QotD: “In fact, ‘vanilla’ readers may come away from reading these stories with a diminished regard for BDSM practice, given the levels of neuroticism, selfishness and vanity that the various characters display”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” thought one of the editors of this new anthology at the outset of her project, if a collection of highbrow stories on BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism and masochism) “could live together in one book, in the kind of book that could sit on artists’ residencies’ library shelves?” Well, wonderful or not, that dream has now been realised, and the result is this volume, containing 15 stories by an assortment of eminent writers — all contributors to some of the most prestigious literary magazines in the world.
The stories are intended as an antidote to a popular culture that typically represents BDSM practice as either pathological or ridiculous, and kinky people as either “stock villains or exaggerated figures of fun”. In an act of rebellion against these stereotypes, the reader of this volume is encouraged to “take kink seriously”, recognising it as a “complex, psychologically rich act of communication . . . as one of the tools we use to make sense of our lives.”
It is something of a surprise, therefore, to find the content of the stories to be so very stereotypical. We have former Catholic schoolgirls with a torturously repressed desire to be whipped, dominatrixes with shiny leather boots and severe haircuts, and gay men drawn towards acting out traumatic childhood experiences of homophobia.
A wealthy man — a gallery curator, of course! — finds within himself an intense desire to dominate women, and when his poor wife won’t accept being handcuffed, he sets off to find himself a mistress who is willing to go around in public wearing a stainless-steel collar. We are, I think, supposed to see this man as a progressive maverick, given his taste for putting on “exhibits on poverty and homeless”, despite the objections of his gallery’s board. But, to me, he sounds very much like both a “stock villain” and an “exaggerated figure of fun”.
Despite the authors’ best efforts to represent kink as deliciously naughty, the experience of reading this anthology is rather monotonous. Although there are small variations in narrative detail, the erotic details are much the same in every story: spit licked off shoes, bruised buttocks, leather paraphernalia, and so on, and so on.
In the final story, the iconic writer and filmmaker Chris Kraus comments perceptively on the repetitive nature of BDSM: “There is no experimental theater in sadomasochism. That’s why I like it. Character is completely preordained and circumscribed. You’re only either top or bottom. There isn’t any room for innovation in these roles. It’s a bit like what Ezra Pound imagined the Noh drama of Japan to be: a paradox in which originality is attained only through compliance with tradition.”
To Kraus, then, a lack of “innovation” is the point. But, to more “vanilla” readers, the allure may well be hard to understand.
In fact, “vanilla” readers may come away from reading these stories with a diminished regard for BDSM practice, given the levels of neuroticism, selfishness and vanity that the various characters display. A common theme across many of these stories is not adventurousness or creativity, but rather affluent boredom, as characters attempt to plug a feeling of general dissatisfaction with a brief erotic thrill.