REVIEW: Kink: Stories (edited by R.O. Kwon & Garth Greenwell)

Kink is a groundbreaking anthology of literary short fiction exploring love and desire, BDSM, and interests across the sexual spectrum, edited by lauded writers R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, and featuring a roster of all-star contributors including Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, and more.

Kink is a dynamic anthology of literary fiction that opens an imaginative door into the world of desire. The stories within this collection portray love, desire, BDSM, and sexual kinks in all their glory with a bold new vision. The collection includes works by renowned fiction writers such as Callum Angus, Alexander Chee, Vanessa Clark, Melissa Febos, Kim Fu, Roxane Gay, Cara Hoffman, Zeyn Joukhadar, Chris Kraus, Carmen Maria Machado, Peter Mountford, Larissa Pham, and Brandon Taylor, with Garth Greenwell and R.O. Kwon as editors.

The stories within explore bondage, power-play, and submissive-dominant relationships; we are taken to private estates, therapists’ offices, underground sex clubs, and even a sex theater in early-20th century Paris. While there are whips and chains, sure, the true power of these stories lies in their beautiful, moving dispatches from across the sexual spectrum of interest and desires, as portrayed by some of today’s most exciting writers.

My thoughts

It’s always a bit difficult to give a review of an anthology, since each writer approaches the theme a bit differently – some executing their ideas with more skill than others, some actively breaking the spell for the reader with discordant notes. In Kink, most of the esteemed authors bring their best work, offering readers a tantalizing glimpse behind the bedroom doors of lovers who enjoy sexual roleplay and various games, where each participant is willing and able to enjoy these moments.

Of course, not all kinks are created equal, and not all of the participants are equally willing. Some of this volume’s pieces involve dubious consent, or even an authorial refusal to engage with the concept altogether, implying that a dominant partner’s desires are more important than the submissive’s. These pieces seem to be less an exploration of kink and more suggestive that the desire to inflict pain on a partner is perfectly acceptable, even if no contracts have been signed and no verbal assent has explicitly been given.

For me, these pieces don’t work. After all, kink is one thing; outright abuse is another. Thinking about another book that’s been reviled for its kinky subject matter, 50 Shades of Grey has been rightly rebuked for depicting BDSM as little more than an agreement between a man who wishes to hurt a woman and a woman who is forced by the man to comply. Is it any less toxic, then, when a trans couple engages in the same imbalanced power dynamic?

Some of the standout pieces in the volume include Melissa Febos’ opening story, “The Cure,” an exploration of a woman’s decision to take back her own power in the bedroom, inspired by her time spent as a professional dominatrix. Instead of merely playing the role when paid to do so, the heroine explores her own desires with a new lover, directing the action rather than allowing him to set the scene or end the interplay based on his own wants or needs. While the piece may not seem outwardly kinky, especially as compared to others in the collection with their catalogues of toys and fetishes, this meditation on gender roles and the centering of female desire is the perfect icebreaker for what’s to come.

The piece most guaranteed to stick in a reader’s mind for days to come is Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror,” combining a heady mixture of religious symbolism, horror iconography, artist/muse interactions, and a dash of magical realism. While Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol feels familiar, with shades of Anne Rice’s Théâtre des Vampires lurking in the cobwebs of my mind, Machado’s story takes some unexpected twists and offers unique insights into the relationships between Maxa, Bess and the rest of the theater’s company before the final curtain call.

Ultimately, though each story focuses on its own definition of kink, each author draws the reader into a certain kind of loneliness and longing for communion with another soul. The individual characters’ sexual proclivities are not so much the point as their desire to connect with a partner, for a moment or a lifetime, and that is what gives this collection its real power. For those who may never set foot inside a dungeon or pleasure palace the depiction of these experiences is exciting, but the real thrill comes from seeing how each character takes what they most desire or allows themself to subvert those desires and submit to the will of another.

For writers of erotica, the idea of taking sex seriously is nothing new, but for those who have never dipped a bookish toe into the swirling waters of carnal desire, this collection should certainly pique their interest. For those thirsty for more, I highly recommend reading any of Rachel Kramer Bussel’s annual anthologies from the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series (volumes 1-6 currently available), as well as anything by Sylvia Day, both of whom could be considered the grandes dames of the genre.