It’s not about a smell, or a particular shade of yellow the pages become. I like a musty paperback as much as the next girl, but I will read Persuasion on a tablet or Jane Eyre in a spare browser tab. The dirty secret of old books—the ones you’ve heard of, the one’s you may cringe at the thought of reading—is that they are often dirty too. And if they are skimpy on sex, they are brim-full with melodrama. This is what I can’t get enough of: a crazy-ass plot buried beneath the prim patina of age. Madame Bovary: lots of carriage sex. Ulysses: actually mostly farts. Moby-Dick: a “sperm squeezing” scene that is even more masturbatory than you can imagine. Obviously these works are also rich and complicated and subtle, too, but that’s no reason not to enjoy their crassness, their buffoonery, their animal charm. (And why deny yourself the bragging rights?)
I recently read a book I've been meaning to devour forever: Dracula.
What all vampire stories are about, ultimately, is sex. Full of nighttime assignations, penetration, the exchange of fluids, visceral desire and latent shame, and the fear of contagion, of contamination, of death—Dracula is no different.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s massively popular Arthurian fantasy The Mists of Avalon. Alas, I was unable to read this iconic novel when it was first released, due to being about two years old at the time.
A decade later, however, I found The Mists of Avalon and fell head over heels. I was a twelve-year-old Catholic girl. My best friend’s mom called my mom to get her okay before lending me this novel, and no wonder. Sibling incest! Pagan orgies around bonfires! Extramarital sex before a husband’s very eyes, nay, at his request! I read it—all 876 pages—several times during the next couple years.
I was not alone: Mists has stayed in print for three decades and inspired passionate devotion. It has also triggered plenty of ironic eye-rolling. Now that I’m not twelve anymore, I find myself deeply sympathetic to both reactions.
For those of you who haven’t read the book or whose memories of it have receded into the appropriately misty past, here’s a quick overview: Mists retells the legend of King Arthur, considering the familiar plot from the perspectives of its female characters. nstead of placing kings, knights, and war at the heart of the story, Mists fleshes out Morgaine (in this version, Arthur’s sister), Gwenhwyfar (aka Guinevere), and three sisters: Igraine (Morgaine and Arthur’s mother), Morgause (an intelligent and sexually liberated queen), and Vivian (high priestess of Avalon).
This is a long book with a complicated plot. Essentially, though, it’s about queens and priestesses, mothers and sisters and aunts, and sex and birth and death.
Love it or hate it, Girls fits into a specific, maligned literary genre, noted television critic Emily Nussbaum in this week's New Yorker. Nussbaum compares Girls to previous works about young women, most notably Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel The Group. Like Lena Dunham's show, critics at the time called The Group drivel about self-important, privileged young women. But that hasn’t stopped dozens of women from continuing to publish similar stories. As Nussbaum writers:
These are stories about smart, strange girls diving into experience, often through bad sex with their worst critics. They’re almost always set in New York. While other female-centered hits, with more likable heroines, are ignored or patronized, these racy fables agitate audiences, in part because they violate the dictate that women, both fictional and real, not make anyone uncomfortable.
This week’s Girls episode, “One Man’s Trash,” reads like a short story from McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, or, I would even say, from Raymond Carver. It’s a story that’s based on the uncomfortable nature of two lonely people who just want to experience something else for a brief moment.
In 1966, when Jean Rhys was 76 years old, her novel Wide Sargasso Sea was published. The novel, a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, is told from the perspective of the Caribbean Creole “madwoman in the attic" who was Mr. Rochester's first wife. Her editor, who worked with her on Wide Sargasso Sea,highlights the difficulty of Rhys’ life, saying, “It is impossible to describe briefly the burdens inflicted on her by poverty, loneliness...It remains a mystery how someone so ill-equipped for life, upon whom life had visited such tribulations, could force herself to hang on, whatever the battering she was taking, to the artists at the centre of herself.”
Some of the comments on my post about Savage U last week argued that people like Dan Savage, who work hard to advance LGBT equality and visibility even though their biphobic and transphobic comments sometimes suggest otherwise, should be recognized for the good work that they do. I agree. I think Dan Savage has done some excellent work to advance visibility and acceptance for queer people. That’s why it hurts so much when he says “avoiding bi guys is a good rule of thumb for gay men looking for long-term relationships.” I expect ignorant remarks about bisexuals having difficulty with monogamy from Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum. I shouldn’t have to expect this from Savage, somebody who works hard to advance public acceptance of sexual diversity. But I do have to expect this from him, just like I have to expect a similar attitude from some of the wonderful gay and lesbian people I know. The unfortunate reality is that there is as much biphobia in the gay community as there is in the straight world, and it won’t go away if we continue to ignore it in the campaign for the greater good.
Thankfully, there are media to which we can turn for nuanced, complex looks at biphobia—and it looks like John Irving’s new novel will be one such place.
CALYX Journal begins its 36th year of publishing fine art and literature by women with its winter 2012 issue (vol. 27, no. 3). This self-described feminist literary journal allows women’s voices to be front and center, which is why its four female founders created it in 1976. Referencing a recent survey conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts the introduction in the summer 2011 issue of CALYX points out that women’s voices are still highly marginalized in the literary journals and magazines, making their mission as relevant as ever.