MORE: Sex and the Contemporary Novel
Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) to a day-long series of conversations with four of our most interesting novelists writing on sex today: Justin Torres, Jamie Quatro, Eimear McBride, and Garth Greenwell. The event took place at the University of Toronto, on September 22, 2018.
In Jamie Quatro’s novel, Fire Sermon, the main character and narrator Maggie, writes and sends an email to the poet James K. Abbott. Provoked by her admiration of his new collection of poems, she takes it upon herself to write to Abbott, even though they don’t know each other personally. She has however, come to know him, we might say, impersonally, that is, as a reader. This relation between the personal and the impersonal, the autobiographical and the fictional will be one of the topics of discussion today. But the other reason why I make mention of Maggie’s email, is because I wrote and sent out similar emails several months ago (in one case, a couple of years ago), to four authors, and like Maggie, I was provoked by the simple fact that I admire their work so much and wanted them to know that.
In writing to them, as a fan, I also was inviting each of them to come to Toronto, with the idea that not only would they read and discuss their work individually and separately, but that they would also have a conversation together, one that would focus on sex and sexuality, desire and intimacy, kinship, violence, writing and storytelling. While they are fully aware of each other’s work, in some cases having endorsed each other’s books—and at least on one or two occasions that I am aware of, were paired together at a public literary event—Toronto is the first time that all four appear together on the same stage at the same time.
I cannot convey how grateful I am that Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell, were interested in such an event, and indeed that all of them unhesitatingly responded positively and enthusiastically to my invitation. It is, at the same time, nothing short of a miracle, I think, that all four of them were available on the same weekend. It is an absolute pleasure, distinct honour and personal thrill to have them here today, for what promises to be a unique and memorable series of conversations on sex and the contemporary novel.
In retrospect, thinking back to the genesis of this event, one of the things that I find most telling, is a complete inability to recall exactly which of the four authors I discovered first. Which book did I encounter first, and in what order did I then go about reading the others. The sheer force of their impression on me has been so great, that I can only describe it as something of a concentrated burst or unabated flood that occurred sometime in the past two or three years. This sense of an acute chronology of reading has not left me, even though I am well aware, based upon publication dates and the good fortune of being able to read these novels almost immediately after they came out, that Justin Torres’ We the Animals, is the earliest to have appeared (in 2011) and Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, is the most recent (it came out at the beginning of this year).
At the same time, in describing them as a group of authors that I cannot think apart from each other, I am not suggesting that their work has in any way lost its singular distinctiveness for me, or that I am in any way interested in christening a new school or literary sub-genre, under which the four authors would be branded, as though circumscribed by some sheer legibility of a certain marketability.
In addition to inviting four of my most favourite contemporary literary authors, I have also used this event as an occasion to pair each of these authors with a reader (each of whom is also a writer), all of whom I also greatly admire. Precisely for the ways in which they move through texts, and the insights that I have gained from their singular reading practices. So, this afternoon, I also welcome Luis Jacob, Fan Wu, Mahité Breton and Chaya Litvack, each of whom shares a set of affinities with the author with whom they are paired.
In the overall spirit of wanting to keep this afternoon’s conversations as open, un-scripted and expansive as possible, I have invited each of the interlocutors to pursue their own path, and to allow the conversation to reflect their own particular engagement with the books, based not only upon the thematic of today’s event, but their own inclinations, proclivities, and commitments. All of the conversations that will unfold today will be the result of nearly first-time in-person encounters. Some based upon a extended familiarity with the author and their work, while in other cases, occasioned by the invitation to participate here today.
Here is how the day’s program will run. There will be four consecutive conversations between invited writer and reader, during which the authors might read from their works, and at the end of which there will be an opportunity for you, members of the audience, to ask questions. Ushers will have microphones, which we ask you to use so that everyone in the theatre can hear your question, and so that we can capture your voice on the video recording. We ask that you keep your questions as brief as possible, and that they take the form of an actual question. We have reserved close to an hour for each session, and between each conversation there will be a very short break, in order to facilitate set-up of microphones, switch out water glasses, and take a quick bathroom break. Washrooms are located downstairs, and we remind you that drinking and eating in the theatre proper are not allowed.
At 5:00PM, following the fourth and last one-on-one conversation, all four authors will gather together on stage for a final 1-hour conversation that I will moderate. This will be an opportunity to discuss issues and to ask questions that in various ways extend across their respective works. After that, at 6PM, there will be a modest reception in the lobby, right outside the theatre, where the authors will be signing books—copies of which are available for purchase in the lobby.
I have organized this event as part of my SSHRC-funded 4-year research project on “The Risks and Pleasures of Bodily Abandonment and Freedom,” of which one component is a working group on “Sex, Ethics and Publics.” With this project, now in its fourth year, I have sought to bring together academics and non-academics in order to think about the relations between sex, ethics and publics, including in public forums such as today’s event. The conviction upon which the research project and the working group are based, is that the political begins in intimacy, and that the aesthetic (i.e. art, literature, etc.) plays a vital role in the conceptualization and imagination of this inauguration. Indeed, I argue that the aesthetic is a principal staging of the scene of intimacy, of which sex is one principal manifestation.
This afternoon is an opportunity to delve deep into the work of four of the most exciting authors writing in remarkably original, provocative, moving, and challenging ways about sex. As such, it is also an opportunity to think and talk about ways in which the contemporary novel is a critical component in the ongoing grappling with such questions as: “how do we talk about sex?” How do we tell stories about the sex that we have, want to have, wish we didn’t have, and, at times, wish we didn’t have to talk about?
Given recent events, it is undeniable that at this particular moment, the need and desire to put sex into words has proven to be as difficult as it has ever been. While sex talk need not always take a narrative form, literary narration—as in the form of the novel and the short story (but not limited to those genres)—can function not only as a zone of translation between sex and language, but more importantly, it can tell stories about the limits of sex, the limits of language, and the limits of their mutual rapport. The latter of which is its own form of intimacy, often structured as an impasse. Yet at times that impasse can prove to be its own form of passage, and even something of a way out.
One of the things that drew me into the work of each of our authors, and has kept me tethered to them, is the way in which each affirms the degree to which intimacy is inseparable from separation. That is, the way in which erotic and sexual—but also social, literary—forms of intimacy are not the overcoming of prior relational separation, but instead is the sustaining of that very space of separation. Each of these authors reminds us that intimacy is an intimate rapport with separation, and thus with that which exceeds the couple or even the group-form, the inter-subjective, the private, the domestic and the personal. Which also means that in intimacy, one is in rapport with what of the other remains impersonal and anonymous. It is here that we can begin to outline an ethical sense of intimacy, one that was aptly phrased by Tim Dean as the final sentence of book, Unlimited Intimacy, when he asked, “Why should strangers not be lovers and yet [still] remain strangers?”
At this particular historical moment, and in light of the social-media saturated environments that we are bound to inhabit, it is increasingly important to resist the data-colonization of the deepest recesses, but also the most exposed surfaces, that constitute the intimate dimensions of our lives.
When the anonymous stranger that I am invoking here has been reduced to an utterly formulaic identity and the algorithmic profile, and when the clandestine is on the verge of extinction through various processes of gentrification, and social-sexual imperceptibilities are rendered as marketable data, we desperately need fiction, poetry and art, precisely because they are places where we can continue to imagine the pleasurable mis-alignment of social subjects and encounters in passing, as scenes of intimacy.
As recently pointed out by Amia Srinivasan (“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” London Review of Books, 22 March 2018)—and similar to the point I made earlier about the untranslatability of sex and the erotic pleasure—the care and use of bodies is not a transactional affair, as though following in the norms of capitalist free exchange (the less queer meaning of “trade”). For that way goes a contractual and liberal consensual model of intimacy (and sociality more broadly), that does not pay attention to the conditions that give rise to desires, attractions, impulses, aversions and yearnings. What Justin Torres, Eimear McBride, Jamie Quatro and Garth Greenwell all attend to in their own entirely distinct and unforgettable novels, is the very formation of sexual desire—the social and ethical, economic, spatial and aesthetic forces that shape their protagonists as the sexual subjects that they are.
In other words, for all of the many ways in which one’s sexual taste is utterly unique, it is also political. In reading them, I find sex de-personalized all the while the specificity of taste is not lost. Where the political conditions of sex and how it tastes are implicit, yet without ever falling into either a naive notion of liberal equality or authoritarian moralism. In these stories, the dynamics of sex (power, decision, attraction, repulsion) are rarely anything other than asymmetrical and opaque, and yet this is also precisely where not knowing the limits of the object of pleasure is accompanied by an unparalleled enjoying in the very non-knowledge of this pleasure.