How Not to Review Erotica: Book Lovers edited by Shawna Kenney
My rating: 3/5 stars
Forget poorly written prose and clichéd love scenes: Book Lovers answers the call for sexy literature with substance. This collection of toe-curling tales written by and for word-worshippers offers well-crafted fiction and creative nonfiction that connects literature to libido. From a Vonnegut-inspired tryst to an imaginary ménage à trois with Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, the book encompasses a veritable buffet of literary fantasies.
Whether they’re conjuring Junot Díaz between the sheets or dreaming of a modern-day enactment of Wuthering Heights—this time refusing Edgar in favor of lusty, bodice-ripping nights with Heathcliff—the stories in Book Lovers are designed for readers’ brains and bodies.
I’ve been avoiding this review for a while. Turns out, I don’t know how to review erotica unless it’s ridiculously terrible (see: Dragon Bound, Sleeping Beauty.) The terribleness allows me to get snarky. But let’s say the the writing is passable, or even good. Now what? I feel like anything I say is going to come across as either “I’m a huge prude and I’m judging anyone who is into this!” which is not necessarily true, or, “I totally rubbed one out while reading this!” which is also not necessarily true and is definitely not what I want Reading-in-Bed.com to mean to anyone.
It comes down to authorial intent. That’s a fancy phrase I’m hearing a lot of lately, thanks to the recent book What We See When We Read (I read it, it was just ok) and the whole “Hello Kitty Isn’t a Kitty” scandal. It just means: what did the author intend to convey, and does that matter? Or does the reader’s reaction matter more? I get stuck on the assumption that erotica is ONLY and ALWAYS meant to titillate. That the author intends it and the reader must “get” it, or the erotica was a failure. I’d like to challenge that assumption, so, I’m going to try and review this collection just like I would review any short story collection, authorial intentions aside:
This is usually where I’d start, but I got nothin’. The authors are all firmly in the erotica genre so I haven’t heard of any of them. They do seem to be pretty legit, though, many have their own books or are regular contributors to collections like this. Editor Shawna Kenney wrote a memoir called I Was a Teenage Dominatrix so I guess she knows what she’s talking about.
I actually love it, even though some of the stories are a little too on the nose. The authors tend to take the theme very literally! But erotica about books does make sense, in a meta kind of way. And you know I love a good literary reference. Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, Ulysses, and Slaughterhouse-Five are represented. But some of the stories are just sex in a library or sex in a bookstore or sex with an author. Those ones seemed out of place.
My favourite is the one that challenged my definition of erotica. Twenty Seconds or Longer is the story of a couple having sex for the first time since the loss of their young daughter and while it’s graphic, I wouldn’t call it sexy – it was uncomfortable and tragic. It includes the Slaughterhouse-Five reference and it’s really subtle.
I also liked the first story, A to Z, which is the most straightforward (though not straight!) piece of erotica in the collection – a fairly unlikely scenario leads to anonymous sex. Simple and effective!
Ana Maria is one of a few stories that don’t actually have any sex in them, it’s just very suggestive, and features a main character who is very pregnant, and by the end of the story, a new mother. I don’t see new moms presented in a sexual way very often, unless it’s demeaning. I really liked this one.
As a collection, the stories felt a little uneven. The authors had very different interpretations on the theme. I would have preferred to stick to the stories that pay homage to other works of literature. Maybe that makes me feel okay about reading smut?
Making it all about me
As explained above, I’m uncomfortable talking about my personal reaction to these stories, like I usually would in a review. I had fun figuring out the literary references and it was good to push my limits and challenge my assumptions about a genre that, until now, I’d only read in order to make fun of. I admit that during the week I spent with this book, reading was perhaps not the main activity happening in my bed. So I guess those authorial intentions turned into the reader’s intentions after all!
Bonus erotica preview!
A few of my blogger friends are reviewing a forthcoming erotic novel called Claudine, which I am really sorry I had to turn down, and I am looking forward to what they have to say! Apparently it’s by an “established Canadian author” writing under a pseudonym and I’m pretending it’s Margaret Atwood. Check out “Barbara Palmer’s” website for more clues and an epic book trailer. I may just pick this up on my own, depending what ebookclassics and Another Book Blog have to say!
Anyone else have trouble reviewing erotica? Or reading any good ones lately?
Thank you to Seal Press for the review copy of Book Lovers!
I’m already feeling the same way, after only reading about a quarter of Claudine. I’m not sure how to talk about an erotica nov that’s actually well done. It’s already a funny concept to me. It’s like writing a blog review about a soft code porno. Haha! I laugh just thinking about it. I’m on trouble.
Excuse the typos. Phone fingers
Yeah and you’ve got the added stigma of reviewing a book and a genre that’s supposedly for women. Good luck with that!
Haha I know! Thanks.
Waht a great review! I’m with you and sometimes struggle to review erotica, but I wave my prude flag proudly 🙂 This one sounds like a fascinating read though with the literary influence/references and I might have to broaden my erotica reading from the few “trashy” (I use the term lovingly) series I do read!
* What (Clearly was too excited to comment to proof read.)
I like the theme for these stories. Makes me curious… But what makes me more curious is; Who is Barbara Palmers?! I come back after two weeks and everyone’s reading erotica! 🙂
Haha I know! I got a review copy of Claudine too, so prepare for more. You can get one from Penguin Canada on Twitter.
Thanks, good to know! I’ll have fun reading all the reviews!
You have such a great wit Laura! And your previous post has made me so interested in some new books – I love it!