Spank Book Flunks

Edited by Ellen Sussman
Bloomsbury, 291 pages, $19.99

I wasn’t a fan of Charles Bowden’s boozy, frantic examination of American life in his part-essay, part-memoir Blues for Cannibals: The Notes From Underground (2002). But I marked this passage, which has stayed with me over the years: "[L]ove is essential even if I do not know the words that give it flesh and scent. That is why we find it so difficult to write about sex. Not because we are so inhibited and prudish but because when we write about sex, we get acts and organs, a breast, a vagina, a cock, juices, tongues and thrusts—and wind up with recipes but no food. Orgasm is just a word. We have hunger and love fills it, however briefly, and our accounts of having sex do not catch what drives us into the night seeking light."

Indeed, describing sex or any of its associated words in literature is a tricky task. Unfortunately, most of the contributors to Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, edited by Ellen Sussman, aren’t up to the challenge.

Ms. Sussman, editor of a much better collection of literary work, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave (2007), asked her contributors to pick a somewhat risqué word and "offer us the essence of experience or thought. I wanted the heady rush of so much flavor," according to her introduction to Dirty Words. But many of the resulting essays, poems, plays or vignettes read like they were written in a woozy, postcoital haze. I was embarrassed for the writers. A collection of "dirty words" is a juvenile idea, and many of the entries come off as amateur, hokey and forced.

The back of the book describes the chosen words as "unspeakable," but short-story writer Rand Richards Cooper hits the proverbial nail on the (ahem) head in his entry for "Fuck." "Consider the very book you hold in your hands, a collection of essays about dirty words. Ostensibly intended to shock, what it really conveys is nostalgia for the forbidden. Behind such a book lies the paradoxical wish that the book itself would be banned. Because—let’s face it—dirty words stop being really dirty once you can publish them without getting in trouble."

Entries are in alphabetical order—climax is followed by clitoris, defying chronology—and include a definition, a list of associated words and then a short, italicized passage, which may be a quote or a snippet from a newspaper article as an introduction to the writers’ entry. Before Abiola Abrams explains her personal associations with the word "Slut," she includes a groan-worthy quote from Sex and the City: "Are we simply romantically challenged, or are we sluts?" The writers’ entries are essays or poems (like Stephen Dunn’s musings on "Bad Taste") or plays (Lucy Ferriss explains the mysteries of the "Mile High Club" with a play starring a "petite, redheaded executive" and "a prematurely balding junior attorney" according to the director’s notes).

Some writers take on the actual sound of the word, such as T. J. Parsell for "Cock." "It’s a word that stands up tall and proud—like a rooster crowing or a peacock strutting its feathers. The pronunciation alone invokes feelings of power and masculinity—the way the letter c combines with the letter k and gives it that extra kick off the back of the throat."

Others recount cringe-inducing moments behind bedroom doors. Jonathan Ames explains experiencing his lover’s "Vaginal Ejaculation" as if he were "the survivor of a shipwreck." "I washed up between her thighs, my face resting in a substantial puddle on my sheets," he writes. Patricia Marx tries to explain to her maintenance man why there was a buzzing sound coming from her bedside drawer: "You found my mother’s defibrillator!"

There are poignant glimpses, of course. Steve Almond, who had a few well-written sexual scenes in his collection of short stories, My Life in Heavy Metal (2002), gets his entry for "Lolita" right by citing one author who knows how to take on sexuality with class, despite its perversity and susceptibility to folly. "Nabokov is nothing less than a poet of desire. He is not writing about sex, but about the tumultuous feelings that illuminate our clumsy acts of love. These are what sweep us along—the bleatings of our conscience be damned. Big ideas, witty observations, and tricky plotlines are all fine and well. But the engine of any great book is desire. And by that standard, Lolita is a Mack truck."

Unfortunately, many of the entries in Dirty Words are matchbox cars.

Gillian Reagan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at

  Spank Book Flunks