Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to Stacey May Fowles, the author of the novels Be Good, Fear of Fighting, and, forthcoming from ECW in Fall 2013, Infidelity. She is also a widely anthologized feminist, essayist, and literary critic, primarily for The National Post and The Walrus. Fowles’s shelf is in her home office in Toronto’s West End. As she describes the books she’s loved, her dog anxiously wanders in and out of the room, perhaps being driven to distraction by the bacon based soup being prepared int the kitchen by Fowles’s husband, Spencer Saunders.
This particular shelf is really disorganized, because if I review a book I just throw it on the shelf somewhere. There’s a lot of ARCs. Mostly just ‘cause that’s where they fit. Honestly, most of my books were so disorganized for most of my life. It was literally just piles and piles of books everywhere. And getting these built-ins done was my first concerted effort to be organized. It was sort of the first time I could put everything in sections and catalog things—it was my attempt to put things in some sort of order. There’s like, different phases too. I was really into comics for a while, I was really into YA books for a while. I went through a phase where I got really interested in religious—like, faith-based suffering. I don’t know. I go through a lot of phases. I get really, really, really obsessed with a certain theme, and then I buy every possible book on that theme. And then they just sort of pile up.
Obviously I have a lot of books on feminism. When I was a freelance reviewer, I used to just get books mailed to me all the time. They would come almost daily. And they were all—because I had made a name for myself writing about women’s issues—they were all related to women’s issues. So a huge number of my books are about ladies. And sex. There’s a huge number of books on sex. I did a women’s studies degree, so it’s always been a primary interest of mine. I collected this stable of women’s studies tomes when I was in school, and as time went on I sort of—it’s just obviously an interest of mine. I went through a phase where I was really interested in the feminist implications of pornography, so I have about 30 years worth of literature just on pornography.
So, I bought this—have you read this? Honestly, Dworkin is like—I so rarely agree with anything Dworkin says, but her writing on pornography, and her writing on violence against women is so beautiful, that it’s a real experience to read. You’re acknowledging her genius, but also not agreeing with anything she says. That’s one of my favorite kinds of reading experiences. Actually, I noticed when I was going through my phase of reading about pornography from a feminist perspective that so many of the books are anti-porn. Which is interesting to me, because I’m not anti-porn, even though I’ve read so many books that are. I really love reading books I don’t agree with.
I still maybe naively think that writing a book—just the sheer act of writing a book, is a huge personal victory. Y’know this whole debate between like, negative reviewing and positive reviewing and all that? I think we should start from a place where we acknowledge that writing a book is just such a huge gift. I agree that some books are better unpublished, and I agree that there are some books that shouldn’t be written. But I think that the act of writing a book is just—when I critique a book I tend to start from a place that’s even as basic as, “You wrote a book!” And as somebody who has written books, I know that it’s just such a harrowing process for so many people, and that the least you can do is to engage with it as the book that it is, I think.
I think if you’re a critic you tend to be so embedded in books culture that you know what you should be reading all the time. At a certain point you want something different—I mean, you read all the books pages, you read all the books blogs, you know what’s popular, you know what’s up for prizes, and you just want to be surprised. I was assigned The Complete Lock Pick Pornography and it surprised me. It was so exciting to read it, and it was exciting to write about it! It was really exciting to be given the privilege to write about something so outside the realm of what we’ve decided is “great literature.”
Lynn Crosbie’s Life is About Losing Everything was the best book of the year. I think that when you review books you see the same patterns over and over and over again, and then something kind of hits you about a book where someone has done something revolutionary, it’s hard not to admire that. I mean, I do think there’s an element to my admiration for this book that has to do with how it came to me at a particular time in my life, when I really needed to read it. Oh god, it’s so good. As a reviewer it’s really hard to encounter a book like this and review it in a way that is professional because you’re just so completely in love with it, right? I mean, reviewing books is like dating. It’s like going on a dozen, two dozen dates a year, and then every so often you’re gonna become completely enamored with one of your dates.
I think Play it as it Lays is the book that I’ve read the most times. I’ve also bought it the most times, because I keep lending it to people. When I meet them, and if we develop any sort of relationship, I’m always like, “I wanna give this to you, because it’s my favorite book and if you read it, then you’ll know more about me.” This is the copy I had in high school. My seventeen-year-old self highlighted this book. When I interviewed her—I wish I could go back to my seventeen year old self, who bought this book, and be like, you’re gonna interview Joan Didion—the fact that I couldn’t talk to her about this book, because it was irrelevant, was painful.
God, there’s a blow job in this book, Dark Rides, that is like, the greatest documented teenaged blow job I’ve ever read. She finishes the blow job and adjusts the clip in her hair. And like, that’s such a teenaged girl thing to do! Derek McCormack got the teenaged blowjob just right. There should be an award for that.
When you buy books, you buy books because you think you’re supposed to own them! You buy books because you need to own them, and then you also buy books that you’re kind of embarrassed to own. I’m really glad I loaned out my copy of Fifty Shades of Grey before you came over. The fact that I loaned it out totally speaks to the fact that so many people have that secret shame. I have so much trash.
Fuck, there’s like a whole shelf here about writing. That’s so mortifying. Look at this gross shelf. It’s like, Marketing Your Book: An Author’s Guide, Writer’s Gym… For some reason I have two copies of If You Want to Write! Like, I had to convince myself I wanted to or something! God, that’s funny. I read this book, First Writes, when I was living in a shitty studio apartment. It was my first apartment in Toronto, when I moved back here from Vancouver. It was a particularly dark time in my life. And it’s about—it explores the “triumphs and trepidations of becoming a published author.” That’s it. And I read it before I was published, and it’s a great book. I went to Banff this summer, and I realized that this book was from the Banff Centre Press, and it was on all the tables, and I was thinking about the place I was at when I first read this book. The idea of being published seemed so incredibly far away from me then, like it was a complete and total dream that would never actualize. And then this summer, I’m in Banff, and they were selling the book.
I’d love to go back in time and tell my unpublished self that everything works out. I feel like the only reason people write is because they’re never satisfied, You don’t stop, you keep going. But it’s certainly worked out in the way I needed it to work out when I lived in that shitty apartment. But it hasn’t worked out in a way where I’m gonna stop.