Garth Greenwell & Mitzi Angel

On Writing About Sex

I loved Garth Greenwell’s debut, What Belongs to You. It tells the story of a romance between two men, an American teacher and a charismatic hustler he propositions in a public bathroom in Sofia. The New York Times said: “A rich, important debut, an instant classic to be savored by all lovers of serious fiction because of, not despite, its subject: a gay man’s endeavor to fathom his own heart.”

His devastating new book, Cleanness (1/14/2020), goes even further. The story is told by the same man who narrates the first book. It contains some of the most candid, evocative writing about physical intimacy I’ve ever read. We sat down in the FSG offices to talk about sex.

—Mitzi Angel, Editor and Publisher


Mitzi Angel: Cleanness is undeniably sexually explicit. You show us sex between strangers that is brutal and frightening, sex between strangers that is brutal and tender, and sex between lovers that is all of these things. Would you describe yourself as writing explicitly about sex? What does that word “explicit” mean to you, given that it’s often associated with pornography?

Garth Greenwell: I do want to write sex explicitly. At times in this book, I had the goal of writing a scene that was, at once, one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art. Sex is one of our most charged forms of communication, and that makes it a unique opportunity for a writer. One thing that interests me is expanding charged moments and dissecting their emotional intricacies; in that way, sex is a kind of provocation, a challenge.

I had the goal of writing a scene that was, at once, one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art.

In America in 2019 we are inundated with images of bodies to an absolutely unprecedented degree—images of eroticized bodies, images of sexual bodies; the Internet makes all our fantasies visible, and it trains us in new fantasies. And yet it also seems to me that our culture suffers from a dearth of representations of embodiedness, by which I mean of bodies imbued with consciousness. I’m not at all antiporn, but sometimes pornography (maybe especially Internet pornography, with its arms race of extremity) seems to want to evacuate bodies of personhood, to present them as objects. I think literature is the best technology we have for representing consciousness, and so I think there’s a kind of intervention that literature can perform in representing sex explicitly: it can reclaim the sexual body as a site of consciousness.

I’ll also say that I’m always uncomfortable with the use of “pornography” as a derogatory term. I think it’s indisputable that sexually explicit art can be great art. If the term has a pejorative sense, it’s the same pejorative sense that a term like “propaganda” has. Artless pornography and propaganda want to elicit a singular response; they want us to feel one thing. Art always, or almost always, wants us to feel many things, often contradictory things. The idea of having to put on the page an experience that at once arouses and repulses, at once draws one in to the physicality of a sexual encounter and also allows one to abstract into the historical, cultural, or emotional content of that encounter, is a challenge that excites me as a writer, in the way that desire excites me as a writer. Desire is the great inciting incident of plot, because it’s an impulse that engages our wills (desire prompts us to seek things, it gives us an object to pursue), but the object of our desire is entirely unchosen. And so desire is something that happens to us, something before which we’re prone; it defeats our will and disrupts all our intentions.

Angel: Throughout the book, your narrator wrestles with what it means to abase himself or abase others. At the same time, he describes a loving relationship he has with a man named R. How did you come up with the unusual and wonderful structure of your book, that itself is part of how you deal with the contradictions of your characters?

Greenwell: The book is in three sections; the first and third are deliberately unchronological. I wanted to have the story of the relationship between the narrator and R.—a transformative, unprecedented relationship for both of them—be an intense narrative at the heart of the book, with a beginning, middle, and end. On either side of that central section, I wanted to explore what it means to live in the wake of such a relationship. The narrator’s life has been profoundly transformed by the experience of a kind of love he had never imagined for himself. In What Belongs to You, the narrator questions his ability to love in certain ways. In Cleanness, he has an experience that expands his sense of himself, and in the first and final parts, he has to negotiate a world transformed by a love that has been lost.

Angel: The second story and the second-to-last story, “Gospodar” and “The Little Saint,” mirror and reverse each other. In “Gospodar,” the narrator is the submissive one in a sadomasochistic encounter, and in “The Little Saint,” he has become the dominant partner.

What sets these stories apart is the slow, explicit detailing of what the bodies do with and to one another in the sexual encounters. Following a description of the brutality the narrator experiences at the hands of a stranger, “Gospodar” concludes: “For some moments I wrestled with these thoughts, and then I stood and turned back to the boulevard, composing as best I could my human face.” “The Little Saint” also conjures up horror for the narrator, as he faces his fear of what he’s capable of. But this story moves in a different direction. The narrator’s fear—the fear of the pleasure he’s taken in hurting someone—is transformed, in the end, by the generosity of the man he’s with. This man, witnessing the narrator’s tears of shame over the pain and pleasure he has inflicted, suddenly and movingly declares that the two of them can enjoy each other in a happy, loving way. The story ends: “Don’t be like that, he said again as I put my arms around him. Do you see? You don’t have to be like that, he said. You can be like this.”

Both conclusions are incredibly powerful. Each sums up what the book might be trying to say.

Greenwell: I always feel that what inspires me to write is a sense of staring into the abyss, of confronting something that defeats my usual canons of judgement. When I wrote “Gospodar,” I had no idea where the story was going. I knew generally what I wanted to write about, but sentence by sentence, I was trying to feel my way through the encounter, and I felt an increasing dread as I wrote, as the narrator is forced to face the consequences of what he desires, or thought he desired. In that story, as you say, the narrator is the submissive partner in an S&M encounter. As soon as I finished it—even though I wouldn’t write “The Little Saint” for something like three years—I knew I needed to write a companion story in which the narrator would be the dominant partner. The book needed that kind of symmetry in order to feel whole.

Taking on the submissive role in “Gospodar,” the narrator is in a state of existential peril; in “The Little Saint,” he’s in a state of moral peril, because of what he discovers about himself and what he’s capable of enjoying. He discovers things that have been put into him by history and by his culture—ideas of manhood, of dominance and power—that he very much wishes were not there. Desire leads him to those discoveries. I found it much harder to write than “Gospodar.” But I was also surprised by how captivated I became by the story’s central character, Svetcheto, “the little saint,” who is maybe my favorite character in anything I’ve written.

Angel: I think he might be mine too.

Greenwell: When I began writing the story I think I intended the title, to a certain degree, as a provocation; I liked the irony of bringing the idea of saintliness into this very unsaintly story. And then, as the story ended, I realized that actually the title is meant entirely in earnest.

Angel: I love that thought. That somehow his goodness crept up on you. Maybe you’ll never know whether you had that in mind from the outset.

Greenwell: Maybe I’ll never know. I did know that I wanted to explore an idea of promiscuity as a kind of radical hospitality, a moral code, but I didn’t have a clear sense of where the story would take me. Initially, I thought the story would end with the narrator’s tears, but after I wrote that ending I was dissatisfied with it; I felt that it left something incomplete in the story, that the story needed to end in a different key. When I finally wrote the last paragraph, it felt like a discovery—it surprised me, and it changed the way I read the scene to that point. I don’t like words like “sacramental” and “sacred,” but something happens in the last paragraph that disturbs the usual order of the world; something happens to knock the narrator out of his habitual ways of being.

Angel: Yes, I think that the last line has the force of revelation. As you wrote the ending, did you feel everything coming together?

Greenwell: I remember feeling very unsure of the ending. The last line of “Gospodar” arrived in the moment I wrote it, and when it arrived, I thought, “Oh, this is the story, this is it.” I knew that other things would be revised, but I was sure the last line was correct. I didn’t feel that so strongly with “The Little Saint”—maybe just because ending a story with a kind of emotional uplift is not my usual procedure. So there’s a way in which I didn’t trust it for a while.

But I do think it’s the right ending for that story, not least because it functions as a revision of “Gospodar.” Also, in this cultural moment, when we’re having important conversations about sex and power and consent, I worry that trauma has become a kind of dominant narrative of sex. I feel this in my own work: very often, sex brings up traumatic personal memories or some harmful cultural inheritance, as when the narrator is forced to reckon with toxic ideas of maleness that he has absorbed. But it’s important to remember that sex can also be an occasion of tenderness and play, surprise and joy. I’ve tried to challenge myself, in “The Little Saint” and in another story, “The Frog King,” to remember that joy is as depthlessly interesting as any other human experience, that sex is as accommodating of affirmation as of darkness.

Angel: Can I ask you about the title of the book? In the eponymous story, the narrator describes sex with R. He says: “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.”

The word “cleanness” is also familiar to me from the medieval fourteenth-century poem of the same title, the poem thought to be by the Gawain poet. Could you speak to that? It’s not “cleanliness,” but “cleanness.” Why?

Greenwell: To me, “cleanliness” denotes a physical state, whereas “cleanness” has a kind of metaphysical amplitude. I was thinking of the Gawain poet’s poem Cleanness, which retells, among other stories, the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah. The passage you quote contains the sole instance of the word “cleanness” in the book. It signifies a state the narrator longs for, a state he feels he has experienced with R. for the first time—an experience of desire and physical intimacy that is scrubbed of shame. But actually I think cleanness is a deeply ambiguous, ambivalent concept. I wanted to engage with the question of what it means to consider a place, an act, a person, filthy or clean. In sex apps and chatrooms, the first question you’re often asked as a gay man is “Are you clean?” So the question is one of disease as well.

The narrator longs for a kind of purity that can be a deeply toxic, damaging ideal. As in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, the ideal of cleanness can be synonymous with destruction. The narrator in “Gospodar” says to the man who will abuse him: “I want to be nothing.” This is also a version of the desire to be clean, the desire to be purified; it can be inextricable from the desire for self-destruction.

This is also a version of the desire to be clean, the desire to be purified; it can be inextricable from the desire for self-destruction.

Angel: An obliteration.

Greenwell: I do think one component of desire is always a kind of desire for obliteration of the self, whether we figure that as a metaphysical experience of union and transcendence, or as the desire to be made nothing. The lover known as “the little saint” says his one rule about sex is that he will not allow a partner to use protection. He wants to be exposed in various kinds of ways. That, too, is a kind of desire for destruction. “Cleanness” signifies this difficult complex of ideas.

Angel: I’m struck by the extent to which ambivalence and ambiguity are features of your writing about sex. You track peoples’ gestures—the way a hand moves, a glance, a caress, a retreat, or a step forward. You describe a conversation between two people with its own language, but a language that can, at times, be hard to read. That’s the paradox: that sometimes it’s joyful and clear and simple, and many other times it’s infinitely complicated and complex and confusing.

Greenwell: I worry a great deal about the fact that in our cultural and political discourse, so much of which now happens in tweets, to speak with any level of ambivalence or ambiguity is simply to go unheard. But real thought is always full of those things; I don’t think we’re capable of any authentic engagement with the world without them. Ambivalence, ambiguity, and doubt are the native language of literature; part of the way literature helps us live is by providing a space where we can dwell with them. And so here, too, I think literature has an important cultural role to play in our moment.

Any charged act of human communication—certainly any communication as charged as sex—is going to be complex. Often, in conversation, between the beginning and the end of a sentence, we experience a quicksilver flow of emotions; during sex, between the beginning of a gesture and the end of a gesture, we can move across a similar spectrum. By tracking these kinds of microclimates of feeling, literature can unpack them, not just by enumerating them, but also by tracing their etiologies. It can take something that one might experience in the moment as an inarticulate shudder, and expand it, and see what it’s made up of. The great gift of narrative is to not have to force things to a conclusion, to see ambiguity not as something to be resolved, but instead as something to accommodate.

Angel: Can you think of any other contemporary fiction writers who engage with what sex means to us as a culture? With the fact that sex is at once so personal and so political?

Greenwell: I can. Writers like Lidia Yuknavitch, Eimear McBride, R. O. Kwon, and Jamie Quatro are doing this work. Though I’ll say that it does still seem to me the exception rather than the rule to find writers addressing sex in a way that is challenging, rigorous, and committed to embodiedness.

What I really want to do is to sound all the notes. I want to be able to write sex in a way that is open to all emotional registers. And part of my aesthetic project is beauty: to write sex in a way that makes use of the lyric resources of the English-language literary tradition. I want to recognize that even when characters are doing things that seem degrading, even when they are seeking abasement, there is a kind of dignity in living out one’s contradictions and in confronting one’s desires. I think it’s extraordinarily courageous to face one’s desires with the forthrightness of someone like the little saint. Even as he’s asking to be degraded, I want the texture of the language to cast a kind of dignity over him. This is one of the things that art can do: when we make art, we’re making a claim about value, about what we find beautiful, even if it’s a difficult beauty.

When we make art, we’re making a claim about value, about what we find beautiful, even if it’s a difficult beauty.

Angel: We haven’t talked much about your style. Your language uses your own distinct curiosity and precision, and lyricism, to describe what the narrator is seeing and what is happening and what is about to happen. Even the most brutally plain description of what almost never gets described outside your pages has a kind of dignity to it. And there’s the narrator’s effort to understand, to find the right way to put something. There’s a sense of urgency behind this effort.

Greenwell: I want to write sentences that are tools for thinking, not just containers for thought. There’s a conventional division in English syntax between parataxis, or coordinated syntax, and hypotaxis, or subordinated syntax. There’s an easy way in which you could think of parataxis as the syntax of feeling and experience, and hypotaxis as the syntax of analysis and thought. I want to write sentences that explode that distinction. I want to write sentences that are at once absolutely at the quick of experience, in the heat of a charged encounter, while also accommodating analysis and ratiocination. I experience the pushing forward and pulling back of this kind of sentence as an erotic motion. I want to write sentences that are mimetic of an erotic or sexual experience in their very shapes. I always feel that any time writers talk in this way about their sentences they’re weaving an elaborate fantasy, and I guess that’s mine.

Once somebody in workshop said to me that “nobody thinks this much when they’re having sex.” But the idea that I could have a sexual experience that would not be at the same time an experience of thinking, that my mind would not be as engaged as my body—well, it’s just a little bizarre to me. Sex is inextricable from philosophy. It’s the source of all of our metaphysics. It’s the experience that puts us most in our animal bodies, and yet also gives us our most intense intimations of something beyond those bodies. That, to me, is precisely the kind of contradiction that makes an experience interesting.

Angel: I feel there’s often a difference between writing that’s supposed to elicit a sexual response in the reader, and writing that’s not concerned with that. Yours is concerned with that, and it’s not often that I edit a book that is concerned with that.

Greenwell: I love the idea that one of the things art can make us feel is turned on. Of course that’s a legitimate effect for a work of art to intend. But I don’t think any art that I find really interesting intends that as a sole effect. I might want a reader to feel turned on, but at the same time, I want that reader to feel suspicious of their arousal, or disturbed by it, or interested in it in a kind of intellectual way, or saddened by it. I always want my writing to elicit complex emotions; I’m never interested in provoking a singular response. The value of art is that it can help us dwell in wilderness, in territories we don’t have easy names for. In its profundity, in its complexity, in its potential for joy, in its physical and moral risk, desire is an abyss. Art is the instrument I have for navigating the abyss.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by more than fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into a dozen languages. Greenwell’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He lives in Iowa City.