October 28, 2013

What We Talk About When We’re Talking About Suzanne Rivecca Talking About Mary Gaitskill


When critic and writer Suzanne Rivecca wrote an essay for the Rumpus a couple of weeks ago about the way male critics tend to write about Mary Gaitskill’s work —which began with the line “I hate it when men talk about Mary Gaitskill. I call for a permanent moratorium on men gassily discoursing on Mary Gaitskill”— it elicited a response from Gaitskill herself, in the form of an open letter.

Gaitskill didn’t really address the content of the article, which argued, among other points, that male critics often pathologize Gaitskill’s descriptions of sex, ascribing them to larger (bad) social forces or to the psyche of one particularly fucked-up individual (implicitly, Gaitskill).

She simply said that some male critics had liked her work, and written intelligently about it, and some female critics had done the opposite. Then she attributed the reviews that Rivecca had quoted to the professional bitchiness of critics generally, and bowed out.

In short order, Rivecca roared back with an article in Salon about Gaitskill’s response and the larger response to the essay, defending her original positions and pointing out her hyperbole for those who seemed to have missed it the first time round.

Nice as it would be to jump into this fray now and just swing around wildly, it seems like there’s a point worth highlighting that may have gotten lost in the fray of Rivecca’s hilarious high-energy prose and Gaitskill saying “bitch” a lot.

Namely: what Rivecca’s criticizing in reviews of Gaitskill’s work by, among others, James Wolcott, William Deresiewicz, and Pico Iyer, is first, a tendency to shy away from the real, 360° sexuality of the female (and male) characters.

In detecting this, Rivecca picks up on in the type of language used to describe Gaitskill’s books: “icy,” “dark,” “cold,” “detached,” “disturbing,” and the like. This is true, and the sin of it, among some other sins, is that sets up a distance between the critic and the text — a distance created by cliché, a distance that the critic then does not have to cross. (While, of course, blaming the text for that distance in the first place.) They’ve put down their signposting word which conveys something vaguely S&M-ish, and that’s that.

The problem here is that it’s extraordinary to read something that describes, in ways you’ve never seen on paper before, your own sometimes spectacularly tangled feelings about sex. And Gaitskill can do this. Other writers do it too, and the effect is powerful for female readers across the board, even if the writing is piss-poor. The popularity of books like Fifty Shades of Gray is due to the fact that it is still a shocking experience for many women to read anything that approximates the complexity of the feelings people have about sex. The barriers for talking about this stuff are so low that whole publishing companies’ budgets can be singlehandedly lifted away from pits of year-end darkness by one extremely mundane sub-dom fantasy.

So when a Gaitskill comes along and writes stories that reach entirely different levels of understanding and invention, and then critics sit back and simply call them “dark,” there’s a public denial of one’s self that female readers may experience — you don’t have to believe the critics are right, or are anything but lazy, to still experience a slight closing-off of the discussion, a slight sense that there are some realms that are up for discussion and others that are just adjective-d away.

And, as Rivecca points out in her original essay, the reason this is so disappointing, and downright offensive, is that it betrays an unwillingness to let fiction work, a desire to cut it off short. In summarizing Deresiewicz’s “career” review of Gaitskill’s work in the Nation, Rivecca comments on his characterization of her:

She catalogues the vulnerabilities and oddities of her fellow men and, from a vantage point of “hooded, vengeful outsiderhood,” appropriates them. He seems to think he’s describing a succubus. What’s he’s actually describing, unbeknownst to him, is a fiction writer. That’s kind of what they do.

The epic, no-navel-is-too-small, no-horizon-too-big properties of fiction are  turned away from when critics encounter the queasy-making combination of unstereotyped sex and a female writer. In a way, it’s a refusal to read. So, it’s good that, along with taking the bad and misogynistic habits of some critics to task, Rivecca demonstrates above all is that she’s an extremely close and knowledgable reader of Gaitskill’s fiction. It’s a significant contribution to a discussion that will, hopefully, in the future contain fewer mentions of “icy.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.