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Q&A / Books: Katherine Angel

In the October issue of Dazed & Confused, the author talks sex, porn and making the erotic academic

Katherine Angel’s Unmastered is one of those totally out-of-the blue, impossible-to-classify, weird and new and wonderful fiction-ish nonfiction books, which happily come along every so often and make you go, “Whoa: this is what we need now.” As readers in their trillions make Fifty Shades of Grey the biggest book on the planet, Angel’s masterful debut provides an aptly timed, erudite, pretty much perfect antidote to all the shoddily written erotica out there. It’s a memoir of the author’s wide and fragmented and complex dealings with desire, wherein sage quotes from Susan Sontag rub up against whole pages that just say stuff like, “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!” There’s also a spectacularly scanty amount of text on each page, so the whole experience of breathily dashing through this long, fat, hard(back) book gives a libidinous thrill all of its own. We dropped in on Warwick University Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Angel for a check-up on where she’s at...

DD: There have been some pretty seismic shifts in the way we look at sex since the internet came along. Do you think its effects have been largely positive?
Katherine Angel:
I’m loathe to speak in general. For me, pornography has been positive and complicated; liberating and painful. I’m sceptical of the view of online sexuality as essentially harmful fakery – you have to allow for the thrills and weird complexities of erotic life. But I’m equally sceptical of a naïve, jolly libertarianism that doesn’t allow for any critique, especially feminist critique. Pornography can be a space to explore and celebrate sexuality, but it’s undeniable that strong currents of misogyny permeate not just pornography but culture in general. So I think the potentially liberatory aspects of pornography are very double-edged. The book is my attempt to express that, to celebrate the erotic without shame, but also with a clearsighted, analytical gaze. I wanted to hold together, in one space, the erotic and the critical.

DD: Are today’s youngsters desensitised to sex by all that pornography coming at them down the interpipe?
Katherine Angel:
I don’t know, but it’s something people should be exploring, without being hugely invested in either a pro- or anti-porn position. I know pornography has effects on me, some that feel good, some not so good.

For me, pornography has been positive and complicated; liberating and painful. I’m sceptical of the view of online sexuality as essentially harmful fakery – you have to allow for the thrills and weird complexities of erotic life

DD: In the book you’re pretty unconvinced by that smooth sex-academic’s whole ‘porn’s good because it can show you what goes in where’ argument...
Katherine Angel:
I can imagine that growing up with all the interporn now must be very complicated. I felt confused enough growing up, not knowing how to cope with my excitement and my feelings of vulnerability and fear. I think it’s crucial to encourage people to read images and pornography critically, without reproducing a sense of guilt around sexuality. And I think we should ask people about their experiences, and then listen very closely to what they have to say. 

DD: So how did Unmastered come about? Did it take long to write?
Katherine Angel:
In one sense it took about 20 years to write, since I’ve been thinking about sexuality, desire, and feminism since my teens... But the eventual writing happened pretty fast. The pressure built up and the dam broke!

DD: It has the aspect of a book that’s been assembled from a lot of notes. Is that how it went?
Katherine Angel:
For a couple of years I was writing notes about some sort of book, but struggling with what kind, and in what sort of voice. I was also making lots of notes on films, writers, artists – just following my nose and dwelling, a bit obsessively, in places that felt rich and fruitful. There were some lurching moments that turned out to be important, like reading Susan Sontag’s diaries and feeling like I’d woken from some kind of hibernation. Then another friend gave me some simple, brilliant advice: stop thinking about the book, and just write. So I stopped trying, and wrote an essay which turned out to be a map of the book, and led me to getting an agent. After that it was just blissful: I didn’t think about writing, I just wrote – on trains, in bed, scribbling on bits of paper on the tube. After about six months I came up for air, and realised I had a draft of a book – albeit not quite the book I had imagined... 

DD: It’s so personal, and deals with a subject that we often keep private. How do you feel about being ‘exposed’, as it were, when it comes out?
Katherine Angel:
In a funny way I don’t feel that exposed. It’s all quite ordinary stuff: sex, desire, love, grief, pain – stuff most people share in some way. And I think the book asks something quite significant of the reader: it invites the reader into a reflective space with me. Several people have said that, reading the book, they find themselves drifting up over the pages into reflections on their own lives. I think the book is about the bigger questions that we all grapple with: how to love, how to know what we want, from sex, from others, from ourselves. And it’s as much about cultural ideas of desire as it is about me in particular. So while I am the vehicle for exploring those ideas, I feel very much in company within the book, rather than alone and exposed in it.

What I find fascinating about Fifty Shades of Grey is the response it has provoked. We don’t ask why internet pornography is so wildly popular among men

DD: And what about the men in the narrative?
Katherine Angel:
Any resistance from them to your publishing all this sex stuff? The two significant men in the book knew I was writing something in which they figured, and they were supportive and encouraging – if also quite unsettled. When they read it they were happy with it, and supportive of its publication. But it was undoubtedly an intense and strange experience for all of us, I think. 

DD: It’s quite a tricky one to classify, isn’t it? Where do you want to see it filed? In biography, or philosophy, or politics or erotica – or what?
Katherine Angel:
I don’t like to classify it at all. I like to duck that issue as much as I can! It is close to memoir, but it’s not conventional memoir, either in form or content. Philosophical memoir, perhaps, because it moves from personal experiences to ask larger questions. Auto-ethnography, even? It’s not erotica as such, though I think it is erotic. And it’s poetic, though it isn’t a poem. So: a philosophical, meditative, erotic, auto-ethnographic, long-form essay/prose poem. Pithy, huh? I think better just to describe it as a story: a first-person story, exploring what it is to grapple with questions about desire, sexuality and feminism in a particular life.

DD: I’m afraid it’s Inevitable that we talk about Fifty Shades of Grey now. What is with that?
Katherine Angel:
What I find fascinating about Fifty Shades of Grey is the response it has provoked. We don’t ask why internet pornography, with its cornucopia of bondage and much else, is so wildly popular among men. But there have been countless articles asking ‘Why do women like Fifty Shades of Grey?’ It seems we are surprised – and not a little disturbed – that women have rich, complex erotic lives, while we take as a given the messy, unruly nature of men’s erotic lives. That’s an imbalance that we should think about.

DD: Have you read it, in your capacity as an academic expert?
Katherine Angel:
I have tried to read it, and feel I should persevere, but as a piece of writing I found it pretty difficult to bear, so have not got very far. I mean, I’m all for erotica of various kinds, especially if it opens up a more generous and less judgmental space for women to explore and express their desires. But the Fifty Shades coverage suggests we are still pretty discomforted by women’s sexuality, especially when it erupts in public. 

DD: You’re obviously a big fan of Susan Sontag, particularly her early diaries. What is it about them that interests you so much?
Katherine Angel:
There is something so arresting about her voice in those diaries – its intensity, its seriousness, its fearlessness. And in general I find diaries fascinating to read, partly because you can watch individuals emerge as writers, wrestling with finding language and narrative form. What’s more, in the intimate and hermetic realm of diaries, multiplicity and tension are allowed; the urge to create order is less strong, and so the fragmented nature of identity is much more visible – and I find that incredibly exciting.

UNMASTERED is out now, published by Penguin

Photo by Pedro Koechlin

This interview first appeared in the October issue of Dazed & Confusd