Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sexuality, Autobiographical Fiction and Misogyny

I am fascinated with the distillation of experiences. Which leads me to autobiographical writing. If you go to any reading or read any interview of any writer ever in the history of man, the question looming large will be, “Is any of this autobiographical?” At which point the writer will get squirmy BECAUSE the implication is: If it’s autobiographical, then it means it wasn’t difficult to write. Period. It is the same supposition people make when they charge through art galleries, look at the abstract art, and proclaim, “I could do that!” Yeah, but the point is: You didn’t.

The only response I can offer to people who somehow think you are cheating by writing what you know is: Try it. Write about your own experiences. See if it’s “easy” or not. See what you come up with.

There is a thinly veiled snobbery of people who believe “real” writing is a writer creating a world they know nothing about. That is “real” writing. But I think people are compelled to write for different reasons and to express different emotions. I also think that most writers will tell you that every single thing they write is grounded in some way to their own lives. I’ve had people press historical novels on me or recommend sweeping fictional tales—and I can see the look in their eyes: This is real writing, not that self-absorbed shit you churn out.

Then there is the hierarchy of what constitutes “real.” You’re not a real writer until you’re published, but then you need to publish the novel, the collection, the next novel. Then of course there are the friends and family who stand by you no matter what—who’ve had faith from the beginning. But there are also the secret Iago people who think you don’t have talent and you are not “real” because you have not achieved a predictable pattern that they can discern, in the provincial language of American lethargy and diminished attention span.

I don’t write about my life randomly. I write about what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. It’s like Stanislavski—seriously!—would you say that an actor who draws on his own experiences to portray a character’s emotions is acting “autobiographically”?

Americans like to “discount,” on all levels. Yes, they like a bargain, that kind of discount, but they also like to minimalize and chip away at achievement. Like the people who aren’t in relationships who wager internally on the true success of other couples. It takes the sting out of not accomplishing something yourself, organically, truly.

I base characters on real people I have known, a lot. Because I think it’s the characters that drive the plot, that drive life and that drive the motivation. Characters are the people you remember, the people that resonate, for good or bad, in your life. I also think people respond to things that are real. I know I do. That’s why I like Matt Klam. Not hearing too much from him lately, eh? Ever since The New Yorker got its new fiction editor who apparently doesn’t like misogynistic vérité.

Do I think Matt Klam is a misogynist? No. I just think he is very sophomoric in what he can handle sexually—a common attribute of American men weaned on the predigested airbrushed perfection of skin mags and botox porn. And this is not the simplistic argument about loving the person “inside.” It’s about sexuality that is not mired in presentation—as in, if it looks good on paper, it must be good. Sexuality is about a lack of inhibition and I can’t think of anything more inhibiting or distracting than dressing the experience in Hollywood’s conception of sex. All upturned rear ends and babydoll poses and strapping tool belts. So simplistic. So Madison Avenue. So nocturnally devoid.

Sex by its very nature is about imperfection and I think Matt Klam has serious issues with imperfection. I think it’s a skewed Puritan problem in that we need to dress the ugly dog of sex in cute clothes, like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, to make it less menacing, more easily digestible. It’s a very American thing. Lingerie as icing instead of something tactile and rippling.

The reason I like Matt Klam is that, man, you get on that merry go round and you are spinning and you cannot believe what he is saying. It is so bad, so disloyal, but so REAL that it’s hard to turn away. I’m glad I’m not married to him (I know that’s vice versa) but I still like his stories. Just like I like early Philip Roth before he became an insufferable bastard who really is a misogynist—if you have any doubt, read Sabbath’s Theater and get back to me. That really is a book I threw across the room. But I used to love Portnoy’s Complaint and The Professor of Desire.

So today’s lesson is: If you are going to be a misogynist, it’s better to be a funny misogynist, and if you write mean nasty things about people you have known in your life: Change their names.

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