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Nicola Ricciardi

A tease is what you need: a conversation with Paul Chan and Lilith Wes

Mousse Magazine


Before winning the Hugo Boss Prize in 2014—an honor that carries with it a $100,000 grant and rights to a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum—Paul Chan had spent fifteen years crafting art projects that ranged from a series of fonts to experimental animations, from light projections to public performances. In 2010, together with Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So, he also founded the experimental publishing enterprise Badlands Unlimited; since then, publishing books (as well as PDFs, GIFs, and stone tablets) has become an integral element of his work.

For the March 6 opening of his Guggenheim show (which runs until May 13, 2015), Chan premiered the latest Badlands series “New Lovers”: a total of three books (for now) of erotic fiction that the New York Times has since rebranded “Smutty books for smart people”. The main inspiration for the series was the legendary Olympia Press, which was founded in Paris in 1953 by Maurice Girodias as a platform for censored works by the likes of William S. Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett.

Chan’s work is known for responding to very specific issues and events taking place in the present—the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina. I asked him if that was the case for “New Lovers”, too: “I think the authors would take exception to the idea that ‘New Lovers’ is my work,” he answered via email. “I’m the publisher, and proud to be so. But they are the works of Wednesday Black, Andrea McGinty, and Lilith Wes. And I can’t speak for them; but to me it is definitely the case that their works respond to ideas about what sexuality means nowadays and what is pleasing and not pleasing given what we understand as the protean nature of sexuality today.”

Flipping through the pages of one of the books (We Love Lucy, by Lilith Wes), the first thing one notices is that words are favored to the exclusion of all else, including images: there are no pictures or drawings accompanying the text; the cover is bare words across a background of plain, pale purple. As a matter of fact, the same approach has somehow been extended to the whole of the Guggenheim show, which looks like it has been stripped of any actual images (the exhibition is fittingly titled “Nonprojections for New Lovers”).

I asked Chan if that was a deliberate choice, if it was a way to suggest that language—as opposed to visual art—could be a way out of the current visual overabundance: “I don’t know if there is a visual overload; and if there is, I don’t know if language is the way out. But certainly it was a deliberate choice to publish ‘New Lovers’ and to make the ‘Nonprojections’ the way that they are. Is there a correspondence between how books need words to be books and how projections may not need projections to project? I don’t know.”

Intriguingly, the writers of the “New Lovers” series are noticeably careful in their use of words. If erotica, in general, is considered overly descriptive, in We Love Lucy Lilith Wes gives her readers just what is essential for them to conjure the images of the characters (“The sheer black fitted blouse hugged my small breasts and tapered down over the ample hips that are my birthright” is the little we know of the physical features of Lucy). I asked Lilith herself, while she was at her house on the East Coast (where she lives with her husband, daughter, and orange cat), whether her choice to avoid extensive anatomic description was deliberate:

“Maybe the genre is famous for that sort of over-description,” she replied, “but I opt out. I like description when I read, but I also like leeway as a reader to use my imagination; I like a balance between the two. I give physical attributes to the characters, but I also want the reader to be able to put some their own preferences in there as well if they wish. This is sexual fantasy, imagination, and emotion with applied body mechanics in a written format; erotica, that is. And as both a reader and a writer of that genre, I want my brain to be busy and the blood flowing.”

I enquired as to how familiar she was with erotic literature: “I’ve been reading erotica for a long time and writing it for two years now,” said Lilith; “I started my first book, Querencia, in April of 2013, which is almost done, then wrote We Love Lucy, and then Blue Dragonfly, which I self-published last month. I started writing erotica for myself because I couldn’t find much in that genre that I wanted to read and so, me being me, I started to write it. When my brother-in-law, Jonathan, forwarded me an email he had received about the “New Lovers” project, I sat down that night and wrote the first chapter. When Badlands said they wanted to publish it, I sat down again and wrote the rest of the story in a few days. It’s a high, writing, for me anyway.”

We Love Lucy is the story of a young woman, Lucy, who on the night of her 30th birthday receives as a present the chance to watch (and then join) her best friend Nicholas and his handsome boyfriend James “get it on in the flesh”. The portrayal of their sexual interludes is both vivid and vibrant, and sounds resonantly realistic, even in the dirty talk (something that Lilith explained as “wanting them to sound like just regular people, people I know”). But the focus here is much more on the feelings than on the actions; even the protagonist, when considering the option of joining her friends in bed, admits, “My mind was too busy thinking about how this would work.”

“You’re right, I’m very interested in her emotional flow,” Lilith commented. “That’s where I come in harder as the storyteller; the emotional details, how she feels combined with the mechanics, to me, is what makes it erotic. The emotional context needs to be there as well. I want to know what’s she’s feeling at the same time she’s getting fucked; if it were just the mechanics of fucking, it would be pornography. I want to be invested.” In the same way that the written word could be an escape from today’s image overload (if there is such a thing), maybe reading about the emotional context of sex is the new forbidden fruit in an age and time where there’s seemingly unlimited access to every avenue and imaginable byway of graphic sexual activity on the internet.

If that’s the case, J. G. Ballard saw it coming almost fifty years earlier. In an interview with Penthouse magazine from 1970, he told Lynn Barber that in the future (that is, today) “People will begin to explore all the side streets of sexual experience, but they will do it intellectually”. Wittingly or not, the “New Lovers” project proved that the science-fiction writer was (once more) well ahead of his time when he predicted that “Sex won’t take place in the bed, necessarily; it’ll take place in the head.” If there’s a lesson to be learned from Paul Chan’s latest endeavor it is that, even today, a book can be an effective teaser for our mind. And sometimes a tease is just what one needs.

From: Mousse Magazine, Issue 48, April 2015