Today I am hosting another Cleis Press virtual book tour, this time for their new anthology Best Lesbian Erotica 2015, edited by Laura Antoniou. A collection of twenty short stories by twenty-one different authors, this volume contains a refreshing variety of stories. Among my favorites were a tale of sexual flirtation told through an exchange of emails; the story of USO performer who seduces a WASP in the dressing room; a weaver who’s seduced by a Goddess; a lesbian elder narrating the beginnings of a long-term relationship to her lover; an arranged marriage to a queen; and a tattoo sitting that ends up entangled with sex. Having enjoyed the finished product, I was pleased to have the opportunity to interview the editor who had curated the collection. Without further ado, here is Laura Antoniou.
One of the things that really impressed me about Best Lesbian Erotica 2015 was the variety of stories. Too often, in my experience, erotica collections end up feeling very one-note. I think, often, it’s assumed that erotica readers are not very adventurous — that they’ll only read stories around sexual themes they themselves enjoy. But this volume has many different flavors and settings — including historical and fantastical. What was your thinking in bringing such disparate tales together?
Antoniou: Sometimes I do see a sad sort of sameness in genre entertainment, and lesbian erotica is nothing if not a very niche field. And publishing is a very conservative industry. Editors and publishers want exactly what sold well before – even as they wait for the next big hit to change the game. Add this to the fact that readers of erotica have a narrowly defined goal – to get aroused – and you have a formula for…formula. Two ladies meet. They engage in one sex act from column A and two from column B, leading to a sweet and wry ending after the explosive climax. Or multiple climax.
But in reality, lesbians aren’t this monolithic cookie-cutter production line of similarities. Gather ten of us in a room and you’ll have ten sets of turn-ons, turn-offs, experiences and desires and a range of fantasies that would make Nancy Friday blush. (I’m SO dating myself.) Our erotic literature should reflect that. And an anthology is the best way to do so; it allows for some stories to get immediately dog-eared (or bookmarked on a reading device?) and some to elicit fond or different kinds of thoughts and some that will be skipped over every time the reader pulls that book out. That’s freedom to me.
You write in your introduction that “one of the things I love about a sexy tale is an unmooring from reality.” That got me thinking about the pressure from some quarters that depictions of human sexuality be “realistic.” I get where that impulse is coming from, pushing back against performance anxieties around sexual intimacy and public health concerns. But we don’t demand that other genres — high fantasy, horror, poetry, fiction — be realistic. What do you think is lost with this demand that sexual fictions aspire to realism?
Antoniou: I never wanted my erotic fiction to have to stick to reality, whether in depictions of safer sex or physical capabilities for the same reason why I don’t demand my swords and sorcery or stalwart detective mysteries to adhere to objective reality. Fiction was not designed for truth. It is, in fact, more designed for what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” – a feeling that something could, or should be true, or is close enough to accept for your purposes. Erotica features characters who are super-model gorgeous, with the stamina of an Olympic athlete and responses a porn star would envy – and sure, that could be intimidating to we common humans. But erotica also contains sexy vampires and werewolves, impossible coincidences and magical things like the mind reading required for two strangers to get each other off exactly according to their desires. Or, despite them. If readers can accept magically perfect sex, then they can accept magically perfect sex with a goddess. A don’t know how different a Greek or African goddess is from that track-star, super-model, sexual dynamo, any way.
As someone who enjoys writing and reading erotic stories involving established relationships, I appreciated that you included some of those tales in 2015 and acknowledged them explicitly in your introduction. Why do you think erotica as a genre is so wedded to early relationship, “first time,” or hook-up encounter narratives?
Antoniou: First time narratives are awesome! They include joys we treasure. The mystery of this amazing person you’re going to be intimate with. The discovery process of flirtation or negotiation. Being surprised is wonderful. First time or stranger stories can include an element of doubt or danger, and the invention of a new connection. Of course they’re standard stories, especially in short form.
But to rely ONLY on first timers, or those elusive one-nighters means we ignore the steady and passionate strength of people who DO know each other well. Stories using characters who have already gone though the awkward or the sex-all-the-time honeymoon stages are more deliberate, and to me, more romantic. They show how knowing someone really does give one a sense of magical connection, that mind reading so unbelievable in a first time story. And I love how they show the scars and the ribbons from past experience. Sex with a long time lover isn’t as frantic or frightening as with a new one…unless, of course, that relationship came with more scars than ribbons. That’s how I could include the sweetest of stories about sexuality when your love is weak and ill, versus the hate-sex of people who really shouldn’t ever talk to each other because they just make things worse.
As an editor, what are one or two tropes in erotica you think have run their course?
Antoniou: I think we should have been over vampires even before Twilight, but whatevs, as they say. I’m also kind of over the expectations of butch = neanderthal and femme = fatale or selfish. I love me a good butch/femme dynamic, but some things are just old, not to mention hackneyed.
What are one or two things you’d like to see more of in the erotica you read?
Antoniou: Oh…gosh. Well. My personal taste differs from my editorial taste a great deal. Personally, I read the trashiest sort of things, and have no care for literary quality. But in general, I really would like to see more variety in setting. I love how I am seeing more queer romance set outside of the usual A) Big gay friendly city/gay neighborhood enclave of mostly white girls ready for a Netflix adaptation or B) small town girls getting it on in a setting that seems like it came out of a tourist brochure rather than genuine experience in such a setting. I’d like to see more than contemporary stories with contemporary language and mores. Different periods is a great place to hang out, especially if the author can evoke a time and place with just enough detail to let a reader feel like they could be there, too. I’d like to see some more fantastic settings, as in unreal, or completely alien, to challenge our own tropes and expectations. And I’d like to see more darkness, too. Erotic horror and dark fantasy, with edginess that makes a reader feel a little guilty for enjoying it? Oh, yeah, baby. That’s my kind of tale.