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The Ethics of Claimlessness: an interview with Garth Greenwell photo

When I began reading Garth Greenwell’s story collection, Cleanness, a couple months ago I had no idea what to expect. Or, that’s not entirely true. I expected that the writing would be lovely, near perfect in its execution, in its use of extreme and careful details. I had some vague memory of having read a short story by Garth in The New Yorker some years before. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience I would have reading the collection in it entirety, the stories back to back, stories so beautiful and full of lushness and nakedness that they fully envelope you in Garth’s world. The stories are fiction, but they read so convincingly, you want – as with all good works of art – to believe that every word and character (“R.”, most especially!) are true. But it doesn’t so much matter what is ‘true’ and what isn’t, in books and movies and theater and visual art, only what feeling is produced in the reader, the viewer, the audience. And in reading Cleanness, I found myself constantly reexamining myself - my loves, my lives, my own experiences – as I found myself growing closer and closer (in my mind) to the unnamed narrator, as he made his way through each of the same. Then I went back and read most of the stories again. I might read them again yet, in a month or two.

Garth was kind enough to put up with some annoyingly long questions, some of which are barely questions at all. Thank you to Garth, for writing such a lovely, lovely book and for putting up with me for an hour or two of his life.



“He was showing me what he could do, I thought, how good he was at getting fucked. He had meant every word of it, what he had said about himself online, I wasn’t sure I had ever met anyone who embodied so fully his fantasy of himself. I thought of all the men who had fucked him, adding a third finger to the two already inside, feeling again that strange tenderness for him, even as I twisted my hand to give him the pain he wanted, as I thrust my hips up to gag him. Why should I care who fucks me, he would say to me later, why should I say no to anybody, I don’t want to say no. why shouldn’t I give it away, his body, he meant, what could I do with it that would be better? I like for guys to fuck me, who cares if they’re ugly or old, I hate all that, people who think they’re so special nobody deserves to fuck them. Why should you have to deserve it, he would say, his head on my chest, who doesn’t deserve a little fucking? I think we should all give it away, wouldn’t it be wonderful, everyone fucking all the time, everywhere, I would love it, and I laughed, I said I would too, it would be my version of heaven. And when I asked him if he worried about disease he said Fuck worrying, I hate it, I don’t want to worry. I don’t want to live forever, I’d rather live ten years the way I want than live forever and be miserable, I want to be happy. I don’t care about being safe, he said, I don’t care if I get sick, why should I be special, and I wondered what feeling he was speaking from, whether it was joy or defiance or despair. I wanted to know where one ends and the other begins. I wanted to argue with him, but I didn’t argue, what would have been the use, and anyway to argue with him would have been to lay claim to him somehow, to violate his ethics of claimlessness . Because it was an ethics, I thought as I lay with him, it was more coherent than my own life, with its alternating precaution and risk; I tried to imagine his life of wholeheartedness but I knew it would never be mine.”


The second story in Cleanness, “Gospodar,” which means “master” or “lord” in Bulgarian (?) is the first story that blew me away, that made me question my own sexual practices or sexuality or sexual straightness, in comparison to what the narrator was experiencing. It’s essentially a one night, S&M hookup with chains and whips and agreed-upon degradation (with the narrator as the degraded), I suppose, you could call it. And it’s told with such extreme detail and care as to the actions but also as to the internal monologue of the narrator.

“It was for this excitement I had come, something to draw me out of the grief I still felt for R.; he had left months before, long enough for grief to have passed but it hadn’t passed, and I found myself resorting again to habits I thought I had escaped, though that’s the wrong word for it, escaped, given the eagerness with which I returned to them.”

The story ends with the man forcing himself into the narrator without a condom and the narrator escapes him as he is nakedly chasing the narrator down the hall… there’s fear and violence and the narrator’s resolve, at first, never to let this happen again, but then almost immediately, this thought:

“but how many times had I felt that I could change, I had felt it through all the long months with R., months that I had spent, for all my happiness, in a state of perpetual hunger; and so at the same time I felt it I felt too that my resolution was a lie, that it had always been a lie, that my real life was here …”

And one thing I wondered was if the narrator had some sort of agreed upon monogamy with R, if he couldn’t also engage in these other behaviors while seeing R., or if that would have been felt as a sort of infidelity or disloyalty (to R.)?

We don’t know whether the narrator and R. have an explicit bond of monogamy, but we do know that that the narrator has been monogamous—he says that he hasn’t been with anyone but R. for the period of their relationship. (Readers of What Belongs to You know that this is somewhat complicated by an interaction the narrator has in the third section of that book, which isn’t quite sex but isn’t quite not-sex, either.) So something about the relationship feels incompatible with the kind of sex he had sought out before it, and will seek out again. My hope is that his easy formulation of that separateness—esepcially when he thinks of his relationship with R as a kind of cleanness—is broken down by later chapters of the book, in which an easy dichotomy of cleanness / filth is troubled and shown to be untenable.


The honesty with which you address yourself and the reader throughout Cleanness is unparalleled in my reading experience or in my experience in general, really, with my friends story-telling, with my own stories I tell myself …   

“ … and I found myself at least at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing.”

to know oneself so well, to recognize one’s deepest desires and needs, even if for debasement, at times,  even if for a type of sex society does not want to acknowledge a need for.

“But I was eager, and as I took him in my mouth I felt the gratitude I nearly always feel in such moments, not so much to him as to whatever arrangement of things had allowed me what as a child I thought I would always be denied.”

And tied to the narrator’s needs and desires is a certain shame he often feels. Do you think that shame is inherent or taught, by society? And are you ever fearful when writing, of being judged by others, by society? your family? peers? There’s a fearlessness to Cleanness I greatly admire. And I wonder if you’ve always been this fearless in your writing or if you’ve had to work up to it? I know people who don’t even want to write about smoking cigarettes for fear their parents will know they smoke, for instance. And yet you seemingly put everything into your writing, and I have a great respect for that. Does writing, perhaps, enable you to overcome the shame in some way?

I’m interested in the experience of shame as something we might not simply reject or repress or push away, but instead explore and seek to make productive of various things we value—knowledge, beauty, solidarity, strength. Obviously much of the shame associated with queerness is taught, transmitted by particular cultures and the stories they tell about queer people. Certainly shame was the fundamental lesson I was taught about my life in Kentucky in the early 90s. But I do also think that an experience of abjection may be inherent in desire. Desire is something that happens to us, something to which we’re subject; nobody gets to choose what they desire. There is something humiliating in having one’s will violated in this way; it challenges any triumphant narrative we might try to tell ourselves about our own agency.


In a later story, “The Little Saint,” there is a reversal of roles, in which the narrator dominate a younger man who says to him, “I want to be a hole…I want to be nothing but a hole.” And the narrator thinks, “Maybe I came to be excited by the thought of doing to him what others had done to me.”

“I turned his head a little, tilting it first to the left and then to the right, as if I were examining him, but really I was examining myself, my willingness to master him as much as his willingness to be mastered.”

Reading these stories made me rethink heterosexual monogamy and the need for and proliferation of such books as “Mating in Captivity” (which was discussed at length and with extreme interest in a book club I was a member of a year ago), and why we in the ‘straight world’ seem so limited in our sexual practices and with usually one partner over a long period of time, in our ‘captivity’. You said in an interview I listened to recently that you would never get married. And I wonder if this is because of a recognition of the problems of long-term monogamy, a dulling down, of sorts, of passion, and a loneliness that can accompany such strict rules and the repression of sexual desires and a lack of passion on both sides?

I think monogamy can be a beautiful shape for a life to fill, and I wouldn’t want to say anything to deprecate it. But I would like to see us multiply our sense of the models of life that we view as valuable. I see the institution of marriage, the contract, as hopelessly bound up with the idea that people can be property; it’s not a contract that particularly interests me. I will only marry if there is a good logistic reason—the need for citizenship, say; the institution doesn’t have much affective force for me.

It's definitely important that we find ways to talk about the loneliness that can exist alongside or within marriage and other long-term relationships. But just as I reject the idea that a relationship has to be long-standing in order to be valuable, so too I reject the notion that duration in a relationship necessarily dulls desire.


Cleanness is about more than just sex, it’s about love and tenderness and eroticism and romance and everything that goes along with all that and you do such a beautiful job of detailing everything the narrator is experiencing and feeling.

“I thought he might move toward the metro, putting an end to our evening, and maybe to more than our evening and it was easy to imagine him slipping away from me into that life where I had no place. of course I had no claim on him, our entire relationship was founded on claimlessness, and I was frightened to realize how much I would care if he turned, I would be devastated, how had I let myself feel so much.”

“It wasn’t true, that I had no claim on him, I thought, each word was a claim, his and mine.”

I’d love for you to speak more on both ideas – of claimlessness – the idea we can never really claim another – even or especially (?) in love – but also how we do claim one another, if only in tiny details, as you said, through words and the tiniest of actions and tendernesses. I think maybe once you let go the idea of ‘claiming’ another person is when you actually belong to one another more because there are no expectations or rules, only a respect and unconditional love that allows each person to retain his or her liberty. Have you found this to be true?

Both of my books have explored ideas of belonging and claims of various kinds. Can we claim another person as ours? What does that mean? Can we claim a place? How do we stake our various claims? To what extent are we claimable? When I look at human life, I see a series of double binds, contrary and irreconcilable desires. One of these is the desire to belong—to a person, to a place, to a community—on one hand, and the desire to be free, on the other. Whole systems of morality and law have been erected on the premise that our only option in such a situation is to brutally repress one of our desires. Something I want to explore in fiction is the possibility of finding or inventing more flexible structures for life, structures that can accommodate our contradictions.


I was moved to tears at the end of the title story, “Cleanness,” and I am never moved to tears anymore when reading. The final words of that story (cause me to tear up again typing them now):

“…anything I am you have use for is yours.”

This is an example, I suppose, of the unconditional love. I’m wondering how anyone you may have depicted in your writing has felt by being depicted. Or by a version or idea of them being depicted.

The book is fiction. The characters do not line up in any one-to-one way with people from my life. The exception to that is the father figure in the second section of What Belongs to You. I haven’t spoken to my father for fifteen years. I don’t know if he has read the book, or what his experience of it is. I don’t want to know.


I know this is fiction, but it seems as though it must be based on your own experiences, and I wonder how you are able to remember so many details and to process them so gorgeously on the page. Are you someone who keeps a daily diary like Anais Nin? Or are you simply blessed with both a good memory and a wonderful sense of creativity? Both?

I give myself full license to invent when I’m writing. Where the work makes use of details from “real life,” it does so because those details are aesthetically or dramatically effective, not because it is chronicling any lived experience. And it treats them as a visual artist might treat a found object—processing and altering them in various ways such that any easy connection with nonfictional reality is severed.


Tied to that is a question I have about the label of ‘autofiction’ which seems mainly used to describe the writing and books authored by women. Do people assign that label to your work? I find it somewhat insulting when assigned to mine and I’m not sure why. Maybe it is the ‘auto’ in the term, as though one is just dumping one’s thoughts and experiences on the page with no real art involved. (Conversely, I usually see other descriptions of men’s work, like ‘autobiographical novel’, which seems somehow more respectful, of the author, perhaps?) Do you have any feelings about the term, autofiction or its application to one’s work?

Well, I think people do invoke “autofiction” when talking about someone like Knausgaard; and it is certainly used when talking about my work, or the work of Edouard Louis. It’s not a term that means very much to me. The form it seems to apply to—first-person work that plays with the line between invention and reportage, and that includes essayistic thinking—certainly isn’t anything new. It might apply to much of the tradition of the phenomenological novel of consciousness, a tradition that I see as inaugurated by Saint Augustine.


You write in one of the stories in Cleanness, “we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.” I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by this and am wondering if you could go further with this thought.

The narrator is reflecting on the fact that the forms our desires take are not biological or inherent; they are always supplied by history, by culture, by chance. Desire fills the forms that are available to it; this is why sex is always a historical phenomenon, not just a biological one. The idea of an “authentic” or “pure” desire that exists outside of contingency is false, I think. Again: none of us gets to choose what we desire. All of our desires have been placed in us or given to us—often in very complicated, untraceable ways—by others.


In your story, “The Little Saint,” there is a flashback of sorts to the narrator’s teenage years, that seems to parallel something else I heard you talk about in a recent interview which was growing up in Kentucky and coming, at age fourteen, to cruise in the parks or a park there. In “The Little Saint” the narrator talks about a female friend he had then, a “very large girl… she had a public life where she was humiliated and a private life where she was desired.”

            It was a friendship based, in part, at least, on discussing boys and men and sex.

            “You slut, we’d say to each other”

            As they were each discovering their sexualities and how to engage with it and she sort of advises the narrator specifically on the matter of blowjobs, which I found so interesting.

            “But it was the form our friendship took, that I was her student, that she would teach me how to be a whore. You have to be in love with them, she told me once, each one, you might hate them other times but you have to love them when you’re giving head, you have to imagine that you can never tell them, that the only way you can say it is by how you suck them.”

            And the narrator says that at first the girl, at age sixteen, had more experiences, but that that changed quickly: “In a single night at the park I could have three or four guys, it didn’t take long for me to catch up.”

            And I’ve very interested in the disparity of how teenage girls and teenage boys are viewed in terms of their sexuality in our culture. I couldn’t help thinking that if I were to write a YA novel in which a fourteen year old girl has sex with multiple partners – boys and men – as I’m assuming some of the experiences the narrator and you had then in the parks were with adult males – in a night, no one would publish it unless their were a reason for her doing so, like a past sexual assault or molestation, and unless she overcame these desires, for sex with multiple partners, as it would definitely be viewed as evidence of her lack of good mental health, she couldn’t possibly want to have sex with more than one boy or man in a night, otherwise.

            What do you think of this gender disparity and is it a sort of shaming and wanting to repress female sexuality, do you think? Sort of in line with the shaming of gay sex in the past (and still today)? Did you feel capable at age fourteen of making decisions for yourself regarding your sexuality and the sex you engaged in then? Sometimes I think the only really liberated people, sexually, in our society are gay men, which then makes me think we still aren’t ready to accept a female’s sexuality or the liberation of it.


This is a really complicated question. I did have sex with older men when I was a fourteen-year-old, and my feeling toward them was, and remains, one of gratitude. I did not feel exploited; I do not feel exploited. I consented, and often enough I was the one in pursuit. (I always told the men I hooked up with that I was 18, and some of them may have believed it.)

            When WBTY came out a journalist writing about cruising for a queer publication asked me how I would feel about one of my high school students cruising the parks as I had, and I was shocked at my immediate feeling of protectiveness—of feeling like such a student would be at risk, and that men who had sex with him would be at fault. That’s a contradiction, and I can’t resolve it. I think that agency and choice and permission and coming-into-sexuality are all more complicated than the stories we tell about them, and I don’t think it’s true that all fourteen-year-olds who have sex with older partners are being exploited or abused. I also think it is best, when treading on such difficult ground, to err on the side of protecting vulnerable young people.

            I’m not the best person to speak to questions of how such questions play out for women. I’m grateful to powerful, brilliant art emerging today that tackles such questions, by writers like Lidia Yuknavitch and RO Kwon and Carmen Maria Machado and Eimear McBride, as well as by artists in other media, like the filmmaker Céline Sciamma.


After the narrator’s lover R. leaves, he goes back to bathrooms he had cruised before R.

I went out in search of feeling, I suppose, or maybe the absence of feeling.”

Was it this absence of feeling you sought in parks at fourteen? Or was it then only experience you were after? Sex for sex’s sake. Rather than for the feeling or lack of feeling sex with strangers offered, existentially?

I don’t know how to answer this question other than in the art I make.


“… I thought about the other writer, he looked at me sometimes in a way that made me think maybe I could have him, or he could have me, we could have a little romance, though that wasn’t what I wanted; I wanted something brutal, which was what frightened me, I wanted to go back to what R. had lifted me out of.”

            “I wanted to ruin what he had made …”


Some of this sort of ties into my next question, which regards the final story in Cleanness, which was the first story I ever read of yours, in The New Yorker a couple years ago. The story is called “An Evening Out” and details a night in which a high school teacher in Sofia goes out drinking and to a club with two former students, both male, who were sixteen at the time he was their teacher, and who are now, I think, eighteen. I found this story, when I originally read it in The New Yorker, very exciting and brave and, of course, beautifully written, but I couldn’t help thinking, as I read it, that The New Yorker very likely would not have taken it had the author been a straight male (or straight female) writing a story in which a straight male teacher goes out drinking with former female students of his.

“…. I was touching him as I had never allowed myself to touch a student before. But he wasn’t my student, I told myself, for one night we could face each other without all that, I could touch his arm and have all of that fall away.”

This probably isn’t something you think about, but it does seem as though you have more freedom, artistically, in this regard. Or that men in general have more freedoms, still, again, sexually. In their art and in their real life.

Those students are actually at least twenty when the story takes place; the narrator taught them in 10th and 12th grades, when they were 16-17 and 18-19 (Bulgarian students start school one year later than in America) and they’ve now returned from university.

I think heterosexual relationships along these lines are rather robustly dealt with in culture. The very brilliant, very praised novel Tampa by Alissa Nutting has for a narrator a psychotic, sexually voracious, pedophiliac middle school teacher. (The book is alive to the ethical abyss the narrator speaks from.) In the very popular, very praised film Booksmart, a female high school teacher has sex with a male student and then discards him. The film treats this as entirely unproblematic. No commentary I read about the film was troubled by it.

My story is troubled by it; that trouble is its subject. I think art is the tool we use to think about things that trouble us.

I can’t speak to what the New Yorker would or would not have published if I were a different person writing a different story. But the idea that queer artists have more freedom to explore problematic or difficult territory … well, I don’t know what reality that could be based on.


“Maybe he thinks it was an accident, I thought, maybe it was an accident, maybe there’s no need for shame, even though I knew that wasn’t the case, or maybe he was so drunk he would forget it and then the only shame would be a private shame, the shame I was accustomed to, the shame that felt like home.”

I love this phrasing, “the shame that felt like home.” But even here you have a freedom, to express shame. Whereas, were I to write a similar story, I don’t think I’d be allowed. I think I’d be silenced. I know this is a very delicate and controversial subject to be speaking about publicly but because you speak so eloquently on the subject of sexuality and repression, and advocate for freeing ourselves in writing about sex and all the experiences that accompany it, I wonder how you feel about this, about women feeling less free, to do so.

I can’t speak to an experience I haven’t lived. But who, in your question, is allowing? Who is silencing? Every writer has to confront the page alone. “An Evening Out” was a terrifying chapter to write, and I spent years trying to do so. Part of the reason privacy is so important to me as an artist is that it allows me to create without questions of permission. Who are we waiting to tell us we have the right to make the art we need to make?

The question of publishing is one thing, and we all recognize the ways in which publishing is a fucked up business, and I hope we recognize our own responsibilities to support and amplify underrepresented voices, and to challenge the publishing industry to enable more voices to be heard. But making art is distinct from whatever life that art might have in the world.

I wrote for twenty years without anyone paying me or offering me confirmation or telling me that what I wrote would be welcomed by the world. Quite the contrary. My whole life I have been told that my experience is marginal, inconsequential to a central human story, vulgar, uninteresting, perverted, disgusting. I have been told those things about my life, too. My whole life I have been told to shut up, that people don’t want to hear what I have to say. People still say these things to me. So the idea that someone offered me permission to make my work, or that that work was welcomed with open arms—that’s just not true. I wrote What Belongs to You without any expectation of it being published. For four years, I woke up every morning at 4:30 to write for two hours before a full day of high school teaching. No one gave me permission to write.

I don’t mean to minimize the very real structural barriers to underrepresented voices reaching large audiences. But an artist has to make the work they have to make, without waiting for someone to give them permission.


Who are a couple of your biggest literary influences? And who were you reading as a child and teenager growing up in Kentucky? Were you reading gay writers or other writers? Both? All?

My salvation as a young person in Kentucky was an independent bookstore, Hawley-Cooke, that had a lesbian and gay section. I didn’t get much of a literary education in Kentucky public schools, and so I didn’t know what to look for, what I should be reading. I devoured Winterson and Mishima and Baldwin and Audre Lorde, mostly on Friday nights hiding away in a corner of the store.


Finally, so much of Cleanness takes places in cities, in city squares, in crowds of people, in the squares and in bars. And, of course, reading it now, in the midst of the pandemic, I couldn’t help wondering how this pandemic and the subsequent quarantining and possible future quarantinings might impact sexuality in general and our ability to have sexual experiences in the future. Will there still be the freedom of cruising, for instance? And for one-night hook ups? Or will the pandemic enable more repression, as a sort of side effect, of shut in culture, now, that may come to be a new sort of ‘normal’ for all of us?

Nobody knows how this will play out. I am thinking a lot about individuals and communities that depend on the circulation of bodies for their erotic and affective lives. We all have to be vigilant for our safety; we all have to be vigilant that our vulnerability and fear are not seized upon to further erode necessary liberties.


And this ties, also, to the question of safety, safety vs freedom, in sexuality, and in our lives in general. When does the quest for safety prevent us from living?

Really I wasn’t sure I wanted to fuck him at all, I worried about disease, and the longer I fucked him the more danger there would be … I got tested every six months but I wasn’t always careful … he didn’t want to know. People always lie, he would say to me later, why bother to ask.”

“I lined myself up and then hesitated, remembering my early worry about disease, the men who had fucked him and me, it was a stupid risk, but then he leaned back until he touched my cock, his hole tightening like a mouth again, and I didn’t care about disease, about disease or anything else, if there was a risk we would share that too, and in a single motion I made him take it all.”

Again, this is a huge question, an unanswerable question. The only answer I can offer is my work.


image: Oriette D'Angelo.