It’s surprising no one has ever titled a book “Sexpat.” Certainly this book has been lived many times all around the world, especially in China. Plus it’s a much better title than Shanghai Cocktales, the recently published memoir which was reviewed–and slammed–this past week on Beijing Cream. It reminded me of that simmering desultory debate about writing about sex in China.
Alec Ash wrote the review. I’ve never met the guy, but he seems to have solid literary credentials. He trashed the book–a pretty mean review, actually–and it touched off quite a bit of mudslinging in the comments.
It’s worth trying to understand what he’s so pissed about. He mentions the poor writing, the expat navel gazing, and sameness of it all. Bottom line, he concludes, it’s not The Sun Also Rises. I read a few pages from the book over at Amazon and from what I read, I bet I probably would have written the same kind of review. It’s what critics do–stratify the hierarchy. Hem up here. Isham Cook in the middle. And Tom Olden as some sort of bottom feeder. And because criticism is such a marginal occupation any more, you have to ratchet up the rhetoric to ridiculous levels of righteous indignation whereby you openly ponder whether the author dying in a plane crash might have been preferable to this book seeing the light of day.
There’s a line in the review, however, which is important and unremarked.
“It’s representative of the mindset of foreigners in China in that era. It’s reprehensible drivel, but unfortunately it’s the best record we’ve got.”
Hemingway or not, a historical record has value beyond literary merit.
In the end, his review belongs to the long-simmering uneasiness over writing about sex in China, especially when it’s a white dude having sex with Chinese girls. The last time this controversy erupted was in 2013 with Tom Carter’s Unsavory Elements anthology. Carter got hammered for his contribution, an essay recounting a trip to a brothel. He got roasted so badly and so thoroughly there wasn’t time to wonder whether his writing was any good.
Around that same time Isham Cook, who also writes a lot about sex, took up the topic on his blog, basically posing the question: why don’t the Peter Hesslers of the world write about sex? It’s certainly not because they don’t have it. And even when it does pop up, he laments, it’s disingenuous.
But there have been some interesting examples of expat sex writing which were very interesting and completely non-controversial. Here are two I can think of off-hand.
Seth Faison’s memoir South of the Clouds has a chapter called “Sauna Massage” where he details a profound obsession with happy ending massage. This is surprising stuff considering the guy was the New York Times correspondent and one of the first accredited foreign correspondents in Shanghai.
In the chapter he writes about being on assignment in random places in China, filing his story from his hotel room while keeping one eye on the clock so he could hit the hotel sauna when it opened. He goes into detail, relating how he felt clammy as the hours and minutes ticked down to the moment when he could indulge his pleasure. He spun it as “research” because it allowed him a few hours alone with a Chinese person where he could presumably get a side to the China story unavailable elsewhere. Something tells me he wasn’t getting chills from the research.
Anyway, the book came out and no one seemed to think it odd that the NYT correspondent was holing up in saunas all over China like a jittery heroin addict, not even this Bloomberg reporter who rather jocularly put it: “In reading the book, I was learning things about my friend Shep Faison that I didn’t know before.”
A couple years later there was a memoir from Ethan Gutmann called Losing the New China. Gutmann was a chancer from the U.S. who ended up getting into reality TV show production in Beijing and then internet and then the whole thing goes south. The book is really about business, except for the last chapter–”Rex in the City”–which details the sexual exploits of an expat, “Rex”. It’s titillating stuff which includes illicit fucking inside military compounds, threesomes and lesbianism. All this is happening while his wife is back in the U.S. finishing up her PhD.
At the end of the chapter as Gutmann is surveying the lesbian scene he imagines staying on in Beijing indefinitely as some sort of Henry Miller figure. He doesn’t, of course, and now is a respected political writer in Taiwan. Who knows what became of Rex. Maybe he’s outside the 4th Ring Road putting the finishing touches on the China version of The Sun Also Rises.
What separates guys like Gutmann and Faison from David Marriott, aka Chinabounder? Go back and read Marriott’s stuff, at least the stuff from 2006. It’s a bit broken record, but he is a pretty keen observer of his subjects. He even employs that Hessler technique of quoting his subjects at length without editing for English grammar. In other words, he lets his subjects speak. Marriott’s general political commentary aside, what we get are interesting pictures of Chinese women. They lack the kind of socio-economic backstory Hessler specializes in, but the psychological portraits–vulnerable, touchy, naive, full of conflicting desires–are interesting and real.
But the Bounder is a mere footnote now. Out of the sturm and drang, all that remains is this strange book: Fault Lines on the Face of China: 50 Reasons Why China Will Never Be Great. If you think that sounds more like a Buzzfeed post than a book, you’re not alone. The book was barely even reviewed.
Then there’s Isham Cook, a writer who has been compared to Henry Miller. I reviewed his first two books–Lust & Philosophy and The Exact Unknown–for City Weekend. I also read his third book–Massage and the Writer–which is entirely devoted to happy endings. I haven’t read his most recent one, At the Teahouse: Essays from the Middle Kingdom. If the Miller parallel were ever to take hold, it should be with this book. Miller was much more than a guy who fucked prostitutes and moms and daughters, he had a big heart and big thoughts and wrote brilliant essays. His collection Wisdom of the Heart is one of my favorites.
But I don’t need to read Teahouse Essays to know Cook isn’t Henry Miller. No one is. Guys like Miller and Hemingway don’t exist anymore and probably never will again. They lived in a different time, a literary time, before the collective patience for thought was lowered by TV and then completely smashed by social media. Even if it hadn’t,a writer can’t find the space within himself anymore to create like that–it would be like trying to go into space without life support. The landscape has changed. The economics aren’t there. There are no more poet laureates in the pipeline, not even one for yellow fever.
Context is everything when it comes to documenting China sexploits, so let me end by adding some. A few months ago I met an expat at a bar in Shanghai. He’s pretty much an unrepentant sex addict. He estimated that he’d slept with over 4,000 women over the course of his long China career. “That’s more than Casanova and Don Juan combined,” he added significantly. He’s right. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to realize how so much more adds up to so much less these days.
Actually, I’m pretty sure you know Tom Holden. We all kinda hung out in similar places back then.
Maybe, don’t recall offhand. Anyway, he was clearly having way more fun than I was lol
I wish to take minor issue with a few of your comments. First, I haven’t read Shanghai Cocktales, but if the content is as vulgar and tacky as the title, then the title is perfectly appropriate and suited to its Hustler-grade audience. Many books use puns in their titles, and this one is catchy and funny. If some readers are put off by it, that tells you more about their genteel sensitivities than it does about the author of the book.
Second, regarding your view that my own writing is no Henry Miller or Hemingway, I need to clarify a few things. I’m not sure whether by “Miller” and “Hemingway” you mean 1) these two particular authors, or 2) these authors in a symbolic or general sense – i.e. meaning famous American authors of the same stature and caliber. If the former, my writing does not resemble Miller or Hemingway; I have no intention of imitating or emulating them, because I have no intention of imitating or emulating ANY author (other commenters have made similarly odd remarks, such as I’m a “wannabe Faulkner,” which is likewise not the case). If the latter, well, I’m in no position to speak on the matter, and to tell the truth I’m not terribly interested in such comparisons anyway. I have my own vision, and that’s enough for my purposes.
What I would like to point out here is that your choice of Hemingway and Miller as being somehow representative of the best, or some kind of golden age, of American writing, one that is no longer attainable due to our lowered standards, is rather cliched. These guys made a name for themselves back in the 1920s-30s. They are so ancient they can practically be lumped together with Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. It’s like those textbooks for English majors we have to use in Chinese universities where the history of modern American literature stops with Hemingway and Faulkner because the old fogies writing them never read anything else (or anything else is censored out for being too culturally proximate and threatening). A more apt comparison would be any of scores of American writers in our time who in their own way are clearly the equal of Hemingway or Miller. To name a handful of still-living contemporaries in no particular order: Toni Morrison, John Irving, William T. Vollmann, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, T. C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, and so forth. An important contemporary American travel writer is Paul Theroux, and writing on China of course is Peter Hessler. These contemporaries would be more relevant reference points, though again I’m not interested in such comparisons myself.