With the rise of webcams, smartphones, texting, and video-call software, human intimacy can now take many forms: not just between bodies together in a space, but between pixelated faces on a video chat or images exchanged online. Intimacy, like so much else, has gone digital. In our image-saturated culture, it can be easy to fixate on a surface while overlooking the consciousness—the thinking, feeling subject—under the (simulated) skin.
How can novels remind us that bodies are, well, embodied? In the third episode of Season 2 of Public Books 101, novelist Garth Greenwell and scholar Daniel Wright join our host, Nicholas Dames, to consider how novels like Barbara Browning’s The Gift (Or, Techniques of the Body) expand our understanding of sex and intimacy in the digital age.
View a transcript of the episode here.
- Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You (2016), which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year and was longlisted for the National Book Award. His latest book of fiction, Cleanness (2020), was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and was longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, the Joyce Carol Oates Prize, and France’s Prix Sade. Greenwell is the coeditor, with R. O. Kwon, of the anthology Kink (2021). He has written criticism for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others.
- Daniel Wright is an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto and the author of Bad Logic: Reasoning about Desire in the Victorian Novel (2018). He has written essays about novels, including Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, for Public Books.
- Nicholas Dames, this season’s host, is an editor in chief of Public Books and the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Physiology of the Novel: Reading, Neural Science, and the Form of Victorian Fiction (2007). He has written on contemporary fiction, novel reading, and the humanities for the Atlantic, n+1, the Nation, New Left Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review.
Mentioned in this episode
- Books: Barbara Browning’s Who Is Mr. Waxman?, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Augustine’s Confessions, Browning’s The Correspondence Artist, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, jia qing wilson-yang’s Small Beauty, Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story of a Brief Marriage
- Authors: Sheila Heti, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W. G. Sebald, Lauren Berlant, Henry James, Anthony Trollope
- Essay: Marcel Mauss’s “Techniques of the Body” (1934)
Garth recommends (with commentary):
- James Baldwin, Just Above My Head (1979): Giovanni’s Room is a very sexy book, but there is not much explicit writing of sex in it. By his last—flawed, heartbreakingly wonderful—novel, Baldwin has become a master of writing the sexual body.
- Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (2009): Dean’s work is inspiring in its attempt to take often deprecated practices of gay male sexual cultures—promiscuity, cruising, water sports, barebacking—seriously as social, ethical, and intellectual practices. This book was important to me as I wrote my second book of fiction, Cleanness. There are few books I love wrestling with more.
- Yasunari Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961): The premise is simple: a brothel of sorts, where men pay to sleep next to naked, sleeping women, forbidden to touch them. This is a disquieting, mesmerizing meditation on desire by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
- Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children (2015): Yuknavitch is a brilliant writer of sex, and inspiring in the way she uses sex as a vehicle for philosophical inquiry. Appropriating the death-obsessed, often misogynistic tradition of writers like Sade and Bataille, Yuknavitch maintains a commitment to the usefulness of negativity while somehow seeming always on the side of life.
Daniel recommends “a couple of excellent recent academic books that take up sex/sexuality and the novel, and a couple of classic essays on sex/intimacy, one of which I cited, appropriately enough, in my Public Books essay on Garth’s Cleanness”:
- Claire Jarvis, Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form (2016)
- Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978)
- Gayle S. Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984)
- Dana Seitler, Reading Sideways: The Queer Politics of Art in Modern American Fiction (2019)