12 Winters Blog

Interview with E. S. Holland: City of Broad Shoulders

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 26, 2015

My wife Melissa and I went to the Chicago Book Expo last December, held at Columbia College, and it turned out to be a great networking opportunity–in fact, greater than we realized at the time. Little did we know that one of the many folks who stopped by our Twelve Winters Press table was scouting publishers for a friend. About a month after the Expo, in early January 2015, I received an email from a woman who had a book she was shopping. It didn’t seem quite right for Twelve Winters Press, but I found her email engaging–for one thing, she was a fan of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, as am I–so I asked her to send me the manuscript. I really enjoyed reading it, but it definitely was beyond the scope that I’d always envisioned for Twelve Winters.

However, Melissa and I were already planning to expand the Press’s mission by establishing a children’s literature imprint, Shining Hall (we published Shawna’s Sparkle in July), so we thought maybe we could expand in another direction as well. After several email conversations with the woman who’d written the entertaining little book, I accepted it for publication, and in the summer we established Maidenhead Hall, a publisher of smart erotica, to bring out the book. At the end of September we proudly released City of Broad Shoulders: An Esmée Anderson Experience (No. 1), by E. S. Holland. The book is available in printKindle and Nook editions.

author image - cropped

I like to publish an interview with my authors upon the release of their books. Normally it’s just a matter of trading emails, but with Ms. Holland’s globetrotting, it proved to be a bit more challenging. What follows is the interview, which has been edited together from emails, Facebook Messenger exchanges, and a phone call (I had to get up a 2 a.m. to catch her, but at least it was in the summer and I was back in bed by 3).

City of Broad Shoulders Front Cover

You’d written and published other kinds of writing, but City of Broad Shoulders is your first piece of erotica, if I’m not mistaken. What motivated you to work in this genre, and what was your inspiration for this particular story?

I’ve always been a writer, and I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t making up stories in my head and jotting them down. But, yes, before Broad Shoulders it’d mainly been poetry and travel writing, with occasional French-to-English or English-to-French translations, mainly of poetry. There were a lot of reasons I wanted to try my hand at adult material—at literary erotica—and not the least of which is the challenge of it. I’ve taken a few writing workshops, and I’ve read a lot of articles and interviews about writing; and it seems universally recognized that writing “sex scenes” is especially tricky. So, on the one hand, I was attracted to the challenge of it. In grad school I went through a Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin phase, and I admired how they had mastered all kinds of narrative, including erotica.

But, quite honestly, I’d have to credit the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon for giving me that final push into the “adult” genre. The books are so bad, so poorly written and so degrading to women (and men too I think), and yet so incredibly popular—I thought there must be a type of reader who is aching for intimate writing, and, if so, they’re surely craving intimate writing that is better than Fifty Shades. I hope they’ll find Broad Shoulders better than Fifty Shades, in many ways.

So, in a sense, City of Broad Shoulders is kind of an anti-Fifty Shades?

Not that I was sitting around writing, sneering at a picture of E. L. James for inspiration, or anything like that. But I know the book had an effect. My friends and I, and especially my writers’ group, talked a lot about the books and then eventually the movie, aghast at how terrible the writing is, and how terrible the messages are that the series broadcasts to both women and men. Because of my profession, I travel a lot, a lot, and for months it seemed that no matter where in the world I was, all these young women were walking around with copies of the books. I’d go into a coffeehouse, it didn’t matter where—New York, LA, London, Paris, Milan—and there would be at least someone reading one of the books. Usually a young woman, often an adolescent, and I had to wonder what lessons they were taking away from the books.

One of my degrees is in psychology, so I couldn’t help thinking what a number the books were doing on the girls’ sense of self, and how it was impacting their budding sexual identities. For many, I’m sure they’d had no real sexual encounters, and probably hadn’t read anything so explicit before—so their introduction (at least their print introduction) to male-female intimacy involved violence, degradation, obsessions, fetishes, and all the unhealthy behaviors were o.k., were forgivable, because the perpetrator was rich and good-looking. And because the young woman thought so little of herself, had such low self-esteem, she mistook his exploitation of her for love.

You shouldn’t have got me started . . .

But I know from other conversations we’ve had that you don’t see your book as being political, as being some sort of polemic against Fifty Shades.

Yes, absolutely. I’m sure Christian and Ana and their fucked-up relationship are lurking somewhere in the background, but really Broad Shoulders is intended to be a fun and funny book. I think the fact that the first-person narrator, Esmée, is a smart, independent, take-charge woman who enjoys consensual, mutually respectful sex is what makes it fun and funny—or at least I hope that’s how readers react to it. That’s how my writer friends reacted to it.

Your writers’ group, who meet at the café, you begin your acknowledgments by recognizing their friendship, and the contribution of sharing the details of their “escapades.” How crucial were they to writing Broad Shoulders?

I can’t overstate how crucial they were. Normally I’d share pretty serious stuff—poetry, and my dabbling at translations, that sort of thing—but one afternoon I showed up with this thing I’d been writing in the voice of this smart-alecky chick, this American with a French name, Esmée. I just had two or three pages, but pretty soon we were laughing and swapping stories (even more than usual). I didn’t quite know what I had on my hands, but over the next several weeks I figured out who Esmée is and what sort of story she wanted to tell. So I let her.

Who is Esmée Anderson? You share the same occupation, which might lead one to conclude she’s you.

She’s a little me, of course, or I’m a little her—and she’s definitely bits and pieces of my writers’ group. After all, she’s pretty experienced for a young woman. She’s done a lot of living (and a lot of loving) for one person. A writer gets to exercise some artistic license.

City of Broad Shoulders is “An Esmée Anderson Experience” number-one, so obviously others are planned. Talk about that if you would.

As you know, I’m planning to write other “Experiences”—there are a lot of stories to tell, and I enjoyed writing the first one. Once I got my sea legs with Esmée, it came together fairly easily, all things considered. Hopefully they’ll find an audience, and hopefully you’ll want to continue to publish them. I like that Maidenhead [Hall] is bringing them out in print as well as Kindle and Nook. My sense is those are different markets. I prefer print, but as much as I travel, my e-books are essential.

Speaking of your traveling, I have to ask, what exactly is “the exotic travel industry”?

It’s basically guiding people off the beaten path—and guiding them back safe and sound. We do all manner of experiences, and it’s never boring; that’s for sure.

Like what, for example? I’ve barely been out of the Midwest.

Let’s see, in just the last year, I’ve arranged two photo safaris in Africa, a diving-with-sharks experience in Australia, a birdwatching hike in the Andes, a pilgrimage to a remote shrine in Tibet—things like that.

Things like that. So how far does your guiding go? Did you dive with sharks?

Like I said, guides have to get clients there, wherever there is, and get them back safe and sound, which means we often can’t fully immerse ourselves in the experience. So, no, I didn’t actually try to pet a Great White or anything—which was o.k. with me. I’m oddly unadventurous for someone who makes her living setting up adventures for others.

E. S. Holland holds degrees in psychology, kinesiology, and comparative literature. She has been an au pair, a university research assistant, and a personal yoga instructor. Since 2012 she has worked in the exotic travel industry. The daughter of parents with careers in foreign service, she has lived all over the world and calls no place in particular home. Under a different name, she has published poetry, travel writing, and translations in small journals, mainly in Europe. City of Broad Shoulders is her first book. (Photos by John Peri)

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The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of “On Being Blue”

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 27, 2015

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, Feb. 26-28, 2015, as part of the panel “Sexual Manners,” chaired by Mariah Douglas, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘A world of bottle-glass colours’: Defining Sexual Manners in Subversive Spaces,” by Bonnie McLean, Marquette University; and “Sex as Border Crossing in Anglophone Labanese Fiction,” by Syrine Hout, American University in Beruit. For other Gass papers at this blog, search “gass.”

The Celibacy of Joseph Skizzen and the Principles of On Being Blue

One of William H. Gass’s first publications was the highly experimental novella (?) Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, which appeared as a special supplement in TriQuarterly literary journal in 1968 and was republished in book form by Dalkey Archive in 1989. The experiment revolves around the titular character Babs Masters, whose sexual history and growing sexual arousal are represented via a variety of signifiers, including bawdy and explicit diction, typographical features and nude pictures.  In fact, the book’s cover features a neck-to-navel photograph of the nude model portraying Babs with the title and author’s name projected onto her pale chest:  the word “Wife” is distorted in the cleavage between her breasts, and “BY WILLIAM H. GASS” runs in a straight line beneath them. Appropriately the back cover features a close-up of Babs’ nude backside above a paragraph-length synopsis of the book which reads in part:  “Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice both her new lover and the reader.”  Every page of the book features either an erotic photograph of Babs and/or sexually charged language, both explicit and implicit.  (As an aside, earlier I called Babs the titular character.  I don’t find that funny, but I wanted to point it out for those of you who are less evolved than I am.)

willie-masters-lonesome-wife1

By Gass’s own reckoning, Willie Masters’ was for the most part a failure.  “I was trying out some things,” Gass said in a 1976 interview.  “Didn’t work.  Most of them didn’t work. . . . Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas. . . .  I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects” (LeClair 22).  It so happens that 1976 was also the year that he published his novella-like essay (or essay-like novella) On Being Blue, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry,” in which he discusses at length various manifestations of the word and concept of blue, especially so-called blue language.  It seems that one of the chief lessons he learned from writing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was that writers should avoid at all cost writing about sex:

Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause, that the full experience becomes finally inarticulate, and that there is no major art that works close in. (19)

He concludes the section by saying “a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing” (20).  What is more, “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form; there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost” (16-17).  In sum, according to Gass, an explicit description of sex is inherently unartful, and the insertion (sorry) of an actual sexual climax in a story counterbalances and therefore diminishes the plot’s narrative climax.  (Since the Louisville Conference is devoted to literature and culture, I will make the rather low-brow observation that Gass’s analysis may be borne out by the number of television series that quickly fizzle after the flirtatious main characters finally have sex, dubbed “the Moonlighting curse.”  Recent examples include Bones, Castle and New Girl.)

Allow me to raise my brow again to critic H.L. Hix, who has suggested Gass’s fiction writing since Willie Masters’ “can be read as an attempt to restore events to proper proportion” (72).  Writing in 2002, Hix cites Gass’s mammoth novel The Tunnel in particular.  I agree with Hix’s assessment.  The purpose of this paper is to suggest that Gass’s most recent—and presumably his final—novel, Middle C, is an even more overt representation of the principles that the author delineated in On Being Blue.  In 2013’s Middle C, the protagonist Joseph Skizzen has several opportunities to pursue romantic relationships with female characters, but in each case he retreats into his safely insulated academic life as a professor of music theory.  What is more, Gass frequently alludes to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, and the sin-bearing serpent could be seen as sex attempting to slither its way into Gass’s narrative and corrupt the pristine text.  Indeed, in On Being Blue Gass discusses the “five common methods by which sex gains entrance into literature . . . as through French doors and jimmied windows”; and the “commonest, of course” is “the direct depiction of sexual material—thoughts, acts, wishes” (10).

Middle C keeps its focus on Joseph Skizzen from his birth to retirement age, and twice in Joey’s youth older women attempt to seduce him.  Joey’s reaction in both cases suggests perhaps the level of alarm serious writers ought to exhibit when their narratives begin to flirt with describing sexual scenes.  The first such episode in the novel involves Joey’s college French teacher Madame Mieux, whose “laughter preceded her like a warning siren” (100).  In the word siren, of course, Gass describes Madame Mieux as both a temptress and a warning.  Joey’s grades are mediocre, but Madame Mieux invites him to her house on the pretense of listening to music, promising him a “trombone concerto,” and Gass writes, “He made a mistake.  He accepted her invitation” (103).  Madame Mieux beckons him into a room filled with pillows, where she is lying at its center smoking a joint.  She invites him to make himself “comfy,” but instead he flees from her.  Outside, “[h]e realized already that he was not embarrassed or repulsed, he was terrified, and that terror was not the appropriate response:  amusement maybe, disdain perhaps, a sense of superiority or a feeling of pity” (104).  Metaphorically, Joey is akin to the writer who is tempted to narrate a sexual scene but saves himself from the absurd—what Gass calls “Madame Mieux’s pillow party.”

Later, Joseph lands a job as a librarian at a public library run by Miss Marjorie Bruss, a middle-aged woman who also has a room to rent next to her house, so she becomes both Joey’s boss and his landlady.  Marjorie gets in the habit of leaving milk and cookies for Joey in his room.  One night, Marjorie comes to him wearing only a robe.  Gass writes, “She seemed zipped into a towel, her wild hair terrible to behold, and sat upon the bed with the familiarity of one who has made it” (286).  Joseph stares at her, “transfixed.”  She rises from the bed, telling him that he is a “[g]ood boy . . . [who] deserve[s] a nice surprise.”  She then bends over Joseph and puts her hands on his face.  Joseph says, “Unhand me, Madame, you forget yourself, . . . frightened from the world into a novel; and Marjorie recoiled as though struck by the book from which he had unconsciously taken the phrase” (286-87).  The comically melodramatic scene continues to unfold, becoming more and more ridiculous.  Joey’s milk is knocked over when Marjorie is repulsed, and she begins screaming the cliché phrase “Unhand me” louder and louder.  She goes outside in her robe and scuffs and removes the blocks from beneath the wheels of Joey’s beat-up car so that it rolls down the drive into a utility pole.  At which point the humiliated woman orders him to leave, both his rented residence and his job.

Again, Joseph Skizzen’s extreme reaction to a woman’s attempt to seduce him reflects how authors might best respond when their characters try to seduce them into writing a sexual scene.  In the case of Madame Mieux, Joey was invited into her pillow-filled boudoir, whereas Marjorie Bruss invited herself into Joey’s room.  In both cases they are women who have power over him, his teacher and his employer/landlady, suggestive at some level perhaps of the strong draw toward the sexual in fiction.  In On Being Blue, Gass points out that other extreme acts which are often the stuff of fiction can be controlled by the author—but not so with sex once that path is chosen.  He writes, “As writers we don’t hesitate to interrupt murders, stand time on its tail, put back to front, and otherwise arrange events in our chosen aesthetic order, but how many instances of such coitus interruptus are there in the books which speak to us so frankly of the life we never frankly lead?” (20).  The comedic nature of the scenes that result from Madame Mieux’s and Miss Bruss’s attempted seductions are deliberate on Gass’s part, but perhaps no more comedic than if he had attempted to render serious sexual scenes—or maybe it would be more accurate to say Gass would find such scenes tragic as far as his success at fashioning them into literary art.

Combining the sexual with the comic has been typical for Gass since the writing of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  In particular, he’s interested in the writing of bawdy limericks.  His ponderous novel The Tunnel is filled with limericks of the bluest sort.  For example,

A nun went to bed with a sailor

Who said he had come from a whaler.

It was like Moby’s dick—

His blubberous prick—

with which he promptly assailed her. (172)

There’s a second verse to this particular limerick, but I imagine you’re trusting me on this point.  Gass has said that he writes limericks because he’s unable to write longer poems.  He told LeClair in the 1976 interview, “I can get away with a limerick because it is a very short form.  I can turn out couplets, too, but not enough of them to make a whole poem” (31).  More significantly, the limerick encapsulates Gass’s attitudes toward writing that involves sexual language.  In another interview, Gass said that he’s not interested in writing about sex, but he’s very interested in “the language of sex”:  “[T]here’s very little sexuality in my work, but there are a lot of sexual words.  I have very few steamy sexual scenes, if any.  The metaphor is fundamental, sure.  But my interest in the subject and my use of a character’s sexuality are almost invariably either symptomatic or metaphorical, whereas for a great number of writers sex is the direct object” (Brans 107-8).  By symptomatic he means that the sexual references represent “some larger quality in the character that isn’t directly sexual at all—dominance, power, or what might be called the verbal sexualization of the mind” (108).  These statements were made nearly thirty years prior to the publication of Middle C, but his approach is clearly represented by Joseph Skizzen, who finds himself the locus of female domination throughout the novel:  Madame Mieux, Marjorie Bruss, his sister Debbie, his mother Miriam, among several other female characters.  In fact, Joey dreams of a pre-Eve Eden, an Eden before the Fall.  Gass writes, “He did dream of strolling naked as Adam through a garden [. . .] No . . . rethink that . . . he would be more naked than Adam, leafless as a winter tree, untroubled by any companion, Eve or angel. [. . . H]e’d be free to do whatever he chose to do, to his blame or to his credit [. . .]” (254).  Joey’s Edenic daydream ends, and he returns to the real world in which every woman in his life is the cause of some sort of anxiety.  He ticks off a list of them and the troubles they cause him.

The prelapsarian world that Skizzen fantasizes about would be one free of the absurdity of sexual situations, and he creates the closest thing he can manage, eventually living with his mother in a rambling and poorly maintained house on the college campus where he teaches.  Here, free of any opportunity for a romantic encounter, Professor Skizzen pursues two of his favorite hobbies:  collecting newspaper clippings and making notecards that record the daily atrocities of humankind, and writing and revising a sentence regarding the human race.  Gass, via his main character, returns to the sentence he is composing and reworking repeatedly throughout the novel, which he finally perfects near the end:  “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive” (352).  The evolving sentence is in fact a sort of central character in Middle C, which reflects one of Gass’s unusual theories regarding writing fiction:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  In his essay “The Concept of Character,” he writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (49, 50).  Skizzen’s finally perfecting his sentence about the inhumanity of man serves as a kind of climax for the novel.  It is obviously an understated sort of climax compared to most works of fiction, and one can see that scenes of sexual climax would certainly tend to eclipse a music professor’s perfectly worded, perfectly balanced sentence—thus bearing out H.L. Hix’s observation that since Willie Masters’ Gass has been working to “restore events to proper proportion.”

Given the subject of my paper and its timing—with all the hubbub in recent weeks about the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey—it seems appropriate to refer to E.L. James’s mega bestseller, which has a sexual scene on virtually every page.  Last fall, I read through most of Fifty Shades in about an hour in anticipation of teaching a workshop on writing about sex—or rather on not writing about sex—and based on that experience I was loathe to return to the book for this paper, so I’ll rely on Anthony Lane’s review of the movie in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  In comparing the film to the novel, Lane writes,

Above all, we are denied James’s personifications, which are so much livelier than her characters. . . . No new reader, however charitable, could open “Fifty Shades of Grey,” browse a few paragraphs, and reasonably conclude that the author was writing in her first language, or even her fourth.  There are poignant moments when the plainest of physical actions is left dangling beyond the reach of [James’s] prose.

Beyond the vapid prose, James’s problem, according to Gass’s theory, is that it is impossible to create an effective narrative climax when there is a sexual climax described in detail on every other page.  As Gass said in one of his most recent interviews, “[T]hat’s what ninety percent of bad literature is.  It’s just referring to these scenes in so-called real life that would be quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (Gerke 43).  Sadly, more than a hundred million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey (Andrew Lane’s figure)—which helps to explain why it’s so difficult to publish a literary novel in the United States, and if one does, it’s a challenge to get a hundred people to read it, let alone buy a copy.

Middle C will almost certainly be William Gass’s final novel, but the ninety-year-old author has a new collection of novellas and stories coming out in October, titled Eyes, which will no doubt include material that he said he was working on in the mid-1990s.  In fact, Middle C was titled that in part because it was supposed to be the second of a trio of novellas, all with titles beginning with “C,” but the story of Joseph Skizzen kept expanding until Gass had a complete novel on his hands.  Presumably the novellas included in Eyes will be the companion pieces to Middle C.  Very little of that work has seen the light of publication, so not much is known about it.  One can rest fairly certain, however, that it will feature sexual language but no sexual scenes—unless they are absurdly comedic ones.

Works Cited

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Brans, Jo.  “Games of the Extremes:  An Interview with William Gass.”  Ammon 96-110.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—-. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—-. On Being Blue:  A Philosophical Inquiry.  1976.  Boston, MA:  David R. Godine, 2007.  Print.

—-.  The Tunnel.  1995.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 2007.  Print.

—-.  Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.  1968.  Champaign, IL:  Dalkey Archive, 1998.  Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Hix, H.L.  Understanding William H. Gass.  Columbia:  U of South Carolina P, 2002.  Print.

Lane, Anthony.  “No Pain, No Gain:  Fifty Shades of Grey.”  The New Yorker.  23 Feb. 2015.  Web.  15 Feb. 2015. [link]

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass:  The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 17-38. [link]

Note: I would like to thank Craig Saper, who sent me a pdf of his art book On Being Read, published in a limited edition by Diane Fine in 1985, as it was inspired by Gass’s On Being Blue.