A married woman has a BDSM encounter at a conference. Sex in an artificially generated afterlife. A bisexual woman cheats on her wife with a baker … and all as written by Louise Erdrich or Chigozie Obioma or Téa Obreht or Paul Theroux or Helen Oyeyemi or Jeet Thayil or any one of 20-odd other authors. That’s the tease of a new collection of erotic short stories, Anonymous Sex.
Editors Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan write in their introduction that they wanted to “create intrigue” by not revealing which of the high-profile contributors have written which story: “Readers would have to guess.” A fatal premise is revealed: writing about sex is risky because one’s own predilections might be unmasked in the process. This is odd, given for example the recent anthology Kink, edited by RO Kwon and Garth Greenwell, whose contributors (including Alexander Chee and Carmen Maria Machado) felt no need for such a cover. Anonymous Sex feels old-fashioned, as if it’s arrived too late, too apologetically, on the stage.
The authors in the collection are truly global, yet the book’s premise shares something with one of the UK’s most wince-inducing exports: the Bad Sex award in fiction. The rationale of the award – to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it” – combines the kind of finger-wagging moralism and chortling jocularity recognisable to anyone familiar with English culture. Apart from its dubious assumptions (whose taste?), its aims are clear: to humiliate writers for “unnecessary” incursions into the erotic, and perhaps too for revealing something of themselves in this process.
Anonymous Sex ostensibly does the opposite – it is encouraging sex writing. But it wants things both ways: to create the conditions for an untrammelled erotic freedom in writing, while also inviting us to sniff the writer out. Some of the stories are fantastic; several are fine; a few are not. Some are elegant and arch, some witty and bawdy. In the almost knowingly quaint Find Me, a widow takes a long train ride across America to join a new husband, sharing a night of passion with an exciting bandit. The Next Eleven Minutes conjures the hazy border between vertiginous sexual excitement and terrifying insanity. Rapunzel, Rapunzel is a charming, sexy retelling of the tale; Love Doll an intriguing exploration of racialised power dynamics set in Hawaii in a multicultural English language class
My outright favourite is En Suite, a story of two young women friends on a trip to a seaside town, staying in a cheap – and badly soundproofed – hotel. The story moves briskly between awkward, unpleasant or comedic encounters with other holidaymakers to evoke the flaring of desire between the two women. It’s a tale of longing, mishaps and missed opportunities, capturing the sense of possibility and terror that desire can evoke. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, and whoever wrote it is in supreme command of their skills. What a shame we don’t know who it is!
History Lesson opens with an epigraph from psychotherapist Esther Perel, portentously announcing its themes: “Most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.” Denise, a married professor, has an arrangement with Michael, another professor: they meet at an annual conference; she agrees to his every desire, including to his filming their sex; an element of jeopardy is introduced in the threat of the video being released to the conference attenders. The story unfolds with a confidence occasionally punctured by its own solemn self-consciousness. When Michael texts Denise: “Tell me you’re a slut”, we’re told: “To be clear: this was not a word Denise approved of in most contexts.” Here, we are being interrupted by the author’s anxiety; the need to spell out a political affiliation even when trying, mostly well, to evoke erotic dynamics that necessarily evade political positions. We’re being reassured that we’re entitled to enjoy this kinky story of domination and submission, through sentences such as: “It helped, certainly, that while Denise was a nationally recognised name in her field, Michael was just as happily tenured and well-published; no one could help anyone’s career here.” We can put out of our minds egregious stories of workplace harassment and coercion. This story, the writer insists, is ethically unproblematic.
In a sense, the Bad Sex awards are not wrong: authors are often hampered in writing about sex. But what makes sex writing bad is what makes any writing bad: if it is evasive, if it is unsure about why it exists, if it doesn’t know what it’s doing, if it retreats into metaphor as a substitute for precision. The anthology’s editors are not wrong either: authors are fearful of being seen through the veil of fictions they write. And this can make fictional accounts of sex unbearably coy, or over-compensatory, moving between the desire to obfuscate and an impatient, defiant urge to be bold.
What if the editors had, instead of conferring anonymity, encouraged the authors to write as much as possible without the censorious eye over the shoulder? “She was in a world that didn’t follow logic,” we’re clumsily told in History Lesson. Yes, sexuality is not rational, we’ve understood that much. But how much better this story would be if that sentence were left out, and we went straight to the following one: “She was on a distant moon.” Ah!