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Book Review: Spanked: Red Cheeked Erotica, Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel

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For my twenty-first birthday a good friend gave me a copy of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus. It was the first and the last erotica I read for more than thirty years. I remember thinking the writing was very beautiful and finding it interesting to read about sex from a woman’s point of view, as that was that same year I saw my first porno flick: Debbie Does Dallas, which I thought incredibly insipid. Several years later I saw about four minutes of Deep Throat, which happened to be playing at party I was attending; the party turned out to be as boring as the film. It seemed that neither prettified erotica nor mainstream pornography had much to offer me.

Over the past few years, it seemed that my interests in those subjects was more academic than anything; by that I mean that an article by Sallie Tisdale in Harper’s, on women and pornography later led me to her excellent book on the subject Talk Dirty to Me, which I found fascinating. I was also intrigued by Daphne Merkin’s essay in the New Yorker on spanking, but equally as intrigued by the uproar it caused. A few years ago nonfiction memoirs about sexuality by Toni Bentley (The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir) and Catherine Millet’s (The Sexual Life of Catherine M.) as well as Jane Juska’s A Round-Heeled Woman were all interesting in their own way, although Juska’s was by far the most inventive. But I wouldn’t call them erotica, per se.

Yet, I am aware that there is a huge erotica market, to which both men and women contribute. And when I was editing my own book, Desire: Women Write About Wanting, and the writer/editor Rachel Kramer Bussel was suggested to me as a possible contributor, I went to her website. I found out that Bussel is huge in the erotica market, she wrote a wonderful essay for my book; and so, when her book came with an offer to review, I simply could not resist. (Full disclosure: I also know another of the writers in the book, Simon Sheppard, another notable contributor to the erotic market, whom I met, on a cruise ship, of all places. He was traveling with his aged mother, I with my two sisters; he was grateful for our company, we were grateful for his font of wisdom: he helped the three of us win several trivia contests.)

Spanked: Red Cheeked Erotica is a collection of twenty short pieces of fiction detailing what Bussel in her introduction calls “a fantastic kind of pain.” While this is not Bussel’s first collection of spanking stories, she does go on to say that the pieces in this particular collection took her breath away and that while editing the collection she learned that “there are an infinite number of ways to talk about the pleasures of getting spanked or spanking someone.”

You can say that again.

Which is why this collection should be read in small doses. Actually, I think any collection of erotica should be read in small doses. Especially if one isn’t used to this sort of thing. Plus, you pick up a lot of new lingo. Which it takes some time to assimilate.

It’s interesting reading erotic short stories apart from, say, regular short fiction. Much short fiction has, of course, scenes of a sexual nature, but it is quite clear that the premise of these stories stems from the sex act itself. The story is secondary. And yet, in a number of the pieces, it works very well.

A few of the pieces in  Spanked are actually quite literary, aside from their erotic nature. Thomas Christopher’s “Riding the Storm” is very beautifully and lyrically written and when I looked up his bio his credits were indeed impressive. M. David Hornbuckle’s “Still Life with Infidels #56, with its superb title just crying to be read, could have been any better-than-average adultery story, just with a, well, spanking twist. Simon Sheppard’s “Fiscal Discipline” could not have been any better timed: imagine a story about the financial markets, homosexuality, and spanking! Plus, it was clever and funny. And I loved Bussel’s story about fear and pain that went far beyond the subject matter of the book. Donna George Storey’s “A Rare Find” and Shanna Germain’s “Perfect Bound” both revolved around books, in odd and wonderful ways. Teresa Noelle Roberts’ “Daddy’s Girl” creeped me out, but in a good way. She set up a premise that she then undid, and she did it quite well.

I didn’t care for the stories that featured cruelly dominant women and submissive men; but that may just be a taste thing. And alas, a few of the stories read like the old Penthouse Forum letters. Remember the ones they made up? The ones about horny babysitters who were just dying to be with the daddy as he drove her home? Or the girl who just couldn’t get enough? Every man’s fantasy? Those few stories in the book seemed to read far more like pornography than erotica. I can’t tell you why, exactly, just that I know it when I read it.

But in the end, Spanked was an admirable re-introduction back into the world of erotica and a new journey into the modern, more compartmentalized, perhaps, world of erotica today, a world quite different from what I remember of The Delta of Venus lo those many years ago.

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About Lisa Solod