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Sex in literature today

Reviewer Katie French of Underground Book Reviews sent me a smart list of questions for a blog interview that will run in the new year.

One of her questions was what I thought about sex in literature. Here’s part of my answer.

Well, that’s complicated. I like sex in literature. I like sex in general, you know, with my husband (or myself). Sex is good.
In fiction, I prefer intelligent sex, that is, well-written and truthful to the human experience. Kinky, sure, bring it; silly and implausible, no. 

If you are asking my take on Fifty Shades of Grey, I admit that I think it’s a stupid piece of crap that does nothing to help women’s sexuality be understood or embraced. The protagonist is a male fantasy: an inane virgin who climaxes effortlessly, no matter what he does to her. Why have women accepted this ridiculous character as some version of themselves? I do not understand, nor do I approve.
I’m not saying that sex has to be politically correct. The best sex I’ve ever had was extremely politically incorrect. It’s an unfortunate part of the human experience that sex that transgresses can be so darn good.

I also think that, for most women, to fall off the cliff into bliss requires surrender. Surrender is difficult, especially in the current climate, in which women are supposed to be star neurosurgeons as well as perfect mothers raising perfect kids and, at the same time, loving wives with the bodies of 23 year olds, because of all the time spent at the gym. That’s a pretty butch expectation of women. It sucks. So here we are supposed to be superwomen, yet one of the deep truths about our sexuality is that it requires surrender.
I’m not talking about climbing on top, throwing a leg over, and riding real hard. I’m talking about something else: an internal state of surrender. The payoff is huge, but the stakes are high, and this is difficult. 
For one, our culture often confuses surrender with submission, and the two couldn’t be further apart. For two, a man has to be strong enough to be a top, and gentle enough for a woman to trust him to be a top; that seems to be a big request to make of men. 
For three, our culture still has issues with female orgasm. It’s partly the residue of Victorian puritanism. It’s partly about control, because men seem to find the female orgasm mysterious and uncontrollable. They fear it; they fear not bringing it about; they fear what it says about their own manhood. And, my god, what if another man gave the woman they own an orgasm???
I think Wilhelm Reich was on to something: a healthy organism has a healthy orgasm. Is it any wonder he was imprisoned, when he was saying something so revolutionary as that women too should have orgasms? How could the male establishment let him run around freely spreading ideas like that?
But the plain truth is that women like to have orgasms. So Fifty Shades, which is very much, despite its stupidity, pro female orgasm, struck a chord with women. The gorgeous sexy kinky wounded billionaire spanks the heroine into orgasm: yay! It’s not her fault she had an orgasm, he spanked her into it. Or tweaked her nipple, or whatever. She can have her orgasm and enjoy it too.
Isn’t that something every woman wants?

Re-reading my response, I think I have an answer to my final question. 

What women want is to own their own sexuality, and to be able to surrender freely, as they choose.

That’s one of the problems I have with Fifty Shades. It appears, superficially, to empower women by allowing them to imagine non-vanilla sex. But what it actually does is deprive them of the power to surrender themselves into orgasm from inside themselves.
My recent post on HuffPo: What I’m learning about life from writing novels…
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My recent post on HuffPo: What I’m learning about life from writing novels…

Writing novels is at the very core of my life. It follows that I take my craft as a novelist seriously. It’s about continual improvement, about personal best. I feel fortunate that I’ve chosen a profession–an obsession, really–that offers me an opportunity to grow throughout my life, even unto the day they pry my cold, stiff fingers off the keyboard and lay me in a plain, pine box. It’s not like, say, dance, which is over sometime in your 30’s. Your brain can keep forming connections and laying down new pathways. Look at Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, written when he was no longer young. It’s some of his best writing. The language of that play is sheer beauty.

But I also want to improve as a human being. Writing is so integral to my life that it becomes a springboard from which I launch into almost all other pursuits, endeavors, tasks, responsibilities, roles, and recreations.

Here’s my recent posting on the Huffington Post, in which I wrote:

So, what is story? I ask myself this question every time I sit down at my computer and stare with a peculiar mixture of dread and anticipation at an empty white document page. I’ve attended workshops, read books, interrogated famous authors, and even matriculated in a creative writing graduate program to figure out the answer. The pared-down statement above was taken from screenwriters, who often tackle the issue best. Some novelists seem to look down on screenwriters, but those people deal with story every day, in its palpable, unvarnished essence. They get it right, they make a movie and they eat. Otherwise, not so much. So they’re not kidding around. They have something to teach us novelists.

Indeed, all sorts of people have something useful to teach me. Condescension doesn’t behoove me — respect does. I never know who will toss me the next meaty nugget about writing, or about living.

Also, I don’t want my life to be story-like. I don’t want my life filled with conflict and obstacle, which is how a good writer toys with her characters, prevents them from fulfilling their desires, and sucks in readers. I want my life to be smooth, like the most elegantly milled vanilla ice cream. Peace nourishes my creativity; when my life calms, my mind fills with intriguing possibilities.

Read the article here.


writing novels, Fallen
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Moonlight Gleam

This was a good time… I participated in a character guest post on Moonlight Gleam’s Bookshelf. I got to be Luca from IMMORTAL, Laila from THE BOTTICELLI AFFAIR, and Emma from FALLEN.
Am I already those characters? Yes and No. Novels and screenplays are like dreams, everyone in them is the author. But it’s not that simple, because consciously, to create a character, I merge qualities from many different people I know. A three-dimensional character in a story is a kind of chimera.
So it was an opportunity to inhabit my own mythos, and I got to play….

Character Guest Post With Traci L. Slatton

Traci L. Slatton has kindly agreed to participate in a character guest post starring “Emma”, as well as characters from her previous novels “Luca”, & “Laila” to discuss her inspiration for writing in honour of her newest release Fallen.

Traci: “Blog readers, please meet Emma Anderson from FALLEN, Laila Cambridge from THE BOTTICELLI AFFAIR, and Luca Bastardo from IMMORTAL. Guys, who’d like to talk about my inspiration for writing?”

Emma: “I’m a painter and illustrator, and before the apocalypse, I got my inspiration from looking into the faces of people around me. Especially my loved ones’ faces.”

Laila: “Who needs inspiration? It’s just so much fun to forge the Old Masters! I don’t wait for inspiration. I just have a blast doing what I do best. Gimme a paintbrush and some terra verde green and a little lapis lazuli blue: voilà, a Vermeer!”

Emma: “You’re lucky. I live during the end times. Billions of people have been killed in a global eco-disaster. We survivors are left struggling to stay alive, fighting vicious rogue bands, and haunted by strange psychic powers that dissolve us into madness.”

Laila: “What a drag! But you know, it’s not easy for me, either. My dad is missing and he’s being pursued by vampires. Evil, remorseless, blood-hungry vampires.”

Luca: “Inspiration? I get inspiration from Giotto’s frescoes, from Botticelli’s ravishing female figures. Such inspiration gives me the courage to endure a brutal indenture in a brothel of horrors.”

Laila: “I can paint just like Botticelli.”

Emma: “It’s not painting that saves me now. It’s love. When the world ends, all that’s left is love.”

Luca: “I am waiting for the great love who has been promised me. I chose her, and I know that the Laughing God will bring her to me, when His joke is ripe. I love her already and I haven’t even met her yet. Love is the only immortality we can know.”

Laila: “I’m waiting for my love, too. I can be close to him, but I can never quite have him. It’s too perilous. The hottest guy I ever met, and he smells so yummy, too. I just want to wrap myself around him and squeeze!”

Luca: “My great love smells like lilacs and clear light.”

Laila: “What does clear light smell like? Hey, there’s a beautiful Botticelli painting for sale, it has a pristine provenance provided by my friend Lord Cromer. I can get you a good deal . . . “

Luca: “Sandro Botticelli is one of my best friends. I already get good deals. Though he does negotiate relentlessly. It’s the Florentine way. At heart, Florentines care about money, food, and art. And wine. I myself have a fondness for vino nobile di Montepulciano. Though I don’t know if I’m Florentine. I don’t know my origins.”

Laila: “I’m a margarita fan, myself. Nothing like tequila to inspire a rowdy game of strip poker!”

Emma: “We don’t have the luxury of money, wine, and art. Food is the luxury now. I don’t know if the human race even has the luxury of a future. Arthur says we do, but I am not certain. He believes that we’ll rise out of the ashes and create a better life. He’s like that, always trying to do something noble and good. I just want to keep a few children alive . . .”

Luca: “God’s grace sees us through. There’s always God’s grace, even when we can’t see it. But we know it’s there. We’re receptacles for it, because of our souls.”

Laila: “The man I love has half a soul. What does that mean? What is a soul, anyway? Does having a soul explain why I’ll spend my last dollar on a pair of above-the-knee white patent leather boots with six-inch stiletto heels? Is there an explanation for that?”

Emma: “Soul has something to do with the invisible field of information that holds us all, the way the ocean holds fish and algae and seaweed and its myriad other creatures. I think soul may be what got us into trouble with the mists. Our souls make us vulnerable to psychological influence via the biomind.”

Laila: “What’s a biomind? Never mind, I don’t want to know!”

Emma: “Arthur knows. He’s brilliant.”

Laila: “I hope he’s hot, because he sounds like a smarty pants.”

Emma: “He’s beautiful beyond the dreams of women.”

Luca: “The most beautiful man I ever met was Leonardo, son of Ser Piero da Vinci. He was also the most talented and intelligent. I was his tutor, but he taught me more than I ever imparted to him.”

Laila: “You’re not so bad yourself, Luca Bastardo. Too bad I’m six inches taller than you!”

Emma: “You both have red hair, though Laila, yours is flame-colored, and Luca, yours is yellow-red. I’d love to paint you both. Laila, your laughter is infectious. Luca, your soulfulness emanates from you!”

Traci: “So did you guys figure out what inspires me?”

Laila: “Tequila and patent leather boots?”

Emma: “No, silly, it’s love!”

Luca: “Love and beauty!”

Laila: “Love, beauty, and laughter!”

© 2011 Traci L. Slatton, author of Fallen

First Wives Always Know, and other inconvenient truths

Novelist Rick Moody thinks authors shouldn’t blog. Maybe he’s right. What do I know, other than when I was at grad school at Columbia, scuttlebutt had him putting rips in his own jeans to give himself credibility, because we all knew he came from a rich family?

He’s a decent writer. Being loaded and coming from the Upper Middle Class doesn’t preclude talent. I acknowledge his competence, though I am not interested in his work. I personally think cynicism is the easy way out. It’s what spoiled, entitled folk give themselves instead of the more difficult dignity of faith and hope. They seem to mistakenly think that the “sophistication” of such negativity is faith and hope. Whatever. If people like his work, they’ll buy it.
I am an author, and I blog. I think voraciously, I am evolving, I am exploring, and I blog. What I think now might not be what I think in a year, or ten. I am engaged in this inscrutable question of life as a human being in this vale of tears. I am learning and growing.
Hence this blog, the title for today’s posting having been suggested by Al Gore’s movie. I like Al Gore. He would have made a fine president. I don’t care that he’s divorcing Tipper and that he fell in love with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Gore is still a smart, decent man. I have that feeling about him.
Besides, what do I know about global warming? I’m not sure I believe in it. From what I can tell from my own research, and yes, I’ve done some, the Earth goes through long periods of complicated climate change and weather instability. It may be a neat ‘n’ easy package to blame the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-biotech complex for causing greenhouse gasses. But can we really be sure? I mean, I want to blame and hate industry. I fork over the extra $$ for organic veggies, after all. I am heart-broken over the rending images of our beautiful Mother Earth in disarray. I’m just not sure that in this case–and I pretty much see Monsanto as the face of the 666 Anti-Christ and herald of the Apocalypse–I’m not 100% convinced that it’s all so tidily laid at one ugly, fungus-riven, toenail-shrivelled foot.
It goes this way: people think anything natural, in the wild, is wonderful and clean, etc. But there are plenty of rivers in Colorado you can’t drink from because the beavers are crapping, tainting the water. And there are plenty of natural substances I don’t want to ingest, like cobra venom.
This may get me scorned by a lot of other card-carrying registered Democrats, of whom I am one. But one thing, in an insecure world, is for sure: no one is more vicious than an angry liberal whose set-in-stone, holier-than-thou truths have been questioned. Those people are out for blood. Notice how much vitriol they spew when Obama is questioned–the same people who called Bush 1 and Bush 2 anything but a human being.
I wasn’t crazy about the Bushes, either. Marie Antoinette, anyone? Which leaves me wondering, where the hell are the moderates? The socially-liberal, fiscally moderate folks who aren’t trying to shatter our Constitution and turn our country into a replica of socialist France? I am pro-gay marriage. I am pro-life and pro-choice, both at the same time. I am hawkishly pro Israel. I am pro having an entire government comprised of people of color. I just don’t want a big, paternalistic government who takes money away from the middle class: are you listening, President Obama? Give scholarship money back to the middle class. Stop “going beyond the Constitution.” Stop it right now. I like the Constitution.
I don’t care if people worship Adonai, Jesus, Buddha, or Zeus: I surely don’t want a mosque on the World Trade Center site. I was in NYC on 9/11, standing on the roof of my husband’s parents’ building, watching the towers fall in a viscous cloud of soot and poison. I am always up for a slanted perspective on things, but I think those people are CRAZY NUTSO CUCKOO who claim it was the US government or Israel who caused the collapse.
So I like Senator Joe Lieberman, who seems to share many of my values. But if he teams up with Sarah Palin, who is a first class idiot, I will have to send him a strongly worded letter expressing my dismay.
Enough of politics, a topic which came out of my riffing on truth. We all know that politics and truth are incompatible bedfellows. I meant to say this: first wives are always right about their husbands. They just are. This said, a second wife can know something else about the same rasty man–and so get better results out of him. I’ve seen that a lot, too. Men can learn. Women can learn. People do change, if they want to. If they’re willing to work REALLY hard on themselves.
And teenagers are always up to something. There are two kinds of parents in the world: those who accept this truth, and those who are delusional. The parents who are the MOST sure that their baby boy would never use such vile language, or that their precious daughter would never act like a slut, are exactly the parents who son is widely known to be the most foul-mouthed kid to walk the high school halls in twenty years, and whose daughter was surfing internet porn at age 10 and sending cell phone pix of her bare boobs to boys when she was 13. This is fact. Watch the parents. The more controlling they are, the more they try to regulate who their kids see, the more judgmental they are about other parents: the farther out on a limb their teens are going. Some kids have good parent-management skills and hide it well, that’s all.
Having teenagers is a lesson in humility and, if you can keep your sense of humor intact, ruefulness. It’s a divine comedy. I was just emailed this by a psychologist who knows my intelligent, talented, precocious, beautiful, wild teenage daughters all too well: “Don’t feel stupid. My advice going forward is not to ask ‘are you?’ But to say ‘how much are you?’ to whatever question you are asking.”
When parents go to a kindergarten party, they can take a page from my book of life: realize that half these adorable kids will be dealing drugs before they get out of 11th grade.
What else? I don’t know, I’m still in a process of discovery. Was this worth sharing? Can’t say for sure. Moody may have a point.
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Why Revision is Important

I am sparring with my middle daughter’s high school principal and her history teacher. I want her to have the opportunity to revise an “F” research paper on the Industrial Revolution so she learns how to write a good history paper. They are refusing. I don’t even care about the grade. I certainly don’t care about the industrial revolution. I just want her to learn. Moreover, she wants to learn, and will do the revision, with guidance.

The necessary disclosure: this 9th grade girl is feisty, brassy, exuberant, creative, beautiful, talented, intelligent, and original. She’s also naughty. She breaks boundaries and tests limits. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer and she won’t do most of her work. I look at her and think of that famous quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

And then my heart breaks. Because 80% of what she does ends up being self-sabotaging. Her scrambled-eggs teenage brain has an exquisite talent for bad choices. I am her mother, I ache for her, and I am sad for what she will put herself through before she understands.

But she likes her history teacher, who is dynamic and charismatic. She wants to do well for him. She works in his class. But she started to struggle and to look perplexed while doing her papers in the fall. I started making a request: “Please let her revise a paper until she understands what a good one is.”

She also admitted to me that she didn’t know what to do. I conveyed that, thinking that surely the teacher would want to help her learn what to do.

But the teacher consistently refused it. He didn’t want her to revise and he wouldn’t help her with a revision. It perplexes me. Isn’t the job of a 9th grade history teacher to teach the kids how to write a high school history paper? Isn’t his job more than to be snazzy in class? How are the kids going to learn critical thinking unless they learn how to write, and the ONLY way to learn how to write is to rewrite?

Did he expect her to write a good paper, or even a passable paper, when she hadn’t learned how to write one? Was she supposed to simply stumble across the way to write well? Does keeping-fingers-crossed-for-good-luck pass for careful pedagogy?

I know about learning to write both because it’s my lifelong pursuit, and because I taught writing at the college level. I taught Logic & Rhetoric, aka Freshman Composition, at Columbia University. With 100% certainty, I can say that the freshmen who learned how to write are the ones who revised, revised, revised.

Yes, there are some people who are born good writers. With a small amount of guidance, they become excellent writers. But mostly writing is a skill like piano playing. The more you practice, the better you get. And it’s closely related to learning how to think.

In these notions, I am not alone. George Orwell articulated the argument much better than I can. In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, he writes, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly….”

So why wouldn’t the history teacher, and the principal, want to take the necessary trouble to help a student think more clearly? Isn’t that their reason for being? At least partly?

My daughter attends a private school, and the tuition is exorbitant. One would think that, at a school charging more than most people earn in a year, she would be required to learn how to think clearly, which means learning how to write clearly.

Orwell is talking partly about diction and construction in his essay. I guess that would be the purview of the English teacher, not the history teacher. But the message about the relationship between clear thinking and clear writing bridges all disciplines. The more clearly my daughter writes about history, the more clearly she is thinking about it. If the history teacher isn’t there to teach her how to write a history paper, shouldn’t he at least be teaching her how to think about history? Or does he just want her memorize that Robert Fulton received a patent for the steamboat in 1809?

Regarding revision, E.B. White stated it best in The Elements of Style: “Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try….Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”

So why wouldn’t the teacher, and the principal, want to instill that work ethic in their students? Why wouldn’t 9th graders be taught as freshmen that revising is writing?

It’s more work for the teacher, for sure. And a teacher who knows he is lively and engaging in class might not be motivated to take the extra time and effort. He knows the kids love to be in his class. But is he really doing his job as a 9th grade history teacher, if he doesn’t require a motivated but struggling student to revise a failed paper until it is passable, so that she learns what to do? So that she learns how to think, both about history, and about an argument?

I don’t think so.

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I love New York. People here are fascinating. I start a discussion with someone and he or she turns out to have a dazzling, heart-palpitating personal story of love and loss, victory and humiliation, exalted communion and dark nights of the soul. Is there no one in this glorious, feral, bursting city who is ordinary?

Many of my neighbors in my apartment building are like this: possessed of extraordinary life histories. A decade ago in Steamboat Springs, my former husband and I and our two children got trapped on the top of a mountain in a white out. We made it into the restaurant near the peak and sat at a table with hot cocoa. Our downstairs neighbor Stephen Baldwin skiied in, looking for the same warm respite. He’d been the one to recommend Steamboat to us, and he was there with some of his teenage kids and his wife.

The three of us–Stephen, my former husband, and I–fell to yakking, sharing anecdotes to pass the time. At one point I looked across the table and asked, “What is it you do at the United Nations, Stephen? I don’t think you ever told us.”

Stephen grinned and started to talk. His dad was JFK’s ambassador to Malaysia. Stephen himself, as a boy, was lost in the jungles of Peru and tattooed by head-hunters in Borneo; as a young man, he wrestled a Bengal tiger and ran with the bulls; as an adult, he set up an underground railroad for Bengali revolutionary leaders to escape a brutal Pakistani regime…. What unfolded was the tale of a brilliant and peripatetic soul who held a vision of the world as a community, and who was committed to world service. My former husband and I were spellbound. It wasn’t just the adventures, it was also the keen and wondering sense of curiosity, of observation, with which Stephen so deeply engaged his life.

“There’s a book here, Stephen,” I said finally. And he took me at my word, and wrote the book. SHADOWS OVER SUNDIALS Dark and Light: Life in a Large Outside World has arrived. I recommend it to everyone.

see Stephen’s website at www.cstephenbaldwin.com