November 01, 2011
I’ve been a fan of Aimee Parkison’s from the moment I read her short story, “Baroness with Green Eyes,” which she submitted to Other Voices magazine something like twelve years ago. Her award-winning collection, Woman with Dark Horses, had not yet come out from Starcherone Books, but the way Parkison wove formal experimentalism with intense characterization and psychology let me know immediately that she was a writer with something new to impart, who could titillate both the brain and the emotions in equal measures. Her story in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, “Cradled,” is similarly complex, its narrator one of the most damaged and damaging, yet also perhaps willing to go the furthest for love. I was thrilled to recently blurb Parkison’s forthcoming collection—this is a writer whose ruthlessly beautiful unpacking of gender and desire should truly be experienced by a vast explosion of readers. I feel fortunate to have been able to encounter her work way back when, and to pick her multi-faceted brain a bit further here . . .
TNB: You’re one of the contributors to a book the entire premise of which is women writing sex from male characters’ points of view. On a scale of 1-10, exactly how nervous does this make you, in terms of every male critic on the planet potentially pointing a finger at you and your co-writers and deriding you for “getting it wrong?” In a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (or wait, is that the reverse?) era, what would possess you to dare to try and . . . gasp . . . understand the other gender between the sheets instead of just throwing up your hands in helpless disgust like a good sitcom wife and saying, “Men! Who knows what they’re thinking?”
AP: A very nervous 10. Writing fiction always makes me nervous – whether I’m writing about sex or anything else. Sex is complicated to write about, but so is every other human emotion. What makes sex more challenging to write about is that so many people are fascinated by it but also have so many hang-ups, and that’s often where the fascination comes from but also the strongest desire.
When I first read about the anthology and its concept, I remember thinking – oh, this will be so fun to write. Then, I sat down to write and kept throwing the pages away. I realized how difficult it would be, especially because part of the challenge was not to shy away, but to write in a way that was as explicit, as convincing, as open, and as honest as possible to the male character’s sexual experience.
TNB: Sex is a fundamental human urge, and at its best brings human beings closer together. Is it easier or harder to write from the perspective of a man having, chasing, or desiring sex than it is from the perspective of a man, say, going about the other business of his daily life? Is sex the great equalizer? And if so, why do so few literary writers–male or female–seem to focus on it?
AP: Sex is a great equalizer, much like love, death, and hunger. For a fiction writer and reader, it’s also a “point of view” challenge — a real creative risk that takes a leap of faith, moving from the mind of the reader to the mind of the point-of-view character and back. When you’re reading about hunger, if it’s well written, you should feel hungry. When you’re reading about pain, if it’s well written, you should hurt. When you’re reading about sex, if it’s well written, you should be feeling those same emotions. I think that’s what makes it so uncomfortable to write about sex. . . because the process of writing is connected to the process of reading, and the desire moves from one mind to another.
Few literary writers write about sex because “serious” writers don’t want to be dismissed as writers of “erotica,” which is usually labeled as writing that exists for an audience that wants to “get off” by reading fiction. The myth is that the “literary” audience, who wants to appreciate great literature and “serious” fiction, doesn’t want to read about sex, but this myth is changing because the contemporary literary audience is becoming much more open minded than in the past.
However, some magazines and presses have this weird “mainstream” verses “porn” thing, so that conservative publications do not feature explicit stories about sex. This is probably the same reason why there’s a strong divide between porno films and Hollywood films. People define the audience so differently that actresses are very particular about what types of films they will be associated with because of the judgment and labels that come with certain roles for certain audiences.
I think that’s why so few literary writers seem to focus on sex. It’s a risk because it might seem like the work “isn’t right” for the literary audience. However, Men Undressed tries to break those boundaries by providing serious fiction about sex and desire – something that might appeal to many different types of readers – the sophisticated literary audience and also readers who like erotica and want to read sex in a new way.
TNB: Tell us about “your” man in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. What drew you to him, and why did his story lead to the figurative or actual bedroom? If you had the opportunity to have sex with this guy (presuming he is straight and you are straight), would you?
AP: My story’s protagonist narrator is secretly in love and in lust with his best friend Richard, a sexual predator of women, a sex addict, and a “genius with olive green eyes.” I was drawn to the protagonist’s story because his desire was so painfully exquisite. He was in love with a man who desired to possess beautiful women, so he had to learn how to become one.
TNB: Many readers have come to Other Voices Books asking if we will now be publishing a follow-up anthology entitled Women Undressed, in which make writers explore female sexuality. Although male writers have actually been doing this to great acclaim and/or controversy for centuries . . . think D.H. Lawrence to Philip Roth to Milan Kundera . . . maybe there is still more to say. If such a book existed, what would you hope that your male literary comrades understood about female sexuality that their predecessors did not?
AP: The “virgin/whore” mentality is just a mentality, not a lifestyle.
TNB: Sexiest male character in all of literature?
AP: Joe from Great Expectations. Don’t ask me why. . . .
TNB: Recently I was listening to a radio show on which they reported a survey they’d done on how old men and women can be and still be considered “sexy.” As you might guess, women’s ages came in younger than men’s, at 44 and 52 respectively. On the one hand, I have to admit that these figures are probably quite a bit better than they would have been twenty years ago, but on the other hand–wow, harsh that in an age when people are routinely living into their 90s, the culture basically asexualizes them for the entire second half of their lives! This smacks of some serious ageist bullshit to me. Tell us about the sexiest, smokingest older person you’ve ever known–male or female–and give us all some hope, will you?
AP: As people get older, they become more attractive if they’ve accomplished a lot with their careers. A “sexy” person who’s in the “second half” of his or her life is someone who’s sexy because the person is really successful, talented, accomplished, and great at his or her job. Talented people doing what they love, that’s smokin’ – I can think of several people, men and women, who are like that. It’s like they catch fire at a certain point in their lives and never stop burning. No one else can hold a candle to their light.