"There's an occupational hazard to being on this panel, which is messy panties." -Lidia Yuknavitch.
This was the first panel I attended on Sunday and also the best. Everyone was open and agreeable and interesting. It featured Steve Almond, essayist, charmer, and stealer of shows; Cheryl Strayed, memoirist of a controversial nature, de rigeur panel member who takes themselves very seriously; and the aforementioned Lidia Yuknavitch, who used the word "fisting" seven times in her novel, which the publishers didn't like.
All quotes are as accurate as my instant, hand written transcription could make them. They are true in spirit if not in grammar.
Steve Almond started out by reading "the best female orgasm scene ever" which contained nary a naughty word. Impressive! But it did not set a precedent.
The first question, the big question, asked by moderator Viva Las Vegas, was, "Why is there a dearth* of sex in American literature?" This question basically guided the entire talk, and it gave way to some more specific discussions.
Issue #1: CENSORSHIP
The authors discussed the difficulty of writing sexual urges into a story and the fear of being ghettoized as a certain type of writer, and contrasted that with the plain fact that desire is part of everyone's lives, everyday.
They spoke of "an implicit censorship that goes on around the body." (Can't remember exactly who said that.) In addition to fisting, the word "cunt" appears in Lidia Yuknavitch's book twenty three times. She knows this because a big publisher who was interested in her book told her, and then asked her to take it out. Yuknavitch admitted that she wanted the money, but ultimately couldn't go through with the compromise. She said Chuck Palahniuk had the same experience with the "fisting" word, and it's hard to imagine Palahniuk as being censored.
Cheryl Strayed had the same problem with the word "clitoris," but not with the words "penis" or "cock."
Okay, so far this panel was awesome.
Issue #2: NEUROSES
We are ashamed, or more accurately, terrified, of sex. To expand on the idea of actual censorship, they now started to explore self-censorship.
Steve Almond talked about how awesomely scary desire is, calling it "volatile, invasive, transgressive, out of control. That's literature's business, those uncontrollable urges. That's what I say at least, but when I'm at the keyboard, I'm terrified."
Lidia countered, "I like it. It is scary, but we're in good company." She mentioned Whitman, Kerouac, Shakespeare. It's not dirty, but there is passion and longing and desire running through all great literature.
This point led Cheryl Strayed into discussing her work and the concept of Radical Self Disclosure.
Cheryl's memoir, Wild, deals with a difficult time in her life, during which she chronically cheated on her husband. When it was published she was worried about receiving lots of hate mail. Over the years, she says she's only received about three or four pieces of hate mail, but hundreds of emails from women who shared that experience. Cheryl had responded to grief with promiscuity, with "sexual transgression." At times it sounded fun and tantalizing, at times it sounded sad and terrifying. But it is a common story, and bravely sharing our experience is an essential purpose of literature.
Issue #3: COMMERCIAL CULTURE
I saw Steve Almond a couple times over the weekend and he seemed particularly interested in the issue of commoditization, in this context of sex. It turns off writers when desire is a marketing tool, when they use blow jobs to sell jet skis, etc. "And everyone is beautiful and fit and it makes us all feel like monsters." (Strikes Igor pose.)
And so the panel ended. I never did have a chance to ask them about the mommies and daddies of modern dirty writing like Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, or Anais Nin. Certainly those authors faced a lot of censorship over the years. Or about this essay from 2009 in which Katie Roiphe essentially accuses our latest generation of male writers (Wallace, Chabon, Franzen) of not having any balls.
*I hate the word "dearth."