Images courtesy of Badlands Unlimited
Although the independent press Badlands Unlimited is run by a man, its erotica authors are all women. We talked to the artist Paul Chan about why his New Lovers series is changing "conservative" contemporary erotic writing.
In a hot white room at MoMA PS1 three young women read aloud passages about aggressive lesbian period sex and men "splashing contracts with...triumphant cum." Last Saturday the New York Art Book Fair hosted a panel presenting the most recent batch of New Lovers, an erotic novella series featuring only female authors and published by the artist Paul Chan's press, Badlands Unlimited. The reading was packed, mostly with cool-looking young people, one of whom was next to me sketching on a roll of toilet paper the entire time, and it was followed by a panel discussion on blending genres and ways to write about topics like penetration and desire. The whole thing was a back-and-forth between the intellectual consideration of good points and blunt vocabulary about blunt actions. "Mostly," one of the authors, Cara Benedetto, said, "I write erotica out of desperation—total fucking boredom."
Founded in 2010, the independent press released its first set of three New Lovers books this spring, to curious but supportive media coverage, and followed them up with three new titles earlier this month. Wet Hot Drone Summer by Lex Brown is a sci-fi romp with sex acts stacked on top of each other in a sort of dripping post-modern parody. Cara Benedetto's Burning Blue is slightly subtler, about a married former model and artist who compares herself to various predatory animals and experiences a sexual awakening when she meets a younger woman watching porn in a café; lots of blood is involved. And Al Bedell's I Would Do Anything for Love is "Spring Breakers meets Judy Blume," making use of a small-town teenage fantasies of escape and devirginization. The first set of New Lovers was also comprised of three books and featured great titles such as We Love Lucy (about a polyamorous relationship). All of the authors are women.
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It's the kind of project that sounds like it was made to be written about: After a few years dabbling in independent publishing, a show-at-the-Guggenheim multimedia artist starts printing erotic novellas by young, amateur women writers, taking Maurice Girodias's avant-garde Olympia Press—which published Lolita and made its money selling erotica—as a model in breadth and design. My inclination is to be suspicious—or at least resentful—of a 42-year-old art man who ferries young, undiscovered female writers into erotica, but after meeting Chan and talking to him about the project—most erotica today is "conservative," he told me after the panel—I'm convinced. He's funny and frank, and he practices what he preaches: The books are mostly free of the try-hard lyricism and boring, alluded-to sex that characterizes contemporary sex writing. In other words, they're pretty good.
And the Badlands project as a whole—a mix of post-Internet humor, art writing, and enthusiasm for the intellectual left field—is very likable. Although the New Lovers series is what's generating attention for Badlands now, the press's motto is that they "publish books in an expanded field," which is an understatement. Chan places the erotica alongside a backlog of erudite, artistic, or otherwise text-like titles, which likely does the New Lovers series favors by highbrow association, even though Chan is self-deprecating on his credentials as a publisher. (In an interview with the Paris Review, he said, "I'm not sure I know what literature is, but I'm pretty sure we're not publishing it.") Nevertheless, there's a newly translated version of Plato's Hippias Minor or The Art of Cunning, with an introduction and artwork by Chan, as well as a collection of Duchamp interviews, and at the press's Art Book Fair table, a stack of forest green copies of On Democracy by Saddam Hussein caught many eyes. According to Micaela Durand, the associate director of Badlands who moderated the panel, the idea for New Lovers came in 2013, after the press published a raunchy romance novel about Michelle Bachmann. They got "a lot of Republican press saying, 'Wow, Badlands is a really perverted, fucked-up press.' That was really encouraging to us."
I never read long-form erotica by men.
Badlands's initial call for erotica submissions didn't stipulate that authors had to be women, either. The all-women aspect of the New Lovers series was simply a product of merit: Of the 30 or 40 manuscripts Badlands received, none of the submissions by men—or by established erotica writers, for that matter—were "fun." Many were "too depressing," according to Chan.
"Sexuality is so complicated," Chan said, "but one of the reasons I wanted to do New Lovers was to publish something that was pleasurable and fun while having the complicatedness in it. Today, romance is different. Erotica is different. I think it's more complicated—Bill Cosby, ISIS, the college rape shit. It's crazy!" The authors echoed this sentiment during the panel, which likely sent the audience away feeling a warm misandry. "I feel like girls have more feelings and care more," Bedell said. Erotic writing by women has more "layers and complexity," Bedell continued, because women's experience of sex is layered and complex. "I never read long-form erotica by men," Brown added, to nods across the board.
Badlands finds writers and writers find Badlands through recommendations from friends and colleagues, and accepted authors have mostly been artists, not really professional writers. This seems like a point of pride for Chan, as well as a reason the writing he publishes feels fresher, less "conservative." The selection process is low-key, and much more open than traditional publishing models. After a writer expresses interest, Badlands sends her a pitch document that describes what they're looking for (one or two paragraphs summarizing the story plus a sample chapter). The press makes a decision based on the pitch, and then, if it's accepted, they wait. "We trust the writer based on their pitch to take it through," Chan told me. When I said that was uncommon in fiction publishing, Chan replied, "Luckily, we don't know what we're doing."
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