Monday, November 28, 2011

The editors of "Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience" talk about sex scenes, male critics and more

How could I possibly resist wanting to talk to the editors (Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Kate Meads) of the provocative Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience? The book is a terrific collection of bold, brave and brash essays from such extraordinary female authors as A. M. Homes, Aimee Bender, Tawni O'Dell, Gina Frangella, Cris Mazza, and many more. Thanks to all the editors for talking with me.

CL: So, what made you decide to gather women writers to write about the male experience? 

Cris Mazza:  Someone said to me, as the controversy over the title Chick-Lit for the first anthologies I co-edited subsided, that maybe it was now time to do Dick-Lit.  Ha-ha, I said, as though that hasn’t already be done in so many anthologies since the onset of printing presses.  But … there was a way in which the “male experience” hadn’t been anthologized.

At first, I was also playing amateur psychologist.  I wanted to see if the way women wrote sex from a male POV said anything about how they themselves view sex – something about their attitude that wouldn’t be consciously available, even to them.  This curiosity, of course, could not be satisfied because I had no way of knowing if any assumption I could make after reading their material was, in fact, anywhere close to plausible.  And, quickly, the initial curiosity that launched the project quickly changed when I discovered (a) many women didn’t even write graphic sex, let alone from a male POV, (b) many submissions claimed to have graphic sex and didn’t, (c) other anthologies of “women’s sensual writing” or “women’s erotic fiction” completely ignored the issue of perspective or point-of-view and men exploring sexuality from anywhere other than their own experience.  Some of my old bells started re-ringing: the comment a male editor had made to my then-agent about a male perspective sexual situation, a general lambasting at a women’s-writing conference from a woman-of-color who said no one else had the right to imagine or depict of character outsider her own cultural reality. [Note: co-editor Kat Meads has a new book out in which she did exactly this.]   I decided to go see what was out there and what might be said of it if I gathered it together under one cover. 

Kat Meads: My motivation was similar to Cris’s. I get very perturbed when critics or reviewers or readers start making rules about what can and can’t be written about. Very perturbed. I’m truly stunned and amazed that anyone would suggest/demand restrictions on a creative composition. Imagination: no creed, no color, no age, no gender. Anything and everything up for grabs. Does it work/convince as a piece of fiction? That’s what counts, the only judgment that matters. But when Cris and I started thinking about and reading for this project, it was clear to us that a particular kind of censorship—either absorbed or self-imposed—was operating in terms of women writing from the male viewpoint about sex. And I think both of us—and then all four of us—were a bit taken aback by the difficulty of finding work that met our vision for the book. But when we did find those stories and novels, we were ecstatic. In Men Undressed, women not only write as men about sex, they write very, very well.

CL: What kinds of stories did you expect to receive and were you surprised at what you got? I'm also curious what direction you gave your writers, and how you chose the stories you chose.

Stacy Bierlein:  Several colleagues asked, “Are you sure about this?  People write so badly about sex.”  But I didn’t believe that.  A well-written sex scene can be central to any powerful literary work. Sex scenes are often an ideal means for both writers and readers to really know a character.  In the 1700s male writers like Samuel Richardson got to know their female narrators by writing their soul-baring letters. This was a time of high censorship, so these letters likely stood in for sex scenes that would have prevented a novel’s publication. (It’s interesting to note too that Richardson’s work inspired more than one American clergyman to call fiction itself “a sinful form of writing.”)  In our age of texts and tweets, our characters do not write soul-baring letters, but certainly writers can put their characters in sex scenes to reveal their most intimate, honest, or horrifying selves. Certainly as writers we can attempt these moments that allow heightened power to details. The guy who reaches for his Blackberry before his partner has finished coming ….  Well, we know exactly who he is.  (It’s better to be writing him than dating him, of course.)  As we began work on our book, we asked writers for works of literary fiction with “frank sexuality.”  It took our attention that in the early months of our reading for Men Undressed we received strong, deeply admirable stories that were highly sensual yet void of real sexual tension or actual sexual encounters. Our associate editors got a little tired of the four of us saying things like, “Great story, but my god, why don’t they fuck?”  And to be honest, due to the high quality of some of the not-quite-sexual work we were rejecting, I wondered on several occasions if we might consider altering our mission for this book. Certainly “narrative cross-dressing” on its own was a formidable topic. Cris, Kat, and Gina held firm to the frank sexuality requirement and they were right to do so.  We chose visual stories that held us in awe, stories whose vibrant characters pushed at us in some way, and stories we envied and wished we had written. I think the results are stunning.

CL: Why don't men--and some women--want women to write raunchy? 

Cris Mazza:  I’m breaking this question down to “why do so many writers avoid graphic sex?”  I believe some writers, male and female alike, might fear the appearance of using graphic sex only to amp up a book’s “drama” – that old “only for prurient interest”  criticism which, outside obscenity court cases, just means sensationalizing, on par with including graphic violence and gore.   Some, perhaps, fear always being associated too closely with their characters and don’t want to feel that readers are able to peer into their own private intimate lives.  Some men likely don’t want their writing to live in the same sphere as locker-room one-upmanship.  But when it comes to what you’ve actually asked, why don’t men want women to write frank sexuality …?  Okay, you said “raunchy,” and I find I can’t apply that word to the category of sex-writing I’m talking about; and that’s why I’m demurring.  Raunchy is defined as vulgar, crude, coarse, gross, etc., and we’re right back into that court definition of obscenity.

Staring over: Why don’t men want women to write graphic or frank sex scenes?  Porn video makers in the 70s and 80s included some girl-on-girl scenes because men are very interested in women expressing their sexuality.  (Hey, have there been any women porn film makers?)  But publishers and editors and critics?  Somehow many were infused with or confused by a standard their mommies taught them for what kind of girl they should marry.  A virgin who would never use a “bad word” or even refer to her own body parts (or his) and wants to get undressed in the dark. 

OK, I know I’m being snarky.  I don’t know if men don’t want women to write sex scenes.  I do know that some women writers simply said to me, “I don’t do that,” as though I’d asked them if they like to have sex in public.

Gina Frangello: I’m not sure that men don’t want women to write sex scenes, exactly.  What I do think is that “the market”—which both men and women are responsible for in different ways—tends to discourage literary women writers from focusing much on sex, whereas it actually very much encourages female genre writers—whether romance or pop or chick-lit or even thrillers—to write more overtly about sex.  This is so complex, really.  I’m not that much younger than Cris but we did come of age, so to speak, in a different literary era, and in my formative years as a writer/editor there was no huge shortage of women writing sexual fiction—some of my influences were Mary Gaitskill, Kathy Acker, Kate Braverman, really many women writers by the early 90s were writing candidly about sex, I sometimes think more so than in today’s market.  This was just on the brink of the wide-scale corporatization that took place in the publishing world, and it was also prior to 9/11 and the economic downturn, both of which had a somewhat “Puritanizing” influence on the publishing world (as well as on other art forms such as film).  

Between the fact that trade publishing is now almost synonymous with shareholders and marketing teams making more decisions than editors, and the fact that there started to be this prevailing belief post-9/11 that audiences couldn’t stand anything other than “feel good” or simple, inspiring stories, I think the truth is that bold, risk-taking art forms have really suffered pretty much across the board.  In my view, serious explorations of sex in fiction has been a casualty of these developments.  In the 90s, you had even mainstream magazines like Vogue talking about “perversion chic”—Quentin Tarantino was all the rage in Hollywood.  

The post-9/11 landscape, paired with what corporatization and economic recession did to the publishing world, really changed that cultural zeitgeist.  I think this has far less to do with men as a sweeping gender discouraging or disapproving of women talking about sex, and much more to do with an actually (much more discouraging) move away from serious art on a wider scale and with an anti-intellectual movement in the country.  Women are still writing plenty of sex.  But they’re not encouraged to do so in a serious way, outside of beach reads.  With the downsizing of serious art/literature in the United States, it seems to me that sexism has reared its ugly head in a way that would have seemed passé in the 1990s.  There are fewer and fewer “slots” available to writers of literary fiction, and among those writers only a certain number can also be edgy, risk-taking writers who are pushing the boundaries of convention with graphic content, and among those writers even fewer can be women because the publishing industry seems to accept without question that male work is Universal whereas female work is “for women.”  

I guess, Caroline, I think this question is almost unspeakably complex—it’s fascinating to me so I have to put the brakes on myself.  There are a few trade publishers out there, like Algonquin and Harper Perennial, that still seem to really be encouraging writers to take risks and that seem very open to women writers with big, bold or subversive ideas, but this seems to be less and less prevalent due to the current Armageddon in publishing.  People are going with the safe, the crowd-pleasing, and a lot of women writers are being ghettoized, with literary fiction becoming more a boy’s playground than it was in the 1990s, paradoxically.  And in this vein, women writing frankly, graphically and honestly about sex has never been exactly “safe.”  Which is why it’s more important than ever right now.

CL: How have male critics responded. Has there been any, "How dare you!" type of response? (And, by the way, I loved the foreword by Steve Almond.)

Gina Frangello: Well here’s the irony, really.  My personal belief is that once a book is published—once it’s been given that “stamp of approval” by being in book form, the general public tends to be far less aghast by it than marketing departments might have imagined they would be.  A lot of people seemed to believe, going into this project, that we were going to get some serious flack.  However, that hasn’t actually proven true thus far.  I did see a fairly heated exchange on the Facebook wall of one of our contributors, where some of her male “friends” were agitated by the book’s concept.  They felt it was reverse-sexism and that the book was going to be all about turn-about being fair play or about a reaction against male writers or men in general.  But the fact is, these guys hadn’t read the book; it wasn’t even released yet.  I think it would be very hard to come to a conclusion like that if they had.  

While the male characters in the anthology are often flawed—as all great literary characters are—the anthology is a celebration of male sexuality, not an indictment.  The women writers we selected are grappling mightily to understand men and get inside their skin in a visceral way.  Steve Almond remarks, as you note, that we are sorely in need of that understanding, and I think that’s precisely true.  No critics have yet disputed that or taken issue with it.  I’ll be somewhat surprised if things play out in that way.  The women in Men Undressed aren’t just trying to get revenge on D.H. Lawrence or something.  They feel their characters very deeply and care about them and breathe life into them.  Some of these women—like A.M. Homes, for example, were at the forefront of launching this new literary tradition, in which women are equally free with men to explore the Other.  There’s much to debate on the pages of Men Undressed, but I don’t think anyone who really cares about literature—as obviously critics do—would dispute the right of women writers to do that.

CL: Do you think male writers and female writers have different ideas on what makes a good sex scene? In reading these stories, I actually thought the writers were really more interested and focused on individual character, rather than trying to reveal the male at large, Could you talk a bit about that?

Gina Frangello: I’m not sure if male and female literary writers have different conceptions of good sex scenes, broken down cleanly into gender.  Certainly it does seem that there are ways of portraying sex, i.e. much of the porn industry on the male side, or romance novels on the female side, that appeal strongly to one gender and less strongly to the other.  But is this true in so-called “literary fiction?”  I’m not sure.  I think of someone like Mary Gaitskill, who is just a master at writing sexuality, and it seems to me that she has as many male fans as female fans, even though she’s a woman writer.  So I think the further away from stereotypes—and the closer to “individuality”—the art form becomes, the more it actually eschews a gendered definition, you know?  

Which actually ties in to the next part of your question, Caroline, because yeah, on the one hand our anthology is intended to focus on how women writers may envision Male sexuality, capital M.  As a compilation of 28 pieces of fiction, we hope to be able to launch discussions about that.  But on an individual, story-by-story level, I doubt that was any writer’s singular intent.  What I mean is: the focus on individual character, rather than some concept of “male at large,” is probably why the stories/chapters we chose are so strong.  

If a story attempted to capture the "male experience" in some global sense, it would likely be disastrously didactic and annoying.  After all, what would we think of a male writer who was trying to capture the "essence of woman" in his fiction, as opposed to writing about an individual female character, right?  Even in the example of Lady Chatterly, which—as Cris Mazza points out in her Introduction—may have misled many women readers over the years in terms of being a role model of female sexuality, we have to remember that Lawrence was only positing that one woman might have this sort of experience, not that all women were Lady Chatterly. And as Cris also points out in her Introduction, this is the task of all fiction, really. 

 It's always about the individual character, even when you are writing about a gender, race or ethnicity to which you as a writer also belong. Toni Morrison may be a black female, but her character, Sethe, in Beloved is not meant to be Every Black Woman.  Imagine the critical outrage if Morrison had been implying that Every Black Woman would murder her child!  But she was writing about one woman, and therefore her task was to make this action believable, resonant, and even understandable in that one character’s eyes and circumstances—and she succeeded brilliantly.  That's all any writer can ever hope to do unless they're conducting a clinical study, not writing a piece of fiction.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Stacy Bierlein:  I realize this echoes some of what we have discussed here as well as Steve Almond’s forward, but for the writers reading this interview I would suggest again, Why not write about sex?  It baffles me how many writers still avoid or dismiss this vibrant and important arena in their work.  In an era where we have so-called leaders discussing things like abstinence-only education for young people, there is precious little frank discussion of sex as a means of self-exploration or self-expression.  For many characters on the pages of Men Undressed, sex is that and more. 

Kat Meads: Who should read this anthology? Women and men. Read Men Undressed for its variety and surprises. Read it to discover new voices. Read it, discuss it, argue about it.

Stacy Bierlein: Indeed!


Alma said...

Caroline, what an excellent post! The authors hit the nail on the head when they said that the prohibition against harder edged writing seems to be part of the anti-intellectual attitude in this country. Let's hope we get over this soon. I'll be on the lookout for "Men Undrressed"--it sounds fascinating.

Christopher said...

I found this fascinating. When it came to write sex scenes for my novel "Love At Absolute Zero," I had women read it because more women than men read fiction, and my scenes, while a male POV, had to appeal to women. Thus, while it was a male POV, it also had to have female sensibility. (Freud, give me a call.)

My initial female readers were extremely helpful when it came to using certain words (clinical vs. euphemistic) and how to keep it fun--and funny--as I wanted. I can't remember if you were one of those readers, Caroline, but you've helped me much in the past.

The response to the book (and those scenes) has been good other than a female reader in Utah who thought it was all too much.

Wendy said...

Notable that here in the UK almost all of the nominees for the year's Bad Sex Awards (literary that is) are male authors. At least they try! said...

an excellent post and discussion.
in a writing group to which i belonged we once did an interesting exercise:
the guys wrote a sex(y) scene from the female POV, and vice versa. then shared them with each other without identifying the writer.
we were about 50/50 successful in pulling it off. the guys still were a bit more "in your face" than the ladies, even when trying not to be.
one note... nobody in the group was reluctant to do the exercise.
if you are in a group >>> give it a shot sometime.
TEH ... Asheville, NC