Sally Bend is one of the most influential and important reviewers of transgender literature. She’s the assistant editor of Frock Magazine, an award-winning crossgender lifestyle magazine where she reviews transgender literature. Her reviews of erotica can also be found in Transformation, North America’s number one transgender magazine. Her tireless reviewing also appears on Amazon, Goodreads, and her Bending the Bookshelf blog too.
All this makes her something of an authority in the trans-universe, so it’s a great honor to have her sharing her insights here today. Read on after the jump for this extensive and fascinating interview.
Q: Hi Sally, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Hope life is smiling on you today! Can you start off by telling us about yourself and your work?
Thanks so much for having me, Kella! This is the first time I have been on the other side of the interview, and it’s kind of surreal, but delightful at the same time.
I am a shy sort of geek, and a bookworm at heart. I knew I was transgender long before I understood what that meant, and fiction was my earliest means of expression (and escape). Of course, finding trans-inclusive stories back then wasn’t so easy, so I started compiling my own list on an early (and embarrassingly bad) Geocities blog. Becoming a reviewer was an extension of that list, adding some commentary on what I felt was or wasn’t worth reading, and my attempt to give something back to a community that had helped me discover myself.
Q: You’re a prolific and influential critic of transgender literature. Yet you also review erotica, which most critics won’t even look at. What motivates you to review transgender erotica?
Transgender erotica speaks to me in a way that no other form of literature does. There’s so much imagination behind the fantasies, so much passion behind the writing, that it really does fill that need for escape. It can be hard to explain to someone who doesn’t read it, but there’s an emotional element to those stories that really resonates with me.
It bothers me that critics dismiss it so easily, often without giving it a chance, and that’s part of why I review it. It also goes back to that idea of giving something back to the community. I want people to realize just how well-written transgender erotica can be. I want to give credit where credit is due, and celebrate books that are so often overlooked by a society that mistakenly assumes you can’t be sexy and tell a story at the same time.
Q: How did you first get into erotica?
I started with the now-defunct Nexus paperback line. For a relatively small bookstore, the Coles at the mall actually had an impressive 2 shelves of erotica. Their suggestive titles and lewd covers were irresistible to me, and the mix of fetish and fantasy was exactly what I craved. It was through those books that I discovered that transgender erotica could not only be well-written, but respectable enough to be mass marketed.
You could say Christina Shelly took my literary virginity, and I had the great pleasure of exchanging a few emails with her once I stared reviewing. Thanks to her (and Nexus), my eyes were opened to a whole new world that I knew I wanted to be a part of.
Q: What makes for good erotica–and what makes good transgender erotica?
To be honest, the same thing that makes for a good book in any other genre. I’m looking for a strong story first and foremost, populated by engaging characters, with a well-written narrative. On top of that, I’m looking for erotic elements that resonate on more than just a physical level. One handed arousal is fine for what it is, but good erotica needs more than that to be memorable.
I want a book to get inside my head and make me think as well as feel. If you can get readers to connect with a character, to care about their story, and to share in their experience, then you’ve got yourself a winner.
Q: There’s an endless stream of erotica, more than even the most heroic reviewer could ever cover. How do you choose what to review? What draws you to a particular story—a favorite author, a weird title, an eye-catching cover? Do you seek out new authors or return to old favorites?
Now that’s a very good question. I would say about half of what I review is submitted by authors and publishers, so that’s the easy part. So long as there is a transgender element, I rarely turn down a submission. It means I’m never starved for something to read, but also means it sometimes takes me a bit to get to everyone.
As for what I choose to read on my own, I’m not immune to a sexy cover or title, but it’s the blurb that hooks me (or doesn’t), and the page-count that (admittedly) seals the deal. If I’m going to spend more than 99 cents on a book, then I want something that’s long enough to deliver some real satisfaction.
There are most definitely authors I return to again and again, and publishers that I’ve come to trust, but I’m always excited to take a chance on new authors too.
Q: Within the transgender genre, there are many niches, ranging from the realistic to the fantastic, with for example magical genderswap stories being one extreme. Which niches do you prefer? Are there any you avoid? Are there some you wish got more attention and others less?
In all honesty, it depends on my mood. Sometimes I want the magic of an instantaneous, effortless, perfect transformation. I want that dream of just waking up a woman, with no effort or struggle involved. Then again, sometimes I want a realistic story that pays close attention to the details of dressing, doing makeup, and learning to walk in heels. There are days where the destination is all that matters, and days where I want to enjoy the journey.
I love that futa stories seem to be getting more attention, although it really annoys me when authors jump on the bandwagon and mislabel their characters. I’ve had to call it out in a few reviews – if she doesn’t have a hole AND a pole, then she’s not futa!
The one niche I tend to avoid is sadomasochist erotica, where the forced feminization is solely for the sake of cruelty and humiliation. A little reluctance and coercion can be erotic, so long as the sissy or cuckold learns to enjoy it, but I simply can’t relate to a character that is made to suffer through something that should be so pleasurable.
Q: The audience for erotica is more forgiving of typos and grammatical errors than most. What are the most common and annoying errors you see? Is there a point where the errors become so distracting that you stop reading?
I’m pretty forgiving of spelling or grammar errors. We can’t all afford a professional editor, and even the best spelling and grammar tool can’t catch everything, especially when it’s a matter of context. It’s usually little things like its/it’s and there/their/they’re that I notice most often.
Where I will call a screeching halt to a read is when an author clearly has no concept of sentence or paragraph structure. When a story rambles on for 3 pages without a paragraph break, and with nary a capital letter in sight, I’m done.
Q: Are there particular story elements–character types, scenes, settings, tropes, acts, and so on–you see too often or feel are overused?
I do get tired of perfectly effeminate male who only needs a touch of makeup to suddenly look perfectly feminine. It’s too easy . . . too lazy . . . and (worst of all) doesn’t resemble most readers. If it were that really easy, then we wouldn’t need erotic fantasies.
I have a similar issue with the act of a newly transformed girl losing her virginity. It should not be quick, easy, and painless. It should not instantly be the greatest thing she’s ever experienced. It’s far more realistic to have her struggle a bit, whether that means gagging on her first blowjob or crying a bit from her first anal penetration, with her initial pain or discomfort slowly giving way to pleasure.
As for one trope that I know has come to be portrayed as taboo or insensitive in the mainstream, I do still enjoy a good trap story. I know its clichéd, but I love that moment where a character discovers that their lover has a little something extra down below, and makes the decision to cast aside any fears or inhibitions and embrace the moment. For me, as a reader, is suggests a kind of validation or acceptance that is immensely erotic.
Q: Who do you think is the primary audience for transgender erotica? Male or female? Trans? Older, younger?
Based on my experience in interacting with readers and authors, it seems to be largely male or pre-op/non-op trans. I’m assuming it has something to do with fantasy versus reality, but a lot of women I know who have transitioned seem to eventually distance themselves from the genre.
As for age, electronic publishing has made transgender erotica so easily (and so discreetly) available that I think we’re seeing younger readers discovering it and older readers rediscovering it all the time.
Q: Most people don’t expect erotica to be enlightening, educational, and sensitive to trans issues. At the same time, there aren’t many books with ‘shemale’ in the title anymore, so maybe the market is changing. What advice would you give to authors regarding sensitivity and trans issues?
The best advice I can give is to be true to the story you’re telling, and to understand that words have power. Readers are going to expect something different from a sweeter sort of erotic romance than kinky, fetish-fueled erotica. The same terms may not work in both stories.
Personally, I’m less concerned with labels than I am the intent behind them. I have read stories where socially vulgar terms like ‘shemale’ or ‘faggot’ are used positively, even as terms of endearment, and I have no trouble accepting them within the context of the story. At the same time, I’ve read books where otherwise polite terms like ‘transwoman’ or ‘trans’ are used negatively, as the worst sort of slurs, and I’ve stopped reading because of that clear intent/agenda.
Q: Pornography tends to objectify, but is erotica guilty of this too? Do you see objectification or fetishization of transwomen in your reading?
Hmm, can I plead the Fifth on that one?! I think there’s a fine line where reader expectations meet author intent. There’s a potential to objectify anyone or fetishize anything in erotica, and it’s not as simple as merely presenting them as characters or as sex objects. There’s a difference between being transformed into a living sex doll, a submissive sissy, or a woman/transwoman.
The truth of the matter is, one girl’s fetish is another’s reality; what makes one person feel special can make another feel objectified; and for some people being objectified is part of the fantasy.
Q: There are some darker aspects to authentic transgender experience–transphobia, body image, depression, and so on–that are almost never addressed in erotica. Why do you think that is and is it something that could be explored or best left to another genre?
I think it’s because erotica so often represents a fantasy or an escape. It allows us to indulge in a world that’s free of care and worry, and where acceptance comes easy.
I have seen erotica deal those issues, but usually only in a longer format – a novel or serialized story. There’s a whole other degree of character development required there, and you have to have the space to deal with it properly if the transition is to be believably erotic.
Q: How does being a critic affect your own writing?
More than anything, it’s taught me to never take things personally. Whether it’s a friend’s notes, an editor’s critique, or a reviewer’s comments, you have to separate yourself from the story and consider that feedback objectively. Sometimes it’s a matter of personal taste, and you can safely choose to discard it. Other times, however, it might be something that reveals a hidden flaw with the potential to bring the entire story to life.
Q: I understand you’re working on a paranormal transgender romance. Can you give us a quick plot summary or maybe even a sneak preview? When will it be available?
If feels like I’ve been working on that novel forever, but it’s evolved into something stronger with each draft, so I don’t regret a moment. The paranormal horror aspect is still there, but the erotic romance has really risen to the surface.
I spent the last year shopping it around to a few mainstream publishers, and while I did get some positive feedback, none of them felt it was right for them. Right now I’m preparing to query a pair of LGBT friendly publishers that I think could do it justice – unless, of course, someone reads this and approaches me first. Hey, a girl can always dream!
Here’s the pitch:
At its heart, Restless is a personal tale of gender and identity, a romance that crosses all boundaries.
In its soul, Restless is a philosophical tale acceptance and belief, a ghost story that denies all boundaries.
Stephen and Heather are outcasts in their community, with secrets that have long kept them apart, and a shared experience that is destined to bring them together. A psychologically scarred transwoman and practicing psychic, Heather has always been able to hear the dead. An emotionally restrained orphan and outspoken atheist, Stephen can suddenly see the dead. United by their complementary talents, they must confront irrefutable proof of an afterlife in which the restless dead are pursuing a vendetta against the living. At the same time, they must overcome the secrets of their past and forge a new future together.
Q: Finally, what is your advice to new or aspiring writers of erotica?
Firstly, write what you love, and love what you write. Your passion will come through in the writing, so don’t exhaust yourself trying to force your story to fit a particular market or audience. If it’s not natural or enjoyable for you, the reader will pick up on that and feel the same dissatisfaction.
Second, don’t be shy about letting someone else read your work. I know all too well how nerve wracking it can be waiting for that first feedback, but hearing those three little words – “I liked it” – is orgasmic every single time.
Thank you so much!
Thanks so much for having me. I’m extremely flattered to have been asked!