Book Review: Serious Pleasure

This review was published Spring 1991 in Gay Star and was written by Stella Mahon

It a ‘serious pleasure‘ to find lesbian sex and sexuality celebrated by those to whom they belong.  But there are problems on several levels with this book.

The Sheba Collection are only too aware of some of these and assure us in their well-considered introduction, that they discussed them at great length.  For example, one of  the things they invite us to ponder is the thinness of the differential line ‘between erotica and pornography’.  How do we cope with the fact that there are some men ‘out there’ who will inevitably use the book as a  turn-on, written as the stories and poems often are, with frank and uncompromising abandon.  Sheba obviously feel that there is a further general – and important – debate, around lesbians taking ownership of how we are represented.  And I believe that they feel that they have taken a step within that debate, challenging us to rise towards finding ‘the fine balance between political correctness and personal experience’.

And there, of course lies another possible problem, colouring how individuals are likely to react to this volume.  It is, I would guess, improbable that every lesbian will identify with all the fantasies and romps through its pages.  It is also conceivable that there might be those who fail to identify with any of it and that not merely because personal experience precludes identification but also because personal politics, which, of necessity, have a collective focus and significance, will raise too many questions.

That larger debate aside, though never forgotten, there is one further problem to be addressed in reviewing the book: are the stories and poems a good read?  Disappointment will not be yours if all you want to do is absorb and react to many and varied visions of lesbian sex in full flow.  On that level, the stories are indeed a good read.  Some are headily passionate, others questing and sometimes finding.  Yet others are sheer fun, one, in particular Parting Gift by MIndy Meleyal with punchline which almost takes the breath away.

But is it wrong to want more than that level of expectation grants?  Does writing erotica have to mean, as it sometimes does here, that quality – of language, of story construction, of character creation – has to go by the board?  The essence of many of the stories is most definitely ‘grunt and thrust’, and that occasionally quite aggressively so.  (I am thinking on particular of the poem by Storme Webber, Like a Train).  There were occasions when I felt that what mattered was not the characters, but how quickly they could be got into bed or under the shower, so as not to lost space for exhaustively describing them at it.  As if the only vital thing is the fantasy.  Perhaps it is in erotica and I am looking at this book from a completely wrong premise.

But then, you see, not all of the book is like that.  Cherry Smith’s Crazy about Mary Kelly is a case in point.  Not that it is devoid of what I have called ‘grunt and thrust’.  But the presence of sexual desire and its fulfilment serves Cherry’s characters, helping to make them and their angers, fears and needs recognisable.  How they are together physically mirror their individual emotions and reactions to each other – and for a brief while we have the tensions of whether they will be able to grow past these to respond to each other as they need to  The story has a wholeness which some of the other lack.

And there are others which, while giving themselves over quite fully to fantasy, also carry something of universal about them.  In Ambivalance  by Tina Bays, we see before us something which most, if not all of us have expereinced – that electric insecurity of wanting and needing, which one is wary of voicing in case the other is not feeling the same way.

All in all, though I suppose I did feel rather overshelmed by the experience of reading this book.  I think I felt rather like the speaker in the last piece in the book – a poem of Cheryl Clarke (whose work as represented in Serious Pleasure is worth the folling up and I intend to).  I’m almost convinced that Sheba Collective, aware of the possibility of many shell-shocked readers, deliberately put this poem last, in a moment of wry humour, to slow things down, and bring other perspectives to bear.

Here it

is:

Sexual Preference by Cheryl Clarke

I’m a queer lesbian

Please don’t go down on me down yet

I do not prefer cunnilingus

(There’s room for me in the movement.)

Your tongue does not have to prove its prowness

there

to me

now

or

even on the first night

Your mouth all over my body

then there

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