The Siren

I mentioned Tiffany Reisz’s The Siren a couple of weeks ago, as a book with a reputation for being electric. I’ve just finished reading it, and can’t quite make up my mind.

The premise: Nora Sutherlin is an erotica author and the New York underground’s most infamous Dominatrix. She wants to become a full-time, serious writer, and the only obstacle is her uptight English editor, Zach Easton. He won’t sign her contract until he sees the last word, and approves. But before you assume this is a romance – Zach’s mourning his broken marriage, and Nora’s torn between a sweet, innocent boy who represents all things wholesome, and the sadist who owned her for ten years.

It’s the first in a trilogy, so there are some endings, lots of heartbreak, and many threads left undone.

Nora is a powerhouse. She’s sweet, funny, kickass (heh), awful, sad, vivid, brutal, exciting. She’s a wonderful female character who is so drenched in experience she almost always has the upper hand. She holds her own. This, needless to say, is fairly rare and a joy to read.

The thing I liked least about the novel was her profession. I know writers are just one more subject for writers to write about – but an erotic novel about a writer of erotic novels? That was too meta for my tastes. (At least Reisz didn’t give Nora her own name as a pseudonym.)

Nora contemplates writing the climactic emotional scene just before the climactic emotional scene of the novel. She discusses, outright, the difference between sexual violence and emotional violence while she’s editing – giving us the framework for our reading of the novel. We read snippets of her novel and are invited to draw conclusions about Nora’s own life – because writers are known to write themselves into their books, and because she’s outright exploring one of her relationships by writing. That creates a mirror mirroring a mirror kind of effect. We are invited to take that reading of Nora’s book – so I couldn’t help wondering: What does this book say about Tiffany Reisz?

Like I said – too meta for my tastes.

Reisz wrote a guest post recently, titled ‘Seven reasons why you shouldn’t read The Siren’. It sounds like one of those humblebrag PR stunts, right? Like, “If you don’t like sexy, smart heroes, this isn’t the book for you!” I was impressed that she actually gave serious consideration to who her audience is, and isn’t. She says of BDSM:

The main character in The Original Sinners series is a woman named Nora Sutherlin—Mistress Nora if you’re one of us. That’s right, my female lead character is a Dominatrix. She’s also a Switch which means she not only tops (for money), she submits (for love and pleasure). If the thought of a woman with a riding crop or a man slapping his love during sex freaks you out, then move along. Nothing to see here.

I’m kinky and have done BDSM for years. There’s almost nothing that happens in THE SIREN that I haven’t done or seen or had done to me. BDSM is a game, a sexy game where everybody wins. But it’s a rough game and people do get hurt playing it. If that’s not your thing, then this is not the book for you.

I didn’t find a lot of the BDSM stuff hot, so I guess I fall into the category, “Not for you”.

Cat and I were talking recently about what works for us in a written sex scene. We figure – the more you can hone in on what works for you, the better you can write it. We both agreed that we like personal boundaries to be crossed – so that the demands of one lover require something deeply vulnerable, personal, impossible from the other.

But for me, that dynamic is immediately less interesting as soon as whips and bars and ropes are involved. That expression of submission and dominance has no emotional resonance for me – or maybe I don’t understand it emotionally. Given that the meta-narrative is exploring the transcendence of emotional pain over physical pain, the overt representation of physical pain broke the tension for me.

Probably I’m just not that into pain. It doesn’t equal anything emotionally for me, except for “ouch”.

The book discusses female desires – it puts forward the idea that it’s brave and wonderful for women to be able to submit to domination, and indulge the part of their sexuality that wants to be used and taken advantage of. This is a disturbing, complex idea, but one I was happy to engage with. Desire is no simple thing! What we should and what we want are often unhinged from each other.

However there was only one sex scene where I actually felt this dynamic – and it was the scene without any toys, just two people struggling for power and pleasure and breaking their pain apart.

In the ‘Seven reasons’ post, Reisz also acknowledges that there’s very little sex in the book, for an erotic novel. I suspect the sex is in the power plays between the characters.

Her characters have this larger-than-book feeling attached to them – like they’re very nearly iconic. That, I think, is an extraordinary feat. Even though they didn’t quite reach iconic for me, the fact that I can feel how close they are – that I would even judge them against that standard – is amazing.

Her characters reference that classic writing advice – show don’t tell – often and to good comic effect. But I felt that I didn’t see in the book just why Nora’s two men meant so much to her quite as often as I was told it. I didn’t feel the love and longing that would have pulled the narrative taught against the physical pain of the relationships. Her sadist, Soren, is the most dominant character in the book. He’s unrelenting, compassionate, vicious. But though I could see just what he was meant to be, though I understood his place in the narrative, I never felt as a reader that I’d been shown why she loved him so completely – or that his power was made absolute.

And here’s the counterpoint to the amazing female lead that is Nora: Soren can still dominate her. In the universe of this book, its god is still a man. And when Reisz lists the six reasons to read The Siren – every one of them is a man’s name.

This is turning into a long, long review/ramble, but I have one final point I want to touch on. In the ‘Seven reasons’ post, Reisz says she writes “literary erotica”. I found her book complex, compelling, tough and well-written. I don’t know if I would call it literary. It’s a tricky conversation to have, because it verges on the literary/genre divide, and that’s volatile ground! I certainly don’t think literary is better, but I think it’s a genre with its own set of identifiers. Reisz may not have “bulging trousers” in her book, but she does use some romance classics like “steely grey eyes” and quirking lips. (And that’s also not an indictment – my hero has midnight eyes, and he often quirks his lips!) An increasing number of romance novels are edging onto the literary/genre divide, so it’s worth getting critical, and watching that space, I think. It makes me happy that Reisz is placing herself there – but I suspect she’s still closer to genre than these erotica recommendations by Meanjin.

So after that whole ramble, and after ruminating on this book all night and morning, I still can’t really say what my reaction to it was. It didn’t shock me the way it did some readers (an excellent critique of the book – but be good to yourself and don’t read the spoilers!!), and I didn’t feel the full emotional impact that it offered. But it’s a complete world – and one that I want to spend more time in. I’ll be buying the next two books, without hesitation.

Comments 8 Responses

  1. princessfiona01

    Thanks for your comments Anna. This is a book I’m interested in reading. The BDSM doesn’t scare me though it’s not something I think I’ll try in the real world. I tend to be a fussy but occasionally indiscriminate reader. i.e. I’ll try anything once but I won’t pretend to like it if I don’t. ;-]. Nevertheless I have enjoyed this authors writing style in excerpts and am curious to see how it pans out in a full blown novel.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I hope you enjoy it! Her writing certainly is a joy to read. She certainly doesn’t shy away from the complex questions related to BDSM – how closely it’s related to trauma, where it blurs the lines of legal/safe/necessary/sick. I found those questions a little uncomfortable at times, but I don’t think the BDSM itself is scary as such – it was simply for me that I didn’t connect with it emotionally.

      1. princessfiona01

        When I use the term Scary I guess I meant as something in a novel that would put me off reading it rather than being frightened of the topic itself. It will certainly be interesting to read if it deals with complex questions rather than being simply the basis for erotic storytelling.

        1. anna cowan Post author

          ah! I see what you mean. Yep- BDSM’s one of those for me as well. I think she definitely pulls off making it essential rather than sex-washing (heh, made-up terms are fun!). It’s part of why there’s less sex in the book than you’d expect, and certainly less hot bondage. As I said in the review, I think the hotness transfers to the character relationships, which is an excellent sign!

  2. jillsorenson

    Excellent review! I have this in the TBR and I’m on the fence about reading it. I don’t think I’d enjoy it but I’m tempted to try anyway.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thanks Jill! I’d encourage you to give it a go, because the writing is really great, and I know it’s pinged for a lot of people. You can always put it down if it’s not your thing! (I think we sometimes forget that :-) )

  3. Kat

    I’m working on a post triggered by that Meanjin article (I have to read the first 50 pages of Fifty Shades first), but I think Chris Flynn pretty much misunderstands what Fifty Shades of Grey is and who it’s for. I’ve only read Krissy Kneen’s work of the titles he lists, but Affection is a memoir and Triptych is, according to the author, porn. Certainly with the latter it was quite difficult for me to feel, much less understand, the emotional connections between characters. Kneen writes beautifully and lyrically, but her writing provides a different kind of pleasure for me than what I’d look for in erotic romance.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      yeah, I don’t think I’d go near the titles he suggests. Far too depressing! The point I wanted to make by linking that article was that “literary erotica” is its own distinct genre – and I don’t think The Siren fits it. (i.e. it didn’t thoroughly depress me, the way I’m sure those titles would.)

      It made me start thinking a lot about genre v litfic – timely in light of Ursula Le Guin’s post on Monday! I’m thinking of posting about it next week. What genre means in real terms, not just vague categorising terms.

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