When the Story of O, a tale of BDSM domination and submission, was first published in 1954 France, it was met with controversy. The scandalous content and the identity of its author were widely discussed through the salons and cafes, with the police investigating the book’s publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert.
Despite its rocky reception, the Story of O went on to win France’s Prix des Deux Magots, a literary prize generally awarded to new and unconventional books. Years later, author Debra Hyde wrote her own interpretation of the groundbreaking novel in the Story of L, a Sapphic re-telling of the French novel. Publisher Riverdale Books recently re-released the Story of L, a 2011 Lambda Literary Award winner for lesbian erotica.
“It’s nice for the book to get some notice because when it first came out, it fell through the cracks to a degree and I’m not sure if it was because of change in the lesbian community or the publisher,” Hyde said. “It’s not that it didn’t receive attention or exposure when it came out, but I don’t think it reached the audience it deserved.”
The Story of L follows Liv, a college professor, as she makes the transition from a Dominant to submissive. She called her sexual hunger the Void, taking part in different scenes to fill the void. She doesn’t have much luck until an encounter with Cassandra, an enigmatic Dominant, which finally silences the demands of the void. From that chance encounter on, Liv follows Cassandra’s demands, proving her willingness to be submissive. Eventually she becomes simply L, Cassandra’s submissive and lover.
“I had some interest in the tale in itself,” Hyde said about the original material. “I never thought highly of the book itself but I did think highly of the author. What I admired about it was a woman’s attempt to write an erotic novel when her male lover told her women couldn’t write erotica. I admired her attempt to write the genre. It showed a certain level of infancy in that I don’t think long form erotic fiction had really developed into a solid form yet. She was working within a nebulous realm.”
Hyde’s book delves into the women’s leather community, using a respect and reverence for tradition in building the Dominant/submissive relationship between L and Cassandra. It brings life to the women’s leather community without falling back on stereotypes or pre-conceived notions of leather women and their proclivities.
“My editor and publisher Lori Perkins was the one who actually thought about it,” Hyde said. “She has a way of casting about and retooling titles to bring them back to life. She said to me she wanted me to write a lesbian Story of O. She came up with the idea and I used to joke at first that I fell out of my chair. But I got back up, sat in that chair and fell in love with the idea. My thought was if I do this, I knew it had to serve as a legacy piece of fiction, one that’s not a highly commercialized piece of fiction. I said if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it as authentically as I can and depict the lesbian leather community as best I know and I didn’t want a trashy novel to give back to her. I wanted to write a reasonably accurate story of the women’s community, I didn’t want to rely on stereotypes, if it could become a part of women’s BDSM fiction.”
In Hyde’s book, as with the original Story of O, BDSM scenes are depicted with clarity and honesty, including scenes of body modification. With the Story of L, Cassandra requests of L some body modifications. The decision to make the modification is ultimately left up to L, giving her the freedom to make her own choices. While she does follow Cassandra’s demands, she doesn’t do so lightly, giving each request careful consideration. L is also given her own space and time to live her life, to attend to her own obligations and household. While the exploration of the power exchange between the two women is the primary storyline, it also touches briefly on various role-specific dynamics within the community and even some prejudices when those roles are flipped.
“I do believe in submissive agency, that the person should have individual agency,” Hyde said. “Most people do want time out, most people want a life that is fuller in the sense that the power exchange and the sex and the BDSM is organically mixed with the lust of life. It has it place and its value in life, its personal rewards but it’s not the only thing to life. I was in some online communities in the 90s and total power exchange was the buzzword and it was a pinnacle to climb towards. I would think how does this work if you have kids to get out the door to school or you’re working on your masters degree? I could think of scenarios outside the BDSM bubble where life goes on. How can you live authentically fully? Authentic doesn’t just mean BDSM.
“I wanted to show a relationship that started out extremely and grew into one of love and I tell people all the time that I don’t really write romances very well but I do tell a romantic story. I do enjoy writing stories about discovering self through love. They’re about the only stories I write and it’s become more of a necessary path I take with my writing as I get older.”
The description of the BDSM scenes in the book are done with clarity and honesty, designed more to educate than titillate the average reader. The re-release of Story of L by Riverdale Books has certainly reached a more perceptive audience in 2017 than it did six years ago.
“It’s been a bit all over the place because reviewers were happy to see the book,” Hyde said. “The most difficult part overall was educating readers up front they weren’t going to get BDSM light. They’d see some advanced scenes, decisions with tattoos, which is not an easy decision. I think it did surprise some readers but it was more of an educating the reader endeavor instead of shocking them. Most reviewers who specialized in reviewing fiction were delighted to see a book of this power coming out. Every so often you’ll get a review on Amazon where people picking up this book don’t get it. I understand every reader has their own relationship with a book, and there will be times where they have their own ideas of what the book should be. There are people who read this that are out of their depth, where they can’t get past the SM part of it.”
Aside from giving an honest portrayal of the BDSM part of the women’s leather community, Hyde also takes a look at the relationship between an older, bisexual woman and a younger lesbian. It addresses some of the prejudices and beliefs from within the lesbian community itself, dispelling those notions. Overall, Hyde’s lengthy career has spanned all orientations and genres, exploring sexuality in all of its incarnations.
“The best piece of critical feedback came [on Story of L] from Sinclair Sexsmith. They took issue with one of the things I wanted to explore on a personal level. It was the idea of lesbian and bisexual relationships — is it still an issue? How do people deal with it? That was one thing that Sinclair pointed out — why should it matter? But I needed to explore it because I am bisexual and I’ve had a lot of experiences with exclusion and the word ally had not been invented yet.
“It’s not baggage I carry around with me but it was something I wanted to explore. Sinclair pointed out why should it matter, and it’s true — why should it matter? Cassandra was an older woman, had worked as a pro Dom as a younger woman and I wanted to explore that dynamic, see where it would go. Maybe I didn’t succeed entirely at it and Sinclair’s perspective gave me permission to let go of that. I think it’s something that still gets questioned in queer communities, and has value as a discussion but it’s great to step into a space where none of that matters.”