(This is a distillation of a chat Ruth and Emily had about Maidenhead when they first read it.)
Emily and Ruth disagree about a few things:
1. “Unnatural” nail polish (Emily: loves; Ruth: “tacky”)
2. lakes (Ruth) vs. oceans (Emily)
We also had really, really, unprecedented-in-Emily-Books-history-different reactions to Maidenhead, chronicled below.
Ruth: Can you tell me more about Maidenhead? I finished it today.
Emily: I dunno, something Nakadateish in it really resonated with me.
Ruth: I’m not sure what you mean. Laurel Nakadate always seems in control, even when she is exploiting herself, this felt exactly opposite to me. Maybe you’re taking about another element of her work though?
Emily: Hmm. I guess I was talking about the parallel currents of power and vulnerability that run so strong in teenage girls.
Ruth: I see. Yeah, that’s definitely there.
Emily: I really didn’t see it as exploitative or self-exploitative or anything like that …
Ruth: That was maybe not the right word.
Emily: It was discomfiting but not for me in that way. It lost me a bit when it explicitly engaged with, like, theory …
Ruth: I really really disliked that. Here is my least charitable reading: this is porn that is trying to seem like something else by misreading a lot of misogynist ‘philosophy’ and ‘literature.’ I hated the interstitial commentary.
Emily: Whoa, that IS a very ungenerous reading!
Ruth: I thought the writing was okay but not amazing, it relied a lot on titillation, it wasn’t funny (which saves everything for me) …
Emily: I agree with “it wasn’t funny,” but I disagree with you about everything else. I didn’t think it was porn. And I thought the writing was great, actually.
Ruth: I thought the whole master-servant thing was fucked up. A really callow swipe at understanding something that can’t be reduced to some teenager quoting Bataille. ”Bataille’s for boys.” That’s one of the only parts I liked!
Emily: Jeez, ok! Well I really loved the voice. I thought she captured in those first few chapters, before things got convoluted, the mind of a completely sex-crazed teenager. Sex-crazed teenage girl is an interesting protagonist. Like, it’s rare to read anything from the perspective of the person who is usually the object …
Ruth: True, maybe an unprecedented perspective!
Emily: And, you know, that’s one of my “things.”
Ruth: There’s definitely a lot to talk about, and the fact that it is affecting me so strongly (in the opposite way it’s affecting you) I think means there’s something “there.” She’s still an object though, she makes herself one, which is a big twist, but … I mean that’s the thing, right?
Ruth: This is what happens when you make yourself an object.
Emily: Self-objectification: still objectification.
Ruth: And she gets hurt a lot. She doesn’t care but she does. Physically. And the whole thing that is so fucked up about her invoking that master-slave bullshit is that it’s her status that allows her to do that.
Emily: Hey, dumb q: have you read The Story of O?
Ruth: I have. I read it and Andrea Dworkin in the same week!!!! Can you imagine? Why did you bring up Pauline Reage, because it’s so similar?
Emily: Well, in a specific way. I think that book is in some sense not great. But there are reasons why it is on literally everyone’s shelf, however long after its publication.
Ruth: Why is O on everyone’s shelf?
Emily: I’m not QUITE sure. I mean there is an obvious answer, but there are a lot of non-obvious ones.
Ruth: The obvious answer i know, it’s the other ones I’m not sure about
Emily: You say this is porn, but what would you say about the latter part of —oh god I’m blanking — that NYRB classic that’s also by a woman who worked as a pornographer — ahh! Yes: Iris Owens! After Claude. The scene in the Chelsea Hotel! Would you say that was porn?
Ruth: Ah, but that was funny
Emily: But it operated by being titillating. I mean, there was no other plot happening
Emily: Un-erotic erotica is interesting.
Ruth: That was one scene, one extended scene. It was also played for absurdity, clearly skewering something in real life. Plus at that point you’re like ‘bitch is crazy.’ There’s no like glorification of it, or insinuation that this is the way people should be.
Emily: Good points all.
Ruth: I mean, Maidenhead is not porn… . it’s not SOLELY meant to titilate (I say begrudgingly). But i think its other raisons d’etre are pretty flimsy
Emily: I don’t think they’re flimsy! i just think they’re not 100% fully realized. I think it has really important, um, raisons and also she is hugely talented.
Ruth: what are they? what is this book trying to do?
Emily: I wouldn’t even hazard a guess about what the author’s intent was. I went to The New School! I know you’re not supposed to do that! But those first few chapters and the note-perfect non-condescending rendering of a bored teenage girl’s sexual awakening — that will stay with me.
Ruth: I think the voice is strong and unique. But other than that i don’t have much good to say. It fails for me in an interesting way but also an offensive one. ”Offensive!” God, I feel like i’m about to join the christian coalition! Not a feeling I enjoy.
Emily: I wasn’t offended but I see why you were and yeah, it’s something to be concerned about.
Ruth: Let’s think about it for a few days.
(*after ‘a few days’ I (Ruth) realized that the book Maidenhead most reminded me of, in its frankness, its dirtymindedness, its teenage seductiveness/insufferability, is The Rachel Papers. I love The Rachel Papers. Why I had such a negative, disgusted reaction when the same material came from a female point of view is complicated, but I think generally can be chalked up to internalized misogyny/THE PATRIARCHY. Down with the patriarchy!)
"like, theory" — boy, if my professors could see me now!
I am really curious as to how other people responded to this book. I know how I responded and how Ruth responded — and now you do too! — and how Sheila Heti responded. Has anyone else had a chance to read it yet? Tell me what you thought!!