During the summer of 2022, a troubling suspicion began to take root in my mind. It was June, and ever since I’d left my news blogging job the previous year, the compulsion I’d once felt to stand stalwart and hypnotized at the gates of global content mills — which for some time had been as much a matter of personal curiosity as professional necessity — had eased considerably. I went on walks instead, and began to forget the cackling cadence of New York Post headlines. My friends seemed to appreciate filling me in. The Depp v. Heard trial, which once I would have not so much monitored as melted down, sifted for odd parts, and reconstituted as a dozen miniscule pieces of writing, barely registered. Then I started receiving emails about the trial from, of all people, Mary Gaitskill: the novelist, essayist, and short-story writer whose work I much revere and had often returned to during that recently departed decade, my twenties, when I was writing those miniscule articles, sensing powerfully the expectations and opinions of others, forming brief, enigmatic friendships with women I met through work — in short, exhibiting some classic Gaitskill-character behavior.
The author had just begun writing a Substack newsletter called “Out of It,” in which she qualified her scattered thoughts about the trial with admissions that she was “becoming incoherent,” that she was “trying to say something simple” and didn’t know why it should be so hard. The analysis itself was largely character driven and observational: Johnny Depp struck her as “a person with a lot of potent cruelty in him,” whereas she saw Amber Heard as “a weak person capable of weak cruelty.” Sometimes she would meander guilelessly toward free association, playing the part of a gregarious friend who’s more interested in connecting with her audience and having a good time than in handing down judgements.
Gaitskill’s enthusiasm for a relatively new medium crossed wires with her distinct boomer sensibility, sparking bursts of measured frivolity. In July (as well as December and March), she had a lot of feelings about incels and other perennial topics of the manosphere. “I don’t know why I have such [a] complex reaction to this. But I do,” she wrote, compelled by her love of misfits and malcontents to understand, even inhabit, the incel phenomenon rather than vilify it. As with the trial, she followed an imaginative impulse, not a polemical one, when she tried to relate to incels by revisiting the anger she felt in her own youth — although in her case, a private journal bore the brunt of her frustrations, which spilled over into “pages and pages of scathing juvenile sarcasm.” Then it was August, and she was writing from the perspective of a dog, only the dog was Dick Cheney during the 2004 vice-presidential debate. (“I am a very fierce dog. I am loyal to the home.”) A conceptual piece. Then I was staring at an embedded image of Marilyn Monroe and Joyce Carol Oates’s faces photoshopped onto satellite pictures of distant galaxies. I was reading a Chekhovian tale about a cab ride Gaitskill took across Manhattan just after Roe v. Wade was overturned. The posts lived up to the Substack’s name; it’s not as if they were generating hot takes, or even evincing a stable point of view. Still, winter was coming. I was reading the lengthy comments, her likes and responses to them, and the suspicion wouldn’t let up: was Mary Gaitskill more online than I was?
A former wayward youth who has magnetized an audience of loyal readers for more than three decades and taught creative writing all around the country, including at Berkeley, Temple, and NYU, is not necessarily an unusual candidate for Substack. What makes the newsletter surprising is that Gaitskill had previously claimed an instinctive wariness toward what she perceived to be the disembodying effects of the web, and had never ventured onto social media before. Witnessing her dash off strong reactions to a New York Magazine cover story or disappointing Oscar bait, then stumble on her oddly leaning convictions like a foal learning to walk toward my inbox, I was transported back to my early days as a prolific poster. It was all there: the thrill of speaking directly to a responsive audience, the fraught psychic calibration it inspires, the earnest search for clarity and justice, the ludicrous desire to devour the maw of discourse before it devours you. I was bewildered yet intrigued, and I wasn’t the only one. Within months of the launch, she was writing posts for paying subscribers, and several publications had interviewed her about the Substack. It was exciting, and a drop painful, to watch a meticulous novelist bare her half-cooked drafts to the world.
It had long been Gaitskill’s preference to express herself at a greater remove from the reader, in the fully realized, if still disembodied, consciousness that fills her books. After a tumultuous young adulthood — running away from her home in Lexington, Kentucky; living in a cult and temporary rooms; being institutionalized briefly at the behest of her parents — Gaitskill came to prominence on the New York City literary scene with her debut short story collection Bad Behavior, published in 1988 when she was in her early thirties. Three novels, two additional story collections, and an essay collection followed. Her most recent volume, The Devil’s Treasure (2021), billed as a “book of stories and dreams,” is a patchwork of recycled materials from her novels and nonfiction, studded with metacommentary, and was republished by McNally Editions this summer. Gaitskill’s books aren’t often up for awards (her second novel, Veronica, a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award, has been the major exception), yet year after year, they make their way into the hands of young people taking their first nervous steps through the concrete jungles that will define their adulthoods.
Over the past few years, in addition to getting her Substack going, Gaitskill has also written a couple of long, topical pieces of fiction for The New Yorker. Each incorporates plot points related to the #MeToo movement. The first, “This Is Pleasure,” is told in alternating sections from the perspectives of Quin, a sixty-something professional bon vivant (powerful Manhattan book editor), and Margot, his colleague and friend of two decades, younger than he is, but not by much. Together they tell the story of Quin’s highly sexualized behavior toward women from the office and beyond, and of his eventual firing when his transgressions are made public. For Margot, the tenderness she feels for her friend is complicated by insight into the abuse she knows he’s capable of. (After all, he once tried it on her.) At the time of the story’s publication in 2019, as #MeToo fervor was only just beginning to wane, “This Is Pleasure” was considered by many readers to be a fictional response to the moment, and among the best of its kind. This consensus spanned seemingly every microgeneration, representing dozens of bespoke takes on #MeToo. Critics praised the story’s “nuance” and “gutsiness.” It was bathed in ambiguity! Its characters were incredibly particular! The prosecutorial pose that had been ubiquitous in the cultural and movement rhetoric of the previous two years was slouching. And Gaitskill was the queen of slouch. She made it look easy. Maybe even like an ascendant political attitude in its own right. Since then, tokens of Gaitskill’s undisputed reign have included the publication of “This Is Pleasure” as a slim, standalone book, and an interview in The Paris Review.
What accounts for Gaitskill’s recent surge in popularity? Clues can be discovered throughout her forays into the art of mass email, which she has used to pay special attention to the issues that pile up so readily between the generations like barricades: internet addiction, moodiness, trigger warnings — whatever. Yet Gaitskill’s total lack of bitterness distinguishes her from many of the writers her age who are also drawn to these matters. Instead, she extends a faithful sympathy towards her subjects, especially the students who have populated her classrooms over the years, and whose perspective she frequently tries to adopt. It is oddly rare, these days, for an established older writer to conceive of herself as having more leverage than her students, but Gaitskill manages to be attentive to, and fascinated by, the ever-shifting balance of power in her classroom as it inevitably sways, touched by discourse but never determined by it. Refreshingly, she also doesn’t seem to harbor any special reverence for the radical possibilities of her own youth, in marked contrast to many of her peers, who seem to have held onto theirs to the point of becoming reactionary. She doesn’t even want a punk revival! So she says. “That was a wonderful expression of another moment and it doesn’t fully translate to where we are now,” she wrote in one of her incel-related posts. “What I’m wishing for, basically, is more humanity and more acceptable ways to express it, less fanatic conformity and desperate commodification.”
Meditations like these, however welcome, are perhaps not what we need Gaitskill for. What’s most gratifying about the Substack is the glimpse it gives us into the preoccupations her fiction stages so beautifully: the need to sit with confusion and discomfort, a deep intuition for the ways the relatively young and relatively old influence and harm each other, and all the interpersonal animus these confrontations can breed. Well before she began writing memoiristically about the internet, teaching, and #MeToo, Gaitskill’s great theme was the porousness of the generations to one another. In her fiction, the young are particularly susceptible to the influence of their elders, while the old never discard the psychic tumult of youth, which runs like a subterranean river beneath their conscious existence. Gaitskill is attuned to the ways a single character will necessarily adopt many voices and positions as she grows older. At the same time, a great deal of that character’s past sticks to her, so she reads like a chalkboard continuously erased and drawn over. The topics of Gaitskill’s fiction can range from ideology to employment to what some guy with a froggy mouth said to her protagonist on the bus, but one can always see the faded marks poorly masked: all the teachers that came and went, the painful lessons that have been internalized, a dusting of formulas that were never mastered. In her stories and novels, selves in different phases of completion are always getting tangled up and superimposed on one another. If it’s clear from the Substack that the so-called “generation wars” are of great interest to Gaitskill, the signs have been there from the start of her career; the entanglements of the old and the young have imbued her fiction with a consciousness that’s layered, combative, and starkly intimate.
The titular protagonists of Gaitskill’s first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) are a pair of young women — Justine, a 28-year-old freelance journalist and part-time secretary, and Dorothy, a 34-year-old nightshift proofreader — whose relationship gets triangulated through the legacy of an older woman named Anna Granite, a cultish novelist based on Ayn Rand. Granite’s death, two years before the main plot of the book begins, provides the condition of Justine and Dorothy’s meeting. Justine is writing a piece about Granite’s souring legacy and straggling acolytes, including Dorothy, who used to be Granite’s secretary. Granite preaches the gospel of self-interest, dressed up as a philosophy called Definitism — unambiguously lifted from Rand’s Objectivism. Granite’s novels are populated by beautiful women with expertly managed dispositions, superior sex lives, and a capitalist lust for making gobs of money. One can see how she invites critics, Justine being one of them. But Justine’s approach to her reporting assignment is self-interested in its own way — anthropological and condescending, sure of its correctness — and while interviewing her subjects, she only shares from her own life what she deems necessary for the realization of her article. At least at first.
The two women find themselves seemingly on opposing sides of an ideological dispute that a previous generation invented. Granite’s teachings are a ridiculous trap, but one the women are susceptible to. Even Justine, who nominally doesn’t believe this kind of crap, is affected by Granite’s writing, and toys with the possibility that perhaps “there is a perfect Justine Shade somewhere,” the draft of a Granite character already within her, awaiting polishing. Naivete is often thought to be a condition of youth, but in this case, it’s bequeathed to Justine by someone far more established and experienced.
Alison, the narrator of Gaitskill’s second novel, Veronica (2005), finds herself similarly trapped by the well-financed projections of ideal femininity and the good life that have haunted generations of women before her. The difference is that she’s also the one selling them. Alison’s story swerves between her young adulthood spent modeling in 1980s New York City, and a single day in her middle age, when she finds herself sick with hepatitis C, cleaning strangers’ houses to make ends meet. Veronica is particularly daring in its interlacing of these two eras, sometimes alternating between them every few paragraphs, so that disparate decades are nearly touching on the page. The effect is to amplify the past — with its years of heartbreak, annoying parties, demeaning gigs, and possibly even more demeaning family visits — and allow it to disperse like a desperate shriek into the sober echo of the present.
Then there is Veronica, an older woman whom Alison meets in her early twenties, at the ad agency where she works part-time as a typist. The two develop a friendship that Alison initially downplays as an amusing accessory, the kind that doesn’t quite match the rest of her outfit. Gaitskill emphasizes Veronica’s vulgarity and campiness, her neediness, her reliance on snappy one-liners, nothing like the stylish indifference of her young friend, whose looks alone can transport her to Europe for several months a year. Yet just beneath Alison’s glamorous facade, she is patently afraid of becoming Veronica, or secretly resembling her already. She keeps her near, like a charm to ward off her own impending neediness and pain, which will set in when the numbness of her catalog life inevitably subsides. Veronica’s subtle menace becomes apparent early on, when Alison, affecting a casual, worldly tone intended to scandalize, confesses that she got into modeling by sleeping with an agent. “Every pretty girl has a story like that, hon,” replies Veronica, a bit more transparently eager to impress. “I had that prettiness, too. I have those stories.” Later, when Alison’s modeling money dries up and Veronica is diagnosed with AIDS, Alison struggles to offer more than pat words. She feels “contempt and disgust” for Veronica at times, but just as often she feels this way about herself and the concessions she’s made to vanity. In Gaitskill’s fictional creations, older women aren’t any wiser than their successors, and the young are condemned — self-consciously so — to follow their example.
Gaitskill’s third novel, The Mare (2015), takes a different approach, focusing on the intergenerational drama that raising children entails. The novel is alternately narrated by Velvet, a middle-school-age Dominican girl from Crown Heights, and a chorus of adults who act as her mentors. Velvet’s mother, Silvia, is raising two kids on her own, taking whatever work she can to keep the family afloat, and can’t seem to stifle a violent rage toward her daughter, whom she beats and belittles. The kids at school are hardly more hospitable, and when we’re introduced to Velvet’s inner monologue she’s already berating herself: “You’re no good, said some words in my head. It’s your blood that’s bad. These are words I hear a lot. I don’t really hear a voice saying them. It’s more like I feel them in my brain.” Enter Ginger, a well-off, childless white woman in her late forties, who forms a godmotherly bond with Velvet after they’re put in touch through the Fresh Air Fund. She and her husband host Velvet at their home upstate, where the girl immediately becomes infatuated with horseback riding. Ginger wants to build up Velvet’s confidence and give her space to explore her talent for riding, but the older woman needs so much emotional support and validation in return that she risks further upending Velvet’s home life.
In fact, Velvet strikes a nerve in all of the adults around her, whether they care about her flourishing or not. Beverley, a trainer at the stable where Velvet rides, has a rough, maybe even brutal touch with the horses, which Velvet instinctively opposes. The conflict between them — sometimes simmering, sometimes nearly coming to blows — stomps through Beverley’s private monologue, in which she raves that Velvet has “been ruined by the Disneyfied horse-snot they sell in the multiplex.” She mocks Velvet and her inexperienced cohort: “Love and self-esteem, love and self-esteem — love is good for babies and that’s it. Yes, you make a horse good by raising it up with a little love and a lot of discipline. But you make a horse great by making it feel like shit.” As in Veronica and Two Girls, the generations are perversely fascinated and repelled by one another; resentments are tempered by conflict and evolve as the novel examines this reactivity through its many voices. In a later scene, Ginger scolds Velvet for participating in the verbal bullying of a substitute teacher at school. In a letter responding to their initial conversation, Velvet argues that she joined in with the others to stand up to the teacher’s authority. Velvet tenderly likens the student mob to horses that need to follow the herd. Ginger commends her eloquence, while gently reminding her that she is not a horse but a person — that is, someone endowed with responsibilities toward others that should keep her will in check. The incident marks a turning point in Velvet and Ginger’s relationship, and in the novel itself, as Gaitskill reworks the classic story of kids offending and adults disciplining as an opportunity for more rigorous mutual compassion.
Over the course of Gaitskill’s career, some readers have fixated on the parts of her books that depict blatant cruelty, typecasting her as a bard of psychosexual nastiness and depravity. The charge was first brought against her with the release of Bad Behavior, which features sadomasochistic relationships between men and women, as well as bleak professional prospects. In interviews, Gaitskill has been hinting for years at her annoyance with this bad-girl association. Recently, when The Paris Review asked her if there were qualities of her work readers tended to overlook, she joked that she wishes people would realize she is actually nice. By which she might mean that she’s tired of being reduced to a heartless appraiser of modern life, when her books are so full of the desire to sink beneath its surface. “Critics kept talking about how dark, hard, and cruel the collection was,” she said of Bad Behavior. “Even Maggie Nelson has written a book in which she devoted a lot of time to explaining how mean I am.” In The Art of Cruelty (2011) Nelson writes that the language Gaitskill deploys in Bad Behavior “bores through the self-esteem and dignity of the characters, along with any possibility of compassionate communication between them.”
Gaitskill might have added that the critic James Wolcott, in his review of Bad Behavior, called her female characters “dishrags and dickwipes.” Responding to this criticism in an interview with BOMB, two years after the collection came out, Gaitskill launched a defense of the protagonist from “Secretary” — a story later adapted into a 2002 movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, and which remains the artifact from Gaitskill’s career that those vaguely aware of her work are most likely to have come across. The story centers around Debby, a reserved, sexually inexperienced seventeen-year-old, who feels both violated and turned on when her boss, a small-town lawyer with political ambitions, summons her to his office and spanks her for missing typos in his legal correspondence. This occurs a couple more times; the final time, he masturbates in her presence, and she quits. In the BOMB interview, Gaitskill suggested that Debby is not as passive as some critics seemed to believe, and that she has her own sadomasochistic tendencies. “There’s also an incredible amount of courage and strength in a person who can acknowledge this in themselves,” Gaitskill said. “In my opinion, even though I don’t show her doing this in the story, this is someone who can go beyond this at some other time,” she added enigmatically, as if hinting at a second act for her protagonist.
More than thirty years later, thumbing her nose at those early critical misreads, and reckoning with the young writer she used to be, Gaitskill took up her own provocation and imagined what the continuation of Debby’s life might look like in “Minority Report,” published in The New Yorker in March. Whether or not Debby does get beyond the lawyer’s abuses is unclear, and the story itself is remarkable for the emotional life it traces across decades of stymied political transformations. The narrative is bookended by moments of confrontation between youth and age. It begins with a retelling of what befell the narrator in “Secretary” from her perspective three decades later, at the dawn of the #MeToo movement. The narrator, now in her fifties and working at a credit union, notices that the women in her office speak disparagingly of accusers in highly publicized sexual misconduct cases as “girls” who “are weak and spoiled and don’t know how to handle men.” Her coworkers display a cruelty toward the young that she can’t fully indulge in, since it causes her to reflect on the altercation with the lawyer. A part of her would like to get further beyond it than she has. Throughout the story, she refers to the spanking incident as “the thing,” a foundational experience of arousal and self-destructiveness that she has searched for with her romantic partners ever since. “But no matter what they did,” she writes, “it was a weak imitation of the thing. It was never like him simply speaking and me bending.”
Eventually, the persistent search for “the thing,” coupled with the casual seepage of #MeToo news stories into Debby’s everyday life, prompts her to confront the lawyer. The way Debby reacts to the radical possibility of the moment is reminiscent of how Gaitskill has felt her way through the news in her Substack posts, glimpsing it in sporadic, secondhand ways, and engaging with it only insofar as it can help her to articulate ambiguities in her own emotions and relationships. Meanwhile, political progress in “Minority Report” is cyclical; it resembles the spinning of wheels. In “Secretary,” a journalist calls Debby to dig up dirt on the lawyer’s history of inappropriate behavior toward female employees, but she refuses to speak with him, and the story goes unpublished; in “Minority Report,” Gaitskill mirrors that interaction with a bathetic scene in which Debby calls a journalist to report “the thing” as assault all these decades later, only to be informed that the statute of limitations for the crime she’s describing has expired. This juxtaposition of past and present suggests history repeating itself: the reporters’ mannerisms and the characters’ ages change, but the outcome remains the same.
The first time I read “This Is Pleasure,” I did not like it. As with The Mare, the story hinges on an equine image — a typically Gaitskillian passage about who, or what, holds the reins of human instinct. It appears in a discussion between Margot and Quin about his newsworthy indiscretions. Quin can’t comprehend why a woman who seemed encouraging of his advances would turn around and accuse him years later. Margot responds, “Women are like horses. They want to be led. They want to be led, but they also want to be respected. You have to earn it, every time. And they are strong as fuck. If you don’t respect them, they will throw you off and prance around the paddock while you lie there bleeding.” Back in 2019, this metaphor, however strikingly composed, grated on me. It seemed that the Gaitskill I’d imprinted on while reading Bad Behavior in my early twenties — the one who knew all about my vanity, vulnerabilities, and nightmares — was giving the final word in her story to the scuzzy line-crossing editor. Gaitskill even said as much in an interview with The New Yorker, in which she characterized the story as “a defense of the male character, to some extent.” Anything not written from his perspective came from that of the middle-aged woman who’d aligned herself with him. I found myself struggling to parse my own sense of allegiance: the Gaitskill of the ’80s, who wrote with excruciating delicacy about the miseries of young womanhood, spoke to my perspective; this new, newly popular Gaitskill seemed to be coming from somewhere faraway. It didn’t help matters that at the time of the story’s publication, enthusiasm for the #MeToo movement was beginning to curdle into disappointment. Its limitations were in full view. Corporate America had successfully converted the demands of #MeToo and expanded political horizons into cynical ad copy that people on any side of the issue could dedicate themselves to hating. Was it ever a cohesive movement if there had been so much legitimate disagreement about its aims from the start? Perhaps it was more of an event, an energetic burst of pent-up disappointment, desire, and rage. One had to experience it first to understand it was possible. That energy bounced around a society structured in many infuriating ways to prevent using it productively. Then it began to subside. So I wasn’t ready for a piece of fiction responding to that energy to liken women to horses and end with a sixty-year-old man insisting that “life is big enough for any story.”
But, four years later, I read it again and changed my mind. Gaitskill’s own characterization of her piece was, I decided, unworthy of it. Perhaps, like me, she would also say something completely different about it today. Her fiction, which can appear at times so responsive to particular moments of upheaval, proves itself on later readings to be capacious, to accommodate the shifting versions of the reader who returns to it. In the end, it is not that she is an especially political writer — her sensibility is sympathetic rather than solidaristic — but that her writing captures something shameful, exciting, and true about the ways people adopt certain roles in response to these moments: victim, survivor, repentant perpetrator, altruist, artist, bad girl, grown-ass woman. Some they commit to, some they discard. Others they just continue to feel uneasy about.
In the opening lines of “This Is Pleasure,” Margot posits that during the years leading up to Quin’s scandal, he “believed that he could perceive people’s most essential nature just by looking at them; he also believed that, in the same way, he could know what they most wanted to hear or, rather, what they would most respond to.” He uses these supposed powers of divination to concoct sexual fantasies about women in his life — friends, colleagues, passing acquaintances. Sometimes he acts on them. He tells Margot about a woman he met in the park: “‘She would like being hurt, but very slightly. She’d want affection more. You’d spank her with, I don’t know, a Ping-Pong paddle? And then touch her clit. This is pleasure.’ He paused. ‘And this is pain.’” In contrast to this arrogant lecture, the story’s final passage shows us Quin, post-scandal, wandering the streets of New York in aimless, melodramatic fashion. He’s openly weeping. The proprietor of a newsstand he frequents catches his eye “and tactfully registers my tears with the slightest change in his expression.” A beggar tells him not to be sad: “It’ll get better by and by.” The words give Quin a scrap of hope.
Gaitskill has written on her Substack and elsewhere that great stories have an “inner weave.” In a recent post about Blade Runner (1982), she explained that this weave is “often made of imagery, which creates depth and a kind of irrational subliminal force.” It’s comparable to DNA, the hidden, encoded material that expresses itself as the finished piece of writing. In a 2009 interview with Sheila Heti, Gaitskill said, “I think the closest thing I can come to defining what that vital thing is for me — is that there’s a sort of soul-quality in writing, if it’s any good.” She added, “It’s almost a cellular thing. It takes place in the cells of the writing, and it is what makes it alive or not.”
There is something horse-like in the cells of “This Is Pleasure.” The way it trusts one narrator then another, giving free rein for any rider to prance around the paddock, or blunder horribly. As the story concludes, it is Quin who is being looked at and given what he is perceived to need (though not, thankfully, with the aid of a ping-pong paddle). The people he encounters in the street see him more clearly than he saw the women he befriended and worked with. He couldn’t see their suffering. He thought it was all a great adventure, that his taste in literature and his judgments of people shared an essential rightness.
But we are not so often right about other people; the powerful, who have never had much need to imagine humanity extending beyond their whims, are that much less likely to detect the truth. The instinct to know and be known can atrophy. It can also expand. It lives sleepy and submerged within each of us, in a place where sunlight and screen brightness can’t reach. The cells, the soul. Apt phrases don’t stir it, no encapsulation of yesterday’s news keeps it informed. Such words as these aren’t capable of making us feel in our bodies the terror, confusion, longing, and wonder of the animals we have always been, and will persist in being until the end. That is what we need Mary Gaitskill for.
Hannah Gold is a critic and fiction writer based in New York City. Her most recent work has been published by Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Washington Post.