Earlier this month, we announced the formation of the Emily Books Book Club (man, am I ever good at naming things! call me, Childlike Empress!) in conjunction with, right, Emily Books. As promised, I read the book (King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes, discount code at bottom of post for late adopters!) and gchatted with Emily about it yesterday. Here is the raw e-footage of said exchange:
Emily – hi Nicole!!
Nicole – hi! You’re hiding, I love hiding on gchat
Emily – I am NEVER visible.
Nicole – Now I just have a mean message, which is my compromise.
Emily – (but um always here) ooh ok
Nicole – THIS BOOK
Emily – are you like “I hate this book”? or like “THIS!”
Nicole – This book is bananas. Intentional monkey-King-Kong reference.
Emily – Haha, well, yes.
Nicole – Oh, no, I totally dug it. I was so happy to have read it. I appreciate more, every DAY, reading things which people have clearly written without regard for social niceties. Or RT-ability.
Emily – yes. exactly. that.
Nicole – Here’s one issue, though, right off the bat: I was completely in love with her introductory: “I am ugly and this is for ugly women.” “Our experiences are different.” thing’
Emily – Oh! Ok, let’s start there
Nicole – (I am making up quotes.) So, obvi, I image-searched. She is not ugly. She is, in fact, the gorgeous woman on the cover, now slightly older and looking like a slightly-older, still attractive woman.
Emily – She actually looks like the kind of person who has insane charisma. like, who you feel drawn to no matter what and you have no idea why.
Nicole – Which does not cause me to like her less, it just caused me to immediately read her work with an air of slight narratorial instability. YES. THAT. What Henry James said about the (actually ugly) George Eliot! That you fell in love with her within seconds.
Emily – Her recent novel has a middle-aged lesbian detective character called “The Hyena” who actually introduces herself like that. “Hello, I’m The Hyena” and I think how she’s described is actually probably how V. Des. is
Nicole – That is…too wonderful.
Emily – like, talking about the size of her clit more than Lil’ Kim did in all of 1999. but back to the thing about “this is for ugly girls.” A less … bold writer or a writer who’s writing in English and is a native English speaker? might have put some caveats in there about how all women feel and so, functionally, are ugly
Nicole – Hm, very true. Which also may explain that boldness-contrast, in that works in translation so often have that blunt air.
Emily – another point she makes later in the book is that all women are ugly eventually. I thought about that a lot. It’s very hard to talk about this stuff without being bizarrely, Liz Lemonishly self-deprecating
Nicole – Without paragraphs of caveats.
Emily – or on the opposite end of the spectrum, like those essays you see occasionally in women’s magazines by people who are like “I’m very beautiful, and it’s not all that”
Nicole – Samantha Brick!
Emily – or “I’m very beautiful, and it is all that”
Nicole – And then we decide they are not sufficiently beautiful to have written that.
Emily – oh people are like in a stampede, crawling over each other’s bodies, to say that
Nicole – You can’t win, really. I mean, you’re very attractive, this becomes part of the entire package of promotion machinery.
Emily – people really rush to tell women who demonstrate what in men I think is just considered “a healthy self-image” that they’re wrong, about themselves
Nicole – Yes.
Emily – anyway, thorny stuff, but I like the idea of starting from the position that even if some people are attractive (to men, in this) it’s very finite and fleeting, so probably the important aspects of being alive lie elsewhere but also that you can become beautiful or unbeautiful through sheer force of personality and will. not, say, cosmetics
Nicole – I want to impart this brilliant line from (hahaha) a Vanity Fair piece at this point. Which is that being very beautiful is like being born rich and gradually becoming poor. She has so much will. She is riddled with will, I envy and admire it.
Emily – gradually! It’s like having a trust fund you dip into throughout your 20s and then when you turn 30 it gets stolen
Nicole – Yeesh. DARK.
Emily – ha, it’s dark stuff. It’s “superficial” but it taps into everything: money, power, death.
unfortunately it’s not EXACTLY what this book is about, which is why it’s too bad the book starts there. I think it turns a lot of readers off.
Nicole – Correct. This book is, well, what is it about?
Emily – well, I think it actually is about power. It’s very outside the tradition of feminism that’s aligned with socialism — as American radical feminism in the 70s and contemporaneous European feminism were
Nicole – Power being something that exists only as an impression in the minds of others.
Emily – It’s outside the academy and ahistorical (which is why I like it)
Nicole – I think that we gets very bogged-down in dues-paying and “this owes a lot to the thinking of blah blah”, and it’s very refreshing to read someone just say “hey, this is what I think is true.”
Emily – totally, and that also is rare in the age of internet-discourse. you should really read Apocalypse Baby next
Nicole – YOU HAD ME AT THAT TITLE
Emily – it’s great, you think it’s going to just be a murder mystery and then there is all this radical French lesbianism ok but we’re talking about King Kong Theory
Nicole – I guess that what I liked and was bummed out by in the book, is the fact that I would really love to be MAKE A NUTSO RAPE-SPLOITATION REVENGE MOVIE, put it out there, let the people see it, but I’m actually very timid and try to avoid bothering or annoying people 24/7, due to being Canadian. The French are the exact opposite of Canadians. BTW, I have not seen her movie, Baise-Moi.
Emily – me neiths
Nicole – I would! I would happily see it. It was actually banned in Ontario, I think. It made good money in Quebec.
Emily – we were going to do a screening but then we were worried. like, there’s unfeigned penetration, maybe we should watch it in private
Nicole – Some people would be eating popcorn by the fistful.
Emily – “fistful” took me right back to The Hyena
Nicole – It sent me into a Wiki-hole of “unsimulated sex on film.”
Emily – ok! so, back, I think, to power. I am so interested in a particular moment in this book. The chapter about rape, and how reading one random Camille Paglia quote out of context changed V.D.’s whole life
Nicole – YES. Oh, the Paglia moment.
Emily – First, I love the idea that even if you find someone abhorrent or silly they can have one good idea that can change your whole life
Nicole – I think that’s inspiring and hilarious.
Emily – that’s another thing that we risk losing in an era of having so much control over whose voices we hear and whose media we consume, reading something that changes us that’s written by someone we hate! But also I love the substance of the idea, which is: Rape and abuse are things that happen to most women. They shouldn’t, ever, but as of now they do, a lot. We can cope with that by allowing for the possibility that those things are formative or at least not inherently, necessarily crushing. idk, I just like that idea
Nicole – But, also, because that’s her. That’s her experience of being raped. This is genuinely how she wants to frame it. Who the hell am I? My main thought, though, was that this is what happens sometimes when women have an experience that would squash other people, reasonably. And are then lacking empathy for people for whom that response is impossible.
Emily – well, I agree with you that she lacks empathy, or maybe it’s more that her imagination fails. she can’t imagine what it would be like to be crushed
Nicole – Yes, the latter.
Emily – but I suspect her experience, variations of her experience, are more common than I had imagined
Nicole – I actually…hm, it made me think of the Maria Bustillos piece.
Emily – (which I didn’t read, sorry!)
Nicole – Maria is a very strong, powerful, passionate person. And I think that one of the issues with her piece was that she seemed very callous towards women who couldn’t “handle” shrugging off men who were persistent and aggressive.
Emily – like, I think of my own experiences, which while they don’t include being violently raped at gunpoint do include stuff that some hypothetical person could have been crushed or at least chastened, frightened by?
Nicole – YES! That’s very fair. My dad had a classic horrific shitshow childhood, and is a normal person and a good dad. But when people with similarly horrific childhoods become serial killers, he’s never, never “oh, no excuse for that” He just feels like people are very different, and react differently to horribleness.
Emily – like there’s not something wrong with you if you don’t feel horribly traumatized by what happened to you. it’s like Rape Joke: “you can write about it however you want” you can do what you want with your experience
Nicole – Yes. And, right, I don’t want to strawman our culture’s discussion of rape, I’m sure lots of people tell women who have been raped that they do not have to be traumatized if that is not actually their reaction. But it was good to hear it said.
Emily – Weirdly I don’t think I’ve heard it said that much, or at least not in such stark terms. VD says “it’s what unmade and made me”
Nicole – That’s fair. That may be wishful on my part. Oh, God, what a line.
Emily – I may be slightly mangling it! but it’s something like that. I am very into the idea of being formed by experiences in unexpected ways
Nicole – Everything she says is like that. It made me feel like this crumbly twittery person.
Emily – ha! i KNOW. I mean, not that you are, but I know that feeling. stark writing without second-guessing
Nicole – I think that degree of self-knowledge and fortitude is so aspirational. I hope that age brings it, to some of us who do not have it naturally.
Emily – I hope so for myself, too. That and liking Opera and being able to read genuinely boring great books.
Nicole – I’m over Opera.
Emily – Ha! Cool, I’ll skip that one then.
Nicole – SKIP IT. No, my equivalent would be silent humor movies from the early 20th century. I’m like, is “Old School” on?
Emily – I personally barely can handle movies at all. my attention span is … sorry what were we talking about
Nicole – I appreciated that this book is 53 pages long.
Emily – It tests the definition of “book” a little! Luckily no one has asked us for their money back.
Nicole – It’s so VD to be “I have fifty-three pages worth of wisdom for you, that’s it. That’s what I have to say, I’m not padding it.”
Emily – Even the last essay is pushing it a little. She’s like, okay, we covered rape, sex work, porn … the history of culture as experienced by women vs. men … what else is there? Goodnight!
Nicole – “Bye, girls!” Here’s a question: why King Kong Theory and not Apocalypse Baby?
Emily – I think KKT makes sense as an entry point to her work. I also read it first. it had also been a while since we’d done a book that wasn’t a novel or memoir. or memoirish novel, or novelish memoir. this is more a memoir-inflected CALL TO ARMS
Nicole – There are not a lot of books that are not novels or novelish memoirs
Emily – we try to avoid books that are “theory” in an academic way, though I think we reserve the right to someday assign The Dialectic of Sex! usually when people can use narrative to do the same things theory does, that’s our sweet spot
Nicole – It’s a good sweet spot! Theory can be so prickly and uninviting for a general audience (I am firmly in the general-audience category.)
Emily – I am too, man, I like books that distract me from the horror of my subway commute and Althusser just doesn’t. I just picked that out of a hat. I may have misspelled it
Nicole – I will find out if you did and will draw our readers’ attention to it (Emily was correct. – Ed.)
Emily – long story short, being an Emily Books subscriber is like being in grad school, except none of the boring parts and .00001% as expensive (math may not be quite accurate, but basically)
Nicole – How is that not on your site in huge letters?
Emily – I think for some people it would be a turnoff. some people WENT to grad school (not me)
Nicole – Oh. I have this total horror of grad school. I had assumed it was universal, but, of course, people go and flourish. Can I confess something? the thing I said about power above? From VD? There is a 40% chance that I substituted something a character said on Game of Thrones two hours before I read the book. I think it wasn’t, I think the person was Cersei and said something different, but I had this nagging concern.
Emily – Cersei and VD are not WHOLLY dissimilar, but I think VD is more like Dany
Nicole – Yes. She is.
Emily – not just in the sense of “someone who is raped then becomes a warrior queen who will one day rule the 7 kingdoms” but also in terms of her general worldview/outlook
Nicole – Though that part is also valid!
Emily – nothing is so horrible that you can’t figure out a way to use it to your advantage. We put in all the caveats about easier said than done
Nicole – But I think we definitely both feel like the concept could be liberating to those for whom it is actually true.
Emily – it’s good to be reminded that you need to be brave and strong to live in this world as a woman
Nicole – Yes.
Emily – (or as an anyone, but you know)
Nicole – I keep circling back mentally to being irritated that so much of my reaction is just “I need to be so much less concerned with how I will be read.” “I need to have more opinions, and be noisy about them, or just not bother.”
Emily – Some of it is battle-picking
Nicole – True.
Emily – I think I wore myself out early on by going to the mat for things that ultimately weren’t that important
Nicole – Is it that they seemed more important at the time? Or were they insufficiently important even then?
Emily – The latter, it was just that classic “someone is wrong on the internet!” thing. now that I’m older and marginally wiser/more patient, I can sometimes recognize when something’s worth fighting for vs. when I just need to be right about something.
Nicole – oh, yeah I’ve got that, but quietly over email to friends
Emily – totally. subsubsubtweeting
Nicole – I am so excited for wisdom. I don’t think I’ll ever be a VD, but maybe I could be an Ellen Willis one day. COME, WISDOM
Emily – let’s have a ceremony where we light candles and invite it
Nicole – I would show up to that within seconds of it being announced.
Emily – crone wisdom, come to me, inhabit my internet-addled mind. Are Ellen Willis and VD opposed? Stylistically they are
Nicole – oh, ha, my mom needs the computer, because when I am home I am 14 again
Emily – omg does she need to use the phone? do you have dialup? jk
Nicole – I am sitting at a DESKTOP, with YES A DIALUP THING
Emily – whoa
Nicole Cliffe – It’s a stick. Her internet is powered by a stick. It’s remarkable. This is why we gave you Robin Thicke. So, I will mangle this all together and put it up tomorrow.
Emily – thanks again!!!! bye!
Readers of The Toast can take 20% off purchases from Emily Books—subscriptions or individual books–by entering the code THETOAST at checkout until August 8th.
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.