On a cold and bright morning, I walked west along Canal Street to West Broadway, tracing the border of Chinatown and SoHo to meet Mary Gaitskill for breakfast and conversation. We were meeting to discuss her most recent book, This Is Pleasure, a story initially published this past summer in a slightly different form in The New Yorker.
Deceptively slim, the book is a distilled examination of #MeToo through the perspective of two friends—a disgraced former book editor named Quin and his friend, Margot, another book editor. Fired after accusations of inappropriate conduct, Quin’s fate is also sealed by a petition that aims to exile him from all future editorial work. Although his friends have long known of his dangerously playful conduct, they always found a way to ignore it. However, at the point of his dismissal, they find themselves confused. They’re infuriated by Quin’s lack of remorse or even awareness of his behavior, yet wonder if his punishment is too severe.
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Rather than concentrate on the experiences of the victims, Gaitskill probes the messy emotions felt by those coming to understand that #MeToo is neither a black or white issue. Instead of tackling these questions through nonfiction or essay, Gaitskill chose fiction to consider the disgust and anguish as well as the awkward, unpleasant sympathies felt by the accuser’s contemporaries.
For over three decades, beginning with her groundbreaking 1988 collection Bad Behavior, Gaitskill has championed an unflinching exploration of gender, sexuality and power. When I asked her if, over the course of her career, she felt that impressions have changed very much around these issues, she quickly replied, “No. I don’t.” Rarely breaking eye contact during our empathetic and rigorous conversation, we sometimes disagreed, but always found a respectful way to parse out painfully delicate as well as bombastic experiences and opinions. Our discussion leapt between the fictional lives in her books, our own experiences, those whose lives have been changed by #MeToo, and others for whom #MeToo may never make an impact.
Observer: In conversation with Deborah Treisman of the New Yorker, you talked about the fact that she had wanted to change the word “pain” to “discomfort” in a line of dialogue in which Margot names the hurt Quin causes others. Did she explain why she wanted to swap out the words?
Gaitskill: I don’t remember why or why not. It may have been that she thought it was too strong. It may have been that in that kind of conversation—a social conversation—just to touch on something that’s painful to somebody isn’t real pain. But I don’t know; to me, it’s a subtle kind. But even if that’s what it is, it’s still pain. To me discomfort and pain are two different things.
One feels more clinical and not avoidable, but manageable. Pain leaves a traumatic wound. Discomfort is something you can work around.
Yeah, when I feel uncomfortable, I generally am not quite sure what I feel. I have a pretty high tolerance for discomfort because to me it’s often just an amorphous feeling. I’m not sure what it really is that I’m feeling and often, in my experience, I don’t actually have any reason to be concerned. It’s just kind of a feeling of what is this, what’s happening? I’m not sure where to step. Whereas painfulness is more…no, I don’t like this.
Yeah, it’s acute. And I think it gets to the heart of what your book is dealing with, which is whether or not there’s a distinction between lasting, traumatic pain or temporary discomfort in professional settings as well as our personal lives. Do you remember when you first heard about #MeToo? How did you know that you wanted to write about it?
It was weird because I heard about it right after my mother died, which is not relevant to the big picture, but for me it was. I couldn’t fully respond to it because so much of my emotion was being taken up by my mother’s death, which was prolonged. But how I really heard about it was because someone that I knew…he hadn’t lost his job at that point, but his position was under threat. This was right at the beginning. The Harvey Weinstein story was out, but #MeToo hadn’t really turned into a movement at that point.
I didn’t think about writing fiction about it right away, that that came months later, because I felt a lot of confusion about #MeToo. I didn’t have a straightforward response to it. From what I saw on social media, I didn’t like it because it was just too easy for people to attach themselves to this very large pool of grievances in a way that, for me, made it very hard to sort out. And I’m sure a lot of people feel this way; it couldn’t be just me. It was confusing that someone whom I had been friends with was in the middle of this and it was hard for me to sort out how I felt.
And had you known that he behaved in a way that was slippery?
I did know some of it, but I didn’t know the extent of it. In fact, I had actually had a conversation with him about it before #MeToo. I said, “Look, you’re picking the most vulnerable woman in the room. And you just happened to do it when you’re standing right next to me.” So, yeah, I did notice that. At that point, I sort of tried to distance myself from the friendship, but then when he got jumped on, my feelings of loyalty prompted me to ask, “Wait a minute, what happened? What do I do?” So actually, in a way, it brought him more close to me because I felt like, yes, he did some bad things. But is this fair? To lose everything?
I said to someone, “An essay is something where you have a clear, rational response and can take a position,” and she said, “In your essays you don’t always do that. You go back and forth.” She mentioned an essay I wrote in the 1990s where I talked about the gap between people saying that we live in a victim culture and nobody wants to take responsibility and the actual difficulty of taking responsibility and how a lot of the people who are saying that, you know, nobody wants to take responsibility, were basing their sense of responsibility on a set of kind of agreed upon norms that had changed, and that wasn’t being taken into account.
But still, the way that I started that essay was by talking from a place of myself being in a situation where I was in a confusing sexual circumstance, had trouble asserting myself, and went along with having sex that I didn’t want to have. And at least in that, from the point of view of writing the essay, I was clear that I didn’t want to have sex. Whereas with #MeToo, it is different. I don’t have that kind of clarity, even necessarily about my relationship with my friend, which I’m still kind of trying to sort out, let alone the hundreds or thousands of situations that I’ve been reading about. So, that’s far more complicated than a situation that I was in back in the 1990s, which I’ve had a lot of time to process.
It was hard for me when I was much younger to say I had sex with people sometimes when I didn’t want to just because I had been raped when I was young, and so I think I realized deep down I was afraid that if I did say no, the person might actually hurt me. I remember very clearly, the first time I did it. I realized what was happening. I was 21, maybe 22. And this guy, he wasn’t threatening me at all. He was just a guy who wanted to have sex. I really didn’t want to. I had to say it in my head, go back and forth. Just saying over and over again to myself…just say it, just say it. Just get it out of your mouth and just say it has nothing to do with him. It probably took five minutes for me to get it out of my mouth. And then, you know, he didn’t, stop. It took more than once. I would have to say it repeatedly, but it was fine. We were friendly afterwards. And I realized from then on I could do it. But I do remember how difficult it was. And so I do understand that. But I just I guess I’m concerned with the enshrinement of the idea that you can’t say no.
From a purely professional level, in my own career, I recognized early on that as a woman, if you’re deeply assertive, you have to accept that you open yourself up to being labeled as intense or a bitch or simply difficult, but for men, that’s not the case. While that’s not the overriding concern of #MeToo, I feel it’s of a piece, because while reading This Is Pleasure, I recognized in Quin a transgressive sense of liberty to be able to be very honest and direct in ways that if women behaved that way, they wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Well, that was another thing that at first I found it hard to understand in #MeToo. When I was of the age that I think most people experience this kind of weirdness from men, in your 20s and early 30s, I didn’t have a job that I took seriously. I sold flowers on the street. I was a stripper. I worked in restaurants. I was an art model, bookstore clerk, a receptionist. So when I would be on the receiving end of some pretty funky type of harassment, I’d think, “This is a strip joint. What do you expect? You’re on the street late at night? What do you expect?” Now, some people say you shouldn’t expect that, but good luck changing that. And even if it was a job I really cared about, I did push back unless I was scared. It wasn’t a crisis for me to quit because there were a lot of other restaurants in town to work in.
So I suppose my thought was: “Why didn’t they push back? I could do it when I was a kid. Why couldn’t they?” And I was a little impatient with people telling me they shouldn’t have to. But then I realized it’s different. If I had gone to college and really wanted to work at The New Republic or Harper’s—a place that I really took seriously where I revered the men who worked there and I’d been reading their work for years—and then people started talking to me like that, seeming to expect sexual stuff from me, that would be different. I would take it differently. And it wouldn’t be as easy to push back the way I would in a restaurant where I can just say, “fuck you.”
It’s a different situation when you have to maintain relationships with people and can’t simply quit. It’s also hard to know at what point we don’t have protection through the legal system. And now, there are some who say that #MeToo has worked to overcorrect certain behaviors, but I wonder how else culture changes? And while certain men are affected by firings, how many other people saw their careers stall or never take off thanks to behavior that’s now being addressed through #MeToo? Your book examines these issues from both perspectives through conversations that aren’t happening as much as they should. Cancel culture has its place, but it doesn’t encourage conversation as much as it makes a point.
Cancel culture means like the person just doesn’t exist anymore—to the extent that you can do that, right?
Well, in the way that you present it in the book, there was a very specific stipulation of the petition that the women had signed demanding that they didn’t want Quin to be hired by any other company.
Yes, that’s right. This is where I do have an opinion. I think if a man is behaving in a way that makes lots of women who work in the same place really unhappy, they have the right to complain and the management, the company has the right to get rid of him. He’s become a liability, basically. I can’t quarrel with that. But it seems to be going too far to then try to make it so that nobody else could hire him. I mean, even people like who’ve committed crimes like assault and robbery and, you know, rape, who are in jail, when they get out, there is no movement that says we will boycott you if you hire him.
I heard that brought up somewhere online and the woman who was being questioned about this responded, “Well, they can get a job someplace where they’re pushing a broom. They can go clean up toilets.” I’m not sure how great it is to make an issue of humiliating people for the rest of their life. Was it Audre Lorde, I think, who said “You don’t destroy the master’s home by using the master’s tools?”
I’m not sure what the answer is, but, for example, I heard that Plácido Domingo was banned and can’t perform at the Met now. I don’t know what they did, actually. But to me, in an ideal world, he would be sat down with everybody there and people would actually say, “We love you, we revere you, we’d love to have you singing here. But you can’t treat people this way. These young women adore you. They love you. You’re taking advantage of their love. That’s wrong. It’s really deeply wrong. Whoever you are, you cannot do this. And if you keep doing it, you can’t be here anymore.” Maybe they did that. But I doubt it.
I just don’t know how many people caught thanks to #MeToo would kind of submit to that conversation.
They might not have. You know, you were saying that women, if they express themselves directly, are seen as vicious. I’ve definitely suffered from some of that. People thinking that I’m mean when all I’ve done is say something direct. I don’t know how much that has happened. I can’t say for sure, except I even feel it from other women sometimes.