Lately because of Emily Books I’ve been trying to anatomize my own taste. It’s not that I have to figure out why I like the things I do but it would probably be helpful to understand my impulses as I try again and again to explain what these books do that’s different from what other books do. (You know: “branding.”) To market Emily Books, in emails and blog posts and interviews, I’ve used words like “gross” “kinky” “transgressive” “feminist” “weird” “strange” “fascinating” “riveting” “first-person” “autobiographical fiction,” “weird sex” “sexual weirdness” “queer” “mind-blowing” “consciousness-shifting” “druggy” ”outsider art” “documentary” “druglike” “life-changing” “funny” “hilarious” “oddball” “lesbian” et cetera. All of these words apply but none of them really convey what I mean.
I read a blog post over the weekend that reminded me about the idea of a continuum that connects all the different writing that I like. The reason the blog post triggered this obsession was that I felt like the writer either didn’t know her work was part of a tradition or was willfully feigning ignorance of that tradition. I want to locate her story in a tradition because for years I didn’t understand that my own writing was part of a tradition. Maybe a name exists in literary theory but outside academia there is not a mainstream accepted satisfying name for this tradition. But there are exemplars of it and I want to force the world to read their books, so I have to figure out what this tradition encompasses and what to call it.
Toward the end of my doomed stint at Kenyon College I spray-painted the word “slut” on the dorm room door of a boy who, for the purposes of this story, I’ll call Dave (okay, that was his real name, but it’s also the name of almost all other white dudes his age so I feel okay about using it). It was green spray paint, and I remember thinking that almost any other color would have been more appropriate, more violent and emphatic. “Slut” the color of springtime leaves. Like everything else about the gesture, it needs a lot of context to make any sense.
I had taken the paint from the Art Barn where I was failing a sculpture class that semester. It seems ridiculous that I was failing sculpture but I was. I came to class and did the assignments but the professor, an Ohioan famous for his large cheery site-specific installations in Columbus office park atria, just really hated my work. My work was pretty bad. In a previous art class I had mostly gotten around the limitations imposed by my lack of technical skill by working with appropriation, pastiche and performance, ie I had put on a bikini and smeared myself all over with lipstick for the midterm and built a giant fake wedding cake topped with doll heads and surrounded by bowls of Karo syrup fake blood for the final. But in this class we had to carve and weld, and I lacked both the patience and the innate knack that you need in order to be good with tools. I made two Easter Islandy heads out of wood and metal which were intended to be realistic but came out more impressionistic. Around the time of the “slut” incident I’d been working on a landscape that I’d carved out of insulation foam that I’d sprayed into a plaster mold of my own naked torso, which I’d then painted green and decorated with little sculpee trees like the ones in a model train set. This was my masterpiece and I think it also got a D, or maybe a C-. The professor circled my work like Tim Gunn and pointed out its flaws with one outstretched finger. I guess I was still at the stage of life when I thought I could potentially be good at anything I liked doing.
Another thing I thought I could potentially be good at around this time was acting, so I was taking an acting class, and though I wasn’t failing that one I ought to have been. Maybe I had never considered that great actors have a chameleonic quality—a genius at concealing themselves, “losing themselves in a role,” or maybe I hadn’t noticed yet, about myself, that I am much less good at concealing myself than most people are. I only knew that I loved to get onstage and cry or scream or tremulously declare myself, to generally chew the scenery. Part of it was just the pleasure of being allowed to say the lines. The class had a greatest-hits type curriculum so I had little bits of Shakespeare and Chekhov to memorize for it all the time. I thought I was the best actress in this class for sure. The best actor in the class was Dave and we had a lot of scenes together, I began to look forward to our scenes, we sometimes had to meet outside of class to rehearse.
I am skipping over the part where we draw closer and eventually fuck a) because it’s obvious and b) because I don’t remember anything about it.
I want to also step back from making fun of myself a little bit here and acknowledge that what was happening to me and around me at time was often terrible. Many things were happening, some were great, others were terrible. After a strange period of not fitting in with any of the cliques I’d tried to join freshman year – straitlaced nerds whose nerdiness was not the intriguing kind, sad pretty girls whose habit of eating meals together was forged around what I realized belatedly was mutual avoidance of actual eating – I was finally finding the people with whom I could take bong hits and watch Annie Hall repeatedly. It wasn’t quite my dream of going to school in New York City but it was as close as I was going to get that semester. I also met Val and she became my roommate. Basically things were looking up, with a few exceptions. I still had the frat boy boyfriend I’d acquired early freshman year, who, consciously or not, I’d started dating so that I could be protected from rumors about my “sluttiness.” We were at that point in the protracted end-stage of our relationship that consisted of: we would get drunk and he would yell at me and I would cry and we’d have sad drunken sort of violent sex, repeat. This was my first experience with this relationship dynamic so I guess I can be forgiven for not recognizing it for what it was and shutting it down immediately.
I wrote about this in my book so forgive me if you’re hearing this story twice, but this is also around the time that a girl from our school was found, badly decomposed, rolled up in a carpet in a mobile home miles away from campus. She’d worked at the campus pub/pizza restaurant and a coworker, not a student, had murdered her. Until the body was found, months after her disappearance, everyone thought she had committed suicide. The suicide theory was based on journals she’d kept that the cops had found when they’d searched her room. They said that in the journals she’d seemed depressed.
The weirdest thing about this girl’s murder, besides its having happened at all, was how little of an overt impact it made on this tiny—like fewer than 2000 people tiny—community. I worry that I’m misrepresenting this because it does seem incredible that her death was so downplayed, that there weren’t candlelight vigils and busloads of students attending her murderer’s trial et cetera. Maybe the administration suppressed attempts to discuss what had happened or memorialize the murdered girl. Maybe people were ashamed of how willing they’d been to accept the suicide story.
I was going to school in the middle of nowhere and it was now clear that a girl could die there and no one would really care. Though I’d known this in some abstract way before the murder it was different to know it for sure. I was young and inexperienced and incredibly self-absorbed and on drugs a lot of the time, and I hope that’s why it took me another six months to get the fuck out of there. I had conflicted feelings. Part of me wanted to stay. But another part, a self-preserving part, or at something that functioned as a self-preserving part in this context, set about making it impossible for me to stay. The “slut” thing was the first step.
When I was 19 I spray-painted the word “slut” on the dorm room door of a boy who had flattered me, fucked me, then abruptly dropped me for another girl – a boy I was cheating on my boyfriend with. Why “slut”? Maybe I indulged myself with the thought I was protecting other women with a warning (this is a common form of self-indulgence). I don’t think I was consciously doing anything as complicated as inverting an insult that had been applied to me, peeling something unwanted off my own body and slapping it onto someone else’s.
The act of spray-painting the word slut was less important than its consequences. One of them was that Dave got really angry at me, which was exhilarating. It also became a public enough incident that word of it got back to my boyfriend, who (sorry, again I’m repeating myself but it’s what happened) read my diary to confirm that I was cheating and then confronted me with the evidence. I wonder how much of my diary he read, also whether in another context a reader of that diary would have concluded that I seemed depressed. Also, my “diary” was a school notebook that I left lying around his bedroom.
Another detail of this incident that seems, in retrospect, like a seed that later germinated into some variety of showy, smelly flower is that the girl Dave moved on to was the first person to ever write a mean anonymous comment on any of my blogs. She wrote it on my now-defunct first blog, The Universal Review. This was the blog where Bennett and I wrote reviews and assigned letter grades to various institutions, substances and experiences, and on my review of Kenyon College (I gave it a C) this girl wrote that no one at Kenyon had liked me, et cetera. I don’t know for sure, of course, but something about the details and the context made me suspect it was her. Of course, it could also have been lots of other people.
In the time between my getting obsessed with the blog post and my writing this, it has been transformed into “fiction” – it’s been relocated to a different place on the internet, references to real people and institutions have been removed, and the subject, an Internet writer who the narrator says she seduced via email, has been stripped of his real name (per his request?) and rechristened “Adrian Brody.” In the post, the narrator, a woman in her early twenties, describes in detail how she arranged to meet with the fortysomething Internet writer for sex. She quotes what she implies are his emails, describes her emotional responses, draws out the tension – will he or won’t he make the ethically dubious, self-destructive (because, based on the circumstances of their meeting, it’s impossible for him to be unaware of her intention to write publicly about the experience) decision to have sex with her? Will he have sex with her despite his having a girlfriend (“How old is she?” “Like mid 30s.”)?
Spoiler alert: he fucks her. They fuck in various ways and have conversations about Spinoza, Gramsci, waves of feminism and ways men and women are socialized, Marxism, and porn. He says a lot of things that sound familiar because they’re the same idiotic things men tend to say when they are trying to assert a version of themselves that has sex with beautiful young strangers.
Just to be clear: when I originally read the post, before it became “fiction,” it contained the Internet writer’s real name and even a picture of him and also a blurry cell phone photo of the post’s author with, she writes, the Internet writer’s cum on her face. The next day I was scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard and I saw the Internet writer’s name; he had written a review of a new book by an author who is famous for hating women.
I left the original version of the blog post open on my laptop on Sunday and when I came back to read the rest of it my boyfriend was reading it. He was sitting alone in my parents’ living room in the dark with the light of the laptop making his face blue.
My boyfriend doesn’t love the idea that I could write about having sex with him. Lucky for him I think it’s impossible or at least extremely difficult to write about sex with someone you love, who loves you (also possibly not interesting). That kind of sex automatically precludes any kind of analysis. Not that it wipes your memory clean the moment you roll away, but if you’re standing outside yourself and observing your experience and mentally transcribing your noises and dialogue and remembering what parts touched what other parts in what order, you are by definition not having the kind of sex I mean when I say “good sex,” which submerges the judging, thinking, observing layer of the brain the way drugs, exercise, and (I hear) meditation do. Of course sometimes I am outside the experience and still noticing. But it’s harder to do the kind of noticing that leads to writing when you compassionately mutually love someone. It’s easy to do that kind of noticing when you’re having highly intellectualized sex with someone who exists for you much more as an idea than as a person. Noticing has to have an object, or at least the kind of noticing that leads to writing has to have an object.
The point of writing “slut” on the door, I imagined as I was writing it, was to warn other women to stay away from Dave. The point turned out to be that it (indirectly) forced me to leave Kenyon. So I’m not saying you have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing while you’re doing it. You don’t have to know what the object is while you’re noticing but you do have to figure it out somewhere along the line.
The person who emailed me the blog post wrote “I Love Dick related” in the subject line of her email and sure, I would locate this blog post in the tradition of I Love Dick. I Love Dick is Chris Kraus’s novel about a narrator, Chris Kraus, who falls in love with an art critic named Richard and becomes enmeshed in an art project that entails Chris and her husband Sylvere’s writing the art critic letters which leads to their marriage’s unraveling and then Chris goes to California where Dick lives in order to have sex with him and I won’t spoil the rest if you haven’t read it because you really should.
One of the most powerful things about this book is how Chris uses a variety of both explicit and subtle tactics to illuminate the problem which, at its most fundamental level, is the power imbalance inherent in heterosexuality. “I’ve set myself the problem of solving heterosexuality,” she writes. When I think about this book the first non sex thing I remember is her description of an art-world party that Chris attended as her husband’s plus one – her name, like most of the female guests’ names, not even on the invite list. Late in the evening of this party, the playlist turns to disco and Chris realizes that those songs—Upside Down, Shame!, Le Freak, et cetera—were
“the songs that played in topless clubs and bars in the late 70s while these men were getting famous. While me and all my friends, the girls, were paying for our rent and shows and exploring “issues of our sexuality” by shaking to them all night long in topless bars.”
These are the conditions. Why wouldn’t women want revenge? And why wouldn’t they also, simultaneously, want love?
I was in the car most of Monday and I wanted to write an email responding to the woman who’d emailed me the blog post. At one point I was just going to write a list of the other things the blog post reminded me of:
I stopped typing and started having a conversation about the blog post with my boyfriend. He said he’d liked the part where the narrator had explained that, while she was disturbed by the revelation that the Internet writer had a girlfriend – because that meant he wasn’t the pure ethical person she’d perceived him to be via reading his literary criticism (which, !) –she was flattered and aroused that he was overcoming his principles in order to be with her.
Keith said, “It’s like he can do no wrong. I thought that was nice.”
I surprised myself by turning to him and shouting. “It’s a SLAVE MENTALITY. IT’S A SLAVE MENTALITY!!!”
I tried to explain what I meant.
I talked about how Ellen Willis had a theory that women didn’t know what their true sexuality was like, because they’d been conditioned to develop fantasies that enable them to act in a way that conforms to what men want from them, or what they think men want from them. And I thought about how Eileen Myles described the difference between having sex with men and having sex with women, how having sex with men was more about forcing yourself into what their idea of what sex was supposed to be. I told him that in my experience men do not often become suddenly charmed or intrigued by aspects of women that they have also perceived as off-putting or scary. Men, heterosexual men, don’t tend to make excuses for women and find reasons to admire them despite and even slightly because of their faults, unless their faults are cute little hole-in-the-stocking faults. Whereas women, heterosexual women, are capable of finding being ignored, being alternately worshiped and insulted, not to mention male pattern baldness, not just tolerable but erotic.
People might say, you know, what about this guy’s right to privacy, his right not to be written about. Or maybe they would think it was okay for him to write about what the experience was like from his perspective. Do you feel bad for him, in all his bald vulnerability? Maybe a little. But mostly you feel bad for women, who are in this and cannot escape and especially can’t escape themselves. At least they can describe their situation and I guess that’s what part of what I like, when people do that.