WTF: GQ's "Reading Man's Guide to Dirty Books"

WTF: GQ's "Reading Man's Guide to Dirty Books"

December 2012 GQ Cover - WTF: GQ's

December 2012 GQ Cover - WTF: GQ's

[Hey, Mom, you don’t need to read this piece, okay?]

The latest installment in the continuing chronicles of, “OMIGOD! Women are reading about S-E-X! The end of the world is nigh!” comes from in the form of GQ’s unfortunate (print-only) article by Tom Bissell, “A Reading Man’s Guide to Dirty Books.”

Bissell, identified by the magazine as a “connoisseur of the finest literary smut” (he’s actually a professor at Portland State and an expert in video games*), argues,

“The best way to seduce an intelligent woman? It’s shockingly simple, really. Read to her.”

Because, obviously, if the men in intelligent women’s lives aren’t selecting dirty books that said men will then read aloud to their lady friends, those women may make “bad” choices in “trashy” reading materials and who knows what might happen?

Oh, noes! Women may even read “trashy” novels written by women, which chronicle the female experience with a healthy, sex-positive, point-of-view on women’s sexuality. Gasp!

Sarcasm aside, I think it’s interesting that Bissell advocates removing women from the equation and men literally reading to them “erotic” books written by men (and I’d argue for men) so they can understand and apparently be titillated by sex through the male gaze.

Bissell points specifically and banally to the Fifty Shades of Grey craze as a problematic sex-filled read (apparently, according to Bissell, there is a veritable a “litter” of sequels, not just two—someone tell E.L. James), arguing that the women of the world are picking up these novels for one (extremely sexist) reason. 

“It was then I realized why women across the Western world were firing up their vibrators at the thought of Christian Grey flogging the imbecilic Anastasia Steele. The story was the wand by which E.L. James had transformed the realm’s every mom-jeaned frump into a preciously violated princess. You could argue that we see the male equivalent of this dynamic all the time in sitcoms wherein the pudgy dork cohabits with the curiously hot young wife. The crucial difference is we don’t masturbate to sit-coms.”

I know, y’all, I know

Let’s get this straight: 

  • Women only read Fifty Shades of Grey as masturbatory fodder;
  • Women read Fifty Shades of Grey because it fulfills their frumpy “mom-jeaned” fantasy that they obviously couldn’t achieve in their own lives due to the whole “mom jeans” issue; and
  • This is what Bissell chooses to tell the 75% male readership of GQ about women and their erotic reading “needs.”

Obviously, Bissell is Extremely Alarmed. 

“I’m not sure what fans of Fifty Shades of Grey even want to read about sex. […] I think the book’s success is more about its modernization of the Harlequin-romance formula—a kind of de-vampirized, harder-edged Twilight. It’s not about sex so much as it is about tunneling into the densely protected heart of a Dark Unavailable Man. Or maybe the Grey books’ zillions of readers just want to be abused, and the flog that comes down on their backs is one of nerve-deadening prose.”

(Newsflash to GQ: Fifty Shades of Grey is actually Twilight fan fiction—this is not the profound observation you think it is, it’s simply an easily-Googled fact.)

Honestly, I’ve mentioned previously that the Twilight origins of this and other books bothers me, because I don’t care for the power dynamics in Twilight nor Fifty Shades. In both, the female main character’s agency is diminished in favor of that of the man’s; in Fifty Shades, it extends to the couple’s physical relationship as well (Christian tasks himself with deciding what Anastasia should like, she has little voice in figuring out her own sexuality, and that’s sad). As a feminist and someone who’s studied gender power dynamics in literature on an academic level, I want to see something different in the books I choose to read. However, the alpha male-meets-innocent-girl trope has been around—and quite popular—for a long, long time. People enjoy it and neither Stephanie Meyer nor E.L. James invented or even innovate this story.

(Furthermore, it’s obvious that the GQ writer has exactly zero understanding of the current publishing climate and how the breadth of Harlequin-type—aka romance—writing has transformed in the 21st century.)

Bissell continues to recommend that men read the following (aloud to their best gal, *snicker*):

  1. John Updike, Couples - I am not sure if I’ve read this one or not, but I’ve read the Rabbit books and I remember being completely put off by the sex in those novels. According to Bissell, Couples includes scenes with “fumbly dripping gentials.” Yum.
  2. Nicholson Baker, The Fermata - This is the one on the list with which I’m wholly unfamiliar. According to the piece in GQ, it’s focused on the experience of male desire and involves an in-depth description of, um, pee. SEX-AY!
  3. Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library - This book completely removes the female experience from the equation. I’m sure some women would enjoy this, and that’s fantastic—I truly believe that it’s important that people are able to enjoy what they enjoy without judgment, but it’s interesting that Bissell chose this novel, since the female sexual experience is not part of the book and yet these choices are supposedly intended to appropriately instruct and arouse women (while men are—hilariously—reading this aloud to them).
  4. Nic Kelmoan, girls - This novel focuses on a bored man who seeks out sex from sex workers and underage girls, written in the objectifying “you” of the second person. 
  5. James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime - Apparently the prose is the “functional equivalent of sex,” but it is again, another novel focusing on sexual experience from the point-of-view of the male protagonist.

At least three—and likely four—of the novels the GQ writer chooses as more appropriate for men, and therefore women, focus not only nearly exclusively on the male experience (which all five do), but also on objectification and a gendered power imbalance in terms of sexual experience. If we examine these books solely on the merit of their inclusion of large amounts of sex between the pages, I’m confused about how they’re superior to female-centered erotic romance or erotica.

How is this “better” than anything else on the market, aside from the assumption from the male literary establishment that men’s experiences are more relavent and more true than women’s? 

That the writing by Updike is superior to E.L. James is indisputable. But since Bissell chose to hone in on the concept of sex in literature, it seems that the undertone of his argument is that novels focusing on men’s experience are more important, more relevant and more meaningful than those focused on women’s experience.

Yes, I realize that GQ stands for “Gentlemen’s Quarterly,” yet the premise of the “article” seeks to understand why the meaning behind the popularity of a certain sort of book among women, a reasonable person would wonder why Bissell so quickly dismissed any and all books written by women and inclusive of women’s experience and sexual authority.

Were books by women, or from a female point-of-view, ever considered for inclusion in this list?

Does he think that women’s experiences are unsexy and not “dirty” enough?

Did Bissell simply assume that men could not possibly read books written by women which depict female experiences with sex?

(Because, naturally, the male experience is “normal.”)

“The greatest mistake most writers make in writing about sex is approaching it as though it merits special attention. It doesn’t. It simply merits the same attention one would give weather, a face, a tree. Describing the sexual act requires no specialist vocabulary, no raising or lowering of diction, and absolutely no euphemism, which is a tool of the craven.” 

I couldn’t disagree with this statement more; the worst sex I’ve read in books has taken this approach. The thing is, the weather isn’t a physical, emotional, human thing. I do imagine that this is somewhat dependent on a particular book’s audience and their expectations, and if we’re talking about books focusing on relationships versus literary exploration of The Human Condition (whatever that is). But, still, certain things which are personal for the reader take particular care on the writer’s part, so that it reads as authentic.

Frankly, I’m more likely to overlook half-assed, unoriginal descriptions related to the weather than I am sex.

“A hot literary sex scene is, above all else, truthful about sex as it’s felt and experienced by actual human beings. A bad literary sex scene is cynical—a commercial for impossible sensations.”

This statement is essentially identical to one made by a religious zealout who proclaimed that romance novels cause women to have unrealistic expectaions of emotionally and physically satisfying relationships with men. Both arguments are rooted in discomfort with women’s sexuality and the mere fact that books such as Fifty Shades et al becoming normalized in popular culture freaks out some people who are quite comfortable with these conversations taking place in whispered tones.

“Reading about sex takes two of our most private selves—the sexual self and the reading self—and makes a two-backed beast of them. It allows you to wanted into a library and discover an orgy. It makes you smarter and more attention and might even make you a better lover.”

Then why is Bissell recommending books including the objectification of sex workers, John Updike (I’m sorry, but if you’ve read the Rabbit books, you know what I mean), sex that entirely excludes women (remember, Bissell frames this argument in terms of heterosexual relationships and he recommends a book with no women engaged in the act), one framed in the second person “you” that positions sex in a object-subject relationship that—according to Bissell—chronicles the “hatred of human existence,” and all from the perspective of male pleasure? What can men learn from that?

Bissell’s take on women and sex in literature slams into the same old, same old perspective of marginalizing female sexuality and female enjoyment of sex in favor of the male experience. 

GQ tends to be a progressive magazine and I was surprised that they’d embrace such a regressive perspective on sex in their pages. 

Ultimately, this “article” is the print equivalent of link-baiting, an inflammatory, ill-informed, slapdash, reactionary piece meant to titillate rather than inform. And yet, despite that on some levels I believe it’s irrelevant, it alarms me nonetheless.

Why must these men (and the occasional woman) sound the alarm that women are reading books by women, for women that frankly discuss sexuality that may—or may not—be sexually titillating? Why is that so terrifying?

“Writers who write about sex effectively unprivatize privacy; they remind a reader that he or she is not alone in kink or quirk. To write about sex well, you have to be brave. To read about sex well, though you have to be honest. You have to be willing to be turned on, and you have to be willing to be disgusted; you also have to understand the different between being turned on and being disgusted.”

No, no we don’t have to be disgusted by sex in literature.

And, yes, I—and the vast majority of female readers—know the difference. I remember reading In Praise of the Stepmother by Mario Vargas Llosa a number of years ago and being simultaneously put of by the gross depiction of sex (everyone is using and abusing everyone else) and the brilliance of the book as literature. I still can’t say if I liked that novel or not, but I can’t say I desire to ever read anything similar again.

As a reader, I’m pretty conservative in terms of sex in books—I want it to make sense in the context of the story and in terms of the character development. But, there is no requirement that I embrace being disgusted by the portrayal of sexuality in literature.

There’s a lot of merit in reading books with positive, yet realistic, depictions of of both the physically and emotion of human sexuality—particularly for women whose sexuality has been marginalized througout history.

One of the best examples I’ve read a long time is C.K. Kelly Martin’s Come See About Me, in which an often-complicated physical relationship between the two main characters is the catalyst for both moving forward and rebuilding futures for themselves as individuals and ultimately together. I was never “disgusted” by what happens between Leah and Liam in terms of their sexual relationship in that novel, but early on it saddened me, because that’s all the two are able to give one another and I wanted more for both of the characters who’d been so hurt in their respective pasts. That is the sort of sex-heavy literature around which men and women could easily find common ground, not lit-fic that regurgitates the same tried and true male-centered sexual dynamics present in the Fifty books.

I can think of many, many other examples that could bridge common ground on this subject that celebrates women’s agency over their sexuality and I’m hoping that Renegade will help me compile a list that can serve as an alternative to Bissell’s hackneyed celebration of male-centric sexual experiences, because this is an important conversation, one that women and readers should dominate,** not sexist commentators GQ writers.

If Bissell and GQ really wanted men to understand female sexuality through literature, one would think that they would want to look to fiction encompassing the female point-of-view and women’s engagement in the act itself—which cannot be properly expressed in novels with the line (which Bissell cites as erotic),

“I released one-liners of sperm up her forearm.”

*Please read the a-freaking-mazing first comment on this article. It is masterful.

**Puns, I’ve got them in spades.

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