Prior to the publication of her debut novel, Marie Calloway was best known for the stories “Adrien Brody” and “Jeremy Lin.” There’s been a lot of commentary on the sexual themes in Calloway’s text, but no discussion by sex workers of Calloway’s treatment of her month escorting in London. Charlotte Shane and Caty Simon rushed to fill that void.
Caty: I guess I should start with full disclosure: I have chatted a bit over the past few months with Marie Calloway on the internet and she seems to be really sweet for a literary enfant terrible. But I didn’t know her from Adam when I first read her work in 2011.
Charlotte: I feel strangely protective of her in spite of never having met or corresponded with her. So it’s good to air out our biases.
Caty: I’d like to focus on the parts of her book examining sex work, because otherwise we could be here all day having the same debate that’s consumed the rest of the media about whether she’s a worthless narcissist whose very existence is endemic of essential problems with confessional writing, women and sex, and internet culture, or whether she’s a brave, feminist descendant of Bataille and Jean Rhys, who galvanizes strong responses from her readers because people are uncomfortable with her brilliance and…blah blah blah, you know where this is going.
Charlotte: Right, we’ll stay limited to T&S relevant moments.
Though I found it boring to read her email exchange with her first client, I think I can appreciate her decision to include it. It shows how mundane arranging the date was, and how (mildly) uncomfortable to see what a newbie she was, making all the usual newbie mistakes, like letting the guy decide how much he wants to give her and leaving it at that.
Caty: Yeah, I get that, though I do have to say this is the one point in which I agree in general with negative reviews of the book in other instances–how are Calloway’s Facebook message transcripts more interesting than anybody else’s?
Charlotte: They are most definitely not. I would say they are less interesting because of the Tao Lin-esque flat affect.
Caty: Anyway, the newbie sex workerness of it all! I loved that. I love how when Calloway’s client asks if he can get her something, she actually takes the pro forma request seriously and orders up toast with marmite and coffee according to her specifications, without even looking to see him open a sealed container of anything. And I love how she depicts the time honored sequence of orgasm followed by faux fatherly concern. How she interprets his saying,“Listen, Emily. I don’t want you to do something that you really don’t want to do. You don’t have to have sex with me, you can take the money and go,” as genuine concern and feels out of sorts about him being “nice” without recognizing, as she would if she were more seasoned, that he’s going through a certain set of gentlemanly motions. And how she reflects about how “surreal it was for there to be a gang of kids talking politely to a man who was with a prostitute.” It’s all so authentically newbie hooker, down to the idea that sex work is something that’s not organically part of the rest of the world, so that in the first few months of sex work everyone thinks, in the back of their mind, like a punch line, “I’m a prostitute and I’m getting my laundry done, who would ever IMAGINE?”
Charlotte: I liked that she was thinking about getting killed, then talking herself out of it. I still do that to myself sometimes. I won’t be really afraid, but I’ll be sort of toying with the idea…It’s very hard to explain, because it seems flip and weird if you’ve never been in that same head space, but I recognized that not-very-emotionally-loaded internal dialogue when it showed up: “What if he kills me? Well, he probably won’t.”
Caty: Oh, yes, those whole two paragraphs with that callow thought process about how she was more scared of him rejecting her and not getting paid than she was of being murdered—that made me wince in identification. I definitely agree about how difficult it is to calculate the chance of violence.
Oh, and how the first time a client says something like, “The first two times were with professional girls and I had absolutely nothing to say to them. But with you, you seem intelligent. Like there’s a lot going on behind you,” it actually seems like a compliment. How when you first start out, being that one brighter-than-average hooker is somehow a mark of distinction rather than an insult to everyone you know in sex work and ultimately to yourself.
Charlotte: Oh man, when she asked him about how he lost his virginity and says she always asks men about that…I used to have little pat things I would ask every guy I was with, paid or otherwise, as though it were insightful or quirky because it might be something people normally didn’t ask them about. But really, it’s not at all. (My thing was asking for guy’s middle names.) I wonder if part of the vitriol she inspires is from older women recognizing their younger (or current!) selves in her, and being embarrassed. Because it is very embarrassing.
Caty: It’s excruciating at times. And I think Calloway makes it very clear that this is a bildungsroman—even a kuntslerroman—and artists embarrass themselves more than other people growing up, because they take more formative risks—marking each chapter “(age 18)” “(age 19)” and so on. And yet people still tear the book apart for being immature and shallow like it’s not a conscious documentation of those states.
Charlotte: Even one year of development at that age gives you enough distance to feel like, “OMG, I can’t believe I acted that way.”
“First sex work experience” is also notable because she says that she’s lost her debit card and needs money, and that’s why she starts working. In a later chapter, she says something about wanting makeup, and that’s what people have gone to for criticism—this shallow little princess wanted to go to Sephora.
Caty: Yeah, reviewers got their panties all up in a twist about her wanting to buy MAC lipstick, margaritas, and soy lattes, as if other workers in London from her class background do more virtuous things with their wages.
Charlotte: In this first piece, there’s the insinuation that she doesn’t want friends or family to know where she is. She could probably ask them for financial help, but won’t. That’s how a lot of young people feel and why a lot of young people start working.
It reminds me of a scene in the documentary Whore’s Glory in which some Thai brothel workers are talking about how they prefer working at the brothel to taking money from their families. Because it’s fricking WORK! People like the financial independence and sense of purpose they get from work. And that’s admirable, frankly, or we’re taught it is, to be industrious and self-sufficient.
Caty: And she says EXACTLY that, in the second sex work chapter: that besides the pizzas and foundation, she wants financial independence from her family. She also writes that she wants to feel valued as a commodity, and in the context of growing up in the background of global capitalism, that makes a lot of fucking sense, it’s just that usually we don’t like to see it stated so baldly. Especially in reference to sex work.
Charlotte: When she tells the guy at the end of Chapter One, “No girls want to do this,” it’s definitely ambiguous. Is she telling him that because she thinks it’s what she should say? That he wants to hear it? Because she really feels that way? I think that ambiguity is a smart choice.
Caty: I do love that aspect of it. How Calloway’s narrator is so intent on gauging the reactions of whoever she’s speaking to, so you can never quite trust what she’s saying re: authenticity. So very true to the performative nature of early adulthood.
Charlotte: And we’ve just been told, “It was like whatever, it wasn’t gross or disturbing” and “I didn’t really feel disgusted[...] It was okay.” I trust all of the narrator’s inner monologues more than what she tells other people, but that ambiguity casts doubt over all of the text.
Caty: We have that scene where that awful cervix banger drives her to tears, and at the end she’s saying she’s okay with it all.
Charlotte: And the tone is not always clear. Is she trying to convince herself that it’s something it’s not? Is she observing as honestly as she can, but maybe in way that becomes dishonest because it strips some of her subjectivity? You know abolitionists would read this as a testament to how she’s suffering from dissociation and self-alienation.
Caty: That’s another reason I found the book refreshing. It’s a sex work testament from someone outside the sex workers’ rights movement. She has no preconceived notions about what sort of front we’re supposed to put up when creating our narratives.
Another part I loved about how well this paints the newbie sex worker experience are the class differences that are alluded to, how you’re supposed to pretend that the bourgeois amenities of the clients’ place are something you’re used to, when all you can think about is the shitty SRO housing/youth hostel you dressed up to look like you weren’t living in and how you’d much rather be left alone with the big down comforter and king size bed than with the client.
Charlotte: “And then I was by myself again, same as before, but with money” is probably the best sentence in the whole book. You read her complain about how awkward and unpleasant the work is (at times) but then at the end she takes a nap and is fine. That’s fantastic. That’s exactly how it is. I suppose the mundanity of her delivery, as a persistent style choice, interests me most in the sex work context. And how often she’ll compare her clients to regular guys—it’s not “unpaid” here and “paid” there.
Caty: Yeah, she didn’t draw any huge distinction between “work sex” and personal sex the way I feel like there’s this tendency in the movement to do. And I think, again, that’s what makes the depoliticized nature of her account so interesting—depoliticized in the sense that it seems she started writing about escorting before she was aware there was any political organization for us, so she wrote about it before she internalized any of the norms of that political culture. I found what purpose frustrating from a partisan point of view, and paradoxically, that made it really hold my interest.
Charlotte: Overall, I don’t think the book is engaging. I’m not sure I care about the narrator (even if I feel like I care about Marie Calloway, the person, who is so publicly and shamelessly shat upon) and it’s more interesting in theory than in practice. It’s like when someone defends boring writing by saying, “Well, yeah I want the reader to be bored, because this moment in the character’s life is boring.” My life is boring enough as it is. That defense doesn’t fly. I was mostly bored and irritated by the book because of its repetitiveness. One might respond that sex is repetitive, and attempts to connect with someone sexually are repetitive and largely identical, but, again, I already know that. I don’t need to spend more of my life on that. I want to learn something or feel something when I read.
Caty: I dunno, maybe this is because I’ve only read Muumuu House’s and Tao Lin’s work very sparingly so I’m not overly saturated with that style and sick of it, but I found that this form and this lens on the topic of analysis of heterosexual encounters certainly engaging enough for a hundred and some pages. When I first read “Adrien Brody,” I have to say I felt similarly to how you do. But then I read “Jeremy Lin.” I still have to say “Jeremy Lin” is a masterpiece, and I don’t use that noun lightly. We have hardly any literature at all about the relationship between patron and artist, mentor and student, so to see that dynamic explored minutely was fascinating. Secondly, I think this is the sort of interaction that the flat Muumuu House style is really amazing at capturing and analyzing—the meta of writers and their aspirations.
Though I will admit that upon rereading the piece, my main thought was, “Good lord, *I* want someone to introduce me to literary society and feed me a flowing stream of free Xanax.”
I think that’s one reason for people’s antagonism towards Calloway. Society naturally hates precocious fame, especially for a GIRL writing about SEX. And I think a lot of criticism of her form (not yours, obviously) hides discomfort with the content. Another reason people react violently to Calloway’s work is that it’s a record of the moment to moment experience of intense self-consciousness. Beyond that, it’s a focused look at charged, heterosexual interactions. OF COURSE it’s uncomfortable and people want to distance themselves from it immediately.
Charlotte: I don’t have a problem with writing about sex (clearly). I don’t begrudge her her fame because I think it has come as a very high cost and will be fleeting. My criticism can be broken down to, simply, I do not think it’s consistently good writing. There’s no story to fall back on, so the prose is all we have. I don’t care about the narrator as a character. I don’t want anything bad to happen to her, but nor do I want something good to happen to her. Those few moments of identification during her sex work stories isn’t enough.
Caty: I think she really captures a certain sort of writerly young woman’s rites of passage re: sex, including that detachment and blankness and egocentricity. I also felt like it was clear at many points that that remove and lack of investment was a pose she took on to try to see these experiences more clearly. I certainly remember using that emotional strategy at her age. The media has accused Calloway of “autism” repeatedly—thanks for the armchair diagnosis—but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. It’s clear she cares and has emotional reactions, but she disavows them. I guess one way I would calibrate our two very different responses is that this is a case of a writer being judged for her juvenilia, getting scarily famous almost too quickly via this internet route. There are a lot of things I love passionately about the work Calloway has already written, but just watching her day to day, through various social media, it’s clear to me that her next work will be much, much better.
Charlotte: I would say that requires a big leap of faith to assert, but I hope you’re right. I thought you too had problems with her writing?
Caty: Oh, I did. There were some ridiculous excesses. Like the criticism of her overlaid on her photos: I get what she was trying to do there, but I feel like that should’ve been an art project she kept to herself for her own catharsis. I think a good editor would’ve cut all of the graphic segments of the book, and just left the prose.
Charlotte: I don’t want her to go down the “haters gonna hate” road and think everything non-positive everyone says is fuel for martyrdom, and not be receptive to constructive criticism.
Caty: Though, I have to say I understand the temptation to do that, when reporters ask her stuff like, “Do you wake up horny?”
Charlotte: Oh, god. INTERVIEW OVER, DIPSHIT.
Caty: One last thing about the sex work content before we close. I like how one of the calls she records is a call in which the client can’t get off—you almost never see that, how so many people call once and then, due to whatever gulf there is between their expectations and the actual appointment, can’t get it up/can’t come, how many calls, especially before one builds a stable of a regulars, cut off short that way. And she nails the accompanying sentiment: “I can’t believe I just got paid for that.”
Also I just want to repeat how I love her lack of scruples re: revealing how she made every mistake in the book. She actually seemed worried about what experienced sex workers would think about that aspect of the book, but I think it’s the most endearing thing about it.
Charlotte: I’m glad you said that about clients not finishing. That happens not infrequently but isn’t talked about much. Or how about how many of them have to come with handjobs? Which is very much not the narrative. I think most people assume they’re paying for penetrative sex, that’s what they want, that’s how they’re going to finish. But the older they get, the less likely a PIV orgasm with a condom is.
Caty: Oh, thank god, then it’s not just me.