a conversation with Jack Murnighan      
Jack Murnighan


In the intro you describe Nerve as "a smart sex site." What exactly does that mean?

In effect I mean that there have been publications in the past that have dealt with sex but most of them have been for men. The ones with photos have been for men. The women's magazines obviously talk about women's sex issues, but there hasn't been a magazine that crossed over and was meant both for women and for men. We at Nerve thought that a lot of the way sex was being covered in magazines left out the most important parts.

Such as?

Such as what people are really feeling. What about sexual failure? What's glorious about sexual failure and vulnerability and all the difficulties of imperfect sex, which is what most of have most of the time? The other magazines were about constructing fantasies of perfect sex or striving for perfect sex. The women's magazines admitted to there being imperfect sex, but it was always about fixing it: how to please your man, how to be sexier, what men like. Occasionally they'll emphasize how to get more enjoyment for women, but even that isn't covered as much as one might think. In Nerve we have pieces like this beautiful one recently written by a guy named Victor LaValle, who is a short story writer, about how he went from being 400 pounds to being 220 pounds and how his sex life, in a certain sense, got worse through the changes of everything that was involved psychologically with losing the weight, and how it affected the physical aspects of his sex life. That's a really personal, really deep and powerful piece. It's different from the way that would have been covered in an existing magazine, like a men's magazine: "I got myself in shape and now I'm a stud," or women's magazines: "How to not be 400 pounds; How to be likeable." In fact, Victor was a very sexual person when he was 400 pounds. It's just a different kind of sexuality that you don't read about all the time.

I was ultimately editor-in-chief of the Web site and I wanted every piece to be surprising and to be smart enough to give you new ideas. Even if it was tried and true material, I wanted it to have some new set of thoughts or new inquiry that pushed it further than anyone would have seen before and that would surprise them. So that's what I mean by smart: really honest, frank, often very, very personal, poignant accounts. If it's going to be investigative, it should be really hard-hitting and unblanching. If it's literature, it shouldn't be glossy or gauzy erotica that presents a fantasy of sex. Literature that happens to have a sexual component of one type or another, that happens to be doing some type of investigation of sex while it's going on.

What separates erotica from smut?

Erotica from smut. My guess is that whoever uses the terms makes the distinction. I would guess that the same work would be called both erotica and smut whether it's appreciators or detractors, respectively. At Nerve we don't have a lot of truck with either erotica or smut. I'd like to think that someone who reads this book won't feel as though they've read that much erotica.

What do you hope they take away from it?

I hope that they feel they've read a lot of literature, some really great literature. There were some excerpts that I didn't put in there because I thought they were of not particularly high literary value. There are a couple of curiosities that you wouldn't read and think, "That was the best writing I've ever read" but you might read them and think, "that's really funky--I can't believe that that exists!" Hopefully the way I wrote the intros gives enough of a context to indicate why I chose this selection.

I'm concerned that, partly because of the marketing of the book, some people will assume this to be an anthology of excerpts and skip all the intros and not get a sense of the positioning of each excerpt. I tried to position them for whatever I was after in order to make the excerpt more than what it is as a free-standing entity, to have the whole piece be some sort of exploration or dalliance. In some cases I wanted to probe, some pieces I included just for fun.

Can you give specific examples?

The James Baldwin excerpt, for example, from Giovanni's Room. I wanted to use that as an example of someone suddenly discovering their sexual orientation on the fly. The scene has these two young boys, who are friends, rolling around and wrestling, and suddenly one realizes that he has romantic feelings for the other. Then this thought flashes through his mind, "but he's a boy! I'm not supposed to be feeling this." I wanted to take the idea of when do we know, what do we know, and what happens if what we find out isn't what we had expected. Where does repression kick in, what are the cracks in the armor of repression? These are the questions that I think this excerpt really raises. You don't necessarily see these questions raised in literature. Occasionally you'll see an academic piece written on this topic, or a scientific piece, but to have this backed up with an incredibly poignant literary example of it happening--it's almost more moving than a real life example because it's so beautifully written. I think that the power of that is marked.

You say that people shouldn't assume that this is essentially a book of erotica; the name, however, implies that it is.

Indeed. I was in a tricky situation, because if Three Rivers Press expected to do more that 2000 books of sales, they can't call it something like Jack Murnighan's Very Incisive, Funny, Fresh Insights into Modern Sexuality as Seen Through the Lens of the History of Literature. That won't sell books.

Was it your idea to name it that?

The column itself was originally called Jack's Naughty Bits, but it's clear that no one knows who I am, so Crown didn't want to keep me as the hook. Since it was Nerve we could be a bit more audacious, and Jack's Naughty Bits had more of a ring to it.

In fact, as it turns out, I do have a strong identity on Nerve and I get tons of e-mails from readers, all addressed "Dear Jack" or "Jackie" or all of these sweet, intimate ways of referring to me as if we were close friends, and they're anonymous readers. I like that.

Do you just love what you do for a living?

Yes. I have a Ph.D. in medieval literature, which could very easily have taken me into the least pleasurable of all professions, and instead I get to do this. Through my column I'm creating readers for books that I love and trying to explain to people why I love the things that I love, and that's really exciting. As an academic you don't really get to do that. You get to write articles that advance the knowledge, but you rarely get to write articles that advance the appreciation so much, that advance the love. So that's really exciting. I'm hoping to follow this book up with one that does that even more explicitly, a revisitation of the classics, not only about sex but in general, how to love them, how to get the most out of them, and why now is a great time to read them.

On the subject of censorship, book-banning: you say in your introduction that people who oppose explicit sexual references fear that they will "demystify" sex or "strip it of its magic." What are some of the other reasons people condone censorship?

Some of the people who condone censorship now do so for political reasons. There's also the issue of parental control on the Internet, which is relevant here. I think many people are afraid of sex and are afraid of knowledge of sex.

Do you understand why they might be?

I think that the fact that sex is such an important aspect of our lives but that we understand it so little is very threatening. I think that when encountering that kind of fear most people, instead of trying to learn and understand what it is that's intimidating them, would rather just shut the door and look away. In the same way that someone who didn't speak a foreign language would be afraid of going to a foreign country; either they'd stay home or they'd go and speak louder English. I think it's part a function of intimidation, and of an intimidation that could be overcome slowly. Again, sex is really intricate on so many different levels, and it exposes us all the time and shames us all the time--or a lot of the time. I think it makes people touchy and edgy, and it's better sometimes to pretend it doesn't exist. We'll do almost everything we do in our lives to reposition ourselves vis-a-vis sex, but we won't admit to that. Think about it--the way we dress, who we meet, what we do on weekends, what we do when we're off work, our conceptions of our bodies, a lot of what we read, especially magazines--all these things are about sex and about our relationship to our own sexuality. But when anybody tries to take it to a more explicit or direct level, people get nervous. We'll think about sex as much as we can without ever saying or realizing that we are thinking about sex.

What do you think parents should do in terms of regulating what their children are exposed to? Is there validity to this form of censorship, to ratings on books and music and the Internet?

I think that parents have to 'fess up to their own level of involvement. If you're going to be a lazy parent, then this sort of thing is for you. You might just accept this: I'm a lazy parent, I can't spend a lot of time monitoring my kid, being with my kid, explaining things to my kid or teaching them. Since I'm just going to send them out there and let them do what they want, I'm going to stem the tide. That's a dangerous practice, but I can understand why certain people at certain times throw their hands up. In an ideal world we'd all have a lot more time to give to our children and we'd really be able to educate them. I'm not going to sit here and think that that's going to happen all the time. If I had children right now, I'd almost certainly have some sort of Net Nanny on my computer. I don't own a TV, but if I did and had cable, I wouldn't get the pay channels. If you're already an incredibly overtaxed parent, I could see why censorship would help a bit, or would at least seem like a logical solution. Then you also have to take into account the fact that if you deny a kid something, they go after it.

What if you were a parent letting your six- or seven-year-old leaf through any one of these books that has explicit passages?

We definitely need to deny six- and seven-year-olds Shakespeare, we can't have them reading Homer-in fact all the classics should be avoided at this age. Not because there's sex in them, but because they're not ready for them, and we don't want to ruin the pleasure for them before they're in a position to really experience them. I'm a great advocate of waiting until ones twenties or thirties to read a lot of the world's great books. As to Nerve and the sex in my column and my book, I think that there probably couldn't be anything better for kids to be exposed to vis-a-vis sex than Nerve and what we do. We all take it very seriously, we try to be as measured and balanced and thoughtful and emotive and human as possible when talking about it. If there's anything good you can do for kids regarding sex, it's to strip away all the bullshit fantasy that builds up and that society feeds them, and to give them alternatives and let them understand what the reality of sex is, so that maybe they can go through their teens with a much more realistic sense of their bodies and of gender relations and sexual identity and of the okay-ness of failure and misfires and miscues. As a man I think it would be really nice if I'd been taught that sex was not just a symbolic belt-notching and that it was an emotional, communicative vehicle, a language. I think women need to by and large be taught that sex doesn't equal love and be able to tease the two out so that if you're having a nice sexual experience you don't immediately confuse it for love and for commitment. These are crude generalizations, but I think that by and large they hold most of the time. It would be great if people could understand a lot more about what's going on because the more you understand, as with any noble inquiry, the more you realize you don't understand. That mystery remains beautiful always. Sex has gotten a lot prettier for me and more meaningful by thinking and reading about it a lot more in the last four years. Wherever one is on the spectrum, one is always waylaid by one's lack of emotional maturity. Hopefully epiphanies I have today will seem trite five years from now and will be replaced by new and deeper epiphanies. I'm happy that the process of exploration has been done and habituated.

You raised an interesting point about D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterly, questioning whether Lawrence actually liked sex. Do you think that a writer can do justice to something that powerful without liking it?

Definitely. Alienation is often a great vehicle for reflection and understanding. People joke that the best writers on a certain culture will be foreigners. It's partly because they are detached from what's going on and can see it differently. In terms of generating eroticism, I think that Lawrence did a good job, but he only seemed to do a good job because of the scarcity of competition. There haven't been that many people who have done as good a job writing something equally titillating and literary. If there were more truly erotic literature, we would probably not think of Lawrence as anything more than a historical curiosity. He did a good job at that time. But if you think of the people who we'd list as the great sexy writers, like Anais Nin and Henry Miller, if you're reading them for eroticism then that's kind of sad, because they're not that good.

What makes erotic writing good?

That's a hard question because everyone's going to say something different. I write stories that people call erotic. I intend them to be stories; they have a lot of sex in them, but what I try to do with the sex is to have it be really human, really emotional, really real, so that someone can easily imagine themselves there. If I can really get the character and the setting, then the sex becomes stimulating. It's a three-dimensional thing. Not to put anyone down, but I think that a lot of sex writing tends to be plastic and doesn't feel like it has the same sort of emotional depth and verbal nuance that I would like to see in such stories and that I strive for. But again I don't try to make titillating stories; I feel that if I tried to go out of my way to make my writing more titillating, it would be an absolute disaster. I'm better off going at it more indirectly, and if it happens to be titillating then that's good. I'll admit that there's obviously a stigma in writing erotica, as there is in doing any sort of genre writing. In terms of my self-conception as writer, I want to think of myself as a literary author, so if I actually was publishing pure erotic stories, that might give people the wrong idea. I'm walking a fine line anyway with all this; I'm sure that people already think of me as "just" an erotica writer.

Why do you select the pieces that you select for The Naughty Bits?

It's so fun to look for "naughty bits" What I'm essentially doing is asking myself, what teaches me something? What makes me feel? You start to think about how wide the spectrum of sex is, and of what's peripherally related, such as bodies, orientation, all the different aspects of eroticism, kissing, touching--I could include love and relationships but that would make it too broad; a category needs some sort of limit to still be a category, so I don't do any Naughty Bits that are just about relationships. It has to at least be about the erotic emotionality of it.

This week on Nerve I did one on Homer's The Iliad, and the whole question of whether one's a lover or a fighter. Which is such a goofy concept in the way that there's a distinction: I'm a lover, not a fighter, as if it's a booby prize. As if "I'd really like to be a fighter but I'm just a lover." What a shame. That's the way The Iliad reads. All the lovers get their asses whooped all the time in The Iliad. There's a great scene where Paris and Menelaus, the two men who are fighting over Helen, and the reason the whole war started, have a one-on-one fight and Menelaus kicks his butt. Paris is saved by one of the Gods and taken back to his castle, and Helen berates him for losing this fight and says she wishes she were back with her old husband. And they go to bed because he's more aroused by her than ever. I can't believe how stark this difference is: Paris is the lover and Menelaus is the fighter. It's as if there couldn't be any overlap. To me that counts, even though the actual sex scene between Helen and Paris is a little thin.

Typically the sex scenes are a little thin if you were just reading them for erotic content. That's why the introduction is important; it allows me to write about this pretty funny social dynamic. I think a lot of us still have that mentality, and that we use it as a way to defend ourselves: I'm one or I'm the other.

At one point you mention a writer--a friend of yours--whose "artistic fuel derives from discontent." Do you believe that's true, that it has to be one or the other?

I can imagine one sliding into a wonderful erotic bliss and never leaving one's bed and having a lot of food delivered and being productive--I suspect that under those circumstances few of us would get a lot of work done. I certainly would trade in work for that kind of arrangement, if funded. My muses don't seem to go away if there's some kind of physical emotional connection with someone in my life. I think I'm the opposite--I write better when I'm happier, and typically I'm happier when there's somebody around. At least I could say that there's been more than enough unhappiness that I don't need to be reminded of that aspect of life. Give me some examples of the good stuff--I'd like to write about that too. I think my friend's situation is a relatively playfully cliché of the tortured artist; I don't think that's the only kind there is. Certainly a lot of the people in The Naughty Bits excelled as writers and as lovers--Ovid, Goethe, Pushkin--there are a lot of writers there who were the tops of their language but who were also very sexual creatures.

If you were to name some of the most important milestones in the history of sex, what would they be?

This might surprise you--I did write a column about the Rig Veda, which is one of the oldest books in any Indo-European language if not the oldest. It's an Indian religious text written in Sanskrit. You read it and you get a sense that it might well have been true that sex many centuries before Christ was just as good as it is today. It's a concerning thought, because I'd like to think that there was progress, and that gender relations would have improved considerably and thus sex would have also improved considerably. I'm beginning to think that it's possible that the changes in gender relations in the last 25 years might be leading to better sex in certain demographics, although those changes occur along with a diminished amount of leisure time, so that's tricky. It seems that people work more, have less leisure time, and without the leisure time to spend with your lover and experiment, you miss out. I fear that these two things are a little antagonistic.

The ideal situation is one that I was lucky to be in where I had a couple of years that I didn't have to work, because I'd saved a lot of money, and they happened to coincide with the dawning of my feminist consciousness. I had a committed partner at that time--that's a good arrangement, to be in the modern world without a job, with the right person. Such sex was probably had by members of the elite classes throughout history. Certain people probably dedicated their entire lives to sex, and they probably got a lot out of it. At various times in history it was probably a lot easier to devote your entire life to one goofy thing like sex. You read the old sex manuals, like the Kama Sutra, and they are very intricate. They have a lot of great ideas and in many ways they kick The Joy of Sex's ass. But sex isn't about that, ultimately. Sex is so much about the people involved. That's why there's some hope, if we're progressing as a society in terms of our gender relations, that ultimately our sex is getting better and will continue to get better, if we can find the leisure time. I'm sure that's true for each of us as individuals. As we become more ourselves as individuals, sex gets better. I hope.

--interview by Laura Buchwald

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