Books interview: Laurie Essig

The author on vampires, romantic fantasies, economic fantasies and the importance of feminist anger

二月 21, 2019

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?

I was always obsessed with vampires. At 12, I discovered Bram Stoker’s Dracula and read it over and over. I see now that it is about romance – the kind of rational, modern romance that promises marriage and a happy ending and the premodern erotic obsession that brings madness and death.

Your new book explores the politics behind romance as an ideology. Which books spurred you to investigate this topic?

When my daughters were reading the Twilight series, I read alongside them to try to interrupt some of its messages. Twilight promises that an ordinary and poor girl with no education can be saved by a billionaire vampire, but it also teaches us that the poor Native American guy is not a suitable love object. Then when Fifty Shades of Grey blew up the publishing industry, I began to think about how they were not just romantic fantasies, but also economic ones about how young women who were going to be stuck in low-wage labour with very precarious futures could be saved.

Which texts have you found most useful in providing tools you could use in your analysis?

There are so many that are useful for thinking about romance. I have been teaching a course on the sociology of heterosexuality for two decades. Over time, the course has changed a lot, but some favourites are Lisa Wade’s American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Margot Canaday’s The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America and Eva Illouz’s Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capital. I love to teach Robin Bernstein’s Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights alongside James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting as a way of thinking about whiteness, innocence, childhood and femininity – in other words, the perfect bride.

Which books would you recommend as guides to political activism at this moment?

I think feminist anger is a really powerful tool right now because we need some sort of fire to keep us going day after day and week after week in these hopeless times. Two great books are Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. But in addition to anger, we need hope. I end my book with Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?

I gave Madeline Miller’s Circe to a junior colleague who had just passed a review. I am a big believer in reading novels as a form of celebration.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

There’s always a novel – right now, it’s Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. Academic books are a bit of a jumble because I’m weighing two projects, but most of them are about race, gender and madness. I also have aspirational reading, a novel in Spanish and a history of feminist movements in Russian.

Laurie Essig is professor and director of gender, sexuality and feminist studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. Her latest book is Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter (University of California Press).



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