It’s nearing Halloween, and after going through a total thyroidectomy and left neck dissection last week, I’ve got a passable Frankenstein’s monster costume going on at all times.  I’m in the mood for creepy stories, is what I’m getting at here.

Last night I put all my electronics away and spent six hours straight reading Kathryn Davis’ Duplex.  I gave it the time I used to spend sleeping, and that works, because it’s like a dream.  Duplex defies category or easy review.  It’s classified as science fiction in some places, but that doesn’t seem right.  Perhaps it’s more futurist surrealism.  It’s difficult to pin down when exactly it takes place, or if it even takes place on a linear time frame that we would understand (and indeed it ends with a great shifting in space-time).  There are machines and robots, but also sorcerers and fairies (but we can’t talk about those).  It’s very Clarice Lispector (from what I know of Clarice Lispector).

duplexThe very basic idea is that it’s the story of a suburban street at some time unable to be specified; the spinster teacher, Miss Vicks, lives at the end of the block in a semi-detached house connected to Mary’s family.  Everyone on the street lives in a house like this, a duplex.  Mary’s childhood sweetheart is Eddie, and one night, Eddie disappears.  Miss Vick’s lover has driven down the street that night, and already things are weird, because he is described as a sorcerer, a “Body-without-Soul.”

The nameless narrator of Duplex, or maybe just parts of Duplex, is a generation or two after Mary and Eddie, and she exists only to listen to Janice, the neighbourhood sage, tell her and her cohort stories of old.  Stories that informed Mary’s upbringing.  (These legends were originally published outside of Duplex as strange tales of their own.)  The lines between the stories are ragged, like a poorly stitched up scar, but there’s a thematic run of doomed matrilineage; how young girls changed everything, how they were destroyed and disappeared and transformed the future with their actions.  There are fears that some girls may still be genetically or psychically tied to the girls of old. Collected into the weave of Duplex the legends are a foundation for a world this is at once suspicious and over-protective of their girls.  The worst things happen with girls.

If I’m not explaining it well, I’m not bothered.  It’s really better you read it than have me try and explain it.

The instinct of the reader is to make connections and attempt to fill in the blanks, logically.  That can’t be done with Duplex.  It isn’t a traditional narrative, though if it manages to pull you in, you won’t come up for air until the last. Davis introduces pieces of the world that don’t exist in ours and often refuses to explain them at all–you never really find out what a “scow” is, for example, or why they’re there, they just are.  Unrecognisable-to-us things simply exist, and to explain them would be like explaining “dog” to a readership based in the world we know. It’s in this way Duplex insists on the authenticity of its own world; it exists as a document that slipped over from that place-time into ours.  This book exists on the other side of the wall.

Duplex is  just deeply weird, and I loved it.

The Back and Forth and Heroines

[edited] Some random thoughts prompted by (but not limited to)The Madwoman and the Critic,” Elisa Gabbert’s commentary on reviews of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines. [/edit]

• The first thing I want to address is in Gabbert’s piece is this:

[B]ecause some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses. … I don’t wish to perform a meta–hatchet job on these reviews—just to show that their authors don’t reveal enough knowledge of or intimacy with the book and its purpose to give their judgement what Mendelsohn calls “heft,” and to put out a call for a more considered criticism, a criticism that teaches us how to read, to be better readers, not simply encouraging our worst habits and validating our laziness by telling us what not to bother with.

First, I don’t believe that topic confers merit. It is possible, in general, that a worthy project can be executed poorly. Second, I have real issues with saying that the two reviewers just didn’t do enough with the book, otherwise they would have been less (or differently) critical. Keeler mentions in her LARB piece that she read the book twice, which I doubt is all that common in book reviewing, given deadlines and all.  Gabbert calls Jessica Winter’s review “snarky, dismissive” but the whole thesis of “I just read better than you” seems pretty snarky to me.  Am I misreading that?

• I mention in the comments at the LARB that people laud Zambreno for trying new forms, but that the reviews of Heroines are expected to follow some pre-defined structure of how reviews must work (in Gabbert’s essay, ironically, it’s a male penned definition too!).  Keeler expressed her frustration with Heroines and that’s somehow not okay, but the book itself (like it or not) is a howl against just this sort of caging of the way women write or think.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  I quote Zambreno: “For my criticism came out of, has always come out of enormous feeling. Often the feeling was anger, finally allowed to let loose in these visceral rants.”  I think Keeler’s review comes from that same place, though her form is more controlled. I think it was entirely appropriate to write from that place in relation to this book.

• Gabbert takes issue with how Keeler and Winter quoted from Heroines: “The crime here is one of “contextomy”—the fallacy of quoting out of context—and, as in Winter’s review, a stunning lack of self-awareness that is either intentionally misleading or simply obtuse. Because what comes before and after the above list of items of clothing is absolutely crucial.”  What she doesn’t mention (or know?) is that Heroines (apparently) does the same sort of thing. Jess Crispin wrote at Bookslut that if Heroines isn’t revisionist, exactly, there are certainly large parts of the puzzle missing.

[W]hatever the cause, Lucia Joyce was not institutionalized because she threw a chair. Was a deeply troubled, violent and unstable woman who was deeply loved by her father, to the point where he delayed treatment until she was flailing. Her real story is more interesting and complicated than “silenced genius.”

For a reader like myself not versed in the history of these women, who has to and did take Zambreno at her word, this is disappointing.  The point of Heroines is to shine a light on these women as most readers won’t know much of them*.  And yet, the light has a pink gel, and we’re seeing things smoothed out, even while they are touted as messy.  It makes me wonder what else might not be so true, and make no mistake, I believed Zambreno’s accounts.  So there are not lies in Heroines, but certainly omissions. Zambreno also omitted elements from her own life, and certainly she has to or the book never ends.  However, I was expected as a reviewer to take them into account, which an impossible and maddening thing to be told.

• Go read Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady.

• The thing that got called out in my review,  by Zambreno herself as well as others, was my assertion that she’s a dependant and this allows her to produce art.   On Twitter, Zambreno listed when she worked full time and supported her husband, as if I could and should have known that in my review.  In Heroines she only listed the jobs she quit, the brief time she worked retail but quit to go to Scandinavia, or “[the] job I decided to quit because one day I decided I’d rather drink bloody Marys and fuck my bass-playing boyfriend at the time in the bathroom of some bar in Lincoln Park rather than go to work.” This last example is in service of her “fucked up girl” narrative, but that narrative seems to me way more destructive than helpful. I was fucked up in my 20s too (who isn’t? it’s a really great time to be a fuck up), and I got my degree while working full time. I’m not saying I’m “better,” I’m saying that if your thesis is how wrong it is that society has infantilised women and locked them up because they supposedly couldn’t care for themselves, it’s frustrating that the author wants to valourize the “fucked up girl” who can’t take care of herself. How do you prove them wrong by proving them right?  Maybe the fucked up girl wouldn’t care.

• After we had a brief back-and-forth on Twitter Roxane Gay agreed to have an email dialogue with me about some of the things she found troubling in my review (and it was awesome by the way, probably one of the nicest disagreements I’ve ever had with someone). She too found the “beholden to a man” offside, and she was also troubled by this:

It is a disturbing version of “having it all,” the romantic madness of the wives, their (seemingly) luxuriant illnesses, and a husband who is all forgiving. (It is likely I approached parts of Heroines very cynically, unable to indulge my own “irritable bowel,” my own “howling headaches,” going to work every day, literature living only in my “spare” time.)

She thought my quotations were sarcasm, and that’s totally my failure as a writer to make clear that not only were they actual quotes from the book, but conditions I shared. As I told Gay, part of what frustrated me about Heroines was the descriptions of her illnesses that I had too. I suffered from IBS and at the age of 36 got a migraine for the first time in my life, which settled into a tension headache that lasted 4 more months, compounded by labrythitis. I don’t say this for sympathy, I say it because while all this was happening to me, I got up every day and I went to work and it was awful. On my lunch break I’d be reading Heroines and she’d say that she didn’t leave the house or get out of bed, and there I’d be under buzzing neon lights looking at spreadsheets and feeling like the floor was giving way beneath me every fifteen minutes. (That’s not a metaphor, that was the vertigo.) This didn’t colour my review of the entire book, but it certainly made me frustrated with the version of  herself that Zambreno chose to show in Heroines.

• Gabbert says that we needn’t like Zambreno, we need only to take her seriously.  Again, I may not have been totally clear on this in my review, but I can take Kate Zambreno the person who wrote Heroines seriously (and I do) while sometimes not being able to take Kate Zambreno the character in Heroines seriously.  I approached the book knowing that these two people weren’t precisely the same thing.

• Jessa Crispin’s thoughts about “Post-Feminist reclamation” are worth reading.  Though I’m on board with Crispin’s thesis, I remember Mists of Avalon being totally mind-blowing to me in my late teens.  The idea that a woman could take a story that’s been kicking around since at least the 15th century and go, “Nah, we’re going to do it this way,” seemed like a revelation to me.  It seems to me like that is the audience for Heroines : Intro to Feminism courses.  This is not disparaging; Zambreno mentions teaching such a thing (and feeling conflicted about being supported by her man while she tells her students to be strong women; I didn’t get this stuff from nowhere).  There are parts of Heroines that are fairly elementary. For example, I can guarantee you anyone who’s read anything even vaguely feminist knows where “hysteria” comes from.  I think it might open for young women the idea that they can and should shake up the assigned cultural narratives.

• I did want to add that I was really excited about Heroines. For the short time I read her blog I saw a really brilliant mind that loves literature.  The way Zambreno writes about the things she’s read, the way she can riff like a sly jazz pianist, is a real joy.  My point about Heroines being good when it’s asking you to read the books that Zambreno loves, I mean that.  It’s probably antithetical to the whole Zambreno Project to ask that she just stick to lit-crit, but if she did I would read the hell out of that.

*Though Zelda Fitzgerald is very much in fashion this year, and Zambreno was at the forefront of that.

Far Flung

Gunner’s first novel had been praised by a number of male critics for the emotional barrenness of its language, as if that were an asset.  Female readers, on the other hand, were unmoved by the book, one of them going so far as to give it the ultimate insult on a well-trafficked book blog: She “flung it across the room.”  (“Bullshit,” Gunner had said when he read this.  “No one actually flings a a book across a room.  Who are all these people flinging books across rooms?” Addison, who at that very minute was holding in her hands 320 bound pages of self-indulgent lad lit she was berating herself for having been duped by the hype into buying, flung it across the length of their bedroom.)

-Deborah Copaken Kohgan, The Red Book

redbookDespite some funny and wise moments like this, The Red Book feels like another Arlington Park. It’s set in Cambridge, with Harvard alums reuniting 20 years after graduation, though they’ve been friends since. Despite Copaken Kogan’s amazing feminist essay in The Nation (which inspired me to read the novel) and real ballsy life choices, the novel falls into the same trap of everything being about the babies. (And despite the conceit that all these women are different and should be allowed to be different.) The only one of the friends who hasn’t had any children by the time of the reunion, Clover, really wants babies, it’s just that her high-powered career at Lehman Brothers postponed the decision. She refuses to adopt needing, she says,  to have the entire physical experience. She justifies cheating on her husband with an old boyfriend to facilitate propagation. Her husband is okay with adopting and won’t get his sperm count tested, so she resorts to sperm-stealing, not letting Bucky-from-the-past know what she’s trying to do.  (Spoiler, she and the old flame get married at the end.)

Another of the main quartet, Jane, was adopted as a Vietnam War orphan. She has one child from her now deceased husband, and in the novel her current parter Bruno is written to think “I will plant the seed in her tonight.” Gross. I am actually grossed out. One minor character hated his wife because he wanted children and she didn’t, and when he left her and met the perfect woman who did want babies he is struck down in an accident. Oh, you heartless childless crones!  The only characters that don’t seem to have kids are three minor ones (two of which are killed off before the narrative weekend even happens): one terribly afflicted with schizophrenia, another a trans FTM, and the aforementioned poor bloke married to a harridan. The inclusion, in this context, of  a mentally ill character and a transgender one seems not only tokenistic, but almost offensive: it’s not enough that they are already marked by Otherness, they are further pushed from the sympathetic characters who propagate.

The quartet met when they lived in a dorm described a gay-friendly, the only one to be so on campus, a “rare escape from the shackles of conformity.” And yet conformity is exactly what the novel ascribes. “A woman’s right to choose was sacrosanct” to them, but they all choose the same thing later in life.  On a long jog one of the fathers thinks to himself “It seemed to him the whole career first/babies second model favored by a certain subset of East Coast educated intellectual, whether men or women, puts the cart before the horse.” There is the idea that having children earlier* is actually better for a woman’s career track, and I see the merits of this argument, but in the context of The Red Book it seems more an authorial philosophy.  Breed now! Breed often!

The men in the novel, weirdly, seem to vary in character more than the women. Some are supportive, some are dicks, some are in-between. (One was trans, one is schizophrenic…) Some are excited about children and some don’t care at all, even though their wives have given birth.  The women all seem a little flat though they get the majority of narrative space.

So I’m just disappointed in The Red Book. As always, I have to be disclaimer-y and note that most people, women and men, do want and enjoy children.  I don’t object to a novel’s content based purely on the presence of parents. But when it is concerned mostly with procreation, while pretending to be about the lies we tell ourselves and ideas around having an “authentic” life, I get really annoyed. 50 pages from the end, when “planting the seed” happened, I almost flung the book. Instead I wrote this post.


I did like that these privileged folks are humanised, not by only by tragedy but by their own human foibles, and fairly fleshed-out levels of self-awareness. It seems very different than something like The Emperor’s Children where I just hated everyone. Copaken Kogan has a bit of a Lionel Shriver vibe going on here. Several of the characters are dealing with the fallout of the economy, through bad investments or losing jobs. These people suffer loss, real loss, and even the loss of their fabulous residences is described in such a way that you hurt for them, sitting in the under 1000 sq ft you have always lived in. (“You” meaning “me,” obviously.)

The Red Book was short-listed for The Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly called The Orange Prize.
*Though the discussion at that link is all about women having children while in graduate school which assumes, probably, a level of privilege itself.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan

This blog is named after a Morrissey* song.  I had the live version on a tape, the b-side of “Interesting Drug.”  Driving on the streets of my home-town I’d roll down the windows and crank up the volume and scream et cetera! et cetera! et cetera!.

On Friday I went to see a Morrissey show, my second, eight years after my first. Angry at him for not playing Canada any more, furious at the hypocrisy, but still owing so much.  Below is the last song of the set, before the encore.  When it started I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  This hadn’t been on any of the set lists.  For the first 30-odd seconds I just kept saying “Holy shit, holy shit!”

I read later he’s not done this live since 1988.  That tape I had.  During the encore of “How Soon is Now” I tried to get over barrier to get that hug I was scared of in 2004.  I didn’t make it, but Moz did shake my hand a minute or so later.  I cried, I left the show crying. I sat on the curb in the middle of a boarded up apocalyptic street-scape in Niagara, NY (that they forgot to bomb), and I wept.  Because I was given so much.

We’re older.  It just wasn’t like the old days any more.  But there are joys, still, to leave you weeping on the curb.

*Yes, originally a Smiths song, but not how I know it.

Get Off

The latest round of my Yelling on Twitter revolved around a recent article by Megan Murphy.   In it, Murphy makes some pretty wild assumptions about BDSM while discussing the case of an RCMP officer who was found to have posted pictures on  It’s unnerving that in this analysis, Murphy completely ignores the sexual agency of women.

The recent push of a ‘sex-positive’ ideology which has permeated our discussions of sex and sexuality in North America says that anything goes so long as it happens in the privacy of our bedrooms and is ‘consensual’. 

Murphy, as we will learn, disapproves, with some seriously second-wave ideas about men and sex.  I get where Murphy is coming from.  I’m a bit more 70s radical than a lot of my feminist friends. For example, I’m generally pro-sex-worker, but not pro-sex-work (due to its gendered nature, and the very real dangers women in the industry face).  But feminists have worked a long time to have the world recognize that women have sexual desire.  In the name of feminism, Murphy would rather erase all that to make a point.

We’re only permitted to say ‘he should have kept it hidden from public view’ because to say anything else defies the modern ethos, post-sexual revolution, that says: Sex is always good. Erections are always good. If it turns you on, so be it.

 For Murphy, for the purposes of this article, it’s the erection that dictates sex.  Again, this is something feminists have been fighting for a long time, trying to erase the idea that PIV sex is the only sex that counts.

 Do we really believe that any man who gets off on degrading women in his ‘private life’ somehow doesn’t bring those views into any other arena? Is his fantasy of abuse and domination erased the minute he shuts off his laptop or leaves the brothel?

 A couple issues here.  The first is that, yes, some men do have fantasies that aren’t related to anything outside a sexual context.  But so do many woman.  Nancy Friday’s first book, My Secret Garden (1973), gave voice to — among many other topics — women’s rape fantasies. If we are to believe them, that their fantasy does not equal the desire to actually be raped, how can we think that men are so different, unable to make the distinction? 

Based on the upset and the level of disgust coming from the public with regard to Brown’s behaviour, the answer is ‘no.’ If we truly believed that what happens behind closed doors has no real social impact, I doubt that people would be so upset.

I agree with Murphy here, though for different reasons.  Yes, the popular conception of BDSM is upsetting for most people (Murphy’s “we”).  They don’t engage in it, and they possibly don’t understand it.  It can be scary to have to confront something so totally alien to your current existence.  Conflating sex with violence (to be simplistic about it) isn’t for everyone.  Beliefs, however, can sometimes have very little to do with fact.  Sure, there are probably some awful people into BDSM, but there are awful people into all sorts of things.  I’m sure there are awful celibates.  In my opinion, BDSM is no more a misogynist practice  than any heterosexual sexual encounter.**  (There’s also a total erasure of gay and lesbian BDSM practice here.)  Murphy not only ignores the desire of any woman that would enter into a submissive relationship, but the proportion of women who are dominants and men who are submissives. The only mention of female dominants is of Terri-Jean Bedford, who is not at any time called a dominatrix (ie her chosen professional identity is never mentioned).  Murphy devotes almost a whole paragraph to pathologizing her interest in bondage, recounting Bedford’s abuse as a child.  How very 50 Shades, Ms. Murphy. 

On her Twitter page, Murphy has a real laugh about the reaction of those involved in BDSM, and says she doesn’t “care about your SECRETNAUGHTYOHSOBADANDWRONGANDREBELLIOUSKINKY sex life.” Again, Murphy discounts women’s sexual experience and preference as important or real (the mockery factor is off the charts here). The loudest negative reactions to the rabble article were by those that have — at the least — some interest in BDSM. Recounting experience, and speaking up as normal functioning members of society, is a necessary part of erasing stereotypes and misconceptions.  That Murphy doesn’t want to hear from individual women is disheartening.  Dehumanizing experience into overarching theory and sociology is, I think, inherently anti-feminist.  Do we not want to get away from the idea that women are one thing, and one thing only? 

Murphy is correct when she tweets that BDSM isn’t free from misogyny.  Our world is not free from misogyny.  The inference that it’s all about misogyny is the problem.  There are a lot of things to think about, around sex and misogyny, and I think it’s even possible that BDSM practices would lose something in an egalitarian world (and if I could only have one or the other, I will definitely take equality). However, “Private fantasy, public reality” refuses the possible avenues of conversation with its Murphy Knows Best attitude.

In a funny coincidence, I was reading Venus in Furs the day this all happened. In it, the submissive is male.  (The masochist “M” in S&M comes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the author.)  I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this book.  A friend mentioned the closing paragraph to me a couple weeks ago, and while she quoted it pretty much verbatim, it’s still a wonderful surprise to find the following at the end of a 19th century, male-authored work: 

The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.  She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.

And this tied in so perfectly with the Firestone I had just finished:

A man must idealise one woman over the rest in order to justify his descent to a lower caste.  Women have no such reason to idealise men—in fact, when one’s life depends on one’s ability to “psych” men out, such idealization may actually  be dangerous—though a fear of male power in general may carry over into relationships with individual men, appearing to be the same phenomenon.  But though women know to be inauthentic this male “falling in love,” all women, in one way or another, require proof of it from men before they can allow themselves to love (genuinely, in their case) in return.  For this idealization process acts to artificially equalize the two parties.Love requires a mutual vulnerability that is impossible to achieve in an unequal power situation.  Thus “falling in love” is nor more than the process of alteration of male vision—through idealization, mystification, glorification–that renders void the woman’s class inferiority.

The Dialectic of Sex

Severin, the male submissive, understands (as Masoch did) how falling in love is not free from the machinations of power.  He goes beyond lowering himself in caste to love his woman as an equal, but finishes the job by giving her total power over him, signing his rights away to her, and begging for physical punishment.  Wanda, for her part, knows about the “psych out” and the closer she and Severin get, the worse she treats him.  This is foreshadowed early on:

Don’t you know me by now? Yes I am cruel — since you take so much pleasure in that word — and am I not entitled to be cruel?  Man desires, woman is desired.  That is women’s entire but decisive advantage. Nature has put man at woman’s mercy through his passion and woman is misguided if she fails to make him her subject, her slave, no, her toy, and ultimately fails to laugh and betray him.

So how is Wanda able to be on top at all, given the constraints of the unequal power dynamic in the world?  Firestone notes that “[i]n addition, the continued economic dependence of women makes a situation of healthy love between equals impossible.”  Masoch has a way around this, and gives Wanda has all the power a woman could possibly have at the time: she is young, beautiful, and a very wealthy widow.  The conditions under which she would need to chase Severin or need to keep him around are null. Masoch is aware that Wanda could never be an agent of her own destiny without these gifts.

Does BDSM only exist in a society in which the sexes are unequal?  Since we’ve never lived outside of that society, there’s no real way to tell.  As I’ve said, it’s very possible that power games lose something when there’s no real power dynamic to re-enact or fight against. I think it’s very possible that male dominants are acting on urges that a patriarchal society says they should have, but their more progressive (and I’d venture to say true) nature says aren’t acceptable.  It’s not at all original to think that the taboo is what makes it exciting for both parties.  Further, I contend that most of them men who hit a woman consensually would never do it outside a sexual context; the taboo nature would be lost otherwise.  (Just as rape is not about sex, neither is domestic violence.)  If a woman would like to act out those desires with him, or if either of them would like to flip the script, in a consensual way, then yes, let them. So if, in fact,  you really don’t care about their SECRETNAUGHTY-OHSOBADANDWRONGANDREBELLIOUSKINKY sex lives, maybe stay the hell out of it?

Update: Megan Murphy responds. You know, I think part of my problem is that she talks to other feminists, those of us ostensibly on the same side, like we were little children or MRAs.  “I don’t give a shit about your leather fetish.” “I don’t care how much super awesome empowering fun stripping on stage for an audience is for you.” That’s her schtick, though. It’s fine.  And there’s a lot to like in her response, things I’m definitely on board with, like which of our “choices” (her examples include wearing makeup) are really capitulation to a patriarchal standard.  I’m even down with the idea that porn, pole-dancing, and yes, BDSM are not particularly feminist (and most people I know would disagree with me here).  As I’ve said before, I don’t watch porn for the feminism. So if  Murphy didn’t talk to me like I was a particularly exasperating 12-year-old we might meet up ideologically somewhere.  Though she probably wouldn’t give a shit.

*Bitch Magazine is doing a series with both sides of the issue here
**There are feminists that would argue this very thing!

 And this isn’t even going into the many men and women who “switch” and can take on either role, for whichever reason is appropriate for them.

What She Said

Shulamith Firestone is one of those super-scary 70s feminists, the kind people seem to carry with them as proof that feminists are castrating harpies. (Strawman! Drink!)  Firestone was a revolutionary, and The Dialectic of Sex (1970) calls for nothing less than dismantling the entire notion of “family” and complete freedom from biology to release women from second-class status. It hasn’t happened, but you get the feeling she really thought it might.

But Firestone isn’t scary at all.  Like a lot of works that go out on a limb, The Dialectic of Sex would have been threatening to a patriarchy intent on retaining power.  She was also writing from a Marxist perspective in a country that had gone on a communist witch hunt 20 years earlier.  I read about half of the book many many years ago, and the idea that women are controlled because we are the means of production, has always stayed with me.  I’m sure it informed my later choices about family. 

Firestone rejected the idea that the 60s had liberated women’s sexuality, insisting that all it had done was make sex more readily available for men, who could then refuse women their only protection in a still oppressive world: marriage.  Why buy the cow?  And why are we cows anyway?

Very little has changed since Firestone wrote, and some things have gotten worse.  Female Chauvinist Pigs is a good contemporary examination of the idea that liberating women’s sexuality isn’t — in many ways — really for us.  The ideas of acceptable beauty have gotten narrower — as have our acceptable bodies.  And with the rise of attachment parenting, women are being taught that returning home for 24/7 parenting is the ideal.

Firestone’s work  is learned, serious, well-informed and solidly researched, but with the ability to imagine wildly and vividly.  She’s also funny, which is unexpected.  After re-shaping Freud’s Oedipal and Electra complex as a societal, rather than inbuilt unconscious phenomenon, she says:  “Really, Freud can get embarrassing.” She was 25 when she wrote Dialectic.

But the point I wanted to get to, is about the chapter entitled “(Male) Culture.”  It begins with an epigraph from Simone de Beauvoir:

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.

Given the time I’ve spent thinking and writing about the nature of criticism (and the sometimes sexist responses that follow) over the weekend, it was significant that I’d read the following paragraph today:

We may also see a feminist Criticism, emphasizing, in order to correct, the various forms of sex bias now corrupting art.  However, [with] that art which is guilty only of reflecting the human price of a sex-divided reality, great care would have to be taken that criticism be directed, not at the artists for their (accurate) portrayal of the imperfect reality, but at the grotesqueness of that reality itself as revealed by the art.  

Come at Me, Bro

When the TV show Girls came out, I bemoaned the excess of coverage, not just of the show, but of the responses to the show.  However, I’m about to critique a critique of a project in part spurred by a critique of a critical method. Still with me?  Allons y!

In the National Post this weekend, Michael Lista took issue with one of the editors interviewed on the recent CWILA website:

 On the eve of what many hope is a new era of criticism in Canada, I was surprised to find that one of the three essays framing the CWILA discussion is one by Jan Zwicky entitled “The Ethics of the Negative Review,” which we can charitably call spooky and meretricious, but is probably deserving of a much less friendly repudiation.

Lista then goes on to show his readers what a negative review looks like, with stealthy name-calling and florid half-insults. “The good in bad reviews” is an excellent example of how negative reviews are sometimes more an exercise for the reviewer to flex and sharpen rather than really engage with the text.

In reponse to Zwicky’s assertion that if we are assigned a book we dislike we “keep our mouths shut,” Lista says:

What a miserable, low thing to tell another woman, another writer, another human.

How strange, to tell a woman what they should and should not be saying, in a response to a project that tackles women’s under-representation in reviews.  If “[t]he purpose of a review, good or bad, is to begin a conversation, not to end it” then this piece, with its gleeful silencing of Zwicky and other possible voices, fails.  For if others have the slightest timidity, they are advised to “put your poems in a goddamn drawer.”  I’d assume this advice is not limited to the “too many” poets, but to novelists and playwrights, other reviewers, writers all.   (And there are indeed lots of poets; Natalie Zed has a handy list of  poetry books by female writers right here.)  It is not unreasonable to think that at least some of the people who dedicate their lives to the solitary practice of writing might fear social approbation, yet may possess many talents.  Even George Eliot was protected from bad reviews by her lover.* (On this topic, Jennifer Weiner — she of Not Serious Literature —  wrote an excellent blog post about not trashing other female writers in public.  It’s worth a read.)   Having gone the long way around, it’s now time to point out that Zwicky’s point about not writing negative reviews isn’t about sunshine and unicorns and everyone getting along.   (Lista’s “Cue the violins” is a total misdirection; Zwicky’s piece is actually fairly pragmatic.)  Rather, the limited space in publications is better used to highlight books deserving praise.  The cream, it’s thought, rises.  Zwicky writes:

I don’t think reviewers should take it upon themselves to right such wrongs by slinging invective at Q’s work. Far more effective to use the column space to draw attention to the great stuff P has been producing. […] Again, the reviewer who’s feeling truly spiteful could probably do much more damage by drawing the public’s attention to Moderately-Well-Known Author P and saying almost nothing about Famous Author Q, than by fuming about Q in public. 

“Call me old-fashioned,” Lista says, “but I think the truth sounds beautiful, and there’s an intrinsic value in discovering what writers think of each other’s work. .” Okay, I will.  The idea that there is one objective truth about any given title smacks of the oldest, whitest, male-est pedagogical method.  Now, I’m all for negative reviews: I’ve written a few furious blog posts myself.  But I’m also fine with the editorial choice to have reviews that are for the most part informative.  I don’t need to have my opinions spoon-fed to me. I want to understand something about the content of the work. I want to be given enough information to excite me about the literature.  That not weakness, and it’s the most important kind of honesty, with all subjection and possible grudge set aside.**  I’m a fledging reviewer myself, and I’d hope that if I choose to be informational rather than emotional (so female!) in my professional (off-blog) writing, I might get noses into books they hadn’t considered before.  And coincidentally, that is also what I do in conversation.

Update: Jan Zwicky responds in the National Post: “Where he and I part company is over the idea that a kick in the nuts is a good way to start a conversation.”

*A.S. Byatt, in her introduction to The Mill on the Floss.  
**But this is a blog post, and I’m allowed to get a little snippy.
And instead of writing paid reviews, I wrote this. I’m sending an invoice for my time!

Mini Review: The Complete Lockpick Pornography

There’s a moment where the narrator of “We All Got it Coming”, Arthur, is being jerked off in a public bathroom by his boyfriend Clay.  Clay’s recounting a story told to him by a woman he fucked the night before.  In the story Clay is tied up and forced into various sexual acts by other men.  Arthur comes before Clay is finished the story.  “Christ, he’s hot.”

“On the way out of the bathroom, I notice that under his uniform sweater, there’s a T-shirt tag sticking out.  He’s been walking around all day with his T-shirt on inside out.  And he’s mine.”

It’s these small moments — like Arthur ruminating on the sad moments in otherwise funny comic strips, or what your favourite Muppet says about you — that make The Complete Lockpick Pornography what it is: smart, hot, and beautiful.  I preferred the second part, “We All Got it Coming to the titular “Lockpick Pornography” in which a gang of queer men and women devise schemes to fuck with the straights, not just the identifiable the bigots.  “Lockpick Pornography” is more thoughtful; it spends more time on the meaning of gender, and sexual identity, diversity, and flexibility. However, it’s “We All Got it Coming” that stirred this reader’s emotions.  “We All Got it Coming” is the section that speaks of love: filial, fraternal, and romantic. 

It was a good idea to combine these two pieces into one book, because it gives the reader a chance to see what Comeau is capable of, how he can grasp a wide range of human experience, how smart he is.  Comeau can find the sweet moments in a bathroom handjob, and it’s truth. 


There’s a scene from Sex and the City where Miranda chokes on some Chinese food in her (super huge) bachelorette pad.  This gives rise to her fear of living, and dying, alone.  Of course, everything turns out just fine for Miranda, arguably the most independent of all the gals.  And by “fine” I mean she gets a man and a baby and a house in Brooklyn so, yay, nuclear family ending!  There was always ambivalence about the whole situation in her character though, and I get that.  I live alone too, and I don’t think about it much.  I’m still young enough to feel like being frail is a long way away.  I like my space, I don’t want kids, etc etc. 

Going Solo seemed like one of those books I’d read to shore myself up, have someone preach to my choir.  The sunny sounding subtitle: “The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone” makes it sound like the kind of book where I’d find stories like mine, get some interesting statistics, learn about why people my age(ish) choose singledom.  That’s all there, but it’s in short supply.  Author Eric Klinenberg interviews the creator of Quirkyalone, talks to some divorcees, and is — thankfully — aware that the experience of, and the journey to, living alone can be very different depending on one’s gender. There is also a thoughtful analysis of how and why the nuclear family structure common in the mid-20th century has changed (mothers got to work outside the house, and this move is treated as the radical change it was) and interesting thoughts about community planning for the future.  A lot of the singles in these sections are happy, having chosen to live alone. “Most people who live alone are financially secure, not poor, and those who purposely use their domestic space as an oasis from their busy, stressful work lives report that it is a regenerative, not an isolating experience.”

However, more of the book talks about the elderly, and the challenges they face as they age.  Most of those profiled are widowed, so they are alone not by choice. Several are poor, or finding it difficult to get by, while not wanting to go into a nursing home where care is often substandard (and getting worse, as corporations increasingly look to the bottom line and nothing else). Klinenberg also talks to the indigent, mostly men, who populate New York’s Single Room Occupancy buildings.  The main thrust of the book is more that

[t]he extraordinary rise of living alone is not in itself a social problem.  But it is a dramatic social change that’s already exacerbating serious problems for which there are no easy solutions: Social isolation for the elderly and frail. Reclusiveness for the poor and vulnerable.  Self-doubt for those who worry that going solo will leave them childless, or unhappy, or alone.

There’s not a lot of feel-good going on here. And what was worse for me, the only person in the book who resembles me shows up only as a corpse.  “Mary Ann” dies at 79 without any family, and Klinenberg accompanies the state worker who is charged with trying to find someone to lay claim to Mary Ann’s meagre estate.  There’s some weird language used about the older people in Going Solo: for example, an older woman who bemoans her lack of companionship is described as being sad that she had no one to complain to.  That felt pretty unfair.  Another profiled senior is noted as making racist jokes, though this has nothing to do with the topic at hand (unless the implication is that his racist jokes made him an outcast?).  Klinenberg also talks about his grandmother, who lost her second husband as Parkinson’s Disease began to take hold of her.  Fortunately, she had children who would chip in for the very best of care.  This is not to say the experience in an assisted living home is perfect, but she’s lucky she had help. Perhaps “lucky” is the wrong word, since most of the elderly alones in the book have some sort of family support system.  (The same can’t be said for the men of the SROs though.)

I often read motherhood narratives because they reinforce my choice to be child-free.  Perhaps parents will want to read this book and be glad they had those kids.  I will never have children, I will not marry* and I have no siblings.  When it goes wrong for me, in my old — or possibly not so old — age, it’s going to go very, very wrong.  The old joke about dying and being eaten by one’s cats before anyone notices?  This guy.  Before I read Going Solo I honestly didn’t mind my lack of family too much, but thanks to this dreary and scary book, I’m terrified.


*“I will live my life as I, will undoubtedly die: alone.”

The Deen Crush and Kink Obfuscation

Graphic sexual content ahoy.  If you’re not cool with that, read no further!

In my early 20s I watched porn. As a young adult I was still testing boundaries and learning how the world worked.  As weird as it sounds, porn had value.  I learned that the human body is a funny thing. Budgets are so much smaller for porn, and it’s shot much more quickly, and as a result the “flaws” on a body are all present and accounted for.  Even the “perfect” porn bodies had zits and marks and wrinkles and blemishes.  Porn was the most honest expression of the human body in media.  And it was funny, at least to me.  I’d watch it with friends or lovers, making a Mystery Science Theater out of it, deducting points for bad form or lube wastage. I even wrote a paper for a Women’s Studies class about how Pornogothic was a better and less offensive movie than John Carpenter’s Vampires.  But I never watched it alone, and it never turned me on. Until this year; until James Deen.

I’ve always enjoyed written smut, but the visuals never did anything for me.  I accepted this, because porn is not marketed to women.  Erotica is, but I don’t really go in for soft-focus and love-in-a-field.   Then, this year, a friend told me about James Deen. “He’s amazing,” she said. “He really likes to make women come.”  That sounded a bit soft-focus to me, so I sort of brushed it off.  Then I saw him in a video suggested to me by another friend, and I suddenly Got It.  She didn’t mean he was “making love,” she meant he was really, really good at his job.  I’ve seen him make a professional porn star (I’m assuming she has a level of detachment that can enable her to perform as directed) lose herself in the act so completely, she screamed “I love you!”  He laughed, and It. Was. Gorgeous.

Months later, I read the Good article “What Women Want: Porn and the Frontier of Female Sexuality.” It focuses on Deen, and his seemingly incongruous teenaged female fan-base.

Deen is not supposed to be the star of his scenes—his sex partners are. But on Tumblr, a network of teenage bloggers*has emerged to turn the focus on him. The young women trade Deen videos, post candid photographs, and pluck out all the minute details that turn them on: the way he looks at a woman, touches her, stares into her eyes, whispers in her ear. “There was just something about the way he moved,” Emily says of her first exposure to Deen. He seemed to be “speaking to the girl, but not with his mouth, with his hand over the girl’s throat, and with his eyes.”
Deen’s young fans gush over the sight of him thrusting into a woman while holding her hand. They sigh over a private photo of a clothed Deen commuting by plane. They create animated GIFs of Deen’s greatest moves so they can watch him execute them again and again and again without rewinding. They pepper their Deen fantasies with Harry Potter jokes and circulate them to other girls. Several propose marriage.
Via 100 Interviews

Cue the moral panic: teenage girls are not supposed to be sexual, they’re not supposed to enter the clubhouse where the boys are.  ABC’s Nightline did a feature on Deen, with all the hand-wringing expected when young women decide they’re into sex.  But, as usual, the people who are most concerned are the ones who aren’t hearing anything the young women are saying.  When interviewed, the young women report that they like how “normal” Deen is, how his scenes border on romantic. Tumblr swoons when he kisses a girl.  All the innocence that the Concerned Adults are worried about stays firmly in place, even after viewing all that porn.  Make no mistake, there are a lot of naked-bit .gifs, but they’re often accompanied by expressions of longing for the person, not the act, and when he does something that makes the girls uncomfortable they’re vocal about it.  One wrote that the money shot, the one thing you can count on in porn, isn’t something she’d want to do in real life.  Given how internet savvy most young people are, it’s likely they’d have found an interview which he says he respects his partners’ limits.  “[For example] there’s no reason to choke somebody if they don’t like getting choked,” he says. “Then you’re basically being an asshole.” Much is made about Deen’s boy-next-door looks, but he’s not superstar handsome. The important part is that he’s a part of a sexual context for teenaged girls in a way that the Biebers of the world aren’t. The Deen Crush validates their human nature, that being a teenager is a hormone filled hornball experience, while letting them squee about those big blue eyes.  Sex, as it turns out, doesn’t ruin a damn thing.**

I’m as obsessed as the teens, for ostensibly different reasons.  The connection is that as women we can’t stop watching because it’s all hard to believe. Something for us? Really!? It wasn’t meant that way, it wasn’t pitched that way, it’s not even produced that way, but that’s how it ended up. I think it speaks to an idea that men and women are not very different after all. It turns out that women also like to watch.  However, unlike how porn is traditionally experienced by men, the women who are into James Deen are talking — a lot. There’s ownership of interest. It’s not shameful and private, it’s shared and memed.

My introduction to Deen was through an S&M scene, and it’s the only context I’ve seen him in.  So while the teenagers are watching the vanilla stuff, there’s a whole other side that is almost never acknowledged in the media.  Maybe they’re afraid the teenaged girls will find the kink? (Though as above, the girls who aren’t into it feel they have enough agency to say so.)  The Nightline video — which you should only watch if you want to kill your ladyboner, and fast — pulls clips mostly from  TV show parody porn, probably because they want you to think the porn industry is targeting children by making cartoon spoofs.  (Who knows, but Deen in yellow paint as a porn-Moe Syzlakis not hot.) The first mention I’ve seen of his work in S&M was in the New York Observer‘s piece “The Boyfriend Experience.

“I’ve been into rough sex pretty much my whole sexual life and so I’m not, like, bad at it,” Mr. Deen told me by phone last month, on his 26th birthday. “I don’t know how to say it without being a hideous prick, but I’m pretty good at having rough sex. It got to the point where a lot of girls who aren’t into that type of sex were afraid to work with me because they thought I was going to slap them in the face or something.  But I only do that if the girl is into it.”

“James Deen is gonna get me kicked out of feminism.”

According to the Observer, one third of his output (hurr hurr) is in the realm of kink.  But unless you’re watching it, you probably wouldn’t know it exists. (I’ve watched it. A++.  Would porn again.)  Maybe it should be that way; kink is only kink because it’s not so common.  But why the erasure?  Especially in the age of this awful Fifty Shades of Grey thing.  Is S&M only okay if it’s in print? If it’s so badly written as to be completely implausible and thus, safe?  I’ve read part of Fifty Shades, and as my friends know, I spent a good deal of time rolling my eyes and yelling “That’s not a thing!”  Anastasia Steele is a reluctant virgin, which is probably an oft used porn setup in itself.  Christian Grey is into bondage because he’s got a very damaged psyche.  From what I can figure, Fifty Shades of Grey is getting a cultural pass because their foray into BDSM is a phase, and what they really want is to hold hands and make love in a field or something.  (And we’re back to the teenaged girls.) It’s a new cultural conception, this the boy-next-door porn-star, and the world isn’t quite ready for him to be into suspension,spreader bars, and fisting.  What’s amazing is that we have this boy at all.  Small victories.

*They might be teenagers, but that link is absolutely NSFW.  
** Through all this, I totally acknowledge that there are teenaged girls who aren’t into that at all. How could I not?  

Further reading:
 James Deen: The Tom Cruise [whaaaa? Brits are weird] of Porn 
Porn That Women Like: Why Does It Make Men So Uncomfortable?