But Is It Good?: The Problem With Marie Calloway’s Affectless Realism

The first time I became aware of Marie Calloway was in the late Fall of 2011, when I was serving as Editor-in-Chief of The New York Observer and the paper’s media reporter, Kat Stoeffel, pitched a profile of a young pseudonymous writer who had made a name for herself on sites like Thought Catalog, Tao Lin’s Muumuu House, and via her own blog, wherein she posted stories about sex she’d had with various people she met online.

To be honest, my first thought was, meh. Since the invention of blogging there had been a parade of attractive early 20-something women chronicling their sex lives online, and after a while, the obligatory posts about one’s first threesome begin to blur together. The novelty of the scenario for the writer is not nearly so novel for the reader — and neither were the attendant hyperbolic assertions that being young and female and writing unapologetically about casual sex was a universally positive manifestation of a vibrant third wave feminism, which I thought gave the genre too much credit. Writing about casual sex in graphic terms while being young, female, and attractive was not inherently provocative anymore, nor was it particularly interesting unless it was accompanied by other factors that lent originality to the practice.

In Calloway’s case the “other factors” seemed to be her associations with members of the New York junior literati — particularly those who contributed to online publications that trafficked mostly in personal essays and memoir. The reporter outlined a diaristic essay Calloway had written recently that had been published by Lin’s Muumuu House, detailing her brief affair with a 40-year-old writer for an unnamed literary publication. Initially, she had named the writer (who had a serious girlfriend) but was driven by the predictable Internet backlash to change his name to “Adrien Brody.” The story was generating some buzz in those same literary circles, and I had to admit that literary scandale, writerly envy, and the incestuous nature of publishing — in this case, more literally incestuous than usual — were all themes in the Observer’s wheelhouse. So I assigned it.

(In the interest of disclosure, and while we’re on the subject of incestuous publishing relationships: I know Tao Lin, but not well. We had an online dustup a few years ago when he interviewed for a job for me then accused me on his blog of interviewing him for no reason and not reading the sample posts he had created as part of the interview process. I had read his posts, had neither the motivation nor the time to conduct job interviews just for the fun of it, and it made me think he might be paranoid and a little unstable. I’ve long since gotten over it — I chalked it up to miscommunication — and even greenlit a few assignments to Lin at the Observer. And I was happy with what he produced. But we’re not friends and I haven’t seen him in person since I interviewed him in 2005.)

The resulting profile expanded the scope of Calloway’s literary notoriety and Internet fame, and a subsequent Gawker post on the subject expanded it even more. Two months later, she flew from Portland, where she was a college student, to New York to give a reading with Tao Lin.

****

The “Adrien Brody” story and six other essays by Calloway are included in her new book, what purpose did I serve in your life. (No caps, no punctuation presumably intended.) The first story is about Calloway losing her virginity; three recall her brief foray into sex work via Craigslist ads; one, “Jeremy Lin,” is about the reaction to the aforementioned Observer profile and her subsequent interactions with Tao Lin, and the last is about her first threesome. In between the stories are screencaps of Calloway, who describes herself as kittenish, messaging her various Internet paramours.

“what do you want,” writes one correspondent, “you want me to feel you how I want to fuck your face.”

“mew,” responds Calloway.

“hang your head over the side of the bed and slam my dick down your throat,” he continues.

Again, Calloway: “mew.”

A not insignificant portion of the book is comprised not of Calloway’s writing but of screencaps, emails to and from various men (which is, I suppose a form of writing), and photos of Calloway. The photos are mostly selfies, some of Calloway naked with the naughty bits pixelated, which seems oddly prudish and contradictory given the text. The juxtaposition of the screencaps and the essays has a nice montage effect, though. We see Calloway’s own description of what happened, followed by the online evidence.

I’m not sure Calloway’s book would be the sort of thing to which I’d naturally gravitate, but I agreed to review it because I had read only the Adrien Brody story and was curious about the rest of her work. I also knew she had written a response to the Observer story and Tao Lin’s advice to her about the same and my curiosity about that was admittedly self-interested. But mostly, I wanted to know what I always want to know any time someone publishes at a very young age: Is she any good?

*****

In many ways, what purpose did I serve in your life reads like a dirty YA novel. It’s largely about first times — Marie’s first sex work, Marie’s first threesome — and Calloway exhibits a willful naïveté about all of it. The narrator is emotionally detached, but claims insecurities that sound more academic than genuine in the retelling. In between various seductions and trysts, she occasionally observes that she’s not happy with her looks. (“I caught a glimpse of my face in his vanity mirror and thought I looked trashy and hideous.”) And in between, she does a lot of wondering to herself: “I wondered if I was buzzed or if it was just my fever.” “I wondered why I was so anxious.” “I wondered if he would ask me to stop and fuck him.” “I wondered if I would be forced to give him head for an entire hour.” “I wondered what the hell he was doing.” For my part, I wondered if there was another way to convey one’s interior monologue.

And it drags, which is remarkable given the length of the book and the topic. I wanted to put it down several times, and not because it was shocking me, but because it was boring me. (Alas, professionalism dictated that I finish it. “I had trouble getting past page 139” is a review of sorts, but not exactly a comprehensive one.)

It’s disappointing because Calloway is working with rich material — sexual discovery, the boundaries between adulthood and childhood, and the ways in which external perception shapes perception of self. But she relies too heavily on titillation to carry it, and even in overt erotica, that’s usually not enough.

Her narratives are chronological and often feel like an assemblage of notes and dialogue with no arc or character development. The men in her vignettes are particularly thin — some by necessity, because they’re strangers and what she knows about them is already limited — but mostly because the narrator is only concerned with her own feelings and reactions. The men exist only as mirrors upon which she can view herself; they are not whole, three-dimensional people but aggregations of reactions to Marie Calloway.

Which raises the question of intent. If a detached nihilism is what she’s trying to achieve, then the approach could work. But detached nihilism is almost always a one-note song, and difficult for even great writers to make interesting.

If that’s not her intent, then the problem is largely one of craft. The conflict in each of the stories is always the same: will the object of her desire find the subject sexually appealing and fuck her? If there’s any dramatic tension, it’s between the subject’s warring notions of herself, which are also endlessly repeated: Is she smart enough? Is she pretty enough? Is she too smart? Are people responding to her only because of the way she looks? In some cases, she conflates the questions: if her “intellectual idol” Adrien Brody fucks her, is that proof enough that she’s intelligent? She’s smart enough to know that you can’t screw your way into a higher IQ bracket, but assumes that on some level if Brody is interested in her, it must be a function of how he feels about her writing, at least in part. (And it could be true, but we don’t know enough about what’s happening in Brody’s head to say.) Along the same lines, her bafflement when Tao Lin says he’s not attracted to her and makes it clear that he likes her, but likes her because of her writing, telegraphs her apparent belief that intellectual and sexual pursuits are interchangeable seductions.

Like her mentor, Calloway is a heavy stylist, but sometimes it feels as if she’s sacrificing clarity of thought in the process of establishing and asserting her style. This is something that would be helped by a good editor, but as Calloway tells Brody, she’s worried about being published because “I feel like they would edit my writing so it would be technically better, but less honest and expressive.” This is, of course, a radical misunderstanding of what good editing does, which is to clarify and heighten honesty and authenticity — to approach the kind of truth for which stenography of realistic details is a poor substitute.

This is not say that Calloway’s realism is the problem. It’s more that she doesn’t seem to understand that absolute realism is not de facto authenticity. Realism absent selectiveness can easily privilege details that are distracting or irrelevant, and that force the elements that matter into the background. And the particular variation that Calloway exhibits — what a few critics have labeled “Asperger’s realism” — is one that’s characterized by affectlessness and a stilted literalism that gives the impression of a semi-robotic narrator that can only convey emotion by prefacing descriptions with “I feel.” This happened, then this, then this. I felt…

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this style is particularly popular with the contributors to Thought Catalog, a site that has championed Calloway’s work. This is the generation that grew up with LiveJournal. They’ve been on the Internet since they were old enough to bang two tiny fingers against a keyboard, and it’s easy to be detached from experience when many of your formative ones may have been online proxies for the real thing. There are advantages to this, of course: proxy experience is sometimes better than no experience, and can provide material for a writer in need of it, as so heavily evidenced by Marie Calloway. The disadvantage is that it can also desensitize. Sometimes detachment isn’t a narrative mode; it’s a manifestation of the writer’s unwillingness or inability to get closer to the material. It’s a refusal to write with more rigor and purpose.

That said, sometimes Calloway’s realism feels fabricated. There are a few glaring details and bits of dialogue that appear to have been constructed for the specific purpose of later appearing in a Marie Calloway essay, and they undermine the realism of the rest of the text. In the middle of sex with Brody, she asks him to talk to her about Antonio Gramsci. (God knows nothing’ll make a girl come faster than an earnest discussion of cultural hegemony as she’s being fucked roundly by her Marxist lover. Reader, I snickered.)

These are all technical issues. The most frequent indictment of Calloway is that she’s a narcissist — a label that, in an ecosystem of legion selfies and frighteningly detailed public lifelogs, would seem to apply to half of the Internet. In truth, the label fits, but her narcissism is mostly the banal and timeless narcissism of youth — the narcissism of a young woman discovering her powers as an adult and assuming that they are largely if not wholly unique to her. If you’ve ever been an early 20-something woman, it will not surprise you that there exists a universe of much older men who enjoy sleeping with 20-something women, and that those women do not have to look like Karli Kloss for that to be the case. But if you’re 20 years old yourself, this might be a novel realization.

It’s also the sort of thing most people grow out of, and the most interesting version of Calloway is the Calloway who has long discussions with Tao Lin about what it means to be a writer and the relative importance of intellectual validation by third parties. A good part of “Jeremy Lin” consists of excerpted emails between the two in which Lin gives her advice, much of which is clearly derived from his own similar experiences.

She vents to him about reactions to the Observer and Gawker articles — the threats she received, the mean comments. (Several of these are screencapped in a chapter titled “criticism.”) She’s also frustrated — and here, more willful naïveté — that she couldn’t control the Observer story. “The reporter made a lot of conclusions and judgments about me and my writing that I didn’t agree with.” Our perceptions of ourselves never quite match up with the way other people perceive us, and Calloway’s conclusion is that only one of those perceptions is fundamentally true. Later she writes, “Why do other people feel they understand my motivations and intentions with regards to my writing?” It seems not to occur to her that if those things are being misunderstood, it may be a function of flaws in the writing itself. Conveying intent and motivation is the author’s job, not the reader’s.

But we see her mature a bit as the chapter wears on and a sometimes weary Lin coaches her in matters professional and personal. He assures her that bad press is good press if it means her writing is more widely read, and that it will help her financially, making her more independent. Lin is only 28, but knows these things from experience.

The conversation reminded me of something I’d read the same day by Cyril Connolly. Horizon magazine sent out a survey to various writers in1946 titled “The Cost of Letters.” One of the questions — indeed, the first question — was, “how much do you think a writer needs to live on?” Connolly answered the question himself: “If he is to enjoy leisure and privacy, marry, buy books, travel and entertain his friends, a writer needs upwards of five pounds a day net. If he is prepared to die young of syphilis for the sake of an adjective he can make do on under.”

Lin is not seduced by the adjective and tries to convey to Calloway that being a writer is about the work, not the label. Financial and professional struggles for their own sake no longer have much romance for him, and his advice along these lines could be categorized as Why Dying Of Syphilis for the Sake of an Adjective Is Completely Unnecessary.

It’s a little unclear how much of it she internalizes, given her hand-wringing about whether people perceive her as a serious writer, but she gets some of the healthier sort of validation she’s looking for from Lin when a mutual friend tells her, “I don’t think you understand [Lin]. You expect him to see you as a sex object, but he sees you as a person, and as a writer. You should stop thinking of sex as your best thing and realize, like [Lin] has, that writing is your best thing.”

When I read Calloway’s writing, I think of this as an aspiration for her. If she keeps at it, learns more about craft, stops worrying so much about how other people react to her, gets out of her own head enough to develop the sort of empathy needed to write characters with depth and texture, becomes more ambitious in the themes she is exploring, learns how to be edited and how to find editors who will make her work better in every respect, and (although I’d have never said this eight years ago) listens to the practical advice that Tao Lin gave her, then perhaps writing, and not sex, really will be her best thing.