Libertine or prude?

Erotica writer Zane delivers the damnedest mix of explicit, raucous, profane sexual descriptions alongside bromides on infidelity and homosexuality.

By Charles Taylor

Published September 4, 2002 7:05PM (EDT)

I'm a book snooper. I always look at people's bookcases when I go to their house, and I always look at what people around me are reading on the subway. I had never heard of Zane until one day last year when I was riding the subway and glanced over at what the young black woman next to me was reading.

This is the passage that met my eyes: "People were fucking anywhere they could find a spot. I fucked three men at the same time on top of the green velvet cloth on a craps table while my cumdaddy feed [sic] his dick to two of the new sorors from the Nashville chapter. They were all on him and I thought they were about to come to blows over it because they were both being so damn greedy with the dick. Can't say I blame them though cause the brotha did have some good as dick."

What the fuck was this? I got a look at the cover, an illustration of three black women in lingerie that looked like some collaboration between Essence and the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog, and saw the title "The Sex Chronicles." Stopping off at Barnes & Noble, I got a copy. A "preview" section in the back of the book informed me that Zane had also written the novels "Addicted" and "Shame on It All." Her latest novel, "The Heat Seekers," came out in hardcover this past June.

Self-published until she was signed by Pocket Books, Zane is part of the group of African-American fiction writers, like Eric Jerome Dickey or Bebe Moore Campbell or Omar Tyree, who've emerged in the last few years to find an audience without substantial coverage from the white press or any recognition from white readers. Though you can't help seeing their books if you spend any time browsing Barnes & Noble or Borders, or if you live in a city and pay attention to what other people are reading on the subway or the bus. My copy of "The Sex Chronicles" even includes a section of testimonials from readers. "My Sister!" begins one. "I thank U for so eloquently documenting your thoughts on ebony erotica. More importantly, thank U my sister for validating and confirming that my desires are not freaky or degrading to personhood."

Erotica is too often divided between the cozy, comfy nonthreatening variety (the kind that treats even the hottest sex as if it were cuddling with your genitals) or the "dark, transgressive" kind that may turn us on but bears no relation to our actual sex lives.

Zane is the damnedest mix of libertine and prude. Explicit, raucous and profane sexual descriptions stud her prose, along with bromides on infidelity and homosexuality that would do any far right-winger proud. Maybe that combination of wildness with a safety net is part of her appeal. It's also what limits the sexual imagination she shows, even as she acknowledges the sexual hunger that can bedevil people in committed, monogamous relationships.

Zane, at heart, is a conventional romantic but she brings hot, explicit sex into familiar scenarios of middle-class life. She doesn't treat marriage as sexual death or write about how sexual desire ruins people's lives.

In her erotic stories, at least. Her novels are another story. It's not just that it's badly written or that, for slickness and sheer fun, she can't hold a candle to a born entertainer like Terry McMillan. It's that she turns preachy. "Addicted" is the story of a woman who marries her childhood sweetheart, finds he's a lousy, inhibited lover, and goes looking for sexual satisfaction elsewhere. That leads her (spoiler alert) into the arms of one man who's little better than a thug and another who turns out to be a serial killer. The climax includes revelations about Zoe, the heroine's childhood (and the childhood of her husband), the message of which seems to be that a strong sexual appetite is evidence of buried traumas of sexual abuse.

In one scene a sexual "expert" tells Zoe that her childhood masturbation was a sign that something was wrong. But one of the things that makes the opening chapters of the book refreshing is Zane's casual acceptance that it's perfectly normal for kids to have sexual feelings. The overall lesson of the book is stick to the straight and narrow otherwise you risk losing your home, your man, your kids.

Worse, Zane's treatment of what she calls "homie-sexuals" falls right in line with the homophobia of so much black popular culture. One of Zoe's lovers is a lesbian artist who is written as the stereotypically predatory dyke. And Zane makes it clear that Zoe's gay affair is an emblem of her psychological sickness. (It's significant that, in the affair, Zoe is resolutely the bottom.)

And in the opening pages of "The Heat Seekers" one of the characters recounts walking in on her boyfriend fellating his roommate and throwing up. "There I was," she writes, "infatuated, with what I thought was a prime candidate for the Pussy Eater's Hall of Fame, when all along I was giving my sweet loving to a booty bandit, a rump wrangler, a sword swallower ... Goodness knows I would spread my thighs open for a three-legged baboon with one eye in the center of its forehead before I ration Trent another millimeter of puntang." Charming.

How different from "Wanna Watch?" one of the stories in "The Sex Chronicles" where a woman puts on a lesbian show for her husband with her college roommate. She's not written of as depraved or sick. And that holds true for all the characters in "The Sex Chronicles." Zane trades in some of the oldest sex fantasies in the book -- the woman getting rescued by the beautiful, strapping stranger who becomes her lover; meeting up with the person you lusted after in high school and finally getting to fuck; having a steamy encounter with someone you meet on a business trip; screwing the husband of a woman your husband has fooled around with in revenge.

You can't say that, imagination-wise, Zane's scenarios break any new ground. But the salaciousness of her language does. There's no phony decorousness to Zane's descriptions: "I found the corona of his dick on the underside of it and flickered my tongue all around it. He was shook. Precum started to trickle out the head of his dick and, like a bullfrog catches a fly with his tongue, I caught every drop of that shit. I took the head of his dick in my mouth and contracted my cheek muscles on it, squeezing all the precum I could find out of that bad boy. It was dayum delicious." Great writing? Not by a long shot. Psychologically nuanced? No. But if what you want in erotica is a writer who doesn't skimp on the heat, and who gets at the ravenousness of somebody acting out a sexual fantasy without turning prim when her characters get down to business, then Zane delivers.

The conservatism of her novels is all the more surprising considering that in "The Sex Chronicles," so many of her sexual adventuresses are married. And she doesn't automatically treat their escapades as destructive to their marriages but as something separate from it. My favorite stories in "The Sex Chronicles" involve an elite black sorority called Alpha Phi Fuckem; the members, all successful black professional women, organize monthly events to which the members must bring a man they don't know and will never see again. Of course, orgies ensue with each sister (all of them with names like Soror Ride Dick or Soror Deep Throat) performing her specialty. "You would never be able to pick us out as we walk down the street, volunteer at community events, bake cookies for church bake sales and act as cheerleaders on the sidelines for our kids' little league games. Most women have an undercover freak in them yearning to get loose."

You could say that Zane is saying that people need to stray to have a satisfying sex life, but there are also plenty of stories about couples who keep rekindling their spark, or women who have to take their men (ahem) in hand and retrain them as lovers. And "The Sex Chronicles" are clearly intended as fantasies, not as prescriptions for healthy marriages. Extramarital flings are almost never as free of complications as she writes them.

But if you take the social realist approach to erotica, you can take the fun out of anything. "The Sex Chronicles" seems intended to be read by couples as a prelude to sex. And when books or movies that pretend to take unblinking looks at sexuality (like Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful") fall back on the most traditional clichés, the lack of guilt or shame in "The Sex Chronicles" is refreshing. "The Sex Chronicles" is a celebration of what Zane calls the bomb-ass dick, in sickness and in health, till death do it and her punani part.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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