hat's a nice girl like you doing
writing a book like this?" asked the mild-mannered gent from
the Boston Globe, "this" being Sex Crimes.
Despite a dropped jaw, I managed to ask him where on earth he'd
got that idea--that I was a nice girl--and devoted the rest of
the lunch to disabusing him of it.
This, my very first interview after pub date, should have tipped me off. And, sure enough, as I toured
around with Sex Crimes, hitting a different city every
night like a traveling salesman, it became increasingly clear
to me that nice girls still don't. Write about sex, I mean, or,
heavens forbid, violence. Nor, worse still, about the realms
of passion and obsession where the two converge.
As a novelist, I've visited dark, violent
territory before: My first novel, Life-Size, narrated by
a woman intent on starving herself to death, is, I believe, much
bleaker and more brutal than Sex Crimes. But it never
encountered half the resistance that Sex Crimes did. With
that book, people responded as if to a plague-bearing rat: radio
stations would schedule interviews and then cancel at the last
moment, once the host had, presumably, cracked the spine. A bookstore
in DC declined to schedule a reading at all, on the grounds that
the novel was "too violent"--never mind that it contains
far less graphic violence than the average potboiler. And, at
a bookstore in Philadelphia, as I read from an edgy erotic scene,
women began, hesitantly at first, to stand up and leave. The
ones who remained looked reproachful, betrayed--except, of course,
the ones who were enjoying the hell out of it. And, luckily,
there are always a few of those--the ones who get it, who aren't
immune to irony, who know an unreliable narrator when they meet
one, who like the bite of black humor.
So what, exactly, is making people so nervous?
I didn't actually commit any sex crimes, remember. I just wrote
a small, dark novel that describes, from a woman's point of view,
a sexual obsession with a younger man--an obsession that veers
closer and closer to the edge of craziness, until, in single violent
act, it plunges right over that edge. Granted, the sex in Sex
Crimes isn't always cuddly and nice, wholesome or cute. But
I have news for the sex police: neither is lust. Granted, the
female character is twelve years older than her lover, so the
balance of power between them is uneven, ambiguous, fluctuating.
Oh, and granted, it's the woman, not the man, who commits the
decisive act of violence.
Not PC, I know. Not PC at all.
Of course I knew, going in, that the novel
would make people uncomfortable. It's supposed to: I had no intention
of writing a lace-edged love story. I wanted to write about passion
that is like a disease; I wanted to explore those moments where,
like a spectator at the train wreck of your own life, you watch
yourself losing control, turning into a deranged stranger, acting
in ways you would never have believed possible. We've all had
such experiences, I believe (and, if you haven't, you will). I also wanted to cut the crap about sex and desire, to write about
men with the humor, the despair, the down-and-dirtiness that women
revel in when they talk among themselves. What I didn't realize
was that doing so would make me, even now, a bad girl.
For centuries, men have had carte blanche
to depict acts of violence on the bodies of women, acts often
committed in the name of passion. Why, I wonder, should it be
such a very big deal for a woman to depict an act of violence
committed on the body of a man? Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting
that women writers or artists should be doing this, as some kind
of historical tit-for-tat -- merely that, if we so choose, we're
entitled to commit the same imaginative crimes as the guys. And
worse ones, if we wish. Nor should we have to spend our time
and energy -- still, now, at the cusp of the new century -- reiterating
our right to do so.
You don't have to like Sex Crimes -- though, naturally, I'd rather you did. You don't even have to read it -- though, naturally, I'd rather you did. And, if you do, you may go right ahead and tell me that it's bad or dull or distasteful, that it fails miserably as a work of art -- though naturally, of course, I'd rather you didn't. But just don't tell me, Mr. Boston Globe, that I shouldn't have written it in the first place. Because, frankly -- as we not-so-nice girls are wont to say -- screw that.
Copyright © 1997 Jenefer Shute.