Every now and then I read something that reminds me that M/M romance and gay erotica are seriously different genres. I dislike essentialist sounding explanations, but there are times (most often after I've spent more than four and a half minutes watching pornography) when I just feel like shouting out: men and women are turned on by very different kinds of stories!
I enjoyed reading these stories--they are well-written and inventive–but I liked them more because they gave me a window into a world that felt truly exotic and weird than because I felt they got at the heart of my own experience. (The only chapter I can say that about was David Stein’s smart and incisive Editor's Note, “Value-Added Porn,” on the difference between porn and erotica, which I plan on quoting in some blog post if I ever get my act together.)
For me, the world of the stories was interesting but not appealing. It wasn't just the dog bowls and the piss play. I found the mentality of the slaves impossible to identify with.
"I felt full and complete being used by this totally hot stud, used like the dog slave I am, used to bring him pleasure."That level of abjection and selflessness is just too much for me. I find it alienating. However, I think my distaste is exactly that, a matter of taste: I don’t usually like most “Club” novels that purport to depict people in the BDSM lifestyle. Any story in which characters eagerly adopt an established role leaves out most of the inner conflict and ambivalence that is the most erotically charged part of D/s for me. (As slave fics go, I find Yhalen’s inner torments over his attraction to his master? lover? rapist? both fascinating and intensely erotic, though in other ways Bloodraven is far too brutally sadistic for my taste).
"Worshipping men like him and my Master is why I was born."
“My pain or pleasure wasn’t important. All that mattered was serving him.”
The genre of Winner Takes All doesn’t help matters. With a few notable exceptions, the book offers erotic teases, ficlets, which are little more than a hot scenario or exchange in a fantasy version of gay slave life. Some stories are better than others–hotter than others–but there was not enough characterization or complexity for them to truly be erotic for me. Every character in this collection is essentially interchangeable and virtually all of them wholeheartedly embrace their situation. And that I think is the key difference. It's not enough that a book describes a kinky scenario; unless I feel involved with the characters, and to some extent challenged by what they are experiencing, then it's not very different than watching porn or looking at explicit photos, neither of which I find particularly arousing.
There were a few exceptions: I really admired "The Executioner's Boy.” It was imaginative and moody and dark. It also surprised me: usually I can't tolerate any erotic fiction that includes serious threats of death as part of the domination, but this one made that work. The title story, the last in the collection, was the longest and the most developed, with a strong story arc and compelling character development, though the narrator’s personality and mentality didn’t differ noticeably from that of the slaves in the other stories.
As I said above, I was very interested reading this. In some instances, you can learn more about yourself—your imagination and your desires–from well-written fictions that don’t quite work for you than from ones that fit your kinks dead-on. I suspect that M/M romance will always have a somewhat uneasy relationship with gay erotica and speaking from the M/M camp, I think it’s worthwhile to be both aware and respectful of how these genres—and their authors and audiences–differ. There’s no question that these stories are arousing for the right audience, and echoing editor David Stein, I am firmly of the opinion that such fiction has value—drastically underrated value. I admire Pierce for his achievement, even when I can’t totally experience it as it was intended.
Rating: Four Stars
(Originally posted on Goodreads: Link to Amazon)