When I was in high school, I found this Valentine’s Day card. On the cover, it said, “Kiss me, stranger!” and then inside it said, “Aw, come on… you can kiss stranger than that!” I thought it was hilarious (I was easily amused in high school) (well, I’m easily amused now too!), so I bought it for my boyfriend.
He was less amused. “You think I kiss strangely?” he asked, a bit worried. No, no, no. OK, not everyone appreciates every joke. But his questioning it did make me consider just why I found it funny. It’s not that odd kissing is humorous to me — no, it was the verbal play, the confusion between the adjective and the (wrongly formed) adverb. And indeed, I still enjoy that sort of linguistic humor today.
One of the stories in Transported, “Just Browsing,” was entered in the online 2009 Erotic Writing contest at bettersex.com, and made it to the final round. Stories are judged by reader votes, which means that authors are motivated to spread word of the contest to their friends and their friends’ friends and so on (which I’m sure is the point). I have a few friends who are not shocked by my erotica writing, so I let them know about the contest.
One friend emailed to say she had voted for me and loved the story, and her friend had voted for me too, even though she hadn’t liked the story (so thanks? I think?) because she doesn’t like “stranger sex.”
My first impulse was to say, “Oh, I can write about much stranger sex than that!”, remembering that old Valentine. Though I’m glad I didn’t.
I’m also glad that I didn’t say the second thing that popped into my head, which was, “But they weren’t strangers.”
Now, why would I have even thought that? In the story, a woman traveler visiting an unfamiliar city stops into a used bookstore. While perusing a coffee table art book of erotic Japanese woodblock prints, a man comes up behind her, looks at the book over her shoulder, and dot dot dot. They exchange a few words, and even their names at the end, but no, they hadn’t met before.
They weren’t friends. They weren’t colleagues, or roommates, or acquaintances. They were strangers. I see that, yes, I do. There is no way for them to have been more strangers to each other unless one of them hadn’t come into the bookstore.
So what was I thinking?
What I did say to my friend in response, to pass on to her friend, was “Think of them as friends who just hadn’t met yet.” Which is really how it was, in my mind. I was making a distinction, even without really being conscious of it, between “strangers who remain strangers” and “strangers who really belong together but have not met yet, who are so compatible that skipping a few weeks of dating and going straight to the sex is entirely appropriate.” That kind of stranger.
Certainly we have lots of examples of that kind of stranger in fairy tales. (Digression: For some reason, fairy tales have been getting a lot of attention recently in the world of erotic writing — check out Alison’s Wonderland, for example, an anthology of erotic versions of classic fairy tales.) There’s no sex in traditional fairy tales, at least not the versions I had as a child, but people certainly do fall so deeply in love that they marry on the basis of first meetings. Sleeping Beauty was asleep when the prince fell for her, and upon waking, felt the same. Snow White was actually mistaken for dead when her prince fell in love — he wasn’t smitten by her vivid conversation. It’s not just Western fairy tales; you see similar instances of instant attraction, or even attraction before the two have met, just based on “he heard word of the king’s youngest daughter” in Russian tales, Chinese ones, and so on.
Some people see one of the messages of tales like that as “What men really value in women is physical beauty.” I don’t deny that that message is there, but it’s not the one I found. What I believed was more along the lines of, “When two people are right for each other, they’ll know it instantly, and they’ll be ready to act on it.” I’m not defending that as a fine philosophy, I’m only saying it’s the message I got. And I think there must be some of that in many of my stories. I believe it’s OK for these characters to have sex with each other on the spot because I do see them as compatible. They’re not making the wrong choice. They’re just… cutting through some red tape. Skipping a few traditionally preliminary steps.
I don’t recommend moving with that sort of speed in real life (or not all the time, at least). But I’m not writing dating manuals, I’m writing fantasies. Fairy tales couldn’t be acted out either — it wouldn’t be the Princess and the Pea or even the Princess and the Penis, but the Princess and the Restraining Order. Snow White and the Seven Felony Charges. But — I do like the idea of instantly recognizable compatibility, whether at a party or on a plane or in a bookstore.
I’ll close with a photo of a little fairy tale book I picked up at an English bookstore in the Middle East recently. I’m afraid that inside, the story is just the traditional one. But I do like its cover!