I cannot say, like Nerve magazine writer Fiona Giles, that I have "worshipped many dicks in my life." Even if I had worshipped many dicks in my life, I do not think that I could say that I had. This is why we read a Web magazine like Nerve. I am glad there is a place for (mostly) good writers to realize a literary sexuality for the rest of us to appreciate.
Launched in June by editors Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field, the site views sex as "a truth-telling vehicle," a literate place to explore our "smelly-fingered fascination with our shame and desire." I like this agenda, for I am faithful to the notion that it is possible to make the smelliest subjects intellectually compelling, given good enough writing and sharp enough wit. But accomplishing this with respect to sex is no mean feat. It's easier to write something sexy about eating an artichoke ("gently she fingered through the layers of petals, scraping soft vegetableflesh with the tips of her teeth") than to render erotic the effect of a penis on a vulva.
Giles, who has edited a book called "Dick for a Day: What Would You Do if You Had One?" rises to the task when she describes cherishing "the moment I can slip my fingers inside boxers or briefs and discover the heated weight of a hardening cock in the palm of my hand." In a fraction of a sentence, Giles has overturned the literary sexual order, defining herself as the pursuing subject, and her beloved as the willing object waxing desirous in the palm of her hand. This is poetic, straightforward writing about sex.
Nerve also offers erotica that deliberately shies from loin stirring, but is evocative nonetheless. Griscom's maiden "Whelmed" column tries to come to terms with mediocre sex. "We don't hear as much about the disappointments, the anticlimaxes, the misfires," he writes. He continues by describing what a wilting penis really feels like, citing the "little compression on entry," that creates "a challenge reminiscent of stuffing the spring back into a jack-in-the-box."
Lisa Carver, in "Some of My Best Friends Are Sensualists," halves the world into sexualists and sensualists. According to Carver, sexualists are interested in having orgasms, period. Sensualists pay attention to ambience, tricky technique and emotions. Carver's Plain Jane voice plays this ancient theme with virtuosity:
"Sensualists do stuff with their fluids. Why?" she asks. "When giving a blow job, the obvious thing to do is swallow the semen -- it's neat, polite and efficient. I don't smear it or drip it into the guy's mouth, or any of those other things that I know sensual people are going around doing." ("I can make myself come in two minutes," Carver writes. "Why spend two hours?")
Of course, were it not for sensualists, there would be no place for erotica. For photophiles, Nerve's Skin department offers a variety of images. A photograph by Peter J. Gorman displays a naked, long-legged woman on a chair, her straggly dark hair streaming down over rubbery-looking breasts. The woman's legs are splayed, the long slim fingers of her left hand point down from her navel, and the tip of her middle finger rests upon her clitoris. She stares frankly at the crotch-level camera. Our eye is captured by the severe lines of her long leg, her high-heeled sandal and those impossibly long fingers. The boring furnishings of "her" room (actually, she's sitting in Gorman's apartment) are blurred behind her. Who cares about time, desks, lamps and the other paraphernalia of life, the image seems to ask, when there's a sexually wired female (whose "charged" desire is suggested by the crazy wiggles and lines of her twisted telephone and electrical cords) spread out in the foreground?
Personally, I've seen just about enough drag queen portraiture, studies of the immensity of the female form and rippling flesh below vaguely contemplative eyes. What's more, calling forth photographic images on my computer screen takes so long to complete, and seems like such an affront to the medium, that I'd just as soon pass on the photos altogether.
It's likewise a little risky to enter Threads, Nerve's fiction department. I began a story by writer Dale Peck, but did not get very far. "You were a pushy bottom," writes Peck in "S/M or Sunday Night, Monday Morning," "and you brought my hands down roughly on your skin, and I began slapping you. You were thin even then, your flesh wasn't tight, and I wondered if perhaps you had just lost a lot of weight. I hit you with your belt. I threw you against a tree. As you came a second time, I said, 'Meet me here one week from tonight.'" If you found yourself wondering what kind of tree that guy got thrown against, so as to have some idea of the kind of bark that would have abraded the "beloved's" baggy skin, perhaps this form of erotica isn't for you, either.
Brainy types may enjoy Rick Moody's recommendation from Nerve's Ex Libris department, in which writers offer some of their favorite passages from canonical erotica. Moody presents "M" (Mr. M's Story), by Michel de M'Uzan, originally published in the Polysexuality issue of Semiotext(e). Mr. M is a masochist, and the particulars of what was done to his body are horrific. But the dry, clinician's tone of the narrator, who patiently unpacks and airs out Mr. M's dirty laundry, is a marvel to read. We read with wonder as the dispassionate analyst unravels the complex, Machiavellian manipulations set in motion by the publicly respectable Mr. M., who had the skin of his back pierced into a row of thongs so that he could be suspended by ropes and dangled while undergoing rectal penetration.
Nerve makes bedfellows of low-, middle- and highbrow smut. Log on to read a treatise written by a Harvard professor on the sexual practices of bonobo apes. Log on to review a reprinted but still timely interview with Norman Mailer on ethics and pornography. Log on to read Quentin Crisp's meditations concerning celibacy. I was surprised, though, given the free-ranging raunchy literariness of Nerve, to come across an oddly tame little piece by former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders titled "The Dreaded 'M' Word." "Rather than tell children that touching themselves is forbidden," she writes (with co-author Barbara Kilgore), "parents may gently explain that this is best done in private." What is this datedly therapeutic yet pedagogically sound bit of talk show advice doing in Nerve?
On the other hand, this is precisely what Nerve is setting out to do: expand the discourse in/of/around the sexual arena in order to make some sense of what people do with their bodies. Nerve says to its readers, Do what you want in private, but talk about it in public. The talk may or may not be cheap, but silence in these matters is always costly.
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AN INTERVIEW WITH NERVE FOUNDERS
Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field
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If Nerve may be viewed as an attempt to reconcile the private mystery of sexuality with the urge toward confession and revelation (or at least to bring this tension to the table), how do you reconcile yourself personally to this tension? Is it a challenge for you to write about your penis, about humping, about masturbating, etc.?
Griscom: Well, of course it's easier to write about these things than it is to tell them to a friend, even a good friend. I found it hard to even describe to a female friend recently what I wrote in my last column. I think this is why writing remains such a powerful medium in this era of high-bandwidth media: The nimble stream of letters can plumb regions the lens and microphone cannot reach (or, perhaps, would prefer not to).
One of the things that sets Nerve apart from other publications, I think, is our interest in exploring the embarrassing -- even humiliating -- moments of the sexual experience in addition to the moments of triumph. Since we ask this of our writers, Genevieve and I feel that we should be willing to expose ourselves to a degree as well. I think writing is about sharing the interior experience, and it's particularly interesting when it's difficult.
Is it hard to come up with quality content to keep the magazine going, given its themes and subjects? Do you solicit material, or is stuff flowing in from good writers who've been longing to write about sex?
Field: From the outset, we've wanted to approach writers who haven't written about sex but who are known for being bold on the page -- and we've been pleased to find that just about all the authors we speak to want to write about sex. We've received a lot of enthusiastic phone calls from writers who call up and say, in effect, "about time."
Griscom: Many writers whom we have quietly admired for years have contributed, and we're still kind of pinching our cheeks over that. We spent several months before publication doing nothing but drafting letters to writers, and that continues to consume a fair amount of our time. We now receive quite a few submissions and have less explaining to do when we approach writers. We are about to publish original articles, essays and fiction by Robert Owen Butler, Denis Johnson and Sallie Tisdale. Naomi Wolf, Dorothy Allison and Richard Klein are contributing this fall.
It's a commonplace observation that women, in literature and life, are coming into their own as desiring subjects of sexual experience, and further, as subjects who shift willingly back and forth between their roles as subject and object. How do these ideas play out in Nerve?
Field: It's quite true that women today have more sexual agency than ever before. Thus, we -- as women first, readers and writers second -- are increasingly bored with erotica and its tired recipes for arousal, and unwilling to conform to the collective male fantasy that pornography is constructed for. Writing about sex is now exciting territory for serious female writers, and I like to think that Nerve is giving us the push we need to forget about what we've been told women want, and write unapologetically about the realities of our desires. Right now it looks like more than 30 percent of our readers are female, which tells us we're doing something right.