Lesbians Who Eat Their Young: How Sarah Schulman and I got the boot from Best Lesbian Erotica 2014

by Ella Boureau on December 2, 2013

Cottonmouth simply made Cleis Press nervous. But why?

In June of this year I sent out a story to be considered for Best Lesbian Erotica 2014, a popular anthology put out by Cleis Press. The largest independent queer publisher in the US, Cleis has established itself as the de facto clearinghouse for lesbian erotica. BLE’s call for work had no content constraints, no limits on subject matter, and so I assumed the bottom line was simply whether or not the words on the page had the power to make the clit jump. I could not have imagined the tangled internal politics that would ensue, nor could I have imagined that those politics would culminate in the censorship of my work. The fight with Cleis is emblematic of a broader schism in the queer community, one that calls up all the old questions of assimilation versus liberation.

The story I submitted, called Cottonmouth, was inspired by a scene from Truman Capote’s Other Voices Other Rooms that had never left my head, in which two teenagers have a freaky encounter with a snake. I took this scene and ran with it. Cottonmouth is about two teenage cousins who go for a walk in the Mississippi woods to escape the afternoon heat, and end up face to face with the mystery of sexuality, of nature, and the myths created about the two. The story was accepted by the guest editor, Sarah Schulman. While Sarah loved it, she had a tussle with the publishers about whether or not the story’s focus was “bestiality”. Sarah’s position was: “So what?” Cleis had no real argument against her, so I received a contract and went through line edits. I was excited and looking forward to coming out to my mother as a pervert all over again (I finally settled on an email with the subject line: Congratulations! Your daughter is a published pornographer!).

Two summer months slipped by without incident. Then August came, and I received another e-mail from Sarah saying that Cleis Press, the publisher of Best Lesbian Erotica, wanted to remove Cottonmouth from the collection because the characters were underage, claiming that Cleis faced “legal vulnerability”. Sarah, whose novel The Child, about a sexual relationship between a 15 year old boy and a 40 year old man, faced no legal consequences immediately recognized this as censorship and wrote: “I cannot permit this and will go to the wall.” After some wrangling, it was decided that the story would be sent to the newly appointed Publisher of Cleis, Brenda Knight, who would review it to determine whether she thought the Press would in fact face legal vulnerability. Having never had to deal with issues of legality in my work before, I panicked. But after spending some quality time brushing up on US obscenity law, it became clear to me that there was indeed no legal issue with my story. Cottonmouth simply made Cleis Press nervous. But why?

One of the arguments I have heard repeatedly in hashing out this situation among friends, colleagues and peers is that Cleis is just a middle of the road publisher that hasn’t done anything exciting in a long time and therefore my “edgy” and “out there” piece just needs to find a different home. The reason this argument bothers me is that it ignores what Cleis has done historically. This is, after all, a press whose focus is queer erotica, and was the publisher of such bad-asses as Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, and Patrick Califia. We now recognize these authors to be the forebears of sex-positivity, but it is easy to forget that Cleis published them during a time when the politics of respectability reigned in both feminist and lesbian anti-porn movements. Publishing these authors, among others, was a risk that Cleis took because they recognized that sexual deviance is intrinsic to queer identity and that to ignore this fact is to ignore the potency of our difference, which is what has always given our art a unique vantage point on what it means to be human. Taking this risk paid off for them in the long run. It is upon the politics of deviance, of outsider perspectives, that Cleis built their reputation. I believe this is why their slogan was and remains “Outliers. Outwriters. Outriders”. Because of this history, I thought I knew on what side of the schism Cleis came down. However their attempt to censor my story made me have to rethink that assumption, as well as the assumption that the word “queer” is still automatically shorthand for distinguishing oneself as anti-assimilation. I waited for news of Cottonmouth’s fate with a sense of foreboding.

Finally, in early September, Sarah called me with a letter she received from Ms. Knight and read it out to me. Essentially, the press had changed horses midstream. Brenda wrote: “On second consideration I do realize there is no legal issue here. The real issue with Cottonmouth is the quality of the writing, not the subject”. Here Brenda admits that Cleis’ first and second issues with my story were baseless and so, instead of dropping it, she switched tactics, making vague arguments that my voice is not authentic because I am not from the South, before summing up with: “This dispute is a matter of aesthetics.”
Sarah could not go along with this censorship and in response, gave them three options:

  1. They could publish the story
  2. They could provide a link to the story and she would address the censorship in her introduction
  3. She could resign as editor.

Cleis chose the third option, and Sarah was removed as editor of the volume.
It would be easy to say that the press did nothing wrong, just pulled a story that did not go with their image. An independent press has the right to edit its own content. Simple as that. But if their impulse was truly not to censor, instead only to edit out a story they did not think strong enough, why first insist that there was some kind of legal issue so worrying that one of the heads of the entire press needed to take a look at it? Why go to the extreme of overriding Sarah’s role as curator of the collection when she argued so fiercely to include it? Why not at least agree to let her address the dispute in her introduction, rather than shut down all possible avenues of discussion? The numerous unrelated roadblocks and objections thrown in the way of my story’s publication make it clear that this is not a story of rejection based on quality. The press was simply trying to repress based on content, and when they were accused of being censorious they settled on “aesthetics”. Here, aesthetics is a last resort, a straw argument, a smokescreen. It says: “This is not art” instead of “This art makes me uncomfortable”.
Now I see that the discomfort generated by my story marks a shift in what Cleis Press is targeting as their main audience. The queer label associated with the publisher is no longer so much about making a space for outsiders to be heard as it is about niche marketing. This is where the fear comes in. Ultimately, the anxiety around the homosexual as pedophile and the uncomfortable linkage of homosexuality with bestiality still looms large in a certain sector of the American public’s imagination. Because it is this population that Cleis now has in purview, Perhaps it is these anxieties that drove them to respond so negatively and simplistically to my story. The “quality” of my writing has nothing to do with it.
It is that preemption that I find troubling and familiar. It is a closeted way of operating that is at odds with Cleis’ roots.
This leaves writers like me who have no qualms about playing with the darker side of sexuality, to awkwardly do the original work of that institution, which is to defend the integrity of our own voices. Only now we must do so in the very community where we first sought relief from this kind of defense. I shouldn’t have had to write this article. Sarah should not have had to resign as editor.
I want to know why we so easily let go of the institutions whose reputations were forged in our community once they start to serve mainstream interests, instead of demanding accountability. I want to know where a writer like me can get a break and be read outside the 50 or so people who have come into contact with me through readings or parties or other local gatherings. I want to know why the walls to accessibility are now being built by the very people who were once trying to tear them down.

To read COTTONMOUTH, the story censored by Cleis Press’s Best Lesbian Erotica, 2013, click here.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Rinella December 2, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Oh, boy do I ever understand this! I’ve been lucky in that my sibling romance novels (non-erotica) have managed to stay strong for a year now. I’m surprised to hear that you were not attacked on the fact that the characters are cousins. Seriously, if people in love happen to share genes the world comes unglued, erotica or not.

Ella, there is an audience for your work, it’s just not easy to find. I’d love to talk to you more on this. Feel fee to contact me.

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Everett December 2, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I’m not surprised by this in the slightest. I also think it’s hilarious that Cleis thinks it is so incredibly averse to publishing mediocre writing. So every other story in this anthology has been deemed as more eloquent or better written than the excluded piece?

As for who will publish the most unorthodox pieces, well, Cleis and Naiad had to start somewhere, right? It’s time to make our own presses (like Topside).

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Tobi December 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm

In my experience writing erotica, many calls have a quick disclaimer of “no beastiality, incest, or underage characters,” and that’s supposedly based on the fear of legal risk of obscenity prosecution. Obscenity prosecution for writen work is down but not gone. Just recently there was a werewolf erotica writer who had to go to court on charges of obscenity. He won (the judge determined werewolf sex doesn’t count as beastality, but court is still costly).

It’s the same thing that has most porn companies demanding their own list of ‘no’s (no fisting, no blood, no knifeplay, no penetration while in bondage, etc). So I kinda understand where they are coming from with fear of legal risk. Or even if they just said that’s how they always do things – only making rare exceptions when they have a strong argument of literary merit and they don’t want to this time. But once they admit legal risk isn’t an issue yet insist on removing the story anyway, that’s really sketchy.

The same dynamic is going on with the old vanguard of feminist porn. You might have heard of International Fisting Day, started by Courtney Trouble and Jiz Lee to protest the censorship of fisting in porn. That was the issue that ended Courtney’s business relationship with Good Vibes. Good Vibes insisted that Courtney remove all the fisting. I hear it came to a head when Courtney asked if they could leave a 10 second text on black screen that simply said that fisting occurred here and was censored. But they could not agree on even that.

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Richard Jackman December 2, 2013 at 5:13 pm

Can I just say that two closely related people and a snake doing something outre in the woods just sounds like the first chapter of the Bible to me?

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las December 3, 2013 at 1:13 am

Sad to say, this story did not surprise me in the least. Cleis hasn’t been friendly to boundary-pushing, experimental or subversive work in a very long time. I am sorry, however, that you had to find this out the hard way.

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ana delgado December 3, 2013 at 1:16 am

wow disappointed in Cleis press

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Penny Sautereau December 3, 2013 at 8:40 am

I’ve had Lesbian Erotica publishers who claimed nothing was taboo censor or reject me for my stories having trans/intersexed women. Methinks someone decided your snake MUST be a metaphor for PENIS and shitcanned it for that reason. Can’t be the cousins fucking thing since that shit is legal in more states than Same-Sex marriage is.

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Alicia December 3, 2013 at 10:20 am

I can understand to some extent why a publisher may have a problem with the content. Personally I enjoyed it and will be re-reading it when I’m not at work. But the rubbish they came up with is ridiculous. Especially when they were saying there was a problem with the quality of the writing.

I guess this is just another reason traditional publishing is on the wane. If this was available, self published, in an ebook format, I’d happily buy it.

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rozele December 4, 2013 at 1:24 am

I want to know why we so easily let go of the institutions whose reputations were forged in our community once they start to serve mainstream interests, instead of demanding accountability.

this, i think is the key question, and i think there’s a pretty clear answer to it, a lot of the times that it arises: because we get confused about what is a community institution, and what is a business.

a community institution has clear and transparent decision-making structures and a clearly articulated relationship to its community (including a clear understanding of who exactly that community is) and has some level of accountability to it. which is to say it’s a political project, in one way or another, which may or may not be democratic or non-hierarchical, but is open about how it operates and why. which is about all that unites, say, FIERCE and HRC – both community institutions, serving communities (one of queer and trans youth of color, one of mostly white and well-off straight homosexuals) whose interests are usually directly opposed.

none of those things are true of a business. which is what Cleis Press is, whatever pretensions it has. businesses are based on a principle of arbitrary decision-making by the boss, and survive through manipulating ambiguity in their relationship to their customers.

we can see this dynamic over and over again, with the Advocate, with the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, with bars, with dance clubs. let’s not fight for control over businesses – it’s a losing game unless you’ve got enough ready cash to buy actual control. let’s build some actual community institutions instead. then we’ll have something worth fighting to keep accountable to our visions of the world.

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Ella B December 4, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Alicia,

The story will be published as an e-book, in the anthology “The Uncensored Collection: Lesbian Erotica by members of Private Commission”. http://privatecommission.wordpress.com/

Also, if you like In the Flesh on FB you will get updates on it.

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Alicia December 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Ella B,

Thanks for the information. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the book’s release.

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Mark Pritchard December 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm

When Cleis Press, under their founding publishers, published my two collections of sex stories in 2001, the books contained much riskier material than what this sounds like. Obviously the new publisher has different boundaries. That’s their prerogative as a business, but I’m sad that a house once rightfully known for taking chances has become averse to doing so.

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Jerry Wheeler December 9, 2013 at 5:46 pm

The past five to seven years has seen Cleis’s output become tamer and tamer until they have become a shadow of the house they used to be. As others have said, I’m not surprised by the cowardly, closeted way they handled this particular dispute. As a queer book reviewer at (www.outinprint.wordpress.com), I stopped looking at Cleis material a couple of years ago because it became so homogenous. Kudos to Sarah for standing up to censorship and more kudos to Ella for such a brilliant story. And an enlightening and most welcome post.

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Lena December 10, 2013 at 10:45 pm

There are so many things about this post that I wish to respond to. It amazes me that this writer is so miffed that her story wasn’t chosen for an anthology that she is using every tool she can think of to smear and malign the publishing company. I can’t believe the author’s sense of entitlement throughout this post.

THIS IS NOT CENSORSHIP. All publishing is subjective. The guest editor chose her story. The publishing company rejected her story. I read the story … did any of the people commenting here actually read “Cottonmouth”? Do you honestly think it belongs in a Best Lesbian Erotica anthology?? I mean, really.

The author writes that “sexual deviance is intrinsic to queer identity and that to ignore this fact is to ignore the potency of our difference, which is what has always given our art a unique vantage point on what it means to be human.” Am I the only one to notice the flawed logic in this ridiculous statement??? This is the baseline logic as to why her story about an incestuous encounter between two underage cousins and a snake who happens to wiggle into one of their vaginas should have been accepted for publication??

Seriously. Read the story. It doesn’t belong in a best of anthology. It’s surprising that the guest editor let it through in the first place. All I can think is that Cleis didn’t want to say that the story sucked, so they tried to break it gently. Instead of accepting the rejection from the publisher, the editor seemed to force the issue, forcing them to find different reasons that would appease the editor. Obviously it didn’t work. For an editor to resign from editing an anthology because she refused to accept that the publisher didn’t want a story she selected isn’t an act of heroism, it’s shortsighted and unprofessional.

She also writes, “I want to know why the walls to accessibility are now being built by the very people who were once trying to tear them down.” Umm … the pivotal work first published by Cleis that the writer refers to included queer writing of a positive nature. Incest, underage characters, bestiality, and not very good writing (the dialogue is very unnatural, almost comical in its use of vernacular and the story itself is lacking depth, eroticism, and substance) seem to be the reasons why this particular story isn’t “accessible.”

If the writer is trying to advocate for taboo subjects such as incest, bestiality, and underage characters, then perhaps she should do THAT. This writer seems to be using her rejected story from a popular mainstream anthology as a platform to cry censorship. The link provided shows that this story was still published elsewhere, in a place more fitting to the type of story she had written.

If every writer wrote a post like this about a publishing company that rejected their work … lol … this is immature and vengeful. And very sad.

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Ted turtz December 16, 2013 at 3:15 am

Read Ella’s post. Really interested, riveted. Yes, we are a mainstream press. But then we publish reviews of graphic novels, romance and the uber-forbidden queer fiction. And Cleis was never a stretch for us. Agree they are mainstream queer. B ut we don’t fiscount them either, because the fact that they are now mainstream says something and plants a certain pole.

Ella talks about people we know. And we are rabidly impartial so that everyone gets their say in a book review that is read by the left, center and right with all of these voices in our reviews and commentary.

Yes, sure, we who run NYJB are in sync on politics/social issues or we’d fight like crazy.

But we’ll publish any point of view. We are a place for dialog. We just won’t publish hate or words which incite abusive behavior.

And so we want to get an intro to Ella.

Don’t go through agents or publicists for our reviewers. We want the participation to be real/unfiltered.

Pass my email to Ella if you would. And maybe we can be a place where her intelligent, pure voice finds an additional home.

Her views may be ours, sicken us or fall in between. Doesn’t matter. She makes strong points.

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Ted turtz December 16, 2013 at 3:15 am

Read Ella’s post. Really interested, riveted. Yes, we are a mainstream press. But then we publish reviews of graphic novels, romance and the uber-forbidden queer fiction. And Cleis was never a stretch for us. Agree they are mainstream queer. B ut we don’t fiscount them either, because the fact that they are now mainstream says something and plants a certain pole.

Ella talks about people we know. And we are rabidly impartial so that everyone gets their say in a book review that is read by the left, center and right with all of these voices in our reviews and commentary.

Yes, sure, we who run NYJB are in sync on politics/social issues or we’d fight like crazy.

But we’ll publish any point of view. We are a place for dialog. We just won’t publish hate or words which incite abusive behavior.

And so we want to get an intro to Ella.

Don’t go through agents or publicists for our reviewers. We want the participation to be real/unfiltered.

Pass my email to Ella if you would. And maybe we can be a place where her intelligent, pure voice finds an additional home.

Her views may be ours, sicken us or fall in between. Doesn’t matter. She makes strong points.

ted@nyjournalofbooks.com

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Tzivya December 16, 2013 at 3:57 am

Sucks that is was censored, a lot. I look forward to reading it, in part because it hits one of my bigger buttons, teen lesbians. Being trans, I never got to BE one, and it is a sadness I will never truly get over. :)

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Karen Wolfer December 18, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Excellent article here, Ella. I’ve noticed a similar ‘eating of their young’ among other publishers. Actually, it involves ignoring the western saying, ‘dance with the one that brung you’. Bodies are being left in the dust and trampled over in the quest for both the almighty dollar and that nebulous thing called ‘mainstream’. Cleis has set back their reputation with this one. I look forward to reading COTTONMOUTH this weekend.

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Cedar December 20, 2013 at 4:48 am

I don’t know about “Cottonmouth” making the clit jump… it made my gorge rise. Maybe I am just not into the “darker side of sexuality,” but I find sexual experiences involving animals revolting and morally reprehensible.

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