This essay is from the appendix of Arsenal Pulp Press‘s reissue of Empathy, which was our April 2013 pick.
The MacDowell Colony, August 15, 2005
I’m trying to remember when I first got interested in juxtaposition, which is the experience at the core of this novel: relations between ideas, word fragments, genres, lovers, and relational existence as a fallback position for people whose reality is not acknowledged. Homosexually, it probably began in my 1962 nursery school class. Our young teacher was getting married, and she organized us into a mass mock wedding. The four-year-olds had to couple up boy/girl, boy/ girl and march down the aisle. I refused. I said I would be the photographer, and ran around with an invisible camera, snapping nonexistent pictures. I existed, in that moment as a lesbian and an artist, relationally. There was no girlfriend and no apparatus, yet I survived as myself, a not-bride.
Artistically, Jean Genet and Joni Mitchell, who I adored all through high school, modeled the strength of unusual word relationships creating a third space of depth. In college it was Sun Ra, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They helped me grasp and romance the work of Patti Smith when I returned to New York. There was Robert Altman’s Nashville which I’ve seen fifteen times. It taught me the excitement of a story you can’t understand until you’ve finished it. Then, suddenly, you need to go back and read/see it again. In the early 1980s, I was a waitress at Leroy’s Restaurant, the only coffee shop in the still-industrial Tribeca. Meredith Monk lived across the street and she used to come in for breakfast. Meredith decided to do her new piece, Turtle Dreams (still available on CD) cabaret style, so she hired a bunch of us to serve drinks to the audience. I had never seen a work of art like this one before. I recall it as a hopeful, optimistic collection of syllables (my favorite song had the refrain “Wella Kalay, Wella Kalay”) accompanied by precise arm and leg movements similar to Charlie Chaplin’s factory gestures in Modern Times delivered with panache. Although this was a new language for me, after waitressing many performances, the ordered sounds crept into my heart. When my first novel, The Sophie Horowitz Story, was published by Naiad Press in 1984, an interviewer asked about my use of “pastiche.” I didn’t know what that word meant. I guess I had already learned postmodernism organically.
Sex also brought me fragments. A relationship with choreographer Susan Seizer (who I met in bed with a third party in 1979), introduced me to postmodern dance. I also had a simultaneous relationship with filmmaker Abigail Child, who introduced me to experimental film in an intense and intimate way. The lesbian culture of this era was very rich sexually, and as I re-read Empathy, I see evidence of many different kinds of sexual experiences I had with a wide range of women. The three-way in the opening pages is absolutely accurate. An alcoholic cowgirl (who I had sex with) said the words, “the subway makes speeches under our feet.” My girlfriend while I was writing this book (who I met on the subway), Debby Karpel, a singer, was the lovely office temp whose co-worker complained to her about a gay man sitting too close to him. “How would you like it if some butchy woman was in your face all night long?” Anna O.’s femininity was partially hers.
I was working, on a daily basis, interdisciplinarily with composers, dancers, filmmakers, choreographers, designers, performance artists. From 1979 to 1994, I was involved in fifteen collaborative shows as part of the Downtown Arts Movement located in the East Village. In 1986, Jim Hubbard and I founded the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival (now called Mix), so I spent many years watching gay artists express their realities far from the world of realism. There I found a deeper, truer story than anything available on television or in the movies. As the AIDS crisis crashed into our world, fragments became more and more the only authentic conveyor of lived experience.
Yet, in the late eighties, when I started to write People in Trouble (Dutton, 1990), I chose classic realism. I remember this process very clearly. I was embarking on what I thought would be a new kind of American literature: witness fiction. The AIDS crisis had been in full force since 1981, and had produced shocked, desperate, half-baked books by grasping, dying people, or shattered lovers of the dying anticipating their own inevitable demise. I was none of the above, and yet lived in the eye of the hurricane, and I wanted to write a book that would explain the disease in dynamic relationship to the political movement it spawned. Strangely, the subsequent AIDS works that have become iconic in our culture rarely mention the movement, or the engaged community of lovers, but both formations were inseparable from the crisis itself. Now, looking back, I fear that the story of the isolated helpless homosexual was one far more palatable to the corporations who control the reward system in the arts. The more truthful story of the American mass – abandoning families, criminal governments, indifferent neighbors – is too uncomfortable and inconvenient to recall. The story of how gay people who were despised, had no rights, and carried the burden of a terrible disease came together to force the country to change against its will, is apparently too implicating to tell. Fake tales of individual heterosexuals heroically overcoming their prejudices to rescue helpless dying men with AIDS was a lot more appealing to the powers that be, but not at all true.
I had a complex moment to convey. I remember re-reading Zola’s Germinal, and realizing that my story, too, needed a flat surface texture to be understood. So I wrote clear, distinct sentences. Crafted a conventional narrative structure. I cleanly divided the novel into three characters’ individual points of view, neatly indicated by whichever name appeared at the top of each chapter. It was an exercise in restraint towards a larger goal. That novel did its job (for a lot more juicy information about the fate of People in Trouble see Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, Duke University Press, 1998), but I was very unsatisfied artistically. The book was effective in its moment, and I know that I made the only choice I could make. But by the time Empathy came around, I was exploding with impulse towards the mysteries that experimentation can express, which are often lost in the conventions of naturalism.
Now for the materialist side of this story.
I probably started writing Empathy in 1989, a good time for me professionally. I had had a great victory with my 1988 novel After Delores (Dutton), the first modern lesbian novel to be published by a mainstream press and gloriously received on its own terms in the New York Times. People in Trouble was also treated with respect and decency, and artistically I was feeling quite confident. So confident, in fact, that when my editor for both novels, Carole DeSanti, was temporarily fired from my publisher, Dutton, I was able to get in my contract for Empathy that she was to be hired on a freelance basis to edit the book.
The earliest piece of Empathy was a term paper I wrote for Professor Bert Cohler at the University of Chicago in 1976, where I used Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to show that I was a lesbian. He gave me an A-. It was a brave thing to do on my part, and an extraordinary act of kindness on his. Homosexuality, especially one’s own, was considered inappropriate classroom subject matter at that time and place. I had no openly gay teachers, only a handful of openly gay students on the entire campus, and a great books curriculum that included only one woman, Sappho. This was why many people of my generation who wanted to be out in their work left the academy. Many of those who stayed often had to do closeted dissertations or first books in order to get jobs and/or tenure, and then were able to come out in their scholarly endeavors. Ironically, that same semester, I took a course called “Images of Women in French Literature,” in which the female professor said that “whether a writer is a lesbian or not is as important as if she’s right-handed or left-handed.” I also had a course on “Freud and Literary Criticism” in which the professor said, “We all know that female students contribute nothing to a classroom situation,” and forbade us to write papers on feminism. Cohler’s decency was so unusual, and so enormously helpful in allowing me to become myself. I dropped out of that school and went to Hunter College to study with Audre Lorde. But thirty years later, I returned to the Chicago campus and actually saw Professor Cohler, now elderly and emeritus. I was able to tell him how much he had helped me, and thank him. He told me that he himself was now openly gay, and that his gay students now have much more freedom to discuss their truths in the classroom. He was concerned about their difficulties with relationships, and how much pain that causes them. I was moved again by his compassionate heart.
I suppose the original study for Empathy was my one and only published short story, “The Penis Story” (which is anthologized in Chloe Plus Olivia, edited by Lillian Faderman, in which a sexually seductive but withholding straight woman does so much psychic damage to a lesbian that she wakes up one morning with a penis. This puts her in high demand sexually with other women, but the way they make love is called “glancing.” The story was written in 1979, but rejected by literary magazines for years. In fact, I received rejection letters signed by Adrienne Rich for Sinister Wisdom, and Dorothy Allison for Conditions. It was eventually published by Susie Bright in on our backs, which was an odd trajectory for me because I’ve never been this supersexy or sexually performative person; that is not my way of being outrageous. This story just came a bit too early for the zeitgeist, three years before the infamous Barnard College Scholar and the Feminist Conference where the internal pornography debates exploded and fractured the community into warring factions for decades. I was very much on the outside of those battles, not identifying with either position. I’ve always been turned off by the various “sex radical” factions that have waxed and waned over the years. They often seemed rather grim, and weirdly repressed. We all have sex, after all.
I started writing this novel from a very deep place of authority within myself. I did not know what the book was about, I did not “know” what I was grappling with. I just really believed in myself and with this, my fifth novel, felt very comfortable writing. In fact, I was the freest I have ever been as a writer, in that I was able to write without needing to predetermine the script. The discovery was, literally, in the writing. To help the book I read transformative literature: two Metamorphoses are cited, those of Ovid and Kafka, who wrote “Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams,” and who gave me the existence of Herr K. I looked at Georgia O’Keefe (“A red mask. A red egg. A moonscape made of glass.” – which I used again in Rat Bohemia). Other influences I can see as I re-read: James Schuyler (“boxy trucks”) and Wilhelm Reich (“the basic function of all living creatures is to expand and contract”).
I did twelve drafts of Empathy. The book contains, I believe, eight different forms: screenplay, short story, play, recipe, personal ad, advertisements, term paper, poem (my first of only two). I did not realize that the collection of multiple forms was, itself, part of the statement of the novel about the state of lesbian existence. And I can honestly say that I did not know that the book was about the desire to exist until the tenth draft. I wrote for at least two years, just trusting myself. And then the revelation was unveiled. The “secret,” or narrative twist revealed near the end of the novel, was something I myself only learned on draft ten. Then I suddenly realized that I had been writing in a deeply truthful way, directly from my unconscious, facing issues that I was personally not ready to grapple with consciously. Only by giving myself enormous permission to not have clarity in the piece for so long, was the ultimate clarity able to be achieved.
I was very excited by the book. I felt that there was a new maturity of voice that could only have been realized as a consequence of having written so much already. At that point, with five novels, several plays, and many journalistic works, I probably had invented more lesbian characters than any writer in the history of the world, and had more experience with lesbian representation than any of my predecessors. I had a deep knowledge of the mechanics of that representation and I felt it was flourishing into an exciting new sophistication both literary and social. Pre-publication was interesting as well. The original title,
Empathy, The Cheapest of Emotions had to be changed because the marketing department at Dutton felt that it sounded like a selfhelp book. The cover was my first computer-generated graphic, and I loved that. The blurbs started to come in, interesting comments from interesting people. Kate Millet called this stylization an “American thought sentence,” which I loved, not only because she correctly identified that third place between speech and feeling, but because she called my writing “American,” taking it out of the second-class position of being considered special interest. Fay Weldon sent in her blurb, “The lesbian novel comes of age.” I hoped that this revelation, of gender position as a state of mind, would begin a whole new discourse, an exciting conversation in which we would have some control of the ways we understood ourselves. I wanted formal authority. My dear friend Rachel Pollack, a novelist, tarot card master, and transsexual heroine, loved the book. And her praise meant so much to me. She particularly responded to the words “a lesbian trapped in a woman’s body” as both a statement of truth and a refutation of the reductionist phrase “woman trapped in a man’s body” that transsexuals had had to endure. But she also knew that it was a response, as well, to the provocative statement of genius Monique Wittig: “I am not a woman, I’m a lesbian.” The future seemed full of promise.
The success of After Delores allowed my editor Carole to publish more lesbian novels, and she developed a significant list of good writers willing to engage lesbian content with integrity. Lesbian subjectivity was increasingly present in the mainstream book business, primarily due to Dutton, and occasional titles from St. Martin’s and a few other houses publishing such exciting novels as Carol Anshaw’s Aquamarine, Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnny, plus British imports dominated by the work of Jeanette Winterson. But an unspoken, and I now believe unrecognized, discomfort with the normalization of lesbian life started to become expressed through marketing techniques that firmly, though surreptitiously, re-relegated these works to second-class status. The chain booksellers, like Barnes and Noble, began to dominate the market, and they instituted a “gay and lesbian” section in many of their branch stores. This section was never positioned at the front of the store with the bestsellers. It was usually on the fourth floor hidden behind the potted plants. What this meant in practical terms was that those of us who had the integrity to be out in our work found our books literarily yanked off of the “Fiction” shelves and hidden on the gay shelves, where only “gay” people wanting “gay” books would dare to tread. It was an instant undoing of all the progress we had made to be treated as full citizens and a natural, organic part of American intellectual life.
While community-based gay, lesbian, and feminist bookstores had always been the backbone of our literature, devoted to books published by independent presses, I had – at this point – been a mainstream author for years. I felt very strongly, and still do, that authentic lesbian literature should be represented at all levels of publishing, including taking its rightful place as a natural organic part of mainstream American intellectual life. The corporate lockdown went into overdrive just at the moment that this integration was beginning to take place. This positioning is essential for so many reasons, least of which is the right of writers of merit to not be excluded from financial, emotional, and intellectual development simply because they have the integrity to be out in their work. Second is the right of gay people to be in dialogic relationships with straights – where they read and identify with our work as we are asked to with theirs. And finally, that even at the height of the strength of the lesbian subculture, most gay people find out about gay things through the mainstream media.
In this crucial year, 1992, Dutton, and perhaps other publishers of gay male literature, hired gay people to market their gay books to other gay people. In other words, they created a two-tiered marketing system. When After Delores had been published, there was no gay substructure inside mainstream publishing, so the book was treated like a book. It was reviewed by a heterosexual man, Kinky Friedman, for the Times. At the time, Dutton didn’t even collect review clippings from gay newspapers. Now, with an iron-handed containment system starting to be put into place, gay books were increasingly reviewed by gay people. And reviewing publications clearly had unarticulated but lethal quota systems for how many lesbian books they would review. So that authors were competing against each other for review space, simply on the basis of being out in their work even when the books had absolutely nothing else in common. Gay authors were, in turn, often asked to review gay books with which they were not aesthetically compatible. The fact of being out in one’s work became the single most determining factor in how a woman’s career would be allowed to develop. Empathy was published in 1992. That same year, Dutton published a novel by an openly lesbian author, but the novel had no primary lesbian content. It was called Bastard Out of Carolina. And the two books were put on different marketing tiers. I was put on the newly created gay marketing track, sold only to other gay people. Bastard was treated like a regular book, one that straight people would be offered. An experienced book promoter, with four US tours and British, German, Dutch, and Japanese book tours under my belt, I was rather shocked to see the press list I received from the well-meaning gay Dutton publicist newly hired to sell gay books to gay people only. Almost all of the interviews were with gay venues. I had one straight radio interview, and the fellow asked me what it was like to be “a lesbian who doesn’t hate men.” When I called Carole, we discovered that that phrase had appeared on the Dutton press release. It was the advent of niche marketing, which basically guaranteed that the brief window of being treated like a human, when in fact I was actually just a lesbian, had come to an end.
I have to say honestly that in that moment, I did not exactly understand what was going on. I also had my own agenda which was not immediately thwarted by the permanent shift towards containment marketing. 1992 was also the year that myself and five other women founded the direct action movement, The Lesbian Avengers, an anarchist explosion that went from a few New Yorkers imagining parachuting into Whitney Houston’s wedding, to twenty-two chapters on four continents within two years, and then crashed and burned. (See My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years, Routledge, 1994 for more information.) At that time, I was a particular kind of person. I believed in the Marxist dictum, “Each according to their ability, each according to their need.” Often, I was the one with the ability, and so I gave hugely and consistently, believing that if the day should come when I was the one with the need, it would be reciprocated. I did not yet understand the consequence of oppression on people’s emotional lives. And I also did not deeply accept that in many ways I am an exceptional person, able and willing to do things that others won’t do. This has been a very difficult lesson for me to learn. I am willing to be uncomfortable for a higher purpose, and that is not a capacity shared by many other people, which is a source of great pain to me. After all, it was the willingness to write in the discomfort of unknowing for two years that allowed this novel to come to be. But in 1992, this had not all been revealed, and so I decided according to my ability to use my Empathy book tour to recruit Lesbian Avenger chapters around the country. I requested a tour of all the gay bookstores in the US South. Actually, I requested the tour budget, and constructed the tour myself. I read from Empathy and tried to start Lesbian Avenger chapters in Atlanta, New Orleans, Birmingham, Huntsville, Greensboro, Raleigh/Durham, Austin, and a number of other locations through to Los Angeles and up to San Francisco. Some of these chapters took hold, others came to be through second starts some months later, and others didn’t take at all. But in the end, it was a very successful tour for the Avenger movement.
While the Avengers resonated with people’s needs and interests, the doors that I thought that Empathy would open about gender turned out to be entirely out of step with the historic moment. Instead, the zeitgeist was pointing in other directions. Judith Butler, someone who I like and respect, published Gender Trouble, which argued persuasively for gender as something presentational. My book tour of Germany coincided with hers, and every place I arrived, she had just departed. People kept asking in German accents, “But isn’t gender performative?” I found her followers to be sort of annoying. Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg also published significant books which extended the discussion of gender in the direction of body modification, dress, pronouns, and science, i.e. exteriority. The transsexual/transgender revolution was happening in a big way. Usually, when I would go on a book tour, I would ask audiences what lesbian books they loved. The previous year it had been Diane DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan. Suddenly, every other dyke was reading Stone Butch Blues. The tide had turned in exactly the opposite direction from my own private revelations about the lesbian self. And the shift seemed permanent. Some years later, I heard Judith Halberstam speak at the Whitney Museum on her theory of “Female Masculinity.” I was very confused by her thesis, and raised my hand to ask, “Why do you say that butch is masculine?” I’d always experienced it as a highly feminine state. Everyone seemed to understand but me. The group conscience was going the other way. As Sun Ra said, “You’re on the right road but you’re going in the wrong direction.” In the subsequent decade, more women have decided to transition and become men through body modification. As Empathy expresses, I have never personally experienced any similarity between lesbians and men. To me, lesbians and men were on opposite ends of “the continuum.”
Even years later when I fell in love and experienced mutual sexual ecstasy and joy with a woman who had a transgendered identity, her maleness did not express itself in public presentation or body-modification. It was only in her soul. I gave her Empathy, but she never read it. Neither, apparently, did many other people. Empathy was my worst-selling book, the least reviewed (the Times ignored it), and the least translated (three foreign editions: Sheba, UK; Argument Verlag, Germany; Alfaguara, Spain). It has provoked the fewest Masters theses, doctoral dissertations, and chapters in academic books of any of my work. It is rarely taught. In short, it flopped.
But I love it. Empathy is my free, wild child, the book I wrote from my deepest most optimistic place with my greatest skill. And I am so grateful to Arsenal Pulp Press for rescuing it from the recycling bin. Maybe this time around, it will make more sense to someone other than me.