Caitlin Kunkel on New Erotica for Feminists
Caitlin Kunkel is a comedy writer and satirist. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Live Wire Radio, and many other other places.
She is also a co-founder and editor of the humor and satire website The Belladonna, and she created the online satire writing program for The Second City.
Caitlin’s first book, New Erotica for Feminists, co-written with her other Belladonna editors, was published in November 2018.
New Erotica for Feminists is based on a viral McSweeney’s piece of the same name. Clearly, the article proved, “hey, there’s something here that people want to read.” What’s the relationship between the short article and the full-length book?
The article was a proof of concept for us—the comedic premise of erotica + satire with a feminist slant resonated with people and publishers took notice. So then we were left wondering: how DO we expand that to 12,000 words or so?
Over the course of a weekend when we were teaching a workshop as The Belladonna at Brown, we wrote up a book proposal. We looked at the initial piece and started to see some categories—sex and dating, pop culture, work, etc. We went with that and fleshed out seven unique chapter headings to write the vignettes under. Having that framework really helped when we then went to actually write the 12,000 words of pure jokes.
The book has four co-writers. What was it like to do a comedy book with three other writers? Did you all collaborate on every part of it? Did you all agree on everything?
The four of us co-founded and edit The Belladonna, a comedy and satire site by women and non-binary authors, for everyone, so we were already talking pretty much every day. The process of creating the voice for the site, the editing guidelines, and determining what does and does not fit really helped bring our sensibilities in line with each other. So when we started riffing on the initial piece, we pretty quickly decided that every vignette needed a balance of the two elements of the premise—the erotica part, and the satirical flip part.
So knowing that, some of us were very good at massaging the erotica language in each one, and the rest of us were generating a lot of ideas around the themes of each chapter in terms of social satire. We knew we would need to way overwrite to fill the whole book, so we got cracking before we even had an official book deal signed.
We set internal deadlines for batches to finesse together prior to sending to the editors. Every single one was reviewed by each of us, and in our final editing weekend we read them all out loud and punched each one up. If one of us didn’t “get” one, but the other three thought it had legs, we included it. Not all of us needed to deeply relate to each vignette if another writer could make a case for it.
New Erotica includes several short literary parodies and historical re-imaginings, such as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet pointing out that she’s only 13 years old (!) and comparing Romeo to Roman Polanski. How’d you decide on the particular historical and literary references in the book?
These were probably the hardest ones to write! There was SO much to choose from, but we tried to look at source material that we thought we could flip to say something about our modern society. Romeo and Juliet is seen as a romance, but she is literally a child (as is he!) and the relationship ends up with them both dead. With so much in the news and culture about #metoo and consent, we thought that was ripe to bubble up those issues.
Also, we hate Roman Polanski, and will use any excuse to remind people that he raped a minor and has been avoiding justice abroad. Soooo now it’s in print! We also worked with material like Lolita, but tried many different versions before ending on the one in the book. We started off with a huge list of historical and literary references. We ruled out ones we couldn’t see either a clear erotic angle into or a clear satirical POV, and then we polished up the versions that were working and decided from those with an eye toward creating variety and rhythm.
Let’s talk about your experience as an editor. You’ve read thousands of submissions for The Belladonna. You respond to these submissions and generally give your reasons for accepting or rejecting a piece. Has your experience as an editor there changed you as a writer?
Yes, definitely. I think it’s really emphasized to me how important a crystal clear title that contains the premise of the piece is. If a student or a submitter has a long, meandering title, or a very broad one, then I can almost immediately know that the piece is going to be a little all over the place. But when I read a title that gives me: 1) the format the piece is going to take, 2) the unusual thing heightened out of reality, and 3) sharp wording, then I know that this is a piece that readers can understand. Seeing how key all those elements are as a teacher and an editor has really forced me to do it in my own work.
I also get inspired by how creative beginning writers are in terms of format, the topics they choose, and the way they heighten. That reminds me that this should be a fun form of writing, above all, and gets me out of gunning for certain publications or audiences. New Erotica started simply as a google chat where we were goofing off, and I think that sense of looseness and fun really permeated the book as well.
You’ve also taught many students (hundreds? thousands?) in your satire courses for Second City. After reading so many student drafts, I’m sure you’ve read a lot of good stuff and bad stuff and everything in between. Any theories on what all funny satire writing has in common? Or what all bad satire has in common?
I’ve taught thousands of students over the years! I do have some theories. Like I said above, the tightness of the title and premise is a pretty universal thing. I see this improve as students go through the levels, like they can put the pieces better together at the brainstorming and conception stage.
I think all funny satire writing NOTICES something—something this is wrong, or needs to be critiqued, or is weird, or there’s a connection between two things that might not seem obvious at first. It’s unusual and surprising in how it frames and presents the jokes. Here’s an example by Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post. The best pieces flip a switch in my mind and show me something in a new light.
Bad or un-funny satire feels expected to me, tired in what it’s commenting on or noticing, or doesn’t expand out the comedic world and patterns enough. Great satire feels expansive, less great satire feels limited.
I love that. I think all humor writing issues that kind of challenge from reader to writer: “show me something I have haven’t seen before. Take me somewhere new.”
What do contemporary writers do that annoys you?
I personally don’t like it when people write really broadly, relying on stereotypes rather than starting with an observation and building out from there. Trump has bad hair, hipsters are dumb, Starbucks is basic. Start with the thing itself, examine why you’re having a certain feeling about it, and then try to find that unexpected take or pattern, rather than writing off a stereotype that already contains an opinion (and is very broad!).
What’s a belief that you used to have that held you back? How did you let go of it?
That I need to write every day. That’s simply not who I am – I go through VERY high output periods, and then I go fallow as hell, not writing at all, but reading a lot, watching new shows, seeing theater, getting off the internet, etc. I need those low periods to go write more, or else I’m pulling from a diminishing well.
I know not every writer feels this way, but admitting that it’s OK to go a month without writing, and trusting that I WILL get back to it after that, has been so freeing in the last five years or so. I let go of it because I was burning out and spending a lot of time castigating myself, and I realized I was going to stop writing entirely. I enjoy myself SO much more now, and I build in that inputting time into my creative calendar.
When I interviewed novelist Bill Cotter, he also dissented from the “write every day” idea. Perhaps “write every day” is a helpful habit-builder, in certain times, to overcome the inertia of not writing at all. But not everyone seems to need it.
What question do you ask yourself as a writer that you still haven’t answered yet?
What is all this building up to? What is the next step? I feel like I’m taking steps forward in the dark, trusting that there’s still solid ground in front of me, but not being able to see too far.
Who’s the most important mentor or teacher you’ve had? What’s something they’ve taught you?
This is strange, since I’m a teacher and try to mentor a lot myself, but I’ve never had a true mentor. I’m shy and always hesitant to ask someone for help or advice or to invest their time in me. I’ve had teachers who have taught me a lot, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been taken under someone’s wing and really brought along.
This isn’t to say I haven’t been helped and encouraged—I have for sure! But finding a mentor is actually something I am actively searching for right now, so I want to put it out there into the world since that is something I want to bring into my life in 2019.
Pick up New Erotica for Feminists, out now!