Monday, November 23, 2020

The return of literary court: "This is Pleasure" by Mary Gaitskill

For the second time in the first eight entries of the 2020 Best American Short Stories, the reader might be tempted to forget that BASS orders its stories alphabetically based on the last names of authors. "This is Pleasure" by Mary Gaitskill might seem to be chosen to go after "Something Street" by Carolynn Ferrell based on similar themes, since both involve bad sexual behavior of men, but that's just a coincidence.

**College BASS students looking to plagiarize your way to a C on a compare-and-contrast assignment, begin copy-and-paste now**

Furthermore, beyond a surface level, the two stories are pretty different. In "Something Street," comedian Craw Daddy has definitely done bad things, up to and including rape. In "This is Pleasure," though, the entire story isn't about a character's need to recognize the obviously criminal behavior of someone close to her, it's about how agonizing it can be to determine, in some cases of alleged sexual misconduct, not just whether the person charged is guilty, but how guilty, and whether the degree of guilt ought to matter when it comes to consequences. As Margot, friend to Quin the accused says, "Rape is one thing, but it's not like (Quin's accuser) can go to the media to report some weird thing (Quin) said years ago." 

Quin isn't a rapist. He hasn't, in fact, had sex with any of the women accusing him of misconduct. It's very hard to pin down exactly what his crime is, because, as Margot points out, he's not like any other man. Quin does enjoy shocking and inappropriate behavior. He likes "going up to the very line of acceptability and not crossing it." He loves flirting, because it makes him feel alive, although he never seems to have intended or expected the flirting to lead to sex, especially after meeting his wife Carolina, whom he does genuinely seem to love. 

He's a very rare case in the annals of #metoo incidents, just as "This is Pleasure" is a rare story in what will one day, I'm sure, be some type of #metoo anthology. What makes the story rare is the way Gaitskill has shown a willingness to be fair to the accused, maybe even too fair. Gaitskill makes use of the novella-pushing nearly 14,000 words in her story to not just allow Quin to tell his side of the story, but to allow nearly every argument the "not-so-fast-with-the-#metoo" critics have levelled to be considered duly. There's the "infantilization of women" argument, the "the whole fun of flirting is that it's transgressive" argument, the "we used to have crazy sex in the sixties, and nobody was crying foul then" argument, even the "women enjoy painting themselves as victims" argument. It's all there, and not just as a strawman to beat up on. 

Much of the tension in "This is Pleasure" comes from the sometimes razor-thin line between pleasure and pain, a line many regularly enjoy crossing. 

I'm sure there will be critics who will say Gaitskill was too fair, that she is, in writing this story, being something of a traitor to women, much as Margot's younger colleagues look upon her as a traitor for defending Quin. Worse, there will likely be critics of #metoo (pretending #metoo is a somewhat monolithic philosophy) who will treat the story as though they have, at last, been heard and championed by someone who "gets it." Both Quin and Margot, the only two narrators in the story, have some shots to take at the women who accuse Quin and at the propensity to too quickly make accusations rather than simply establish boundaries. 

One problem writers always risk when writing from the point-of-view of the perpetrator of a wrong is that the audience will think they are supposed to identify with the perpetrator. Call it the Archie Bunker Phenomenon, if you will, although you could also possibly call it the Lucifer Phenomenon for the way many people read Paradise Lost as though Satan were the hero. 

"This is Pleasure" isn't ultimately trying to argue for a return to the bad old days when men were men and women let them be men. Rather, by granting that some criticisms of the modern sexual climate are valid, the story is able to make a stronger moral claim that men really do need to change. 

By arguing from the perspective of the one committing the wrong, "This is Pleasure" reminded me of two other stories from recent BASS collections. One is "Wrong Object" by Mona Simpson, which may have been my favorite from last year's collection. By focusing on the struggle of a pedophile to not abuse children, it called into question America's "kill or castrate all pedophiles" culture while also maintaining an absolute line on the need to protect the innocent. The other is "Boys Go to Jupiter" by Danielle Evans, which was told from the point-of-view of a girl who started racial angst on her college campus when she wore a confederate flag bikini to irritate her stepmother. 

So let's steal an idea for a second time

When I looked at Evans's story a few years ago, I stole an idea from my son's middle school teacher, that of the trial of a literary character. It's appropriate to re-use this idea for Quin, partly because Quin really is about to face trial from at least one of his accusers. The question, though, is what kind of a trial? Are we the jury in his (likely civil) case, the one Quin thinks might be thrown out? Or are we the executives of the publishing house, charged with deciding whether we should fire him? Or are we the court of public opinion, in charge with deciding whether Quin remains a pariah, and if so, for how long and under what terms? 

Maybe rather than any of these three, it might be more appropriate to pretend we are the execs at a publishing company in New York, one that is considering hiring Quin two years after his civil case is dismissed. Although a number of women threatened to boycott any company that hired him, let's say it's now 2020, that we do most of our business virtually, meaning Quin's interaction with others, especially women, would be necessarily limited. Our business is in trouble, and we could desperately use Quin's proven ability to pick a winner. We're talking about hiring him to sit in the background and give his opinion on books quietly, for a bargain salary, given his ability. We are reasonably sure nobody will notice we have done this, as long as Quin can stay out of trouble. 

Our company lawyer has obtained the complete text of "This is Pleasure," which reads like the diary entries of Quin and his long-time friend Margot. Using this text as evidence, what do we decide to do?

The affirmative case: we should hire him

Quin's perversity and his acute perception, the perception that allowed him to pick literary winners, were always intricately linked. Quin took pride in his ability to "perceive people's most essential nature just by looking at them." It was this pride in his ability that often led Quin to test boundaries early on in a relationship through what could be described as a series of breaching experiments, behaving badly in order to see how people would react. Nearly every human being's best qualities are somehow directly linked to their worst, and Quin is no exception. He wasn't seeking sexual gratification when he raised sexual topics with women; he was seeking amusement and possibly intimacy by learning about the people he spoke with. Nobody has charged him with sexual assault. Other than one woman--a novelist who did not even join in the charges against him--nobody said publicly that he even touched them inappropriately.  

Nearly every woman who signed the petition against Quin can be shown to have carried on a long relationship with him, in many cases for years, in which they at least seemed to be willing participants in his eccentric behavior. Margot has testified in her diary that she personally witnessed many of those who signed the complaint willingly listening to Quin's romantic advice--which was often good advice, no less. 

Moreover, Quin is a good friend and a good person whose friendliness has obviously been misunderstood. He is someone who "imbibes people," who is overly friendly, "comical and strangely lewd," but as Margot has explained, he also cares deeply about those around him, wants to ease their suffering, even their minor suffering. His ability to assuage pain is, in a strange way, linked to his lewdness. Margot has explained that it was not just Quin's kindness that made her feel better many times when dealing with pain, it was his "silliness, his humor, his dirtiness that rekindled (her) spirit."

Quin has shown himself to be a good person to more than just women; he has even, for reasons that involved no personal gain to himself, helped a troubled young boy. 

The woman who started all the accusations against Quin once used words to describe him that suggest he seemed to her almost like a homosexual: "straight fairy," "fop," and "buttercup." Indeed, Quin's relationship with most women seems to be similar to a stereotypical gay man-straight woman relationship, down to the advice Quin gave on men, the makeovers Quin initiated, and the free touching of women, as if Quin represented no threat, so that gave him license. Caitlin's long-term relationship with Quin, a relationship with ample evidence she enjoyed having him as a friend, only ended when Quin did not invite her to his parties, suggesting her accusations came from manufactured, post-facto jealousy.  

Quin seems to have been a victim of the times, the bycatch of too wide a net. One woman who signed the petition apparently did not even mean to include him in her accusations, was in fact horrified to realize his name had been included in the list. He has many, many defenders, including those who know about his worst actions. 

His friend Margot has compared women to horses in that they need to be both led and respected, but it is Quin who has proven himself to be like a horse. When Margot laid down firm boundaries with him at the beginning of their relationship, she even alluded to horses stopping at a hand in the face, a gesture she used to stop Quin from an inappropriate action. From that moment on, Quin never seems to have stepped over a line with her. Other women showed the same ability to set boundaries, and it was these women whose company Quin seems to have enjoyed most of all. Quin can, in other words, be trained, and as long as we as a company train him, he will likely not cause us problems.

I should be made a judge of more things.

The negative case: we shouldn't touch this guy with a ten-foot pole, and we also shouldn't mention a "ten-foot pole" around him, because he's liable to make that into something sexual

Okay, granted, he's got a lot of women defending him, but isn't that number in itself troubling? I understand office flirting as much as the next guy. It's just like Quin described it--a way to feel alive without actually cheating on anyone. But does anyone need to flirt with a hundred different women? Who needs to feel that alive? The sheer volume of women Quin flirted with--assuming we can actually write off his behavior as just flirting--is extremely troubling. It tells the story not of a man from a different era with a different way of thinking about being true and open, but a man with a pathology that will require years of therapy to correct. That he has done this while it apparently has caused pain for a wife he seems to genuinely love only deepens the suspicion that he has a very deep-seated issue to work out. 

More to the point, although some of his worst offenses were kept out of the public view, we now know that he touched the breast of at least one female employee with a junior position at the company. She did not, apparently, take offense to the gesture, and seems to have considered it "sacred," just as Quin did. But the sheer recklessness of the action represents a risk this company cannot afford to take. Quin's wife Carolina hit the nail on the head with Quin when she said he's "not even a predator" but "a fool...a pinching, creeping fool." Perhaps his friends can afford to forgive him his foolishness, but this company cannot. A fool is a liability. 

One is tempted to wonder, as Margot's own friends did, why he had so many friends willing to forgive him. Reading over Quin's behavior over many decades, one has to ask the same question Margot's friends did: "Why would you want to have a friendship with someone like that?" Clearly, Quin was personally compelling, which was why so many people overlooked their warnings about him. This charisma is what makes him dangerous, though, as it allows him to take advantage of people in ways the less charismatic cannot. 

Perhaps Quin's own perceptiveness is what makes him so dangerous. He understands people, which gives him a strange ability to sense how far he can push them. This leads to multiple relationships with people whose friendship to Quin causes them a mixture of pleasure and pain, a mixture just pleasant enough they continue it, all the while slowly becoming angrier and angrier at him. Quin apparently uses his high emotional intelligence and ability to read people for evil purposes, even just to torture them for his own amusement--Quin is, apparently, one who enjoys spanking more than being spanked. (Strike that last comment from the record; the company should not seem to be trivializing this by comparing it to BDSM-type sexual preferences.) 

To sum up, Quin has: 1) touched the breast of a junior company employee without expressed consent, 2) reached for the inner thigh of another woman at a lunch without being invited to, 3) apparently done enough to be slapped by several other women 4) commented on the physical appearance of a number of other women. Whether these things make him a bad person is outside the concern of this company. He's simply a risk we can't take. 

But okay, let's us as readers take a second to consider what the story is saying about good and bad behavior

I think literary court, under the terms I described, would have to decide not to hire Quin. It doesn't matter if he's guilty, or, more to the point, HOW guilty, and if he deserves to meet the same fate as, say, Louis C.K., which Quin effectively has by being run out of his profession. (In fact, Louis C.K. doesn't seem to be totally dead in comedy, which means that maybe Quin got screwed by comparison.) As a company, we only care about what's good for our bottom line, and hiring Quin would too greatly risk running afoul of public opinion to justify.

But what if we interrogate that public opinion for a moment, as "This is Pleasure" does so well? Although I'm sure Gaitskill will occasionally be mortified to find some people using her story as an illustration of "how #metoo goes too far" or something like that, I think the very strength of the story is in how well it does take seriously some criticisms of #metoo. Modern political rhetoric, especially on forums like Twitter, seems to have abandoned the ancient practice of granting when your opponent has a strong point in order to be seen yourself as more reasonable when you go to make your own point. But that's exactly what "This is Pleasure" does. It allows us to inhabit, for a long time, the minds of one partially-but-not-by-any-means-totally innocent man accused of sexual misconduct and another, older woman, one somewhat impatient with younger women's complaints. Quin's friend Margot would likely have agreed with this editorial in The Atlantic from back when Aziz Ansari was first called into question for a date that was close to the line between "bad date" and "assault." The writer's basic take is, "This woman acted like an idiot." The writer of that editorial was then attacked for "blaming the victim," much like Margot.

But Margot isn't totally on Quin's side, and we need not be, either. The wonder of a novella this long is that it has a chance to interrogate #metoo in a way nothing else does. It admits to some oversteps, but it also has a core that I (as a guy who sometimes wonders about the rectitude of #metoo things) found pretty compelling.

The story understands--in wonderful detail, often explaining the "con" argument better than most #metoo enemies themselves could ever do--that there is a complex line between pleasure and pain, that the two often go hand-in-hand. It also understands the life-giving joy of flirting, and how often it is mutually beneficial to helping those who do the flirting when it comes to getting by in life. 

By admitting to all of this, the story can be taken much more seriously when it posits, slyly, a sort of heuristic for navigating our way through this. The three-part heuristic is something like this: 

1) When there is transgression of social norms going on, priority should be placed on the perceptions of the person facing the transgression. When trying to explain to Quin why some of what he did was actually wrong, Margot's husband, Todd, asks Quin, "But would they say they were hurt?" 

2) The rules of experimentation should be much stricter when the power relationship is unbalanced.

3) If someone has been hurt by a transgression, start with an apology. Quin never looks as bad in this story as he does when he thinks he is being inspired to write his explanation of everything that went down. Right away, we can see it's going in entirely the wrong, self-justifying direction: "I come from a generation that values freedom and honesty above politeness..." Oh, boy. 

Again, it's Todd who suggests a better way, a way Quin ignores: "I think you should start with an apology." Quin doesn't see why he should apologize, and maybe that's to be expected. Apologizing would mean having to change everything about Quin, at least as he sees it. Quin believes his own licentiousness is what makes life worth living, and he doesn't believe the licentiousness can be reformed with a little change here and there without making life entirely too little fun to be worth living. 

I think Quin is wrong. It is possible to make small but significant changes that could allow most of the fun of flirting to remain while still reducing the number of times people end up feeling pain. And it could be as simple as a "first do no harm" rule when transgression is involved. While it would ruin the fun to have to ask for permission before trying anything, there are certain things you should never try out without talking them over first. If you have a spanking fetish, for example, you don't just start by spanking your partner to see how they react.  

Is it too didactic of me to turn literary analysis into rules for flirting in 2020? Is that too narrow a purpose, too pedestrian a use to make of art? I'd argue no, that in fact, one of literature's best uses is that it allows us to look at a difficult issue from the outside and analyze it. The best proof of this story's artfulness is how easily it can be turned to a non-artful use.  

Other takes:

Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory, who offers the novel solution of women signing a "creepy friend agreement" as a way for people like Quin to remain themselves and not be constantly sued. 

Karen Carlson at A Just Recompense, who, thankfully was not as angered by Gaitskill as she's been in the past. 


  1. "This is Pleasure" is 1hr 28min 31sec long on audio, the longest story in the anthology. It's been a kind of speed bump for me because I'm going to take a break before reviewing. It's still just a novelette by the definition used in science fiction magazines (7,500 - 17,500), a length I like but it is much longer than normal short stories.

    I also noticed that this story made two in a row with similar themes. I don't like the alphabetical organization of stories. There is an art to arranging an anthology and they are just ignoring it.

    This story does open a can of ethical issues.

    1. I totally understand being set back by this one. Both of the last two were on the long side. Every year, there's at least one that sets me back a while.

  2. I like the literary trial approach, and this is another great time to bring it out. Gaitskill did a great job of leaving it all as a conundrum, not trying to pin something down. Even Margot, who is pretty self-aware and willing to examine her role in the behavior, doesn't know why she let it go on towards the end when she was getting more and more angry as he gave excuse after excuse.
    That's a real pivot point for me, the whole "Who gets to say if they're hurt or not" idea that floats around.

    1. This was a real Moby Dick of #metoo stories, in that it didn't leave out a single thread in the discourse of the last few years surrounding this. She threw it all in there. But I agree with you that even after throwing it all in there, the weight does seem to center around the importance of people being allowed to say for themselves whether they derived pleasure from the actions.

      I guess we'd have to agree, though, that this is only true of transgressive behaviors. If I behave within norms and someone else is offended, then I have no responsibility. So there are limits to who gets to say if they're hurt, I guess.

  3. I was incredibly uneasy reading the story and from her comments that is exactly what Gaitskill was after. She succeeded then. I continue to feel uneasy. I suppose I admire the story in its reach and yet I am queasy. I am not sure how to judge Quin. I would both like to throw the book at him and let him off. In real life I know someone who was charged with misusing his power in sexual ways, without forcing sex on his victims and I had no trouble taking a position in that case. He, like Quin, denied any transgression at all, and lost his important job, though he did not go to jail. But this situation, presented from the two points of view, is nuanced and I leave feeling troubled.

    1. Felt the same way. Quin's probably an extreme outlier. Most men accused of bad behavior are probably more obviously deserving of their fate. But the story's only as effective as it is because it chose such an outlier.


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