When I was in high school, my first girlfriend and I would go on dates to Barnes and Noble. I was part of the generation that still had it pretty rough in high school (not to say queer youth doesn’t now, but we didn’t have as much visibility in media). I grew up in suburban Long Island, and while we had a Gay Straight Alliance Club (much to the dismay of many conservative parents), I heard the words “faggot” and “dyke” in the hallways on the reg.
My girlfriend and I didn’t really have a place at “the stores” (a strip mall parking lot where the cool kids would hang out and smoke Black & Milds) so we found haven around books. We’d slowly walk up and down the fiction aisles, stealing kisses when the coast was clear, our hearts racing. I can still smell the books, see myself reaching up for the ones with the most glamorous covers, and I can still remember the feeling of the almost-sacred time where we’d both sit on the floor, side by side, and read.
Books are transformative for everyone, but especially for queer youth. When I think of my coming-of-age experience, I can’t not think about books. I’d read anything I could get my hands on—”Fahrenheit 451,” “The Bell Jar,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “Fight Club” (I really don’t get why I was so turnt about that book but I was).
All of these books are an integral part of me. But there are two books that take up the most space in my heart: “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” and “Rubyfruit Jungle.” AKA the queer bibles.
Two books that I knew I wanted to write about, but when discussing with my fab executive editor Zara Barrie and managing editor Corinne Kai, my pitch fell flat. It was like I was speaking in pseudo-intellectual tongues. “I want to write about why it’s problematic that Rita Mae Brown doesn’t find queerness interesting. And why ‘Even Cowgirls Get The Blues’ is problematic.”
But when I dig deep and think back to when to when I gripped those books to my chest after I finished, feeling enchanted, when I had to immediately restart because I couldn’t bear that they were over, I thought, why do I want to problematize them? And does my criticism really f*cking matter?
Come, journey back with me to when I was a freshman in college and my cooler-than-me friend invited me to party in Williamsburg. It was the first time I took the LIRR to Brooklyn (a big deal for a Long Island Princess like yours truly). After what seemed like an eternity of a walk in the frigid cold, we arrived at an apartment. Everyone was just so gay. Everyone was so weird. I was intoxicated. I was also anxious AF.
“Please don’t leave my side,” I begged my friend, Lennon*.
“I won’t,” he rolled his eyes and laughed. I knew he had other plans.
When he disappeared out the door with an older gay man dressed in a leather harness, I was left to my own devices. I chugged my red solo cup of red wine (very classy) and tried to look busy on my phone. “Hey,” a girl wearing a fur jacket and stacked platform Demonia boots called out to me. There is no way she’s talking me I thought. She walked up closer. “How are you?” she asked.
Y’all. This girl was BEAUTIFUL. She had shoulder length perfectly straight black hair, messy-but-sexy black eyeshadow, and wore fishnets on her impossibly long legs. I scooped my boobs back into my bodysuit (damn you low v-necks) and tried to look the perfect balance between interested and aloof.
She asked me to come outside for a cigarette with her. The cold air whipped against my bare chest and my ratty hair extensions blew in the wind. She looked unbothered, making a big show out of lighting up her cigarette, leaning against the building. I decided that I was in love with her. (As little queer me was wont to do.) Being the anxious babe that can never hide how I’m feeling, I told her I was a college student feeling completely out of place.
“What are you reading?” she asked without missing a beat.
When I said I was rereading “Invisible Monsters” by Chuck Palahniuk for the millionth time, she grabbed my face. “You should start reading real books, like ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.’”
“Um, what’s that about?” I asked, genuinely interested, but distracted by the way her lipstick stained her cigarette, the way her collar bones shimmered from her highlight.
“It’s about everything and it’s about nothing. It’s really simple and it’s really complicated. It’s about thumbs (if you read it, you’ll understand) and that’s all you need to know.” I was still trying to remember the title when she leaned over and kissed me. It was the kind of kiss that made my head spin. My face was so cold. Hers was warm.
If cool Brooklyn lesbians read Tom Robbins, then I will too, I thought. Before she left the party, she drunkenly put her number in my phone. I still didn’t get her name, so I just saved it as Sexy Girl From Party. When I got home, at 4 AM, after a long ride back on the railroad (my life of $120 Ubers didn’t exist yet), I looked in the mirror and realized her lipstick was all over my face. I went to bed smiling, bursting at the seams with excitement that one day, I’d be able to have nights like tonight all the time.
The next day, I immediately went to Barnes and Noble. I read “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” in less than 24 hours. “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues,” in short, had me shook. The first read electrified me, made me fall in love. I was spellbound by Robbins’s beautiful prose, his crazy tangents, his multi-dimensional characters, his tremendous understanding of human experience. More importantly, I felt represented in this novel: Here was a queer, disabled heroine.
I texted Sexy Girl From Party to tell her that the book changed my life, and she was like awwww good! xo. I realized she was being more of a lesbian sage than hitting on me. I didn’t realize that our connection only existed in that moment. She was just fulfilling her role as a cool seasoned lez helping out the awkward loner by kissing her and giving her the gift of words.
Then I read it again last year, and felt differently. Or did I? I penned an essay about why it’s “problematic” which I still stand by and am proud of. But at the end of the day, the “problems” could never change the way I felt when Sissy first kissed Bonaza Jellybean, or when she accepted her disability. None of the very real criticisms I discussed mattered upon my first read. But more often than not, I feel pushed to go there. The thing is, we get congratulated for identifying things as “problematic,” but is it really that interesting? This isn’t to say that criticism of homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism aren’t needed, they are.
But the feeling of falling in love with a character is way more powerful and way more interesting than critiquing its creator.
Because of my older feminist understanding of the world, I avoided reading “Rubyfruit Jungle” for 21 years. Although I had heard nothing but rave reviews, especially from my queer friends, I was worried that there would be something in it to make it less queer than I was expecting. I’ve come to expect anything that deals with a queer woman will either be a) a sideline to a heterosexual plot or b) be killed off.
I tore through “Rubyfruit Jungle” waiting to say ha! There’s the homophobia. Being an angry feminist killjoy can do that to you. But reading it left my cynical expectations pleasantly unfulfilled — the disappointment never came — “Rubyfruit Jungle” melted my icy queer heart.
In an interview conducted for Pride Month for Barnes and Noble in 2015, Rita Mae Brown said, among other offensive things, “Your sexuality is the least interesting thing about you or me.” I know that Brown’s comments on queerness are offensive and deserve to be criticized. But what ignites my soul is not my offense — it’s the please-don’t-end feeling I got as I approached the last page of “Rubyfruit Jungle.” How I had to cover up the last lines with my hand as I read, so as to savor the end.
Books are central to our being. When I hold “Rubyfruit Jungle” in my hands, I think about all the queer woman that came before me and read this book, finally seeing themselves. I honestly don’t think about Brown’s offensive comments, I think about how I’m grateful for her words.
I know this is a slippery and complicated argument to make — at what point do we separate artists from their art? At what point do we protest art as a protest against its creator? For me, Tom Robbins being a straight white man isn’t enough for me to write off ECGTB. Rita Mae Brown not being interested in queeerness is not enough for me to disregard the beauty, power, and everlasting effects of Molly Bolt.
When I finished “Rubyfruit Jungle,” I knew why this was the book. I couldn’t bear that it was over. I immediately turned back to the first page and started again. I couldn’t end my time with Molly that abruptly — I had finished the book in two days. On a second read, I took my time. I savored each sentence. I had time to appreciate not only its amazing plot, audacious main character, but its incredibly beautiful well-crafted and perfectly paced lines. I had fallen in love with “Rubyfruit Jungle.” I had fallen in love with Molly Bolt. I had fallen in love with language. So why was my first instinct to find a problem?
What I really wanted to know was, did I actually feel offended by Rita Mae Brown, or was I looking for a reason to be? Why should her refusal to use the word lesbian affect my connection to her book? Part of me knows that it does, and criticisms and conversations about refusing to identify or use the use lesbian are damaging, but the other part of me just wants to enjoy a good book. I worry that we lose the visceral, creative part of ourselves if we’re always in criticism mode. When I find myself wanting to call a creative work problematic, I stop and ask myself: When was the last time I allowed myself to get lost in the beauty?
Maybe the even more important question is, what does problematizing works of art accomplish? Aside from an engaging essay, basically nothing. But in some instances, there is power in protesting certain creative works. If we don’t pour money into problematic creators, and make specific demands, we can make an impact. There is power of protest with proactive intentions. But boycotting or ripping something apart just because it isn’t perfect is a passive, uninteresting action. The trick is determining what is worth protesting, and how to effectively do so. That being said, F*CK WOODY ALLEN AND F*CK HARVEY WEINSTEIN. They directly caused harm to people. That’s more than “being problematic.”
Now I am closer to the woman in the fur coat and Demonia boots, than I am to the insecure girl in the black bodysuit. I am closer to the woman who had the good grace to be kind to a baby dyke like me, and I wouldn’t want to dissuade younger queer women from reading these transformative novels because of their author’s “problems.”
I want less of the adult me that hides behind intellectual buzz words to try and make a point. I want more of the girl staying up all night by flashlight, hungrily devouring the pages.
I don’t want to be offended because it’s en vogue. I don’t want to intellectualize the things that can’t be intellectualized. I want to lose myself in beautiful writing, in complicated characters, in the craft of language.
Basically every piece of fiction becomes problematic when you examine the person that wrote it. Humans are fallible and messy, after all.
With all the (very valid and important) discussions about identity politics going on, I urge you to revisit the fictional characters that changed your life, the books that molded you. I won’t turn my back on my favorite characters to criticize their creators. While books aren’t perfect, let us not forget the ones that gave us strength, validated our identities, entertained us and shaped our lives.