Desire, choosing your panels, and hinting (again): Observation Note 92-93 and Reading Note 36

Observation Note 92: Desire. When I woke up this morning, I propped myself up in bed with my computer and watched a New Yorker live event called Words of Desire with Alexandra Schwartz interviewing Emma Cline, Garth Greenwell and Ottessa Moshfegh. From the outset I want to point out that I have never read any of these writers’ books or essays so I cannot make any comment about their own work. I was however curious as to what these four literary writers could bring to the discussion of desire. Unsurprisingly, The New Yorker didn’t include any romance writers or romance scholars into their panel so I didn’t expect the discussion to be deeply nuanced on the subject of desire or even sex. I also want to point out that I still was groggy from sleep, and my coffee was brought to me a good ten minutes into the discussion (thanks wonderful Husband!), so my notes and my memory may be rather dodgy. All mistakes and misunderstandings are the fault of my morning brain.

The panel started out being asked about what they read – who were the masters of writing sex. Of course, none named romance writers, however Cline did point to Scott Spencer’s Endless Love and I was all “A-ha! Didn’t all teen girls read Endless Love like I did, hiding in the bathroom so that my older sister didn’t discover that I had stolen her copy that she had claimed I was much too young to read”. It made Cline feel that tad relatable to me (and then I realised that she was born nearly a decade after I read it as a new release, and seriously, she would have read it in the ‘noughts and it just made me furrow my brow that it was even still available then – but I digress). Greenwell pointed to poets Dickinson and Whitman as well as queer writers (whose names I missed – one might have been Carl Philips???). However, it was Moshfegh that was the least surprising who said (and I am paraphrasing here) that she had never read a successful sex scene and that she considered their plot use as failure or revulsion. *sigh* … *double sigh*.

I can’t fault Moshfegh for how she described the use of sex in plots or even the role of sex and desire in both her books as well as the books she had read. I am not at all interested in attacking or criticising these ideas. I completely understand their importance in the way that fiction is written and felt by reader/writers. I was totally on board with her description of her fiction writing approach. But I did feel sad that she had never read a good sex scene. But, damn!

The questions moved on to discuss different ideas around sex, deviance (huh??? was this a hint to 50 Shades and the changes it has brought in reading???) and its new space in society – Greenwell points out that there will always be forbidden topics to write about, as well as the challenge of writing happiness. The two women seem constrained in their answers on happiness as that they can only get themselves to write comedy or dogs. They only notice “the moments that aren’t happy”. But once again Greenwell answered eloquently saying that any human emotion can reveal insights (I especially liked Garth Greenwell as a panelist though all were very good. He’s now on my TBR). I found that the panelists kept slipping and calling it “sex writing” not “desire” and I personally think these are both quite different writing styles with possible overlaps.

What I did find interesting, and I can’t remember who on the panel said it, was the idea that in literary fiction, the sex scene was where the tension between two characters was created – it was the point that caused problems. This is so different to romance fiction where quite often, it is in the sex scene that the characters find congruence, where they find compatibility, love and connection.

Reading Note 36. Hinting again. So despite not really feeling warmly towards Talia Hibbert’ Take A Hint, Dani Brown, (Reading Note 35) I decided that I would continue to read the novel to completion. The chapter I am up to has the protagonists Zafir and Danika finally in her apartment with the agreement that they were to become “fuck buddies”. They quite clinically laid down their ground rules of how long their arrangement will last, how they will negotiate any affection between the two of them, and some other minutiae. From their, their sex (not love at all) scene just went off. A whole detailed chapter that sizzled with desire and sex. I wouldn’t call it beautiful but it certainly was emotional and carnal, suited to the story’s trajectory. And it certainly was not a failure.

Observation Note 93: Choosing your panel accordingly. Actually, having such low expectations for this panel meant I was pleasantly surprised that it was thoughtful even though the conversation lacked the depth of the dialogues I have become accustomed to when I attend romance writer panels or author talks, whether they are at writer’s festivals or scholars presenting on romance fiction at conferences. The one viewer question did address the topic of romance fiction but I got a phone call from my doctor right at that point so I didn’t hear the answer (seriously! how inopportune!!!).

The thing about this New Yorker panel was that it felt like a missed opportunity. I felt disappointed. Though there was an unspoken sense of romance fiction’s presence. From Endless Love, deviance in writing, the really uncomfortable suggestion that perhaps the writing was autobiographical which was diplomatically dismissed by Greenwell (but yeah – why does that stupid question always come up when sex is discussed? Isn’t that the deviant idea? As romance authors are always pointing out, would you ask a crime author if they are writing from an autobiographical lens? And there was of course the question on writing happiness – perhaps even for The New Yorker, it is too scandalous to ask literary authors about writing Happily Ever Afters.

This event was good but not great. Its promotion was very romance fiction-ish with all those red and black hearts and lips flowing out of an open book but that was just cosmetic. The panel could have benefitted from the richness of ideas that, say Beverly Jenkins or Jennifer Crusie or so many other erudite romance writers could have contributed. Unfortunately, this lack of at least one romance fiction panelist diminished the contribution of this event.

PS: I deeply appreciate that I can now attend so many wonderful events all over the world. A major shout out to my son who bought me my subscription to The New Yorker and is happy to keep giving me the same gift every year.

4 thoughts on “Desire, choosing your panels, and hinting (again): Observation Note 92-93 and Reading Note 36

  1. That thing about how the sex scene is where the relationship gets fucked (heh). I’ve been watching a bunch of BBC crime/mystery shows (thank you, short trial prime membership), and it does seem that this is the template for a bunch of writers: as soon as a romantic relationship gets to the point of “we are looking to a committed relationship with each other”, which is signaled by the characters having sex, the piano falls on their heads.

    And it’s a predictable as it’s, frankly, boring. Navigating relationships that *work* is as difficult, if not more, than self-sabotaging them by cheating, or whatever.

    It is sad that so many people have been so deeply brainwashed into, “genre romance is trash in essence and execution”, as there are plenty of romance authors writing circles around them, on every subgenre of romance.

    /rant

    • That’s the irony, right. Here is romance fiction being derided for its predictability yet it is all other fiction that is boring and predictable in their destruction of anything that may reflect a happy ending or the start of something beautiful.

  2. We just let our New Yorker subscription lapse. I used to get regular email updates of their events before, like their book festival, which I attended last year. Nada recently. So when the subscription was not renewed, they must’ve taken my email address off their list. As a result, I didn’t get notification of this talk. What a pity. It would’ve been interesting precisely because there were no romance writers/readers/critics/etc. on the panel. What does the rest of the literary world think about sex? (Most of the time, it is eye-rolling.)

    • Yes.I could imagine that their subscription list is tightly controlled. As for the panel, I think we are seeing a big change. There was no eye-rolling. However, with the exception of Garth Greenwell, I didn’t feel that it was a deeply informed panel. They were certainly interesting, and only romance authors would not have allowed for the breadth of reading either. Some representation though would not have gone astray.

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