Editor’s Note: Grace Lavery is an Associate Professor of English, Critical Theory, and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s a cultural critic and a known engager of TERFS on social media who just released her memoir, Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis (Seal Press, February 2022). She is also the author of several movie reviews for Bitch. Daniel Lavery is a writer and editor and author of Something that May Shock and Discredit You. He also writes a popular newsletter. (Grace and Daniel are married). Recently, Daniel sat down with Grace to record an interview about Please Miss and various other topics for Bitch. The interview has been (sadly) heavily edited for length and this intro was typed on my phone (right index, left thumb). — Laura June, managing editor
Daniel: You may be the only person who has written an entire book on your phone.
Grace: It started when I was finishing my first scholarly book, around 2016 or 2017, just when I’d gotten sober. And that was when I was going on 20-mile walks, which were a way to procrastinate. Procrastination is something that turns into a kind of work, which is one of the reasons why Please Miss is so digressive—it’s literally all procrastination from writing a memoir. But when I was finishing Quaint Exquisite, I realized I had these little patches of prose that I needed to produce to sort of stick bits together. And I would go on these long walks and take my phone and then I would try to compose them in my head while walking. So I’d stop by Lake Merrit and tap up little notes into the thing. So it was that notion of phone writing as a kind of first aid for a longer and more substantial beast that I’d written on a laptop that became the motive for Please Miss. Please Miss is composed—or at least large parts of it are composed—in little bits that are then joined together in a variety of ways. And it’s edited on a laptop so that these things are kind of broken up and merged.
I hate to do this, but Nietzsche used to write a lot of his aphorisms while he was walking around the mountains, and that was how I used to think of myself when I was walking around Lake Merritt. I hope my work doesn’t really read like Nietzsche’s, but if it does I would like it to read like the aphoristic kinds of Nietzsche, the loopy kinds he wrote late in his career. Like Ecce Homo (1908), essays with titles such as “Why I Am Such a Great Writer” and “Why I Am a Destiny,” and he would write these little notes about how great he was, and it would sound totally deranged. I mean, it’s obviously indefensible on any number of levels, but I’ve always liked that grasping of the nettle of egomania that everyone who tries to write probably has to grapple with on some level.
Daniel: I’m aware of the way that writing a book on your phone could be thought of as a gimmick, kind of like that book that came out that didn’t use the letter ‘e.’ You weren’t intending to write the book on your phone. It was simply how it came to be.
Grace: Someone I used to live with described my writing process as watching someone vomit compulsively for hours at a time. Until I got sober, I had literally never written sober, so the experience was very much bound up with vomiting—sometimes in a fairly literal way. It also makes sense if we think of this as a digestive system: the laptop is the consumption and the phone is excretion or expulsion. It would also explain why pastiche is such an important part of the book. [Things] go in and then they come out in a kind of slightly garbled form, in this heightened and acid-fried way. I mean acid-fried in the sense of the hydrochloric acid of bile ducts.
Daniel: Our editors at Bitch wanted me to ask a question about your decision at a public level to engage with transphobes and TERFs. Why do you engage so persistently? Is this a key part of your personality or a tactical decision?
I have been thinking about it in terms of the quote at the beginning of the book, especially now in terms of thinking about the book as pastiche, of hunching, of intensity, and concentration in a way that relates to vomit. [The quote comes] from D.A. Miller’s Place for Us (1998): “The rankness of bad faith supposes the availability of more direct, honest ways to express need, whereas everyone knows that the only socially credible subject is the stoic, who, whatever his gender, obeys the gag rule incumbent on being a man.” And that strikes me as an incredibly relevant quote to the ways in which you choose to engage rather than preserve this idea of unflappability or unconcern; I don’t know if that’s how you would describe that mode.
Grace: That passage of Miller’s work is extremely important to me; D.A. Miller starts thinking about what it is that Broadway does for a particular type of person, in enabling a kind of bad faith expression of insuperability or unconquerableness that only exists in order to disclose one’s intrinsic conquerableness and perhaps, conqueredness. I came to a similar discovery or a similar set of positions in my own research [on] Matthew Arnold a few years ago, and I was thinking a lot about his frequent habits of responding to every critic that he ever got with these kinds of witty, but also really brittle expressions of…woundedness. The claim that I ended up making on Arnold was that he was trying to find dignity in the position of having been criticized, and trying to imagine that it brought him closer to the world rather than absented him or removed him from it.
I come from a slightly different premise because I am a British person living in America. So I have one kind of life that exists in New York City, where my transness is only ever a good thing, or only ever a valued and welcome thing, and is never a subject to ruefulness. And in the [United Kingdom] where, and it’s complicated, an entire political media establishment has fallen to this utterly reactionist and incoherent and anti-feminist ideology that calls itself the gender critical ideology. Part of the frustration that people sometimes feel with me, and sometimes I feel at myself, is just like, “Let yourself be an American; be grateful that you got the fuck out of there.” There’s always some sort of guilt there [about being] the sort of person who had the privilege and the social and educational capital to leave. The kind of complexity I experience around that is what corresponds in the Miller quotation that you cited, in the rankness of bad faith or the refusal of stoicism.
But why do I respond to people who are capable of just saying the most ridiculous and awful things? I have a few different answers. I am doing my best to be a normal human being talking to other people who are reciting weird slogans and asking aggressive questions. I tend to be cheerful but not glib. I fail at that because I’m a person for whom glibness is a kind of characteristic, but I try. What we really mean when we say engaging with TERFs is answering some of those aggressive questions. So I believe that someone is looking at those conversations and seeing them the way that I see them, and eventually that will change some people’s minds, I hope. That may be wrong, but that’s what I hope and that’s what I believe and that’s the premise of the work that I’m doing.
I’m a tenured professor at a wonderful university where I could spend my entire career and be extremely fortunate. When I got tenure, someone I admire very much who’s senior to me, said [that] tenure means [you stand] between vulnerable people and the people who are coming for them. And I think that’s part of what I’m doing. If they are yelling at me they are not yelling at other people. I’m trying to leverage my institutional privilege, which is enormous, for the good of a community that is utterly unrepresented or underrepresented in institutions like the university or like the media, or indeed, in publishing. I am simply safer than most people. I say that not to gloat but to recognize that that places upon me a significantly greater responsibility to fight. You’re not the only person who disagrees with me about this, and I’m not sure that my approach is right.
“Please Miss,” on some level, is an attempt to grapple with some of the beauty and horror of the body as something that I inhabit or that we all inhabit.
Daniel: You’ve mentioned that you felt like it sort of draws off the heat. TERFs yelling at people is a fairly inexhaustible resource; they will yell at you and then go yell at five other people as well.
Grace: It’s true that I am not preventing TERFs from yelling at other trans women; clearly, that’s true. But no resource is inexhaustible, and I do think that there are things that I can prevent, and one of them is that I have credentials, I have institutional clout, and that gets me a certain degree of credibility. People of this gender critical activist cell find it difficult to engage with me. I think it’s right that the flashpoint is someone that has tenure rather than someone who is untenured. I’ve become a flashpoint because I’m willing to have arguments.
There’s another thing that Morgan Page makes in an essay in the Trap Door (2017) collection on visibility, which is that this kind of argument privatizes a degree [of visibility] or clout or celebrity among a small cadre of well-established trans people and then exposes more people to risk. And I take that seriously too. And under normal circumstances I would be much more loath to deviate from that consensus, which is the position that you take, and again the difference in the situation is that I just think trans people are getting our asses kicked. I don’t think we are winning. We are losing very badly and we need a change of strategy. And so that’s part of why I made those choices.
Daniel: Let’s get back to the book.
Grace: No, all I just want to say [is that] it’s true this is a way I have of engaging in the world on Twitter, but it’s not the book I’ve written. Shon Faye wrote a book called The Transgender Issue (2021), which is really straightforward on this. Laurie Penny addresses these kinds of questions directly in their work. I’ve written a book that is resistant to co-option into a single set of arguments of protocols, a book that aspires, perhaps with a degree of grandiosity, to the condition of art rather than to the condition of argument. That was in some ways a surprise to the people who were engaging me while I was working on this book. But I’ve definitely written something which is not designed to negotiate, it’s designed to do something else.
Daniel: I do want to touch on this book, which is about what are various feminist ideas of the body, and this is such a fleshy book, a book with such vivid imagery that has to do with sex, with different bodily processes and functions with internality with guts. One of the books I suggested you read when you were working on this was Kristen Johnson’s Guts (2012), a memoir about having pretty intense, late-stage gut surgery. Could you tell us about what Please Miss says about the body that might be interesting or valuable or provocative for potential readers?
Grace: My friend Cliff described my literary style as gross-outs, which is funny because a gross-out is a frat boyish relation to comedy, it’s full of bathos, it’s full of jizzing in your hair or breaking wind in inopportune moments. But Please Miss, on some level, is an attempt to grapple with some of the beauty and horror of the body as something that I inhabit or that we all inhabit. The question of what a penis is, what genitals are, what skin is, what fat is, what flesh is, what lips are, what a face is—these kinds of things that can be so erotic and arousing and exciting in one moment and then so disturbing and disorienting in another. They run through the book from its kind of cheesy subtitle to its obsession with clowns, which turns out to be mostly obsession with the body or a way of thinking about embodiment as something that’s always returning, sometimes against our own interests or against our judgment.
One of the first and most decisive claims in the book is that there is a difference between a penis and a dick, for example, and that that difference is not merely accidental [or recent] but structural and fundamental to the way everyone experiences embodiment, people who experience their bodies as having penises and people who experience their bodies as not having penises. And that distinction is one that I derive from a long tradition of psychoanalytic thought, which I’ve done original research on in my scholarly work. [It] also ramifies and shapes contemporary understanding of embodiment, especially in the age of the internet, which is sometimes thought of as a moment of disembodiment [but often] returns people to the body in any number of ways and enables and intensifies [the] experience of the body.
On [that] note: I got an unsolicited dick pic this week, which doesn’t happen to me super often. And I was struck by the way that the internet became this kind of vehicle, not just for [our representation] of embodiment, but for a kind of indulgence of a profound and ugly experience of one’s own body. I mean, this was a person who had just taken a picture of their dick from above. I’m also a huge fan of Maddie Holden’s work and of Critique My Dick Pic, where she thinks about the aesthetics of the dick pic in a really non-phobic and generative way. But this was what she would call a “log”; this was just sort of like, a guy holding his dick in a kind of joyless way. And at some point he thought that he wanted to send it to someone on the internet. It just made me quite sad for that person that they experience the internet that way. I mean, clearly it is in some way an act of aggression, and I could take it as such, but I was mostly motivated to think of it as an example of what I’m talking about, which is how the internet intensifies rather than obscures our experience of embodiment.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.