Wednesday, July 10, 2013
On Teaching Smut: A Review of Out of the Woods/Twice Caught, by Syd McGinley.
(Note: though the book divides successfully into its two volumes, this is clearly one story, and I am discussing it as such. )
The title question of this post represents a failure of sorts: I tried over several days and multiple drafts to write a review of Out of the Woods. At last count it was 2000 words and growing, and though utterly brilliant of course, it struck me as pointless to post a ten-page review on Goodreads. So I tossed it and came up with another approach to coping with this highly problematic text.
Marketers would probably label Out of the Woods a “post-apocalyptic M/M erotic fantasy.” It is. But it is also an allegory with strong generic and thematic similarities to books like Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and Utopia. Though most fantasies and sci-fi stories are allegorical to a certain degree, they are not all Allegories, sustained explorations of major concepts. I will say it here: Out of the Woods is one of the most thought-provoking, compelling Allegories I have ever read. It explores with extraordinary complexity themes like survival, civilization, freedom, slavery, caste, punishment, justice, community, happiness, relativism, love, religious faith, scientific experimentation.
Allegories are favorites in the classroom for obvious reasons, but Out of the Woods has the added advantage of being full of intellectual red herrings. Over and over again, the book raises crucial questions, seems to provide straightforward answers for them, which on further analysis prove to be inadequate and so must be revised or dumped. More than any book I’ve read in the last few years, this book made me think, worry, ponder, weigh options, sweat, lose sleep.
However, I doubt we will see Out of the Woods on college syllabi anytime soon. The reason for that is simple: it has tons of sex. Not just sex, graphic gay sex, blow jobs especially, but also detailed accounts of anal sex, anal plugs, spankings, group action, voyeurism, and this list is far from exhaustive. Even worse, it’s a “slave” or “capture” story featuring both dubious consent and non-consensual sex, with dub-con’s usual mix of titillation and guilty unease. It is designed to appeal to people who enjoy slave or BDSM erotica. Moreover, all of this sex takes place in a novel that while thematically complex is not self-consciously literary in the manner of Lolita, an “erotic” text that gets taught all the time. And since the author is female, it is unlikely to be put on a syllabus for Queer Literature.
But what the fuck. I’m a romance writer—my job is to fantasize and write about it, so I’ll share one fantasy that feels a hell of a lot more transgressive and outré than threesomes and spanking: teaching this book in a college seminar. I think it could be a fucking awesome class—so here goes.
Since it’s not like my students are going to miss the sex scenes, we tackle them right off with a discussion of how the presence of explicit (especially gay) sex governs our assumptions about a work’s value and genre. We could then deepen and personalize that discussion with a consideration of academic institutions and their mostly unspoken expectations of what is worth teaching and what is outside the bounds of taste. We could talk about how elites, especially Academia, define and monopolize notions of literary prestige. We could look at historical examples of how popular genres like the novel have undermined those notions, but also consider what we think the limits of those challenges are.
Finally, we could spend at least several days talking about the book itself. Topics I’d especially want to hear my students debate: what is the value of democracy in a survival situation? Are there situations where a fixed hierarchy or caste system is morally justifiable? Can a drastically unequal relationship still be a loving one? How important is it for communities to evolve their own conceptions of justice rather than have them dictated by outsiders, even ones we consider morally superior? And in general, what the fuck is up with those “Mothers”? (A question I’ve mulled over for a truly improbable amount of time.)
So that’s a very sketchy outline of my fantasy class on Out of the Woods, and honestly, it only scratches the surface of topics that could be profitably talked about in a college seminar. The fact that the very notion of teaching this book still seems totally outrageous tells me some uncomfortable truths about academia that I didn't manage to figure out during my eight years as a graduate student or five years as a professor.