What I've Learned in Four Years of Running My Erotic Reading Series

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For the past four years, I've hosted In The Flesh Reading Series, a monthly reading dedicated to erotica and sex and held at a bar that's a former massage parlor called, appropriately, Happy Ending Lounge. When I started, I had no idea, frankly, what I was doing. There is no "How To Run a Reading Series for Dummies" book I could buy (trust me, if there was, I'd have snapped up a copy right away). The first few readings were slow going and then a few months in, like magic, New Yorkers discovered In The Flesh. Perhaps it helped that I had a themed reading called True Sex Confessions featuring New York Times bestselling author Josh Kilmer-Purcell (I Am Not Myself These Days) and Washington, DC sex scandal star Jessica Cutler (author of The Washingtonienne).

My favorite In The Flesh photo ever, of Josh Kilmer-Purcell mock groping Jessica Cutler, taken by Brian Van

That packed evening was a turning point for me, and my series. I discovered that the curious and the confused and the horny and the hungry will come to hear stories, especially sex stories. Since then, I have hosted everyone from New York Times bestselling authors Zane and HoneyB to erotica guru Susie Bright, famed food critic Gael Greene (who read about her sensual, lusty affairs with men such as Elvis Presley from her memoir Insatiable), new media It Girl Julia Allison, acclaimed storyteller Mike Daisey, mystery writer Megan Abbott, The Rumpus's Stephen Elliott, memoirists Lily Burana, Nancy Balbirer, and Rachel Resnick novelists M.J. Rose, Amy Sohn, Valerie Frankel, Stacey D'Erasmo, and Jonathan Ames, and over 200 others (click here to see the whole list). In compiling that list, I was once again heartened to realize what it means to conduct live events.

I liken it to throwing a party, and from the start, armed with my inner Jewish mother, I brought snacks, including cupcakes. The bar has since gone on to subsidizing my feeding frenzy, and each month I serve chips, candy and cupcakes, to lend a fun feel to the evening. I know some people hear the name "In The Flesh" and think "sex party," but it's not like that. Yes, sometimes things get steamy. Marcelle Manhattan immortalized the series in Susie Bright's gorgeous hardcover erotica anthology from Chronicle Books, X: The Erotic Treasury, in her story "Second Date," which features these lines that made me blush:

So, Rachel Kramer Bussel is hosting this reading...I know erotica can be hit or miss, but it sounds like fun. Do you wanna go?"

I didn't want to seem like a girl who'd never attended an erotic reading or didn't know who Rachel Kramer Bussel was. I felt nervous and silly in my white J.Crew dress.

(It's probably NSFW, at least out loud, but you can watch Marcelle read her story here).

I've learned so much about myself, as well as my authors, from hosting In The Flesh. First I've learned that lots of people get nervous. I get incredibly nervous and often, my voice shakes when I take the mic, but I read anyway. I'm not saying everyone should do readings all the time, but I do think it's worthwhile for any author to read at least once to feel that power of connecting with real live people, in real time.

Back row: Scott Pomfret, Rachel Shukert, Samara O'Shea, Susan Wright
Front row: D.L. King, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Anna David
photo by Stacie Joy

I've also learned that hearing authors read aloud is one of the best ways to connect with the material. I love to read, and do so every day; I'm the kind of person who can miss my subway stop because I'm engrossed in a book. But hearing words read by their author, imbued with all the nuance and spirit their originator brings to them, is something else entirely. Last month, I hosted the author of one of my favorite recent books, Diana Joseph, to read part of her essay "The Girl Who Only Sometimes Said No," about slutty teenage girls (and her own slutty past), from I'm Sorry You Feel That Way (you can watch her read it here). I was so honored that she would fly out all the way from Mankato, Minnesota, to read, and then blown away that she could take a piece I'd read at least three times, and give it new life, making me fall in love with it all over again.

That is the true power of a reading. As an author, if someone hears you speak, they are more likely to remember your work. It makes a different kind of impression than reading on a page. No, you are probably not going to sell 100, or even ten copies of your book, at my series. But what you will get is real feedback, in real time. You will very likely hear where something you thought worked perfectly could still use a slight last-minute tweaking. You will hear people laugh, or gasp, or hoot, or clap.

As an author, I've learned that sometimes when I don't intend to be funny, I am. I've learned that I can write the most explicit of erotica stories but when I go to say the dirty words out loud, I often blush. I've found it an invaluable space to connect with my favorite authors, meet new ones, make fans who will return and spread the word about my books, show my book trailers, and more. Yes, it's a lot of work, but it has offered me insight into so many types of writing (poetry, memoir, fiction, erotica, skits) and expanded my ideas of what "erotic" means.

This week, for the first time, I'm leaving my reading series to a guest host, the very capable comedian Carolyn Castiglia, for Sex and Comedy Night, while I don lingerie and read erotica at Litquake along with Violet Blue, Stephen Elliott, Geoff Knight, Carol Queen and David Henry Sterry. I'm a little nervous about leaving, but I also trust that the people who need a good laugh (or a cupcake or three) will be there. And if you can't make it, we tape the readings on YouTube. Then on November 19th, I'm hosting a big party/reading to celebrate 4 years of turning people on, making them laugh, and making them squirm, with readers such as Lily Burana (I Love a Man in Uniform), Isobella Jade (Model Life), Abiola Abrams (Dare), contributors to my anthologies Peep Show, Bottoms Up and The Mile High Club, 300 free cupcakes, and fabulous giveaways. I hope you'll join me.

If you want to find out more, please visit In The Flesh Reading Series and/or become a fan on Facebook. And I'm always looking for new readers - January 21st is Sex and Food Night, and other 2010 themes include Nerd Sex, True Sex Confessions, Virgin Night (for first-time authors and readers), and GLBT Night. I'm always open to suggestions from authors, publicists and audience members as well. You can reach me at rachelkramerbussel at

Thank you to everyone who's ever read at the series or attended. You make being a writer a little less lonely, and help me provide a space to host stories that you won't hear at your average bookstore event. I'm looking forward to the next four years!

Yes, there really are free cupcakes at In The Flesh