October 13th, 2008

summer reading

Questions

There's a song by INXS called Questions that I quite like. It's one those songs I fell for instantly - you know how those are? You don't even have to hear all of it and you know you'll be repeating it as soon as it's done. It fits the theme of the album it's on (Welcome to Wherever You Are) perfectly.

Anyway, there's this lyric in it "How will you hear when you've heard it all before" that I think can be taken a few ways. In one light I think that question can be answered by saying that you do what you can to hear it this time in a way you haven't heard it before, otherwise it won't be possible to really take anything in. That is, the listener has some responsibility to listen in the same way that the speaker has a responsibility to say something worth hearing.

I don't know why, but for some reason going off on that tangent puts me in mind of a book I read recently called Seduce Me by Megan Clark.

Let me back up a bit before moving forward. Some months ago (I can't remember exactly - some time last spring?) I attended a signing at Powell's. I know I picked up Generation Kill and Officers and Gentlemen that night along with Megan Clark's first book, Rescue Me (what does that say about me that I can remember the books I bought more readily than when I bought them?). I spoke with her a bit. I know we talked about how I didn't really read erotica - not that I particularly have anything against it as a genre and more power to the people who like it, but at that point I think I'd been able to finish reading maybe one or two books in the genre and was open to trying more - only, selectively. From what I've read, I'd say it's a very difficult balancing act fitting characterization and character growth, plot, and heavy duty sexuality into a story in such a way that I care even a little bit about any of it. I don't know if this is one of those biases based on the fact that I'm female, or if I'd be this way even if I were a man, but I don't much care for a story that involves sex for sex's sake. There needs to be more to it to hold my interest.

I found I liked a lot about Rescue Me and thought about it off and on for days thereafter.

So when there was another signing at Powell's recently (I'll have to tell you the anecdote I told Meljean that night about her book, my husband, and fire some time), I remembered that Megan Clark's next book was supposed to be out and decided I wanted to get it. [Let me pause for a short moment and note how amazed I was that these authors I met months before remembered my name and how to spell it. If you knew how many times I've spelled my name for people then received a fax or whatnot mere seconds later with my name mis-spelled you might have some notion of my astonishment.] I read Seduce Me shortly thereafter and found I had a similar reaction to it that I had to Rescue Me.

That is, I liked the stories even though I had a sense throughout that I knew where the characters and the stories were going. I'd "heard it all before". However, the journeys were well told and included some unexpected things, so there was still more I could hear after all. What puzzled me is the fact that I didn't really care for the main heroines in either story. It's an odd thing to me. Usually if I can't like a character that's driving a story, I don't want to know the story. Yet, with both of these books I was interested in seeing what would happen next.

This experience happening twice has me questioning things for myself. Do you need to like a character to like her story? How important is that connection between the reader and the character that's pulling you through a story? And is the reason I didn't like either heroine a result of my own internalized conceptions about females and sexuality? For instance, with the females I've known, those who have been with a large number/variety of sexual partners have been punishing themselves in some way, or trying to fill some "god shaped hole", or living down to some nasty labels or expectations that were affixed to them at a time in their life when they didn't deserve them. I think sleeping with a lot of partners means something very different for women than it does for men. And I don't mean this in that way of societal mores passing judgment and saying what's good for the gander isn't good for the goose, but rather in that way where the women were working through negative things and the multiple partners was more like a cry for help than anything else. It was a way to get temporary positive attention from men in a manner they could control more than it was ever about pleasure.

With that in my personal experience, I wonder if it means that I'm pre-disposed to put some wall between myself and a female character that's searching for her power via sex because I take that search as a kind of punishment she's putting herself through before she can clear the tunnel and see the light again. In a way, since that's more or less the entire point of these stories, delving into one's sexual power to find powers of other sorts, I guess it's kind of built in that a character will be taking herself down what I perceive as a dark road.

I suppose it's curious in a way that even with greater sexual equality, there is still a different meaning to casual sex based on whether you are male or female. I mean, if the main character were male and he was finding himself through sex I imagine I'd expect to see a very different kind of story unfold (getting back to Questions, the lyric "how can a child become a man without a child" might have something to do with that, among other things). Or maybe that's just me showing my age. Maybe to people in their 20s, these separate nuances of meaning don't exist. I don't think that's true, based on the power that calling a girl a slut still seems to have, but I know I could be wrong.

In the end, reading these books seemed to lead me to lots of questions: about the nature of my expectations as a reader, about whether my notions about sexuality have any basis in reality any more, and how true it is that nearly any story about a female coming into her own must necessarily involve a sexual awakening of some sort.

Anyway, if anyone else reads these stories, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts. I would recommend them, and not just for the selfish reason that I'd like to see others talking about them. Just remember: they are erotica. They live up to the genre in the sexin' department, so don't say I didn't warn you.