Intimacy and Consciousness: A Conversation with Garth Greenwell
BY CAMPBELL CAMPBELL
Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for many other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the LA Times Book Prize. His most recent book of fiction, Cleanness, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2020, has been longlisted for France’s Prix Sade, and is a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He is also the co-editor, with R.O. Kwon, of the nationally bestselling anthology KINK: Stories. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, Greenwell was recently awarded the 2021 Vursell Award for distinguished prose style from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Campbell Campbell: I’m excited to discuss your distinct writing style. Your novels tend to be seductive in subject matter and language, which strikes me as a mode of queering the novel. How do you view your writing style and your contribution to the queer novel tradition?
Garth Greenwell: I think that a successful style gives the sense of an entire life condensed to a voice. The idea is to get as much of your world and the world that you’re creating into a voice in the shape of sentences and to let different modes of engaging with art making, music making, and language shape the voice. My first education in art was as an opera singer, and then I spent a couple of decades as a poet. When I wrote my novel, those were the tools that I had. That’s what shaped my voice as a fiction writer. I do think that whenever you think of queerness as a form, you have to think of multiplicity. You have to acknowledge the ways in which queerness is racing ahead of us and is not something that can be catalogued or reduced to a definition.
There are many kinds of queer style, and my writing style feels queer to me in its expressivity, liquidity—liquidity of emotion and liquidity of syntax—and the way in which my sentences violate syntax and flow over. I think that when I invoke liquidity in relation to the concept of maleness, I resist ideas of male bodies and male selves as being bound or contained.
I am trying to be a part of the conversation of the tradition of the novel of consciousness, which is not exclusively queer but has many queer voices. I think of Henry James, Proust, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Bernhard. They are contributing to a tradition that is notably but not exclusively queer.
CC: You mentioned your background in music. As I was reading, the pacing felt musical rather than argumentative. What did you view as the driving force for Cleanness as a novel?
GG: This novel has an unconventional form, and…it’s funny that I just called it a novel because I try to resist doing that. For me, the closest analog to the form of Cleanness is a song cycle. A classical song cycle, for example a German lieder cycle. That was my first experience using discrete parts to make a bigger whole in art:I grew up singing cycles like Die Schöne Müllerin by Schubert.I think of the form as consisting of spheres of intensity that are held in relation to one another. A relation that is not chronological or causal like the usual novelistic plot.
The structure of What Belongs To You is likewise musical, and it was originally titled Three Movements.
CC: How do you think this musical movement affects the time and plot of the work?
GG: I think that there is a freedom with time. I knew that I wanted the heart of the book to be a linear narrative of a love story that would have a beginning and a middle and an end, and I also knew that by the time we reached that middle section, I wanted the reader already to know the whole arc of the relationship, and that it had ended. I gradually came to discover that there was going to be a mirror structure to the first and third sections as I continued to work. When I am writing and know that something is not working, I’ll come to see the reason through musical terms. I’ll think, Oh, a chord is missing from the harmonic progression.
CC: Did this affect how you imagined the arc of the novel?
GG: It’s funny that I don’t think in terms of large-scale works. I tricked myself into writing both books by telling myself that I was not writing a book. When writing What Belongs To You, I did not think of it as a novel until I was writing the second-to-last scene and thought, “Oh, this is a novel!”
But I don’t think in terms of the architecture of a book; I think in terms of pushing my way forward in a sentence.
CC: I ask because it felt as though the characters were in these constant states of political, physical, emotional ambiguity, that were present until the very end of the novel. Why did you put your characters in that state of ambiguity, and how does that relate to their sexual explorations?
GG: I think that ambiguity is what interests me in art. If I know what I think about something, then I don’t need art to think about it. I do think the virtue of art is that we can draw a frame around a bit of reality and, within that frame, indulge fully in the virtues of ambiguity, ambivalence, and doubt, that are central of human thinking and are suppressed in a lot of thinking that we do, especially in the public and moral realm. I am interested in moral questions rather than writing moral fiction, and I am interested in questions, situations, dilemmas, that are complicated and defeat my canons of judgment.
CC: Do you think your art represents that ambiguity and resolves that ambiguity?
GG: I don’t think that it resolves the ambiguity. I think that art is an attempt to think into the ambiguity and to dwell in ambiguity. In some sense, it makes the ambiguity bearable.
I think that the end of Cleanness is an attempt to say that we exist in an irresolvable ambiguous state of cleanness and filth. The challenge is not to suppress that ambiguity, but to try to imagine the life that could accommodate it. And I think that’s what that last scene with the dog is about. When I am writing,I want not to make an argument but to establish a situation and to observe characters in a particular world as honestly as I can. I never have a thesis.
CC: Eileen Myles has made similar comments about their work. I want to turn to intimacy in your works: how did you reimagine intimacy? Why is this necessary? And how does this incorporate digital technology, social media and pornography?
GG: I do think that the deepest theme of the book is intimacy. There is sexual intimacy, student-teacher relationship intimacy, and citizenship intimacy—the intimacy that you feel in a crowd of protestors. I don’t know if I have smart things to say about how technology interfaces with contemporary senses of intimacy and inwardness, but my work is engaged with those questions. It is fascinating how much of our intimacy is mediated by digital technology. So much of our sense of what sex is and sex can look like comes from internet pornography..
I think that there is a crisis in our culture in representing sexual bodies and finding a way to represent consciousness in those bodies. Internet pornography has to gone to great lengths to expunge bodies of personhood. Maybe that’s not true for crowdsourced, performer-produced pornography, such as OnlyFans. Those sites have emerged since I worked on Cleanness, but muc of internet pornography seems to be engaged in a kind of arms race of extremity. I often feel that I’m seeing bodies rather than selves. With Cleanness, I was interested in the combination of explicitness and the particular sentences that I am drawn to, which I think of as a technology for the production of inwardness. That combination of the sexual body and writing that foregrounds consciousness feels very exciting to me. I do think that that’s an important role that literature can play in our representation of sexual bodies. To reclaim those bodies as sites of consciousness.
CC: In creating consciousness and intimacy, it struck me as odd that you used name abbreviations. Why did you insist on anonymity? Is it for necessity or fantasy?
GG: It is not for necessity. The truth is that I feel a resistance to naming my characters or giving them “real names.” I am interested in nicknames—for example, the chapter where the character is given the nickname “Little Saint.”
Why do I resist this? It has to do with the extent that I insist upon the reality, validity, value of intimacy, especially sexual intimacy, that is often dismissed and that can exist in situations of anonymity and transience. You can have a genuinely valuable, a humanly valuable, and durably valuable encounter with someone whose name you’ll never know, even if that encounter only lastsfor fifteen minutes.
The books want to inhabit a space of anonymity and to force the reader to experience intimacy with the characters despite anonymity, and that’s one thing that namelessness is doing in the book. But the truth is that there is so much about writing that is mysterious to me, and I write to respond to urges that I don’t understand. I think that it can be dangerous to think that I have to understand the source of this urge or know how it is working, and I am a believer in trusting your instinct and urges, even if you can’t tell yourself a fully convincing story about that urge.
CC: I was excited by how human the sexual interactions were and wondered what motivates the main character to want to be submissive in one scenario and dominant in another. Does there need to be a logic to this? How do you balance a Freudian approach to this topic and a sex-positive approach to this topic?
GG: Writing “Gospodar,” was really terrifying; it was unlike anything I had written before. I’m not sure if I want to qualify this as an aesthetic, moral, or human challenge, but then, having written an S&M scene from the position of the submissive, I knew that I needed to write from the position of the dominant. That was the impulse that created the book. When I knew that the story needed a mirror story, then the whole structure of the book sprang into being in my mind. I think of “Gospodar” as the chapter that created the book. I needed to research the other subject position, and part of me didn’t want to do it. It would be years before I did it, but I knew that I needed to do that before the book would be finished.
I don’t think in terms of Freud. I read quite a lot of Freud back in the day when I was in graduate school, and I thought those ideas were a compelling story, but I never thought of them as telling me the truth of the human condition. Some of his insights are basic: do our early lives have an outsized influence on the rest of our lives? Is there a lot in our motivations and desires that we don’t consciously know? Yes, I think that’s true.
Sex seems interesting to me because it is this really dense and highly charged act of communication between human beings. And it seems that an awful lot of the human is revealed in sex and that sex puts pressure on human beings that cracks certain defenses and makes what is usually hidden visible. It is interesting as a tool for reach into human beings.
CC: If I may, what was your process for researching this dominant character?
GG: Writing itself is research. Making fiction is doing research into the human. Where did that character come from? Everything I’ve ever experienced in my life as a sexual person and not as a sexual person.
One of the things that “Little Saint” is exploring is this sense that the masculinity that the narrator fetishizes can be toxic and bound up with ideas of violence. What really moved me about the character, the Little Saint, is that he transforms that masculinity—not by denying it, not by scrubbing it away, but by taking away some of its danger. Less the danger that the narrator poses to the Little Saint, or that dominant poses to the submissive, but instead the danger that is having this violent ideal of masculinity in oneself by virtue of the air that we all breathe, the culture that we all live in.
That research is my whole life. Growing up in Kentucky and having examples of that kind of masculinity around me.
CC: I read that you’re writing a new queer narrative that is set in Kentucky. What is the research process for that new novel?
GG: That is unfortunately on hold because of the pandemic and because it requires a lot of site-specific research. Before the pandemic, I was spending a lot of time in Louisville, where I am from. The University of Louisville has one of the largest local queer historical archives in the country, so I spent six weeks, eight hours a day, in that archive going through documents and talking to people.
I was hoping to go back to Louisville and devote myself to that novel, but the pandemic has shut that down. I’m hoping to get back to that project as soon as possible.
CC: I want to turn to Kink since we’re getting closer to the end of the hour. Louise Glück has famously said that she reads to be addressed. What kind of audience did you hope for for this anthology, and could you elaborate on the goals for the anthology as a literary work?
GG: [R.O. Kwon and I] knew that we wanted an anthology that would be diverse and that would have complicated things to say about questions of sexuality and consent and power and how those questions are inflected by history, race, gender identity, nationality, and language. It was also a priority for us to have an aesthetically diverse anthology with realist pieces, deeply psychological pieces, and pieces that explore more experimental aesthetics. Carmen Maria Machado’s work pushes realism past its edge and queers the historical narrative mode. Cara Hoffman and Callum Angus approach pure poetry in their pieces.
It was important to have a range of aesthetics. We never had a stated goal of representing kink or kink communities in a certain way, and I think that it’s clear in the anthology that the stories are willing to go to dark places and not show people making responsible decisions. I would have been reluctant to sign on to a project where we wanted to present kink in a certain light because I think that is falsifying reality..
CC: I was excited by how the fiction short stories could address difficult topics in a different way than nonfiction. I think that there is often a blurred line when it comes to topics of sex, consent, power, that can’t be captured in nonfiction, and I wonder if you could talk about how short stories as a form address these large subjects.
GG: I think that having it be a short story anthology takes some of the pressure off of representation. I do think whenever artists are working from or within a minority community, there can be a pressure of representation, and some of the responses to the book have been that this book is failing in X way or Y way to represent the kink community. I don’t think any anthology of fifteen stories could represent a community fully, and I hope that the individual writers felt that pressure lifted from them because they knew they were one facet of an anthology that would have fifteen facets.
There is a mobility to short stories. I think that novels are tempted into a sense of their monumentality, and short stories and poems don’t suffer from that. There is no responsibility to capture everything, and you can give yourself license to be eccentric in your approach to a subject.
CC: I noticed a running theme in your story that the characters may not be able to express their sexual desires in language. I am interested in how these stories are able to express our inexpressible desires—the Wittgenstein goal—and create desires through a system of symbols—the Baudrillard complication. Which do you imagine is happening in the reader? Is this a space for exploring desires, for creating desires, or for expressing desires that can’t be articulated in nonfiction prose?
GG: It seems clear to me that desire makes us mysterious to ourselves. None of us gets to choose what we desire, and none of us can be sure of the etiology of our desires, and that can be disquieting. This is an explicit theme of “Gospodar”: where do our desires come from, what if our desires come from a place that makes us uncomfortable, what do I do if I cannot convince myself of the cleanness or purity of my own desires? Then what do I do? These are really hard questions that I do not have answers for.
I do think that we can never be sure why we desire something, or whether our desires were implanted in us by some external, objectionable force. There is no denying that cultural aspects that we find intolerable have coded our desires, and the question is, the dangerous question is, how can I scrub my desires clean of that? How can I find my way to a desire that feels unimpeachably righteous? I don’t think that we will ever get there, and if we become overly attached to our own cleanness, we will turn ourselves into engines of destruction. I think that we have seen again and again that human beings do this. The desire for purity is one of the most dangerous impulses, so the question becomes how can we live with impurity and try to take something—something that may be invested in systems of violence like homophobia, sexism, and racism—and try not to reproduce that violence. Bourdieu articulates what he calls the principle of the conservation of violence, but how can we transform it and make it an occasion for pleasure, sociality, solidarity, beauty, the production of art? That question of how to transform violence and make it into a positive force is more interesting than how I can repress it or get rid of it.
It is my theory that humans are always capable of being monstrous. Perhaps it is a Calvinist or Augustinian hangover to think that we are all fundamentally depraved and neck deep in the shit. What that means is that we owe each other an extraordinary obligation of compassion and solidarity. I am neck deep in the shit, you are neck deep in the shit, so how can we help each other?
That’s what the “Little Saint” chapter is about. Some people read it as an ironic title, but I think that character is saintly in his radical generosity. I think it’s a beautiful model for a life.