1995, 1998 Masquerade Press; reprinted by Cleis Press 2002/2003 and 2013
I’ve been thinking lately about trying to define the Canon of erotic literature, or at least BDSM erotica, which would narrow down the list quite a bit (sorry, Anaïs Nin). The books everyone interested in this kind of thing should read because they’re not only hot but important to the genre—part reading list for an incredibly fun college course, part enshrinement of the Holy Books of Kink. Does this project sound too intellectual? It shouldn’t. These books are about whipping and fucking, for crying out loud. Some of us are just list-makers, I guess.
But how to decide? If anything is undeniable about the genre of Erotica, it’s that it is incredibly subjective. My kink may not be your kink, and if it’s not very kinky at all, I for one am not particularly interested, no matter how much hot but conventional sex a book may contain.
The discussion is also clouded by a certain best-selling 800-pound gorilla in the room, a trilogy that most writers of Erotica detest but has undeniably found an enthusiastic audience, which means it has managed to touch more than a few people where it counts.
Those books will not make it into my personal Canon. I’ll admit that they are certainly deserving of discussion, even level-headed discussion of both pros and cons, which we never seem to see. Their influence upon the sheer amount of new creation within the genre, the number of imitators and those inspired to write in this new world of self-published erotica, is just too big of an event not to discuss. But not here.
I am searching for the best books of BDSM, not the biggest selling—and as in every creative medium, biggest is not necessarily best. Yet I am not 100% anti-Fifty Shades. As literature, it is so poorly written. As a social phenomenon, it’s more complex—it has not done a service for either Erotica or the wider perception of the BDSM lifestyle, despite helping to make it “mainstream” and “acceptable”. However, in terms of social utility, it has, as I have repeatedly heard firsthand, helped more than a few marriages find some new sparks. Who am I to judge?
Well, I guess I am one to judge, since this is my column, my blog—that’s why I started it. One anecdote I have read over and over is the experience of someone knowledgeable in the genre or lifestyle who has a friend who’s just read Shades and is looking for more. But upon reading the suggested classic novels—The Story of O, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy—the friend reports, “Not really what I was looking for.” Often, readers of Fifty Shades are attracted to the more Cinderella-ish aspects of the novels, the shy-girl-overwhelmed-by-bad-boy story, not the actual kink. Not the whippings, not the negotiated submission, not the use of another human being (with their full consent, of course).
I am in that older school of disappointed advisors. I’ll admit it—I want heat first, feelz second. It’s Bondage and Discipline, for chrissakes; Sadism and Masochism. I’ll admit that I find this new wave of “BDSM romance” confusing. I’m not opposed to some feelz in my porn, don’t misunderstand me! The connections between love and sex are complex and overlapping, and can’t be ignored. But the connections between love and sex and cruelty are even more complicated, and I am attracted, more than anything, to the complicated.
I am attracted to the inherent illogic of BDSM. The desire to be beaten, controlled, humiliated, or to do the beating for that matter, makes no logical sense—and yet it’s what has driven some of us since early childhood, before we even understood what sex was. And it’s probably been going on since we learned to walk upon two feet in the Savannas of Africa.
Those of you who feel the same way are my intended audience, and I hope you’ll join me in my search. Short of following the Emperor Constantine’s example and calling together a kinky Conference of Nicaea to hammer out which books should be elevated and venerated, I’m just going to attempt to cobble together this list, this Canon, this syllabus. I welcome comments, disagreements (keep it civil—I have quite a collection of whips and I won’t hesitate to use them), and suggestions for further study.
Let’s define the Classics!
For my first selection, I have chosen what is easily my favorite erotic novel of all time, or rather set of two novels, which can pretty much be read as one: Carrie’s Story and its sequel Safe Word, by Molly Weatherfield, the pseudonym of Erotic Romance writer Pam Rosenthal. The first novel was published in 1995, the second in 1998, though I discovered them both much later, very recently in fact—around 2012, and I read them slowly, savoring the chapters, not wanting my immersion into the world Ms. Weatherfield created to end. I wanted to own Carrie, I wanted to be Carrie. Or at least be in her situation.
How do we express our love for our favorite erotic novels? (Publicly, at least?) By telling our friends, by leaving positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and, for me at least, by thinking seriously about them and finding out why they get me so overheated. I want to convince others that they should enjoy them too; defend them, build a legal case for their hotness and relevance. I will try, though it can be an impossible task. These books that I love are not for everyone, but then, no book is for everyone.
So I ask myself a set of questions of any erotic book I want to think seriously about:
-Is it hot? The Carrie novels most definitely are—but Ms. Weatherfield does have her favorite fetishes, and if you do not find them interesting, these might not be the books for you.
-Why? What makes it hot? I will get back to that.
-Is it well written? Definitely. They are two of the most beautifully-written pieces of erotica I have ever encountered.
-Is it an important book within the field of erotica? Yes. Most definitely.
-Is it important outside the genre? That is, do we learn something new about the human condition? About human nature? Do we learn about the societal conditions that produced it? Or do these things even matter? The purpose of erotica is not to “educate” us—it’s to heat us up. Yet really good erotica can enrich us in so many ways besides just getting off—emotionally, intellectually, in various combinations.
So are the Carrie novels important, sociologically? No, and yes. Let me get back to that as well, as I look into these questions in more depth.
I try to avoid too many spoilers, but it is not giving away much to tell you the basic story, since it is revealed in the very first sentence of the first novel:
I had been Jonathan’s slave for about a year when he told me he wanted to sell me at an auction.
Carrie was unable to respond, at the time, because her mouth was full of her master Jonathan’s cock [whoops—balls, as I reread to fact-check], nor had she been given permission to speak anyway. It is clear very early on that there is a definite imbalance of power to their relationship, and that she does not seem to have a problem with it.
Carrie’s story is technically a simple one—in Book 1 we learn of that first year as she narrates how they met at a party, Jonathan spying her watching cheap, kinky porn with a roomful of strangers, the only viewer truly fascinated; through their “courtship” of increasingly demanding discipline, obedience, and outsourced training; to their trip to Paris for examinations to judge her worthiness into a global world of ultra-wealthy slave collectors; and finally her auction. Book 2, it is also not much of a spoiler to reveal, takes place after her year of service, when Jonathan and Carrie meet in a hotel in Avignon, France to sort out what they both now want.
That’s the basics. The novels take place in a somewhat fantastical world not dissimilar to those of Pauline Reage’s Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s Marketplace series—a world of slave-collecting millionaires and billionaires demanding total obedience, no safewords, and the most beautiful, trained, and devoted sex slaves their money can buy. As Ms. Weatherfield tells us in her preface, it’s what her husband called “chateau porn” (a now common term—did he create it?). Their world is unlikely. But then, how realistic is the current trend of having one rogue billionaire sweep one submissive girl off her feet to do similar things to her?
I personally love this kind of “institutional” erotica. Everything is consensual; these slaves are volunteers in search of something they need—though, once “in”, consent sometimes does become more muddled—they can get a little extreme for some tastes. The kinds of characters that volunteer for these types of organizations have to be very, very dedicated, because unlike real life, they can’t just call out a safeword if things get nasty, get dressed and call their friends to complain once they get home. They’re committed. And, frequently, locked away on some private island or, in Carrie’s case, a pony-training ranch.
It’s that incredible commitment, that all-immersing devotion that attracts me to these kinds of novels—the willingness to give yourself up not to one person whom you love, or are at least in some form of lust with. This story does begin that way, as an experiment on Carrie’s part, to see what would happen if she were to give herself to a man that she does find very attractive and captivating, though it might not be called “love”. No, these novels require a commitment to something far more elaborate.
As Carrie’s situation intensifies and expands—she is trained hard, given to friends to use, sent away to be trained even harder—she does so not just to please Jonathan, but to see what will happen next, to explore her own desires to be utterly controlled. That’s hot. To me, anyway.
As I said, there are particular fetishes that figure heavily in these novels. Carrie receives more anal sex than is humanly possible, and one of the central kinks of this book is equestrian training—she is taught to be a naked pony girl, to pull carriages and eventually racing sulkies, fully outfitted in leather harnesses, reins, bits, and a tail attached to a phallus up her anus.
Silly? Not your thing? Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Her evolution and progress under this training is a large part of her development as a slave, and as a person. It’s detailed, and intense. The first time I read these novels, I enjoyed these parts, but not overly so. It was ~okay~. Fun, but not really my kink. The second time, rereading for this review, I truly enjoyed these sections—the detail, the objectification—you are not a full human, you are a pony. There are moments from which to take pride in all this (proper form is as important as speed), to enjoy the outfitting of equipment on naked skin, the thrill of defeating other ponies.
Carrie is smart. (As is Ms. Weatherfield, to pull off a character so smart.) This is one of the things most noticed in other reviews I’ve read, and it becomes obvious quickly in reading: Carrie is not only incredibly articulate, but she thinks about her situation, constantly—analyzes it, tries to make sense of her own desires, which she admits are completely illogical. One of the running “jokes” of both novels is that her various masters keep telling her to just stop thinking and do what she’s told. And she sees this as her goal, a giving up, a letting go of her ironic detachment to transform herself into a creature that serves others rather than so obsessively deconstructs every situation. (Maybe this is another reason I like her so much. I think like this, too.) Unlike another, more famous submissive who happens to be a Literature major, Carrie actually uses what she’s learned in school—the methods of taking apart a set of events, a narrative, and comparing them to what she knows, what she wants, in a logical fashion. Hard to do, when what she is analyzing is the most unintellectual human experience of all: pure desire, sex, submission; pain and pleasure and obedience. And despite all this thinking, this search for rational reasons and a story to grasp onto, she is constantly confused by her own desires and her inability to make sense of them—which is why she’s told to stop thinking, and just do. (As the story progresses, that is. Jonathan is actually quite taken with her constant thinking, despite himself.) To me, that’s exactly what makes Carrie so sexy, so desirable.
What is hotter than a beautiful, smart girl, naked on her hands and knees, getting fucked in both ends by a roomful of her Master’s old college buddies after a very thorough whipping and caning?
Nothing. Nothing in the world is. Because it means that she’s thought this through—even, in Carrie’s case, using the tools of Derridian deconstruction and Hegelian philosophy that she learned in her university studies—and she decided that she wants to be there, in that room, with all those cruel men (and women), the target of those whips and cuffs and clamps. She is a thinking person coming to terms with her desires.
The writing in these novels is exquisite. This passage illustrates the paradoxical amusement Jonathan has at her need to think and talk about thinking:
He was icily patient—“Pay attention,” he’d insist—and he beat me a lot, as well. He was abstract, precise, and he scared me; I wondered if I could go on like this forever. I felt I had little choice but to keep trying, and, yeah, I did get better at it, feeling little proofs of my own power in the shuddering strength of his orgasms. Of course he wanted me that way, I realized one late afternoon, looking up at him through a haze of pain and tears. My mouth, that motormouth, the orifice that had the most to do with consciousness, intelligence—he wanted me to use it, consciously and intelligently, to learn, adore, accept, and caress his every fold, contour, and smell. And when he was ready to come he wanted to overpower it all, transforming active intelligence into pure receptacle. It was a hell of an exchange, involving a whole lot more than bodily fluids. I became oddly proud of it.
However, as I’ve seen noted elsewhere, it can sometimes feel rather cerebral, while perhaps neglecting the sensual—conveying what it feels like to be whipped by Jonathan, what his friend Kate tastes like when Carrie is ordered to go down on her, what the stables she must sleep in during her first pony training smell like. This is a fair criticism. Sensory detail is a big part of all effective literature, and erotic literature in particular. And, occasionally, these two novels sacrifice that detail for other considerations, other emphases. Which I for one don’t mind, in this case—Ms. Weatherfield’s project is different, the story of a thinking girl, and so we get more thinking.
And sex and whippings—such good sex and whippings. It’s not as if there’s no sensory detail—we get it when things hurt, and things hurt a lot in these books. Carrie’s various masters are not gentle people. That’s not what they spend tens of thousands of dollars for, the negotiated limits and safewords and aftercare that make the real-life practice of BDSM possible. This story is a fantasy, and while their world is consensual, not everything is particularly safe or sane. But guess what: it’s fiction. If even your fantasies involve aftercare, you should probably go find a much gentler book to read than these.
We do feel the burn in her lungs and of sweat dripping into her eyes as she’s harnessed to the cart on a dusty path and worked hard, the dust sticking to her sweaty body, the sting of the whip on her back. She describes how some beatings just aren’t fun—they hurt. The author does convey the pain, not just the critical self-analysis of her submission.
Yet, despite that pain, Carrie never quits to go home.
Often the descriptions in these books do tend toward the poetic rather than the sensory:
I developed a new view of the world of objects: Big barrels or troughs were good for upending me over; long tools could be thrust up into me, for comic effect. Anything that tied or buckled would, of course, be used to bind me into clumsy and painful positions. It was all simple physics, I thought: gravity, friction, the collision of bodies in space, the primitive technologies regulating the expenditure of energy.
But what poeticism!
One of the things I like most about these books are the occasional little “asides” such as this one. In between the more detailed narratives, she’ll fill us in on a wider sweep of activities over time, things her masters made her do or did to her, often just one or two paragraphs that contain enough filthy torments to keep my mind buzzing for days. There are entire novels’ worth of kinky tortures within these little fillers, and she relates them in such a nonchalant way that my brain boggles.
They also help to establish the background of the world which Carrie has entered, and two more questions I might ask myself about erotic novels in general are, Do I like the world-building (and as these are not especially realistic novels, the science fiction/fantasy term “world-building” is appropriate) in which it takes place? And, How effectively does it put me there, into that world? I’ve already answered the first question—I’m into this kind of thing, this isolation from the ordinary world that wealth affords, this physical and psychological separation that only enhances the submissives’ feelings of helplessness, and therefor, their obedience.
Ms. Weatherfield gets the details of that world right, even in these less-than-detailed asides—Carrie’s owner’s garage in which his mechanics casually suspend and use Carrie while they maintain his cars; the swimming pool recreations in which the wealthy party-goers use the slaves to surprisingly cruel levels of abuse. Which pretty much answers my second question, I guess.
God, I love these books.
The two novels are structured differently. The first consists of Carrie talking directly to us, telling her story and her thoughts on it as the story expands. It begins with just the two of them, Carrie and Jonathan, as they get to know each other within the strict confines of Jonathan’s rules and his library—a deliberately anachronistic, old-fashioned facsimile of a Victorian porn set, straight from the novels Carrie has read (which she notes ironically, meaning that we are then reading a novel set in a facsimile of a cliché of a trope, yet another level of self-referentiality that Carrie thrives on). He begins to share her with his friends and his perverted old uncle Harry, who I would love to learn more about as he decries the loss of the Old Ways, when slaves could really be kept under control (perhaps a prequel, Ms. Weatherfield? I would love to know more about a young Uncle Harry).
When Jonathan has to leave town for his work as an architect, he does not want to lose the progress they have made in her training, and he sends her to the cheesily named Sir Harold’s Custom Ponies for proper, structured training (and again, this cheesiness is commented upon, in Carrie’s fully self-aware deconstructionist mode).
It is there that she begins to gain some awareness of how much is expected of her, and just how big her new world is. Standards are high; there are serious people involved in this. Sir Harold’s is only the tip of the iceberg. Once returned home she quits her job as a bike messenger and moves in with Jonathan for more full-time training, and is eventually taken to Paris for examinations of her worthiness.
Sorry again for the spoiler; yes she is accepted. She spends a week in a very organized preparation center, where she is photographed, sampled by potential buyers, and readied for auction. As to what happens then in the first book, I shall leave you to find out for yourself.
With each step up in intensity and scale, the expectations for her effort increase—it’s very hard work, being a slave in this world—as does the level of objectification. People don’t volunteer for all this to be politely introduced, learned about, treasured, wined and dined before a little debauchery. No. They are there to be objects—displayed, used. There is an emotional distance between slaves and masters in this world; romance it ain’t. What kind of person would tell his lover that he wants to sell her, for a one-year term of service to someone unknown?
Which is, of course, what causes the long-term problems. Carrie and Jonathan do have feelings for each other, deep ones, that go beyond Master and slave, controller and controlled. Except that they can’t indulge in them within the rules they’ve agreed upon, without breaking those very rules their relationship is built upon. And to be honest, neither seems exactly sure of what those feelings are.
The second novel takes place after their year apart, in the hotel room in Avignon, where Jonathan said he’d be should she want to find him. This novel, unlike the first, is from both of their points of view. They spend several days in the room, fucking and telling each other stories from their year, stalling like Sheherezhade because neither is sure of what they want to do. Carrie has been changed by her experiences, though not entirely. Her stories of her year of servitude again knock me out; Jonathan’s are pretty good as well, although there is one scene that quite frankly does not ring true for his character at all, and nearly takes me out of the story because of it.
Where will they go from here? Do they reunite and live happily ever after, assume their old roles of obeyer and obeyed? Or has Carrie’s year abroad changed her too much to go back—how could a year of sexual slavery and depravity (and wow, were those parties her master threw depraved) not change someone? Anyone?
I will leave it to you to discover what she decides. Because, despite her lack of control and independence throughout both novels, and her desire for that lack of control, it is Carrie who gets the final say-so in how to proceed. She is, finally, in control.
So what makes a book “important”, rather than just getting me all hot and bothered? Let’s face it, most erotic novels are not War and Peace or Ulysses, and the Carrie novels are no exception despite the remarkable writing. Are these two novels important, to the genre at least? How do we define “important”, in a genre that primarily exists to wank off to? Shouldn’t its success be defined by maximum wankoffability?
I’d intended to write about something that Ms. Weatherfield mentions in her Preface to the reprinting of Carrie’s Story in 2002. She says that the inception of her novel dates back to the 1970’s, when she was still in college, and was invited one night to go to an anti-pornography demonstration—and turned it down. When asked why, she initially mumbled excuses before saying, “It’s because of who I was when I was younger. In my teens I read a lot of S/M porn, back before feminism.” She then states that “…I knew I couldn’t participate in a movement that wanted to ‘protect’ other women from the confusing pleasures I’d experienced.”
Even though it took her until the early ‘90’s to write it, I thought this was a nice reference to the book as a product of its time—a reaction to the sometimes heavy-handed, over-protective, and censorial feminism that raged in the ‘80’s, the certainty that certain academics Know What’s Best For You. And it is, but it’s that last bit—“the confusing pleasures I’d experienced”—that is the true key to what this set of books was, and is. Because that’s not only what Ms. Weatherfield encountered, these confusing pleasures; it’s what Carrie does as well. And, thus, the reader too.
All the little asides that I adore in these two novels, the little paragraph-long lists of things that Carrie’s masters do to her that I love so much—“they made me do this and this and this, and oh, then they made me thank them for it”—all seem rather passive, delivered in such a nonchalant way.
But they’re not passive. Even though the activities themselves are certainly incredibly submissive, Carrie’s journey as a whole is indeed all very, very active. Through the weeks of servicing her owner’s auto mechanics and farm workers, being bound and displayed in the workshops, penetrated by implements and tools, willing herself anally available whether she really wants it or not—what Carrie is doing throughout not one novel but two, is testing her own limits. She says so in several places:
They left me on my knees there, looking meekly at the floor. I was tired. It had been a long day. I couldn’t quite focus my understanding on everything Margot had said, but I knew that these next days would be different than anything I’d known thus far. I felt lost, really. I was frightened, and, I realized, obscurely thrilled that something really new was beginning to happen. I wanted to lose myself some more, dive into the swirling, vertiginous feeling she had created, but just then I realized that Master Karl was standing over me.
From the first time Jonathan mentions his desire to sell her into a large, unknown world of sexual slavery, she is frightened, but also intrigued. Nervous, as it becomes more apparent that it’s actually going to happen, but also anxious, excited. She wants to know what will happen to her, what could happen to her. The unknown is what thrills her, to the core of her being. What will happen to me? She is compelled to find out, at every stage of both novels. Not just compelled, but thrilled, frightened, and incredibly aroused, even as she tries to reason it out.
That’s what makes these books so compelling. Not just sexual desire, not just curiosity, not just the will to submit—but her desire to test her own limits of endurance, or at least have them tested by others; which, because this world is consensual, equates with her testing herself. She gives them, all of these cruel people, permission to push her to her limits. And they do.
She is in many ways like characters in novels by Conrad or Krakauer or Jack London, enduring the Elements and choosing to do so; withstanding what comes her way in her determination to complete her yearlong contract. She is an explorer, a discoverer, of a very intense personal frontier. One could compare her story to that of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, determined to walk the entire Pacific Coast Trail, just because it must be proven to herself that she can do it. (Although, oddly enough, it could be argued Carrie is more well-adjusted than Strayed, though Strayed is an actual person.)
Is the frontier that Carrie enters vastly different to read about than these mountaineers, hikers, and adventurers? Good God, yes. Is the journey just as intense? I would say so. She emerges changed, and so did I, in a way. Some might find these two novels less pleasant to read than Krakauer or Strayed, the whippings and humiliations Carrie endures worse than frostbite or altitude sickness. But then many if not most people want their sex to be comforting and cozy—certainly not testing.
But not Carrie. She is not just another pornographic sex slave, not a puppet, no empty cypher of male fantasies. She is smart, reflective, and above all, driven. She pushes the frontiers, so you don’t have to!
And that, my friends, is quite a service.