Charlotte Shane has a lot going on. She’s famous for her TinyLetters series which became the book Prostitute Laundry, but she is widely published and much in demand for both her elegant voice and thoughtful perspectives on issues folks tend to be thoughtless about. Here is our short interview before her event this Friday, an interview in which I ask ridiculously huge questions and she graciously brings it all back down to earth.
The event is called “Bad Advice from Bad Women”. Can you define “bad” in this context?
The name came from a blog post a conservative pundit wrote raging against my Swipe Right on Monogamy piece for Matter—which, for any readers who don’t recognize the idiom, is me advocating for monogamy. The title was something like “More Bad Advice From a Bad Woman, Rawr, Whatever Happened to Nuclear Families, Gun Rights, America.” I was really delighted by how the first part sounded and how, in the context of this man’s politics, where “bad” means “progressive” or “irreverent” or “slutty” or whatever, “bad” becomes a compliment.
I’m not serious about “taking ‘bad’ back” or anything—calling a woman “bad” in an attempt to shame or censure her feels hopelessly dated to me, and similarly, priding one’s self on being “bad” is basic and retro too. So it’s doubly mocking as a reading title, in a playful way. I mean, in 2016, in the United States, how can someone be sincerely scandalized by a woman exercising sexual agency or criticizing male entitlement or talking about how she doesn’t like babies? And how could I seriously act like I’m so transgressive for writing about my (straight) sex life? It’s all too silly.
Besides yourself, this event features Kathleen Hale, Heather Havrilesky, Tess Lynch, Molly Lambert and Lorelei Lee. Is this an ad hoc Super Group or are you all pals? What are the relationships here?
Mutual admiration I think/hope. We sort of circulate in the same freelance circles. Tess and I have been internet friends for a long time (early Tumblr days;) Lorelei I know from sex work activism and writing circles; Heather Havrilesky’s writing in Salon awed me ages ago and she’s only gotten better in the years since; Molly Lambert is practically an institution—young, but so prolific; and Kathleen Hale’s Hazlitt essays made me a devoted fan. I can’t comment on their relationships with one another, but I’m sure it’s a tangled web in the best way.
In your Brooklyn Magazine interview, you talk about being “tasked” with writing – which sounds like it’s a calling. But you also say it is “not predicated on other people validating it, reading it or acknowledging it.” It sounds like there’s a teensy bit of tension there, ie since you have this talent and inclination for writing, then you have a responsibility to use it to benefit others, even though you have written for yourself, because you love it and it’s helpful for your life. Do you have a sense that your writing is a gift both to you and for you to share?
Writing feels like the only way I have to understand myself, and it’s truly an honor when my writing, which has often comforted or educated or soothed or entertained me, has a positive impact on other people. I try to be responsible and thoughtful and honest about what I write just like I try to be responsible, etc. about how I’m in the world. Plus I’m a Libra, so I get het up about injustice and poor logic. But what I write about and how I write is usually interesting and fulfilling enough to me that it’s hard to think about doing it “for” other people, even as I want it to be convincing and accurate—i.e. worthwhile and effective when read by others.
You’ve talked about being careful of how you ended Prostitute Laundry. The impetus for starting the letters – the need to manage emotions and thoughts from your life experiences – diminished at least partly from having those needs met thru a really good relationship. However, you make very clear that it’s not the case that some guy “rescued” you. It sounds like the struggle there is about clarity in your writing, not about controlling the ending of that narrative or perceptions of you. Am I understanding that?
There’s an oldish movie starring Christina Ricci that barely anyone saw, and everyone who saw it except me hated it. It’s called Pumpkin, and it’s a love story and—spoiler alert—the girl ends up with the guy. There’s a moment at the end which is supposed to be triumphant and celebratory where the girl (Ricci) is walking off with the guy and suddenly she looks back over her shoulder with tremendous ambivalence. I wanted that quality at the end of Prostitute Laundry because the book’s conclusion isn’t the stopping point of my *life*, only the book. I didn’t know what would come after, and I didn’t want to pretend I did, or could. That was my primary concern: to resist an ending that felt too neat and complete.
You say towards the end of a post you wrote for Jezebel “It’s easy to despise someone for not having more power, or for not responding to their powerlessness the way you think they should. It’s easy to embrace the idea that some people should be exploited by virtue of who they are, or that they are already less human than you by virtue of being more vulnerable.” That’s a huge, really compassionate statement that could apply to all kinds of folks. Is that a motivating factor in your writing, to advocate in some way for the marginalized?
That essay was, in part, a response to a really cruel piece of writing that a lot of people enjoyed and shared and praised, and I was so upset by both its existence and its reception. That seemed like a huge failure of empathy and decency, that no one noticed or was bothered by the sheer, inexcusable meanness of it. So in that particular instance, yes, I was motivated by wanting to make people reexamine why they were content to find pleasure in the degradation of already vulnerable and disdained women.
You are critical of “second wave feminism”. Can you summarize your critique of it? (Maybe not possible in a short interview; this could be your next book!) Who are the authors we should be reading to understand feminism?
Now-wave feminism sucks too if you’re just looking at the mainstream white version. I learn an outrageous amount from Black women who don’t necessarily have books or at least not books of theory: Jamilah Lemieux, Janet Mock, Zoé Samudzi. I love Twitter for how much knowledge it can deliver every day. Hundreds of thousands of brilliant and hilarious women are on Twitter just floating their perfect thoughts out there. It’s a blessing. I don’t read anything that positions itself as explicitly feminist because it feels like more of a marketing angle now, I guess—packaging that only delivers status quo-affirming content.
But one handy guideline might be: if it’s a feminism that’s offended by the word “cis,” thinks Tina Fey is a hero, puts top priority on having more female CEOs, and ranks porn as a huge threat to gender equality, that feminism is garbage emoji.
I subscribed to Prostitunes, but I haven’t received my first playlist yet. Where did the idea come from?
I’ll send one out this Wednesday! You can hear past lists on Soundcloud. I just wanted an excuse to keep spending hours looking for good music like I already do.
More books, more essays, more readings, more writing!
All that awesomeness is only 1/6th of what’s in store for you if you attend this event Friday night: Bad Advice from Bad Women, 7:30 PM
This could seriously be 6 separate events, but we’re bringing it all together in one epic night of POWER.