Jane did x, y-ing as she moaned in pleasure…” over and over and over again. Syntax has a significant influence on pacing. To employ a similar syntax, sentence after sentence, may create an illusion of speed, but usually only in the writer’s mind. This kind of regular repetition has the ultimate effect of desensitizing the reader and putting them to sleep, where, instead, they ought to be propelled deeper into the world of the story, excited to find out what happens next.   

Dialogue and internal monologue may be employed to break up these monotonous patterns. Ultimately, dialogue may be one of the most effective ways to regulate the pacing of a story. I like the way this little bit of back-and-forth flows along near the beginning of A Polite Fiction:

“I think Maude’s afraid of losing you.”

“Losing me? How?”  

“I don’t know. It’s in the way she talks about you.”

“What has she said?” The question was more polite than pointed.

“She said that you were a great man—”

“Were?”

“Are.”

 “Mm. And?”

And that it’s a privilege to be a part of your world. She told me I should feel honored to…” Summer paused again, uncertain.

“Honored to…?”

“…be the object of your interest, of your…desire.

Dialogue can be extraordinarily effective when used to reveal aspects of character. It deepens our understanding of the characters, making them and their story come alive in profound and wonderful ways. Yet, it is seldom nearly so effective when employed to deliver exposition. And nothing does more to impede the natural forward momentum of a story than the clunky, heavy-handed use of expository dialogue—putting information in the mouths of characters that could better have been related through narrative. It’s like tripping on a tree root along a trail, having to pick oneself up and double back in order to move forward. No fun at all!

Perhaps the best way to ensure smooth pacing is to master the flow of language, the art of the elegantly imperceptible transition from phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. The last sentence of a paragraph ideally throws a switch, as on a railroad, effortlessly conveying readers into the next paragraph, and so on, to the end. If this series of switches is working smoothly and in precise concert, the story’s pacing will seem natural, vibrant, and, most importantly, inevitable. If the switches are too slow to open, or somehow out of alignment, the pace will appear to drag as the reader must negotiate gaps, drop-offs, fits and starts, between sections.  

In the end, Rose’s request for re-writes got me to think deeply about my craft, and that was well worth the time it took to do the work. By making careful cuts to parts of Dorian's "story within a story", while adding steamy stage business at strategic points along the way, I managed to bring the new erotically supercharged version of  A Polite Fiction in at just under 3,000 words. In my e-mail with the revised story, I wrote:

OK, after five full and extremely intense days, I think I’ve done all I can to this story—any more would very probably end up causing damage. A Polite Fiction may never succeed in turning readers into quivering puddles of inarticulate lust, but the eroticism has definitely been kicked up a notch or two, and, I believe, for those who can get past any hang-ups about May-December nookie, it will work very well indeed.

I hope it works for you, too!