[160121] beyond lolita: sex and sexuality in literature


tonight, i went to a fabulous event at bookcourt that was part of a series of discussions going on around the country titled "beyond lolita."  the series is in support of pen america's emergency fund; you can read more about the writer's emergency fund and donate here!

the event was moderated by michele filgate (left), and panelists were (from left to right in the image above) laura miller, ashley c. ford, saeed jones, dylan landis, and elissa schappell.  you can read their bio's on bookcourt's site (here).

michele filgate did an awesome job moderating, and she started off with a series of direct questions.  all the panelists were awesome; i was admittedly only familiar with laura miller and saeed jones; and i walked away a new fan of ashley c. ford, who is fucking badass.

(also, meghan daum was there as well, in the audience, and i had a little fangirl moment in my head.  i recently read my misspent youth, and i love meghan daum.)

Q:  what rules do you have when writing sex, and do you think of writing sex scenes differently than other scenes?

  • ashley c. ford:  whenever i write anything, i try to write it as honestly as possible.
    • ACF:  two ways to go with sex -- i grew up on romance novels; even now, when i write sex, there's a hint of that romance novel suspense to it.  i rarely write the act because the act is usually the least interesting part -- in writing, not in life.
    • ACF:  i either go with suspense or i go with comedy because sex is often funny.
  • elissa schappell:  for me, the most interesting sex is bad sex.
  • ES:  i think, if you're going to write a sex scene, it should first turn you on.
  • laura miller:  i'm the critic who doesn't actually write sex but is here to pass judgment.
  • someone mentions the bad sex award, and LM says she finds it kind of contemptible because it's about shaming.  "i actually find it prudish."
  • saeed jones:  when straight white men write about sex, it's literature.  they get that taken for granted.  when it's anyone else, we have to answer all these questions.
    • SJ:  i'm interested because i'm interested in masculinity and its performance.  when two people come together, regardless of who they pretend to be or who they think they're attracted to, in that moment, they're laid bare.
    • SJ:  i'm interested in the failure and the juxtaposition.
    • SJ:  it is comedic, and it is is sad sometimes, and that's more illuminating to me.
  • ES:  there's a moment in sex where someone shows him/herself to be very different from how they appear.
  • SJ:  i'm interested in the tells and what we give away.

Q:  how do we navigate -- or fail to navigate -- a diverse array of identification in our writing about sexuality?

  • ACF:  writing about my sex life right now tends to be particularly interesting because i'm in an interracial relationship and my partner's white and i find myself very submissive in the bedroom.
    • ACF:  it's very hard to write about it.  so i write around it.  and i find that, when i'm writing around something, that's what i'm supposed to be writing about.
  • LM:  what a sex therapist once told me when i was interviewing him:  we all have an erotic imagination, and what it sometimes seizes on are the things that frighten us.  like a taking possession of our fears.
    • ES:  you could have saved me thousands of dollars.
  • dylan landis:  it's worth asking if your books are populated by the same people.
    • DL:  i think a stereotype of any kind will explode the work, and you'll have no art left.

Q:  dylan, tell me about the challenges of writing about the open sexuality of a teenager.

  • DL:  writing about teenagers is important to me.
  • DL:  when you're a teenager, your sexuality is like a brand new sports car.  what are you going to do with it?  are you going to drive it too fast?  are you going to drive it over a cliff because you feel like shit?  are you going to drive it into your parents' house?

Q:  elissa, what do you love to have come across your desk?

  • ES:  i want to feel something i haven't felt.  i want to see someone be vulnerable in a way i haven't seen before, to see someone be brutal in a way i haven't seen before.

Q:  laura, you've written about prudishness.  do you advocate for more explicit sex scenes in the literary novel?

  • LM:  i don't think people should feel obliged to do it if they don't want to, but i don't think people should be shamed for it.
  • LM:  i'm more concerned that there's so much of a stigma attached to it that keeps people from taking chances and going out on a limb because you're so exposed.
  • LM:  in the science fiction/fantasy community, there's a pushback from the traditional male readers who don't want to read women writing about sex.
    • ACF:  is there no sex in the future?  because i'm not going then.
    • LM:  i think it's partly that they're afraid that their genre is going to be turned into romance.  there's a huge genre hierarchy.
    • LM:  dealing with sex is seen as a woman's thing in that genre territory.
  • (LM gives a shout-out to jane smiley who writes good sex well but is not given enough recognition for it.)

Q:  saeed, what are you seeing -- or not seeing -- that you really want to see?

  • SJ:  i'm looking to feel more human after encountering someone's work.
  • SJ:  what i don't want to see is repetition.
  • SJ:  i think, as an editor, sometimes when i'm rejecting, i'm trying to protect writers.  like, with people who write about sex and trauma, are you still living that trauma?
  • SJ:  i got a trainer in september who i see twice a week, and he asked me, "what's your goal?", and i said, "well, my next book is coming out in 2017 ..."
    • SJ:  there is this phenomenon where people think you belong to them.  like people have ownership of you once you've given them access to your work.
  • SJ:  i don't believe readers are wrong as long as they're thoughtful.

Q:  ashley, you write all the things women of color aren't allowed to write.  what's the reaction to that, and is there a difference between your writing and your activism?

  • ACF:  the response has been majorly positive.
  • (she has a raccoon problem on her fire escape.)
  • ACF:  the negative reactions are intense, but sometimes they're so silly and so baseless that you find the sliver of humor in it.
  • ACF:  i'm lucky that i have the emotional constitution that can do that.  not everyone can be like "fuck you very much."
  • ACF:  the first person i was reading who made me think, "i want to be like that," was my friend and mentor, roxane gay.
  • ACF:  activism is completely different.  i think, right now, the closest i get to activism is teaching.

then on to audience Q&As:

Q:  re: lolita

  • ES:  i think the thing that's interesting about that is that he's able to turn us on.  for me, that really is astonishing that he's able to do that.
  • SJ:  i find the book repulsive, and i find it repulsive because it's so familiar.  in particular, the obsession -- we have these silent obsessions.
    • SJ:  seeing the way that manifests in lolita was repulsive because it was just as human as i'd feared.  that's the horror.
  • ACF:  i think it's so easy for us to think of any kind of sexual perversity as subhuman, so, when someone forces you to look at what you're capable of feeling or finding desirable, it's messed up, but i think it shows how much of us is an active choice.

Q:  what about a female pedophile, like with tampa?

  • ACF:  to me, it's the same shit, not necessarily a whole lot different in what it's doing.  i do think it's interesting that she had scenes that were just pornography.

Q:  how do you think about brutal sex?  and graphic sex when it comes to that?

  • DL:  sex is not sex if it's molestation or rape.  sex then becomes an instrument of violence.
  • SJ:  i was the kind of kid who was running toward sex.  is it there?  is it over there?
  • SJ:  writing is an opportunity to explore the gradients and nuances of a sexual encounter.  recognizing that there's all this potential allows us to write about sex acts with more clarity.
  • SJ:  anything can be pornographic.  that's between the reader and his therapist.
  • ES:  i don't like this idea that you shouldn't write about something because it might offend someone.  be authentic.
  • ES:  it's funny -- as a teacher, i spend a lot of time telling my students it's okay to write about their lives.
  • LM:  i have heard often people saying that this book feels voyeuristic because there's too much detail -- i find that destructive.
  • LM:  someone will probably be turned on because that is the human erotic imagination.  and it's so damaging to say that we can't even talk about this because it's voyeuristic.
  • ACF:  when i was growing up, books about little black girls and black teenagers were all about what was being done to their bodies.  not about them learning their bodies or taking ownership of their bodies.  it wasn't until like the last two years that i learned to enjoy by body during sex.

Q:  recommend a writer who's writing about sex and sexuality in interesting ways.

  • ES:  roxane gay
  • DL:  louise erdrich
  • SJ:  garth greenwell
  • ACF:  roxane gay and lydia yuknavitch
  • LM:  alan hollinghurst
    • LM:  i like reading about gay sex because it's something i'll never experience.
    • SJ:  i'm sorry.  it's great.