A Review of the Anthology "Best Lesbian Erotica 2004"

Edited by Tristan Taormino,
selected and introduced by Michelle Tea
Cleis Press, 2004
ISBN 1-57344-182-1

Reviewed by Lisabet Sarai

I'm the orderly sort. So I began my tour of BLE 2004 by reading Tristan Taormino's Foreword and Michelle Tea's Introduction.

I found myself getting excited at Tristan's promise that these stories would "alter the landscape of sexuality", Michelle's assertion that queer erotica "shoots up our lives with hot, crucial meaning and gives us the power to create and recreate that meaning, even after the girl is gone and your heart is broken and your sheets are ruined forever."

Unfortunately, if this is the best lesbian erotica around, then I'm disappointed. Don't get me wrong. The stories in this collection are dripping with hot, slippery, nasty, got-to-take-a-break-and-stick
-my-fingers-in-my-pussy sex. The writing is generally of a high calibre, offering a variety of voices and styles. The settings, as Ms. Tea notes, range over the extremes of the queer "mythical outlaw" landscape: "tattoo parlors and boozy nightclub bathrooms", peep shows and whorehouses, girl-on-girl play parties and ritzy townhouses with mahogany furniture.

What was generally missing from this collection, for me, was any sense of challenge, any enlightenment. The majority of stories here are, quite simply, about sex, and not much else: girl meets girl, girl fucks girl, end of story. Where are the complexities of loving a woman in a culture that condemns it? Where are the conflicts, the twists, the uncertainties? Where, indeed, are the broken hearts? The women in these stories are driven by desire, and desire is a prerquisite for erotica, but in my opinion, it is not enough. I want more than desire, I want passion, insight -- meaning. Many of these tales felt like one-night stands: physically satisfying but emotionally void.

I shiver as I write this, knowing how politically incorrect it sounds, understanding that perhaps the simple act of two women having sex and writing about it is radical and important. I am bi-sexual, but I'm not a lesbian. I love women, I have had sexual encounters with women, but I'm not part of the outlaw culture Ms. Tea celebrates. Maybe I just don't get it.

There were stories in this book that I will remember. Possibly my favorite was Sparky's "Look But Don't Touch", which exquisitely captures the intensity of unsatisfied desire. In "Stazione", Sarah Bardeen masterfully plays the old refrain of the stranger met on the train, with a surprise cadenza. I also loved the dreamy impressionism of "A Tangle of Vines", by Cheyenne Blue, a tale of two old friends finding the echoes of long love within their bodies.

Jera Star's "You Can Write a Story about It" is one of the few offerings that focus on the ambiguities in a lesbian relationships, where roles can shift and attraction is twisted and confused. Meanwhile, in "Does She Look Like a Boy?", Tara-Michelle Ziniuk spins a slyly satisfying tale of a relationship in which no one is as he, or she, seems.

Then there is the lyrical "Soap City", by Kate E. Conlan, in which a not-so-innocent virgin seduces a jaded, introspective dyke who has "spent the last eight years traveling, have sex with fast women in seedy bars, or slow ones that want to make you theirs", and who after the encounter, at least wonders if anything has changed. ("Nothing has... Suffice to say you are wildly disappointed. This is as romantic as you get.")

Finally, though the story mostly fits the mold of basic fuck-tale, I heartily enjoyed Maria Helena Dolan's "weight-lifting, tough-assed Latina dyke" laboratory security guard in "Class Struggle", who does tongue exercises and spies on the researchers to keep herself from getting bored on the night shift.

Much of this collection, though, seems to focus almost exclusively on the physical. I also found it surprising (though I suspect that this reveals my ignorance of lesbian sexual conventions) how many of the encounters seemed to play out stereotyped straight scenarios: butches fucking femmes with strap-ons, femmes giving blow jobs to silicon cocks, deeper and harder and rougher is better... I found myself wondering why women who had supposedly liberated themselves from heterosexual imagery were writing scenes that seemed to come straight out of classic hetero porn. Is this what being an outlaw means? To coopt the male-generated myths and make them our own?

I know I'm treading on dangerous political ground once again. I hope that the editors and authors of BLE 2004 will cut me some slack for my relative lack of experience. Anyone who has read my own writing knows that I'm as turned on by power dynamics, gender twists, and perversity as the next girl writing smut. When I opened this book, though, I expected to find more varied visions.

Unfortunately, I can't review this collection from the perspective of most of its potential readers in the queer community. Previous volumes in this series have been wildly successful, and I suspect that this one will be as well.

I hope that this is true, because I do agree with the editors that erotica can be a path to freedom, for both the writer and the reader. This, at least, I know from personal experience.

A Review of the Anthology
"Best Lesbian Erotica 2004"

© 2004 Lisabet Sarai





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