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Literary Sleaze

Updated: May 9

by JR

Question: are there certain elements that make a short story erotic instead of pornographic? Do you think there is any difference? If so, where do you draw the line?

Much of the public seems to believe that there is no difference, and that any writing explicitly describing sex is somehow inherently "cheap", has less value and poorer craft that other kinds of books. Simultaneously, I know a number of writers who proudly declare that they "write porn," and do so with pride as well as bit of playful provocation: they want to get a reaction, maybe start a dialogue. I mean, what is sexy or explicit? What turns you on? And who decides what images you are allowed to see, what narratives you´re permitted to read?

Such distinctions between terms can have not only artistic consequences, but often legal ones as well. How our work is perceived, how people label it, how the story or the image is contextualized: these questinos have spawned numerous culture wars over the past few generations in the United States. From whether works by James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, and DH Lawrence are "pornographic" or "obscene", to the controversy surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe´s final photographic retrospective; from Congressional hearings over some pop/rock songs the PMRC called the "Filthy Fifteen" in the ´80s, to our present-day series of book bans.

Of those that care, some writers do not want their work called "pornographic", as they feel that the label limits what people will think their work is about. They prefer "erotica", which hopefully signals to the reader that, while what they are writing is sexually explicit and arousing, it´s a little more "serious". And some might even shy away from the label "erotica" entirely, as they are thinking about accessing certain markets and communities of readership--maybe "steamy romance writer" is preferred, or perhaps "author of erotic romance."

Sometimes, with all of these labels and subcategories, it can all feel a bit wonky. I mean, this is just jack-off material, right?

Well, yes and no.

Personally, even if I can´t always put my finger on it, I do think there is a distinction between porn and erotic art. I don´t think it has much to do with the genre or the setting--both can be serious or whimsical, can occur in the present-day or magical pasts or dystopian futures, etc. Maybe it has something to do with intention, as well as craft. Sure, erotica writers want to get you off, but they seem to do something "extra" with their stories. They don´t have to, so I`m guessing it´s because they want to.

Case in point: French Quarter Nights and Other Stories , the1996 short story collection by JR (prounounce his pseudonym as "junior," please), which was recently reissued by The Library of Homosexual Congress. These ten stories exemplify all of the possibilities of what you can do within a sexy, steamy, super hot story. While intended for audiences that enjoy reading about bi, gay, and "questioning" men getting off with one another, I recommend these stories as excellent examples of the level of craft one can put into a piece of erotic fiction.

These stories originally appeared in gay porn magazines in the ´80s and ´90s, publications like Mandate, Torso, Playguy, among others. For more than a decade, JR wrote and submitted his literary sleaze to these mags while simultaneously working as an editor and proofreader on a number of magazines specializing in gay male porn. In other words, JR spent a considerable amount of time reading, re-reading, editing, writing, and talking about what makes a story hot and erotic, and how to turn readers on. In fact, in his Afterward, the author even shares his "formula" of what are the basic ingredients to make a sexy story.

New Yorkers will enjoy reading stories like "The Anvil", "Fire Island Threesome", and "The Boy On the Bike", as these take place in bars, clubs, and bedrooms where lots of sweaty gay men like to congregate, shoulder to shoulder and mouth to cock. But JR is definitely a traveler, and has some of his tales set in different settings outside of Manhattan--from the Midwest ("The Tricky Transfer"), where a gay man´s employer relocates him to a rural part of Illinois, to the South ("French Quarter Nights"), where a gay man blows off his sales conference to cruise some of New Orleans´ sexier nightspots.

The protagonists in these stories feel more "real" than what I typically encounter in erotic fiction. Some of these characters possess a kind of universal porn-fantasy hotness, with chiseled features, washboard stomachs, and huge cocks. But then there is one who´s a little nerdy and wears giant glasses ("Punk Rock Cock"), or the guy who works in the kitchen at the place for some of your favorite food ("Chinese Takeout"). In addition to making each individual story contain a fresh and inventive scenario for sex, the accumulation of reading all of the stories in JR´s collection also has an effect. It´s as though he´s reminding us that eroticism is everywhere, and that there are sexy guys everywhere.

Very good book, and strongly recommended!

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