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 Syzlak is 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?