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mitzi szereto

Review & Interview by: Kate Falvey

Erotic Fairy Tales coverFairy tales, in all their grim and gory ribaldry and purpose, have long roused academic fervor and feminist ire. Thanks to Bettelheim’s 1976 classic, The Uses of Enchantment, we get that the tales initiate children into the forbidden forests of the psycho-social id. Sanitizing the tales for children’s benefit is “condescending,” says Bettelheim. Grown-ups may perceive the wolf lurking in the dark and try to soften the axe blows, but kids “intuit” that the wolf is within and are relieved to see him exposed and vanquished.

Feminist writers, too, have seen enchantment’s uses, and have objected to the perpetuation of hapless match girls and distressed damsels into our more enlightened, female-friendly era. In the seventies and eighties, critics like Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Marcia Lieberman, and Karen Rowe problematized the historical reach of our most enduring tales. The stories were – and, arguably, are – still doing a number on girls’ self-images, still defining outmoded postures of submission and supplication. A legion of writers – most of them women – have come to the rescue, inventing and re-inventing tales for both children and adults, providing revitalized versions of happily-ever-after. From the adults’-only, Gothic disturbances of Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Tanith Lee to the satiric good sense-and-humor of the current spins on “Cinderella” (see, for example, Ellen Jackson’s Cinder Edna for a kids’ heroine who prefers comfy shoes and who figures out how to take a bus to the ball), tales of old have met and married the new.

Yet old norms and the old tales they spawned die hard and newer incarnations of nursery dramas come fraught with the age-old conflicts of women’s acculturation. Many of the most familiar tales - like the cross-culturally ubiquitous “Cinderella” and the haunting old staple, “Sleeping Beauty,” – have been re-processed, toned down, and animated with an eye for glam and good marital fortune. If we were exposed to fairy tales at all as kids, we more than likely encountered them after they’d been washed and hung out to dry in the hot Disney sun. Their original patterns may yet remain, but the more vexing and intricate details of the weave are only evident in faded hints. Cinderella’s sisters don’t mutilate themselves to catch an oblivious prince. The Little Mermaid’s tongue isn’t excised and she isn’t in agony with each desperate twitch of her masochistically-acquired human leg muscles. The Disney Princess empire invites little girls and their moms to play out the old-line mores in lightened-up fantasies of marrying well. The sweetie-pie Snow White from the ‘30’s stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the spunky Little ‘90’s Mermaid, both survivors of perils wrought by their own culture-bound natures. Despite their difference in years, they both know a good prince when they see him.

I came of age when the first and second wave feminists were denouncing the dark psycho-social truths in the little-match-girl lost themes of the tales and re-writing them with winning heroines who were unlikely to freeze to death with the weather about to turn. Still, it’s the unsettling Arthur Szyk illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s tales that I remember most vividly from my earliest childhood: the spoiled “Girl Who Trod on a Loaf” in her fancy fur-trimmed red coat, entwined by a two-headed serpent with its tongues out for blood, beset by a giant death’s head spider and all the disgorged creepy crawlies of the underworld; the ugly wooly haunches of a mirror-toting demon in “The Snow Queen”; naked Little Tiny with her exposed pre-pubescent nipples, trapped in the elongated fronds of a spiky water-lily. The images both riveted and repulsed me. I stared at them from the safe assurance of my bedclothes, and pitied all things lonely and frail. I can actually feel the sense-memory of mingled snugness and horror, the arousal of a curious kind of fear, and the soothing sound of my mother’s soft voice easing peace back into my night. Freud and Bettelheim would doubtless understand.

And so would Mitzi Szereto, who has reclaimed the historically adult turf of the tales and rediscovered their erotic roots. A seasoned author of gothically-charged erotica, Szereto writes with an arch, post-feminist awareness, while paying homage to the heightened, story-telling language-of-yore. “Once-upon-a-time could never have been like this,” a reasonably sophisticated gal might say, taking her copy of Erotic Fairy Tales: A Romp through the Classics (Cleis Press) with her to bed after another mock-shock episode of Sex in the City. “But I assure you,” Szereto the scholar might counter, “the lewd and the lusty are not of 20th century origin. Have you never heard of Chaucer?” Or Giambattista Basile? The Japanese mukashi-banashi? The Sankskrit Sukasaptati? Long, long ago, and far, far away, there were tales told for amusement and, perhaps, a bit of edification. The children were out of earshot and tale-tellers’ eyes twinkled. There stories were not rated “G.”

Szereto’s original renditions of her scrupulously researched, cross-culturally chosen fairy tales are pleasurable on more than one level. I confess to a nervous, lapsed-Catholic-girl’s finnickiness – overlaid with the spurious, supercilious bravado of my New Yorker identity and academic training – when I first encountered these newly-made olden-day tales. I figured, with snooty resignation, that I’d skip all the priapic tawdriness and get to the matter of language right off. I’d read Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus many moons ago, and modern novels aplenty with “erotic content” – and often found the sex scenes clumsy or cloying. After Clarissa, what else could there be but suggestiveness, mood-setting, and nerve?

So one of the pleasures for me has been surprise. As with other forms of genre-fiction, erotica has its pulp purveyors and its hacks. Szereto, who also writes fiction as M.S. Valentine, is not one of them. She writes with wit, humor – and a playful, storyteller’s gusto. Since the fifteen tales collected here are declared “erotic” from the get-go, sex isn’t exactly beside the point, but even an uptight reader (such as myself) might just find herself smiling her way through the guileless young Sleeping Beauty’s rude awakening (“For rather than pricking her finger on a spindle and dying, the young Princess had fallen asleep by touching a prick”) or Cinderella’s response to her new husband’s shoe fetish.

So you might want to take this book to bed and read it aloud with your lover.

But fair warning: you may never be able to see your old girlhood princesses in quite the same way again.

Mitzi book signing Mitzi book reading Mitzi book reading

 


Biography

Mitzi Szereto has nearly a dozen books to her credit, including the critically acclaimed Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics, highway, and the Erotic Travel Tales anthologies. She's also penned several best-selling erotic novels under the name M. S. Valentine, including The Governess, The Martinet, The Captivity of Celia, The Possession of Celia, and Elysian Days and Nights. Aside from having pioneered the erotic writing workshop in the UK and Europe, this transplanted Californian is a well-known fixture on the interview circuit, appearing on television and BBC radio. She also travels in academic circles, having presented her critical paper on erotica at the 'Great Writing 2003' creative writing conference at the University of Wales, Bangor. Her outspoken views on the erotic literary scene have made Mitzi a trendsetter, earning her a reputation as an author and editor who has put the "literature" back into erotic literature. When not writing or editing, she's a university creative writing lecturer in the UK. This summer she'll be conducting residential erotic writing workshops for Skyros (at the Skyros Writers Lab) and on the Greek island of Kythira (for The Greek Experience). Her latest anthology Erotic Travel Tales 2 (which features a Royal Fellow of Literature) is available now, with her upcoming release, Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales, due out in autumn 2004.

Contact Mitzi

 


Erotic Excursions: An Interview with Mitzi Szereto

K.F.

You have published a varied assortment of erotica, both as M.S. Valentine (The Captivity of Celia, The Governess) and as Mitzi Szereto (Erotic Fairy Tales, two volumes of Erotic Travel Tales) and have made quite a successful career out of your “literary” exploration of this genre. The question has to be asked – though you’ve been asked it time and again – why erotica? What prompted you to take this riskier route to writing fulfillment instead of going more mainstream and, say, spicing up a more conventional work of fiction with something a bit lacy and racy? For that matter, why not write “romances” with risqué subtexts or more explicit sexually charged scenes?

M.S.

What makes you think I didn’t go the more conventional routes first? I’d written three mainstream novels in the early 1990s, all of which could be considered on the racy side. I had no takers. I came close with all three manuscripts, with major agents and publishers expressing an interest. But the deals never closed. I felt like I was getting jerked around. For one of the novels I had a major New York agent saying she thought it had tremendous potential, then offered some suggestions to improve the work, at which point she’d consider representing it. Mind you, she’d actually telephoned me on her dime, which seemed very encouraging. So I incorporated her feedback and resubmitted the novel – only to have her say the complete opposite of what she said the first time! I was getting disgusted and desperate and wondering what the hell to do next. Enter my foray into erotica. I’d read the classics like Fanny Hill and the Victorian works, so it wasn’t a genre I was unfamiliar with. During my adolescence I was also a great fan of the gothic novel – those brooding masters of the manor things. I couldn’t get enough of them! I suppose I incorporated this form of literature into the Victorian-style erotica and created my own, resulting in the M. S. Valentine novels. Apparently they call me – or rather M. S. Valentine – the queen of Wuthering Heights erotica. I guess the title fits.

K.F.

So in order to survive and make your way in the world as a writer, you turned your talents to something more lucrative than garden-variety fiction. Clearly, you work hard at your craft and are pretty darn prolific. You also seem to be adept at marketing yourself - - something not all writers are skilled at. You’ve parlayed your “literary erotica” venture into quite a successful career. You lecture, teach courses, appear on television…. Are you pleased with the way your career has turned out? Do you ever just kick back at night with a cuppa and say, “Damn, Girl. Ya done good!”?

M.S.

Where did you hear that erotica is lucrative? If you believe that, I’ve got some swampland in the Florida Everglades to sell you! Seriously though, you have to work very hard in this field to get anywhere – first, because you’re already coming from a disadvantaged position on the literary scale; and second, because there are so many people out there looking to purloin your ideas. I think every writer needs to learn some marketing skills. You can’t sit back and wait for the adulation to come knocking at the door – you must get out there and fight for it. Yes, I have definitely carved a niche for myself with this strong focus on erotica as “literature”. Before it seemed no one dared to use the “L” word in connection with erotica, now suddenly everyone’s realized that maybe what I’m saying has some validity to it. As for being pleased with how my career has turned out, I still have a long way to go. The publishing business is a tough one, plus it takes a lot of work to put out a quality product. If I think of all the hours I put in, well, let’s just say that I’m definitely operating in the red! I work all day every day. I never take time off. Even if I go on a holiday I make sure to get some business mixed in there too. How I wish I could just kick back and pat myself on the back, but I wonder if that day will ever come. It seems I’ll never be able to slow down – in fact, I feel I don’t do enough. I probably won’t be still until I get to my grave! No, I’ll likely be kicking around in there too, working on some project or other. Erotica For the Dead. Hey, there you go! An all-new market to tap.

K.F.

Language clearly matters to you. There’s an appealing mix of a “dear reader” old-style diction and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness in your work – the quaint and coy and the cutting. You often seem to be amusing yourself with your own words. It’s as if you know your literary history and are at once paying homage to and tweaking your predecessors. Why the stress on “literary” erotica? How do you distinguish pornography from erotic writing? Are there lines you won’t cross? Are there lines you think should not be crossed?

M.S.

Why the stress on literary erotica? Well, I believe erotica is literature, therefore it should be written as literature. There’s a tremendous difference between erotica and porn. One need only measure whether the work has lasting value and artistic integrity. Porn does not. Nor was it intended to. Unfortunately a lot of what is classified as erotica these days is just plain porn. It’s important for there to be more of a distinction between the two so that those who write genuine erotica are not lumped in with the low-end smut. As for lines I will not cross, yes, I have those, obviously. Sexual violence is one, as are incest and bestiality. I’ve rarely had to address these issues, but you did ask the question, so…. I will say that if you are working in mainstream fiction, you can get away with anything. However, if a work is classified as “erotica,” you’ll find that certain rules apply. I suppose it’s because we have more watchdogs, so to speak. There’s a perception by those who’d prefer to censor anything to do with sexuality and eroticism that we as writers and editors are advocating something that is not socially acceptable. You don’t find this in other genres. Would anyone accuse a crime writer such as Val McDermid of promoting murder because she writes about it? But focus on sex in your work and everyone gets antsy.

K.F.

Since I’m probably more uptight than I should be, there was a certain “duh-factor” for me when I scoped out the seeming boundlessness of the erotica publishing terrain. There are how-to books and book clubs, how-to courses and history-of courses, sub-genres galore and e-zines to match. Golly gee, sex sure does sell! From suburban sex toy parties to Sex in the City, the illicit continues to wend its way into the murky mainstream. What was forbidden is now, in some circles, fashionable. What was whispered is now on prime-time TV. What changes have you seen in your field since you started writing erotica?

M.S.

In one way this boundlessness is good, in that everyone can have her or his tastes catered to. From a negative stance, some of these materials and activities tend to take away from erotica and its legitimacy as literature. When you lump erotica into the same category as swinging parties and sex toys or even how-to books…. Sure, all of these things have something to do with sex in some shape or form, yet I never hear of crime novels being lumped into the same category as prisons or executions! Why is that?

Since I’ve started writing erotica, it’s been moving more into the mainstream. I feel this is important, since it takes the stigma out of it. It also improves the quality, in that you might get more books geared toward readers who can actually read with two hands! It’s about time erotica writers and publishers realize their readers have a brain in their heads – and producing books that have moved off the top shelf onto the front tables at your local Borders is the best way of doing it. Yes, you can write hot steamy erotica without dumbing down to your readers. And it can actually be literate, too!

K.F.

You began writing erotica as M.S. Valentine – and continue to write pseudonymously while also publishing as Mitzi Szereto. Is there any advantage to writing under two names? What distinguishes a “Valentine” work from a “Szereto” work?

M.S.

Actually, I haven’t donned my M. S. Valentine cap in quite some time. It only seems like I’m still writing under the name because the Valentine books have been given a new life thanks to my publisher Blue Moon and the Venus Book Club, who’ve been publishing special hardcover editions of the titles. The last official M. S. Valentine book I wrote was The Martinet, which was picked up by Chimera in the UK. I do feel it has been an advantage to write under the two names, in that M. S. Valentine has become somewhat of a brand name. These erotic novels are of a particular type – very sexually explicit, but with a literary flair. Most of them read along the lines of a gothic novel, which I mentioned earlier. I wanted them to have a Wuthering Heights feel to them, as well as a slightly Victorian flavor. The only Valentine book that departs from this is Elysian Days and Nights, which I’ve heard being compared to T. C. Boyle’s Road to Wellville. Mind you, Boyle got pretty kinky in his novel – I just took it a few steps further!

My work as Mitzi Szereto is more oriented toward the mainstream. Yes, the books contain sexually explicit prose, however, these books are equally as comfortable on the erotica shelves in bookstores as they are alongside works by mainstream and literary authors. My Erotic Fairy Tales, A Romp Through the Classics is a popular title in public libraries, which demonstrates its mainstream/literary appeal. With the Szereto titles, I want to produce work that can be enjoyed by readers who are looking for something more substantive with their sex – i.e. a two-handed read.

K.F.

As a woman writing erotica for women, how do you respond to the old-guard feminist criticism (Dworkin, MacKinnon) that any male-dominant/female-submissive stance – whether real or imagined - is inherently demeaning and oppressive to women? Is it liberating, do you think, for women to own their sexual fantasies, even if those fantasies re-enact and possibly fortify male dominion - and male brutality against women?

M.S.

Well, I don’t actually write erotica just for women – I write for anyone who wishes to read my work. I’m proud to have crossed the gender and sexual orientation barriers. From what I’ve read of Dworkin et all, I believe they were speaking about pornography, specifically films and magazines, which has historically been a male-dominant fantasy festival. I would be very surprised if they found my Bakewell, Revisited story from Erotic Travel Tales 2 in any way demeaning or oppressive to women. Even the M. S. Valentine books, specifically the Celia novels, has the female protagonist turn the tables on the man who supposedly oppresses her, thus becoming the dominant figure in the relationship. Having so many women writing in the field has removed much of this negative attitude toward sexually explicit literature. Obviously it’s liberating for women to write about sex and the erotic from their point of view, but it has also significantly improved the genre in that there’s less of a chauvinistic attitude toward sex and women’s role in sex. There’s more of an engagement from a psychological and emotional level, not just genital A meets genital B – and away we go! With regard to male dominion in women’s sexual fantasies, this is a part of sexuality and eroticism as well; it’s up to the writer to portray this in a manner that clearly indicates it is something welcomed, not forced. When you write erotica, you have to continually do a balancing act. As I said earlier, you can get away with a lot in mainstream literature, but when something has an erotica label on it, there are all these taboos and things to worry about.

K.F.

You don’t, then, write primarily for women. Can you give us a profile of your audience? Who, do you think, are your readers? Are they the same people who take your courses and come to your lectures?

M.S.

I have a good cross-section of readers, from what I hear. As I mentioned earlier, I have readers of both sexes – or should I say all sexes?, and all sexual orientations and ages. The work seems to attract readers of erotica, romance fiction, and mainstream/literary fiction. It’s probably safe to say that the majority of my readers are college educated – and people who read fairly widely, I suspect. Those on my courses probably fit in here as well, since it makes sense they’d want to read what I produce if they’re coming to hear to me speak or be taught by me. Plus I anticipate attracting an all-new audience with the multi-genre anthology I’m currently working on.

K.F.

You write in the tradition of the grand old gals of Goth like Ann Radcliffe with her fainting, put-upon heroine Emily St. Aubert – and, of course, the lugubrious sisters Bronte. Are you conscious of working within this stylistic framework? Do you intentionally pay homage to -- as well as intentionally send up -- these romantic works of yore? Can you name any other literary antecedents and influences?

M.S.

Lugubrious? Surely not! In all honesty, I wasn’t aware that I was working along these lines until some years after the Valentine books were out and comparisons began to be made. It was purely instinct – there’s that word again! – for me to write in this fashion. As I said before, I was weaned on the gothic novel, and the only erotica I’d read was Victorian and pre-Victorian. The fusion came about naturally. In a way this style works really well for erotica, particularly the erotic novel. So many contemporary erotic novels have a Hustler feel to them, if you know what I mean. Instead of being erotic, they sound like a conversation between college boys trying to outdo each other on the sexual conquest front – even the ones written by women. I came across a book review of The Governess that said it “puts the genitals into Jane Eyre”. Enough said.

K.F.

As an American ex-patriate living now in England, do you have any observations about the famously staid British and their attitudes toward sex? Is there any discernable difference between the British and American erotica markets?

M.S.

The British – staid? What British are these? They’re a lot more open about sex than we Yanks are. Just look at British television. The stuff they show you’d never get away with in a million years on American TV. Having said that, the British do have a bit of a wink wink, nudge nudge attitude toward sex, a sort of behind the hand snicker, if you will. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t up to whatever comes their way. They’re a pretty adventurous lot. And that doesn’t just apply to sex either.

As for erotica publishing, I’m afraid the British are way behind. The problem is, they’re still too top-shelf oriented. The kind of books I put out would be a tough sell here, as far as publishers are concerned. I’ve had this discussion with other erotica writers in the UK, and they agree. In fact, they’re thrilled to submit to my anthologies, because it gives them an opportunity to write something with a more literary bent their regular publishers would never go for. Part of the problem is that UK publishers seem to be unaware of what’s going on in the erotica market outside of the UK, so they keep churning out their mass market paperbacks with disclaimers on the inside telling readers to practice safe sex. Now I’m not disparaging the mass-market paperback – many of my M. S. Valentine books are mass-market paperbacks, but what’s with this safe-sex warning business? They’re novels, for Christ’s sake! Do you find warnings inside an Ed McBain novel telling readers that they shouldn’t murder anyone? Apparently these publishers must think their readers are so stupid they can’t differentiate between a book and real life. If that isn’t dumbing down, I don’t know what is.

KF.

Here’s the thing about all genre fiction: something billed overtly as “horror,” “supernatural,” “erotic,” etc. – is notoriously difficult to write well. How do you infuse a piece with its genre-specific elements without sabotaging the integrity of the work as a whole? In other words, do you sit down and say, “I shall now write something erotic” or do your writerly instincts work more freely within whatever parameters and proscriptions the genre dictates? And, come to think of it, what are those parameters and proscriptions?


M.S.

I’m not that premeditated! It really is pure instinct. Of course if I know I’m writing a piece of erotica then I know that there must be sufficient erotic content in it to make it qualify as a piece of erotica. It’s probably easier for me to answer this question with my editor’s hat on. I’ll often get in a piece of writing that needs some sexing up, in which case I advise the writer where I feel this is needed. Conversely, I get in work with way too much sex – almost porn. Then I must do the opposite and instruct the writer to sex it down. It’s a matter of instinct and experience to know how much is enough and how much is too much. I don’t think consciously about this with my own work, but I do with the work of others. I keep my focus on the story – and advise writers to do the same. The sex shouldn’t overshadow the story, but be a part of it. Albeit, an important one.

KF.

What’s on your professional horizons? Do you have any current projects and research interests? Any plans to do another volume of erotic fairy tales? Any non-erotica-specific-works in your future?

M.S.

Funny your mentioning the fairy tales, because I’ve toyed with the idea of doing another volume. But I’d hate to do those introductions again – they were grueling! I do have some new titles coming out. Late summer will see the release of Foreign Affairs: Erotic Travel Tales, and in autumn a double volume trade edition of the Celia books from M. S. Valentine. In 2005 my anthology of speculative erotic fiction featuring famous historical characters will be released – I’m not set on a title for it yet. I’m currently putting together my multi-genre anthology entitled La Petite Mort: Tales of Sex and Death. The response from writers on this has been overwhelming, and the quality of material coming in top drawer. I have another anthology of erotica currently being shopped, the theme being classical mythology. I also work on my novel The Wren when I can, which is not erotica, although it does have erotic elements in it. I’ve got my residential erotic writing workshops in Greece this summer, the first with Skyros in June, the second with The Greek Experience in September. And I’m going to be featured on a panel of authors at the West Hollywood Bookfair in Los Angeles in October. What else? Seems like something new crops up every day. I’m off this weekend to the Lake District to do a reading and teach an erotic writing workshop. Plus I’ll probably do another reading in London sometime this summer, and possibly a workshop. Oh, yes –I’ve decided to finally create an online presence for myself. So hopefully by the end of summer you’ll find that I’ve become a dotcom. In a manner of speaking…

K.F.

Can you leave us with a list of your favorite writers -- and any tips for a beginner who might want to write erotic literature? ( Besides “It’s harder than it looks….”?)

M.S.

Well, it is harder than it looks! My advice to beginners is to rid yourself of the mindset that you’re creating a sex aid. There’s enough one-handed drivel around, and it does nothing to elevate erotica, let alone the reputation of serious writers. If you’re really serious about writing, then you should write something you wouldn’t be ashamed of putting your name to. I always try to talk my contributors into using their real names, unless they’re already established under a pseudonym. Maybe I’m naïve, but I assume that if someone writes a quality piece of prose, they would like to be acknowledged for it. My other advice: read widely, and aim high, not low.

Favorite writers – Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Vladimir Nabokov, Ruth Rendell, Martyn Bedford, T. C. Boyle, Theodore Dreiser, Kathryn Harrison, Alice Walker, Michel Faber, Joyce Carol Oates… I especially enjoy multicultural literature.


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