I first discovered the Create Your Own Erotic Fantasy series when I was working at Penguin. They had these things called “take shelves” scattered throughout the office, where people in different departments would leave piles of books they no longer needed. This was my first job out of college, and when I initially learned about this I couldn’t believe my luck. Free books! Everywhere! How would I carry them all home? After about a week I learned the secret of the take shelves, which was that most of the books were terrible and the shelves’ real purpose was for finding weird things to make fun of with your work friends when you didn’t feel like doing your job.
One great find was Superflirt, which was a dating guide seemingly written by a disgruntled Cosmo editor. This was my favorite tip: “Ladies, the next time you’re getting ready for a date, skip the perfume and instead, stick your finger up your vagina and dab your natural scent onto your wrists and neck. No man will be able to resist you!” I can’t say for sure this doesn’t work, but instinct tells me that showing up to a date reeking of pussy might be confusing.
There was also a series of murder mysteries all related to gourd-carving, which is apparently a hobby that some people have. You can make bowls out of gourds . . . and I didn’t read the Gourd Craft Mysteries, so I’m not actually sure what other things you can do with gourds. Tragically, the author died after writing the second book in the series, Gourdfellas. The first is called The Gourdmother; according to their covers, both books “Include gourd crafting facts and tips!”
All of this brings me to my all-time favorite take shelf find, The Classics Professor, the first title in Penguin’s Create Your Own Erotic Fantasy Series. “Series” might be a strong word, since this one also produced only two titles, and not because the author died.
On the one hand, it’s obvious why they had to publish this. It’s an amazing idea, and if this didn’t already exist, I probably would have tried to write it myself at some point. On the other hand, I can see why no one would actually want it. If you’re looking to get off, flipping back and forth in a Choose Your Own Erotic Adventure book seems like the most complicated and inefficient way you could possibly go about it. And if you’re just looking to read something fun and sexy . . . Well, you’ll still be disappointed.
Having read several Choose Your Own Adventure books and zero erotic novels, I didn’t know what to expect. What would happen when storylines ended? Would “You” die in a series of tragically sexy accidents? A Note to Readers at the beginning of the book declares, “This is not like other books. The individuals you encounter, the places you go, and the sexual risks you take are all entirely up to you. There is only one certainty: if you read this book over and over, you will have a wildly different, erotically charged experience each time.”
It turns out that none of this is true.
The first thing that struck me when I read The Classics Professor is that it’s both poorly written and trying very hard to be a good book instead of an awesomely bad combination of the two most absurd genres. This is the basic plot: You are an adjunct professor named Mike. You went to graduate school in Chicago and recently moved to New York to teach at Columbia because you caught your girlfriend Sarah cheating on you. You are depressed and miss Sarah very much, so much so that you’re convinced you will never love again. Again, I have not read any erotica, but this strikes me as far too grounded in an unpleasant reality for a book that has the word fantasy in the title.
Once you get to New York, you become involved with a super-hot professor named Wendy Lake. She is sexually dominant and many of your decisions involve whether or not you will let her do things to you, such as stick her fingers in your ass, or make you stick your own fingers in your ass. (This is something Wendy’s really into; it comes up about a dozen times in the book.) Eventually the relationship takes a turn for the emotionally and physically abusive, and you have to decide whether you will stick around and let her treat you like garbage, or break up with her and move on.
(The story is by a man, but the book was written by a woman, so it’s hard to know whom to blame for the bizarre gender dynamics. The Classics Professor is clearly intended for a female audience, as the overarching “fantasy” of the novel consists of having a submissive male partner who only wants for his lover to be more emotionally available and let him be her boyfriend.)
The Wendy Lake plotlines generally go one of two ways: You either stop dating her, focus on your career, and succeed professionally; or you become overly involved with a possessive psychopath, get fired for neglecting your job, and destroy your life. In one of the latter scenarios you’re forced to get an entry-level job at a publishing house that pays $27,000 a year, then move to Jersey to save money. Which I guess is the most demoralizing thing the author could imagine.
There’s also a scenario in which Wendy Lake pressures you into letting another man give you a blowjob, and for a while you are questioning your sexuality. In another, you meet a bunch of swingers who invite you back to their house in Jersey, then try to convince you to join their amateur porn ring. You have to decide whether this could somehow hurt your career.
I had expected the academic setting to be largely incidental, just an excuse to fill the novel with illicit student-teacher fantasies. Instead, you are plagued with anxiety about student loan debt and your ability to get a tenure-track position, while the slutty coed storylines are bogged down by the author’s distracting obsession with moral dilemmas. She emphasizes that sleeping with students is against University policy, and in the one scenario where you do have sex with one, Wendy Lake catches you, gets you fired, and ruins your life.
By far the weirdest and least erotic plotline involves you trying to get over Wendy Lake by going out with another professor. Belinda is smart, sexy, and emotionally available. Everything seems perfect! You meet at a party and seduce her with a little Latin conjugation humor, because what could be more alluring:
She seems oddly sad at times — you set yourself a challenge to make her laugh, as often as possible. You tell bad Latin jokes — How do you know third and fourth conjugation verbs will never be married? They have no “bo”s in their future. That one went over surprisingly well, but not as well as the classic “No Latin student can decline sex.” 
It turns out the reason Belinda is so “oddly sad” is that two years prior her husband died in a horrible car crash. She tells you this over lunch, then immediately invites you over to her apartment. If you accept her invitation, you get a blowjob and learn that she was also involved in this horrible car crash. Did I say “involved in”? I meant “maimed by.” Belinda’s pelvis was crushed and the doctors thought she might never walk again. Eventually she was rehabilitated, but it is now impossible for her to have sex. You can probably fuck her in the ass (she’s not sure about that), but no vaginal intercourse. If you decide you’re willing to date her anyway, turn to page 61. If you can’t imagine never having sex again, turn to page 65. Super fun, right? I can’t decide if it’s to the author’s credit, but the scenario in which you leave Belinda a voicemail telling her you won’t date her is genuinely upsetting.
According to the back of the book, there was a website you could visit to enhance the erotic experience of playing out different scenarios in which you lose your job or dump a disabled woman, but alas, it is now a generic porn site called Sexycams.com.
I realize I’ve probably spoiled all of the most salacious storylines for you, but rejoice—there is another book in this series called Kathryn in the City. It’s out of print, but you can buy it used through Amazon. Customer reviews rave, “It is difficult to describe how unpleasant this book is—it’s choppy and hard to follow rather than cute, and most of the multiple ‘adventures’ are irritating.” Another writes, “Ugh, hated this, was sorry I bought it. Really hard to follow, almost like a bad homework assignment. I like romance, and erotic books, and this one fits neither category.” If The Classics Professor is any indication, Kathryn in the City won’t be erotic, but it will certainly be a somewhat disturbing adventure.
It seems some things—like teaching at a prestigious university and meeting the mentally stable woman of your dreams—are simply too good to be true.
Sarah Bridgins is a writer and performer living in Brooklyn. Her poems have appeared in MonkeyBicycle, InDigest, Sink Review, Two Serious Ladies, and NAP, among other journals. Her chapbook “We Are Not Pilgrims” was recently published by Mondo Bummer, and her book reviews and interviews have been featured in Bookslut, The Rumpus, and the NY Daily News’s Page Views blog. You can find more of her writing at: http://sarahbridgins.blogspot.com/.