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Big Sex Little Death: Review

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Susie with Cocktails at Bruno's in the Mish

Big Sex Little Death
A Memoir by Susie Bright
Seal Press  2011

I wasn’t certain I’d review Big Sex Little Death, Susie Bright’s long-awaited memoir, since I’m too close to some of the material to be purely objective — but as it turns out, I just can’t stop myself.

 

Full Disclosure: Susie Bright was one of the first people I met when I came West from New York some 25 years ago, and one of my first acts as a San Franciscan was to submit my sex stories to her Herotica collection. Shortly afterwards, I joined the On Our Backs staff as Susie’s assistant, a year later became their fiction editor, and, finally, was second successor to the editorial throne. Shadowing Susie didn’t end at OOB: I assumed editorship of Herotica with the #4 volume, when Susie moved on to more lucrative projects. I told her I  seemed to be following in her footsteps; she replied with her radiant million-dollar grin, “I’ll just keep warming up the chair for you.”

 

That charm and generosity are quintessential Susie, and they permeate Big Sex Little Death, her journey from childhood to teen socialist to feminist to sexual activist and public figure. I was familiar with much of this history, but seeing it all together in one place, I recognized, for the first time, how much Susie and I have in common, beginning with abusive mothers who lost their own mothers at an early age. Being a “motherless daughter,” I’ve recently learned, can affect a woman more profoundly than any other aspect of her life; it particularly influences the kind of mother she becomes. My mother was emotionally abusive; Susie’s was mentally ill (apparently undiagnosed), and  physically abusive:

She pinched the top of my arm and dragged me out the door. I remember her grip on my arm—and her disgust at my blubbering. I was pathetic, I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. I could see in her eyes how loathsome I’d become.

All this because Susie missed her cat, which her mother had unceremoniously abandoned.

I know all about that look in a mother’s eyes; that Susie was on the receiving end of it makes it that much more astonishing that she grew to become such a strong powerful woman. Lest anyone foolishly credit such experiences with helping to radicalize a person, it was not her mother’s abuse but her father’s love and support that pushed Susie forward. He stood proudly behind his teenage socialist firebrand, and he welcomed her home when the fires went out. Both parents – Mommy dearest was not all bad – were “braniacs; they were language, poetry and music fiends; they took enormous pleasure in big ideas and the power of word. They were literary sensualists.” Not a bad heritage for a feminist leader.

Susie took a dollop of this and a plateful of that from her parents. She incorporated socialist ideas into feminism – and took feminism even further, insisting that female-centered sexual representation and expression were its logical extension.

I wish she’d probed a little bit deeper into her life as an active Socialist. As her one-time editor, if she had asked for my opinion I would’ve urged her in that direction. Some of her anecdotes of life among the Commies aren’t reflective enough to satisfy, and while I loved what I read, I wanted more.

One of the major differences between Susie’s journey and mine is timing: I was a young mother when I first became, as I see it, conscious — while Susie seems to have been highly conscious from birth. I don’t know of many teenagers who can be as confident as Susie seems to have been in her beliefs, especially since they ran against received opinion.

The first time she stands up for women and their bodies is, appropriately, the day she first bleeds. Late returning to school after lunch, sent to the principal’s office, Susie marches right in “like a mad bear,” protesting, “This is not right…My period just started at noon, and I had to figure out the Tampax all by myself….and you can’t discriminate against me just because I’m menstruating…” The mortified principal nearly passed out and practically begged her to leave his office, showing her the power of her sexuality in one fell swoop. She has continued to confront sexual ignorance and patriarchal privilege ever since.

Although I ate up the first two sections of the book, I was, naturally, in something of a hurry to get to the part about OOB. Reading Susie’s account of each incident, from the founding of the magazine to its change in ownership, I kept receiving little shocks of recognition with every turned page. If this was a comic book, light bulbs would be hanging over my head, popping off in every panel, so faithful is Susie to what happened, at least as I remember it. For those who weren’t  close to the scene, I direct you to the book. It’s a helluva story; maybe someday I’ll have enough distance to write more about it myself.

Big Sex ends on a positive note – the day that Susie and Jon and baby Aretha move to Santa Cruz to begin family life anew. That too I remembered….then I eagerly turned the page…and was confronted with a page headlined “NOTES.” I could not believe I’d reached the end! And more than 15 long years ago!

Now,  I have been waiting since the day Aretha popped out of Susie’s belly to see what kind of American girl/child/woman Susie Bright’s daughter would become. As a mother who feels that I fucked up the sex education along with everything else, I was dying to see how Susie did with the hardest job on the planet. Unfortunately, a veil descended and I didn’t find out.

Susie has a right to put in or leave out whatever she wants from her memoir – but as a reader, and as her friend, (and as an editor) I wanted more. I especially want to know what happened in the years since the time of this book’s ending. I want to know about her mothering: how did being raised in an atmosphere of, or at least lip service to, sexual freedom affect Aretha and her attitudes? What about their relationship? My daughter is still angry about some of my sexual openness; what’s the story with Susie’s? More than most people, I understand the delicacy of the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the desire not to violate a child’s privacy – but surely some of Susie’s story can be told without inflicting damage. This is not just idle curiosity, either: I honestly believe that Susie has something important to contribute to  this other area of female experience that’s been historically shrouded in darkness.

Because of this and a few more minor gaps, it doesn’t feel like Susie’s story has been fully told. Then again, nobody’s story is ever fully told, is it? Still, Susie has a lot more livin’ to do: I’m looking forward to a sequel.

Poem For A Reader

For My Ex-Lover’s Lover

I see what she sees in you:

the curve of your cheek

is almost more than I can bear.

Sometimes when we talk

you touch my shoulder gently

and I feel it in the places

where she hungers.

I know her weaknesses

and the way she likes to hold you

how her face looks to you

from below.

I see your limbs entangled loosely

and the movements that arouse her,

feel her hot and pulsing in your hand

as if I lie between you

instead of by myself

remembering the curve

of your cheek.

Sometimes I wonder
on whose account I’m jealous.

Movie Star Sex

Cover of

Cover of The Way We Were (Special Edition)

Yesterday Oprah Winfrey reunited Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford on her show as a sort of tribute to their 1973 movie The Way We Were. Millions of women all across the country, including me, shed millions of tears at the sight of these two coming together again. TWWW is the chick flick of the century, a story of unrequited love that breaks your heart every time, whether it’s your first or seventh viewing. For me, the ultimate Barbra Streisand fan and aficianado (see At the HoJo with Babs), the most intriguing aspect of yesterday’s show was the way they interacted: they just could not keep their hands off each other. Their kiss-hug greeting was more than just friendly, and throughout the interview they held hands; every once in awhile a hand would roam. Strangely enough, I’d never wondered if Babs and Bob (she calls Redford Bob) had a real-life affair, being so caught up in the film version. Yesterday I couldn’t help but wonder, what with her facial expression announcing that she was dying to go backstage and grab him good. As my friend Angie said when I asked what she thought, How could they not?


I got to thinking about movie stars’ sex lives, a topic that’s never seriously engaged my interest. I wonder why – after all, the possibilities are endless. Think about it: we plebes have our little fantasies that we think are so risqué, while these golden girls and boys have endless reels of erotic drama to play with when the cameras aren’t looking. Think of all the scenes that end at the bedroom door: why wouldn’t the actors take them to their logical conclusion? Why wouldn’t Babs and Bob have had breakup sex, makeup sex, falling-in-love sex, angry sex – you name it, that movie relationship covered the gamut of human emotion. Why wouldn’t they fly to the nearest bed after the day’s shooting ended?


Celebrity fantasies are nothing new — but people frequently use them as cover-up: to the question What’s your fantasy? a person will often respond by naming Brad or Jen or Angelina, rather than confessing their deep personal dramas. We all have them. Some of us have even written about them. My friend Shar published a couple of collections of sex with the famous and beautiful called Starf*cker.

I’ve dreamt, in my sleep, of doing a 3some with George Clooney and Jimmy  Smits. Even that now seems mundane compared to imagining celebrities with each other, completing all the truncated sex scenes in PG-Rated movies, incorporating the characters into their bedroom fun. By comparison, the straightforward celebrity fantasy seems almost clichéd.

I’ve gotta go now: I have a ton of movies I want to watch again. Camelot. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. All About Eve. West Side Story. And oh yes — The Way We Were.

Seven Years of Herotica 7

7 X 7:  Seven-Years of Herotica 7:

Writing, Publishing, Diversity and Political Correctness

Herotica 7, a collection of erotic fiction I edited in 2003, has suddenly and without fanfare finally been published. (The first print run of 2000 sold out, but a second printing is on the way.) Amazon shows it as a re-issue, but this is incorrect: the book was never previously issued. If this sounds strange, it is, but as any writer will attest, the world of publishing is exceedingly strange, and my experience with this particular book ranks as my own personal strangest.

As aficionadoes of erotica know, the Herotica series was initiated back in 1988 by Susie Bright and Joani Blank. One of the first in the genre ofwomen’s erotica, the book sold so well it grew into a series. After the third edition Bright moved on to new projects, and I took over as editor. But something funny happened on the way to Heroticas 4, 5, and 6: everyone and their Aunt Tillie—and Uncle Ned—had begun putting together erotic anthologies, creating a newly competitive field. So popular and accepted did erotica become, some readers didn’t even know that once upon a time such books were banned. The Herotica brand continued to outsell imitators, but by the turn of the century we were no longer a novelty. We decided that, to stay on top, we’d do something new for us and publish a collection of stories revolving around a single theme.

I suggested one of my lifelong obsessions—relationships between black and white lovers. Down There Press liked the concept, but wanted to expand it to be multi-cultural—stories in which the characters came from many diverse cultures and/or ethnicities.

To me this was very different: nothing is so fraught in America as black/white relationships, and stories about crossing the sexual color line are rich with potential for conflict, a mainstay of fiction. The people at DTP didn’t agree; they thought the multicultural theme was simply an expansion of my original idea. (Note: Down There Press is a subsidiary of Open Enterprises, which also oversees Good Vibrations; all three function co-operatively, with everyone having a say in business decisions.) I didn’t object to the theme of multiculturalism—I just had to let go of my original concept.

When we negotiated our contract, DTP informed me they were going to hire a co-editor to work with me. At first I objected, but when they suggested  Mary Anne Mohanraj for the job, I felt a lot better.

(Backstory within this backstory: I adore Mary Anne and the creative, pioneering work she’s done in the field of erotica. I thoroughly enjoyed bouncing ideas around with her. What I did not adore or enjoy was the rationale for hiring a co-editor in the first place—basically, to serve as the book’s conscience. I had edited three erotica collections for DTP, but they did not trust that I, as a white woman, would have the broad ethnic perspective required to do the book myself. Why a Sri Lankan woman was automatically deemed more ethnically savvy than a Jewish New Yorker to evaluate stories about people from Africa, Japan, and, yes, New York, bewilders me to this day.)

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As the stories poured in, I got increasingly excited: women were saying things that had never been said before. They were examining relationships between lovers from widely different backgrounds with the writer’s nuanced eye. They were going deep inside, wrestling with the conflicts and ambivalence that arise between lovers of different ethnicities. That might sound academic, but the stories are anything but: they’re still Herotica quality—hot, well-written, and entertaining. Thus, it didn’t take long for us to assemble a collection.

With one or two exceptions, Mary Anne and I agreed on our choices; the one or two we didn’t agree on we pulled. As far as I can recall, the subject of “insensitivity” towards any culture or ethnicity never came up during our phone calls and emails. I’d never worked with a co-editor, and I loved the experience—but I didn’t defer to her on matters of cultural diversity, nor did she behave like some kind of ethnic expert.

–INTERMISSION—

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This intermission represents that painful, angst-ridden period of time between a writer’s submission and a publisher’s response. At first the writer—or in this case, the editor—eagerly  waits for the powers that be to praise her work as magnificent. But a fallow manuscript is like a vegetable put in the refrigerator bin crisp and bright green: if not eaten in a few days it fades and wilts, and soon stinks up the place. Over time, a submitted manuscript devolves in the writer’s mind from magnificent to mediocre to dismal. A week of intermission equals a year of real time, and she soon fears the snarky, sarcastic critiques she imagines coming down the pike.Months go by, in some cases even years. In this case it was three or four months.

The notes I got on Herotica 7 were written by a range of Open Enterprises employees–managers, receptionists, buyers, shipping clerks. Reading them was a sobering experience.  Several stories, including my own “White Lies,” were singled out as racist. It seemed like the ones most vilified were those that delved most deeply into the characters’ struggles to reconcile ingrained prejudices. Analyses of racism were interpreted as validations. In some cases, the meaning of behavior or dialogue was misinterpreted or distorted.

It is customary for publishers to ask editors or writers to make revisions, so there was nothing unusual or objectionable about DTP’s request for rewrites of my story and a few others. These were done, but DTP still wasn’t satisfied.  Months went by without a word, until a letter finally arrived saying they’d decided not to publish the book. The writers and I had already been paid, so money wasn’t an issue.

There were issues, though, the main one being emotional—equal parts anger, disappointment, and disbelief—and not mine alone: many of the writers felt the same. Those who’d been contributing to Herotica for years were confused by the singular atmosphere of fear and scrutiny that surrounded this edition.

What bothered me most, and bothers me still, is this: What did these people expect when they asked me to edit a book on multicultural relationships? Did they think the stories would be the same, more or less, as any others, except the protagonists just happened to be South African or Asian or Hispanic?

I’d edited three books for DTP and contributed a story to almost every edition of Herotica, so they knew, or should have known, that I go for the dark and complicated more often than not. Is it possible they really hadn’t anticipated any complexities to emerge in stories of cross-cultural relationships? Were they unaware of the conflicts inherent in such relationships? Didn’t they know that most writers— particularly good writers, like those who regularly contributed to Herotica—weren’t likely to skim the surface? What were these people thinking when they asked me to edit this collection?

Had they expected a book they could promote like a poster for an ethnic food festival, a “celebration of diversity”?  But of course! That is exactly, I realized with a sudden shock, what they had expected.

It has taken me all these years to come to terms with the essence of the situation: Herotica 7 was judged as being Politically Incorrect.

Post- rejection, I showed the manuscript to another small press, as well as to an agent, both of whom turned it down. I get too many rejections from my own mainstream fiction to put myself through more of the process for Herotica, so the book was relegated to some forgotten corner of my existence.

Time passed.

I edited a bunch of anthologies for Cleis Press. Down There Press was sold. Someone working for the buyer called me a few times and hinted at grand schemes for the future.

More time passed.

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I joined Facebook and befriended a whole slew of writers and editors, many  who work in the erotica genre. I wasn’t on Facebook a week before one of the Herotica 7 writers contacted me asking about the book’s  “re-issue.”  You couldda knocked me down with a feather. Soon another writer asked about it, and then a third.

Meanwhile I was frantically Amazoning and firing off emails in an attempt to discover WTF was going on. I felt I was in one of those dreams where I go to school partly undressed: caught with my panties down. Clueless. After all, who but a clueless jerk doesn’t know that her own book is being published (rhetorical question)?

According to Amazon, DTP was the publisher. Also according to Amazon, the book had been first published in 2003, edited by Susie Bright and Mary Anne Mohanraj.  My name was on the cover, as an “author” afterthought. As a writer I am accustomed to insults and humiliation—still, picking at a scab can be as painful as a fresh injury.

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It took a few days of emails and noise, but finally the manager of the company that had bought DTP called, very apologetic and gentlemanly. Like Amazon, he was under the impression that Herotica 7 had been previously published, and was shocked when I told him she was a print virgin. The “reissue” came about, he said, when his printer asked if he wanted the materials for the book sent back. Under ordinary circumstances, an editor wouldn’t be notified of a print run, so not informing me wasn’t disprespectful or negligent.

After the mystery was resolved, I began to enjoy the fact that my book was finally going to be published long after I’d given up on it. It occurred to me that I had work to do, for instance, contacting the writers…

…and then I remembered. I remembered that I wrote an introduction to this book more than nine years ago. A book of stories on multicultural sexual relationships. Nine years ago. Before terrorists crashed planes into buildings. Before America began torturing Arabs on an island in the Caribbean. Before we all had to remove our potentially lethal shoes at airports. Before the country divided itself into polarities of red and blue states. And before the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan raised partly in Indonesia became the first Black president of these un-united states. I tried to recall what I had written, and drew a blank. I started looking for it…

…Since writing that intro I’ve gone through two new computers and three system crashes, not to mention Apple changing the iMac to a pre-loaded Intel system. I’ve moved three times and purged my paper files once. If you think I can find the files or disks for a forsaken book…well, you’re a far more optimistic, or more organized, person. The one paper file I managed to locate was my contract.

Not only don’t I remember what I said in the introduction, I don’t remember all the stories or who wrote them, and I surely don’t know where to find the writers. Tracking down documents and people isn’t going to be easy.

But when has writing and publishing ever been easy? The quintessential story of my writing life is that, on the very same day I turned in a story about tension between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian women in the Bay Area—part of a struggle that up til then had chugged along without pause for 40 years—Rabin and Arafat shook hands. Naturally, the editor demanded a rewrite.

So yes, once again I’ll do the rewrite. Once again I’m up against two powerful forces: an ever changing political landscape and the quirky insane publishing industry. Once again I’ll jump the hoops, find the writers, chat up the book, steel myself for reviews calling it racist, and deal with whatever else follows in the wake of publication.

I’ll do it because that is what writers do in the service of the Great Literary Bitch Goddess.

Update March 11, 2010

After writing the above, I re-read the contracts for Herotica 7, and discovered they were null and void. I spoke to the publisher, who promised new contracts, a one-time payment to each of the writers as well as to me, and an opportunity for me to write a new Introduction. Seven months, three conversations and dozens of emails later I have received no contracts, no word, and certainly no money. As said publisher no doubt realizes, it’s not worth my fighting over anymore. End of saga. The publishing industry deserves to fail to digital technology: it’s been jerking around writers, its heart and soul and mainstay, long enough. Amen.

Literary Misfit

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Marcy by RenoirAs some readers may know, I recently uploaded my novel, Halfway to the Stars, on Scribd, a relatively new service that offers unpublished/unpublishable books for sale. I’d only sent it out to a few agents/editors since completing it two years ago, and then stopped trying to publish it: after four previous novels I no longer have the heart for the rejection process. In the first two days the book got over 50 hits– and no sales.

I immediately saw the problem, unresolvable: because it’s tagged–honestly–as erotica, sex, sexual content, etc, it drew a rush of readers. But because it’s not porn, or even erotica really, they were probably disappointed. This book is a novel first and foremost, with a plot and characters, and the sexual content is more often expository than titillating–that is, very few scenes are actually sexy, although the book is about sex. It’s sort of a window into the sex scene, with descriptions of a women’s masturbation workshop, a nude protest, and stuff like that–the main character is a sex journalist. Anyhow, it’s not selling. I’m thinking of removing the sexy tags.

Oscar the GrouchOne of the few gratifications of getting older is being able to look back and undersand why certain things happened as they did. In my late 20s I wrote a
Sesame Street episode called Oscar the Grouch Gets Married. He met his bride at the dump, of course, and though I don’t remember her name, she was a female version of Oscar. Their wedding was a total grouch spoof, with a Maid of Dishonor and a Worst Man, and god only knows what other subversive elements I merrily threw into the mix. I thought it was hilarious, my kids, aged five and seven, thought it was hilarious, and I sent it to the Chidlren’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. Needless to say, I got a form rejection. Which baffled me.

I tell this story as but one example of the kinds of stuff I’ve been writing all my life: I’m subversive without knowing I’m being subversive; or I mix genres in a way that makes the work unpublishable. I have to admit, I’m still somewhat baffled–while I see what’s in my way, I also see subversive books that slide into print, or some that manage to transcend genre restrictions.

I was just sitting around at 5 a.m. today drinking my coffee and pondering the Halfway to the Stars conundrum, when the Oscar episode popped into my head.Oscar Grouch 2 There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I suspect that if I haven’t learned it by now, I never will. You know what they say: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I suppose I’m doomed to continue bumbling along in my subversive, unplanned, spontaneous way for the rest of my life. Thank god for the blogosphere.