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How I Ascended: Becoming an Erotic Goddess
by Susie Bright
I did not have a "reputation" for writing about anything, let alone sex, for the first ten years I was publishing my work. I didn't even know how much I would be affected by my notoriety until I was hit over the head with it.
In 1994, shortly after I began the Best American Erotica series, I was interviewed for a cover story by Dwight Garner, a journalist for the Boston Phoenix at the time. He wrote that I was the "goddess of American erotica." For the next few hours after I read his glowing praise, I was insufferable. All my sins and weaknesses were washed away as I climbed Mount Olympus with my paper crown.
Later in the day, humbled by real life and toiling in my office, I photocopied the review a dozen times to send to my agent, as well as to publishers I wanted to impress. I thought how curious it was that I had arrived at this place, an erotic "deity." It occurred to me that it had been decades in America since anyone had taken erotica seriously, or treated erotic literature as something to be respected. The trials of the 1950s that made D. H. Lawrence's and Henry Miller's classic works first available legally in the United States were unknown to all but our eldest generation. No wonder I seemed remarkable in my interests and enthusiasm -- I was raising a genre from the grave!
I've been asked so many times by fans how, or why, I studied to become an erotic expert. I've been asked which courses I took for my university degree, or how I made my professional calculations to achieve success. The answer is that I did nothing -- I mean nothing -- to intentionally become a sexpert. Yes, I loved sex -- and reading and writing -- probably above all other personal pastimes, but without any notion of my affections becoming a career. In retrospect, my progress has been as much a wonder to me as it has been to many of my readers.
I came to sex writing first as a lover, writing poems and letters to my earliest infatuations. Nobody outside my bed knew anything about my erotic devotions.
At the same time, however, I was a political activist; and in addition to the usual suspects, I was also swept up in the early feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1970s. I started having sex just as the women's movement and gay liberation were peaking. I wrote articles in underground magazines and newspapers about sex, about how to get birth control without your parents' finding out, about coming out gay at your high school, and what to do when you wanted to have a great teenage sex life but you had no privacy and little money -- classic themes that I could write about all over again twenty-five years later!
At this time, although I produced a lot of writing, it rarely appeared with my name on it. The political emphasis at the time was to enhance our collective consciousness and effort. To insist that one needed a byline was considered the worst self-aggrandizing stunt. I would have been embarrassed if anyone had suggested it. I loved the collaboration and the emphasis on group potential; but, in retrospect, I realize that I didn't have any particular sense of my talent for writing. I thought it was just something that everyone needed to know how to do, like cooking for a full house or changing a tire.
To finish college, I moved to northern California, where I found a program at UC Santa Cruz called Community Studies that was devoted to political activism. Best of all, it was largely field study. My major became the pursuit of sexual politics in San Francisco -- which at that moment, just after Harvey Milk's assassination, was exploding in several directions.
We were right on the cusp of AIDS and at the beginning of a gay political establishment in San Francisco; instead of merely fighting puritans, gays were now fighting among themselves over who was going to represent sexual diversity in our city's political agenda. Every other sexual minority -- from leather folk, to prostitutes, to transgendered men and women -- was starting to publish its own books of theory and activism. But the erotic element behind all that protest was still pretty quiet.
I was, and always have been, bisexual; but at that time, every bit of heat in sexual politics was in the gay community. Every straight and kinky person was attracted to the gay scene. It was where every erotic idea was debated and ignited.
I worked a part-time job in a women's vibrator store, composed a play called Girls Gone Bad, and read my erotic poetry in abandoned storefronts. It was an exciting time, and it was then that I became frustrated at how little reading matter was available, for women in particular, about our sexual lives and stories. It occurred to me that even though feminism had ignited a revolution in consciousness about women's bodies, we hadn't really gone all the way into a woman's erotic mind.
The Internet hadn't yet become ubiquitous, and as far as books were concerned there was hardly anything -- a little Ana´s Nin here, a little Nancy Friday there. Everything erotic in print for women was either antique or was predicated on heavy psychological rationales. Why couldn't women have their own fabulous smut? We were exasperated with much of the male porn that we'd been "making do" with for years.
Two things happened. Joani Blank, the owner of the store where I worked, agreed to publish a book of women's erotica that I would edit -- we called it Herotica. At the same time, a fan of my poetry readings phoned to ask me if I'd like to contribute to a new magazine for "the adventurous lesbian." It was called On Our Backs, and I became its editor.
At that time, no one wrote "women's erotica." It didn't exist as a genre. On the one hand, that made our task of finding talent very difficult, because everyone was so startled by the idea (Women digging sex? Ridiculous!) that it became a challenge to ask any writer to participate. A lot of writers were afraid to use their names, or they wondered if erotic writing would be the end of their careers.
On the other hand, there were lots of women who were writing about sex -- beautifully, passionately, and with great intelligence and imagination -- and they were shut out of mainstream publishing. I was able to publish authors who, if not for the prejudices of the traditional publishing business, would have been discovered and published to great acclaim.
There was a treasure trove here, and it was being completely ignored. Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, Sarah Schulman, Lisa Palac, Carol Queen, Joan Nestle -- all these great writers who have now been published widely but couldn't have gotten cab fare from a publisher once upon a time. A whole generation of remarkable talent was looking for an "in," and my magazine and anthologies came along at just the right time.
By 1990, after the third volume of Herotica and six years of On Our Backs, the notion of the sex-positive feminist, with her PC and modem by her side, became ubiquitous. There were dozens of imitators and a flood of talent. Major publishers began to court the new sex-radical divas, and the notion of the "do-me feminist" became a cliché.
In the meantime, I'd become known for my critical and sometimes funny essays about porn, sexual politics, and erotic adventurism. Yet at the same time I was chafing at the boundaries of what I'd created. For one thing, I was bisexual, but most people assumed that I was interested only in lesbian work, since I was so well-known as the editor of On Our Backs. Privately, I was appalled that women who dig men didn't have a stronger erotic voice of their own. I was frustrated that I didn't have a venue to publish the work of outstanding gay and straight male writers.
I knew that what erotica fans wanted was something wonderful and new, and they didn't care what the genitals were on the people who wrote it. I knew that the conventional wisdom of the publishing establishment was that gay and lesbian work had to be ghettoized, that straight audiences had to be protected by feeding them only the vanilla fantasies that would fit into their own lives. I'd been looking under people's beds for years, surveying their secret porn collections, and my conclusion was the old maxim: You can't tell a book by its cover.
Right as I was hitting my literary wit's end, I got a phone call. An editor from Macmillan, Mark Chimsky, said he was interested in talking to me because he had heard I knew more about erotic writing than anyone else in America. I'm sure he was soliciting my favor at that point, but his flattery gave me pause. I had never thought of my knowledge that way. I told him yes, it was true -- it was a sad commentary on the state of erotica that hardly anyone else cared to become knowledgeable.
I was the "erotica guru" he was after, but it was only because, up to that point, no one else had given a damn. The few scholars who concerned themselves with erotic writing had been isolated and were not involved in the countercultural publishing scene. Most of the prominent mainstream writers of the day were terrified to have their names sullied by "dirty" writing, so they were of no use at all. For me to be the expert, at that point, simply meant that I was a devoted contrarian.
Mark had a concept for an annual series -- a collection of the best American erotic writing. The timing was perfect, since I was aching to publish a diverse body of work.
The first edition of The Best American Erotica, in 1993, was a national best-seller, and it has continued at that level of popularity ever since. My role has been that of editor and promoter, and also an in-house critic. Each year I've tried to look at the current trends in erotic literature; I've tried to assess what the contents of each volume tell us about sex in America, about writing, about our taboos, and about the status quo. I've written several books of my own that explore my personal sex history and the landscape of American sexual politics.
How did I achieve goddess status? In my more self-deprecating moments, I've said, "Because no one else wanted to." But in a more celebratory mood, I would say it was because of my most elementary passions -- sex, reading, and writing -- and because my passion for those things became a mission. I was also ambitious at a time when there was a vacuum -- where there should have been bountiful literature. There were a lot of beautiful stars in the writing universe to whom no one was paying any attention. I cultivated that world, and it was a galaxy of future Olympians.
Erotic writing today is not only the best work of its kind that we've ever seen in the English language, it also has had an indelible effect on all of American literature. The flinching factor is gone -- the former stigma and prejudice against erotic writing have been exposed for the embarrassing ignorance that they represented. If I've acted as a goddess in that stream of events, I've been glad to be part of the faith.
Copyright © 2001, 2002 by Susie Bright. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Susie Bright is the editor of The Best American Erotica series. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.