I’ll start with the short and fun stuff, and if you have the time or interest you can read my long-winded thoughts at the bottom.
What I’m doing: Depending on your ability and the safety, I’d recommend volunteering in your community in honor of MLK Day.
What I’m watching: I finished season 3 of Succession and immediately spiraled over it. I also read the Jeremy Strong profile in the New Yorker in December and it was one of my favorite pieces all year.
What I’m reading: We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba. One of my resolutions for this year was to pick up more non-fiction, and I’m expanding my leftist mental library— this felt accessible enough to start with, and like an appropriate choice for MLK Day.
What I’m listening to: Anna Marie Tendler’s playlist, Rooms In The First House, and my friend Emma’s Howl’s Moving Castle themed playlist.
What’s on my podcast rotation: Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel. The format of the show, a single-session with a couple, is so fascinating, but I’m most interested in Esther’s own commentary and viewpoint in the asides during the taping.
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately:
I read Kink at the end of 2021 (or rather, for several months over the course of 2021, finally finishing in late December). It’s a short story anthology with a star-studded cast of literary fiction contributors (Roxane Gay, R. O. Kwon of The Incendiaries) that made its rounds with the literary booktok girlies. There are certainly things that worked for me. I’m thrilled that more popular fiction is exploring the relationship between queerness and kink, and Carmen Maria Machado and Larissa Pham contributed some of my favorite stories in the collection. Largely, however, I found Kink to be unforgivably boring.
I can’t quite parse out why. Maybe it’s trying too hard. There are lines like “Yes, he would have to tell Pilar, maybe when she was tied up, belly down, facing away from him.” in reference to a secret childhood sexual relationship with a half-sister. There are paragraphs devoted to the eroticism of cutting into a torte. There is a short story that masquerades as kink and is mostly about stealthing and rape. There is shock and shame and anguish and anger and lots of trauma and disgust and melancholy and some pleasure and very little peace.
To be honest, I just think the traumatized-to-kinky pathway is well traveled; Freud made an entire career out of it. To turn kink into high-brow spectacle to intellectualize strikes me as so… ordinary. And, for all of the anthology’s efforts, sterile. It’s almost funny because the editors open with a note emphasizing that this anthology is intended to avoid all of the above critiques. (There’s also a vaguely self-congratulatory note in the intro about how something like this hasn’t been published in a long time, which is just untrue.)
Shortly after Kink I read a spectacularly filthy erotic historical romance anthology called Rake I’d Like to F… featuring several heavy-hitters in romance (Sierra Simone, Adriana Herrera, Joanna Shupe). It also features mostly queer pairings and groups, and explores similar themes of kink, power, sex, and pleasure. Reading it so closely after Kink put my brain in overdrive and all of a sudden I couldn’t stop thinking about how romance never really gets its flowers for doing the hard work of peeling apart the fruits of desire, pleasure, and intimacy.
While reading RILF it was abundantly clear to me that these authors had started taking bites of something rich and full, plush and decadent— what does it feel like to want, what does it mean to feel good, what does it mean to be one person in the public sphere and entirely another in private, what does it mean to cede power willingly to someone you trust, what does it mean to have power over another person, what does it mean to give or receive permission to feel, what is kink? Yes, RILF is intended to entertain and excite, but it’s also insightful.
Maybe it worked for me because the anthology doesn’t shy away from the euphoria of it all. There’s no pathologizing, there’s no plumbing the depths of childhood wrongs that led to this moment, there’s no wretchedness. RILF leaned into every bit of the bodily feeling of pleasure and intimacy manifested by kink. Characters articulate needs (“I don’t see my desire to submit to another as a weakness,”), negotiate boundaries and consent (“He wanted to touch, but those were not the rules.”), and skirt societal convention. There is enthusiasm and bravery and earnestness and uncertainty and gentleness and joy. Even though I only loved one story, liked two more, and didn’t linger on the others, something in the happiness of these stories read as more interesting to me than the apathetic fog most of Kink’s protagonists floated in.
There’s an obvious response to all of this— that RILF and its indulgent viewpoint are less correct about kink or intimacy or sex in the “real world” than Kink, and so my frustration with the latter anthology is founded in larger frustration with the Way Of Things. And sure! I’m not qualified to weigh in on that in any real way but, to be fair, neither book reads as an instruction manual for kink and I certainly like plenty of other literary fiction. I just find it disingenuous to suggest that seriousness is inherently more truthful, or that joy is always uncomplicated.
So here’s what I’m thinking lately: pretentiousness is boring, and so was Kink.
um.. this was wonderful as always. i am obsessed with “Largely, however, I found Kink to be unforgivably boring.” i love the way you write these posts and your insight about pretentiousness and litfic and romance is, again, incredibly important to me. -reni