Author: Tsara Shelton
Author Contact: @TsaraShelton on Twitter
Published: 28th Apr 2023 - Updated: 29th Apr 2023
Peer-Reviewed Publication: N/A
Additional References: Tsara's Column Publications
Summary: Book review of Delta of Venus, a collection of fifteen erotic short stories.
Erotica is literature or art that substantively explores subject matter meant to be erotic, sexually arousing, or sexually stimulating. The intent behind literature is to inspire thought and explore ideas. It is the same with erotic literature. It is meant to stimulate thought while potentially stimulating the libido.
I want, first, to explain why I read Anais Nin's collection of erotic stories. Not only why I read it, but why I actively searched for it (I could not find it at libraries or used book stores near me, but I did find a copy in good condition via Thriftbooks) and was so interested in reading it.
Here's the thing: I have strong opinions and reactions to the way sex is handled in a public sphere. The strength of my response to the public characterization has to do with my beliefs in their power to influence our private selves. Behind closed doors and deeper into our psyche.
What I want: A world where we talk openly and honestly about sex. Where we don't shame, where we don't portray certain types of desires or interests as monstrous or psychotic but instead seek to understand them and teach what is and isn't safe beyond our imaginations. Every interest or desire is natural for someone but not every desire can safely or ethically be played out. If we speak about these truths, if we talk about them honestly, we can create a sexually healthier and safer society.
But here's the other thing: I avoid sexual images or stories meant to be entertainment. Meant to arouse. Made only to turn you on. Not only that but when I am accidentally exposed to them I feel abused, afraid, angry. Hence, my opinion of sex entertainment does not come from an entirely balanced place.
When I've come across Anais Nin's comments, quotes, and excerpts, they move me more than most. They consistently feel true to me, even personal. They speak to me of me, with brevity. Hence, I decided to look her up and see who the heck this lady was.
"Anais Nin was a diarist, essayist, novelist, and writer of short stories and erotica," I read. Again, this felt personal. She was, as an artist, who I feel myself becoming. Even the erotica. Particularly as I see it there later on the list.
I was born interested in sexual feelings. My earliest memories are of me in a crib chasing the warm wonderful feeling between my legs and moving my body in ways to make it bigger and bigger and bigger. Wondering at how the feeling would peek and take over everything in my body, then fall away leaving only an echo. An echo I could continually play with. Abuse derailed my natural explorations, and I spent years without joy around sex. (Though I could still always enjoy it alone.) I never, though, entirely lost the wish that I could have a sexual partner who I was entirely comfortable and free with. I am almost fifty, and I have that now.
And though I do not imagine myself writing erotica exactly, I am already writing more sexually explicit pieces meant to express how this sexual expression came to be. How can I not? It is for this precise reason - for people in society to believe in and find ways to be safe and free sexually, if they so desire - that I have strong opinions and reactions to the way sex is characterized. I want sex to be a topic we can discuss, we can explore, we can examine and grow well.
So, Anais Nin. Reading a book of erotic stories she wrote was my way of checking in with myself. Seeing if I could learn to appreciate a story meant be titillating when written in a sophisticated manner. Seeing if I really believe, as I have said I do, that erotica can be both sexy and healthy for society.
Turns out, I do.
I do, but not the way I imagined. Indeed, I don't believe - due to my lack of exposure to literature of this sort - I could have imagined how this style of erotic vision could be wonderful for the world. I don't think I would have dared or had the scope.
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My copy of Delta of Venus includes an introduction by the author (adapted from The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume III) that I consider necessary reading. If only because it helps us prepare. According to Anais, the stories were written for an anonymous collector who paid a dollar a page for erotic stories. After sending her first story, his feedback was: "It is fine. But leave out the poetry and descriptions of anything but sex. Concentrate on the sex."
This feedback, for less poetry and more concentration on the sex, continued with future stories she and other writers sent. Anais Nin tells us, in response to his reactions to her stories: "I had a feeling Pandora's box contained the mysteries of woman's sensuality, so different from man's and for which man's language was inadequate. The language of sex had yet to be invented."
It is this thought that resonated within me all those years ago, before I'd ever read the thought. Without poetry, without descriptions of what we're worrying about, reacting to, hoping for, dreaming of, wrestling with, feeling feeling feeling as we explore sex and sexuality, there is no real sexuality, only lazy lizard brain (potentially harmful) sex. Lazy lizard brain sex is fine and fun but should NOT be how we share sexuality most often. It is addictive click bait. It is a lie that denies too much.
I cannot pretend I was comfortable reading all of the stories in Delta of Venus. Not only does Anais Nin choose to write stories that do not discriminate, she also does not judge her characters. She does something more valuable; she explains them. She describes motivators; she revisits their pasts and finds where a trajectory was birthed, explores how this affects their behaviors and desires. She does not apologize for them nor attempt to make the reader like them. She simply allows them.
The first story in the book titled "The Hungarian Adventurer" was the most uncomfortable for me. In it she describes a man so hungry for money, sex, and power that nothing can satisfy him. He moves on continually after taking what he wants and finding pleasure in devious ways. Eventually his sexual quests become more necessary to him than his quest for money or power. He no longer has a handle on his need for more sex and forces it in illicit ways, and though the story ends with him alone drowning in his mad desire, it does not get there without first abusing everyone. All the while, we are exposed to his power, his need, and his ability to have and then take sex when and where he wants. We are not given the gift of a nod from the author that he is the bad guy, or that a society that allows him is the bad guy, instead he is simply explained. Not justified, explained.
In yet another story, I found a version of myself. A woman who feels deeply nurturing and feminine, yet also at times strongly masculine. She is not confused about her gender, she is comfortable as a woman, but she is confused by a consistent draw to live inside her masculine self; to act it out, to allow it, to become it. She cannot comfortably wear any of the available labels, though many of them describe how she appears to behave, none of them allow her the range of motion her feeling of being requires. Throughout the story she is seeking herself yet all the while she is arguably most certainly herself. She is not me, as I could not comfortably wear her label, but I recognize her in me. And this is a wonderful, precious thing. To recognize ourselves while leaving room for more.
There are a number of moments in this book that sparked and fueled discomfort in me. There were also moments that inspired and informed understanding, of myself and others, in me. I think part of the power of stories like these is that for each reader which feelings are inspired by which moments will be different. Anais Nin, when writing erotica for the collector, did not shy away from stories that might shock. Incest, necrophilia, promiscuity, orgies, these are only a few of the possibilities for pleasure she chooses to write about. Most people have at least one illicit fantasy and I suspect most are represented somewhere in these pages.
Throughout every story there are insights and ideas for exploring the ways in which our sexuality is informed by our lives. By the beliefs we hold, the experiences we've had, the things we've seen and what we felt and thought when we saw them. Some of us have sensory issues or sensitivities that will affect what feels good and what hurts. How we behave sexually is a complicated mess of what we think we should do, what our culture tells us we should do, what we want people to think of us, and what our brains and bodies want to think and feel. Not a single story in Delta of Venus does not explore the poetry and psychology of sex. Even though the author made sure to keep the stories focused on sex and descriptions of sex as was requested, she wrote from a belief that, "There are so many minor senses, all running like tributaries into the mainstream of sex, nourishing it. Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy."
It's all those senses, all the tributaries, that she writes about. It is bringing our wholeness into the descriptions of sex that is meaningful.
This is why I think, yes, I was right. More literary erotica in the world would be a good thing. It does not follow that if we read literary erotica we will all become sophisticated thinking sexually healthy beings. Just as it does not follow that if we spend hours reading reactionary tweets on Twitter we will become reactive base emotion addicted twits. But, you know, over time....
I don't think I would recommend Delta of Venus in the way I recommend other books I have appreciated equally. I don't know exactly why. Maybe because, though I did find it incredibly impressive and diverse and thoughtful as erotica, it is erotica.
Once again, my motivator for wanting to read the book was a desire to normalize candid and careful conversations about sexuality and sex, but not to push sexual ideas or imagery at people. I struggle a little at this intersection. The wisdom, conversations, and imagery is meant to be intimate, and if done well that intimacy bleeds out into our society. An axiom of understanding that we all have a right to sex, we should not feel shame for our inclinations, there are things we should never do but that does not mean we are monsters for imagining, and there are ways to safely change what we desire or play out those desires in safe ways. I want that world, and in that world people interested in writing, reading, an experiencing erotica would mostly seek stories similar to the ones Anais Nin included in Delta of Venus. (Stories, by the way, she only agreed to publish in order to provide for her husbands - she had two - after her death.)
So, I do recommend Delta of Venus, but I am timid. If you read erotica, if you are curious about erotica, if you want to explore a more feminine version of erotica, I hope you'll choose this book or something similar. I'm even tempted to recommend it if you are not interested in erotica, only because whether or not we care much about how sex is expressed in our world, we are influenced by it. Literary erotica can be a more thoughtful influence. But at the same time, it could anger, frighten, or even hurt you. And, as I already admitted, this was my first experience with erotica so I cannot compare it to what is more common or contemporary.
So, I do recommend Delta of Venus.
Tsara Shelton, author of Spinning in Circles and Learning From Myself, is a contributing editor to SexualDiversity.org Tsara's personal blog can be found at tsarashelton.com Keep up to date with Tsara's latest writings by following @TsaraShelton on Twitter.
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• (APA): Tsara Shelton. (2023, April 28). Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anais Nin - Book Review. SexualDiversity.org. Retrieved September 23, 2023 from www.sexualdiversity.org/tsara/1164.php
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