In 2003, Nerve asked Mary Gaitskill to guest edit their Fall Fiction issue. In her editor’s letter, Gaitskill calls for big fat skanks with fat brains.
About twenty-five years ago I read a story called “The Hitch-Hiking Game” by Milan Kundera. It’s a good story, meaning you can’t say what it’s about in two sentences, but it does concern identity, and how personality can be effaced by the power of sexual feeling. In the story, a man and woman are on a road trip. The woman gets out to pee, and when she gets back in the car, they pretend she’s a hitch-hiker. The joke gives her license to become someone other than the shy good girl she actually is. The joke progresses: she becomes a prostitute, and slowly her boyfriend becomes a john, full of rageful contempt for a whore. No physical violence is done, but the story ends in one hot/cold fuck—and maybe the relationship ends too.
The characters in “The Hitch-Hiking Game” are subsumed by archetypes that clash with their personalities, devour them, then spit them out. This is what makes the story powerful and very erotic. It’s a kind of eroticism characteristic of a certain era, say the 1930s through the ’60s, famously embodied by Henry Miller and Norman Mailer with their huge, florid portraits of drippin’ hot skanks moaning on the floor while the hero philosophizes (Miller), or doomed pop tarts and Great Bitches who must die (Mailer). It was an eroticism that pissed me off even when I got off on it. At the very least, it made me want to ask, don’t you ever wonder what the drippin’ skank might have to say once she got up off the floor? What would happen if the pop tart got an education, or the Great Bitch went into politics? On the high-art end of things, what would happen if Molly Bloom, in addition to being a big fat gorgeous force of nature, was also somebody with a big fat brain?
A lot of women, as if turned out, were asking these questions. Mailer and Miller have become so old-fashioned that I’m almost embarrassed to mention them; I’ve never given “The Hitch-Hiking Game” to a graduate writing class, but I suspect it would be viewed as hopelessly passé if I did. This is, of course, very correct and as it should be. Or is it? I can think of very few modern stories that are as erotically powerful as Kundera’s. (In fact, I’m not sure I can think of one.) Many modern stories with sexual content are clever, intelligent, provocative, sad and funny. In the best ones, the characters are marvelously human. But in our sophistication and scrupulous questioning, it seems we have lost something—the force of that animal which can come out of “nowhere,” tear your precious personality to pieces, then melt back into the dark to quietly lick its paws.
Describing this experience is very hard. Describing it while maintaining the delicacy and complexity of your characters is even harder. This is a dilemma for the modern writer who chooses to write about sex: make your characters genuine personalities without being restricted by the limits of human personality; evoke the enormity and ferocity of sex without demonizing it or making it exclusively about feminine shame. Part of the difficulty may be in that last part—people are now leery of rendering feminine shame, or shame of any kind for that matter. It’s almost as if we’re too cool for it. But shame is a profoundly human experience, and we risk it every time we encounter a force bigger than ourselves. From my point of view, the older writers sometimes tried to avoid it by palming it all off on the skank. But it’s even worse to try and correct that by writing as if shame and uncontrollable depth don’t exist at all.
The three writers below don’t address any of these concerns explicitly or otherwise — no fiction worth reading would address them except as a byproduct. But all of them have written about sex with both power and delicacy. I would never diminish Maureen Gibbon’s characters by calling them skanks. But in a metaphorical sense, Gibbon brings back the skank in all her humanity and force; her novel Swimming Sweet Arrow is a love letter to skanks with brains and hearts, and her story “Twelve” is an understated knockout. Nani Power’s novel Crawling at Night is beautiful and deep, fantastical and mundane; it masterfully blends emotional and quotidian reality. Her story “Quantum Physics” is an apt introduction. Steve Almond’s story “Skull” is grim and supple comedy, going from superficial to deep and back again in one drunken, sleight-of-hand conversation. It’s a matter-of-fact evocation of sex and death that makes you wish D.H. Lawrence were alive to read it. I have not yet read his book, but I recommend it anyway.