Reviewed by Sarah Williams
“I’m not sure that Fifty Shades of Grey got it right or got it wrong. But what’s important is that young people are responding to the idea that women can write about sexual pleasure and female sexual fantasy.” – Wednesday Black
The New Lovers series from artist Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited Press offers a seductive invitation to the world of erotic fiction, for those whose taste in literature and sexual adventure are too discerning to be caught reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Each written by a female author, the three novellas are multifaceted in rethinking popular representation of sexuality and desire, offering perspectives and privileging audiences that are often overlooked in popular errotic production, namely, women.
But unlike the Fabio-esque hunks on the cover of yesteryear’s Romance novels, the slick white text on a hip neon violet cover is surely meant to be seductive in another way to the design-conscious readers it’s angling for, earning their nickname, “smut for smart people.” Simultaneously, they pay homage to the single color, text only-covers of Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press which put out a mix of avant-garde literature and erotic fiction in mid-century Paris, specializing in books which would have been unpublishable in America or the UK, best known for putting out the likes of Lolita, Naked Lunch, and early Henry Miller novels.
While writing was the mid-century mode du jour for distributing steamy sentiments, can erotic fiction stand up to the internet age? Where one has the ability to search any grouping of person, presentation, or position by age or size of body part and have it land streaming in your lap? In a word: yes. And more.
I was skeptical too when picking up Wednesday Black’s How to Train Your Virgin, not expecting much more of it than a highbrow version of my childhood friend’s mom’s romance rags I’d sneak glimpses of when using their bathroom, or perhaps something trying to ride a more sophisticated wave of the Fifty Shades hysteria. Admittedly I came at it with an assumption that this genre served those more sexually repressed, or needing to live vicariously, of for whom real porn offended delicate sensibilities. Little did I know, I’ve been missing out.
I sat down to thumb through it, and within a little over an hour, I’d read it cover-to-cover. The scene Black sets is a Game of Throes-esque kingdom, filled with immortal humanoids whom often also share qualities with natural entities: a tree, a dog, a horse, a bog–if you’re like me, you probably hadn’t considered how sexy vine people could be before. The story rests on a king and queen who lord over this hedonistic (in the best way) land, with nonstop parties-cum-orgies, the heat of their lust for each other, and public displays of this affinity, securing the health of their kingdom. But, to the queen’s chagrin, her husband has been lusting after human virgins. Here “virgin” is not inappropriately talking about 14-year-olds, but instead emotionally damaged and drug-numbed early 20-somethings closing themselves off in reaction to a seemingly post-apocalyptic situation in the human realm.
This sets the stage for an art-of-war-style (albeit much sexier) guide from the queen’s perspective on how to train your virgin in the sexual arts, so that they are no longer attractive in their innocence to her kingly husband. As with war games, this involves calculated maneuvering on the queen’s behalf with the goal of maintaining the sanctity and magic of her nation. Often her measures are intense, and consent is hazy, but is required to complete the act, so her efforts become elaborate acts of seduction. I won’t give away the ending, as you should savor the pleasure for yourself, but her successes are definitely hot, and we’re left at the end with a thoughtful juxtaposition between the pleasures of bonded relationships and those of sexual trysts that ultimately leave both looking appealing.
Fantasy exposes itself as an incredibly fitting genre for erotics; it highlights the link between language and imagination and all of the exciting potential in that space. While I am sure any of us could type in the search term, “perfect body” and indeed find one that fit our individual criteria, it would take lots of culling and in the end almost none of them would probably be the same from person to person. This is quite different from the experience of reading the phrase “perfect body”, the efficiency of which is amazing in that each of us can scan over the term and immediately our own vision is made manifest in our imagination.
In reading it, I came to realize for myself, what writing still has much to offer over images, or even video, and that’s a sense of page-turning unpredictability, that two-way-street of uncertainty about what’s going to happen next that mirrors real-life encounters with someone new. There is a human scale to reading too, a one-on-one, a tactile nature that you lose in video. Like with a real lover, there is a push and pull, a gulping speediness in the exciting parts toned by a lulled expectancy in the more relaxed ones. These poles are still metered by a human capacity for taking in language, mirroring the connection between people, much better than a video, while still maintaining the excitement of a narrative controlled by someone else.
In an interview, Paul Chan talks about what was most exciting when he and his team started reading the transcripts for this series, and that was the idea that sex is relational. Not necessarily between husband and wife, or between girlfriends, or with you and someone you met at the bar, but instead how we understand these pleasures being relational between so many different things that make it appealing. Perhaps you’ll find it between you and a book?
Wednesday Black, How to Train Your Virgin, (Badlands Unlimited / New Lovers, 2015)
Reviewed by Sarah Williams