One critic who panned it (the only one, as it was received very well by critics) didn’t like that many of the female characters were too submissive to men. This was her response:
For one thing, I think it’s absolutely irrelevant whether I’m writing about women being submissive to men or not. Submission or the lack of it—this is not a literary question, from my point of view. It’s something that exists in life; there are people of both sexes who are submissive. I think to bring that up in a review is tedious, because it’s irrelevant from a literary standpoint—I don’t understand why he even mentions it. It’s like he’s criticizing the book for something he personally finds objectionable in human beings.
So… I loved Mary Gaitskill for a bit.
Then this exchange occurred: [The story they’re referring to is ‘Secretary’–the one the film was based on—and SW is Stephen Westfall. Bolding is mine.]
SW: Do you think all masochism springs out of a certain amount of self-hatred?
MG: I don’t know.
SW: I could see how it could be self-transfiguring.
MG: Well, I don’t know. I think it’s a very complicated question psychologically, which I’m not prepared to deal with.
SW: I’m thinking, of course, as connected with martyrdom.
MG: I don’t buy that. I think that’s weird intellectual crap which people do to make something that’s very frightening acceptable. I don’t believe in that at all. The thing that I have noticed most about sadism and masochism, which I’ve said over and over again—I don’t think most people understand this, maybe because I don’t express it very clearly—I think what a masochist wants is deep intimacy and closeness, and they don’t know how to experience it except as an act of violation. They don’t have a concept of two people just, you know, touching together. Just like a sadist—what sadism is to me, is a breaking into another person, just breaking inside another person. And I can’t quite, I don’t know what the impulse is behind it. But to me, it’s an inability to have intimacy and a desperate, angry desire to have intimacy. And it’s people who have no concept of closeness, other than as a form of violation and submission.
SW: And it’s also highly ritualized.
MG: Yes, and safe, therefore. Inside the ritual, it’s a very control-oriented thing. I’m sure that’s not all there is to it. Like I said, I don’t think I’m a spokesperson, but that’s how I see it. And that’s what I’m writing about in the story. I mean, the woman does want this, not because she hates herself or hates women or women are supposed to be like this, but because she, personally, is not able to be intimate, and yet she really craves it. She’s also afraid of it, so this is her controlling device. It’s no political statement about women at all.
SW: So where’s the erotic charge in it then?
MG: In this story?
SW: No, no, not necessarily in this story, which is astoundingly unerotic for all the sexual game-playing that goes on, but—where might you figure the erotic charge in a sadomasochistic relationship lies?
MG Oh, because it’s the desire for such total union, total impact.
I don’t have practical experience–I’m a big Hermione and only have theoretical knowledge in this arena, but it seems to me from what I’ve read and the way I personally feel about …certain activities… that sadists and masochists can touch one another just fine. I certainly desire all sorts of stimulation and would feel connected in different ways through different types.
I do like the phrasing of ‘breaking into a another person’ though for me I think of mental domination working that way more than anything physical. I’m not remotely sadistic though, so I would love to hear from someone in that camp.
Mostly it sounds like someone who doesn’t understand there are different forms of intimacy and that S/M is just one form. Breaking someone down and taking care of them is highly intimate (if it’s not I don’t know what is). Making lurve on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire with Barry White on the hi-fi isn’t the only way to be intimate with someone.
I do wonder what sort of response Gaitskill received from the kink community after this interview was published and if her opinions on the matter have evolved.