While I was skimming through some of Octavia Butler’s interviews the other night, I noticed a brief exchange between Butler and her interviewer, Marilyn Mehaffy in this instance, within the interview titled “‘Radio Imagination’: Octavia Butler on the Poetics of Narrative Embodiment,” that really stuck with me. In some way, it helped me rethink some of the problems I’ve been having in trying to come to terms with a lot of Butler’s fiction. I’ll repost the exchange here:While I was skimming through some of Octavia Butler’s interviews the other night, I noticed a brief exchange between Butler and her interviewer, Marilyn Mehaffy in this instance, within the interview titled “‘Radio Imagination’: Octavia Butler on the Poetics of Narrative Embodiment,” that really stuck with me. In some way, it helped me rethink some of the problems I’ve been having in trying to come to terms with a lot of Butler’s fiction. I’ll repost the exchange here:
MM: And your books are very sexy, by the way! I always think that—that they’re a real turn-on—but I never hear anybody talking about their sexiness.
OB: I hope so because one of the signs—I put signs on my walls as a reminder while I’m writing—is “sexiness,” not only sexiness in the sense of people having sex, but sexiness in the sense of wanting to reach readers where they live and wanting to invite them to enjoy themselves.
I think since Fledgling, the sexual and erotic components of Butler’s novels, as well as the corollary feelings “aroused” in the readers themselves, have been something that we as a class have failed to confront directly. When it has become part of the conversation throughout the semester, and I don’t think this is a bad thing, the discussion has for the most part been foregrounded by the assumption that many of the relationships explored by Butler—in their various configurations—are designed in order to force the reader to reconsider alternative, non-normative models of intimacy and familiar structure, as well as issues of power and consent within human relationships. I think there has been a steady, and indeed one might say natural, pushback against various instances of these seemingly unfamiliar relationships, such as that of Shori and Wright in Fledgling or of Eli and Keira in Clay’s Ark, in which many readers have diagnosed these relationships, including all erotics involved, as part of Butler’s political (Afrofuturist feminism) project. What I see here, and what is brought to light in the aforementioned interview excerpt, is an implicit sublimation on the part of the reader (myself included) in the formation of a response to the many overtly sexual relationships present in Butler’s fiction. It seems like on our part there has been a refusal to allow ourselves to describe any relationship encountered thus far as, for lack of a better word, sexy. Given the fact that Butler herself admits that she intentionally tries to make her novels sexy, or, put more mildly, pleasurable for the reader, I think that to disavow these feelings or responses in the reader, however lewd or lascivious they might initially seem, would in fact hinder critical discussion of the relationships at hand in Butler’s works.
In today’s discussion, I found myself among the minority of those in the class who actually enjoyed Patternmaster, despite a few reservations of course. I think a lot of what those who didn’t care for the novel said during our class discussion concerned the disparity of relative levels of complexity between the first three novels of the series and this final one—that in Patternmaster they weren’t actively, ambivalently, and endlessly trying to decipher to whose positionality they should pledge their readerly allegiance. That here everything—the characters, the plot, and so on—was too black and white. Now I agree with this point, so I’m having trouble reconciling exactly why I was able to really enjoy this novel in spite of the lack of all the critical labor given to working through the previous three books. I think through sheer happenstance, and perhaps without the knowledge in mind of Professor McCoy’s own distaste for Patternmaster working to implicitly direct my own interpretation, I found pleasure and was entertained by the novel without second guessing my initial responses, without sublimating its “sexiness” into a malaise of disappointment for the socio-familial complexities left in wanting at the novel’s end.