Viscera

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Our sexual fantasies may well be the place where we are most truly ourselves. We revisit them again and again, until the landscape is so familiar that we can conjure its features with the slightest provocation: the way a shirt drapes, the pitch of a question, the gloss of a boot.

Cara Bruce, editor

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Wednesday, March 22 2000, 10:21 PM


Our sexual fantasies may well be the place where we are most truly ourselves. We revisit them again and again, until the landscape is so familiar that we can conjure its features with the slightest provocation: the way a shirt drapes, the pitch of a question, the gloss of a boot. And even though we may edit the scenes we play in our head, adding and subtracting characters, it is hard to leave the fundamental design behind. That's why it's so hard to write true erotica. Sure, you can string together some standard situations, drop in words like "cock" and "cunt" at regular intervals, but what you will end up with is not really erotica. Sexually stimulating, perhaps, but not erotic.

What's the difference? Pornography merely confirms your sense of sexual identity. It gives you the extra push you need to return to your tried-and-true fantasies. But it is the pornography, not those fantasies that undergo modification in the process. You take the raw material of the pornographic text and shape it to the contours of your fantasy. The generic asshole of a B-grade porn shot becomes the one you've been imagining since a locker-room wrestling match revealed a desire you didn't know you had. The superfluous and silly "rods" and "lovesticks" and "sopping pussies" of Penthouse "Forum" become a particularly memorable sexual encounter with your first girlfriend or boyfriend. But although this transformation -- particularly if you are male -- may help you achieve your desired end, it usually feels like a poor substitute for something better, like a Hostess Ho Ho instead of your grandmother's beloved chocolate cream rolls.

Viscera is most emphatically not a Ho-Ho. It's erotica. Instead of confirming your sense of sexual identity, erotica destabilizes it. When you try to mold erotica to your favorite sexual fantasies, it resists. It's not a source of a raw material in the way pornography is, precisely because its creator has cast it in the forge of her or his personality. This is its power. It makes you look at things you wouldn't otherwise see, feel things you wouldn't otherwise feel. And the experience can be quite unpleasant. If your favorite sexual fantasies have the lazy soft-focus of a Bob Guccione photograph, the leather-and-steel precision of an S+M story may make you feel anything but sexual. Or at least at first. The true test of erotica is whether it can overcome your ingrained preferences and turn you on in spite of its strangeness.

That's certainly what the stories in Viscera aspire to do. Not all of them will succeed, but that has nothing to do with their quality. Even the best erotica can only bring you out of yourself if some small -- and often repressed -- part of you desires to make the trip. And it's hard to imagine a person who rates all potential destinations equally. I'd much rather visit Stockholm than Bali, but I'm surely in the minority on that score. Does that make me a pervert? My point is that it is impossible for the stories in a collection as varied as Viscera to provoke a uniform response. Your reaction to them will differ sharply from my own. What we can agree on is that it is Viscera's very diversity that makes it good erotica.

With this important qualification in mind, I'll mention my own favorites. I've always been partial to stories which play off tensions in the teacher-student relationship, stories where the power dynamic mirrors a knowledge differential. Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom has about the right tone. Conversely, I've never found much sexual pleasure in the genre of horror or science fiction. I can appreciate vampires in theory, but they bore me in practice. Stories in Viscera like "Nosferatu Meets Gamma House" and "Fingers" didn't do much for me as a consequence.

But I liked the more worldly directness of Sonia Greenfield's "A Girl on the Train," told in a speculative second person, and Viscera editor Cara Bruce's "Cheng," which plays off of the starving actor stereotype. And I absolutely loved Carol Queen's piece "Knife," which matter-of-factly explains how she learned to love being penetrated by a blade. I found its mixture of clinical lists with philosophical rumination exciting, even though I've never had much interest in S+M. Queen's story also featured my favorite lines in the book: "What does it mean to fear someone I trust? Is it possible to trust someone I fear?" These questions are representative of Viscera, in the sense that they make you think, not in opposition to your body, but in rhythm with its demands.

Venus or Vixen Press, 1999 

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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