SLANT FROM THE PAST: Mary Gaitskill on Porn, HBO’s Girls and Why Her Lit-Hit, Bad Behavior, Still Matters 25 Years Later
When author Mary Gaitskill published Bad Behavior in 1988, critics around the country praised the collection of short stories for its originality and authenticity. Even The New York Times’ famously blistering book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, gushed, saying that Gaitskill’s writing was “Pinteresque” and had “radar-perfect detail.” The book, populated with characters on the social and sexual fringe—prostitutes, sadomasochists, bisexuals—in seamy urban settings and situations, shocked, unsettled and thrilled readers and critics alike, not for its content, according to Gaitskill, but for the style in which it was written: “Style, when it works, takes the reader to a deeper place than can be arrived at thematically,” she told The Slant in an exclusive interview, marking her debut’s 25th anniversary. “It takes you to an inner understanding of the writer’s mind,” she explained, “that isn’t about words.”
Before Simon & Schuster, her then-publisher, took a chance on the provocative literary classic, Gaitskill hadn’t sold a single story from it, nor had either of her first two agents. “Honestly, I can understand why magazines didn’t want them,” she confessed. “With a couple of exceptions, the stories on their own aren’t dramatic enough. They work as a collection. Because of the way they cross-speak with each other, they create a vision.”
That vision includes “Secretary,” a sadomasochistic tale between a boss and his underling, popularized by the 2002 indie film of the same name, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Like many of Gaitskill’s gritty stories, “Secretary” follows two characters who venture into sexual and emotional territory we’re all taught to avoid, but find there, an odd kind of tenderness, beauty and truth that defies our cultural expectations.
In a self-help saturated culture that zealously pursues sanitized versions of happiness and personal growth, Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior remains a refreshing departure. In much of her work, she dares us to tread the dark underbelly of human relations to confront deeper truths, as well as salvage—and dignify—outré, sometimes brutal, experiences from the wreckage of Judeo-Christian morality.
Two more collections (Because They Wanted To and Don’t Cry) and two novels (Two Girls, Fat and Thin and Veronica) later, Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior continues to resonate with young readers. The author spoke with The Slant about why she thinks the book has endured, how it changed her life, and which story she thinks is the strongest. She also mused on contemporary sexual politics—porn, HBO’s Girls, the media’s mommy mania—and whether marriage helps or hinders creativity.
Herewith, Mary Gaitskill:
We’ve read that you couldn’t get any of the Bad Behavior stories published in literary journals or magazines. Is that true?
Yes, I tried a lot of places. Then, my first agent tried and quit. My second agent also tried with no luck.
What were some of the excuses made for rejecting them?
If there was a consistent reason given, it was that the stories were depressing, which seems strange to me now. The stories read rather gentle to me as a whole. They read like the work of a very young person, which is what they were.
Do you have a rejection letter from back then that you can share with us? It’s sort of laughable now. It would be fun to read one.
I kept one rejection letter because it was sort of funny, even at the time. It was like the person was throwing a fit. It was an in-house note that normally the agent wouldn’t see, but I think the main editor (it was a magazine) included it in the standard reject letter in order to send my agent a message. I might have it buried somewhere, but since I’ve moved three times in the last three years, I don’t have much impetus to go digging for it! As I recall, the writer of the note just hated the characters, mostly for being depressing. That story, in my opinion now, wasn’t very strong, and it did not end up being included in the collection. But still, the reaction was extreme.
Honestly, I can understand why magazines didn’t want them. With a couple of exceptions, the stories on their own aren’t dramatic enough. They work as a collection because of the way they cross-speak with each other. Together they create a vision. But most of them don’t have a strong dramatic shape. Two of the three that do, “Secretary” and “Romantic Weekend,” well, I guess people thought they were depressing! “Secretary” is definitely somber, but it’s also funny to me. “Romantic Weekend,” that is unpleasant, but it’s so ridiculous that it’s funny too.
Why did you name the collection Bad Behavior? The title implies a judgment on the characters and their choices, but part of the beauty of the book is that it’s refreshingly non-judgmental.
I didn’t name it, and disliked the name. I wanted to call it “Daisy’s Valentine,” but everyone at the publishing house assured me that it was an awful title. It was the editor’s boyfriend that came up with BB. I didn’t like it because I didn’t think most of the behavior in the book was so bad; it’s more confused and ridiculous. Also, the phrase “bad behavior” seemed too cute to me. But I was aware of my lack of savvy in the business. Also, I could see that “Daisy’s Valentine” wasn’t exactly exciting. So I let myself be over-ridden. I never let it happen again, at least not with a book title.
BB came out in 1988 to great critical acclaim–even the prickly, compliment-stingy Michiko Kakutani raved about it–and has become a classic. What do you think was happening in the culture at the time that made it resonant with so many people?
I don’t think it was about a particular cultural moment because if it was, I don’t think young people would still be receptive to it today, and they are. It’s about very basic recognizable experience, and the cultural trappings are secondary to that.
Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott was perhaps the single negative review of the collection. What was his beef with it?
It seemed like the book offended him mostly because the characters were not behaving as he likes to see people behave, that they seemed weak to him. Lots of people are offended by weakness and vulnerability, but it’s pretty rigid to not want to read about the things that offend you in books. He also seemed to be saying that the book was fake. And well, in a way, I agree. What he meant was that I was not truly familiar with the social milieu I was describing, and you know what, he was right. I wasn’t. I was a loner almost to the point of social retardation, and did not know any social world; in that sense, I had very superficial knowledge of say, the club world or whore world or really any world. So he was more perceptive than other people who were raving about how I’d done an authentic portrayal of a seamy underworld. But here’s what he missed—that the stories had the authenticity of an original point of view. Not all of them are good, and some of them are overly sweet. But the ones that work are powerful exactly because they are coming from a complete outsider’s—not an insider’s—view point. An outsider, who does not understand and who’s looking closely exactly because they don’t understand, is likely to see things that insiders, who inevitably speak in a socially coded short-hand, will not see. Also, a social retard isn’t going to understand what’s embarrassing and what isn’t, what’s ugly and what isn’t. They don’t know what they’re supposed to think, so they think very real. Some of the stories hit false notes in terms of social portrayal, and honestly make me cringe; because I wanted to communicate with the world, I was basically trying to speak a social language I could not speak. But the good ones transcend social language to get at something more core. Even some of the weaker ones do that, false notes and all.
If BB were coming out today, do you think it would have had the same impact? Would the book be as provocative and edgy today? Or has contemporary morality changed to such an extent that your book might be viewed differently today?
Has morality changed that much? If anything it seems to me that it’s gotten more traditional. Some things, like being queer or mildly kinky, are more openly accepted, or mainstreamed, but that’s a perennial thing that shifts and changes in all cultures, like a pendulum effect. But I’m exposed to young people a lot through teaching, reading the fictional stories kids write about their lives, also through talking to the kids of my friends and acquaintances—and they are into traditional values, family, marriage, motherhood. Especially motherhood.
What do you mean by that?
I’m sure you saw the Democratic National Convention. I recall seeing Mrs. Biden’s speech and it went something like, “As a proud military mom I see that moms everywhere want a better world because moms talk to moms and moms care about a better world for moms so that moms can raise their families to make more moms…” I am barely exaggerating!
I realize that its natural for most women to want to be mothers. It’s one of the few fundamental experiences that we haven’t managed to completely fuck up–yet. But that was just fucking silly, and its everywhere now.
In the media?
Yeah, any time I see any kind of news story about anything happening to a woman reported on, its always “Mom found dead” “Mom makes a million dollars” “Mom beats rapist to death” “Mom tortures children” “Mom robs bank” “Mom rescues family dog.” It’s like it’s all one giant mom! If the lady wasn’t a mom, would it just not be reported? Would the copy-editor just freeze up? I mean, you never see that kind of headline about a man. It’s never “Dad this or that.” They actually use the guy’s name. I’m being a little flip. And it’s only one aspect of what I’m talking about, but I think tradition is as strong as ever.
Stronger than it was in ‘88 when BB came out?
Tradition was strong in the 80s too; many people I knew during that time who appeared to be leading non-traditional lives were often pretty involved in reacting against tradition, which indicates belief in and need for tradition. It’s a complicated subject, but briefly, I don’t think morality has changed much, at least not in the realm of sexual mores, which is what I think you were referring to. I do think, in general terms, not specifically about sexuality, that we’ve become more brutal and more openly power oriented, but that is a very casual observation.
What other cultural—even behavioral–differences have you noticed since the 80s that relate to some of the themes in BB?
A big difference is technology. Again, from talking with much younger people, I’ve become aware of how big Internet porn is now, and how it’s affected people’s primary experience. I’m NOT anti-porn. I think it’s something people will always be interested in. It seems pretty natural; I like porn every now and then. But if what I’m hearing is true, that young men have become so habituated to what they’re seeing in porn that they expect their girlfriends to be that way, and that girls, in wanting to make their boys happy, will try to simulate something they don’t feel—again, that’s always happened, but if its been amped up to the point that neither boy nor girl can even feel the natural thing anymore—that seems horrible to me, and that is a big difference. The thing about Bad Behavior is that it’s actually rather soft in its presentation of people trying to feel their way through experience. Well, if you can’t feel your own response, you can’t have that softness or understand it. The reason I have this idea in my head is because of several conversations I’ve had with students on the subject of realness and porn.
Will you tell us about one of those conversations?
When a young female student in a private conversation first told me that boys expect girls to act and look like porn stars, and that girls try their best to comply, my reaction was, I think you’re hanging out with the wrong guys. Men like realness. I mean, they want it to look good, true, but my experience is that most men want something real. She was like, No, they don’t even know what it is. So I actually discussed it with the class, and they agreed with her. I said to the guys, you realize that porn actresses are acting, right? Maybe sometimes they really do like it, but mostly they’re acting. Don’t you want to feel a real response to you? These were older kids by the way. I wouldn’t get into this with undergrads. But the guys were all like, Yes, I want that, but these other guys? All they know is porn. And I was like, Well, when they feel the real thing, that will turn their head around. Then this beautiful young woman, not that young, maybe 28, but gorgeous, I’m sure experienced, looked at me with this very troubled face and said “But how do I know when its real?” She wasn’t talking emotions. She was talking sexual feeling in her own body. I said, “It’s unmistakable.” She just looked at me baffled. That I found disturbing. I, perhaps, should not make so much of it. It was just one conversation. But I’ve had other conversations that echo that one—as do the stories I read by my students. It’s really much too complicated to address in this format. But it’s a much bigger change than ‘morality,’ and the way technology intersects with traditional morality is very weird; in that context, yes, the essential softness of my first book is pretty foreign. If that book was written now, it would have to be different. I’m not sure how, but it would reflect a different climate. The girl in “Secretary,” for example, would not be so stunned or so aroused by what happens in the office because she would’ve seen it before and would already have an idea of what it was and how she was supposed to feel, rather than her own immediate physical feeling. Or rather, it might be harder to depict a character who was innocent enough to simply have that immediate physical and emotional feeling without a filter.
What are some common misconceptions about you and the book? The reviews were overwhelming positive, but some perceived and were put off by the book’s “hardness” and “edge.”
I’m not sure why the response was about hardness. Except that when I read the book now, I perceive that the sensibility is very structured, the stories are not tight-shaped, but the best ones have a stylistic force to them that, if you don’t share the sensibility, could read “hard” in the sense that it could feel hard to get in.
We wonder if it has something to do with the queer sexualities—same-sex desire, S&M, prostitution—you tackle and a conventional morality that hinders readers’ abilities to see those qualities—and the beauty—in the scenarios you depict.
I honestly don’t think it had that much to do with sexual themes or morality. Or rather that those themes were secondary. I was not the only person writing about such things. There was Suzanna Moore, A.M. Homes, Bret Easton Ellis, Dennis Cooper, Catherine Texier and others. I think it was the style. I struggle to articulate what I mean by that, but style, when it works, takes the reader to a deeper place than can be arrived at thematically. It takes you to an inner understanding of the writer’s mind that isn’t about words. In art, style is not superficial. Or rather it is, but it’s also a way into the deeper body of the thing in a way that’s hard to talk about, or write about, but which readers feel. The book had a sensibility that disturbed some people, but I don’t think it was truly about “hardness.” If anything, they may’ve been disturbed by the very softness I refer to, because it may’ve made them feel something.
Have you seen Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls? What do you think of it? Some might say Dunham’s work is reminiscent of yours.
I only saw the first episode, so I really can’t say. I’ve heard so many good things about it that I would like to see it, but for various reasons, I’ve not had access to cable TV for some years now. I live with a roommate now in Brooklyn, and she doesn’t have a TV and I don’t have room for one!
The one thing that I did notice about the first episode, and that I heard talked about a lot, was that the male characters are indifferent to the women’s orgasms. Maybe this is related to the phenomenon I was going on about before, but that is something very foreign to my life experience. In my experience, just about all men care about that, regardless of whether or not they love the woman. I mean, they can live without it, but they’d much rather see the lady come. I hope this is just some stupid cultural talking point that doesn’t reflect reality, because only a dead person could be indifferent to that! If that’s changed, if men really don’t care any more, I’m truly sorry for this generation, both genders.
Although we’ve not read anything that identifies you as bisexual, we have noticed that bisexuals show up in your work often. We wonder, if you do identify that way, how does your sexuality inform your sensibilities, perspectives and creative choices?
I haven’t been with women for a long time, but much of my life, I’ve been responsive to women sometimes, so yes, I called myself bisexual. I am sure that my sexuality influences me, and that my being with women has influenced me, but I’m not sure I could define how. I’m glad that I had that experience though. The gay woman’s world is a wonderful place in many ways.
Besides “Secretary,” what other stories or novels you’ve written do you think could make a great movie? And what director would you want to direct?
The title story of a collection I published called Don’t Cry. I don’t have a director in mind, but to me it’s an innately dramatic story: Action coming out of good and evil; selfishness and giving. If I were to turn it into a film, I would combine it with the one before it, “Description.” While I can’t think of anyone for “Don’t Cry,” I really loved the movie Being John Malkovich, and could see Spike Jonze making a movie of something like “Mirror Ball,” also in that collection. I would love it if Julian Schnabel, who directed The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, got interested in my novel, Veronica, but it would be tough: It’s not a natural movie. Oh, wait, the guy who did Welcome To The Dollhouse, Todd Solondz—he would be a great director for my first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin. That’s probably too much the same terrain for him though.
A lot of critics think “Heaven” was the strongest story in BB. We wonder what story you think was the strongest. Also, what do you think is the best in your entire body of work?
I think “Secretary” is the strongest, with “Romantic Weekend” and “Heaven” tied for second place. It’s hard to say why. It’s the most emotionally powerful and blunt, but also nuanced. The heroine is an unusual combination of very weak and very strong that I consider very realistic and not often depicted. There is nothing in the world around her to reflect back her experience to her. A very tough place to be and I think an increasingly common one.
Of my work overall, I don’t know what’s the best, but I think Veronica. Also a few of the stories in Don’t Cry: I especially like “Folk Song” and “The Agonized Face.” They are both so kooky! Even though that last one is almost like a combination of an essay and a story.
What are you working on now and how has your style and approach to writing changed since BB?
I’m working on a novel about a young girl learning to ride a horse. I don’t want to talk about it too much. It can siphon energy off. But it is from multiple points of view, though the young girl is the main character. My style has changed with every book I’ve written. It’s had to in order for the books to work.
I will say this though: I would love it if Guillermo del Toro got interested in it. I watched Hell Boy three times with my godson. We both loved it. Also, I loved Pan’s Labyrinth. I like the way he takes children seriously, and I like the way he does female roles. It probably won’t happen: I mean, he’s into monsters, not horses, so it’s hard to picture. I wanted to give a shout-out anyway. I think everybody with a child anywhere between the ages of 8 and 12 should get the first Hell Boy. The second one, not so much.
Since the 80s, the writing profession has undergone dramatic changes. Writers often complain that the internet has diminished the value of the written word and we wondered what your thoughts are on that. Today, is it much harder for you to make a living as a writer? How do you sustain yourself?
Pretty much as I always have, with difficulty.
I don’t think that the internet has cheapened actual written words. There’s always been crap words spewed out everywhere. It’s more that the internet has amplified the trend started by television, the prevalence of a locked-in mass vision which, though it feels warm in some ways, is inimical to powerful individual vision. If anything is scary about my writing, it’s that it’s the product of a very particular vision, and doesn’t “reference” common speech that heavily. By “common speech” I don’t mean language as much as an agreed-on way of seeing, or a short-hand. For me Philip Roth is one of the only living American writers who still sees in a highly individual way even though he writes plainly and recognizably about “social issues.” When I assign him to undergrads, they actually have trouble reading it. It seems incredibly complicated and digressive to them. I don’t know for sure why, but I’m afraid it’s because he’s not giving them a pre-digested way of understanding that they’ve grown used to.
Something scary to me: one of the highest terms of critical literary praise now is that a book is about “how we live now.” I see that and think, what do you mean, we? Then I read the thing and I don’t recognize it as being about anybody I know, and I know a great many pretty typical people. I recognize it as that agreed-upon vision, a magazine editor’s idea of what people are supposed to be. I remember seeing a blurb on the back of a David Foster Wallace book, a collection of essays, the blurb was from A.O. Scott and it was something like “Reading this is like reading the inside of your own head.” I’m like, Really, that is supposed to be good? Why would I read a book that’s just like the contents of my own head?
Emily Nussbaum wrote a profile of you in New York Magazine, expressing surprise that you got married, given your reputation as someone who bucks convention. Did marriage affect your creativity at all in positive and/or negative way? Has it been liberating or stifling or both?
I’m not married anymore. We separated in 2010. I wouldn’t describe marriage itself as liberating or stifling in terms of creativity. What it did do for a long time was create an emotionally stable environment that was very helpful. He was the only person I ever showed my work to as I was working on it, because he knew me well enough to comment on it in a way that was helpful. Also, being married made the larger world more benevolent towards me; it’s remarkable how hostile the world can be towards a single female, especially if she’s older than 35. If you have a man, you’re seen as normal, and if not, well….Married, you’re basically part of the herd, and that makes life easier in a lot of ways, in terms of social support. But if you’re not by nature a herd animal, you start to feel like you’re passing. I’m not, by the way, especially interested in bucking convention. I tend to elide it, but if the convention works for me, I’ve got no problem operating within it.