You know, the statistics function in WordPress never fails to provide me with useful, and sometimes hilarious, information. Today’s gem: apparently someone found this blog by doing a search for the term “gay vomit.” Don’t ask me.
Today, I give you a book review. I’ve got four more up my sleeve, but in keeping with the theme that seems to be of interest lately, I decided to write about the kinkiest one first, specifically The Master’s Manual: A Handbook of Erotic Dominance, by Jack Rinella.
And therein lies the first problem. This book is in fact not a manual, nor it is a handbook, nor is it for masters. What it is, in fact, is a collection of 40 of Jack Rinella’s columns about leather and kink from Gay Chicago Magazine, and while it does seem intended for a leather/kink-oriented readership (a gay male one, most particularly), it’s fairly general-interest in scope within that realm.
Needless to say, I was a little disappointed. Even the description on the back of the book didn’t make it clear that this was a collection of columns. In fact, the description calls it a “classic leather how-to book,” which is even more misleading because there is virtually zero how-to information in it.
Really, it’s unfortunate, because if the book were titled and packaged to accurately reflect its contents, I might still have purchased it, but my expectations would have been adjusted to what I might find inside, in which case my primary experience of reading it would not have been one of disappointment. As it is, I have a hard time separating my reactions to the actual contents from my grouchiness at the false advertising.
Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I’ve got a pretty clear review regardless of the title and cover. Unfortunately, it’s a rather distinctly mixed one.
To start with the small details: the writing is very hit and miss. Sometimes Jack Rinella comes up with a clever turn of phrase, and he certainly has some strong ideas (more on that later), but he’s just not the smoothest of writers. The vast majority of the time I spent reading, I was distracted by poor sentence structure, awkward humour, choppy flow, repeated statements of the obvious (“the value of wisdom ought never be ignored”) and trite conclusions, not to mention some grammatical approaches that were downright confusing and had me re-reading sentences—sometimes full paragraphs—to make sure I understood what he was getting at.
And the copy editing… oh, the copy editing. It sucks. Just plain awful. I could count handfuls of the most basic, classic errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling on every page. It just about drove me ape-shit.
Let me be clear on this one point, though: this is not Jack Rinella’s fault. Okay, the writing might be, to a point, but not the copy editing. Please, indulge me in a momentary aside about the professional writing process. There are lots of writers out there who can’t spell for beans, and that’s totally fine because it’s not their job. A writer’s job is to have interesting ideas and convey them in an engaging fashion via the written word. All the better if they happen to have a strong command of the language with which to do so, but this is a bonus, not a requirement. This is not intended to dismiss the value of strong, skilled language masters; I have much respect for them and humbly aspire to be among their ranks. I’m talking about professional requirements. Think of it like this: when there’s a test in med school, some people pass with an A+, and some people pass with a B-. Both categories of people come out with the same medical license. Of course most people want to go to an A+ doctor, and most doctors probably want to be A+ doctors, but the fact of the matter is that there will always be some more naturally skilled than others, and most of them will end up treating patients in one way or another. In the writing world, this is generally less of a life-and-death issue, but the comparison stands.
That’s why we have editors. An editor’s job is to take a text and massage it until it’s in peak form, polish the points to their shining best, and smooth the rough bits until it all reads like a stroke of velvet across your skin. When I read an author who has great ideas and so-so style, I look next to the editor. In this case, that would be Joseph Bean, whose name I know but whose editorial work I do not. I’ll keep an eye out. Right now I’m not so impressed.
The next person on the finger-pointing list is the copy editor. It’s the copy editor’s job to look for errors in spacing, punctuation, minor grammar issues (assuming the editor already caught most of them), capitalization, spelling, and every other conceivable nitpicky detail you can imagine might be relevant to getting a text printed on a page. After that comes the proofreader, who goes over the whole thing in every last little detail once it’s set up in proofs for actual printing.
Now here’s where I can offer some insight. A couple of years ago, Midori asked me to do some substantive editing work for her book Wild Side Sex: The Book of Kink. As requested, I did the substantive work—making sure ideas flowed, logic was clear, message was clean, and so forth. Big-picture stuff. I left all the grammar and spelling errors alone, and there were lots—let’s remember that Midori is a sophisticated thinker, but also that English is her third language after Japanese and German, and even a strong native English speaker is by no means guaranteed to have a solid command of the semicolon or the difference between “affect” and “effect.” I assumed that the publisher, Daedelus Publishing, would have a staff copy editor like most presses, and a pre-publication proofreader, such that the errors would be caught along the further stages the process.
Unfortunately, when the book came out, I was appalled to see that the errors were all still in it. This is most definitely the responsibility of a publisher, and Daedelus completely and utterly failed at fulfilling it. It almost made me cry (or maybe vomit… gay vomit?) to see her book, so full of insightful ideas and intriguing theses, buried under a pile of basic grammar mistakes. I was angry at Daedelus on her behalf, and on behalf of any other author who might entrust their work to such a completely irresponsible publisher. What a crock.
And guess who published The Master’s Manual? Yep. You got it. Add one to the list of authors on whose behalf I’m grumpy at Daedelus.
Now that I’ve trashed the packaging and the writing, I’ll engage with the meat of the book, the actual ideas. Here’s where things take a turn for the better.
As a leatherman, Jack Rinella does seem to know what he’s doing. He’s strongest when he’s talking about master/slave relationships, though his range runs to the snore-inducing when he gets into “list mode” – look what I have in my toy bag! Look what books about SM you should read! Gah. Those pieces could have been completely dropped, since in my humble opinion, one’s toy bag and bookshelf should reflect one’s specific and personal playtime interests rather than any outside expert’s advice, no matter how knowledgeable. That said, anytime I take real issue with what he’s saying, I can attribute it to the book itself being rather dated (it was originally published in 1995, so his information on, say, sterilizing a dildo is a little creaky), or to his tendency to make sweeping general statements—such as the aforementioned toy bag list—that aren’t necessarily applicable across the board in the world of kink but that aren’t particularly offensive either. They’re simply reflective of his own experience, and not many of us can truly step outside that, so I can hardly fault the guy.
I also found the male-centric approach a bit irritating at times, but he does indicate in the book’s introduction that he was adapting his columns (written for a gay publication, as mentioned) to a larger audience so the focus might be a little cock-heavy. At least I knew what I was getting into, and to be fair, he really did try to generalize in most pieces, and unlike some gay guys he’s not afraid of using the word “vagina.” Good on ya, Jack.
Aside from his good points about D/s relationships, I like Rinella’s writing the most when he’s making principled, political statements about the nature of sex and kink. Maybe that’s just because I agree with him… he really takes a firm stance that people’s kink is their own, there’s no one way to do things, that we should let people discover their own path, and that safety and respect are paramount no matter what. Good messages.
Here, let me point out a few of his stronger pieces. (I’ve left the copy editing more or less intact; thankfully these seem to be some of the better done bits.)
- Chapter 4, “What We Really Need Is an Education,” in which he explains the three principles of a good education in BDSM: technique, understanding and attitude. In other words, learn your play techniques so you can do it safely and happily; think about your motivations and expose yourself to outside stimuli to help you figure your shit out; and cultivate an attitude of openness, confidence and respect. Lastly, none of this is gonna be handed to you, so go out and work for it. Pretty solid advice.
- Chapter 14, “The Question of Equality,” in which he criticizes the idea that a top is somehow “better than” a bottom. I’ll quote a few bits I found particularly well done: “There is no ranking of real power or real service. Of itself power is neutral. The roles we play or the roles we live are neither better nor worse. Their goodness, their rightness springs from the intention, the purpose of our hearts. The real bench-mark is the standard of our souls. (…) For master and slave are not degrees on the scale of goodness. They are the same degree. They are both good in so far as they reflect the inner goodness and just desires of the doer. (…) … in reality the only comparison that matters is how we measure up to our own potential. Do I want to be equal? You bet I do. I want to be equal to the best me that I am.”
- Chapter 17, “The Thin Layer of Civilization.” Another couple of quotes: “Leather, in each of its various scenes, lets us get in touch with the primal issues of life and death, fear and bravery, violence and peace. It hearkens to a primitive, basic, corporal existence—almost (but not quite) the law of the jungle. The attraction, unspoken perhaps, that leather holds is both its contradiction to social norms and the primal impulses it satisfies. (…) (Ours) are passions too intense for a polite, law-abiding democracy, but they are real. To deny them is to deny our inner selves, to say we have no dark side. To express them wantonly is to court disaster. Society has pushed these primal urges to hung, conquer, dominate, to flee, surrender, serve, far from its respectable pretenses. Yet they lie not far below the board room table or the cafeteria lunch counter. Denied expression, they rear their ugly heads in spousal beating, child abuse, addictions, power plays and other forms of “acceptable” violence. Leather offers their release without the destruction they might otherwise cause.”
Do let me point out that I do not think BDSM is a last stop on the way to certain spousal abuse or addiction. I don’t think that’s what Rinella was getting at either, though I do think his statement could easily be misinterpreted as such.
- Chapter 18, “Power.” Definitely one of the strongest pieces in the book. A quote: “Fundamentally, those who aspire to be masters and mistresses must be comfortable with power. That means they need the ability to acquire it, use it, live with its consequences, to overcome the negative connotations inherent in being powerful, and to elude the corruption it ay bring and the conceit it is liable to engender.” Check that out – a white male (though gay) who can warn against the pitfalls of the dominant ego. Nicely done! He goes on: “To do so can be difficult. The Judaeo-Christian ethic that permeates our culture inculcates us with a great deal of negativity about power. We are taught that the meek shall inherit the earth, that modesty and humility are virtues, and to turn the other cheek. At the same time, our education fills us with ambivalence, for it reinforces in us the drive to compete, to win, to conquer, to gain fame and fortune by succeeding, while trying to insure that we are good, “law-abiding” citizens, i.e. that we do what we are told. It is kept a secret that success may be built on the backs of others who have failed.”
I will stop short of quoting the entire piece. Suffice it to say that Rinella does a great job of cutting straight to the heart of the ways power is constructed in our society and what a person needs to overcome in order to hold their power, whether from the top or the bottom, in the world of kink. Very, very good stuff.
- Chapter 38, “Fucking.” I absolutely love his first paragraph: “I suppose that for sensibility’s sake I ought to come up with a better title for this chapter. But as I sit here typing, I can’t. You see, not only do I like the activity of fucking, I like the word. I like it for its shock value, for the way it flies in the faces o those who want to sanitize, legitimatize, and civilize the wonderfully basic and primal event called sexual intercourse.” It’s truly a delicious chapter, and I thoroughly appreciate the way Rinella relishes his subject and provides absolutely no apology for it.
So that’s the positive.
The problem—and again, this isn’t much different from any other halfway decent kink book out there—is that Rinella never truly challenges much of the established wisdom out there about BDSM. He toes the party line. With the potential exception of his raw and eloquent sex-positive attitude and his unapologetic love of power play, he doesn’t say anything upsetting, or particularly critical. He makes lots of good points, but they’re in many ways the same points you’ll find in most other BDSM books. Be nice, play safe, be proud. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who’s really hankering for the next level, the 201 or 301 instead of the endless repetition of 101-level kink discussion. It’s not that I take great issue with any of his views, and in some ways the ones I mention above are meatier than your average 101 book. Still, I wish they were deeper, more nuanced, further along somehow.
Is this a flaw in the book itself? Not really. Perhaps it’s more like a flaw in the general state of kink literature these days, which seems to think it’s still addressing a population made up entirely of newbies at best and rabid political enemies at worst, whereas the population of seasoned and hungry sex-positive kinsters out there is ceaselessly multiplying, and it deserves some literature to sink its teeth into. And make that properly edited literature, please and thank you.