Leslie Jamison's viral article on literature's damaged women overlooks a range of writing which exposes the complexity and ambivalence of female pleasureby Katie da Cunha Lewin / April 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
Leslie Jamison’s November 2019 New York Times essay on the ‘Cult of the Literary Sad Woman’ was roundly criticised in her reduction of certain writers, particularly Jean Rhys, to describe a certain type of writing that prioritised emotion, consciousness and self-destructiveness. At 22, Jamison reflected, she “needed blueprints for [her] epic sadness” and looked for them in the literature that seemed to fetishise what she calls elsewhere “suicide chic.” For Jamison, there is a limitation to seeing women suffer in art; she offers as an alternative Maggie Nelson’s writing in The Argonauts, in which she shies away from describing the illness of her child, and focuses instead on describing happiness, and importantly, pleasure. This pleasure, as Jamison reads it, rejects “sadness as a default narrative posture.” There are many baffling things about this essay, not least her analysis of vulnerability and suggestion that there are archetypes of a uniquely “female sadness,” but it interesting that reframing writing through pleasure seems to suggest itself as a firmly positive action, as if pleasure is, as she has it, the opposite of damage.
Jamison’s question of pleasure as a respondent to sadness is an interesting one, given the new cultural conversations around consent, sexual violence, harassment, and the norms of heterosexuality in general. The #MeToo movement has certainly shifted the concerns of contemporary feminism, but these public wrestlings are often limited to interpersonal relationships. What is more difficult to acknowledge is that questions of pleasure, sex and intimacy go beyond consent, into murkier territories that are not so easily arbitrated or judged. At the same time, Jamison’s dismissal of suffering seemed to suggest that for her, literature needs to move on from its dominant subjects, or at least writing by women has to—whether we would (or even could) make the same demands of writing by men is another story.
This question of pleasure in the face of suffering comes to the fore in Susanna Moore’s recently reissued 1995 cult novel In the Cut. Frannie, a teacher in her 30s, lives alone in New York City. One evening, whilst in a bar with one of her students, she accidentally witnesses a young woman giving a man oral sex in the recesses of the basement. This young woman is later murdered, and Frannie becomes involved in the subsequent investigation, as well as beginning a sexual…