Painter Marcel Duchamp once declared that, “eroticism is close to life, closer than philosophy or anything like that, it’s an animal thing that has many facets and is pleasing to use, as you would use a tube of paint.” It is with this in mind that I present the following email interview with Sacchi Green, the editor of Best Lesbian Erotica Of The Year: Volume 3 (paperback, Kindle); Rob Rosen, who edited Best Gay Erotica Of The Year: Volume 4 (paperback, Kindle); and Rachel Kramer Bussel, editor of Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year: Volume 4 (paperback, Kindle).
To start, how do you each define “erotica” and distinguish it from “porn”?
Green: Short answer? Erotica is whatever I want to claim a story is, as long as I get away with including it in my anthologies. So far I haven’t had any complaints. Porn? Since both terms are so subjective, I don’t worry about differentiating them. You could say that the definition is in the eye of the beholder, and, in this case, in other body parts as well. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1965 that he couldn’t define porn, but “I know it when I see it.” It all depends on the individual eye doing the seeing. Aside from nonconsensual violence, I don’t limit the amount or type or explicit nature of the sex in stories I include in erotica anthologies, as long as the story itself is good. On the other hand, I do sometimes include work that has very little in the way of explicit sex scenes, as long as the story is great and has an overall aura of sexuality.
Bussel: I don’t have a strict definition of either word, though generally I think of as written and porn as visual.
Rosen: Erotica has literary merit. The story is as important as the sex. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Porn is all middle, sex for the sake of sex.
And how often do you get a submission that is more pornographic than erotic?
Rosen: Thankfully, never. Anyone submitting to my anthologies is a literary writer, not a pornographic one. Plus, I’m very specific in my call for submissions, so anyone submitting knows exactly what I’m looking for, such as literary merit.
Bussel: I don’t tend to think in terms of pornographic vs. erotica so much as what my readers would appreciate. If the story is sexy and arousing, and if I think readers new to the erotica genre and long-time readers are likely to enjoy a story, I’ll consider it.
Green: It doesn’t happen very often, and when I do, it’s usually been written by a man. Or more, likely a still-adolescent boy of any age. In many of those stories, if they can even be called stories, it’s often painfully obvious that they were first written with heterosexual characters, didn’t sell, and one of the characters has been given an awkward nominal sex change to give it a lesbian slant. One sure give-away that a story is more of the porn persuasion is when the female character is described, or describes herself, in terms of the cup size of her brassiere.
Have you ever considered running something that was more pornographic than erotic because it was also really well-written?
Bussel: I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in this exact situation, but I often ask authors to delve deeper into the emotional side of their work rather than simply the physical.
Green: If it’s really well-written, I’ll consider it, and depending on the theme of my anthology, if there is one, I may well use it. But if it’s really well-written I’m unlikely to consider it porn.
Rosen: I only publish stories with literary merit. My readers aren’t looking for porn.
How else do you decide what you’ll consider including in your respective anthologies? Like, does it have to be written within a certain timeframe, have to be a certain length…
Bussel: I post a public call for submissions with a deadline and word count and don’t consider any stories outside of those parameters, unless I extend the deadline.
Green: I always have a deadline for submissions, because I always have a deadline myself for turning in the completed manuscript. Length is just a matter of how many stories I can fit into the word count limit decreed by the publisher. I do like to have a variety of lengths, though, both because I think it makes for the best reading experience, and because sometimes less really is more. A very short story by a really skillful writer can occasionally have a more intense effect than a longer one.
Rosen: What sets Best Gay Eroticaapart is that it has no limits. All genres are welcome. Almost all sexual kinks are welcome, too. The stories can be funny or serious, deeply erotic or mildly so. They simply have to be exceedingly well-written and highly original. There is, of course, a word range. All the stories are between three and six-thousand words.
I would think that the primary audience for Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year: Volume 4 is straight women, the primary audience for Best Lesbian Erotica Of The Year: Volume 3 is gay women, and the primary audience for Best Gay Erotica Of The Year: Volume 4 is gay men. But who do you all see as the secondary audience for your respective books and why them?
Rosen: Hmm, I’m not sure you have that correct, at least for Best Gay Erotica. The stories are 100% gay male, but the audience is most definitely straight women and gay men, I would say close to equally so. And I look for stories that appeal to both audiences.
Bussel: Yeah, I’m not sure if I’d say the primary audience for the Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year series is straight women, though they are most likely the majority of readers. I have a lot of male readers, and also have people of all sexual orientations and genders who read the books, which is why there’s always a mix of sexualities in them. The men who read the series always help remind me that while I’m editing primarily with female readers in mind, they aren’t the entire audience. I think the male readers appreciate the insights into female sexuality these stories provide.
Green: It used to be assumed that straight men would read lesbian erotica because, well, the more female body parts engaged in sex, the more stimulation for the male reader. It’s my impression that as porn movies have proliferated and become more available, men have become less likely to get their rocks off by reading. The visual and audible stimulation wins out. Yes, I did say porn movies, even though I claimed above not to bother with differentiating. In this particular case, though, most lesbians I know consider woman-on-woman movies made for the “male gaze” to be porn, and fake porn at that. As for straight women, I would hope that some of them would read my anthologies for the good stories, and maybe for revelations about just how much pleasure their own bodies are capable of, but it’s very clear these days that many more straight women love to read gay male erotica, much of it written by women themselves. I guess it’s a matter of the more sexy males in sight, the better, but there’s more to it than that. From the little I’ve seen of it, there’s a considerable faction that likes to read and write about relatively feminized men, and there’s even a popular sub-genre of male pregnancy stories, but that may not qualify as erotica. I don’t even want to think about it.
This may be a question you can’t answer, but do gay men, lesbians, and straight women have a different relationship to erotic stories than each other and straight men?
Rosen: I would say no, and so it doesn’t influence my decisions in what to include.
Green: I don’t know that there’s much difference, as long as they will read erotic stories at all. Women are as adroit at one-handed reading as men are. I suspect that gay men as well as straight men would rather watch films, but I haven’t researched that tendency. With straight women, I’ve noticed that books written for them more and more often have covers depicting naked male torsos of implausible buffness and sheen, with no visible heads, so that one wonders whether the models are actually plastic mannequins. One also wonders how women would react to so many book covers with women’s heads cut off like that. In any case, my main consideration in selecting stories is that they should appeal to lesbians, and have well-developed characters lesbians can relate to.
So do you guys ever talk to each other about these books? Like, do you ever ask each other for advice or to maybe to share some story because it’s just so good or so terrible that you can’t believe someone submitted it to you?
Green: That sounds like fun, but hasn’t happened to me…except the time when I was reviewing erotic books for a web site that is now defunct, and said in my review of Best Gay Eroticathat I suspected that two of the stories had been written by the same author under different names. Rob let me know that I was right, and we got a laugh out of it. Rachel and I have been in many books together, and she has written for some of my other anthologies, as I have written for some of hers. We’ve done readings together, and in fact started out writing for Best Lesbian Eroticaat the same time, way back when. But we haven’t discussed the books we’re editing these days.
Bussel: I don’t consult with anyone except my publisher about my story selections, but I do always consider the volumes that I’ve previously publish and do my best not to repeat scenarios that would bore someone who’d read the previous editions. I would never dishonor the writers who submit work to me, many of whom are submitting their first or one of their first erotic works, and for whom privacy is paramount, by discussing details of their writing with anyone else.
Rosen: We all know each other tangentially, and have, from time to time, said hello online, but I, at least, have never compared notes with my fellow editors. Though I can say that I greatly admire them.
Now, Sacchi, Rachel, have there been any instances where you realized a story that someone submitted to you would work better for the other’s book?
Green: I think once or twice I’ve steered a writer towards Rachel’s books when they didn’t have as much lesbian content as I wanted. She does use some lesbian stories, though, since after all, we’re all women, so I’d expect her to keep the best ones for her own book.
Bussel: I certainly receive a lot of lesbian-focused stories, especially for Volume 4, with the themes of outsider and risk, and Volume 5, with the theme of outrageous. I consider all of them, but while the writing is often wonderful, I can’t always include all of them.
It’s a turbulent time, politically and socially, for gay men, lesbians, and straight women. How much did our current social and political situation figure in to the stories in your respective anthologies?
Rosen: Not at all. No one has submitted anything even remotely political to me. I think erotica is meant to be primarily escapist fantasy.
Green: To some extent just being lesbian — or gay, or trans — in our society does carry with it socio-political tension, but I don’t get many stories about that aspect, maybe because lesbian erotica is one place where you can get away from all that. I’ve sometimes had submissions with general socio-political material, though, and this year I had more than usual. I used one titled “Still Marching” by Victoria Janssen where two women who had met twenty-five years ago at a march for abortion rights re-connect at the massive Women’s March of 2017. And then there’s “Fuck Me Like A Canadian” by Raven Sky, which isn’t exactly political, but has a very amusing reference to Canadian head of state Justin Trudeau. In a social context, there’s Xan West’s story about disability, “Trying Submission,” and another, “Fearless” by T.C. Mill, that involves trauma from early sexual abuse. “Where There’s Smoke,” by M. Birds, refers to medical marijuana, which is a socially hot topic these days. It’s a good sign, I hope, that writers are dealing with these broader topics.
Bussel: I had the idea for the themes of outsiders and risk for Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year: Volume 4 during Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the outsiders theme was directly inspired by his proposed Muslim ban. I was hoping to receive stories that directly touched on that, and while I didn’t, I think the concept of outsiders and how they often struggle is powerfully reflected in the book. For instance, “Seven Sweets And Seven Sours” by Megan Hart is about an Amish woman in love with another woman. It’s tender and emotional and I would hope anyone reading it would come away empathizing with the protagonist.
Did you intentionally look for stories that might reflect this, or intentionally avoid or shy away from them?
Bussel: I did my best to reach out to authors who might touch on the themes of outsiders and risk. This is the first time I’ve made a theme for the Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year series and it helped me have an organizing principle to the book.
Green: I didn’t shy away, but I didn’t ask specifically for them. In some ways erotica, like fantasy, is a means of escape from stress, but if the stories are good enough in themselves I’ll consider disturbing themes. I’d actually like to do an anthology centered on social and political change regarding gay and trans rights, but it might not be exactly erotica, and I don’t expect it to happen.
Rosen: It never came up, but I would’ve avoided it. I would not want to alienate my audience in any possible way.
How else do you see your respective collections differing from last year’s?
Rosen: Same. Same great stories. Same great talent. And same great end-product. As always, I’m proud of the collection and the stories within.
Bussel: This year’s collection is more racially diverse and more overtly political. I know not every reader wants to read politically tinged erotica, but I would have felt irresponsible as a human being not adding that element of humanity to this book.
Green: I look for diversity and originality, so I hope that each of my anthologies differs from the others, but this time I think the main difference really is what we just discussed, the social and political issues.
Is there anything in this year’s anthologies that would surprise people who’ve read the previous volumes?
Green: I think just a few of the stories in this year’s Best Lesbian Eroticamight well surprise readers with the way they face up to difficult and even gritty situations, but the writers have managed to instill enough tenderness and hope and fervent sex into those that I don’t think any readers will feel disappointed.
Bussel: I don’t know if it will surprise readers, but Alyssa Cole’s story “Essential Qualities” has a science fiction/fantasy element that I haven’t included in previous volumes. There’s also a deliberate inclusion of mental health in at least two of the stories and how it intersects with sexuality and desire. I’m very proud of those stories, especially how the authors retained an explicit eroticism while also addressing these very important real-life issues.
Rosen: I think the stories themselves, their originality, their uniqueness, are always a pleasant surprise to my readers.
Now, all three of you are writers as well as editors. How has editing these anthologies influenced the erotic writings you do?
Rosen: Never has. Not in all these years. All my writers write differently from me and from each other. They don’t influence me; they just happily astound me in their creativity.
Bussel: Reading so much erotica for my job as an editor, both story submissions and scouting for potential authors, means my well of erotic story inspiration often feels empty. Or perhaps that’s just a result of having written erotica for almost twenty years. But when I do get inspired to write new pieces, it feels all the more victorious.
Green: It’s always educational to read a wide variety of works in your own genre, bad as well as good, and reading hundreds of submissions, most of which aren’t quite what you’re looking for, gives you a firmer grasp on what you do want, and what you want to do yourself. It also keeps you aware of how many hackneyed, overused plots and metaphors and descriptions are out there, and keeps you from adding to them.
And how often do you debate whether to include one of your own stories in these collections? Or is that out of bounds?
Green: I consider it out of bounds to choose my own work for a best-of anthology that I’m editing. I’m happy, though, to contribute to the volumes that I don’t edit, and I’ve had stories in nine others in the Best Lesbian Eroticaseries over the years. In my non-best-of anthologies, though, I do usually use a story of my own.
Rosen: Except for this anthology, my stories have always appeared. That’s standard for all anthologies edited by editor/writers. I don’t think anyone debates it; it’s generally the norm to include yourself.
Bussel: I used to include one of my stories in all of my anthologies, but with Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year, I knew I wanted to showcase the work of as many authors as possible. I made a rule that authors can only be published in one of these volumes I’m editing, including myself, to make room for new writers. So now my role with the series is purely as an editor and that’s actually easier and means I can highlight many more up and coming authors as well as make a more well rounded book. I do still publish my own erotica stories in other anthologies of mine, such as The Big Book Of Submission, Volume 2.
Finally, if someone enjoys your collections, what book of short stories by a single author, erotic or otherwise, would you suggest they read and why that?
Rosen: Sorry, I don’t read single-author anthologies. That’s simply not my taste in books.
Green: I’d go with Cheyenne Blue’s Blue Woman Stories Volumes 1 and 2. The books are short enough that I think it’s fair to count them as one. Cheyenne is one of the writers I most admire, and I’ve been lucky enough to have her contribute to many of my anthologies.
Bussel: I’m a big fan of Polly Frost’s Deep Inside: Extreme Erotic Fantasies. I’m not normally a science fiction fan, but her writing is so creative and fascinating and made me think about sexuality in new ways.