Susie Bright has been getting us off for years. Back in the '80s she was the founding editor of On Our Backs , the lesbian answer to Playboy , and the first feminist porn critic for Penthouse Forum . But mainstream bookworms might know Bright as the woman behind Best American Erotica , a steamy anthology of stories she's edited since 1993. Each edition's content has run the gamut from gothic transgender clinches and birthday spanking parties to inappropriate doctor-patient relationships and twin sex. Bright and publisher Simon&Schuster called it quits on BAE this year after they couldn't come to an agreement on money for the series, but the author/blogger's not retired yet. This month brings a final "Best of" collection of Bright's randy BAE favorites, a kind of family album of the weird, wild and wonderful ways that people relate to sex, as well as a West Coast "farewell tour" with a pit stop in Portland next Monday, Feb. 18. And with her 50th birthday only weeks away, the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based sexpert and mom has a bigger challenge ahead of her anyway: menopause.
WW : You have a knack for finding good dirty stories. What makes for great erotica?
Susie Bright: When I'm running writing workshops, people come in ready to write their "sex story" and I throw a little book called The Elements of Style by Strunk&White at them. The biggest problem in all literature is that people haven't mastered the English language. It's like any kind of art—when you have command of it, baby, you can sing . Describing a sexually intimate moment is the equivalent of the death scene in a play—it emotionally packs a wallop—so you better know what you're doing. Where a lot of erotic anthologies are falling down are with "Penthouse letters" [she pretends she's reading]: "When the pizza delivery boy came over I was wearing nothing but a pair of mules and, needless to say, he was inside me with his rigid 10 inches in moments…." You're using these quick clichés that are very familiar to people, and because it's a taboo material you can easily get a quick arousal from kids and virgins—they find [these stories] fascinating because it's like, 'Oh my God, it's a dirty word.' When I was a kid, I really liked those stories…[but] then I got a little bored, like, yeah, I could masturbate to this, but I'm looking for something different.
At what age did you get bored?
As a teenager—the height of my babysitting years—when I was starting to have my own sexual experiences and got more sophisticated about reading. With really fantastic erotic fiction, you're aroused on so many levels—the sensual, cerebral, aesthetic. I can't predict what every person out there would get off on. All you can do is [find] great stories that will stick in people's minds in some way.
What's a story from 2008's BAE that stuck in your mind?
"Blue Light" by Stephen Saylor. He's a famous novelist, but he writes as Aaron Travis in his gay-man porn persona. I hadn't had the experience of something supernatural scaring the bejesus out of me that was also profoundly erotic. [The story involves a man who gets screwed with his own detached penis]. I remember another oldie I wanted to include was Patrice Suncircle's "Tennessee," which [is set] in the rural South and involves a young girl and her fascination with a [another] girl who was a woman or a man, she couldn't tell. [Suncircle] wrote that [in 1994] before the word transgender ever existed.
I really liked Martha Garvey's "The Manicure." I love that her nail appointment turns into a BDSM scene.
I love anything that takes a part of women's daily lives and suddenly makes it kinky and crazy and wrong. I mean, I've had so many horrible times in beauty salons…I only wish that they got as bizarre as her little adventure.
What's a new trend in erotica?
The diversity of each edition of BAE is like a time capsule—I have an image of the Martians landing and uncovering one of my books and going, "Aha, now we understand them." Each time we've gone to war in Iraq, I was deluged with stories about men who wanted to be ravished or submissive, or cuckolded, or masochistic. When AIDS happened, I got tons of stories about vampires and bloodletting and blood brothers. Literature is cathartic, and sexual literature even more so…it's about the shadow side of whatever is happening. Right now I see us living in a strange gilded age, with this massive class conflict and artists operating at the service of just a few patrons [laughs]…the end of the fourth estate as we know it. How does that translate into an erotic reaction? I think [many current stories deal with] escapism and the perversity of corruption. Stories and characters that take us into a place where morality seems very certain, and you know, good guys and bad guys are really obvious, and the purpose is clear. That kind of Lord of the Rings , righteous fairy tale environment is huge right now in all kinds of literature.
What's missing for me personally right now has more to do with the art of the writing. I'm drowning in amateurism; nobody has an editor anymore, nobody has anybody who gives a damn. I mean, I even find errors in the New York Times every day.
How many stories did you read for i]BAE[/i] each year?
A couple thousand.
Why are you quitting?
[Simon&Schuster] had cut back on my advance, and the marketing budget for BAE [for years]. It got to the point where I said, "Wow, at my age, with my family, I can't afford to do this. And I can't degrade the quality of the book to make it work for me financially without shaming me and everyone connected with it."…I wanted to try out some online marketing and unorthodox sales strategies. [My publishers] said no.
What's next for you then?
I'm working with Chronicle to make a couple of new kinds of erotica books…something big and gorgeous and hardbound.
At what point did you decide sex was your niche?
My political interest drove the bandwagon. I was [involved with] a underground newspaper called the Red Tide [in the '70s], which started in L.A.—I was 15 or 16 years old. It was all high-school students; there were no grownups involved. We were ranting and raving about everything from Vietnam and Nixon to lots of stuff about sexual politics…. "We demand to have a lesbian discussion for the whole school [laughs]! Self-defense in classes! Women's history!" We were opening up birth control referral centers inside of janitor closets…. I dropped out of high school. I was a socialist, I did a lot of labor organizing. [In my early 20s] I got a job at a feminist education and vibrator store called Good Vibrations [in San Francisco]. I loved doing this kind of sex education...because you were talking to people about their desires, their fantasies, their communication with their partner. It included issues like "where is my clitoris?," but it also went beyond that. I was fascinated by the fact that there was no contemporary women's erotica of any kind. People would come in and ask for a book of women's writings, and I would be like, here's Anaïs Nin, she wrote this in 1927, but give it a whirl. [laughs] And that was it! So I started a book that became a series called Herotica . At the same time, I ran into some women starting a lesbian magazine called On Our Backs . And, lo and behold, I became the editor.
What's something that would surprise people about you?
I haven't slept with more people than anyone else. I haven't had more kinky sex than anyone else. I'm a total fucking bore compared to a lot of people, but my mind is very fertile.
Well, on the cover of my first book, I'm in a rubber outfit and I'm 22 years old. [When people see me now] it's like, 'Oh, you're older. And you're not wearing rubber.' All of my rubber outfits disintegrated because I didn't keep them carefully folded in talcum power. They became a big gummy mess. I had the cutest little Santa Claus outfit in latex and it's ruined.
What else do you like in porn these days?
I've seen so much porn. I'm ultra-fussy. I loved when the Bend Over Boyfriend series started. Finally, there was a situation where men could talk about being the recipient of anal sex from women. One of the best behind-the-scenes stories: They were recruiting people [on Craigslist] and a couple emerged [who] wanted to do a cop fantasy, where the cop gives the woman a ticket and then she kinda turns the tables on him. Great. Classic porn scenario. Every man in his family was in the police department, so he had all the paraphernalia. The producers were so happy. [During the shoot] the woman had strapped one on, wearing a dildo. And the director said, "Why don't we put a doughnut on the dildo? He'll have to eat it off, and it'll be a big laugh because of the cop-doughnut thing." And he was like, "No, I refuse. That's humiliating. How could you degrade me this way?" And the crew was [confused], I mean, [they] said, "We thought he wanted to get fucked by her with a strap-on. We thought you were on kind of a humiliation scenario." And he says, "That's not the problem…we're vegans!"
Wow. Switching subjects, what's sex like at 50?
[Hysterical laughter] I'm still 49! It's so unfair, by the time you have your sexual confidence you're taking Advil every four hours because something hurts. I haven't been through menopause yet. If I'm lucky [I hear] I'll get to experience a hot flash and an orgasm simultaneously. I'd like to see what that's like.
Susie Bright reads from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Monday, Feb. 18. Free.