Over the last few years I’ve read a lot of the classics. Not just such iconic novels as War & Peace and Moby-Dick, though, but also classics of sci-fi, fantasy, noir, and, most relevant to this conversation, erotica. Which is why, when the publicist from Cleis Press sent me emails announcing three new anthologies of erotic short stories — Best Woman’s Erotica Of The Year, Volume 3 (paperback, Kindle), which was edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel; Best Lesbian Erotica Of The Year, Volume 2 (paperback, Kindle), edited by Sacchi Green; and Best Gay Erotica Of The Year, Volume 3 (paperback, Kindle), edited by Rob Rosen — I thought it would be interesting to virtually assemble a round-table and pick their brains.
It’s obvious what Best Gay Erotica Of The Year and Best Lesbian Erotica Of The Year are about, but for those who don’t know, Rachel, what is “Woman’s Erotica”?
Rachel Kramer Bussel: I consider “women’s erotica” to be erotica written by women and starring women. Beyond that, pretty much anything goes. Although Wikipedia says that the genre is primarily heterosexual, all three volumes of the Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year series feature stories starring women of various sexual orientations. I hope to surprise readers with these stories and how they think women “should” behave.
How did you find the stories for your respective collections? Do you read erotic journals, look for stuff online, or do people submit to you? Or is it a combination of them?
Sacchi Green: I confess that for an anthology called Best Lesbian Erotica Of The Year, I should be reading all the lesbian erotica written that year, but there are necessary limits even besides my own limited endurance. For one thing, the book should really be called Best Lesbian Erotic Short Stories Of the Year, but that’s too much of a, well, mouthful. I want to present a wide variety of themes, settings, styles, etc., and try to squeeze eighteen or twenty pieces into a limited space, so I set an upper limit of 4500 words each. I do accept some previously published work, and sometimes request stories I’ve read during the year, but most of what I use is new work submitted by authors. I send out my Call for Submissions, or Guidelines, through various branches of the writers’ grapevine, like market listing websites, the Lambda Literary newsletter, blogs, etc., and the word gets spread around. We writers always have our radar searching for opportunities.
Bussel: I put out public calls for submissions and do my best to make sure they reach authors around the world from a wide variety of backgrounds and levels of writing experience. I then select the stories I think will best speak to my readers that complement each other. So I won’t include two stories with the same setting, and I try to make each volume as different from each other as I can, in terms of setting, writing style, sex acts, race, age, etc. All the stories in these books are brand new and never before published.
Rob Rosen: A call for submissions goes out and is posted on numerous sites. I also invite all past contributors of mine, as well as many noted authors, to submit. I receive around two hundred stories, but only have about fifteen slots available, so the competition for a story acceptance is tough.
You kind of already touched on this, but what kind of criteria do you use?
Bussel: Usually I request stories of 2,000-4,000 words and try to give writers six months from when I post the call at bweoftheyear.com until the deadline. Stories must be submitted in English and use American grammar, but writers can be of any background. Each volume has included authors from a range of countries. Beyond that, I make sure that each story has a completely different setting and try not to repeat settings across volumes. Some subthemes do emerge, such as photography in Volume 3, but that’s happened so far by chance.
Green: I also have a length limit so I can fit a wide variety of stories into the book. Stories also have to be sent to me by a certain date so that I can make my choices and do any necessary editing in time to get the whole manuscript ready by the publisher’s deadline. English language, yes, although I’ve helped a writer smooth out a translation a time or two. As for nationality, much of the best work comes from the UK and Canada and Australia and New Zealand, and I’ve had some great work from Germany, as well. I’m open to diverse voices of all kinds, including those of Americans with non-European backgrounds. My criteria are much more a matter of originality and excellent writing than of anything else. Okay, hot sex, too, but in the talented hands of a good writer some sex scenes with no explicit terms can be as arousing as others with them.
Rosen: All stories have to meet a minimum and maximum criteria in terms of length. I am given, by my publisher, Cleis Press, a maximum word count for the collection. I want as many stories as I can get within this word count. I then base the individual story word count criteria on this. There is then a deadline for submissions, and any English writing author can submit. I get submissions from all over the world. As an editor, I frequently convert international stories to American English. Apart from all this, I give the writers free reign.
Erotica takes many forms. There’s erotic fantasy, erotic sci-fi, etc. In putting together your books, do you embrace those kinds of genres, or reject them, and why do you do whatever you do?
Rosen: I encourage all genres. As this is a “best of” anthology, and has no themes, I like to see all genres. The more unique the story, the better.
Bussel: I’m also open to various erotic subgenres. My main goal is to give readers as much variety as possible, and perhaps turn them on to new authors. So we’ve had historical erotica and post-apocalyptic erotica in the series. My selections depend entirely on what types of stories I receive. I’d love to include more different types of subgenres going forward.
Green: Before I was seduced by the Erotic side of The Force I began my own writing in science fiction and fantasy under a different name. I still write speculative fiction now and then, and was ecstatic when my publisher approved my anthology Witches, Princesses, And Women At Arms: Erotic Lesbian Fairy Tales. For my other themed anthologies, and the Best Lesbian Erotica series, I sometimes use fantasy or sci-fi stories, but just a few, not enough to scare off readers who think they don’t like those genres.
All three of you have edited similar collections before, including previous volumes in these series. How did editing these new compilations compare to working on previous ones?
Rosen: It’s always a pleasure to put these collections together. I get to work with the best and brightest writing talent around. And so, there is no difference from collection to collection, except that I get to also meet new writers and get to, hopefully, publish their material. This is why I do what I do: to give writers a platform to showcase their writing talents. To me, it’s a gift, not a job, to be able to put these anthologies together.
Green: Most of my previous anthologies have been built around specific themes, like Lesbian Cowboys or Wild Girls, Wild Nights: True Lesbian Sex Stories…if you can count true stories as a theme, and yes, I have reason to believe that all of them had some element of truth to them. The Best Lesbian Erotica series is different in that that the only overall theme is quality, and very subjective quality at that. Since that’s also a factor in all my other anthologies, I can’t say that the process is all that different, except that I get far more submissions for the Best Lesbian Erotica volumes.
Bussel: I use reader feedback to help guide my selections, and what I heard from a lot of people was that they wanted more fast-paced stories, so that’s what I tried to deliver in Volume 3. I think there’s even more action and excitement than in the previous two. There’s also a book fetish and a leather fetish that are very specific in exploring these specific sexual interests. My main goal is to make each volume both stand alone but also complement the others, so that readers who’ve read them all find something new to entertain them.
Now, I am a middle-age, heterosexual, cisgender male who has read and enjoyed classic works of erotica. Do you think someone like me would enjoy your respective collections?
Rosen: Um, well…my collections are Best Gay Erotica. Straight women easily make up half of the readership, but straight men, yeah, I’m guessing not so much. That said, more power to you if you want to give it a try. The literary quality is awe-inspiring, and great writing is great writing, after all.
Green: If you enjoy well-written short stories with distinctive voices, well-drawn characters, vivid settings, and intense sex scenes, why wouldn’t you like these? There seem to be many women who love gay erotica and think lesbian erotica is icky, but for a straight male that shouldn’t be a problem.
Bussel: I think so, too, and have found via corresponding with readers and newsletter subscribers that many of my readers are men. I’ve even had men ask if the public readings at bookstores we’ve done for the Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year series are limited to women, which they’re not. While “Women’s” is in the title of the books, not only are there male characters in many of the stories, I think there’s plenty to enjoy for every reader. Some are more literary and some are more down and dirty. I always find that while there’s a few stories in each book that many readers are drawn to, the others may receive varied reactions.
If someone like me did read them, what do you think they would get out of them?
Bussel: I think you’d find a range of insights into what turns women on. That’s not to say this is meant as a nonfiction how to guide or that one anthology can encompass the desires of all women. The primary purpose of my books is to entertain and arouse. But beyond that, I think they can also offer readers a peek into how women think and talk about sex, how their fetishes are formed, how they roleplay, how their bisexuality can play out in relationships and how they go from having a fantasy to acting on it, to name a few. The latter plays out excellently in Annabel Joseph’s closing story “Making It Feel Right,” in which a woman hires a male dominant for a BDSM scene, only to discover that she wants to be the one in charge.
Rosen: I think there is a distinction between erotica and literary erotica. In the case of my collections, the stories are superbly written, the writing as enjoyable as the sex, and so, I think you’d pick up on the difference. I know I do.
Green: You might well get turned on, but with such a variety of stories in the books the chances are high that you’d find more than the sex in them to enjoy, and you’d get the extra added benefit of insights into what turns some women on.
More importantly, do you want someone like me reading your book, or is that offensive to you for some reason?
Rosen: Read away, my friend. And enjoy!
Bussel: I’m open to anyone who wants to read these stories checking them out. One of the reasons I’m drawn to anthologies as a reader and editor is because short erotica doesn’t involve a huge time commitment. You can read a few stories pretty quickly and if you like one, seek out more writing by the author, and if you don’t, there’s another story waiting for you that might suit your tastes better.
Green: Of course I’d want you to read my books. When I wrote science fiction stories I didn’t expect them to be read only by whatever flavor of alien characters I presented, so I’m fine with non-lesbians reading my lesbian anthologies. And if you have the guts to read them openly on the train or subway, all the better.