I didn’t read much during the first half of the year. Trying to finish up my own novel left me so exhausted, and at one point, so repelled by the creation of fiction that I could barely even look at a book. Which all seemed very much like something out of O. Henry: I’d started writing fiction because I love to read it and yet found myself unable to read because of what I was writing.
Funnily enough, the book that broke this curse was Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession by Mya Spalter. I picked it up because I aspire to project the appearance of self-possession—fake it until you make it, as they say. It’s a short book designed to remind its reader just how much power our intentions, habits, and rituals assert in our lives. I’m at my most functional when I’m fully engaged with this fact.
I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the idea of taking a full year off from my own life to sleep was so appealing that it made me a little worried. At the time, I was feeling exhausted from writing, from work, from the news, from the bizarre way that time seemed to behave in 2018—somehow the beginning of the year feels like it was an eon ago. And yet, I don’t feel that I’m allowed to waste my own time, which makes me wonder if I suspect it doesn’t really belong to me.
I read two books of poetry this year, the first of which being Maps by John Freeman. As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s a strongly setting-oriented collection, and the focus on location was pleasantly grounding for me, even when the poems dealt with violence, grief, and other difficult subject matter. The second book was a re-read: IRL by Tommy Pico, who has been my closest friend for the last decade and a half. I revisited this book because I miss him—for the first time since we met we are no longer living in the same city; his departure was a quietly cataclysmic event that dominated the emotional landscape of my 2018. I love this book as I love Tommy, who is just as insightful and funny in person as he is on the page.
This year, I finally finished The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I’ve been reading since 2014. It’s a deeply weird book—the devil and his entourage show up in Soviet Moscow to torture the literati class, and Jesus and Pontius Pilate also appear in a few chapters. I doubt I would’ve kept reading it had it not been recommended to me by some good friends of mine whose taste I really like and respect. There was so much affection for me in this recommendation and so much affection for my friends in my desire to see the book through to the end. Which I’m glad I did. As it turned out, I ended up really liking and respecting the novel as well.
I read There, There by Tommy Orange, which made me extraordinarily jealous—I don’t know how someone writes so convincingly from multiple perspectives. I feel I will never be able to do this well, so of course it’s a feature of the next writing project I’m planning. Because of this project, which features a con artist, I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters for inspiration. And I also read Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, because I think I’d like to set it in 1940s New York.
I bought The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling because when I heard her read an excerpt from it, I felt mesmerized by the prose. Kiesling is an arresting writer on the sentence level, which is a talent that makes me as jealous as the ability to write from multiple perspectives. I loved this book because of the way it depicts a mother’s love for her child: unsentimentally, honestly, and intensely. And as a form of love that can be lonely, even though the object of it is always present.
I read XX by Angela Chadwick, which is also about motherhood. I turned 34 this year, and don’t yet have children but want them, so I found myself thinking about motherhood quite a bit in 2018. In the novel, two women, Rosie and Jules, participate in a clinical trial that allows Rosie to get pregnant through a process called ovum-to-ovum fertilization—meaning that they’re both genetic parents to their child. In the world of the novel, as it would be in the real world, this is highly controversial for many reasons, not the least of which being that participants in the trial can only have female children. I love this premise and Chadwick plays it out through characters that are very emotionally compelling.
Earlier this month, I read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, as I was coming home from a trip to London to visit my grandmother, who’d had a small stroke earlier in the year (she’s fine). It is a short, light book about a woman who feels that nothing “normal” (marriage, children, professional ambition) is right for her. Instead, she believes that her reason for being is to serve the needs of the convenience store she works in and its customers. I loved this novel because it made me laugh when I really needed it.
2018 was an excellent year for new books. There were a few others that I remember reading and wholeheartedly enjoying: If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley, Heavy by Kiese Laymon and a galley of Cygnet by Season Butler, which will be out in 2019. I read more than a dozen books in the second half of the year, which is a lot for me because I’m not a particularly fast reader. I read so much because I wasn’t writing, which means my year in reading illustrates something very true about me: I either go all out or I don’t go at all. In 2018, I became inescapably aware of this, and as the year comes to a close, I’m trying to develop better habits that will lead me toward a more balanced 2019. Here’s hoping.
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When it came out in 2005 — midway through my senior year of high school — Brokeback Mountain rocked American culture. For all its critical acclaim and star-studded cast, the media seemed to fixate on the most titillating feature of the “gay cowboy movie:” two men falling in love and having sex. From news coverage to late-night talk shows to viral videos, you couldn’t escape the sophomoric parodies any more than you could the predictable conservative outrage
A decade later, Carol drummed up a respectable amount of excitement of its own. Fans of lesbian pulp fiction were thrilled to see the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt bucking the long history of unhappy endings in stories about lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The fanfare, however, was mostly just that; what little controversy, or heterosexual hilarity, it generated was buried under its accolades and award nominations.
The advancement of American LGBT rights in the decade between these movies is certainly one explanation for the differences in their reception (though I can think of plenty more). Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition. For depicting two working-class men falling in love against the backdrop of rural America, Brokeback Mountain was considered truly transgressive. Ten years later, Carol was merely a long-awaited boon for lesbian cinema.
Regardless, even in 2016, a mainstream movie about gay people isn’t exactly standard, and I was looking forward to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lesbian-revenge fantasy par excellence. A fan of Park since my sister turned me on to the Vengeance Trilogy as a teenager, my lofty expectations for his newest erotic thriller, inspired by Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith, were tempered by my own reservations as a queer movie-goer in the midst of an upswing in mainstream stories about queer people. As movies like The Danish Girl have demonstrated, it’s become popular to render female LGBT experiences — particularly those of trans women — for trendy but toothless Oscar bait. Any follower of Park, however, knows that progressive brownie points are not among his priorities (if you’re thinking about the sexually predatory female prisoner in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, you’ll know what I mean). In his hands, I wondered, would Fingersmith be worthwhile, or would the story just get bogged down in all that male gaze? For that matter, as a white American with a limited knowledge of Korean cinema and culture, would I even be able to tell the difference? As opening weekend approached, I vacillated between high hopes and dismal apprehension.
Naturally, Park delivered with predictable complexity: The Handmaiden managed to meet all of my expectations, both optimistic and otherwise. Intricate and visually stunning, with an airtight cast of expert actors who brought love, lust, and heartache to life with consummate skill and pitch-black humor, it was everything I could have hoped for from Park as a director and writer. Recalling the erotic texts hoarded by the villainous Kouzouki — a Sade-ean nobleman obsessed with Japanese culture, and our protagonists’ greatest enemy — The Handmaiden plays out as a reverse palimpsest. When laid across the first act, the second reveals and then resolves, in the same graceful motion, the story’s dark subtext; is that a heart beating beneath the tatami of subterfuge, or is something far more sinister trapped down there?
Everything in this movie about lesbians was perfect, with the exception of the lesbian sex itself. As the mysterious noblewoman Hideko and her would-be con-artist ladies maid Sookee (played by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, respectively) came together for the first time, my girlfriend and I began to squirm in our seats, and not in a sexy way. The camera bouncing frenetically over their bodies, their first tentative kisses swiftly transform into hysterical scissoring, culminating in an impressive display of immediate sexual mastery, the likes of which are tough to swallow, even when taken into account alongside the film’s other larger-than-life elements. Park’s work in the bizarre has long bordered on the magical, but within this revenge fantasy (in which the second word carries as much weight as the first), it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain genre of “lesbian” porn made for straight men — defined by foreplay-less arousal that somehow morphs into screaming orgasms over the course of a few seconds — and even harder not to snicker at such transparent tourism. In The Handmaiden’s final scene, we watch Hideko and Sookee, again unaided by foreplay, or even a little lube, rapturously inserting fist-sized ben wa balls into themselves before beginning to scissor yet again, the chimes inside them sounding like some victorious invocation of #LoveWinning.
Though impressed by the movie in every other respect, my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater rolling our eyes. What is it with straight people, especially straight men, and scissoring? Among the many sexual acts that queer women perform with each other, this one seems, at least in our experience, to be the one that fascinates them the most. More than strap-ons, fisting, or cunnilingus, it holds a space in the straight imagination that manages not only to reduce us to what’s between our legs, but to even limit the sexual possibilities therein. It was certainly distracting enough to make it difficult for an alternative analysis, one entertaining Hideko and Sookee’s sex as a calculated artistic choice, rather than mere fetishization. Was this highly stylized porniness perhaps in conversation with, or a foil for, The Handmaiden’s themes of Japanese erotica, sexual deceit, or femme resistance to colonialism? Who could know for sure?
It’s a distraction I’ve been mulling over since my very first queer relationship. When I came out, I was living with two straight guys, who were nice enough, for bros. So when one of them began to tease me about scissoring — demonstrating, with the index and middle fingers on both his hands, how two lesbians go about having sex: by repeatedly mashing their crotches together — I took it in stride. He wiggled his substantial eyebrows to show me it was all in good fun, and though I felt uncomfortable, I always laughed it off.
That bro continued to make those jokes until I moved in with said girlfriend a very unadvisedly short time later, and we began seeing far less of each other. By then, my discomfort with his sense of humor had expanded, because as it turned out, my girlfriend and I didn’t actually engage in scissoring (or tribadism, as the act has been known historically). Though curious and confused, our newly queer sex was also exciting and experimental — and yet it never included the very act that the two of us had been reduced to by that man, and many others. I knew it was something that porn actors did, but I also understood that porn didn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.
And that was just the thing: other than porn, there were few cultural resources that I could draw from to learn what this whole queer sex thing was really all about. Desperate for information, I spent my baby dyke years immersed in a variety of queer communities, both online and off. I also assigned myself cultural homework, burning through my college library’s DVD selection of Lesbian/Gay movies. This gave me welcome exposure to indispensible queer cinema like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Happy Together, but I found little enough about the kind of sex that people like me were having.
This isn’t to say that, outside of porn, the practicalities of intercourse are being served up on a platter to young heterosexual people, even these days. But for straight people raised in straight households, almost all examples of intimacy, affection, partnership, romance, and even implicit sexuality are performed by heterosexual adults. In schools lucky enough to have it, sex ed is unrelentingly cisgender and heterosexual — and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond school, the mechanics and textures of acceptable sex that are hinted at, or performed, in the non-XXX discourses that make up our society’s art, religion, and culture, are nearly as straight.
Overcoming the suffocating sense that there is a right way to do sex is daunting for most. For queers, and for queer women and non-male people, it’s especially hard. Whether you’re looking for a model of what to be, or for something less didactic — representation, for example — there still isn’t much out there if you don’t have the benefit of a queer community, or access to queer art, queer literature, and the study and research by and of queer people, all of which is niche by definition. That presence is undeniably spreading in the mainstream, but it’s an uphill battle, and one taking place on a front that was demonstrably fiercer when I was newly queer (which wasn’t all that long ago). Back when the Internet was still relatively new, back before I had discovered the cornucopia of queer experiences to be found in on sites like Tumblr, like many queer people, I had only porn. Some of it was wonderful and eye-opening and educational; a lot of it reinforced oppressive power structures and behavior, which I internalized harmful ways. Either way, it was all I had.
So when, as a baby dyke, my ignorance butted up against the monolithic ignorance of heteronormativity, of the story being told about me and my sexuality through the myths and generalizations and creepy “jokes” of straight people, I was at a loss. Was that bro telling me something true about myself, or something false? Was he seeing me as I was, or was he not seeing me at all? In watching the love story of Hideko and Sookee, by turns tender and tempestuous, unfold over the course of The Handmaiden, I had that same feeling of confusion. Was this attributable to cultural differences, and the whiteness of my own gaze, or even to Art gone over my head? In feeling as if I wasn’t being seen, and therefore taking this story about lesbians all too personally, was I committing an erasure of my own?
Like all rhetoric, the concept of “visibility” tends to flatten the real issues affecting those living on the margins. The public debate surrounding the civil rights of trans people and the assimilation of national LGBT organizations (which despite their growing power seem loath to serve the interests of anyone other than white and cis gays) are just two of the many issues that counteract the often overwhelming mandate to be seen. In the 21st century, “We’re here, we’re queer!” feels less like a rallying cry, and more like an exhausting redundancy.
This isn’t to say that visibility, a humanization of us in the general culture, hasn’t benefitted certain queers (in many ways, myself among them). But for others, that being seen is not always a blessing, especially when it doesn’t come with other tangible benefits. When I think of the maelstrom of anger targeting trans teens who just want to use the bathroom, or of Chelsea Manning’s nightmarish struggle for humane treatment, let alone gender-affirming medical care, I’m reminded of Michel Foucault: “Visibility is a trap;” at the very least, it’s a mixed bag. Still, ask me to choose between a man threatening to rape the gay out of me and an immature college boy who can’t imagine how queer women might fuck without a dude present, and without hesitation, I’ll take the latter.
As I gradually came into my own as a queer person, absorbing the shibboleths and inside jokes of the various communities available to me, I noticed that for many queer women, scissoring was rarely a neutral issue. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a queer woman exclaim that female frottage is a myth, a fantasy catering to men, and one that betrays straight people’s limited understanding of what sex between two queer people is, or could be: If “normal” heterosexual intercourse means connecting “corresponding” genitalia between a cis man and a cis woman, surely homosexual intercourse between (implicitly cis) women is an attempt to approximate that. Needless to say, scissoring in practice is actually a lot more complex than the crotch-mashing in my bro friend’s “joke,” or even as it’s depicted in The Handmaiden. Having done it myself, I should know.
It’s probably unwise to rely on art for information, let alone representation. It’s probably equally unwise for those who haven’t yet seen this movie to trust my interpretation rather than see it for themselves. My personal distaste for their lovemaking doesn’t outweigh the gravity of Hideko and Sookee’s wrenching toward self-actualization, as Jia Tolentino describes it in her excellent review of the film, but neither, I think, does it negate the movie’s tribadism problem.
Park is known for his earth-shattering plot twists, and The Handmaiden has several. But its greatest maneuver is that it manages to completely to skirt and subvert cliché, and yet simultaneously fall into its trap completely. It turns out that othering, as a machine that makes myths of other people, is also a double-edged sword, an implement far more treacherous than a pair of scissors.
 Although I’d like to be clear that neither his harm nor this reinforcement is limited to pornography as an industry, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]