2017, Go Deeper Press.
I’ve said before that while this is primarily a BDSM-oriented site, it’s not so much the accoutrements of play—the restraints, the rope, the whips (though there is that)—that interest me, so much as the actual exchange of power.
As a writer I’ve also become interested, this last year, in how many authors of erotica are reacting to the combination of a darkening world/political situation that seems to be affecting creative types of all stripes, and the crumbling erotica market, which is almost guaranteeing less and less return on investment of time and effort. (I’ll be writing more in-depth on that topic later this year.) Many are quitting, many are moving on to other, more “meaningful” genres, and some—and this is what’s relevant here—are evolving their work within the genre of erotica.
Malin James’s new collection of linked short stories, Roadhouse Blues, is not only an excellent set of stories that lays out a deep and self-contained sense of place, and mood, and hotness, but also converges with these current interests of mine. Some might find these thoughts an odd review, but trust me, it is a very positive one.
There is very little actual “BDSM” proper in the twelve stories included in this fairly slim volume—and what play there is tends to be clumsy, inexperienced—but there is most definitely a sense of power: its exchange, both voluntary and not, its presence constant even if as a background noise.
Roadhouse Blues takes place in the fictional working-class town of Styx, state unknown (I initially thought Pennsylvania-ish, but decided farther West, which to me, anyway, is more appropriate), an isolated site along an Interstate, that has seen better days. The locals work at crummy jobs—waitresses, auto mechanics, more waitresses—and they, or at least those depicted, are also horny as hell, as horny as people anywhere, this being a book of erotica. Their levels of kinkiness do vary, as those of any random group of people would, and some of these people do have very kinky desires indeed.
One background note to this that I find interesting, but am too lazy to look up at the moment, is a study I read somewhere that said that BDSM is primarily an activity practiced among the more upper-middle class, more highly educated populace. The reasons given were several—that the daily stresses and likely degrading jobs meant that play-degradation was less likely after a hard day’s work with low pay; that there was a cultural separation between a generally more conservative working class and, say, going to a bondage club; that kink can be expensive (though it doesn’t have to be).
I can’t help but wonder if these ideas were considered by Ms. James as she wrote these stories. I’m not giving away much here, but in the two stories that do have definite, intentional rough sex or restraint, “Down and Dirty” and “Krystal’s Revenge Fuck,” the sex might be mutually brutal (wonderfully so!) and consensual, but neither employs exotic restraints or toys, nor openly discusses consent along SSC/RACK guidelines (though it’s there, it’s definitely there). “BDSM” is treated as an odd, foreign thing, exotic and twisted, yet for the first time in the characters’ lives, it is desired, at least in one of these stories.
But that article I read (I really should go find that source) contradicts what is one of my strongest beliefs about Kink—that a certain percentage of us, no matter what culture we live in, or historical period ever, or for that matter how we were raised, is kinky, damn it. At least in how we think.
The bottom 10% of income earners are less likely to engage in tying each other up in Shibari bondage than the fourth (or third, or second…) ten percent? Fine, I’ll buy that. But I just cannot believe that the same percentage of that group does not fantasize of such things at the same rate as that of any other sampling of the population, randomly chosen or not, American or Western or Japanese or African or anywhere else.
What I’m saying is that desires of domination and submission, the processing of pain into pleasure, etc., is biological, a human condition affecting only some of us: the basic brain activity is not cultural, no matter how the different cultures and subcultures of the world channel or suppress it.
Where was I? Oh yes. I can almost promise you that someone in the town of Styx is tying up their wife or husband—or someone else’s husband—and beating them with a finely crafted crop or flogger, but those are not the people depicted in this book. Which is fine, because James has woven us quite a fascinating tapestry without them.
I love the structure of this book—a “mosaic,” as it’s called, the stories connected, woven, into a bigger picture, not as focused as a novel but approaching one. Individual characters pop in and disappear when their story is over, then reappear later in a different context; we learn more about the sometimes surprising relationships between all these people as the book progresses. James makes us feel for those characters in each story, but in many ways, it’s the town of Styx—and thus Anywhere, USA—that is the real main character of the book in its entirety. (Full disclosure/self-promotion: this is the same structure I’m using in my very different work-in-progress, Villa, a set that hopefully adds up to more than a collection of its individual parts.)
Aside from the delightfully mutual but violent understanding that the characters agree upon in “Down and Dirty,” there are many questions of consent in Roadhouse Blues, some presented as alluring, or at least arousing (“Skins,” the aforementioned “Krystal’s Revenge Fuck”), some not—many of the stories contain the lasting remnants of past trauma. Some characters, it should be mentioned, have been abused, have endured incest, are still undergoing humiliations of the not-fun kind, fear small-town homophobia.
It is interesting to see how the author handles such topics, in the context of an erotic book. James tends toward realism, on the Realism/Fantasy spectrum of erotica, though of course we’re going to get some fantasied-up sex as a matter of course. (And the sex scenes in this book, it should be mentioned, are pretty damn good.) This overall approach is in almost exact opposition to, say, the dub-con Stockholm Syndrome novel, which while possibly quite darkly sexy, relies on the fantasy aspect of the story to maintain a buffer between what can be fun in fiction, but would not be cool at all in real life. No matter how beautifully or even realistically written, most dub-con stories evade that annoying, gnawing subject of trauma, and those that don’t often fit it in very awkwardly. It’s a tough subject to eroticize. In contrast, James doesn’t even try.
This is not to say that the book dwells on trauma, far from it. But it accepts it, acknowledges it, admits that life and sexual desire go on, in both healthy and unhealthy ways, along with the other things that need done. The “real-life” parts of these stories—the things people, even characters in erotic stories, do when they’re not fucking—are handled with an eye toward what actually makes people tick, not just what makes them horny. It’s a rare approach, realism. As James stated in her Kinked Ink essay on this site, “…in the end, sex is about people, and people have motivations, and sometimes those motivations surprise them.”
They hate their jobs. They feel trapped by their tiny town. Sometimes sex is an escape, sometimes it is the trap. Sometimes they need healing and get it, sometimes they get themselves into situations from which they’ll need healing. No matter what your economic or geographical status, we can all identify with this.
James takes the step, in her introduction, of including a list of potential triggers and problematic themes for each story. I at first found this unnecessary—I read Sade for fun, for crying out loud—but I actually admire the decision. James has stated that a great part of her desire to write this book was to work through her own past traumas and their lingering aftermath, and that kind of personal search comes through in what many of these characters are dealing with in their lives, and that of many readers’, as well.
This is, more than anything, a very sex-positive book, something which her publisher, Go Deeper Press, is known for—finding the positive in the complex. For James, sex is a vital part of the human condition and needs to explored, enjoyed, written about and read. Yet that important aspect of our existence has to be placed in to context, sometimes—not just fantasy as an end in itself—and she has chosen to embed it into a set of stories that center around sex as an essentially good thing, while also admitting that it can be a source of pain in the lives of many.
This brings me to the other thing I find interesting about this new direction for Malin James. Roadhouse Blues has received very few negative reviews, and I rarely, truly rarely, choose to spotlight them, but the one bad review I read on a certain site expressed disappointment in the book—not because of its quality, but because the reviewer has long been a fan of James’s erotic fiction, and she feels this material has too much backstory.
This is not an unfair review (though so wrong); the reviewer had a considered opinion and expressed it in an honest way. But it brings forth the question of how writers of erotica evolve, or if they should (in their readers’ eyes), and why many are doing so.
Nearly all eroticists, it seems to me, start off writing smut because it’s fun; it’s hot. We enjoy getting these fantasies out of our heads and out into the world hoping others will find them arousing and fun as well.
We (well, most of us) hope to encase those fantasies in a well-crafted story, but let’s face it, most of us, at first at least, find it forbidden and thrilling and it’s awesome to write something that makes other people want to wank off—because it makes us want to wank off. That reviewer expressed her disappointment in this collection of stories because she was used to James’s older work, which had less context, less real-world meaning: it was more pure, easier to wank off to. (Though James’s work has always had more depth than mere smut.)
And she’s entitled to that opinion. Erotic fiction without wankoffability is no longer erotica, it’s something else—just fiction. Great sex is a part of what the readers of the genre want, and part of what the writers of the genre want. As it should be.
But what about when it’s no longer enough for the writer? This is a frustration that I’ve seen among many writers in the genre lately, felt it myself.
Different writers are handling this desire in different ways, which, as I said, I will be writing more on later this year. The collapse of the erotica market, with literally thousands of new stories uploaded to Amazon every day, so many of them for free, is yet another reason many writers are frustrated. With so many free options, even traditional erotica publishers are dropping like flies, and trust me, getting noticed as a new self-published author is a heartbreaking experience. Even the stalwarts of the genre are having to find new ways to make a living. For most of us, making an income seems unattainable, let alone a living, or even a profit.
So if it’s no longer for the money, what reason do we have to continue writing such wank-off material? The thrill wears off, for many. And as I said, the current world/political/Idiot-in-Charge situation makes many creative people feel like there must be something more meaningful to be doing—writing the Great American (or British, or Anywhere’s) Novel, that will expose our problems and help solve them more effectively than mere porn can. Many have quit altogether, or at least gone on long sabbatical; many do keep going.
Whether Roadhouse Blues was conceived or written before our circumstances began to change, I do not know. It can take a long time to write a book, and this one was published in August 2017, long after the effects of Fifty Shades and self-publishing upon the marketplace but not that long after things got ugly fast in the political realm. (And the book avoids the political views of Styx’s residents, a wise choice.)
But it’s a wonderful example—perhaps the best example I know—of how an author of already thoughtful, red-hot erotica who has been working a while is able to delve deeper into human existence, or at least small-town, working-class American existence (which is all we can hope for really; a specific glimpse), and keep the work arousing and sexually intriguing. Aside from being a thoroughly well thought-out, and very sexy book, it is a case study in one of the possible approaches to a dilemma many writers are facing.
But don’t read it for that reason—read it because it is great erotica, it is realistic, engaging world-building, and above all, it is great storytelling.
Learn more about Go Deeper Press here.
Visit Malin James at malinjames.com.