Jay Caspian Kang Wants to Provoke You

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Jay Caspian Kang has been working as a journalist for more than 10 years now, but he still thinks of himself as a novelist. “I haven’t really written fiction in a long time,” he says; the idea of writing fiction “terrifies” him. Nonetheless, for Kang, bringing a novelist’s eye to interior experience is what he thinks makes writing fun. “And I am very much of the sensibility that writers should enjoy writing.”
So it was with a nod toward fiction that he went into his heavily researched and reported new work of nonfiction, The Loneliest Americans—out in October from Crown. Though each chapter could be seen as a stand-alone essay or article, Kang, who is speaking from his basement office in his Berkeley, Calif., home, doesn’t view the book as a collection. (He says, bluntly: “I would never read a book of essays.”) Instead, he approached the work as a “novel” in which he, the central character, is navigating what it means to be Asian American today. Each chapter’s ideas are built upon in the next.
Kang finished writing Loneliest during the pandemic, at a time when its central premise—that Asian American assimilation makes for the lonely experience of not knowing whether you’re more “white” or “person of color”—was being challenged as hate crimes against Asian people skyrocketed.
In the first months of lockdown, he wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours a night and found himself wondering whether he should move his family to Korea, where his parents were born, but no longer live. He quickly decided against it, citing how difficult it would be for his Jewish wife and their young daughter to assimilate. “It also occurred to me that most of the people who were being attacked were working-class people, people who didn’t really speak English, people who might be undocumented. People who work in the sex worker industry and have very, very shallow foundations here in the United States,” he says. In his writing, Kang argues that any Asian American rights movement needs to address these less privileged people first, rather than focusing on more “elite” problems like Hollywood representation.
“Our current politics really is rooted in questions of microaggressions,” Kang says. “Asian people citing white people asking questions like, ‘Why does your lunch look like that?’ or, ‘Where are you really from?’ Or, you know, the experience of being mistaken for a delivery boy,” he says, rolling his eyes. Looking younger than his 41 years, he has an air of mischief about him.
“Should we actually have Asian American politics based on the feelings of an upwardly ascendant, upper-middle class?” Kang asks. “People like, for example, me, who live in the Berkeley Hills and complain about traffic? My life is fine. It’s great.”
In The Loneliest Americans, Kang asks this same question from multiple angles as he gets to know Asian men’s rights activists who troll Asian women for marrying white men; covers protests against police violence and explores the historical tension between Black and Asian communities; learns about the overlap between the Jewish American and Asian American immigrant experiences; and examines his own economic privilege, wondering if the term people of color has become little more than a class signifier for those educated enough to know it.
“By mimicking the language of the Black struggle in America, we hope to become legible as a comrade, a fellow traveler, or a ‘person of color.’ There’s an implicit apology to this sort of pleading: ‘We know we don’t have it as bad as you, but we also aren’t white and need a way to talk about it,’ ” Kang writes in the book. He continues: “The loneliness comes from the realization that nobody, whether white or Black, really cares if we succeed in creating these identities.”
Kang makes many other bold statements throughout the work, sometimes intended to inspire debate. “There are still only two races in America: Black and white,” he writes. “Everyone else is part of a demographic group headed in one direction or the other.” His writing is meant to provoke and to make the reader a little uncomfortable.
Kang welcomes any potential controversy; in fact, he thrives on it. He also expects blowback to The Loneliest Americans from Asian Americans, and he’s fine with that. “I hope that people get mad at parts of it,” he says. “I hope there’s some criticism of the book, even bad reviews of the book. It was written as a way to start a lot of arguments that I think need to be out there. And I’m okay with being criticized. Some books by minorities are kind of, like, patted on the head, and people say, ‘Good job, you spoke your truth.’ If that happens, I’ll be extremely disappointed. I would rather have the book panned.”
Kang, who has worked at Vice and currently writes for both The New Yorker and The New York Times, is acutely aware of the media and publishing landscape he’s a part of. (In the book, he quips that his writing is primarily read by “lawyers on planes, other journalists.”) He knows The Loneliest Americans is coming out during what could be called “a moment” in Asian American publishing. In the past few years especially, several books about the Asian American experience have gained notoriety—Minor Feelings, Interior Chinatown, and Crying in H Mart, just to name a few.
“A new readiness, or level of awareness, appears to be asserting itself in facets of the story of how Asians are overlooked, agglomerated, and otherwise diminished and misunderstood in, or by, the American consciousness,” Kang’s agent, Jim Rutman, says. “And the origins of that story appear to be poorly understood and far too infrequently appreciated. If American readers are more ready to finally think and read about how the frustrations and struggles of Asians in America manifest, then I suppose that counts as progress, and I hope that Jay’s book will help expand and fill out the pursuit of questions we should have been asking all along.”
Indeed, Kang has been asking these questions for years—not just in his reporting and essays, but also in his 2012 debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, which follows a character modeled on the Korean American Virginia Tech shooter.
“When I wrote that novel,” Kang says, “I was thinking through the ways in which I might have seen myself in that guy, and also the ways in which doing so was dangerous, because at some level, he’s just a psychopath, you know? I’d think, ‘Why am I reading his writings? He’s totally incoherent, why am I watching his videos, where he just rants and rants? And why do I have to see myself in this guy?’ It’d be a lot easier if I was just like, ‘what a horrible tragedy.’ And so that question was what the first book was.” Now, with The Loneliest Americans, he says he’s delivered his “nonfiction way of executing those ideas.” He continues: “The formative experiences of so many Asian American men’s lives is a feeling of sexual rejection. And it’s a very difficult thing to talk about.”
Luckily for readers, Kang thrives when he’s tackling very difficult things to talk about. This is where his writing soars; the more personal and uncomfortable he gets, the more provocative the result.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

It Has to End Now: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

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Dave Eggers’s newest book, The Every, is about a near-future mega-monopoly clearly based on Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s his follow-up to The Circle, and follows a different protagonist, Delaney, who seeks to destroy the company from the inside.

Appropriately enough, Eggers has found a way to avoid Amazon during of The Every’s initial release. The hardcover edition will not be sold through the site. If you want a copy when The Every is released on October 5—with one of its 32 different covers—you’ll only be able to get it from independent booksellers. 

The Millions spoke with Eggers about Amazon’s grip on the publishing industry, authorial self-censorship, public surveillance, and much more.

Rachel Krantz: Congratulations on your book, and also on figuring out how to subvert the Amazon behemoth. 

Dave Eggers: Thank you. It has been really illuminating, because the last time I really tried to not have Amazon distribute books, that was almost 20 years ago, and Amazon’s market share and power have grown exponentially since then. So it’s been enlightening just how difficult it is to work around the tangle of Amazon’s influence in every aspect of the book business.

Still, I believe that books will be sold and read and passed around if they’re good, and if you read them and enjoy them and passionately push them onto the next person—that’s how I think our books get read and last and persist. And I think that’s how booksellers and bookstores will last. A bookseller goes, “Oh, this new book just came in the other day,” and tells the customer about it. And if you want that [experience] and choice, you have to remember monopolies will limit choice and always will—that’s the nature of monopolies. If you want choice, you have to put in the work.

RK: My book is coming out in January, and I’m in this group with a bunch of other debut authors. There have been a lot of people grappling with how to reconcile their politics with the fact that there’s basically no way to avoid being dependent on Amazon if you’re at this stage in your career and want to make any money, or get any sort of major book deal. What would you say to authors who feel like they don’t agree with Amazon or want to support them, but have to profit off of them if they want to have a career as an author?

DE: I think it’s a lot more difficult for a first-time author to try and experiment than it is for me. I have the benefit of being around for 20-odd years, and I can hope that I can depend on an existing audience that will support this book, and my platform, I guess, for lack of a better word, where I talk about these issues and bring people into independent bookstores. But I would never prescribe or expect anyone else to be able to follow the same path, because everybody’s situation is so different and I honestly do not know what the landscape is for a debut author now. 

RK: I think what’s scary is that I was having these conversations with friends while reading The Every, and knowing many of the things that you’re predicting about publishing and self-censorship are already here. People I know who are writers right now and are not as established as you are have expressed that they’re afraid to ever say anything negative about Amazon, because how do we know there’s not some sort of retaliation in the algorithm? 

DE: I don’t think Amazon is a retaliatory company in that way. I think that there is more machine-driven presence than you think. I have no fear whatsoever for retaliation, nor would I care, but the fact that your friends have to think about that is a terrifying reality. Really. And we have empowered this monopoly to strike fear into the hearts of authors. And that may be unprecedented in history. Through our own complicity as consumers, their market share only grows. Right now, Amazon sells 45 percent of print books [and 75 percent of e-books] in the US. If it grows from there, then we’re at a really terrifying place. So if we want to avoid algorithms deciding which books are published and which are not, it has to end now.

But as to the amount of fear that there is out there about Amazon, I think it is a function of their predatory business model and also this sense that their power is too great and everyone else is little. The fact that we have empowered a machine that controls books is beyond irony.

RK: And many of us new writers would be completely terrified of going on the record as saying the same, even though we know that probably Amazon’s not a retaliatory company, and could care less about us. But just the chance of that, it’s scary to envision potentially speaking out.

There’s another thing I really see authors grappling with right now, in terms of “what am I allowed to say,” even in fiction, and how much more important the author’s personality and visibility has become. There’s this fear that if you write a negative character who’s not obviously a villain or satirical, that people are going to think it’s you, or your opinions. And so I see a lot of self-censorship happening, just in terms of what you can even imagine as a writer. I’m curious how you think of that impulse, if it ever arises in your own writing, to self-censor. 

DE: I’ll answer it more in terms of the characters who live on this campus in the book. Everything said on campus is recorded and then analyzed by AI for any potential wrongness. And then there are certain words that you have to get permission to say, essentially. They think that they can perfect humanity by having a closed ecosystem and 24/7 surveillance. And that they are uniquely qualified to protect and defend what they deem right, and prevent any wrong action or sentiment. And they can do that with the help of digital tools…

And then in real life, our society, you have a tragedy of a high schooler who tweets something when they’re 16, and has been canceled. I think it’s definitely a culture that lacks the ability to forgive. And we have got to forgive each other and not judge anybody by their worst day, and a word that they used when they were 16. I think that we have to open our hearts a bit and allow people to develop and improve. I think and I hope, because I believe in humanity, that we will find our way to move on to being a forgiving culture, but I do think that when we give this power to an algorithm, to a big company like Amazon to surveil, we become part of the machine altogether. So we find ourselves in the situation that we’re in, and then we become a population of fury. 

RK: I’m kind of surprised to hear that you’re maybe even a little optimistic, because I definitely felt like, reading your book, oh, okay, this is the direction he thinks it’s going — and it’s not particularly hopeful. So is part of your hope expressed in trying to create a severe warning? 

DE: That’s the point of this kind of fiction, to present a dark path that might be avoided when you wake up, and you’re painting a vibrant and terrifying truth of what it could become, in the hopes that people say, “I don’t want to live there. I don’t want that to be our reality.” So to write something like this, I think one has to care. You are painting a picture that—I was trying to terrify myself. 

Like, imagining what would happen if it became a law that you had to have audio surveillance in your house? Well, I think that there’s a 50/50 chance that we’re going there within 10 years, because it’s very hard to defend not having it in your house. On the one hand, you have the right to privacy. On the other hand, it might make families safer and protect children that otherwise might be in harm’s way at home. When we have become a surveillance state, and we are almost a surveillance state right now, how will that change our lives? 

RK: Well, social media has already changed people’s conception of self. That line has blurred already, so it’s not so much of a jump to have these other forms of surveillance, because everyone thinks they’re living a public life and are a celebrity in their own minds anyway.

But then I was thinking, also while reading your book, about all the people refusing to wear masks. And that this is happening at the same time that we’re mostly comfortable being surveilled by corporations—but there’s so much more resistance to the government telling people to wear a mask. So people seem much more willing to let corporations impede on them than the government. How were you thinking about how that was playing out as you wrote the book, why the resistance is stronger in that area?

DE: You nailed something I thought about a lot, that it essentially cuts against a lot of the theories in the book, that I feel like people have sort of a limitless tolerance for surveillance and enforced behaviors. I will say that I feel like those flare-ups as anomalous. When you write a book like this, you have to sometimes leave out some exceptions, I guess. But I think that mask-wearing and vaccine-getting is much more visceral to people than digital surveillance, passive trolling, passive surveillance, passive acquiescence. Whereas if you put a needle in somebody’s arm, that’s a lot different and will evoke a much more passionate response than the sort of slow, pot-burning, boiling-hot way of doing things. 

RK: I also think the mask itself is such a perfect symbol for all of these white people who feel that there are all these things they’re not allowed to say—aka racist things. It’s kind of this perfect symbol for feeling like they’re supposed to be quiet and cover their mouths. 

DE: Right. And there’s so much that’s so analogous about the Trump era that I could never have seen coming. So many strange forces—and so much ignorance, hatred, racial tension, homophobia—all of these things that we California liberals thought were dying quickly off. I spent time at Trump rallies as a reporter trying to figure out exactly what was happening, how this could have happened. I was surprised just how much hatred and homophobia was still out there, and I think that’s the function of this San Francisco bubble I live in. 

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Inside the Souvenir Museum with Elizabeth McCracken

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Elizabeth McCracken’s career is a steady and unassuming success. This may be due in part to her lack of interest in self-aggrandizement. “I haven’t been a public librarian myself for more than 10 years now,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “but I retain what I like to think of as an air of civic acceptance.” And indeed, she does—she’s unpretentious, kind, and less concerned with a bust being rendered in her honor so much as cataloging other figures.

McCracken has written six books and won a PEN Award, the Story Prize, and been both a finalist and longlisted for the National Book Award. Nonetheless, she’s not exactly a household name. Now the 54-year-old is preparing for the publication of her short story collection The Souvenir Museum.
When asked what characterizes her work, McCracken, who teaches fiction at University of Texas at Austin, pauses to give the question real thought—and to let her cat out. “Well, there’s always a cat in my books,” she says, sitting back down in front of an ajar wooden dresser. “I also tend to write about eccentrics. I’m interested in people who are different because of pure bloody-mindedness. People who do not feel obliged to conform, people who don’t necessarily feel the same societal…” She laughs at herself. “Now I’m sounding pretentious, and I can’t stand the sound of my voice. I said ‘societal.’ God. Why am I expounding on this?”
Reassured that she’s been asked to expound and is not being pretentious, McCracken concludes, succinctly, “I’m interested in people who are emotionally different.”
Her bloody-minded eccentrics are on full display in The Souvenir Museum. And they are aware of their place in history. In the story “It’s Not You,” for example, the narrator looks back on a stay at a hotel when she was heartbroken and had an encounter with a famous radio psychologist. But the retrospective narrator warns: “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.” In the title story, the narrator muses on the meaning of souvenirs: “Souvenir: a memory you could buy. A memory you could plan to keep instead of being left with the rubble of what happened.”
This theme of time lost pervades McCracken’s work—as does a sense of mirth over life’s ephemeral nature. That the title story of her new collection takes place at a real souvenir museum is also no coincidence: McCracken and her family collect antique knickknacks, and they are clustered throughout the house. The author clearly treasures the long-lasting. She’s been with her agent, Henry Dunow, for more than 30 years, and she’s long been married to playwright and novelist Edward Carey.
“There’s no author I cherish more,” Dunow says. (The author Ann Patchett must feel similarly, since, as she once told NPR, McCracken is her favorite—and often only—early reader.) The author-agent match was made when McCracken was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Dunow was a fledgling agent. They began their careers together and have stayed loyal to one another ever since.
“After all this time, I’m still in awe of her,” Dunow says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that I would recognize an Elizabeth McCracken sentence from a mile away, so singular and distinctive is her prose, so unlike anyone else writing today. She has a way of putting things that is entirely her own: an earthy, pungent way with language; a sly and feisty wit; a piercing insight expressed with such precision it might make you smile, shake your head, or even gasp.” And, he adds, “an array of characters you could not meet anywhere else.”
Despite mostly writing fiction, McCracken also put her own character on the line with her aforementioned memoir, which Reagan Arthur (then at Little, Brown) published. The moving book is about the death of her first child, whom she lost, stillborn, at nine months. Amazingly, the book was written as she literally nursed and rocked her second child (born a few years later) in her lap.
The memoir grew out of McCracken’s urgent need to process her still-present grief coinciding with the arrival of her new bundle of joy. She goes back to the raw aftermath of the tragedy, writing, “At that moment I felt so ruined by life that I couldn’t imagine it ever getting worse, which just shows that my sense of humor was slightly more durable than my imagination.”
This experience appears to help McCracken keep things in perspective, and to stay extremely productive. During the pandemic, she’s felt an obligation to make the most of her writing time, which she notes is an immense privilege in itself. “I always have the sense when I’m working on something that I’m aware of what I will regret in the future,” she says. “Because I had a semester’s leave this year during quarantine, I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I couldn’t get work done during that time.”
And so McCracken and Carey rented a shared space; one would write while the other stayed home with the kids. “I’m all about avoiding the self-loathing I can avoid,” she says. “There’s plenty of self-loathing I cannot, that is coming for me one way or the other. But getting work done is one of the arenas in which I can mitigate it.”
When she was teaching, McCracken also saw the many small treasures to be unearthed under these unusual circumstances. “I found it quite dear to see my students on screen,” she says. “The very shy people in class were less shy. I found, at the end of the class, watching everybody disappear, sort of unbelievably poignant. There was one guy who was always the last person to click away. It was very sweet.”
Asked to predict what kind of trends in fiction this pandemic era might bring, McCracken says she thinks we might at first see many books set right before the coronavirus hit, until writers gain more perspective and comfort with the subject matter.Inside
“After 9/11,” McCracken says, “a ton of fiction writers I know, including me, went, ‘We can’t write fiction anymore. Nothing that we could write could speak to this moment.’ We were like, ‘We’re going to be poets.’ Then everybody, I don’t even know how long it took, was like, ‘No, actually, we didn’t mean it.’ The human mind’s ability to forget atrocities is impressive. We want to write.”
Bonus Links:
The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken
‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2008: Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2018: Elizabeth McCracken

The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

I Always Write in the Past: The Millions Interviews André Aciman

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In his new collection of essays, Homo Irrealis, André Aciman contends with the state of mind we spend most of our lives in: the irrealis mood. Aciman defines this mood as “a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen”—that is, “the might-be and the might-have-been.” It is a mood sometimes called fantasizing, or nostalgia, but it is really more multifaceted, informing our experience of art, desire, and even our own mortality.
The Millions spoke with Aciman about the collection and how it blends the autobiographical with artistic criticism—all while circling around this particular mood.
The Millions: Do you think that writers, in particular, contend with the irrealis mood?
André Aciman: I do think that writers can focus on it more. It doesn’t mean that they suffer from it more. I used to work on Wall Street for a while, and people on Wall Street follow those ticker tapes—they’re very much in the present. But you mention the irrealis mood to them and they will say, “Oh, yeah, of course, I live there.”
There’s no way you can avoid it, but it’s not a negative at all. It’s a way of basically adding a dimension that we don’t normally know how to speak about. We call it fantasizing, but how about, “What might happen that already did happen once, or could have happened once, but never did? But would it happen again? Would I know how to seize that opportunity once it comes back, if it ever comes back?” These are questions that we have every single day in varied guises.
For example, I was sent to write an article on a particular square in Paris. But it was only in coming back to New York that I could write about what Paris was for me. And I captured something about Paris in that piece that people say to me, “Oh yeah, that was really Paris. You captured Paris.” No, I captured my memory and my fantasy of Paris. I always write in the past.
TM: So living and writing from the irrealis mood extends our sense of time and each experience?
AA: Perhaps. But eventually, whatever you write can sometimes displace what actually happened. And that happened to me. I was writing about a scene in Egypt when I was a boy. Eventually, I went back to Egypt and wanted to walk down that street, which I describe very accurately in my book. I couldn’t remember if I actually made up that street, and I can no longer know. Writing has a way of overwriting the “document” of our lives.
Maybe that’s why we write. Life may start making sense as you write, but it’s an artificial construct. Your real life does not necessarily make sense, if you think of it. Your career makes sense. Your parents make sense. Your love life makes sense. But the life itself, as it has been organized, is just a series of fluke incidents. Plus, even if you swear to every god you know that what you’re writing is exactly as it happened, the fact that you use a particular adverb—God, you’ve already colored everything! So in writing truth, the act of writing already changes things, even if you swear the story is factually true.
TM: As you write in Homo Irrealis, “It’s a mirage of the world that artists long to hold.”
AA: Every work of art is also implying something that it cannot quite get itself to say. The critic’s job is to see what that implication is and to let it speak, even if it’s taking a risk. Even if it is very, very specific to me, good criticism has to address somebody else. In good criticism, I must make space in my sentence for somebody else to sort of slip in and find their own voice in my voice.
TM: Do you think writers fear death more? And that’s why they have to get that “organized” version of life down?
AA: I just think writers talk about it more. But nobody really believes that death is part of life. Have you ever heard that one? “Death is a part of life, you’ve got to accept that. You know, it happens.” No. That is a big, big, huge, erroneous, shameful mistake. It’s a mistake that God didn’t even foresee. Look what you did, God—we’re going to die! It’s a terrible thing.
The worst part of death, as I write in one of the essays, is that you will forget the people you love, which is the worst thing that could happen. I’m going to forget my children. That’s what happens when you die. They may remember you, but you will forget them. That’s almost like a crime in itself. And every day that passes by means that you’re closer to the rendezvous.
Art is a way of saying, “Carry this, don’t lose it. It has me in it. It’s better than me.” Writing can sometimes allow us to organize our lives and to give ourselves the kind of chronicle that our real lives cannot have. You can’t put the pieces together in real life—they just don’t fit. But on paper they can. The paper does things to life. It kind of argues for you—for a better version of your life.
TM: Yet even once you’ve done that, you might find yourself returning to revise that version of your life later on.
AA: On one hand, I like to say to people, “Don’t bother me about my adolescence and my childhood. It’s out in paperback now.” That resolved it. Guess what? A week or two later, the same themes just resurface again.
If you’ve ever suffered from obsession, such as obsessing over someone, at some point, you say, “Okay, it’s over and done with. I found out who this person really is—a disgusting human being. I have no respect for them.” Then, two weeks later, you start fantasizing about them again. What’s going on? You wrote a story about it. You put it out in paperback. And now it’s back. That’s the story of my life. The same things come back constantly.
If you look at the stuff I’ve written in my life, it’s all very much the same. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, like, one song they kept composing and recomposing every single time in a different way. But it’s the same song. That’s all great writers, I think, and all great composers. They are composing one or two ditties and that’s it. The rest is just variations—profound variations.
Bonus Links:
Writing Isn’t a Career, It’s a Mission: An Interview with André Aciman
Bridge Life: On André Aciman’s ‘Enigma Variations’
In Search of Lost Dream Time: Two New Books by André Aciman
Ivy League from the Outside: Andre Aciman’s ‘Harvard Square’
Journeys to the Past: André Aciman’s ‘Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere’

The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Complicating Consent: The Millions Interviews Katherine Angel

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When I read Katherine Angel’s first book, Unmastered, I badly craved the experience she described: A feminist enamored with a dominant man, analyzing the power dynamic and its eroticism from multiple angles. I was astounded by Angel’s brain and how clearly she articulated nuances of desire I understood so acutely, but hadn’t yet experienced outside my own fantasies. Years later, I find myself on the other end of a similarly gendered relationship, having also written a book about the experience
So clearly, Angel’s work has had a big influence on me. And that impact continues with her new and very important book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Mar., Verso). This nonfiction tour-de-force is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring themes of consent, power, sex, and the Me Too movement.. This is the kind of book that seeks not to create dichotomous binaries, but to complicate the narrative.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again certainly merits further conversation, and I was lucky to be able to have one with the author herself. 

The Millions: Why do you think the current discourse around consent is shortchanging many of us, perhaps especially women? 
Katherine Angel: Well, first of all, let me just say I’m a supporter of consent education. It’s obviously completely crucial that consent is respected and is taught as part of education starting from a young age. But I feel very disturbed by the way in which in some of that consent rhetoric, the onus is placed yet again on women to embody a certain kind of behavior, and a certain kind of personality —somebody who’s explored their sexuality and found out what they want, and is able then to communicate that without fail to sexual partners. But it can be very difficult to speak confidently and clearly about your sexual desire. Expression of sexual desire gets used against women, especially women of color, in courts of law. 
The implication of some of the consent rhetoric is that we can only be safe from violence if we know what we want. And the truth is, we don’t always know what we want — not least because a misogynistic culture makes that difficult. Self-knowledge is something we like to insist we have in our culture. But the fact is, we don’t. And my worry is that in insisting on it, we make women’s safety a condition of their own states. And I think that’s a sort of a strategy for risk management — but I think we should name it for what it is. It’s risk management. It’s not sexual violence prevention. 
TM: The way we’re thinking about consent mostly in these very legalistic terms of, “You either gave it or you didn’t” also reinforces, I think you’re saying, this very contractual idea of sex. That it’s a scarce resource women are withholding, and men are asking for, right? 
KA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, contractual sexual relationships can be very important. For sex workers or for BDSM sex— there are all kinds of contexts in which the idea of a contract is actually what protects people. However, my worry is with the way in which a legal concept has come to sort of stand-in for what I think is a much wider kind of ethical conversation about not just sexual interactions between people, but interactions in general, where we have to contend with power dynamics. We have to contend with the “otherness” of the other person who might want something different from us and we have to negotiate our own desire in relation to another person’s desire. 
There is sex that is bad and not strictly assault, but that’s not a reason to handwave that away, as I think some critics do. On the contrary, it’s a reason to say, “Okay. What is it that makes sex bad? Why do so many, women especially, experience depressing, painful sex? And why is that something that the culture seems so resigned to? So, I want to acknowledge the importance of the legal conversations, but to say that conversation must not take the place of something much wider and deeper in terms of our cultural preoccupations. 
TM: As you say, any sexual relationship is really about power. And any power relationship is really about sex. 
KA: Right. There’s no sexual relationship in which individuals aren’t dealing in the excitement of feeling one’s own power, and the power of the other — feeling one’s self vulnerable. And that is also true for men. I think a lot of the harm that’s done in the world is done through men’s denial of their vulnerability — and also women’s collusion with that denial. I mean, women can hurt men during sex too, if we want to. Genitals are very hypersensitive parts of their bodies, and it’s also very easy to hurt men psychologically and emotionally. Men undeniably commit the majority of violence. But we all sometimes collude in this kind of denial of men’s own vulnerability. And I think that denial is often at the heart of men’s own sadistic feelings towards women. 
My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we wouldn’t have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our own desires or very inflexible contracts, or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, and unfortunately, it’s also what makes it very risky. 
TM: I love your utopian vision. Of course, I can see the critique that is a privileged one, right? 
KA: Yes. It’s obviously really important to acknowledge that very, very few people have the luck and the privilege to be able to kind of experience that vulnerability, even fleetingly. Because the reality is that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately subject to sexual violence. Men worldwide are punished for not being masculine enough, and that’s not even to mention the violence and discrimination trans people face. 
So, all those things are in the mix, such that for most people, touching that vulnerability is just not an option. But I suppose the thrust of my book is that I really want us not to give up on that hope anyway, and I want our feminist rhetoric not to collude with resignation. And that’s why writing about this kind of stuff is really frightening, because you’re unleashing something very subtle into a really unsteady terrain, where there’s a lot of trauma.
TM: And there’s sort of this pressure when you experience bad sex or sex you’re not sure is assault, to then categorize it. But that pressure is furthering a certain kind of patriarchal, either/or mentality of, “things can’t be subtle and fluid, and you have to decide who’s bad and who’s good.” It’s interesting that the danger I feel in writing down my own story is coming at me from both sides. I’m afraid of the trolls and the misogynists, and I’m also afraid of the Twitter court of public opinion and upsetting those who feel I’m somehow betraying the cause by expressing my ambivalence about whether I was assaulted or abused or consented. 
KA: Yes. And, I mean, on the one hand, consent is the bare minimum for good sex. But it doesn’t guarantee good sex. Consent is just consent. It’s dangerous to inflate it into enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things are different. Agreement to sex is just agreement to sex. So, that’s the kind of the legal side of it. But beyond that, we should really be listening to what makes so much bad sex possible. And that these very constrained horizons for women about how much pleasure they can expect, how much joy they are entitled to? How much sexual exploration they’re invited to play with. 
The world really caters to male heterosexual desire. It doesn’t cater to women’s sexuality. When it addresses women’s sexuality, it tends to do so in ways that kind of re-inscribe this sense of punishment and guilt and responsibility. And the flipside of that is that male desire is represented overwhelmingly in terms of kind of conquest, and sort of joyless satisfaction. And that’s also why sex is often bad for the women who sleep with them, because I don’t think men are well-served by that. I don’t think men are encouraged to explore the unknown in themselves and the vast kind of breadth of sensations they might be capable of. And that kind of narrowness leads to unpleasant sex for women, because it’s so often so focused on such narrow kind of physical parameters. 
So, I really think it’s about on the one hand, like, really taking seriously that very basic kind of consent education. But on the other hand, really trying to think imaginatively about what ideas we might try to loosen and what kind of unknown sort of experiments and pleasures we might allow ourselves if we weren’t so intent on closing sex down.