An early morning might not be a typical time to chat about sex and literature, but it makes for an exciting wake-up call. Not in the way some dirty birds might be thinking, but Toronto authors Jowita Bydlowska and Anna Fitzpatrick are as funny and insightful over Zoom as their latest novels, which centre sex and female arousal as their protagonists navigate their messy complex lives.
Fitzpatrick’s debut “Good Girl,” the second title from Toronto’s Flying Books (the first was Marlowe Granados’ “Happy Hour”), sets the tone from the first line: a commanding sext to which her protagonist Lucy, a 20-something bookseller and struggling writer, responds without missing a beat while reshelving books and answering inane customer questions. There’s a rapid-fire almost slapstick beat to the scene as Lucy follows her lover’s demand to reveal her underwear.
“I really wanted to explore sex more from a funny point of view. It’s such a physical, vulnerable medium that’s ripe for certain types of comedy,” said Fitzpatrick, who is also the author of the children’s book “Margot and the Moon Landing.”
As a title, “Good Girl” plays in several ways. For some, it’s a signifier for certain BDSM practices or a sexy call-out in bed, but it also speaks to Lucy’s neurotic anxieties about how to behave out in the world.
“She’s in this masochistic relationship with men, but she’s also in this masochistic relationship with social justice — she just wants someone to tell her what to do and to punish her when she messes up,” said Fitzpatrick. “She has that same approach to all aspects of her life, like her friendships, her political realizations and her sex life.”
Lucy might fear landing in the same position as Josephine, the 30-something protagonist of Bydlowska’s second novel, “Possessed,” recently released under Dundurn Press’s experimental imprint, Rare Machines. Inspired by a real-life breakup, Bydlowska envisions her character in much darker places, threading dry humour and crisp dialogue throughout this story of a self-loathing woman who feels stuck in life as the caregiver for her verbally abusive mother in the early stages of dementia.
Josephine is romantically obsessed with a young lover, powerlessly acquiescing to his demands, while unable to detach herself from her punishing former boyfriend. A work assignment to a remote Croatian island offers a reprieve from this lopsided love triangle until Josephine meets a mysterious apparition of a man, their candid banter playing out like a dreamy erotic version of Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s “Before Sunrise” film trilogy.
In her last novel, the bestselling “Guy,” Bydlowska experimented with the voice of a well-tailored promiscuous bro who views women as possessions (never to be possessed). In hindsight she wonders if she perhaps wrote that book from a male perspective because it was easier. Ultimately, there is a simple reason why she takes on the titillating in her projects.
“I feel like I can’t really write without sex because I’m writing about life,” said Bydlowska, who muses that we don’t make a big deal about other kinds of appetites explored in print. “We don’t say, ‘What’s happening with all these books about food and eating?’ It should be very normal.”
And yet here we are early in the morning, talking about how rare it is to have two female Canadian authors whose sex-centred books — bruises, bondage and all — are out on shelves at the same time.
Perhaps these books stand out because sex is often portrayed in popular fiction as a brief moment or a plot bridge rather than an act as natural as breathing. “There’s this idea of sex happening in a book and then it’s fade to black, and now here we are at the next chapter on a farm somewhere,” said Bydlowska.
When it comes to sex on the page, tentative readers might be reassured by the marketing for “Good Girl,” with its cultural touchstones of “‘Fleabag’ meets ‘Secretary,’” or the fact that the book landed on the heels of internationally bestselling fiction by authors Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney, whose sex scenes have been the critical focus of many reviews.
While some might feel like they’ve read Rooney’s “Normal People” and are done, Fitzpatrick gently reminds that there are as many stories on this planet as there are people. “We have like 30 movies about Batman. I feel like we can have some books about figuring out sex in your 20s. Even if they’re exploring similar topics, or writers have overlapping philosophies or viewpoints, they’re all different.”
For those seeking one-handed reads, our authors suggest not limiting yourselves to what’s on the shelves of your local bookstore. Although much of the writing quality is questionable, the reader-generated website Literotica, which celebrates its 24th anniversary this week, covers pretty much every taste. During the pandemic, Bydlowska began reading self-published Omegaverse erotica, a very specific sub-genre in the category.
“The books are horrible. They have really crazy tropes,” she said. “But then I gave myself permission to read whatever I wanted.” She began following Facebook groups for readers of these books and discovered a wildly supportive community. “They have countdowns until the book comes out and all kinds of quizzes and parties happening online. I feel that I’ve never seen readership like that in publishing, but I also love that it’s very unapologetic and it’s fun.”
Whenever you’re talking about sex in traditional English-language CanLit, one outlier will always pop up. In 1976, Marian Engel caused a furor with her novel “Bear” and its relationship between a lonely young librarian and a bear. Every once in a while on social media, someone rediscovers the book, often because of its original lusty cover featuring a bare-breasted woman leaning into her bruin lover. The story’s nuances and humour tend to be tamped down, as is the fact that Engel won a Governor General’s Literary Award for the slim novel.
My own discovery that CanLit had its secret erotic side was when I got lost in the odd, mesmerizing works of Barbara Gowdy, who, as it turned out, played an instrumental role in helping Bydlowska through a late draft of “Possessed.” Fitzpatrick praises Ann-Marie MacDonald’s books, from the Oprah-endorsed “Fall on Your Knees” to the intimacy of her new historical fiction novel, “Fayne.”
Both Bydlowska and Fitzpatrick sing the praises of novelist Tamara Faith Berger, whose daring erotic prose addresses uncomfortable sexual politics often through coming-of-age stories. “She has such an intellectual approach,” said Fitzpatrick. “She is so smart and will show all her work on the page. It’s also very visceral, very of the body, but she uses it to explore this larger philosophical framework.”
“I used to say that we’re so prudish in Canada and we don’t really write about sex all that much,” said Bydlowska. “But then once you think about it, it is everywhere — we do have quite a nice legacy.”
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