I know books can evoke a number of reactions, but I wasn’t expecting this one to go so far as to resurrect the sex drive my Lexapro killed. It also challenged me to look beyond my self-imposed threshold of intimacy and welcome the curiosity that I’ve, up until now, kept at a modest simmer. What a gift to enter a space where shame is checked at the door and your want is seen as just that, a gift, a reminder that you’re alive and what you desire is not just acknowledged, but celebrated. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this space was made possible by two lauded writers already making groundbreaking strides in literature.
KINK (Simon & Schuster) is a dispatch from the desires that dwell behind the curtain many hesitate to part. Co-edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell and featuring fifteen previously and never-before published short stories by a coterie of superstar contributors, the anthology is a dispatch from the desires that dwell behind the curtain many hesitate to part. It runs the gamut of love and intimacy, exploring BDSM, voyeurism, role-playing, and everything inside and outside the spectrum of what is sometimes deemed too taboo for the public. From throuples to whips and chains to a Victorian-era sex theater, this collection is, above all else, an invitation to possibility.
Over Zoom one afternoon, Kwon, Greenwell, and I had a conversation that takes place at the intersection of kink and art. We discuss kink both in practice and in literature, its portrayal in popular culture, and what we can all learn from it.
— Greg Mania
Greg Mania Reese, you mention, in the Introduction, that the idea for this anthology came to you when you were at MacDowell, specifically after reading Garth’s story “Gospodar” and Melissa Febos’s memoir, Whip Smart. What made you gravitate towards kink in literature?
R.O. Kwon Part of it was publishing a story in Playboy—the same one that’s in this anthology—that has so much more sex than anything I’d ever written. I just had a ton of trouble talking about sex. I’d be at a dinner party—back when there were dinner parties [laughs]—and people would start telling wild stories about sex, which I loved hearing, but I would be completely silent. So, writing a story like this—even though it’s fiction—was terrifying for me. And to my great surprise, I received tons of messages and emails that were lovely: people said they felt less alone when they read the piece, or that they were so happy to see things being talked about that they’d never seen in fiction.
While I was at the residency, and read those works, I realized there’s a thread there. I thought, What if stories like this could live together in one book? I couldn’t think of a book like this in recent literature, so I wondered if I could do something to make one happen.
GM Garth, what made you say yes to this project?
Garth Greenwell I just felt like this was the kind of book that should exist in the world. I love Reese’s work and the way she thinks about literature. The idea of providing a space for a bunch of really smart writers to think about the issues also central in my work just felt like the kind of party I would want to be at.
GM This anthology is just packed with literary superstars—Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee and Carmen Maria Machado, to name a few—from cover to cover. Tell me more about approaching these writers for this project.
RK I think, at least with the first round, they were writers I was friendly with. But more importantly, they were writers I knew had written things that sometimes touch on kink, so that’s why they were the first ones who came to mind. Then Garth also had ideas for other writers we could approach. It was a big ask, especially because a majority of those stories were previously unpublished. It was lovely that almost everyone we emailed was down and excited.
GM Kink is often pathologized in popular culture: it’s shamed, used as a punchline, and, on the whole, relegated to the margins of desire. How do you want to see it redefined?
GG It’s something we talked about in our first conversation, because it felt really important—for both of us—to not be in the business of definitions. We didn’t want to draw lines or be in situations where we say what’s in or what’s out of kink. What interested us was how writers felt that kink was central to their work—whatever kink means to them. We don’t all have to agree on what kink is or isn’t. What was exciting to me was breaking away from certain kinds of clichés like handcuffs and whips—although they certainly are a part of some of the stories—because kink is also a lot of other sexual and cultural practices.
GM A lot of people hear kink and automatically think of those handcuffs and whips—not really taking into account the full nuance and scope of it—when it’s, above all else, defined by boundaries and consent. Why is it important to recognize the complexity of kink?
RK I love what you’re saying about boundaries and consent. I think some of what you can learn from common kinky practices is just that: being very explicit about consent and having ways to take back that consent very clearly and explicitly any time you need to. All of that is something the whole world could benefit from. I’m just so tired of all the ways it’s a trope: there’s a serial killer, and they’re also super kinky. They have a dungeon and they kill a bunch of people. Like, how does that make people who engage in kinky practices feel, to always see that depiction? It’s all serial killers and punchlines. It’s not cool. I hope that the book can help minimize that stigma.
GG Kink culture has, for a long time, been thinking about how to talk about sex and consent and how to make those conversations sexy. All of these things are lessons that the kink community can give to the larger culture, especially when that culture is desperate for resources to have those kinds of conversations.
GM I think this book is coming—I’m so sorry—out at just the right time, considering how quarantine has left many of us…thirsty, if you will. But I also found that reading these stories sated something emotional for me. I felt less alone, less ashamed of my desires. I’ve learned to be okay with my curiosity regarding intimacy, which quenches a part of my said thirst. What are some ways you think we can be satisfied, in this intimate way, in this age of isolation?
GG That’s just such a beautiful response to the book. It makes me so happy you had that reaction. I mean, literature, for me, is one of the most profound experiences of intimacy in my life. But also, as someone whose erotic life depends on the free circulation of bodies, which is just not possible in a safe way right now, there is a conflict between erotic life and safety that I don’t see a way to resolve. It’s a similar conflict a queer person of my generation grew up with. I don’t want to pretend that literature can make that go away or be a solution to that, but I love the idea that it can ease it. Literature isn’t a cure for loneliness, but it gives me a way to transform loneliness into a richer sense of solitude.
RK First of all, that’s such a beautiful question and response to the book from you. It makes me so happy. I love what you said. Here’s the thing: I don’t believe there are any silver linings to where we are right now—where are we now, 350,000 deaths?—however, one thing I’ve been realizing in this pandemic is that I’m clearer about how I want to spend my time. I have more clarity about the things I want and don’t want. I want to get less in the way of myself. I wonder if naming the things we want, feeling less shame about the things we want, can help us arrive at a place that recognizes want as a good thing. Wanting is exciting. If a book can help diminish people’s shame and help clarify what they want, then I feel like this could be one good result out of the millions of terrible ones of this time.
GM I’ve also abandoned my thinking of sex in such a linear way: foreplay, penetration, orgasm, the end. This collection made me recall that some of the most intimate and powerful sex I’ve had was non-penetrative. And, in this story, penetration seemed to take a back seat in terms of the mechanics at play. It feels like the objective is less orgasm-oriented—is this accurate?
RK I’ve heard some kinky people argue that kink is their primary sexual orientation, and the rest comes afterward. Not all kinky people agree, of course, but I’ve heard people say that the exchange and imbalance of power can be central to their sexual identity and that the rest of it isn’t as important. I think that comes through in some of the stories—I don’t want to speak for all the stories, and I certainly don’t want to speak for all the writers—but maybe that’s part of the dynamic you’re noticing.
GG Yeah, I think I would feel comfortable saying that a characteristic of kinkiness in general is the eroticization of the whole body. It’s also an eroticization of practices that are not generally eroticized: an eroticization of theater, ritual, and other things that don’t necessarily look like sex on their own.
GM This collection is, by design, more queer than not. What is the overlap of kink, queerness, and identity for you?
RK Well, I can’t speak for many other queer people, but: if you’re queer, then you’ve most likely already taken a giant step by acknowledging that you’re queer. You’ve also taken a giant step away from what you’ve been told you should be doing, away from what you’re told you should want. I wonder if thinking about kink in that context makes it more possible to start looking into—or at least being open to—practices that might feel as though you’re not supposed to want what you want.
GG I think it’s complicated and has varied, historically speaking. There’s this discourse in the queer community—especially within the lesbian community—about the moral status of S&M in the ‘70s and ‘80s. (This is history that’s fascinatingly revisited in Hilary Holladay’s recent biography of Adrienne Rich.) So I wouldn’t want to efface that history by just affirming connections between queerness and kinkiness. It is certainly true that queer communities have often organized themselves around sexual practices that seem kinky, and have been able to accommodate those practices within or even as the basis of something that looks like kinship, and that is something I find hugely inspiring. I mean, kink is pretty central to my own sense of queerness, but, as Reese said, I wouldn’t want to speak more broadly.
RK I feel like that’s a controversy almost every year: should kink be openly displayed at Pride? I’ve heard it argued that openly kinky clothing is not child-friendly. Personally, I don’t see the logic behind that. I would also argue that these are the same arguments that have been made about queer people throughout history: that who we are and what we want to do with our bodies is not child-friendly. And hearing that argument made by queer communities feels additionally hurtful. I wonder if people consider the fact that young people can be kinky too, and wouldn’t it be lovely if they learned that what they want is not shameful? What if they could see it out on the street, in broad daylight, being celebrated?
GM I like to say that I knew I was gay in utero. Kids already know who they are early on: they have such a firm grip on identity until societal cues tell them that who they are or what they like or want is wrong. Do you think these conversations about kink should find their way, in some informative capacity, early on in conversations about sex?
GGI will say two things. The first is that I think we need to acknowledge sex as central to human life and start normalizing the idea of sexual diversity and different people liking different things more. And the second is: any time people start saying things like “protect the children,” I immediately see that as suspect. Any argument that boils down to children’s safety from the kinds of communities and social relations that queer people form is just a negation of queer life. It’s just homophobia; it’s not a morally serious argument.
GM What are you hoping readers learn about themselves?
GG That they’re turned on by more than they thought! One of the reasons I wanted to work with Reese on this is because she’s an artist and thinks about literature as art. The same is true of the writers in the book. I hope the readers who had a certain idea of what this anthology was going to look like will come away seeing that this subject can be enriched by and can enrich different aesthetic practices. People are making art out of kink and putting kink into art, and that kink in and of itself is an aesthetic practice. That’s my hope: be turned on by more things and have a broader sense of what art is capable of.
GM Garth, everything that comes out of your mouth is just poetry. Reese, what about you?
RK I love that. Before I asked him to edit this anthology with me, I heard Garth speak at a reading for his first book and started crying during his answer to a question. It was like literature church. I love the way he thinks about literature and writing and sex.
I also want to add that I hope people feel more open to the idea that the things we want to do with our bodies or with another person’s body—as long as it’s consensual—should be honored. I can’t help but think of that word, honor. If you’re not hurting anyone, and it’s consensual, what you want to do with your body should be honored.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.