#CharliesNaNoReMo


Even before I made my New Year’s Resolutions, I wanted to read more in 2017. In 2016, I read eighteen novels, this year I’m aiming for a minimum of twenty. And, to kickstart that, I plan to read five in January.

When I tweeted about this idea, I asked if anyone wanted to join me, and people were keen, so here are the details:

  • To join in, all you have to do is read five books (physical or digital) or listen to five audiobooks before the end of January.
  • It’s not a competition as such, so there are no prizes, but I may well send out chocolate and possibly other goodies to anyone who completes the challenge.
  • I will do my best to offer periodic encouragement and reminders via Twitter, using the hashtag #CharliesNaNoReMo.
  • If you want to take part, all you have to do is comment on this post, or let me know on Twitter, with a picture or list of the five books you’re planning to read.

Please do share this with your friends – the more the merrier – and let me know if you have any questions.

Charlie x

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Him before me: my thoughts on ‘Me Before You’

*contains spoilers*

It could be a coincidence. It could be merely fluke that three weeks ago I walked into a cinema showing Me Before You relatively relaxed, calm and at ease with myself and left it shattered and tearful; descending within days into a depression so sudden and severe I’m still struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning; my desire to live completely sapped.

I should clarify: I don’t blame Jojo Moyes’ now world-famous story for my recent mental health crisis. I do blame it for forcing me to confront hard truths about how I see disability and love, in a way that I’m not wholly comfortable with a book about disability written by an able-bodied author doing.

When I spoke at Eroticon back in May, I said that I didn’t think writing disability should be the preserve of the disabled, and I think I still agree with that. I also read out this quote, from Susie Day: “If yours is the first time a reader has met a fictional someone “like them”, it’s almost inevitable that you will disappoint.” And oh my, how Me Before You  has disappointed the disabled community.

The conversation around the book has been too lengthy and too nuanced for me to replicate all of the arguments here. At the risk of massively oversimplifying, most of the backlash has come from the fact that Will, the book’s protagonist, tells his carer, Lou, to ‘Live Boldly,’ just before he travels to Dignitas to end his own life. The implication? That ‘living boldly’ is something only the able-bodied are entitled to. If you are interested in the various commentary from the disabled community, Kim Sauder has an excellent round-up post here.

I recognise why the book is problematic based on the above, and yet, at my lowest, I fall very much into the ‘some people actually feel that way,’ camp, which, you know what? Makes me feel guilty as fuck.

I’m a firm believer that the relationship between how you feel about your body and your level of (dis)ability is not linear. That is to say: there will be some people who are para- or quadriplegic and feel every day that life is worth living, just as there will be some of us who, in comparison, look essentially ablebodied, but struggle hugely to accept our bodies the way they are.

So going in to Me Before You, knowing in advance how it ended (thanks, mum!), I thought I’d be able to handle it. I thought I was personally far more able to deal with the reaction to disability that I share than I would be with a plot line that essentially saw a man whose condition left him suicidal saved by the love of a good woman.

Oh, how wrong was I?

Books are funny things. Stories are strange. In real life, we want to believe we’re rational, sophisticated creatures who won’t be satisfied with a trite, neat little ending that goes against how we see things play out in the real world (or I do, anyway). And yet, when it comes down to it, a book which doesn’t follow the conventions laid down over centuries of literature can be strangely unsettling. When I said I was planning on ending my own novel, which is about a relationship between two people who are clearly terrible for each other, with the woman leaving and realising that she’s just fine on her own, someone in my writing group warned (rightly, I think): ‘People are going to be disappointed, you know. They’re going to expect a happily ever after.’

I scorn the happily ever after. Or, more accurately, it makes me uneasy. Do I think #liveboldly should be confined to the ablebodied? No, but that’s easy for me to say, when I’m fundamentally independent despite my disability: I live alone, I travel, I drive, I work. Do I think #happilyeverafter, in a romantic sense, is the preserve of the able? I’m afraid I do, yes. I don’t expect to find someone who’ll love me in spite of the disability.

So I needed Me Before You to tell me otherwise. I needed it, there in that popcorn-scented, slightly grubby Vue, to promise that I could find love, and not only that I could find it, but that it would be enough for me to forgive myself, to find peace. And it let me down.

Will finds love. He falls in love with Lou. Lou falls in love with him. But for Will, it’s not quite enough: it’s not the powerful, executive, highly-sexed, action-sport-heavy life he led before the accident that caused his quadriplegia, and he picks the assisted-suicide route anyway. It broke my heart.

What did I want Me Before You to be, on a personal level? Did I want it to represent me, and the way I see the world? I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more than that, I wanted it to lie to me. I wanted it to tell me that love could save me. Because unless he’s out there, and he can love me first, how the hell am I supposed to do the same?

 

Sex and stuff: what if aspirational meant something different?

I’m not blogging much at the moment, because I’m mainly focused on a novel. And, for the last few weeks, I’ve been working on pulling together a synopsis for that novel, not because it’s finished, but because an external deadline requires one. So, in short, I started thinking about how I’d market it, and was quickly reminded that, in the real world sex might sell stuff, but in fiction, stuff sells sex.

I could write yet again about FSoG here: about helicopters, fast cars and penthouse apartments. But I don’t want to. Instead, I want to talk about Maestra, which, truth be told, is not really that different.

Rags to riches is, if you believe in that kind of thing, one of only seven possible basic plots, so it makes sense that people are still writing about it. Things haven’t changed that much since Dickens was writing about it – being white, male and ablebodied, or, if you can’t be those things, marrying them – is still the smoothest route to an easy life, and therefore the key component of any HEA.

I don’t know if Maestra ends with an HEA. I hated it so much I didn’t get past the sample chapters. But what I can tell you, just from those sample chapters, and from the reviews I’ve read, is that the sex and stuff link is alive and well. There’s a lot of champagne, many yachts and women who are desperate to lose their regional accents in favour of something posher. There’s some graphically-written sex. There are not, thankfully, any ‘inner goddesses’ and there is liberal usage of the word ‘cunt.’

Nobody has any feelings.

In a Guardian piece, called, promisingly, Time to be grown up about female desire, Maestra’s author, LS Hilton, makes some valid points, like this one:

‘From Colette to Pauline Réage to Catherine Millet, the French appear to have no difficulty accepting that a woman can write about sex without being reduced to it.’

The problem is, in the book itself, while she may not reduce women to just sex, she does, according to the Guardian’s review of the book, reduce them nonetheless:

It’s shocking because the world it portrays feels so depressingly regressive. Men have money, power, yachts and hedge funds. Women are disposable accessories, frantic for material gain; they might use their wiles to outwit the men, or manipulate them to their own advantage, but the essential balance of power remains unchanged.

Being grown up about desire – male or female, to me, means divorcing it entirely from status and material goods. It means separating it from body type – because not only beautiful people have sex – from race, and from ability level. In the real world, while relationships and sex might sometimes be driven by the quest for material gain, I really believe that desire is the one thing that isn’t. I don’t believe, or at least I hope – that nobody gets wet or hard over the thought of a hedge fund.

And erotica, by which I mean the type that people reading this are likely to be writing, rather than the mainstream titles mentioned above, has the opportunity to change this. Already many of us are writing characters who aren’t model-like in their looks, physique and/or age range. Not many of us feel the need to make our characters outrageously wealthy. And I think we can take it further. 

As you may know, I’m doing a workshop on writing disability in erotica at Eroticon this Saturday, and this question of aspiration is really the one I want to tackle. We spend a lot of time in the erotica/sex-blogging community reminding people that sex is a valid and worthwhile thing to write about – that sex and body positivity stand to benefit everyone. We’re doing as much, if not more, than most other genres to challenge gender and other societal norms, which makes me very proud and kind of emotional. And I want disability to benefit from that willingness to go against the status quo, too. 

LS Hilton says her book isn’t ‘precisely a feminist polemic’ and that’s fine, but if she thinks she’s being grown up about desire, I’d disagree. She says:

I merely attempted to write about a modern female character who is unapologetic about desire and who feels no shame or conflict about its fulfilment.

I’m sorry, but don’t we all feel shame and conflict sometimes? Isn’t that what gives desire the complexity that makes it such a joy to write about? Especially since she goes on to play down desire/sex as the book’s main theme: ‘Besides, it’s not a “sex book”, it’s a thriller.’ 

I want to write “sex books”. I want to write about the way sex makes people feel – both the good and the bad. And more than anything, I want to write fiction that represents the way we actually live, rather than the way the rags to riches plot tells us we should want to. If you feel the same, please come along on Saturday.

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Review (of sorts): How a bad girl fell in love

For the sex blogging community, and especially, I imagine, the British sex blogging community, Girl on the Net is the thing we have in common: the blog we all read, the blogger many of us aspire to write like. It’s weird to me that the world beyond blogging is less familiar with her – when my RL friends claim not to have heard of her, I’m surprised, disappointed even – because her blog is a way in to conversations about sex, albeit a seriously filthy one.

How a bad girl fell in love is her second book, but the first in paperback, which delights the print-geek in me. My favourite sex blogger just became giftable! And that’s important, because, all the good stuff I have to say about this book aside, what I think will be really interesting is how it’s received in the market more widely.

The Amazon blurb reads as follows:

From the UK’s smartest and most controversial sex blogger comes a unique story of ordinary love and incredible sex – and what happened when they came together. This is Girl on the Net’s true story – of falling in love and falling apart. From the honeymoon days of sex whenever and wherever, to the everyday issues that come with a solid relationship. This is more than a memoir, this is a must-read for all of us who have ever wondered…can great sex and real love ever go hand in hand?

I liked it a lot, but I wasn’t sure, when I started it, what made it different from the blog. One of the things I loved about Girl on the Net’s earlier blog posts was that they were all titled ‘On X…,’ a trope that many of us have since borrowed, because it works, and the equivalent trick in How a bad girl fell in love is to name the chapters with genuine magazine article titles and to introduce them with a snippet of conversation between Sarah, the narrator, and the lovely Mark, who I fell a bit in love with pretty damn quick. For example, Chapter 8 is called ‘Work-Love Balance: 8 Tips on Juggling a Career & Couplehood,’ and it starts:

Me: Thing is, it’s easier to ask for a fuck than to tell someone great that you love them. 

Him: For you. Easier for YOU.

It’s clever, and the intro snippets are all funny and cute, to the extent that I kept sticking the book under friends’ noses and going ‘Ohh, this one’s *lovely*’ but I did worry for a while that it read more like a series of articles or blog posts compiled than a novel with a distinct plot arc. For some people, of course, that would be perfect, because they like to dip in and out of stuff, and it certainly makes it easier to do that, but me? I want arc.

On Wednesday evening though, with 75 pages to go, I meant to go home and eat before heading out again later. I was pushed for time and the book was burning a hole in my handbag. In the end, I snuck off to Carluccio’s and over sausage pasta, wine and tiramisu, I devoured what was left of it. It pulled me in so deftly, I didn’t even realise it was happening.

This is a book that’s strong on hot sex …

When Mark pushed his cock inside me I let out what felt like a sigh of relief. All the times I’d said no, and all moments when I’d sobbed myself to sleep feeling dry and useless and pathetic: they all came out in that breath.

Then he smacked me.

… on mental health …

I’m not weak. I’m fighty. I’ll shout and get angry about things all the time … Buggered if I’m going to cry just because my boyfriend is trying to push me to explain why I cried in a restaurant, and why all my friends have started tiptoeing around me, as if just one wrong word will turn me to dust.

… and on love and affection …

The miracle came the next day, when his key clicked in the lock and he came running through the hallway shouting my name.

‘Ugh,’ he grunted, as he pulled me into a hug. ‘It’s been a long day. I fucking missed you.’

The Evening Standard reviewed it a while back, and I think they missed the point. Is it clickbait in print form? Maybe. The title suggests so, at least, and perhaps the cover, too. But this…?

So what do women want? To fuck “for a variety of reasons: true love, sheer curiosity, politeness, money, boredom” or “because we’re horny and we just quite feel like it”? Or to find Mr Right? To be honest, I’m not sure GOTN knows. She swings erratically in her search for that special experience, from pub toilet cubicles to down the aisle.

The point, for me, is that Girl on the Net *doesn’t* know, and that’s the joy of this book. Personally, I’m sick of heroines who are nice, and uncomplicated – scatty, but essentially good – who know what they want, and always get it in the end. Real women *do* ‘swing erratically,’ though there’s not currently much on the shelves that acknowledges that.

Girl on the Net does. It’s what makes this really worth reading. I think the blogging community will love it. I hope the rest of the world will too. And in six months, I’ll be checkIng the Amazon reviews to see if they did, because the verdict will tell us a lot – about where we are with regard to talking about sex, feminism, MH issues and our bodies – and how far we still have to go.

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I received an advance copy of How a bad girl fell in love in exchange for a fair review. I also have a competition, where you can win a signed copy.

On Rape Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING This post contains information about sexual assault, rape and rape fantasy, which may be triggering.

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not now. This isn’t playing. You’re for real because you’re sick. You’re a cold, twisted bastard and you’re scaring me. And I’m for real because I’m scared. I want to leave.’

He carried on pumping his cock. ‘Are you saying no, you don’t want me to fuck you?’

‘Yes,’ I breathed. ‘I am.’

‘And are you saying no, you don’t want me to force you?’

I nodded.

Kristina Lloyd, Asking for Trouble

I remember the first time I saw someone tweet ‘I want someone to rape me.’ It was in context, insofar as the person who tweeted it regularly wrote about dark fantasies and non-consent, but it bothered me. Even in context, you couldn’t guarantee someone would make the distinction between fantasy and reality; when the tweet was out there on someone’s timeline, with no context at all, it seemed risky, irresponsible even. You didn’t admit to stuff like that unless you were absolutely certain who your audience were.

Rape fantasy is top of my fantasy list in the sense that it’s rare for me to masturbate to orgasm without imagining being forced into sex, sex with a stranger, or more often than not, a combination of the two. As I teenager, I frequented the non-consent/reluctance section of Literotica. I find it hard to lay my hands on erotic fiction that’s dark enough for my tastes (more on that later) – Asking for Trouble is very much the kind of thing I’m into, to the point where I lend it to partners in order to explain my kinks, but I don’t think a mainstream erotica publisher would touch it if it was being pitched today.

I’ve never been sexually abused/assaulted in real life and I recognise that I’m incredibly fortunate in that regard. I’ve also come a long way in my understanding of the impact that reading about rape or non-consent can have on people who have experienced those things – years ago, I bought Asking for Trouble as a gift for a friend who lent it to her friend, who had been sexually assaulted, without having read it first. These days I’m not sure I’d buy it for/lend it to anyone without warning them about the nature of the sex first. I’m entirely pro trigger-warnings. But here’s the thing, I think trigger warnings are a good thing for literature because they allow people to evaluate the content without having to read it but from a purely selfish point of view, there’s something else potentially great about them: they allow authors to take more risks. In theory.

I say in theory, because unless you self-publish (and even then, I imagine rape might be a problematic keyword on Amazon), I can’t see publishers wanting to print rape scenes that are not explicitly fantasy. That’s one problem. The other, I think, is making rape work in a narrative. There’s some good rape fantasy writing out there – Sweet Danger by Violet Blue contains several great stories on the theme – but 75%+ of the time, it follows the same pattern. The main character is forced into sex, sex they do not consent to, but end up enjoying. So far, so good. Except at the end, we almost always find out one of two things: either the character’s ‘rapist’ is actually her partner, or someone else she knows and has previously consented to/expressed a desire to be raped by. It’s rape fantasy in the truest sense.

I’ve had trouble piecing together the next bit in my head, so bear with me. Obviously, rape and rape fantasy are not the same thing. No one actually wants to be raped. But because almost all stories about non-consent now take the format detailed above, I can no longer suspend my disbelief sufficiently to believe that the FMC hasn’t consented to what’s happening at some point previously, which will be revealed later in the story. The whole thing is an entirely consensual set up. Which kind of takes the edge off. For me, anyway.

So, what do I want from rape fantasy in erotica? I’m not entirely sure I know. Not actual rape, obviously. But something darker, something scarier, than a well-thought out arrangement between an established couple. Rape fantasy gone wrong interests me (and turns me on, often), but when I’m writing it myself I still feel obliged to stop short of actual penetration, for fear of crossing some unspoken boundary.

Is there an answer? Are there good examples of what I’m looking for (in erotica or mainstream fiction), that I just haven’t come across yet? And if this is your kink or s subject on which you enjoy writing, how do you get round the issues above. I’d be interested to know, so, as always, comments are more than welcome.

How to write a book review

I don’t review books often, so if I do, it’s pretty safe to say I either loved them or had a huge issue with them. More on books with which I’ve had huge issues in a couple of weeks.

So here’s the thing. Increasingly, I feel like reviewing erotica honestly and fairly is becoming harder and harder to do. Erotica is a relatively small genre. Many erotica authors follow each other on social networks and interact with each other regularly. Many of us who read erotica are privileged enough to be able to interact with our favourite authors too, something which I think would be harder with many other genres. In short, erotica authors have the potential to be one of the most supportive, friendly and inclusive groups of authors out there.

But. As a reader, just because I interact with an author, just because we get on, doesn’t mean I feel obliged to review their book, or their writing, in a way that doesn’t dare to mention anything negative at all. If I like their writing, it’s almost certainly because it’s nuanced, intelligent and hot. If it’s an anthology they’ve edited, I think it’s fair to say that I’ll find some of the stories hot, others well written but not my kink or fantasy, and a few which don’t do it for me either in terms of hotness or prose. If I *really* like two or three stories in an anthology, I think I’ve got a pretty good deal – after all, those are the stories I’ll revisit time and again, and how many books on your bookshelf, even those which you enjoyed a lot, do you really go back to multiple times? I guess what I’m saying is that, if you’re intelligent enough to write beautiful and nuanced prose, you’re intelligent enough to recognise that a positive review with a handful of ‘not quite my things’ is not a negative review of your work. Not everybody will love everything you’ve written and that’s fine – good reviewing, that says what does/doesn’t work for the reviewer will ultimately make sure your book reaches the audience it was intended for all along.

And so you won’t find me writing uncritical reviews. It’s not my style. When I blog, I expect people to come back to me and be honest about what they do/don’t like and when I edit, in RL, I expect my authors to listen to my opinions, take on board the bits they agree with and to challenge the rest. I’m not going to start writing super critical reviews, not least because I think to write a fair book review you have to finish the book in question and if I really hate something it’s unlikely I will.

But I don’t think it’s unfair, either, to admit that you recognise that something is well written, but that it doesn’t turn you on. I don’t think it’s wrong to say ‘Femdom is not my kink, so x story didn’t work for me but hey, it was superbly written, so if that’s your thing, you’ll love this!’ Nor, if you really don’t like something, is it wrong to write a constructive review saying so – you’d do it for a restaurant, so why not an erotica anthology?

In short, whether we’re friends or not, I (or anyone else) am not obliged to shower your writing with praise. I’m allowed to be objective. After all, it’s your book, not your baby.

Cosmopolitan? Provincial, more like…

It’s a mystery to me why, even though I’m always knackered, even though I often fall asleep midway through a wank and wake up an hour or so later with an erotica anthology on my face and my vibe buzzing against my thigh, there is always, *always* time for more Twitter before bed. Often, of course, it’s a waste of valuable sleep time, but from time to time I stumble upon something that makes me think that final scroll through my TL was worth it.

Last night was one such night. Ella Dawson and Eva Gantz were having a conversation about this post of Ella’s, and her surprise that it hadn’t garnered more of a reaction. I was surprised too, because it’s fucking fantastic. In fact, my guilt at piggybacking a post off it is somewhat offset by the knowledge that I’m now sharing it at a bit more of a reasonable hour. That said, she doesn’t need me to share it again: it’s certainly been noticed by the sex blogging/erotica community now. Yay! Go Ella!

It got me thinking about collaborations in the world of erotica, and whether they’re ever a good thing. A while back, I read Sylvia Day’s Afterburn and Aftershock (is it me or are they also two foul coloured spirits that you drink only when hammered in nightclubs?) The book was published by Mills & Boon, but in collaboration with Cosmo. The Cosmo collaboration is more than just their name on the cover, too. There’s some nice agony aunt (sorry, sexual psychotherapist) action at the back, as well as a bit of a Q&A with some big names in the sex writing scene (Zoe Margolis, Alissa Nutting, Cherry Healey…)  that’s framed as ‘Sex mistakes by the women who’ve made them.’ Which is a wonderfully sex positive slant to put on such advice as ‘I wish I’d known it’s ok to masturbate.’

For my sins, I quite like Sylvia Day’s writing. Sure, it’s undeniably trashy. Like E L James, she has pet turns of phrase and descriptions that she returns to time and again, which might not bother you that much for the first book, but which sure as hell do by the third. And yet, I romped through the first in the Crossfire series in a way that I just didn’t with FSoG. I think Afterburn and Aftershock are more problematic, at times: there’s a point at which the hero, having expressly been asked by the heroine to sleep elsewhere, crawls into her bed in the middle of the night, blatantly ignoring her wishes in a way that’s not domming, but just damn out of order.

But it’s Cosmo’s involvement that really riles me. Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have seen that last week I finally reached the end of my tether with both @Cosmopolitan and @Cosmopolitan_UK and unfollowed both on the basis it would make me happier. And you know what? It has. I don’t need yet another list post called ’24 things that are NOT vaginas, but really look like them’ and I certainly don’t need ‘9 reasons why he’s acting super distant.’

It’s sometimes hard, even as a sort-of sex blogger, to keep tabs on just how far behind the sex blogging community the real world’s attitudes to sex are. Sometimes, that can actually be a comfort: I have days when I really *am* vanilla, when I need to know that the whole world isn’t non-monogamous or kinking. But more often, it’s just a painful reminder of why hard copy erotica doesn’t sell, of why list posts rule the internet, and actually, why feminism still has so far to go.

When I was fourteen, my local newsagent used to ID girls buying Cosmo, like some kind of self-appointed moral guardian of the realm. It was, he claimed ‘too full of sex,’ to be suitable for teenagers. Perhaps back then, in the 90s, it really was groundbreaking, although I doubt it somehow. It just makes me so depressed that in 2014, the questions Cosmo is still asking and answering at the back of a chart bestseller are ‘Will I ever orgasm?’ ‘Am I weird because I like porn?’ and of course, not forgetting ‘his’ question: ‘I fantasise about having sex with a strap on. I fancy women, so I’m not gay, but am I abnormal?’

There’s one thing both guys and gals could do with learning from Cosmo: it’s never going to help you feel more normal.

Damaged heroes and tea-swilling heroines

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So, by my calculations there are 7 days and oh, 12 blog posts left until the end of October. And I really want to hit the full 31 posts because I have a bit of a project that I want to launch on November 1st and I’m only going to do it if I complete the blog posting challenge successfully.

With that in mind, missing this week’s Wicked Wednesday was a slight disaster.

It sort of took me by surprise, even though I’d been thinking about the prompt since a conversation I had with Kristina Lloyd at her book launch last Saturday night. Well, sort of. It actually also ties in really nicely with something I’ve been thinking about since I went to a couple of events at the Cheltenham literature festival at the beginning of the month.

Anyway, let’s start with the prompt. I feel a little guilty saying this, but drunk, rambling man in a bar feels a bit cliche to me. Or rather, it feels cliche, but also an entirely feasible situation with which to start a story.

Back, briefly to the literature festival. The first talk I went to was this, on the ‘Rise of the anti-heroine.’ Although I fully recognise that feminism still has a long way to go, and that men and women are far from equal, I’m always stunned as to how much this affects women in fields like literature. It’s supposedly harder to get published if you’re a woman, something which kind of makes sense when you look at things like the statistics behind ‘The Year of Reading Women.’

I have a handful of notes from that evening – one of which just says ‘relatable, likeable.’ Another is a quote from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, which i failed to copy down exactly but is something along the lines of ‘Feminism is the ability to have female characters who are bad.’ One of the authors on the panel said that women writing chick lit are told that their female characters must be the kinds of women you’d want to sit and drink tea with. I think that’s meant to mean ‘sweet and nice’ – in short, the kind of women I personally loathe spending time with. I’m pretty flawed and I like to spend my time, both when I’m reading and in real life, with women who are equally so. Which is probably why I haven’t read chick lit for years. Someone else said that what we refer to as ‘the anti heroine,’ if it was a male character would simply be referred to as realistic and interesting.

I finished The Lemon Grove back in August, and so I asked Helen Walsh about her portrayal of anal sex in the novel, which caused a bit of a stunned silence, but hey, I can handle that. More specifically, what I asked was ‘Is an openness and a love of sex for the sake of sex a characteristic of the anti-heroine?’ The answer was pretty much ‘Yes.’ So you can imagine my joy when, after I’d asked that question, a middle-aged man (in a mainly female audience) asked for the mic and posed the question ‘Why does writing strong women have to mean writing about sex?’ I gave him side-eyes, but I don’t think he noticed. I can’t quite remember what the panel said, but my answer would be ‘Because for so long we haven’t been able to. So suck it up.’ As an aside though, things are hopefully changing. The boy walked in on me in the middle of reading that anal scene: when I asked him what he thought of it he said ‘You might want to use some lube, love.’ Which is definitely progress of a kind.

Let’s go back to men. Based on what I’ve said up till now, you’d think male characters have a much easier ride of it. After all, complex men are just realistic and interesting, right? Well, yes, up until the arrival of a certain billionaire (by the by, I was in WH Smith today and the covers in the erotica section are now literally fifty shades of grey. Who is still reading/publishing/buying these novels?)  Except it seems that in erotica, if you’re writing men  who have much growth/self-discovery to do as the heroine, men who are still learning about/discovering their own desires and men who make (sometimes pretty awful) mistakes as a result of that, those men are automatically ‘damaged.’ I call bullshit. *That’s* equality – learning about sex, about desire, about what turns us on and off, about sometimes misjudging things is something we all do, not because we’re male or female, but because we’re human. Those are the kind of men I want to read, and more importantly the kind I want to write. The photo at the top of this post is my notes from feedback from my writing group: at the top right it says ‘Neither character has proper character arc; he’s on the margins; entire relationship is a projection onto him.’ Those things are top of my list of things to fix. Because I don’t want cardboard cutout men, or women who are dependent on those men for everything they discover about sex. Real men do get drunk and messy in bars. So do real women. Life is messy. Fiction should be too.

Why I’m happy to read bad sex writing

I may be wrong (and correct me if so), but I don’t think there are a huge number of prizes out there for bad writing. There’s this one, but the one that springs most immediately to mind, here in the UK at least, is The Bad Sex Award, whose remit is to ‘draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.’ To be completely fair, it’s ‘not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature,’ but for the sake of this post I’m going to talk about both erotica and more mainstream fiction.

At the moment, I’m reading Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard, which has a sex scene very early on. I came to it (no double-entendre intended) wary, partly because it was recommended by my boss, and partly because I went to see the author speak about it last Friday night, and she described the sex as ‘a real knee trembler,’ which I found a bit cringy and coy for someone who, actually, can write sex and who, bravely for a mainstream novel, is writing about a woman in her mid-50s having good sex. She writes to her lover, and she says ‘Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf.’

That line won’t work for everybody. Won’t work for many people, probably. It didn’t make me horny, but it stuck, the way lines from prose I love do, for me. The way ‘It didn’t last, and it wasn’t love, but we had our moments,’ from Anne Raverat’s Signs of Life is still on the tip of my tongue weeks after I read it.

Let’s stick with animal similes/metaphors now we’ve startedIn Alison Tyler’s anthology Sudden Sex, there’s a story by Gina Marie called Seasonal Affected Disorder. Kristina Lloyd reviewed that story before I bought the book, and reading that review and what it had to say about the use of the word goat (‘He bites at my neck. “A fucking beast of an animal,” he says, “A horny little fucking beast. An excitable little fainting goat.”‘) was what drove me to Amazon. Not because the goat thing made me wet – it’s generally hard to tell from a few very short extracts in a review whether a story will make you wet or not – but because I thought that as writing goes, it’s fucking brave. And actually, yes, I have wanked to it since, so it does work for me.

Back to the mainstream, and Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters, and this, my favourite bit:

“I did the fellatio thing,” Caitlin said as she and Vix were driving home one night, the rumble of thunder in the distance. “He loved it. It made him crazy.”

“But what about … you know.”

“It wasn’t that bad, if you don’t mind warm gooey laundry detergent.”

It’s definitely *not* traditionally hot sex writing. If Blume wrote it today, I daresay she’s famous enough that it may well make the Bad Sex Award shortlist. As I’ve said many times before though, I like my sex, and my erotica, visceral, and there’s no doubt that it’s that. It even pops into my mind sometimes when I’m giving head (no reflection on the guy I’m fucking or the way he tastes!). I just like it.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about a erotic novel and asking what they thought about it. “I think the prose is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness,” was the response, and I understand that to mean that the author takes risks with language, and, as a result, every so often misses the mark. That’s fine, on two counts: firstly, I think what works for the individual in erotica is deeply, deeply personal, so what works for one person is almost certain to leave another cold. Secondly, I would far, *far* read something that took risks and sometimes got it wrong than something which played it super safe and left me feeling meh.

I really, really wanted to end this by giving examples from the Bad Sex Award Shortlist that I think work better/are hotter than the judges are implying. Sadly, I do think that most of the ones in the Guardian article that I linked to at the top of this post are pretty awful. But I don’t think that changes the fundamental point. And, if you have examples of unusual/’bad’ sex scenes in literature that do it for you, please, *please* leave them in the comments.

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Kristina Lloyd’s Undone: the ‘unsuitable for Amazon’ review

My copy of Undone arrived with strict instructions from the author herself:

‘Promise that you’ll read it in order.’

Well, of course, Kristina. How else would I read it? Do I look like the kind of person who trawls books looking for an immaculately written blow job or any hint of anal? Maybe don’t answer that.

Kristina has her reasons for not trusting me. Her second novel, Asking for Trouble, is my favourite erotica novel ever. It never leaves my bedside table, and it rarely leaves my actual bed. I lent it to the boy when I wanted him to understand what turns me on. I use it when I need reminding how to write well. It’s a superb work of erotica, but it more than holds its own as a piece of fiction outside of the genre. It’s taught me how to write characters, how to describe place … wait, I’m reviewing the wrong book.

Anyway. Asking for Trouble is the reason Kristina doesn’t trust me. When we first started chatting via Twitter, I confessed that I’d owned it for months, years even, before I fully pieced the plot together. Why? Because the sex in it is so hot that I’d been ‘reading’ (wanking over) the sex scenes time and time again, and figuring out the plot using a mixture of guesswork and logical deduction. That’s how you have great orgasms. It’s *not* how you read a book.

So, good girl that I am, I obediently started Undone at the beginning. Like, right at the beginning. With the dedication.

I’m not totally sure what the etiquette is regarding mentioning the dedication in a review. It sort of feels like it’s not fair game because it’s not part of the story: the story is *not* about Kristina’s life, the dedication presumably *is.* But anyway, here’s what it says:

For Ewan, for being generous with the measures.

For that to make sense, you kind of have to know that the book is set in a cocktail bar, and, bad reviewer that I am, I haven’t filled you in on the plot. But the cocktails aren’t really my point. Lana and Sol, the characters in Undone, aren’t Kristina and (presumably) her partner. What they do have though is affection and respect for each other that underpins all the sex in the book and proves the publishing industry wrong about everything it holds true about erotic romance. And for me, the stunning simplicity with which Kristina writes emotion and affection is captured wholeheartedly in that dedication.

Unlike most of what Black Lace publish these days, Undone is described as ‘erotic thriller,’ rather than ‘erotic romance.’ It really, really bothers me that we’ve come to understand erotic romance as being synonymous with billionaires, helicopters and fifteen-million page contracts. The reason I picked the dedication as an example of Kristina being so much more than just a sex writer is because it’s too hard to pull out an individual quote from the novel itself that proves that this is romance too: the whole text is shot through with the depth of Sol and Lana’s feelings for one another.

Not that those feelings cast any kind of soft focus glow over the sex scenes. When I first started reading Kristina’s work, I picked it up by chance: in those days I’d read pretty much any Black Lace book. Since then, I’ve learnt a lot more about my own kinks and consequently, become a lot more discerning in what I read, erotica-wise. Even in a year and half’s worth of blogging I’ve discovered that I’m not as vanilla as I thought I was: I identify as submissive far more strongly than I did at the start, but I know more about what kind of sub I am, too. What I’d call ‘formalised kink’ – beautiful rope work, toys, spankings, the word ‘Sir’ – none of that really works for me. I like improvised bondage, bruising, shame – and Undone is very much about the last of those things. Not that it doesn’t have stunning S&M kit in it – Kristina has certainly done her research into handcuffs – but it feels much more about the psychological aspects of kink than her last novel, Thrill Seeker, did.

It’s a massively intelligently-written book, but if I flick through my copy now and find the bits I underlined, it’s the visceral quality of the sex that means I’ll probably return to this as wank-fodder almost as often as I do to Asking for Trouble. Again, it’s difficult to the pluck the best bits out of context, but I particularly loved the following:

Specks of purple and green glitter shone where he’d rubbed against my make-up. I thought of the ways in which we become each other’s bodies, how a punch becomes a bruise, how fluids mingle in kisses and how I take him inside me, the boundaries of our selves no longer sealed and whole.

And then, a little later, this:

He raised himself over me, his cock bumping at my entrance. He grabbed my wrist, pinning my arm awkwardly above my head as he drove into me. His bulky shaft pushed me open, my heavy, wet insides clinging to his thickness. I cried out, as thrilled by the hand squeezing my arm as I was by the cock surging into me. He shoved high and hard, his fingers tight around my wrist.

So, do I recommend it? Hell yes. But do yourself a favour and take Kristina’s advice. Read Undone in order, as much for the thriller plot as for the sex. Don’t look for (or post!) spoilers on Amazon. It’s better that way. If you must know though, the super hot anal starts on page 221.