By Savanna Scott Leslie
Erotica, like other types of “genre fiction,” is often excluded from the literary canon. Your novels certainly challenge that bias and show that literary fiction can overlap with erotica. Do you think readers and the publishing community are becoming more receptive to literary erotica?
Yes, I think that readers and certain members of the publishing community are willing to take in cross-genre works. I also think there is a taste out there for harder fare that flouts popular erotica’s aesthetic. I’m thinking of Samuel R. Delany’s The Mad Man, Heather Lewis’s Notice and Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands. Also, recently, Tampa by Alissa Nutting, which I’m looking forward to reading. Literature as a category is deep enough to subsume the erotic.
Before publishing your first book, Lie With Me, in 1999, you had worked writing porn stories and making porn films. How have those experiences influenced your career as a novelist and as a screenwriter?
I didn’t make any kind of mainstream porn films—they were super 8 shorts—but in terms of the porn writing job, it influenced my writing greatly because it taught me the tricks of a very political art form, which I could make use of.
Please tell us more about how you use those tricks.
When I was writing the hardcore porn stories, I started to put more disturbing elements into them, stuff like abuse, hysteria, emotional outbursts and female domination–style thinking, to try to get into the male mind when it was turned on and compliant. When someone is about to come, they are very suggestible, very open. I felt like a propagandist, or a manipulator behind the scenes, slipping emotional terror or maybe just an uncomfortable bit of female reality into the straightforward consumption of porn. I still find these kinds of tricks useful, but I’m not as secretive about them now. I want people to be open when they read. I am open when I read. For me this is the pleasure of reading.
Maidenhead’s protagonist, Myra, rebels against the “passivity and privilege and girlishness” she sees in her former friends. Any thoughts on how women—and especially women in the literary arts—can overcome passivity?
Well, without conflating girls and women or the fictional world and the lived one, there is something important in the experience of passivity, i.e. there is no active principle without the passive one, so I think it’s worthwhile to be and see both sides. I think that action is, of course, the overriding principle in the lived world and overcoming passivity sometimes means overcoming our egotistical, solipsistic or neurotic circular thinking. And yet, ironically, this kind of thinking can be kind of an important trait in a protagonist! Anyway, as an adult, I think passivity is important because it’s good to listen, look around and shut up at least half the time. You learn a lot this way. It’s different when you’re a teenager, though. The passive principle can fuck a lot of teenage girls up. This is what Maidenhead deals with.
Do you think adult women tend to carry this destructive teenage passivity into adulthood, though?
I hope not. Of course I do think it happens. It would be helpful if there were some sort of line in the sand or a very loud alarm that signified, “Now it is time to take responsibility for every single thing that happens in your life. Now!”
Maidenhead describes “liberation narratives.” It explores not only women’s sexual liberation but also the master-slave dynamic within the bedroom, historically and politically in terms of race and class. In your review of S.E.C.R.E.T. by L. Marie Adeline for the National Post, you write, “The truth of the matter is that we are simply unable to define what it means in this age to be sexually free.” Why do we struggle to understand sexual freedom today?
I’m going to descend into reductive gender essentialisms when I say that I think that the woman (queer or straight) may struggle more with sexual freedom than the man (queer or straight) because a) we can birth children, b) we might take sexual pleasure in activity or passivity, and c) our lot is to work and take care of said children in addition to fucking. Female sexual liberation is a confusing mess of parts. A female shouldn’t have to clean it all up. Also, as Virginie Despentes noted in King Kong Theory, the sexually experimental woman is often shunned by the group. The shunned mother does not exist. Or, you can try to be a shunned mother but it doesn’t really work. You get incarcerated. Anyway, maybe we are all half-liberated, un-liberated or sur-liberated in varying degrees. In my own case, wielding sexual language and being pissed off helps me get a sense of freedom in this world. I’m into the interventionist practices of feminist groups like Pussy Riot and Femen, reductive as they are or not.
Can those kinds of intervention help make women more liberated? Femen, for example, is often accused of trying to enforce a narrow interpretation of sexual freedom that promotes white supremacy.
Apparently Amina Sboui, the Tunisian activist who recently got out of prison, just quit Femen for their Islamophobia and “obscure financing.” “I don’t want to be in a movement supported by dubious money,” she said. “What if it is financed by Israel? I want to know.” I find Amina Sboui’s critique relevant, but still, when I see the video of half-naked Femen activists with slogans written on their bodies confronting Putin and Merkel, I’m impressed. “Crise de Foi,” “Pope no more” and “F*ck your morals”—I can follow the work of Femen and Amina Sboui, maybe especially now that they have parted ways.
EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is another example of popular erotica from 2012 (like Maidenhead), and it also includes a master-slave dynamic. But James approaches sexuality and power relations from a much less critical perspective. What do you think this book’s popularity says about our understanding of women’s sexual freedom today, and about the state of erotica as a genre?
I think Fifty Shades of Grey is easy reading, kind of like scrolling through Facebook while waiting for something. It’s pap, unless something sticks and takes you elsewhere. I have no idea what this book’s popularity says about our understanding of women’s sexual freedom today, but Roxane Gay’s 2012 essay about it on The Rumpus is clear. “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Gay writes, “is about a man finding peace and happiness because he finally finds a woman willing to tolerate his bullshit for long enough.”
Does that romanticized bullshit-tolerance in a woman tie in with the passivity teenage girls like Myra struggle with?
I don’t think so. Unfortunately, I think women tolerate even more bullshit from men the older, more married and more calcified they get. Until they have had enough. Then they leave. Hopefully not to repeat the cycle of bullshit-tolerance, but, by this point, the tolerance certainly isn’t romanticized.
In an April 2013 interview with Bruce DeMara of the Toronto Star, you said you “supplement [your] existence as a novelist in Canada” with other work, like teaching yoga and screenwriting, and that “it’s important to be all kinds of other things.” How do you balance your art and other passions with material needs? Do you have any advice for other women trying to pursue their passions?
I have no idea how I would have made a living writing the books I have written without having had a job that paid well while remaining part-time. I think these jobs exist and they are good for any kind of artist. My advice is to figure out how you work best—days or nights, hyper or calm—and structure yourself accordingly. I have started making a small amount of money through writing, but I still would not be able to make a living as a writer, so I cobble things together. And in my case, sharing resources, i.e. being in a partnership, helps. But I’ll be honest and say that making a living without a regular job has gotten harder, not easier, as I get older because things like refrigerators and cars fall apart and need to be fixed.
In our 2012 count, CWILA found that 57.46% of book reviews discussed male authors and that male reviewers wrote 52.20% of 2012’s book reviews (Gillian Jerome, “The CWILA Numbers 2012”). Do you think feminist literary collectives like CWILA and numbers-based initiatives like the CWILA count help to fight patriarchy in publishing?
Yes, I think so. It helps for all of us to see it.
CWILA found that Maidenhead was by far the most reviewed book of 2012 in Canada (Laura Moss, “Measuring Canadian Support on the ‘Literary Assembly Line’”). Are book reviews important? Have reviews made a difference in your career?
Yes, book reviews are important. And yes, reviews have definitely made a difference in my career. I have appreciated all the reviews of Maidenhead that I’ve read, even the ones where my book was thrown across the room.
Which publications do you read for book reviews or critical essays?
My favourite publication is Bookforum. I sometimes like The New York Times Sunday Book Review and I read some of the free essays on the London Review of Books website. I like The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus and The Complete Review. In general, I love reading book reviews to discover new and old books and to read people’s thinking about writing. In terms of critical essays, I liked Stacey May Fowles’ piece on Marie Calloway, “In Defence of the Confession,” which was published in The Walrus in 2012. I also love Roxane Gay’s critical work, especially her 2012 essay on The Hunger Games, “What We Hunger For,” and her recent “Interview With My Mom, One Who Stayed Home” on The Hairpin.
Tamara Faith Berger lives in Toronto. She has published three novels: Lie With Me (2001), The Way of the Whore, (2004)—collected in Little Cat (Coach House Books, 2013)—and Maidenhead (Coach House Books, 2012). Maidenhead was nominated for a Trillium Award and it won The Believer Book Award.
Savanna Scott Leslie is a freelance editor with diverse web and print experience. She has a BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and studies publishing at Ryerson University. She lives in Guelph, Ontario.