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Literate Smut

Edited by Rufus GriscomAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rufus Griscom and Genevieve FieldAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Genevieve Field

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New York magazine called Nerve "the Web's most intelligent forum for erotica." Now, from the creators of Nerve.com comes an original collection of sexual fiction and nonfiction from some of today's best writers.

Since its online debut in 1997, Nerve has been publishing brazen, titillating,  and intelligent prose and photography. Nerve: Literate Smut highlights some of the webzine's most acclaimed stories and essays by writers such as Norman Mailer, Sallie Tisdale, Rick Moody, Thom Jones, and Dr. Joycelyn Elders, as well as striking photographs by Andres Serrano, Richard Kern, Sylvia Plachy, and others. Nerve's founders frame the texts and photos with original and revealing essays on the many sides of sex--from shame and habits to taboos, debauchery, and, of course, love.  This volume demonstrates why Nerve is more than the latest web phenomenon--it's a bold new sexual sensibility and a precocious force in American culture.



Rufus and Genevieve, April 14, 1998

About a year ago, we set out to publish a magazine about sex. Not a magazine of porn or erotica--genres primarily dedicated to producing arousal--nor another glossy proffering tips on sex and romance, but rather a forthright magazine about sex. We were less interested in sexual technique or fantasy and more interested in the subtleties of real sexual experience. As clear as these distinctions were to us, they were lost on some of the journalists who wrote about Nerve, for whom sexual content necessarily fell in the preexisting porn-erotica-self-help continuum.

It's no accident that most writing on the subject falls in these categories; it's far more difficult to write outside of them. Describing the experience of sex--not just the positions--presents a challenge similar to that of describing color: Language does not yet have much purchase on these perceptual realms. Describing the mechanics of sex presents the opposite problem: The process has been described too many times with the same constellation of words. Too many lovers have "warmed to the touch," then "purred like kittens," and eventually "switched into high gear," and finally "thought they were going to explode"; too many of these were "religious experiences" followed by obligatory cigarettes. Only the best writers are capable of discarding the Lego sets of sexual cliche in favor of describing sex and sexuality from scratch.

Even for those writers, there is a second challenge: Sex is a subject tripwired with insecurities and conflicts--a subject that people lie about as a matter of course. Excavating one's desires requires bravery and an appetite for honesty that can overwhelm the gag-reflex of psychological discomfort.

Even when authors achieve this honesty, it may be confusing to readers who are used to focusing on how to improve their sex lives. We are a nation of improvers, forever looking for ways to increase efficiency and productivity, forever trying to fix things. Aging bothers us, so we try to fix it with plastic surgery and the latest miracle moisturizer; sex challenges us, so we deploy armies of sex therapists, erect bulwarks of self-help books. Popular magazines pitch in by recycling the same ten ways to improve our sex lives year in and year out. The assumption seems to be that once we are all operating at peak efficiency, having orgasms on command, undistracted by embarrassment and guilt, the sex "problem" will be solved, and there will be nothing more to talk about.

Nerve stands in stark contrast to this mentality: We don't want to fix sex, we want to examine it. We don't want to achieve perfect sex, we want to savor imperfect sex. The obsession with fixing things, in our opinion, can be a way of avoiding them. The best writers and artists have long suggested this alternative to the self-help ethos: Relish life's complications. Don't do away with them, record them. Do this first because the result is often beautiful and second because the process helps us better understand each other, helps us bridge the gulfs between our insular skulls.

When we first concluded that we had no choice but to create this magazine, we immediately assembled a list of our favorite sixty writers in the world. We then spent several months writing heartfelt letters to the ones we could track down, which we sent along with a copy of our mission statement ("What Are We Thinking?" which you'll find on page xii). We knew at the time that this was the whole game: lacking significant money or name recognition, we needed to compel a critical mass of talented writers and photographers with our idea and the strength of our conviction.

The response to Nerve from writers, and subsequently from the media and public, wildly exceeded our expectations. On June 27, 1997, the morning after we launched the magazine quietly from our cramped New York apartment, the phone rang. An hour later we were live on CNN; a week later, we were in Newsweek. Since then, millions of readers have been through the Web site, and our lives have been a frenzied blur of ink-smattered manuscripts, half-eaten Chinese food, and strobing computer screens.

Many of the writers and photographers whose work appears in the pages that follow responded to that first series of letters; most of them are people whose work we've admired from a distance for years, though a few were unpublished writers we discovered through word of mouth. The book is divided into seven chapters that reflect some of the different sensitivities and themes that we looked for in submissions. Each chapter begins with an introduction by one or both of us: We figured that after many months of encouraging writers to bare themselves on the page, it was only appropriate that we do the same.

What Are We Thinking?

We are a couple of garden-variety sex enthusiasts, much like the rest of you mammals. On a good night we call out to the heavens and thrash about like hooked bass, clamoring after those precious few seconds of blindness. As the bed comes to a quiet stop and the last picture falls off the wall, the recent commotion can be hard to explain--it all made sense a few moments ago and now we are just sticky and naked and looking for our clothes.

We've created Nerve (nerve.com) because we think that sex is beautiful and absurd, remarkably fun and reliably trauma-inducing. In short, it is a subject in need of a fearless, intelligent forum for both genders. We believe that women (men too, but especially women) have waited long enough for a smart, honest magazine on sex, with cuntsure (and cocksure) prose and fiction as well as striking photographs of naked people that capture more than their flesh.

Nerve has set out to be more graphic, forthright, and topical than "erotica," but less blockheadedly masculine than "pornography." It's about sexual literature, art, and politics as well as about getting off--and we realize that these interests sometimes conflict. Erotica does not always understand this--that once our desire reaches a certain clip, attempts at artistry become annoying obstacles in the path of the nouns and verbs (or precious pixels) that deliver the goods. We find ourselves hunting for the naked details in erotica like rushed shoppers in a crowded store. Nerve intends to be direct with both word and image, whether the result is flushed faces, genitals, or perhaps just reflective thought.

This is why we decided the subject of sex deserved a magazine of its own: less to celebrate the gymnastics of sex than to appreciate the way it humbles us, renders us blushing teenagers. Our bodies are fickle, oblivious to convention, and not always beautiful. But we think shame (in small doses) is to be cherished--it makes us honest and human and trims our paunchy egos. It is also lush terrain for good writers; after all, rarely is honesty as difficult and memorable as it is in bed. We both still have a smelly fingered fascination with our shame and desire and have spent the last year encouraging others to unveil theirs in the stories and personal essays gathered here.

Just as we individuals are not sure whether to be embarrassed or thrilled by our libidinous flights, our society as a whole suffers a similar schizophrenia, at once sex-obsessed and puritanical. Nerve is dedicated to shedding light on some of these cultural ironies. Sex, after all, is more than a popular sport and marketing tool: It is a truth-telling vehicle. Sex calls our bluff--it makes us want to lie, sermonize on the weather, spill our beer. We think this is good reason to look a little closer, examine our discomfort, maybe finish the drink.

Finally, we would like to make plain that although we believe in sexual freedom and obvious political rights, we are not on some fix-eyed mission to rally the forces of sexual revolution. Though some would dispose of taboos entirely, we prefer to gnaw on them like squeaky dog toys. Of course it's not lost on us that a world without taboos would be a little less in need of Nerve.
Rufus Griscom

About Rufus Griscom

Rufus Griscom - Nerve
Genevieve Field created and edited books for MTV in her pre-Nerve life. She writes short stories and is at work on her first novel, which is being published in installments on Nerve.

Rufus Griscom left his job as an editor and director of new media in book publishing to cofound Nerve.com. His writing has appeared in Publishers Weekly, the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, and other publications.

  • Nerve by Rufus Griscom
  • September 15, 1998
  • Fiction - Humorous
  • Broadway Books
  • $19.00
  • 9780767902571

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