Quim is one of my favorite words. I learned it from Henry Miller, who also loves quim. He describes quims in every condition—bouncing, begging, floating in the sky.
At eighteen, I ate up Portnoy’s Complaint. At fifteen, I re-read all the rough sex scenes in Kerouac’s canon. At thirteen, we read American Psycho aloud at a sleepover. How do I reconcile my feminist politics with my fondness for misogynists like Miller and Roth; I, who dutifully cringe at most music videos yet live for the quim in Tropic of Cancer, and bookmarked the rat scene in Bret Easton Ellis’ classic?
Why am I such a sucker for Dick Lit?
Books about Grand Man Problems—work, money, dignity, war—bore me to tears. Moby Dick, The Road, anything Faulkner: these meaty, male “masterpieces” never fail to leave me wanting more. On the other end of the spectrum, things aren’t much livelier. The marriage plot and the harlot are expected to speak to preteens nationwide as the predecessors to hook-ups and sluts. To be frank, Jane Austen is as irrelevant to me as a coke bottle douche.
Enter Henry Miller, in his swaggering infamy and stuffed britches. Enter, a few beats later, his chorus of cunts, “private and extraordinary,” “hot under the whiskers,” “absolutely meaningless,” onomatopoetic, pushy, and piscine. Descriptions of violent men and lurid sex-acts shunt me back into the main frame: these are passages I can relate to, however perversely.
There’s a place for me in Dick Lit. I can put myself into the shoes that are about to be kicked off. I don’t have to choose between truth and beauty, confession and confetti, as I usually do with the well-intentioned drivel served up by Dick Lit’s counterpart, the Vag Pack (I’m looking at you, Sarah Dessen). Romance novels where men unanimously respect women and carry ribbed condoms in their custom-fit Levi’s are fantasy. The Brönte babes get lumped with Fifty Shades. Such fluff serves a purpose, but not the one that I’m after.
I’m not really looking to be uplifted by my literature. At the intersection of Upton (Kate) and Updike (apt name), I’m seeking something raw. There’s flesh in Dick Lit: even if Miller’s women are treated like pieces of meat, at least they’re edible. For this grim reason, I prefer my highbrow Playboy to pro-femme YA. The former wins by a margin of truth.
From The Tropic of Cancer: “I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out…I make your ovaries incandescent…I am fucking you Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked…I will bite your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces.” Miller’s language is outlandish, but the violence of his tone, and the body in question, are real enough to leave you squirming. At the same time that I’m shocked by lines like “writhing cunt,” I want him to go further. The discomfort that I feel while reading this parallels the discomfort of being a girl. It is the discomfort of having a vulnerable body, both in and out of fiction. I welcome this vulnerability, because at least it’s accurate.
Dick Lit provides a depressing, engaging, upfront representation of the female experience, without even giving a shit about the women it depicts. Ironically, the more misogynistic the passage, the more relatable it feels. These authors’ disinterest in anything other than fountainous clams (or however they phrase it) offers the female reader a refreshing break from the perfumed euphemisms of “respectable” literature, and momentary recognition. Sad though it sounds, my clam can’t help but appreciate the nod. The more absurd the scenario, as when Miller describes examining a shaven twat with a flashlight, the more applicable it becomes; beneath the layers of satire is a seed of truth. That seed is called misogyny.
Why do we read? We want confirmation. We want our dirty little secrets prettily put. Though I’m no bejugged French whore with the clap and an ivory cane, I can still empathize with Dick Lit’s fleeting female figures and revel in their cameos—always brief, but heavy-flow. Because at least I, young and female, am not being ignored, as with the grand machismo novels of yore. Nor am I being patronized by rose-tinted biddy lit.
Yeah, Miller’s descriptions are usually laughable and weirdly botanical, and Roth has been known to describe a vagina as a flayed tulip at multiple points in American Pastoral. But that’s the point: I am simultaneously tickled and informed by these travesties, like a tot watching some strange Japanese spinoff of Sesame Street. Women are used to being gazed at, but not so much to being read. Perusing The Tropic of Cancer is like watching porn as a preteen to figure out what men expect—how else would anyone know what a landing strip is? Descriptions like Miller’s serve as valuable insight, and bleak confirmation, of the way women (in fiction as in life) are perceived, when no longer written invisible by manly indifference or misplaced modesty. With one’s bush as a parachute, we can float across enemy lines.
Of course, there’s the question of sexual violence. When JG Ballard describes wanting to literally fuck a girl’s brains out, and Bret Easton Ellis’ protagonists torture women without breaking a sweat, what’s a female reader to do? We don’t expect our fiction to be ethical. One can empathize with something without condoning it. What’s more, compare these violated bodies to the literary stick-figures of Hemingway. Violation isn’t even an option for his women; that would be too much of a plot point for such peripheral characters. They exist purely in relation to male needs and desires. Their dialogue doesn’t include the word no. They are as exploited by the narrative as they are by their men: for both, they are empty devices.
Flat female characters may seem harmless when compared to the three-dimensional torture of Ellis’ hookers. But what Hemingway and others’ depictions of women drive home is this: we are not only subordinate in real life, but in fiction too. Our worthlessness extends into the realms of fancy, where pigs can fly and dickless men can be heroes but women still can’t speak. The hedonism of Dick Lit offers the female body an array of possibilities, veering from pleasure to pain; it vividly acknowledges our physical existence and the multitude of things that can, and have, been done to us. Meanwhile “respectable” literature ball-gags us with blandness. The heroines of Vag Pack are airy to the point of erasure. Sterilization is a form of violence too.
I only remember one scene from Bukowski’s Factotum: when he describes his girlfriend’s panties as slightly shit-stained. This scene often comes back to me, not because I’m offended, but rather, surprised, and a tiny a bit flattered, that he even noticed the stains at all. Women may be abused, objectified, mocked, and despised in Dick Lit (so what else is new?)—but at least we get some airtime, memorable airtime, in a medium bent on our erasure. Dick Lit can’t sing without its quim. The juncture of pelvis and thigh is a narrative lynchpin. It’s pathetic, but it’s true. Female bodies have been promoted from the pure spectacle of porn, that looped catcall, and granted the double-edged respect of a real narrative.
Just because I dig Dick Lit doesn’t mean that I find it empowering. What makes the female characters in Dick Lit noteworthy is not their strength or independence. No, their role as an object is simply made more obvious; their bodies, and by proxy, their abuses, are spotlighted. Point blank, I like reading about how men perceive women. Sometimes this requires a strong stomach.
Maybe my interest in Dick Lit is partially beauty-queen conformity—I want to feel worthy of even the dirtiest words. Miller offers a female reader the retrogressive pleasure and necessity of being noticed by a man, in squirm-worthy detail. Yet within this hallowed viewpoint is the potential to zoom in even closer, to shine a flashlight on our wounds. One can see how absurd the desire for male recognition really is, when laid out bluntly on a page and reduced to jabs and juices. With Dick Lit I can have my cake and rub it on my body too. From masculine delusion springs (squirts?) feminine relevance.
So let’s get this shit out in the open. Let’s put our knees behind our ears and push aside those petticoats. In work like Miller’s and Ellis’ and Bukowski’s, women are not invisible, but rather, revealed doing all the things you shouldn’t see. They are neither silenced nor made into mouthpieces, but rather, reduced to guttural utterances and the splash of a bidet. They are allowed to gush, if only for an instant. It’s hardly a victory. But if I must be a body, I want to be a poetic one, unruly and expansive. I’d rather produce fluids than platitudes; at least I can leave behind stains. So I’m divorcing the marriage plot. I’m shacking up with Don Juan, snapping pics for Dick Lit. If nothing else, it’s exciting. For this reason, I whinny: long live the quim.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.