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Interview with Terry Castle

Like many people, I discovered Terry Castle through her essay on Susan Sontag. Published in the London Review of Books in 2005, just a couple of months after Sontag’s death, it was an account of the two women’s ‘on-again, off-again, semi-friendship’. In a series of hilarious scenes, Castle makes good on her claim that Sontag was a ‘great comic character’. After skewering her subject, however, she comes full circle: Sontag, she admits at the end, had an enormous – unparalleled – influence on her, long before the two even met. In its messy, conflicted way, it’s one of the finest tributes to anyone that I’ve read.

 

The essay is a fitting introduction to Castle’s writing. Many of her trademarks are there: the lists and overflowing cultural references, where Dame Edna and Debussy sit side by side; the fondness for italicising and capitalising phrases. Most striking of all is her voice. Self-deprecating, warm but not necessarily nice, at times gleefully excessive, it’s not the kind of thing one expects from an academic at Stanford (or, as Castle has described herself, ‘Spoiled Avocado Professor of English at Silicon Valley University’). It owes as much to stand-up comedy or Dorothy Parker as it does to literary criticism.

 

Born in California in 1953, to British parents, Castle has been teaching at Stanford for three decades. Her academic work has focused on the eighteenth-century novel and lesbian literature, in books such as The Apparitional Lesbian (1993), The Female Thermometer (1995) and The Literature of Lesbianism (2003), a monumental anthology that she edited. In these works, and in her reviews for mainstream publications, she has produced shrewd, original criticism of great clarity. This can be unexpectedly controversial: when the LRB put one of her essays on the cover with the headline ‘Was Jane Austen gay?’, the fallout continued on the letters page for months.

 

Over the past two decades, Castle’s work has taken a more personal turn. She has written a series of autobiographical essays incorporating a number of her fascinations – Agnes Martin, the saxophonist Art Pepper, the First World War. These were brought together in The Professor (2010), alongside the title essay which described Castle’s affair with an older academic when she was a graduate student. Since then, she has written about gay marriage, outsider art and meeting Hillary Clinton; her current project is a critical edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

 

This interview took place by email, over the course of a year. But when I was in San Francisco last September, I visited Castle at her home, a purple Victorian building that she described as ‘the unintentional Prince Tribute House’. We sat and talked in her living room, the walls covered with artworks – including collages by Castle herself – and the shelves stacked to the ceiling with books, as her two dogs came and went.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve written that a strong personal style is ‘the most difficult thing’ for a female critic to achieve. How did you arrive at your own style?

A

Terry Castle

— A dark business – no question. Some of the more mentionable reasons: I read all the time as a kid and by my teens and early twenties I had developed a precocious admiration for a small pantheon of kinky-magisterial female stylists – Austen, Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Jane Bowles, Janet Flanner, Susan Sontag, Jill Johnston – all of whom (!) I obscurely imagined trying to emulate. Brigid Brophy made a great impression on me when I was a student – the all-in-one bundling of taste and wit and authority and hilarious bloody-mindedness. (Will she ever get the respect she is due?) However different in their mannerisms and preoccupations, each of these women seemed in some way fearless to me – critical, clear, rich in strange approaches. Flyting. Everything important conveyed with a sort of smuggler’s flair. Depending on what was needed, they could either squash you or tickle you to death. I desperately wanted to be squashed and tickled – to collide any way I could with them.

 

It was hugely important to me, too, that none of my style icons (as far as I knew) showed much interest in femininity. Each had somehow managed to escape becoming coquettish, bovine, dithery or dull or otherwise bogged down in ‘womanliness’. Stein and Flanner weren’t even women. The usual male-female rigmarole left most of them cold. Heterosexuality might appeal as a plot device, but the reality was something else. (Unless, like Murdoch, you took brief copulatory spins on stiffbacked chairs with spooky Oxford goblins like Elias Canetti.) Most of my literary idols unsexed themselves early on, lived as lady-gangsters, or made only the most perfunctory feints in the prescribed direction. Lesbian or straight or else something in between, they all conveyed a kind of not-a-woman-ness. They were mannish and sceptical in a way I found gloriously seductive.

 

Early in my career, too, I think I felt emboldened to try to write in a similar way because I was so often mistaken – literally – for a man. (On the page, that is, though, I must confess, also at times on the street.) Not entirely my own doing, of course. My English parents gave me the ambiguously sexed, lager-lout first name I bear: it’s not a nickname or short for anything. Dare one say it brings to mind someone nasty, brutish and short? A football commentator, perhaps, with a greasy toupée and lots of back and nose hair? (Castle is perfect, however.) But therein, I guess, lay a certain charm. Experiments continue to show that readers of both sexes – even now – unconsciously discount or devalue what they read when they believe the author to be female. Who wouldn’t prefer to be ‘read’ as a man under such stupid conditions? Reviewers began mistaking my sex almost as soon as I began publishing scholarly books and essays in the early 1980s. I was startled and a bit put out at first, but realised soon enough that at least Terry Castle, Esquire, whoever he was, was getting read. (Bizarrely, this mysterious He-Terry was frequently accused of being a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist – a charge that made the morphological and ideological ironies of the situation all the more acute.) In the end, having cast off some of the cruder feminist positions I had touted during my goofy-to-grisly college years, I started covertly enjoying the mix-ups. Feminist literary theorists were always banging on in those days – often at tedious length– about how grotesque or pathetic it was when a woman writer tried to ‘write like a man’. Accepting official approbation from men (think Marguerite Yourcenar admitted to the Académie Française) was seen as a downright insult to sisterhood – a banishable offence. Indeed, as rhapsodically affirmed by a trio of then-hallowed French feminist theorists – the frighteningly Parisian Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig and Luce Irigaray – we would-be Amazon sex-warriors were not only to ‘write through our bodies’, we would somehow do so by mobilising our very own ladyparts – chatty little clitoris, lip-smacking labia, declamatory Mound of Venus, the whole kit and kaboodle. (Impossible on an iPad, of course, even with the Apple Pencil.) A lot got lost in translation, but I realised soon enough that the raptures of écriture féminine were unlikely to be mine.

 

I guess I never really saw ‘writing like a man’, however, as anything dire or shameful. I took the phrase ‘writing like a man’ to mean simply writing well: clearly, intelligently, forcefully. As far as I am concerned, everybody should write like a man. Man, woman, cat, dog. In my own case the payoff for being an oddly-monikered literary androgyne was considerable. Even now, whenever some clueless reviewer falls into the chromosomal-mystery-known-as-Terry-Castle booby-trap, I feel my confidence and conceit soar anew. 

 

Q

The White Review

— Your sense of humour is one of the most distinctive things about your essays, yet it’s less evident in your earlier work. How did you come to feel more comfortable making jokes?

A

Terry Castle

— When one is an untenured American junior professor, living on Ramen noodles and diet Fanta, it is safe to say that Revelry and Mirth seldom dance across one’s threshold, love-garlands streaming behind them. So job security, when it came, was a psychological relief – as was the fact that after three years of unhappy academic exile at a fabled Ivy League university on the East Coast, I ended up living back in a gay and gorgeous panoramic city in California, my erstwhile home state. Teaching undergraduates no doubt helped, too: I couldn’t just stand around stinking in my socket in front of thirty students. Cheap laughs were a way of connecting with nice young strangers who might otherwise find me freakish.

 

My parents were British, as noted, so ‘English’ humour and a spinsterish tendency toward sheer Vernon Lee dottiness and savagery also seemed to come naturally. One of my favourite film comedies of all time is A Fish Called Wanda – so English, so perfectly and farcically to the point. And speaking of Shakespeare, Basil Fawlty was a very kind mentor – a sort of adoptive father to me. I even had a brief but exciting affair with Sybil Fawlty. Still waters ran deep there. As I got older, gay male humour (as in camp) and Jewish humour both deeply informed the way I thought about things, too. Someone like Frank O’Hara could be a balm in low moments:

 

Well I was born to dance.

It’s a sacred duty, like being in love with an ape.

 

I venerated the late but immortal Joan Rivers. Sontag seems to have agreed with me: recall the famous plaudit – ‘a mind as fertile and majestic as Walter Benjamin’s.’

 

Q

The White Review

— One unusual feature of your writing is the way you capitalise certain phrases and descriptions. Where does that come from? 
A

Terry Castle

— Obnoxious Self-Importance? Whatever the Reason, I’m Not Proud of It. Nor its weak-sister-syndrome, my italicising mania. Both are jejeune writerly tics to which you are not supposed to yield if you want to be thought serious. Or, indeed, Thought Serious. But I can’t help it. I live in a Well of Loneliness. Befuddled and in the murk. 

 

I probably capitalise and italicise for the same reason – as a wayward attempt at comic relief. Typically, I aim to satirise or debunk some pretentious cliché or vacuity– often one of my own. But sometimes, admittedly, I get carried away by an urge simply to muck with the superstitious regimes of the punctuated universe. I especially like a kind of moron-counterpoint that results when you start inserting italicised lines of aberrant comic dialogue or spluttering cartoon noises – whoa! eek! blam! pooh! pfaw! – into otherwise supposedly austere intellectual pronouncements. Has to be done gingerly and sparingly, of course. As close to never as possible. Works best for me when I can set off the italicised ‘rude noise’ in parentheses or em-dashes: the thing then can function as a sort of rhetorical mini-package bomb. It’s a flourish perfectly adapted, above all, for self-ridicule. You let some scurrilous alternative ‘presence’ push into the writing and splatter mud on whatever you’ve put on the table. It’s like having one’s own private heckler, a sort of cynical sidekick armed with dung. The dialogic silliness that results can sometimes be rhetorically useful, too: once you’ve emitted your puerile noise, the ideas you may want to get across, your real ideas, can seem by contrast sensible and sound.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

DANIEL COHEN is a regular contributor to the Guardian and Financial Times. He lives in London.



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