I want to talk about this whole “Adrien Brody” situation that if you follow a certain subset of media-oriented tumblrs was everywhere this past couple of weeks, if only because maybe if I publish this I can stop thinking about it. If you don’t follow said tumblrs basically what went down is:
- Marie Calloway, who is 21 years old, wrote a story called “Adrien Brody” about a sexual encounter she had with a 40ish internet intellectual type, who had a girlfriend (and might still?). It starts out with the text of emails they apparently exchanged, and then continues to describe the time they spend together, which culminates in them having sex, and then it turns out he maybe didn’t share her sense of a deep mystical connection, and he Apparently it was originally posted on her (now-deleted) personal blog, but with the writer’s real name, and pictures, one of the writer and one of her face, apparently covered in the writer’s cum, before a site called Muumuu House picked it up and removed some of the identifying information about the writer. (Not enough that it wasn’t pretty clear who it was if you read lots of literary somewhat intellectually oriented stuff on the internet, which I do. My own feelings on the writer in question before this whole thing that is that he was smart and is not a bad writer but his stuff is mostly a bit too clever and theoretical and “objective” for my personal taste. This wasn’t really changed by this whole thing, though obviously I don’t know if all the details in Calloway’s story are 100% “true.”)
- Emily Gould wrote a really thoughtful piece in response to it at her blog, placing “Adrien Brody” in a history of uncomfortably honest, kind of embarrassing to read women’s writing that includes Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and that Katha Pollitt thing about spying on her ex on the internet. I thought Gould’s piece was interesting enough that I wanted to read I Love Dick and have a real opinion about it.
- The New York Observer ran an article about Calloway that called her a “literary seductress” and a “famewhore” as well as quoting Emily Gould and Tao Lin, the writer who runs Muumuu House. One salient detail in the Observer story is that a Hairpin advice column received and ran an anonymous letter asking for advice on how to deal with the fact that a blogger had published a detailed post about a one-time sexual encounter with the letter-writer’s long-term boyfriend, which has since been pulled.
- A lot of people did not have positive things to say, about Calloway’s writing, or the state of affairs that basically means that women only get literary notoriety by fucking people and confessionalism. Tao Lin responded to that first link by writing a whole long deliberately obtuse thing and basically telling its author that he should watch Shrek 2. My dismay with the whole situation is more to do with the way the Observer presented the story than the story itself.
- Calloway’s put up a bullet-point response to her critics where she talks about what she was trying to do with the story, which makes it clear that she really did have, like, ideas about what she was writing and wasn’t just studiously writing down the details of a sexual encounter mechanically. (I think that it’s fully possible to disagree on whether she succeeded.)
- Other notable links: The Rumpus Interview with Calloway; Kate Zambreno writes about it.
I have to say, I really didn’t feel the same way a lot of people did about the story. It does, to be sure, lack polish, and could have benefited from some editing, but it was nevertheless a pretty fascinating read, even without the kind of whodunit mystery about who the writer in question is.
The thing is, I remember being 19 and 20 and having crushes on these older (though not that much older) dudes who seemed so smart and so cool and so knowing, and I was into them not so much because I was super-attracted to them but because I wanted to be like them. And when you’re 20, desires tend to get mixed up together. But I’m really (thankfully) bad at flirting and am not as cute as Marie Calloway, and also I suspect those dudes didn’t want to take advantage of me, so I mostly would just hang with them and get to be friendly with them. I’m glad that nothing ever went anywhere with this kind of dude, since I don’t think that a real sexual relationship with any of said dudes would have been fun or good for me, and then I started dating my current boyfriend who respects me as a person right around when I turned 21 so I’ve done a lot of the figuring out who I am bits of my twenties in a pretty chill, secure relationship which made at least one thing less confusing. But sleeping with internet intellectuals is totally something I would have done before I’d read enough theory to stop being impressed by them, if it had occurred to me, and there’s something pretty familiar in that moment when you realize that someone you kind of idolize turns out to be not only human, but capable of being kind of a dick.
Obviously, also, there is a kind of moral discomfort reading the thing in the story, in the violation of “Adrien Brody’s” privacy – and more compellingly, his girlfriend’s – and it doesn’t necessarily break ground that wasn’t covered, better, in I Love Dick. Because I Love Dick, it’s a novel where you kind of can’t tell where the memoir bits end and the novel bits begin. It’s about a filmmaker in a sexless marriage who falls in love with a (fairly famous) social critic1 based on one dinner, and turns this love into a kind of elaborate literary project that is still also about viscerally wanting to fuck someone, and does it all with a dizzying hyper-self-awareness and simultaneous acknowledgement of and rage at her own vulnerability that the whole thing becomes so, so much more than a love story. I definitely think that’s what Calloway was going for – but I don’t know that she totally got there. The gossipy glimpses at what “Adrien Brody” is “really like” – something I’d wondered exactly zero times though I had read some of his writing – have kind of overwhelmed a lot of what’s good about the story and the way she writes about him. But if she’d fictionalized him more effectively I can’t imagine that I’d have heard about it or read it. And there’s something kind of exciting about seeing someone do something so audaciously terrible.
But that last sex scene? I don’t know, it kind of got at something that felt “true” to me:
I laid down on the bed and he laid down on top of me.
“I want to get you out of your head,” he said.
We started to have sex and I was overcome.
This is it. This is what sex is. What I’ve spent the past three years of my life, my entire adult life, looking for, even though I hadn’t realized it until now.
“That’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”
“What is?” I asked, though I knew.
“Your face right now.”
I was vaguely aware my eyes were open very wide.
“Do you want to know something? This is the best it’s ever felt for me,” I said.
“Because I’m going slow?”
“No.” I felt put out that he would try to reduce it to that.
“I feel like this is the most that sex can ever be,” I said.
I meant it in a positive way, but he agreed and was instead disappointed. He said that he hoped for “some feeling of transcending bodies.”
I’ve read a lot of better prose than Calloway’s and I do think she’s trying to do a flat, kind of clumsy affectless thing on purpose (obviously she admires Tao Lin and you can see a lot of his influence in the tone) even if I don’t think it’s always totally effective and isn’t my favourite thing to read, but this is a pretty economical explanation of that gulf that can exist between people even when they’re at their physically most intimate. I’ve found a lot of the conversation pretty frustrating. A lot things are simultaneously true:
- I can’t think of a justification, other than shock value, for using the writer’s real name and images. In the Rumpus interview Calloway admits this was something she shouldn’t have done. I don’t really feel sorry for him – he doesn’t come off well even if some of the stuff is fictionalized, and he apparently cheated on his girlfriend – but I do feel sorry for his girlfriend, who is the actual wronged party in this scenario.
- I actually do think shocking people is a potentially valuable function of art. I don’t know if this is one of those cases. I’m sure Adrien Brody’s girlfriend doesn’t think so, but on the other hand at least now she knows.
- Sady Doyle recently noted that “There is no slogan more misunderstood, or more widely abused, than ‘the personal is political.’” One of the unintended consequences of making the personal is political is that there’s pressure on woman writers to adopt a confessional mode and kind of commodify their own experiences (Maura has talked about this a lot on her tumblr.) Probably more relevant to this discussion is Chris Kraus’s response to being asked about the personal and its inherent political-ness: “The personal pursued for its own sake is no good. The “I” is only useful to the point that it gets outside itself, gets larger.”
- I think being aware of this and conscious of the limitations of “the personal is political” and the gross dynamics of a literary economy that asks women to lay their whole lives out for attention does not mean that sex and relationships aren’t important (and potentially political) topics for women to write about.
- I think that reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Marie Calloway did a good job of writing about sex and personal relationships.
I do kind of earnestly believe that dealing with our own worst selves is something that women’s writing needs to be able able to do. I’ve been thinking a lot about hysteria narratives and for me “Adrien Brody” really does somehow fit in with all these other threads of excessive female feelings.
Widely acknowledged to be Dick Hebdige, whose Subculture: The Meaning of Style is seminal enough that I read it for my Masters thesis, but I don’t think I wound up using it much because it’s the only book on style in the postmodern age I can think that almost completely avoids mentioning women or queer people. He was Not Happy about the publication of the book. ↩