Tuesday, August 16, 2005

No Indignation Like The Indignation of a Whore

I got excited about a tiny publisher known as Fugue State Press. Their website eschews giving formal submission guidelines, preferring to paint an impressionistic picture of what the editor is looking for:

We'd love to see a book that's like an artifact, elemental, less like storytelling literature, more like dirt or air.

OK, that's a little vague, though certainly colorful. I don't know of any books that are like dirt, other than when I worked in Classic Books in the basement of the World Trade Center and we sold the book from the WGBH TV series "Victory Garden." I remember a college professor who once said a really great novel was like getting a wound that you carried around for days or weeks, so instinctively I responded to this description, especially the next sentence:

We often enjoy prose that's broken, writing in which the flaws are obvious and grow out of emotional necessity. Writing that's clearly different because its author is different.

Well, shit fire and save matches! as my mother says. What writer doesn't think they're different? And one of the criticisms of Beyond You & Me has been the sometimes imperfect prose of its narrator. Cassie's wracked with agony about the break-up of her relationship with her lover, S. So naturally her prose is often stressed and imperfect, occasionally boiling over into brokenness.

Well, I fired off a query to the publisher, but was turned down flat. Seems the subject matter is about sex, and he's anti-sex. Not anti-sex like Christian evangelicals, but anti-sex in our culture. Feels it's something that he doesn't like and doesn't want in the books he publishes. He wrote me two very lovely emails that compared what I'm doing to Laurence Durrell, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and of course, the previously reviled Anais Nin. He's ambivalent at best about "a kind of decadent sexual obsession [being] the basis of a lot of the great literature of the last century. (not, again, to stupidly pigeonhole your work.) It's certainly what drives Prakash Kona in his 'streets that smell of dying roses.' It's just the reality quotient that's different."

Great company to be in, though I don't know what a "reality quotient" is, and I've never read Prakash Kona. Still, I was flattered the editor went on to say he's not putting down my work. He could've just said "it stinks, go away." Is "sexual obsession" the proper description for those four writers (and by extension, me)? Durrell's work (particularly "The Alexandria Quartet" series of novels) does concern people who might be described as "decadent." Jews, Greeks, half-castes, expatriots living in Alexandria, Egypt before Nassar came to power and expelled them, destroying what some have described as a wonderfully tolerant and erudite culture. But obsession? Hmmm. Yes, there is a lot of coupling in various forms.

D. H. Lawrence did by the end of his life become identified with a cult of sexuality, especially after the publication of his scandalous Lady Chatterly's Lover. Women in Love and The Fox are also concerned with erotic relationships. But there's precious little explicit sex in either (more innuendo than anything). No, the emphasis is on "relationship" and power struggles, as in the Sapphic overtones of the trio whose interactions are described in the novella-length The Fox.

Miller and Nin are more markedly focused on sex, but not for sex's sake. Both viewed sexual expression and a way of freeing the soul from the restraints of social convention. But their "obsession" seems no more odd or remarkable than Philip Roth's or John Updike's. Isn't much of Western fiction about the struggles between men and women? And isn't the bedroom one of the battlefields that up until the 20th Century was largely off-limits to storytellers?

Still, his comments made me wonder if the acceptance of Beyond You & Me in the erotica community is obscuring other aspects of the novel? Remember, I never thought of myself as writing erotica, just literary fiction with good sex scenes. So there's a risk, one I'm aware of, that erotica will become smut or even pornography to some agents and/or editors.

To make my confusion more pronounced, there was the negative reaction of a fellow web denizen when I wrote what she decided was an insufficiently laudatory review of her website. "You never said anywhere that you liked it," she complained. Well, I sort of thought mentioning it favorably was enough.

Seems like there's no easy balance between sex and seriousness.


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