Photo via Marie Calloway
"I wondered if I should go into his apartment." That line opens Marie Calloway's debut novel, what purpose did i serve in your life. She, of course, does go in, and the following 240 pages are what happens next – which is very little. There is to Marie's casual and prostituting sex scenes, in which she traps the older, richer, more powerful men who set out to trap her, a stiffness, a menace, an elegance and a (never elucidated) mournful quality that reminds me of Hemingway's dialogue. The encounters are not so recognisable as sex in literature, what with the lack of fade-out. What we get instead are the false starts: the times he didn't come, trying to force each other into images or ideas of what should or could be sexy, feeling forced, feeling almost there, feeling disgust, feeling sexy at feeling disgust, feeling disgust at feeling sexy at feeling disgust. He reaches for his camera while she's blowing him and then he changes his mind.
Reviews and comments about Calloway’s novel (nearly all mistake the narrator for her) are horrendous, and usually start by noting her exploitation of herself by deliberately turning on everyone with such a "jailbait" photo as the cover. It's just Calloway’s face. No makeup, no short skirt, no glass of wine offered to us by candlelight, no expression at all. She looks about 14 – but is it her face's fault if you look at that and think about fucking it?
Notes one commenter, she's "a fame whore, with the accent on the whore." Her "lazy, Penthouse Letters style" is "offending to real writers". C'mon, exhorts Michael Musto in Gawker, when her answers to his questions aren't vixenish enough: "It's not like you're afraid of intimacy."
She's too sexy to be real. Or she's too real to be sexy, and that is even more offensive somehow. Her work is "repeatedly about how she is frigid, how sex is painful to her and how violence turns her on because she was a victim of rape. Just gross… and sad." That's how it is for her. Or was in the time period what purpose covers. A writer is vulgar for depicting an inconvenient-to-hear-about interior life?
Then there are those who theorise Calloway doesn't even exist. She's a male author or authors using a model's picture. Or she does exist, but she made up this alternate self as a character who feels confused about debasement, when she (the author) is merely calculating.
All of which makes me wonder why everyone is so invested in a young, good-looking woman not being complex.
Gene Gregorits wrote in basically the same style years earlier, mixing email exchanges and emotionally dead, drug-fueled, roller-coastered action shots of his affair with at-the-time boyfriended, much older, much more established Lydia Lunch when he was just starting out as a writer. Not one critic or reader called him an "ugly slut" or a homewrecker for it, as they do Calloway. He does get called a narcissist, which is at least action-oriented and self-starting, as far as insults go. It's not a passive recipient of others' energies.
More encouraging critics call her "naive", a "Lolita", an "enfant terrible", and offer unsolicited advice. Molding is grooming. Women writers don't require your direction in describing what they think or feel, old man. And to be sexually detached after rape, to be numb emotionally as your elders blur the line between career help and blowing a load on your face is not “autism”, It's normal. It's just that most of us don't write about it because we're ashamed of ever having been a victim.
"Adrien Brody" is the essay that made Calloway famous, but I think "Jeremy Lin" (I assume that's Tao Lin) is worse. After she sent him a piece of hers to publish, he started enthusiastically bossing her around: how to change her writing style, how to use other writers, how to look at things, how to be. It seems to me that he recognised something giant in her that was still unrealised, and he seized his opportunity to go down in history as The One Who Had Her First. Writing-wise, that is. It's worse to penetrate still-forming talent than a vagina.
Lin invited her to Paris to stay in his hotel, making a writing assignment out of how things unfolded between them. Calloway didn't have the money for the flight. He flew back to New York. They met. He did not want to fuck. He had a lot of excuses, for example, that he'd watched too much porn to have real-life desire anymore. When she said she was attracted to him, he replied, “Who wouldn't you fuck?” and then became enamoured with a real-life skinny blonde, later telling her he only wanted women “under 100 pounds”. Calloway was told by a mutual friend that she didn't understand Lin. “You expect him to see you as a sex object, but he sees you as a person, and as a writer.” Not anymore. He'd seen her as a writer-object. A new person. But now she'd been published – she was used goods... Plus, she'd turned out to weigh more than 100 pounds.
Men and women alike became enraged and judgmental about Calloway turning this dynamic around by exploiting (in print) her exploiters, by laying bare how she had offered up to these predators her own debasement, anxiety, needs and wishes – some of them secretly malicious. It saddened me to hear my hero Chris Kraus's take on Calloway in an interview. Kraus recounts Calloway asking the pseudonymous character Adrien Brody to "take a sex pic with her phone, and he asks, 'Are you going to use this?' and she says no, and then does. That doesn't seem right… I think after the buzz from the ‘controversy' surrounding her work dies away, if Marie Calloway decides to continue writing, she'll figure something else out." Sure, it was hateful for the then-20-year-old unknown to trick the girlfriended 40-year-old intelligentsia kingpin into taking a picture of her face with his cum on it and then publish it. We think and do hateful things in our lives. It's a major part of relationships, at least ones with such vastly unequal power dynamics. A writer writes what we don't want to see, not the things that would make us an excellent human being if we were like how we rewrote ourselves. For Kraus, who is in a very secure financial and career position, to question the very insecurely positioned Calloway's not being nice is akin to natural-born citizens accusing an illegal immigrant of having an entirely unethical character because of the lie about citizenship: the powerless and the unlucky sometimes have to lie. Whether it's abuse in a family, a society, a work environment, they make you say you want it, you deserve it and then you believe it, and you initiate more abuse. The whole thing collapses without your cooperation. Calloway describes having consented and even sought out her own debasement, but to say it plainly like this, to tell the truth about all the lies, is dissent – is an explosion, personal and political.
The interview is not fantastic. Calloway's a writer, not a professional interviewee. She's not suave, not yet at least, but luckily that has nothing to do with how good her book is. While I was messaging Calloway, some guy kept interrupting us with his IM bings bugging me about letting him interview me, after I'd already said "No, thank you" twice.
Image via Tyrant Books
VICE: “No means no” needs to apply to turning down interviews, too.
Marie Calloway: Men would ask me to write for their blog or to do an interview, and if I said no, they would ask my (male) publisher. Like he's the adult in charge of me.
That Huffington Post writer… How did he know your normal demeanor is "coy" and "coquettish", and that you were hiding your true "seductress" self by not attempting to have sex with him... until you finally revealed it by answering his question about your plans that night with saying you had none? How much had you hung out with him before?
Only that one night, when he interviewed me, for maybe two hours. I think he was expressing surprise at me being shy. A lot of people who read my writing before meeting me have said this. But I don't get it. I feel like I write a lot about shyness, alienation. I definitely have trolled a few other times in interviews though certainly. I did an interview with Flaunt where the guy seemed really angry at me as well as mentally unstable so I just gave him a bunch of ridiculous answers. He ended up not using any of it, and ran his own rant about me and my book which I find funny now.
Female critics show you some hate, too.
I often feel like other women attack my work to ensure a distance. Like they're serious thinkers, not little girls. I don't know. I felt hurt/amused by this woman who basically wrote a giant review about the kind of therapy I need. I have struggled a lot with wanting to be an academic or intellectual but can't really accomplish that because of my class background, and, I don't know, stuff goes over my head.
Being smart does no good for writing. In fact, it might hurt it. All you need to be is brave. You write on Facebook and Tumblr stuff like all men should be turned into cat food. I appreciate that the same way I appreciate all these artist guys taking on hating women as a tool, trying to be offensive or shocking to get some action going in people's brains. Making invisible things visible. Most male artists have mummy issues, just as most artist ladies have daddy issues.
I don't know. I guess a lot of men use misogyny in their work to be shocking, but how shocking is it really? Misogyny is all around us. I feel like a lot of writers/artists/philosophers/musicians are nerds (or were nerdy as kids and that never goes away completely), and if the internet has taught me anything, it's that nerds hate women.
Do you hate men?
Sometimes. Really I like a lot of individual men. But I just feel like I'm at a place in my life where I don't get much out of personal relationships with men. All of my friends are female and I don't feel interested in having sex with or dating men anymore. I feel like they have nothing to offer. They take so much. This is after spending my teen and college years being incredibly desperate for male attention at all times. They're more trouble than they're worth.
You are energetically freeing yourself now from men's opinions, yet you are still concerned with being thin and wearing nice shoes. Why?
I think it's impossible to separate what I as a woman want to look like from living in patriarchy. Federici talks about how we are always expected to do all this “work” as women, dieting and buying pretty clothes. We have to do all this work to be capable of being loved. The consequences of not living up to beauty standards go further than people think. See the many reports of overweight women earning less than their thin peers with the same qualifications. You can create a kind of distance and understand that your weight doesn't have anything to do with your worth as a human being, and focus on more fulfilling things. But it's difficult to escape entirely, and we should not be hard on ourselves or others for worrying about weight. Our worries are not frivolous, or because we are vain, but the result of something very real and pressing.
"One trick pony has only one trick," says “bitter anonymous”, who apparently can see into the future and knows that for the rest of Calloway's life, she'll churn out books exactly replicating her first. It feels self-congratulatory, his turn of phrase.
I wish there was a comparable word like emasculate for what people do to a woman by chipping away at her pride and comfort in being and enjoying female qualities. Because if you de-feminise a woman, it's like you'd take away the attributed silliness, hysteri, and cattiness, revealing (finally, if ever, if anything) what's important about her. I guess for now, in this culture, all we have is dehumanise. That's what bitter anon and his cohorts do. "If she thinks people are interested in her as some kind of sociologist rather than soft-porn purveyor," he goes on, "she's delusional. Sorry, love."
I really hate people who say sorry when they're not.
Read more essays and fiction from VICE: