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I was recently rereading Daphne Merkin’s excellent essay collection Dreaming of Hitler, and once again came upon her 1996 essay, “Spanking: A Romance,” a first-person narrative account of her urge to be, well, spanked.
The piece was first published in a special women’s issue of the New Yorker, where it was titled more stuffily, “Unlikely Obsession.” According to a coda added in the book version, this piece generated a greater number of responses than anything Merkin, an accomplished writer, had ever written. In a talk she gave later at Barnard, she spoke of the “ferocious disapproval” the piece received, as well as the letters she received from men “who mistook my piece for a really long personal ad.” It was, in a word, sensational.
The piece was apparently so notable, that the book publisher saw fit to state boldly on the cover, right beneath the title: “Includes the famous essay ‘Spanking: A Romance.’”
The book contains many other notable essays, including meditations on pregnancy, men, sex, breasts, thinness, an account of the tragic case of Hedda Nussbaum, a review of Claire Bloom’s exposé of her marriage to Philip Roth, a fun and fascinating piece on the making of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence,” several pieces about growing up in a strict, Orthodox Jewish household, to cite just a few of the many utterly engrossing pieces.
None of those, however, were summoned to the front cover.
Sex is a seller, of course. But Merkin has a number of pieces that touch on sex plenty, including lesbian sex, kink, porn, S&M, and more. But only her confessional piece about her spanking fantasies received such prominent billing.
“Are you into S&M?” a new acquaintance asked me recently over coffee. It’s the new, “What movies do you like?” Which is to say, a lot has changed since 1996. A desire for a well-paddled bottom even sounds quaint now, possibly the tamest of sexual self-debasement fantasies that people will now confess to without so much as blushing.
Still, Merkin’s essay stands out as timeless, and I found myself wondering why, and then wondering further: what is it that makes a story tellable to begin with? What makes one person’s experience interesting to another?
How do we writers earn our readers?
Merkin’s essay has something of the answer.
If what we seek first in memoir is the real, a close second is the unusual.
“That was extraordinary!” we say when witnessing something remarkable. That is, we have seen the unusual, the non-ordinary, and it thrills us.
Sex, as ubiquitous as it is, still comes packaged in thick foils of taboo, and what could be more unusual than aberrant sexuality paired with decidedly upper-middlebrow respectability. Spanking, paddles, whips, chains, pulleys — in the very august New Yorker magazine!
The hunger for the unusual became even more obvious to me recently, when I happened one day to be browsing through my library’s online book catalog. I was scanning the memoir selection, looking for new titles, but also keeping an eye for the familiar, hoping to see my favorites.
I clicked and clicked and clicked, and got page after page of predictable titles. The political figures, the entertainers, the activists, the pep-talkers, the visionaries — a near-endless list. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and James Comey and Sonia Sotomayor. Bruce Springsteen. Tina Fey and the two Amys (Poehler and Schumer). Billy Crystal. Trevor Noah. Ellen Degeneres. Anthony Bourdain. Malala and Ta-Nehisi and Bryan Stevenson and Cheryl Sandberg.
These were not what I was looking for, though I’ve read some of them and liked them, and I’m sure others have merit, too. I’ve heard good things about Bourdain and Springsteen. Someday I will get to them.
I was not looking for them, and yet, they demonstrate what we want most. Celebrities and public figures — as ubiquitous as they seem — are, to us, unattainable gods. They seem to be everywhere, so like ourselves and our friends, until we realize we don’t have their numbers to text them to get brunch. To know someone so well, but to be unable to access them, makes us mad with need; this is a level of unsual that needs decoding, and so we want more of them, and what we get, therefore, is their ubiquity without ever denuding them of their mystery.
But this was not the unusual I was after, and so I kept scanning the memoir listings, seeking some quality without quite knowing what it was. Until I began to find them, first one, then another, scattered few and far between, and they helped me clarify what I was after, what it was, in fact, that made these works so rare.
I was looking for the most unusual of the unusual: the quiet dignified voice, gracious, human, witty but unpretentious, a tragic story that can make me laugh, a lighthearted voice with the unmistakable current of melancholy, the irreverence of the weird, alienated misfit who needs but a slight rub to expose a tender heart. A story that makes me think, question my assumptions, makes me see myself and others more clearly. A story that unsettles me, containing more truth than I think I can handle, until I discover not only that I can but I must.
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.
Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
Writers who turn ordinary subjects extraordinary. Where the unusual is not the person or the tale but the insight the writer brings, and the way they make you feel, with them, bonded.
Another of those gems is Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, about her loving but fraught relationship with her mother. Gornick, an essayist and critic, used to recommend books for her mother to read, and when her mother would say “I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this,” Gornick knew she had recommended well. “What more could any writer ask of a reader?”
If we can posit some kind of taxonomy of the unusual in memoir, we might say it exists on three axes: Character, subject, and style.
For a work of memoir to have any merit, I would suggest, it must be unusual in least one of the above three dimensions. If it is unusual in two, the work is a rare hit. If it is unusual in all three, it is a sensation — the rarest of rare literary things.
The first is the unusual character: the celebrity, the entertainer, the elected official, the statesman.
The second is the inherently fascinating subject. The child soldier in Africa. The harrowing ordeal of the kidnapping victim. The hopeless attempt to reach the last uncontacted tribe.
The third, the most rare, is when the writing sings. When the very best prose elements — vividness, humor, poignancy, irony — combine to deliver the deliciousness of a voice that is at once masterful and unself-conscious, absorbing us to the point that we don’t ever notice how deftly stylized.
The above qualities — unusual character, subject, or style — offer us the extraordinary in relation to the ordinary, and the best are the writers who can hold them up in compelling juxtaposition.
The celebrity memoir offers to make the extraordinary ordinary. To show the smallness and sameness of what seems so big and different.
Similarly, the unusual subject attempts to take something large and incomprehensible and show us the currents within them that we know from our own lives. Difficult choices, perseverance, the torment of physical or emotional pain, the joy of its relief.
The stylist — the unusual storyteller — however, does the opposite, accomplishing the more difficult feat by far: making the ordinary extraordinary, holding up the mundane and saying, “Look closely, and you will see wonders!” One deft turn of phrase, and the inchworm on the page feels like it’s crawling up your neck.
The unusual storyteller brings unusual insight. He or she takes unrelated events of apparent insignificance and holds them up to point to the thin but tenable threads that tie them together. Holding the moon, the earth, and the sun, and saying: see the wonder of these very separate things, observe the unseen gravitational pull binding them. See the light of one in the other. See how this event on Monday mirrors the other from Saturday, even if, on their surface, they seem unconnected and uncoordinated.
Which brings me back to Merkin.
What her piece has is the boldness to go where few others will. The willingness to examine a subject most others shy from even when facing only themselves, let alone with a public audience.
Merkin is not famous — at least not “celebrity famous” — but her essay combines two of the essential elements of the unusual: the unusual subject paired with unusual style. The admission of an aberrant sexual urge combined with the deftness of her writing and her extraordinary insight into her own desires, in addition to her breathtaking vulnerability.
It’s easy to dismiss an essay on spanking with a “sex sells” wave of the hand, but Merkin’s piece, while obviously about sex, is neither lurid nor even titillating. It’s dry — almost clinical. It is above all, an examination of a complex urge that is nothing if not a mirror, in some fashion, of the universal human shame of our basest desires. As she writes toward the end:
For me, it was about nothing less gripping than stating and restating, in an adult arena, the emotionless conditions of my childhood, where accepting pain was the price of affection. I believed in a magic trick, an impossible reversal: If you choose of your own free will to let someone hurt you, then all past hurt would be wondrously undone.
Merkin is an erudite and gifted writer, and — minus any puritanical objections — her piece is a great exhale of collective shame, with Merkin seeing the unusual in her own life, and recognizing the story we all yearn to hear.
This is key, then: seeing the unusual and the seeing the story in it — because story isn’t obvious. Mostly, we see life and we think it just is.
About four years ago, I wrote and published an essay in which I recounted the story of a roommate I’d had, a 20-year-old woman just out of college, who died from a heroin overdose right in my apartment. The essay gave me a way to explore my own complex feelings that followed her death.
I’ll never forget what someone asked me after my piece was published: “Why does crazy shit only happen to writers?”
I think the answer is: it doesn’t. What happens, rather, is that writers look at the everyday and say: there’s a story. They find connective tissue between seemingly unrelated events. They see the humor and the joy and the tragedy and the heartbreak and find ways to set them down for the reader to experience with an immediacy that approximates living them.
And so perhaps if there’s a single thing a memoirist must know above all, it is simply this: find the unusual within the usual, the extraordinary within the ordinary. It’s the surest way to earn your reader.