Novelist Garth Greenwell on the Eroticism of Frustration and Gratification

Kink, a new collection of erotic short stories co-edited by Greenwell, has the acclaimed author of Cleanness musing on what makes writing sexy—including Henry James' endless semis. Semicolons, that is.

Garth Greenwell’s three published works of fiction—the novella Mitko (2011), and the novels What Belongs to You (2016) and Cleanness (2020)—have been heaped with laurels at a pace of breathless enthusiasm rarely witnessed outside the winner’s circle of the Irish Derby, and constitute a blush-inducing contribution to a fine old tradition within gay literature. 

The tradition being, namely, that of the bookish young man who travels abroad in hopes of getting—at last—properly laid.

In this sense, Greenwell can be seen as picking up where the novels of Christopher Isherwood and James Baldwin, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the diaries of Joe Orton, etc., leave off—with some hardcore BDSM thrown into the bargain. 

Now, Greenwell has a new book coming out February 9. Co-edited with the novelist R.O. Kwon, Kink: Stories is an anthology of high-minded erotic fiction featuring works by heavyweights such as Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado, and Alexander Chee. “A lot of the stories are hot, but not all of them. The collection isn’t necessarily about what’s sexy, but about the meaningful ways we engage with kink practices,” says Greenwell, “and the contemporary ways we engage with sexuality. For instance, one story takes place at a kink convention; many relationships in the book are enabled by the Internet.” Kink has already won raves, in publications ranging from Town & Country to Autostraddle. (It’s the rare work that can thread that needle.) As Greenwell and Kwon write in their introduction, the anthology “brings the full power of literature to bear on depicting love, desire, sadomasochism, and sexual kink in their considerable glory.”

That seems to have long been one of Greenwell’s ambitions. “The resistance to write about sex is unfathomable to me,” he says, “this huge territory of human feeling….I love that people have reported to me that they’ve found some of my work hot. But I’ve never felt that good art ever wants us to feel just one single, uncomplicated thing—just joy, or just sadness. Propaganda, and certain kinds of pornography, merely want to arouse you. But, if my work has been found arousing, I hope that I’ve also troubled and complicated that arousal. After all, the most erotic aspects of life are those that balance frustration and satisfaction, or at least supply ways of delaying satisfaction…The refusal to represent this kind of sexuality results in the diminishment of our personhood.” By this edict, Greenwell places his fiction firmly, as it were, on the side of spiritual engorgement.

In each of Greenwell’s books—which don’t compose a literary series per se, but are variations on a theme (“a song cycle,” he offers)—the Land of the Longed for Fuck is modern-day Bulgaria, and the lilac-scented youth is an American teacher of English literature. As Isherwood had his Berlin, and Orton his Tangier, Greenwell has his Sofia. And here, his biography directly tracks his fiction; like his narrator, the author, too, is a Kentucky native who worked as an English teacher in Sofia, though he insists upon the fictionalism of his writings. By day, Greenwell’s narrator attempts to impart an appreciation for the lyricism of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara to his students. By night, he puts the legacy of those poets to a very different purpose amid the bleak landscape of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. As the nameless narrator finds relief in self-abnegation among hustlers, one senses that, for him, kink possesses therapeutic properties. 

That intuition is precisely what inspired Kink: Stories. As Kwon and Greenwell write in their anthology’s introduction, she read his “Gospodar” in the Paris Review during a residency at the MacDowell Colony, and was moved to reach out to Greenwell in hopes of creating a collection that “treat[ed] kink as one of the tools we use to make sense of our lives.” It’s one of the points he insists upon now. 

“I want,” he says, “to reclaim sex as a site of consciousness…to reject the myth of the unsullied true self.” As an aspiration, it’s positively Whitman-esque, and for a moment, I feel like a besotted pupil in one of Mitko’s literature classes. There’s a moment in that novella, its merriest turn, when the narrator is strolling through a budding grove on a blustery day, contemplating Whitman as “the grasses and trees…releas[e] in a great exhalation pods of seeds….What were they, these seeds, if not the wind’s soft-tickling genitals, the world’s procreant urge.” Though the narrator’s been a skeptic of the poet’s fondness for lily-gilding, “finally it felt plausible to me, [Whitman’s] desire to be bare before that urge, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it.” And suddenly, I am crushing on teacher.

But then, who couldn’t feel a flicker of desire for a man who ascribes sexiness even to Henry James? “I find that what’s sexy in literature doesn’t necessarily have to do with content,” Greenwell offers. “Syntax, the shapes of sentences, can be terrifically sexy. Henry James, for instance, found ways of embedding and forestalling sexual satisfaction in those long, exquisitely shaped sentences of his.”

James as a forerunner to edging? Now that’s kinky.

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