Sex Sells, Death Redeems: Rebecca Schiff Redefines the Female Experience

Rebecca Schiff

When I asked Rebecca Schiff if she thought people would be shocked by the way she talks about sex, or even disgusted or insulted, she gave a sweetly democratic answer and pointed to Girls. If they can show a vagina on TV, she rationalized, that’s visual, it’s right there; you can’t even see the vaginas Schiff writes about.
She should give her lucid, powerful writing more credit, but she’s referencing Hannah Horvath’s manipulative vulva-flash, which made the news despite the fact that it’s mostly mundane: hardly a ripple in the legend of Lena and barely a drop in the bucket of vagina-related media. Still, it’s sensationalized, and still, people like me are starting reviews of books written by women by talking about Girls.
There’s a rampant temptation to find a large, comfortable corner and fill it with anything about, by, or “for” women, which is what several reviewers did when discussing Rebecca Schiff’s debut collection of short stories, The Bed Moved. The temptation is especially strong if the writing has anything to do with sex, or feelings. Maybe there is something to the trend (Schiff has an opinion about this) but I’m wary.
Yes, Schiff is a woman, and yes, these 23 short, plainly told stories (some barely a paragraph) include sex. But if you’re a young (or even young-ish) woman alive right now, the situations won’t seem gratuitous or surprising, or worth sensationalizing. They’ll seem thoughtful and true, because this is how women move in the world. The men in Schiff’s stories are slower to the punch (“Is this what women are like now?” asks a man in the title story), but for every sexual encounter, there’s a male having an equal and opposite experience—if we allow men the ability to feel, which Schiff sometimes does, there is certainly a sense of the male experience here, right next to the “female experience” so blithely marketed.
Even better than the way Schiff writes about sex is the way those moments seamlessly become part of regular life, and build their way into weird relationships, and become intimately linked with death. Death of old selves in a story about suburbia (“One day you’re ‘Mommy, change me, feed me, sprinkle talc all over my naked body,’ the next day you’re complimenting her on folding-chair spacing”) relationship death (“boxer shorts were like laundry even on their bodies”), and just plain death, of old people who get obits about their indomitable spirits (“Phyllis”) and of a father, who leaves behind topless boxing porn on his computer (http://www.msjiz/boxx374/mpeg”).
Unsurprisingly, Schiff’s inspirations include simple-sentence writers of the darkly mundane like Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Lorrie Moore. Her writing is thin-lipped and staccato, but rarely narrow and almost always smirkingly funny. In person, she’s the opposite of thin-lipped and staccato, but still funny: she’s open and available, with an accommodating giggle, and she’s the kind of person who copies body language to make everyone feel more comfortable. I ate soup, and at one point she ate her tea with a spoon. We met in Brooklyn, where she lives, the night before her launch party at BookCourt.
In his review in the New York Times, Dwight Garner said you were part of the “golden age of young female writers.” What do you think this means?
I was thinking about that. Is it because of feminism? Is it because there are more of us now? Is it because of MFA programs? More women go to MFA programs, so I’m wondering if there’s a correlation. The rise of the MFA program is a trend, more women are going, more women are writing stories. Or we’re just influenced by the women he mentions, like Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis, and the space has kind of opened up.
I think writers like to make trends out of things, but it made me wonder, am I part of a trend?
Do you feel like you are?
I mean, I think it’s both. I know who a lot of those writers are and some of them I actually know, so, there’s definitely a lot now, who are writing about this experience. But I don’t think of myself as a trend, I think of myself as an individual writer. But, you know, he might be on to something. There might be something going on.
When you were writing, did you imagine the audience he’s describing? Did you know it would be received in this way?
No. I don’t think so. I thought, this is female, and I was aware of that. But I remember, back when I was in the MFA program, there was a guy in one of my classes who was borderline sexist. He said, this is like Sex and the City, but good! Usually I don’t like stuff like this.
That was his critique.
That was his critique. I mean, on the other hand, it’s sexist to dismiss Sex and the City, because it’s about the female experience, but it’s lighter. I think about the lightness and the darkness, and the mix, and if you’re a woman and you’re writing lighter, you might be more in danger of being pigeonholed.
There’s been some commentary on the quantity of sex in your book, and an admission that most of the best lines couldn’t be printed in the Times. But I didn’t think of it as particularly bawdy, because it felt like the way women talk about sex. When you were writing it, did you think people would be shocked?
I mean, for me it was natural to write, and I wasn’t trying to shock anyone. But I’m not totally surprised if some people are little shocked. Reading the word “erect” in the New York Times, it was like, I wrote that, and now it’s in the New York Times! I guess sex comes up in a lot of the stories in an explicit way, so some people are going to notice that or focus on that, but I was more like you. For me, it’s just part of the language we’re already using. I didn’t feel like I was reaching into like, Erica Jong territory.

There was one Amazon review—I’m not supposed to read them, and I stopped now—but one of them early on, one of the first ones, said, “Maybe I’m a fuddy-duddy, but this writer keeps bringing up sex. Give it a rest!” [The reviewer wrote: “there is a lot of sex here, as there seems to be in the works of many young writers. I sound like an old fuddy-duddy… I find reading about long strings of sexual encounters boring.”]

So I’m a little prepared. Cursing or sex aren’t to everyone’s taste, especially if this reaches a wider audience. But again, I think that for our generation—to make another pop culture reference, I don’t know if you’re watching Girls?

I have, but I didn’t watch the last few episodes. I don’t care if you ruin it!
Well I won’t ruin last night’s for you, but last week—it’s visual and stuff is happening. She showed her vagina last week. So if this isn’t even visual, it’s not even going to pierce the culture.
I’m curious about “Write What You Know”, which is a litany of everything you know, starting with “parent death and sluttiness.” Where did this come from?
With that one, I was feeling sort of frustrated about the limitations of my experience as a person, and I was just like, oh god! Am I ever going to break out of what I’ve been writing about? Do I know about anything else? That was a real concern I had, and I was venting it, and it became a story.
It almost feels like notes for the book.
Yeah, it’s note-like. And sometimes I wished—I kept going back to it to try to make it longer, because I thought maybe there was more stuff I knew. But then it had it’s own logic, and it just ended where it ended.
In this same way, several times you mention the act of writing, or allude to it. In “Keep An Eye On It,” you say “in fiction, it’s never benign.” Why did you include these parts? What’s interesting to you about them?
The meta sections?
Yes.
Um, that’s a good question. I think we debated, my editor and I, about how to include them, but we never talked about cutting them, and now I’m like, why not?! To be honest, it’s not my favorite stuff, but there was some self-awareness in a lot of the stories, and I wanted to acknowledge that somehow. And I do think some writers do meta things really well. Lydia Davis, or maybe this is Diane Williams? She said, “who am I kidding? It’s always me.” And I thought there was something brave about that.
American writers are more hesitant. Writers from other countries will just be like, I’m a poet! And make references to that, like Chilean writers, they won’t even bother to make up a new name. Here in America, you don’t want your character to be a writer. And I do agree. I think if all our characters were writers that would be boring.
The first person who comes up when you google Rebecca Schiff is a woman who wrote Military & Domestic Politics—a Concordance Theory.
I totally know about her. I used to google myself, and she would come up first, and I was like, I’m gonna bump her. She has a Wikipedia entry, so she comes up.
You’re a step away from a Wikipedia entry!
I am. I hope I am

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