Let’s talk about sex, anonymously: New York writers Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Hillary Jordan on their new anthology of unattributed erotica

“We were at dinner,” says Hillary Jordan, talking over Zoom about the origins of her latest literary project. “I know there was wine involved.”

The project Jordan was discussing with her dinner companion, writer and journalist (and fellow New Yorker) Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, was an anthology of erotic fiction. This is perhaps not a completely unexpected subject of consideration for a pair of literary writers, both of whom claim a prior affinity for thoughtful, well-written erotica. What made the idea different was their unique approach to the imagined collection. They would gather together as many literary writers as they were able and invite each to contribute a story to the anthology. The key was that the stories would be printed anonymously, with the authors’ names appearing solely in an alphabetical list at the beginning of the volume.

The resulting work, simply and appropriately titled Anonymous Sex, is being published today by Scribner.

Though Tan and Jordan first discussed the idea years ago, the finished book is a product of the ongoing global pandemic. When Covid-19 lockdowns started sweeping the globe in March 2020, Tan got a call from her mother, begging her to come home to Singapore.

“I was literally on the last Singapore Airlines plane out of New York,” Tan says. “It was packed with scared Singaporeans. I remember for eighteen hours, no one said a word. It was like we were being airlifted out of a war zone.” Once there, Tan found herself stuck when authorities shut down the airports, effectively sealing off the city. “Nothing was coming in or out,” she says.

Jordan, meanwhile, remained in the U.S., where extensive lockdowns left her stuck in Maine without the recourse to cafés, restaurants, or any other form of entertainment, diversion, or human contact. “I’ve definitely discovered the limits of my introversion,” Jordan says.

Among the rare moments of connection were Facetime conversations conducted while the writers were separated by a half planet’s worth of geography. They would get online at noon Jordan’s time, midnight Tan’s time, and talk. One of the things they talked about was Anonymous Sex. “We came up with the idea about seven or eight years before the pandemic hit, but we just never had the time to do it,” Tan says. Lockdowns and other public health measures changed all that. “We were going crazy and we were like, ‘What about now?’ We have all the time in the world to do this project all of a sudden.”

“It was a pandemic baby,” Jordan says.

“It’s very playful, which is what we think some of the best sex writing is,” says Tan. (Photo: Mark Hedden)

The idea to keep the stories anonymous arose out of what Tan calls “blue sky” thinking on the part of the editors. They were batting around names of authors they might want to approach and were cognizant of the fact that many of the people on their wish list were not known for writing explicit sex. In an attempt to make it easier for authors to agree, they came up with the notion of telling potential contributors that their names would not be attached to the stories themselves.

But there was another, equally important, factor in the decision to remove identifying information from the individual submissions. “We thought it would be fun,” Jordan says. “We thought it would be fun for readers, we thought it would help sell the book – the intrigue around it, the parlour game aspect.”

“It was kind of cheeky, kind of funny,” says Tan. “And it’s also very playful, which is what we think some of the best sex writing is.”

The first person to come on board was Julia Glass, the National Book Award winner who was responsible for introducing Jordan and Tan at a brunch during the 2013 edition of the Brooklyn Book Festival. By the time they were done, the pair of editors had secured an impressive roster of contributors, including Louise Erdrich, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Paul Theroux, Chigozie Obioma, Helen Oyeyemi, and Téa Obreht. “We got some noes, some heartbreakers,” says Jordan. “But even those people were pretty intrigued by the idea.”

One of the important factors in putting together a list of contributors was that it broadly reflect a spectrum of gender identification, sexual identification, and geographical location. “As an international author myself, it was very important to have international voices on board,” Tan says.

In terms of ground rules, the editors provided no specifications as to subject matter, approach, or tone, relying on each individual writer to determine what felt sexy to them. “Sex is a very personal experience,” says Tan. “The only specifications we gave them were word count.”

The result is a collection that spans a wide range of experiences and voices, from a reimagining of the Rapunzel fairy tale to a story set in a consumerist vision of the afterlife. The audacious opener is about a woman at a work conference who receives increasingly aggressive texts from her colleague, with whom she is having an extramarital affair, instructing her to perform various acts of public debasement. That story, along with one titled “Love Doll,” represent what may be the two most disturbing entries in the anthology, though both are provocative in their exploration of power dynamics and consent; neither ends up where a reader expects.

The twenty-seven stories in the book run the gamut in terms of style, length, and voice, from the page-and-a-half single paragraph that comprises “Woman Eaten by Shark Drawn to Her Gold Byzantine Ring” (the title is almost as long as the story itself) to the reverse chronology of “What the Hands Remember” to the speculative fiction of “Holo Boy 2098.” The variety of approaches makes the guessing game that much more interesting, though both Jordan and Tan warn against bringing preconceptions about a particular author’s previous work to bear on any attempt to puzzle out who wrote what. “We love how much people were able to slip their skins,” says Jordan. “If it’s a male voice, it’s not necessarily a male writer. If it’s a queer voice, it’s not necessarily a queer writer.”

“As fiction writers, that’s what we do: we write about what’s deeply human,” says Jordan. (Photo: Michael Epstein)

Even Kara Watson, Tan and Jordan’s editor at Scribner, who read the anthology blind on the first pass, only guessed two out of twenty-seven correctly.

If the anthology editors were pleasantly surprised by the ways well-known authors were able to slough their skins and write outside the styles for which they are known, another surprise was the number of stories that feature men performing oral sex on women as opposed to the other way around. “That’s the holy grail for a lot of women,” Jordan says.

The anonymity not only freed writers to be more forthright or experimental, it also frees readers from the demand that writers not write outside their own experiences or voices. “We have all this conversation about who can write what,” Jordan says. “This collection asks, does it matter?”

“It’s a throwback to how people used to read,” Tan says. “You used to read not knowing what an author’s politics were, what their Twitter feed was, what they looked like. You would just read books based on what was on the page. You would enjoy the words or you would hate them. But it would be purely because of what was on the page.”

The contract that the anthology’s contributors signed stipulates that they are not allowed to reveal authorship for eighteen months, after which they are free to republish their stories under their own names or otherwise admit to which selection is theirs. Some authors may do this – Jordan says she would absolutely have published her entry under her own name – while some suggest they will take the secret to their graves.

In some ways, Anonymous Sex is a deeply subversive book, and not just because of its core gimmick. Like the R.O. Kwan and Garth Greenwell anthology Kink from last year, the collection challenges Puritan notions that sex and sexuality are subjects that should remain hidden from view. It allows writers and readers alike to engage with material that may appear taboo, but that is in reality part of a universal experience of living. “America was founded by Puritans,” says Jordan. “Those ideas, those attitudes have really lingered, especially around sex and especially around women’s sexuality. There’s so much judgment around that and shame around that. We love that this book is pushing back against some of that. It’s saying, look, sex is a deeply human act. And as fiction writers, that’s what we do: we write about what is deeply human.”

The Best Anonymous Sex virtual book launch is being held on February 1, featuring co-editors Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan in conversation with contributors Heidi Durrow, Jamie Ford, and Valerie Martin, with the Ripped Bodice bookstore in Los Angeles, 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. PST / 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. EST. Go to our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/therippedbodiceLA on Tuesday, February 1 from 5:00-6:00 p.m. PST (you do not need a Facebook account in order to watch).

Let’s talk about sex, anonymously: New York writers Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Hillary Jordan on their new anthology of unattributed erotica