Caitlin Kunkel Wants to Turn You On—Equitably


In February of 2018, Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer published a satirical erotica piece on the humor site McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It was a series of vignettes that begin as common erotica scenarios but then turn into more feminist tales, like this one: “He calls me into his office and closes the door…to promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.”

The piece went viral and an editor contacted the writers about turning it into a book. The resulting book, New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay came out just nine months later.

Although I’ve never met Caitlin Kunkel in person, I’ve gotten to know her in the virtual world over the past few years. We first met in an online group for female-identifying comedy writers, and I have written for The Belladonna, a site she founded with her co-authors in 2017. Kunkel has also written for The New Yorker and Live Wire Radio and developed the online satire writing program for The Second City. She also frequently tweets about writing and comedy.

I recently talked with her via email about co-writing the book, using humor to advance feminist ideas, and what writers she finds funny.

The Millions: The original McSweeney’s piece came out in February of 2018, and the book was published in November of 2018. In a publishing world where it can take years for books to come out, that’s really fast. What have been some positives and negatives to having a book come out so quickly?

Caitlin Kunkel: I think for the four of us, never having published a book before, and writing so much and so quickly for the internet, the timeline felt…somewhat normal? If we had known better, I think we would have cried even more than we did. We got the book deals in the U.S. and the U.K. at the end of March, and the 12,000-word manuscript was due June 7. Luckily, with four people, every time one of us went into the doc other people had added things, so it did feel like we were a snowball gathering speed the closer and closer we got to the deadline. Some of us were really good at generating a lot of ideas and first drafts for vignettes, and some of us were great at rewriting and polishing. It was like a joke assembly line.

The negative side of that was not having as much time to reflect as we would have liked—we all kept working full-time through this process, and if we’d had a few more months I think we could have hit on some even larger topics through the vignettes, and had time to polish up some of the vignettes we all loved but couldn’t quite find an angle on. It’s very sad to us that none of the Harry Potter vignettes made the book. And the exhaustion. We’re all professional writers so we know that you can’t wait for the muse to show up, but there were definitely some spots in the writing process where the idea of writing more jokes or doing edits was a lot more mentally and emotionally challenging than it would have been on a longer timeline.

But at the end of the day, we had a magical and exciting 2018, one that absolutely none of us saw coming in January. Not sure I would choose to do that timeline again, but if someone waved another book deal in front of me tomorrow…honestly, I probably would.

TM: The book has four co-authors but feels very cohesive in terms of voice. How did you logistically go about writing it? Did you break it up into sections and each write initial drafts or do something differently? How did you make sure the voice read consistently?

CK: The four of us co-founded and edit The Belladonna, which is a satire site written by women of all definitions, for everyone. By the time we published the first “New Erotica for Feminists” piece on McSweeney’s, we had already been working together and talking pretty much daily for a year and a half. So that existing mind meld helped.

We had a big breakthrough when we wrote the book proposal and saw that splitting the book into chapters with specific headings would help us generate more material and structure the book. So, the chapters cover pop culture, sex and dating, parenting, literature, history, the workplace, and everyday. We could sort the initial 12 vignettes into those buckets, and then we had those overarching themes to help us write jokes and choose topics. Then we all got to work just generating a lot of jokes. We know from both writing and editing humor and satire that we were going to need to overwrite by at least several thousand words to get to the best 10,000 to 11,000 that would be in the book, so we wrote in batches, polished them, sent them to our editors in the U.S. and the U.K., and then immediately started on the next batch while we waited for feedback on those. Then we would do edits as we got them and resubmit those along with the next batch of new vignettes. We did this every two weeks until we submitted the first full draft, which had been edited along the way, so it was more like a second draft.

Before that full draft submission, we all went to Columbus, Ohio, (where Brooke lives, the rest of us are NYC-based) and spent a weekend writing the resource section at the end—“14 Ways to Make Our Fantasy a Reality”—and reading every single vignette out loud and doing very fine edits. This was to make sure that we all supported each one, and that they all had the same tone and voice to them. We printed out copies and did all these final edits by hand, to try and see the book with fresh eyes after the incredibly fast turnaround.

TM: In the #MeToo era, there have been a lot of conversations about women in comedy. The success of things like Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, which gets meta about comedy and discusses serious challenges facing women, shows that there is an audience for feminist comedy. I’m curious what you think about using humor to advance feminist ideas. Do you think people are more open to some topics when they are presented in a comedic format?

CK: I definitely do. When I teach satire (for Second City, in workshops around the country), I tell students that op-eds are like punching someone in the face with your beliefs. Satire is like punching them in the back of the head—it makes them turn around and look at what you’re saying, at the very least! It’s violent, but that seems to be the metaphor that makes people understand the difference between a piece of satire and more straightforward writing the fastest.

We tried to vary the rhythm of the jokes throughout the book—some are incredibly short, just a sentence or two—like one where the joke is just that a couple’s safe word in their equal pay role play is just “Benedict Cumberbatch,” which is (a) a funny name to imagine people saying during sex, and (b) he went public this year saying he wouldn’t take roles where he was paid more than a female co-star—and others are longer and less clearly comedic, but explore a larger idea—like a vignette where it seems like a woman has been undressing for a stream of men, and it flips when a female doctor comes into the room and finally correctly diagnoses her endometriosis. That varying of rhythm, length, topic, and critique keeps people guessing as to what the satirical point of view of each vignette is, and hopefully challenges them to think about the more serious underpinnings of each joke.

And they aren’t just for readers who identify as women—we hope that men will look at vignettes that talk about how satisfying it is for a science fiction book not to have any violence against women motivating the male protagonist, and think, “Wow, yeah that’s a common trope I see a lot,” or look at the Lolita vignette in the Literary section and maybe see that book a little differently.

TM: One problem with writing satire is that people don’t always understand that what they are reading is satire. Have you had people think the book was actual erotica rather than satire, or do most people seem to get it?

CK: I think the confusion comes more from the title—when you hear “New Erotica for Feminists,” there isn’t necessarily a clear indicator that this is comedy. So, in the U.S. we added the subtitle, “Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay.” In the U.K., where they publish more satire and humor gift books, the tagline was, “Get what you deserve—again and again and again.” I think both of those allude to the more serious side of the book, and that it’s not straight erotica. We also included one of the shortest vignettes printed on the back cover, and once people read that they understand it. It’s: “He calls me into his office and closes the door…t0 promote me. He promotes me again and again. I am wild with ecstasy.”

We think that particular vignette really captures the two parts of the comedic premise—it will start sounding like a piece of erotica, and then it will flip into something that should be a reality but is still a fantasy. That particular vignette was inspired by Bad Man Matt Lauer locking people in his NBC offices…not for promotions. Once people read/hear that one, they pretty much always understand the concept.

TM: How did you get started writing comedy? Didn’t you focus on a different form of writing in grad school? When did comedy become more of a focus for you?

CK: I came into comedy in a very sideways manner. I always wrote when I was younger, but I was mostly exposed to novels and fiction—I didn’t have a sense that people made their careers writing comedy, especially more specific things like sketch or satire. I studied writing seminars as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore—pretty much everyone I went to school with is a doctor now. Great work guys!!—and wrote fiction, but I started to have more fun writing stranger forms and topics. After college, I taught English in Indonesia for a year where I wrote a blog and read a lot of poetry in English and Bahasa Indonesia, since that was helpful to me in learning the language. During that year, I applied to graduate schools and got into several for fiction, but eventually decided to go to the one program that was for another discipline: the Writing for the Screen and Stage program at Northwestern. There I was exposed to playwriting, TV writing, screenwriting, and learned to think more critically as a writer. I still was writing almost entirely dramas that would have some loony elements to them and looking back I could see that I wanted to be comedic but had absolutely no grasp of tone (or idea of how to be funny at all).

Finally, after I completed the two year program, I went to The Second City in Chicago and saw a sketch comedy revue, and it finally made sense in my head—I wanted to write satire and humor, and weave those elements through my work in all these other forms I’d been learning and studying (fiction, screenwriting, playwriting, etc.) for the past six years. So, I went through the year-long sketch program at Second City, which changed my life. Basically, I was exposed to a lot of training and variety of forms of writing from 18 to 25, and at 25, I finally began to be able to write some things that read like how I felt inside. It took me another three years to get decent at writing a short humor or satire piece. I’m a slow learner, but once I grasp something I feel like I really get it. Since my late 20s, I’ve been almost entirely focused on writing and teaching satire, and that’s where things like The Belladonna and New Erotica for Feminists have sprung from.

TM: I often think of humor writing as nonfiction (which some is), but satire lives more in the realm of fiction. Do you think of yourself as a nonfiction or fiction writer or a little of both?

CK: That’s a very interesting question. I almost never write myself into my satire pieces, but I write topical a lot, which means there’s a decent amount of research and facts in a lot of my pieces. We did this for the book as well, especially when we did things like write a parody of a “My Day” column by Eleanor Roosevelt, and when we wrote about Pierre and Marie Curie for the Historical section. I think the fictional part comes in in terms of the creativity of the format— here’s a piece I wrote on Brock Turner in 2016 using math word problems—and the nonfiction element is responsibly using facts to create your satirical point of view on a topic. If asked, I would say I’m a satirist, but that definition to me (and I stress this when I teach as well) does include accurate research and employing facts in service of your piece.

TM: What books or writers make you laugh?

CK: The very first book that blew my mind as a preteen in terms of how funny it was was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I just could not believe the character of Ignatius J. Reilly. So much of satire and humor is based in specificity and heightening, and that book really showed me how those things can be employed throughout a fairly long book. So that was a mind-bending early laugh for me.

Currently, I love anything that the great Megan Amram writes, both on her Twitter and in her longer humor and satire pieces. I’m a huge Simon Rich fan, especially his stories “Animals” (which has one of the darkest opening lines for a humor piece I’ve ever read) and “Unprotected” (which also makes me cry a little?). David Sedaris can swing from making me laugh wildly to weep uncontrollably in the span of a paragraph, which is a skill few writers have. I think Bossypants by Tina Fey is a perfect mix of memoir and comedy, and I think about pieces like “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter,” which is both hilarious and touching, all the time. And so many of The Belladonna contributors and pieces make me laugh on a daily basis.

TM: What writing projects are you hoping to work on in the future?

CK: I would really love to write another satirical/humorous gift book in the same vein of New Erotica for Feminists—I didn’t know that they were called gift books until we wrote the book proposal, but I’ve always bought and read them. I want to return to screenwriting and writing for TV as well, weaving satirical elements into longer works. And I would like to write a satirical novel. I’ve been working on one slowly for two years, so we’ll see if I can kick it into high gear. Based off my past learning curves, you can look for that one in a decade or so. But my true love is short, satirical pieces, mainly topical—so I’ll keep writing those and getting them out there.