Earlier this week at Flavorwire, Elizabeth Spiers published a fairly negative review of Marie Calloway’s debut work of fiction, what purpose did i serve in your life. Titled “But Is It Good? The Problem With Marie Calloway’s Affectless Realism,” it sought to discredit the book’s literary merit on mostly formal grounds, with a few swipes at its content as well. Unlike most other negative reviews written about Marie, it did not read as idle bullying, but I still believe it missed the point in many crucial ways. To her credit, Ms. Spiers offered to publish my perspective.
I should start by disclosing that I consider Marie a friend. Upon first reading her short story “Adrien Brody,” I felt simultaneously admiring and protective of it, because I knew the misogynistic, flesh-hungry Internet hordes were already lining up to shit all over this thing that I loved. So I figured I should write her to tell her I liked her work, as it deals with issues of gender and sexuality in a way I rarely see in the ladyblogosphere, where I spend much of my time. Since then, we’ve had some good conversations about writing, politics, feminism, and men. Does this make me biased about her work? Maybe. But it also motivates me to construct a better argument in its defense, because I like being right just as much as I like Marie.
I felt blindsided by Spiers’ review, as it seemed mired in nitpicky observations about Marie’s style while refusing to engage with much of her content, except to shame her and call her a boring fame whore for writing about sex (as if it’s somehow Marie’s fault that sex is especially interesting and fraught territory for a girl growing up under patriarchy.) I’ll talk more about the form later (spoiler alert: I found it effective), but the content seems massively more important to me, as it presents a worldview that is much more politically radical than the prevailing neoliberal feminist orthodoxy, even if you choose to view it as “culturally” more conservative.
That orthodoxy, as I see it, is this: that everything from lipstick to breast implants to hardcore BDSM falls under the umbrella of “a woman’s personal choice,” and that’s where the conversation ends. Any discussion of those choices within a systemic framework is seen as rude, condescending, or worse, borne of one’s own issues. If a woman is unable to separate out her “personal” reasons for wanting to do something from her “societal” reasons, it follows that she must be dumb.
Here’s the thing, though: Marie Calloway isn’t dumb. She’s smart. And yet, like many young women, she’s often found herself making choices that seem at odds with her beliefs or whatever concept of her “true self” she possesses. Anyone who’s ever felt this way should be supportive of Marie’s project, if not the precise way in which she carries it out. I’m even going to hazard a guess that this is a key difference between those who love Marie’s writing (or at least are willing to make generous statements about it) and those who think it’s narcissistic, crappy, boring, unworthy, etc. If you’ve never felt this way, it’s much easier to tune out those who have.
And I can see why someone who wants to live within the status quo without going crazy might have a stake in tuning them out. To acknowledge that a person can be simultaneously enlightened and oppressed, that even a strong person can be coerced by outside forces, is to acknowledge that what we see before us is not, in fact, the best of all possible worlds. It’s not even fucking close. That scares the shit out of people.
Marie has said she doesn’t specifically identify as a “feminist writer,” because that seems like too much pressure to put on herself. And she’s told me that she doesn’t think her politics are that overt in her book, but I disagree. Reading it, it seems obvious to me that she’s a feminist, and not just any kind of feminist, but a materialist (basically: leftist) feminist who doesn’t buy into the neoliberal notion that the decisions we make for ourselves happen in a vacuum. In pieces like “In Which I Meet An OkCupid Dom,” Marie’s book very explicitly bashes away at the question, “Where is the line between a woman choosing to pursue sexual autonomy, and caving to a misogynistic society that encourages the sexual degradation of women?” It also “wonders” (as I will admit this curious kitten is fond of doing) if all sex under capitalist patriarchy — sex for money, reproduction, and love — is “work” (see also: the writings of Silvia Federici), making the bedroom necessarily a site of exploitation (and more encouragingly, a potential site of struggle). The experiences in this book seem carefully catalogued to point to “yes.”
And on the topic of cataloguing, I’m not sure how Marie’s writing can both be mere “stenography” — a mindless vomiting of events into her LiveJournal — and overly wedded to a stylistic project. Which is it, critics? I’m bringing this up now because I know Marie’s sex life has not been as uniformly depressing as that of her protagonist (and could have guessed even if I didn’t know her). But it’s female sexual degradation and alienation from one’s own body and desires that she’s primarily exploring here. Any pleasure that made it into the book rode in on the back of that degradation. “Absolute realism” this is not.
But Marie’s stylistic and editing decisions are not all doom and gloom, either. She shows she has the potential for “self” parody throughout, like when her character asks her lover if he’s a materialist or an idealist right in the middle of their awkward sexcapades:
“Yeah,” I said, smiling, happy that he was a materialist, too.
We started to make out and we took off our clothes.
I mean, come on! This is just funny.
And how about the moment when her character shruggingly pretends to herself that she’s okay with sex work as a means to feel pretty and buy MAC makeup in the same story where a john reduces her to tears? I believe this is called “dark humor with a point.” (Like I said before, “false consciousness” is hardly a damning accusation for a leftist to make; we don’t view it as a personal weakness, but a natural result of living under capitalist patriarchy.) Or the collage where she pastes the sentence “i felt a connection to him, i wanted to be around him” over an email from a man detailing his graphic misogynistic fantasies. (I am not personally making a judgment about BDSM here, but it’s clear Marie thinks “the bedroom” is not some sacred realm immune from patriarchal society.) I also think Spiers missed the point of including the part where Jeremy Lin (the fictionalized version of Tao Lin) tells Marie to find her value in writing. This is not an example of “healthy validation,” but a prompt to “wonder”: can male approval ever really free you from the need for male approval?
And as for that intentionally flat affect that proved such a barrier to Spiers’ enjoyment of the book, that “Asperger’s realism”: there’s no accounting for taste. She is free to dislike it, as I am free to like it. But that doesn’t make it objectively “bad.” While it can feel clunky at times, I see it as form following function. It’s a reflection of a disconnected world, one which is automatically heartbreaking because most human beings do want to connect with others in some way. Spiers writes:
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.
It seems to me that she has more of an issue with the way “kids today” live their lives than with how Marie has chosen to reflect it. (And anyway, what in this book is experienced by proxy? Electronic communications are outweighed by experiences that are very “IRL.”) And what Marie’s style reflects is both generalized and personal. Yes, it’s partly a result of text-speak and Facebook chat and other breakdowns in language and communication. But it also goes deeper for this character. Like an autistic person flapping his arms to try to mitigate the sensory overload of the world, this character has shut down because she has already felt too much. That and other “context clues” tell us more about the character’s obliquely referenced sexual trauma than the sappiest Lifetime movie of the week could. The monster you can’t see is scarier than the one you can.
As for the male characters in the book, is it written somewhere that the male characters in a story about a young woman’s subjective experience of patriarchy are entitled to be fully realized, or that book is automatically “bad”? This seems as absurd as complaining that there were no cats in a book about horticulture. And anyway, maybe this represents a tiny step towards balancing out the legions of subhuman female, queer, and non-white characters who’ve appeared in the masculine Great Books canon for so many centuries. At least these men are merely opaque, not offensive stereotypes about whom the speaker assumes to know all. This girl doesn’t owe you anything.
Western feminism’s primary obstacle right now, as I see it, is to establish a new paradigm for looking at thorny issues like BDSM and sex work that goes beyond the myopic, neoliberal, “If it feels good, do it” attitude of mindless sex positivism, but without falling into the condescending sex-worker-savior complex of second-wave feminism. Marie’s book doesn’t provide any concrete solutions to that dilemma, but it shows a sincere desire to get to them, which is more than you can say for most things written outside of radical feminist academia. And that’s why, whether or not it qualifies as “good” by some arbitrary rubric set in stone by dead white men many years ago, and whether or not you, personally, enjoy it, what purpose did i serve in your life is an important book.
P.S.: The photos are pixellated because multiple printers refused to print the book in its original form. It was not Marie’s decision.