Mary Gaitskill’s collection Bad Behaviour has defined her career. Will a new generation of female writers be stereotyped in the same way?
Kristen Roupenian – The Guardian
In 2017, “Cat Person”, the first short story I’d ever published, went viral. In the story, a college student named Margot goes on a long, disastrous date with a man in his mid-30s named Robert. At the end of the night, Margot sleeps with Robert, despite realising, belatedly, that she has no desire to do so. Her reasons for making that choice remain opaque even to her, and she ghosts him the next day. To my surprise – and, I think, to my editor’s – the story became a catalyst for dozens of overlapping conversations about sex, consent, online dating and #MeToo.
Amid the waves of often contradictory praise, judgment and analysis of “Cat Person”, an occasional comparison surfaced, that I clung to like a lifeline: the work of Mary Gaitskill. When people brought up her name in conjunction with mine, I felt both relieved and grateful. Partly this was because I genuinely loved her writing, but it also had to do with a story I had in my head about her career: she was a female writer who had first come to prominence because of stories that featured explicit sex. She had weathered the onslaught of prurient attention – not just to her writing, but to her life and her looks – that had come along with that. But she had emerged on the other side of that maelstrom as a writer who had achieved near-universal critical acclaim. I understood these early comparisons as the compliment they were almost certainly intended to be: a suggestion that I was not just a woman writing narcissistically about her own sex life and veiling it under a thin gauze of fiction; I was a woman writing narcissistically about her own sex life, veiling it under a thin gauze of fiction, and then, through some magic, turning it into art.
For all my admiration of the writer, though, I soon began to suspect that the Gaitskill comparison was more loaded than it first appeared. “I love Mary Gaitskill,” I said to a friend not long after my story came out. “But even Mary Gaitskill isn’t Mary Gaitskill any more.” By which I meant: Gaitskill’s debut collection, Bad Behavior, originally published in 1988, is now more than 30 years old. In the intervening decades, she has published three novels, two more short-story collections, and a book of essays – but no one who used her name in conjunction with mine made any reference to this work. That became even more noticeable when my first book was published, and people continued to compare it to Gaitskill (in ways both complimentary to me and not) despite the fact that it was unabashedly a collection of genre-inflected horror stories, about as different in content from Bad Behavior as it was possible to be … well, except for all the sex. Now, I would certainly like to think Gaitskill and I have some stylistic and thematic elements in common, but no one was citing Gaitskill in my reviews to note how, say, I was interrogating the way that white women negotiate their historically troubled relationship to sentimentality, as she did in her most recent novel, The Mare. They brought up Gaitskill because my book had weird bad sex in it, and she had written the definitive book about Bad Sex – you know, the one with the story they made the movie Secretary about.
Penguin rereleased Bad Behavior in the UK this year, no doubt gambling that a new generation of young women, who have grown up in an internet age glutted with stories about bad sex, will find it both reassuringly familiar and disconcertingly fresh. I think they are right about that, though perhaps for the wrong reasons: reading it again, I was once more taken aback by how good it is. It’s one of those books that, no matter how many times you return to it, is always somehow a different book from the one you remember. LitHub’s Emily Temple has written an excellent essay about why aspiring female writers, in particular, are often drawn to Bad Behavior. Reading it at 22, she recalls:
The overwhelming feeling … was one of permission, both as a human and as a writer. After a (short) lifetime of being told that it was men and only men who were allowed the complex stories, the unlikeable narrators, the bad habits and cruelties, reading this book felt like peeling off an unwanted skin. I too could be taken seriously, I thought. I too could be chilly and sharp. I too could think such thoughts and chronicle them.
I agree wholeheartedly with all of this, especially the note about cruelty. The first time I read Bad Behavior, it was the cruelty that compelled me. Gaitskill’s narrative voice is hilariously mean. Her crucifying eye is most often observing the men her young female protagonists are sleeping with, and the disjunction between the way the women are behaving (politely, accommodatingly) and what they are thinking serves as a wellspring of endless black humour. For example, in the story “A Romantic Weekend”, a young woman reflects on a liaison that has gone poorly, to say the least:
His voice was high-pitched and stupidly aggressive, like some weird kid who would walk up to you on the street and offer to take care of your sexual needs. How, she thought miserably, could she have mistaken this hostile moron for the dark, brooding hero who would crush her like an insect and then talk about life and art?
Hostile moron! There is something so unleashed about that, the intensity of fury and contempt and revulsion, that makes me feel slightly giddy, even now. And note how the judgment ricochets off the man to land, ultimately, on the woman, but only in a very particular way: how could I ever have been so foolish as to believe anything good about you?
I don’t think I’m alone in that, when I was younger, I imagined that one of the pleasures of being a writer would be that you’d always get the last word. The date might go badly, the sex might be awful – or even violent or coercive – but a month later, or a year later, or 10, your old enemy would pick up your book and realise: “Oh, shit, I was a hostile moron the whole time.” This is, let me be clear, an illusion. To write fiction successfully, you need to have more distance from your own experience than such positioning allows; a commitment to truth requires that you let go of your desire to use fiction to enforce justice. And yet some stories, like many of the ones in Bad Behavior, nonetheless create the satisfying sensation of punishment, and this is one of the book’s most distinct pleasures. Reading “A Romantic Weekend”, I can’t help feel as though somewhere, out there, is a man who, through the deadly deployment of the phrase “hostile moron”, has been captured and defeated, pinned like a butterfly to the page.
This may be why the term “autobiographical” so often surfaces in discussions of Gaitskill’s work, even though there’s obviously no way to know how closely the stories parallel real life, and only a handful even make use of the first person. There is something about the way she righteously skewers her minor characters through the sharp observations of her protagonists that makes reality feel as though it’s hovering very close by. Funnily enough, actual autobiographical essays rarely pull off this trick. Any visible, vested interest in self-justification dooms this kind of writing from the start. Only in fiction, maybe, can we experience this type of displaced catharsis. By removing herself from the story, the author creates space for the reader to project into that role, imagining a world in which all her judgments are final, all her enemies defeated by the sheer force of her words. Probably this is a dream that appeals, most intensely, to the powerless: people who struggle, in real life and in real time, to make themselves heard. Which is why, returning to Bad Behavior now, in my late 30s, I’m struck less by its humour than I am by the pain. The women in these stories think cruel thoughts primarily as a response to the cruelty of others. They smile prettily – or stare blankly – holding in their frustration until it ignites into rage.
In her article about Gaitskill, Emily Temple points out the astonishing way that the story “Secretary” changed as it moved from page to screen, transformed from a brutal tale of raw humiliation to a romantic comedy about female empowerment through BDSM. To me, it feels as though something analogous has happened with the way Bad Behavior has been transformed into The Book About Bad Sex, even though it treats a much wider range of topics (friendship, queerness, parenthood and death, to name a few) and Gaitskill herself has had an extraordinarily varied career. Reviews of her newer fiction inevitably bring up both Bad Behavior and the fact that her work has been perennially misinterpreted through the lens of her “shocking” first collection. Thus, the fetishisation of Bad Behavior is endlessly receding, always someone else’s issue, never the reviewer’s own: “I’m only talking about the kinky sex because other people are talking about it”; “Mary, why do you think everyone else is so obsessed with the sexual elements in your work?” In countless interviews, you can watch Gaitskill try to extract herself from this tangle, asserting first that she doesn’t engage with criticism of her writing, and then patiently trying to correct some of the most egregious assumptions about who she is and what her goals as a writer might be.
Gaitskill has a certain quality of voice: the sense of a line strung between horror and humour, a laugh and a scream
Not long ago, I was taken aback to see my own photo appear above a column in this newspaper that demanded to know: Why Are So Many Women Writing About Rough Sex? In the piece, the columnist talked about my book alongside those of Sally Rooney, Roxane Gay, Ottessa Moshfegh and culminating, inevitably, with Gaitskill. I happened to be on my UK book tour at the time, and so a variation of this question – why all the bad sex? – that made reference to the article and the other writers mentioned in it regularly surfaced. When asked, I would try, carefully, to delineate the differences between the role sex was playing in my stories versus those of the other writers, noting my genre influences, the way Rooney’s sex scenes are fully integrated into her realist project of close attention to a single intimate relationship; the explicit connection Gay makes between desire and trauma, etc. I said: “I can only speak for myself, but … ” over and over, until it almost became a mantra – though the truth was, I no longer felt fully capable of speaking for myself, either.
Publishing a book and watching people react to it is a little like seeing a photo of yourself for the first time, after a lifetime of looking in a mirror. Wait, that’s how everybody else sees me? One flaw hugely magnified, another barely visible, all your features slightly off-kilter, a certain wrongness, a sense of alienation: no, that’s not who I am! Before the book came out, I would have said that “bad” sex, in all its varieties, was one element of my work, but not the defining one. I would have named as influences primarily writers who shared my interest in genre: Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Angela Carter, Stephen King. I tend to bristle at what feels like the suggestion that the sex in my writing must be the point; that all the other elements exist to say something about sex, and the state of sexual relations, rather than the other way round.
With time, however, I have begun to wonder whether a certain strand of DNA has indeed passed through Gaitskill to a new generation of writers; if her influence is greater than most of us suspect. If that’s true, we should look for traces of her style not only in debut collections of young female writers (though it will undoubtedly be there), nor in books that explicitly take up the subject of kinky sex. To me, what’s most distinctive about Gaitskill is a certain quality of voice: the sense of a line strung taut between horror and humour, a laugh and a scream. Given that so much of our contemporary moment provokes that exact mixture of feelings, perhaps she was simply ahead of her time.
Shortly after I wrote the original draft of this piece, my phone lit up with texts from friends who wanted to talk to me about a Gaitskill novella, This Is Pleasure, that had appeared in the New Yorker: a story about sexual harassment in the workplace that was being described as a direct response to #MeToo and which featured, as one of its protagonists, a woman who shared the name of my story’s main character. Margot grows up, as one friend described it. I procrastinated about reading it, afraid that it would be, in some way, a criticism, a parody, or disavowal of my work, or – more realistically – that my ego would perceive some form of judgmental engagement where none was meant to be. Was the story in dialogue with mine? I think so, if only in a playful, glancing way. Certainly, it’s one that flirts with metafiction, delighting in the occasional self-referential wink:
My professional reputation, after all, was made when I published a book of charming stories about masochistic women (the now charmless author of which is still complaining about the size of her advance), a book that was seen variously as groundbreaking, “empowering”, sad, eye-rollingly trite, and, finally, sociologically interesting; although I’ve shepherded many books into existence since, I have never quite separated myself from that titillating yet tiresome aura.
The real world, once again, hovers very close by. I don’t have enough distance on my own story to say with certainty how This Is Pleasure, engages with “Cat Person”, if it is meant to at all. But if I had to hazard a guess, I’d venture “Margot grows up” isn’t a bad description. In both stories, women encounter a man whose behaviour upsets and unsettles them, and they struggle to determine how much of the responsibility is theirs (because they took some fleeting pleasure in it; because they could have put a stop to it, and did not) and how much belongs to him (because there were concrete hierarchies in which he had more power than they did; because surely we must all take some responsibility when we cause another person pain). My Margot – younger Margot – oscillates between extremes and lands on a story in which the bulk of the responsibility is his; Gaitskill’s older Margot emphasises the ways that the choices that mattered most were hers. But what both stories have in common, I think, is the tacit recognition that they are stories. Some stories will account for some aspects of reality better than others, but none will ever be a fully comprehensive account. Or, as a character in This Is Pleasure puts it: “Life is too big for anybody, and that’s why we invent stories.”
Gaitskill’s career still represents, for me, the pinnacle of what a writer can achieve – but it also reminds me how fraught the path to such a career remains. Write a book about the way young women use words to fight back against those who want to reduce them to sexual objects, and you may struggle to prevent yourself from becoming similarly reduced. But that, too, is a story that I’m telling, one that may, in its own way, be an imperfect fit.
In the interview that accompanies the recent novella, Gaitskill says: “I am aware that some people will find the story offensive. I am not indifferent to that, but I can’t control how people respond. I don’t mind if some people think Quin – or Margot – is bad, and I don’t think that to feel that way is necessarily a misreading; it’s more a matter of opinion. It’s a compliment if people respond to my characters as if they were real – and, in a way, my intentions don’t matter.”
I hope that, someday, I’ll be able to tell myself the same story, and believe it. If I can, it will be, at least in part, because of Mary Gaitskill.
- Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill is published by Penguin Classics (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.