When New Matilda editor Chris Graham received a copy of Helen Razer’s book, The Helen 100, he knew he would soon also receive a mildly threatening email from her insisting, “Please help me revive the fragments of my ailing literary ‘career’ in your publication, or I will keep nagging you and boring you until you just cave anyhow and be forced to do it out of fear and frustration.”
What follows is a transcript of their subsequent warm and thrilling advanced interrogation conversation.
CHRIS: So, Helen.
HELEN: So, Chris.
C: We haven’t spoken for a while.
H: This is true, and I imagine it is largely down to you being occupied with the business of recording the decline of the West. Of course, I have been occupied myself (hint, hint) writing a book called The Helen 100, which is currently available at all remaining outposts of a crumbling culture industry, for several times more than a slave in the Global South earns in an entire week. But apart from that, not much. You?
C: Recording the decline of the West, visiting Palestine, investing in beer.
H: I think the last time we spoke was either when I was telling you in private not to let those well-to-do liberal feminists diminish everything that New Matilda does with a hashtag, or maybe when I asked you if I could cite your piece on Tony Jones and his role in the fucking intervention. Can I talk about my book now?
C: There are few who could stop you talking.
H: True, but, samesies, Comrade. No-one has ever acquired the trick of shutting your trap. It’s a problem for us. And this is why both of us are broke.
Anyhow. My book.
A few years back, my girlfriend of fifteen years dumped me. She left me alone in the house with the internet and the cat. I was already passionately attached to the cat, but soon became obsessed with the internet, where I met a wide variety of persons for “dating”, by which we mean anonymous and unsatisfying sex. As I quit my job on a post-divorce whim, which was at that time writing hateful discount copy for a low-cost beauty advertiser, I didn’t have anything else to do but date and write about it. I decided to try for one hundred dates inside a year. This book is that account.
C: So, basically Eat. Pray. Love. But for unemployed queers who are bad at yoga?
H: Yes. And also without the condescending racism, money or desire to learn and grow.
C: You are quite a tedious Marxist.
H: This is true. I have become quite classical with it in recent years, because somebody needs to. I am choosing to pretend that the 20th century failure of the world, including the left, to be Marxist never happened.
C: So seeing as how you’re so tedious about it, you couldn’t have written a chick-lit book without it. Where are your general laws of capital accumulation in this book?
H: I don’t actually call for readers to seize the means and change the mode. But I do talk about how soft liberal power can happen in intimate and professional relationships. Like, how people say nice ideological things to conceal really horrible things. Such as, “I need to grow” when what they mean is “I am tired of your old body”. Or your boss telling you that your work is empowering and fun, when it is actually the labour of hell toilets.
It was interesting to be dumped at about the same time I had started reading Marx again (it hadn’t occurred to me until just then that the two events may be connected. Hm). For example, the matter of paid industry labour and unpaid household labour was a matter of constant tension in my love relationship. And this was more visible, I think, because this was two female people, and neither of us was about to suppose that it was just more “natural” for us to seek that sort of division — one in the kitchen and one in the labour force sort of thing. There was jealousy from her about my paid labour productivity and jealousy from me about what I perceived as her leisure, paid for, in my head, by me.
Of course, all this stuff that happens in relationships, whether same or opposite sex, is not always about one person being more “productive”, but very often the direct result of labour organisation. And all the divorce books I read when I was going through a breakup seemed not to describe this. I mean, they might all say “money is the number one reason that relationships end”, but they don’t go any further than that. They don’t see the very real interweaving of wages with love. These pressures, especially for people like us surviving on a quite low to average income, became so obvious to me.
C: I see that you actually began to talk about your political ideas with some of the “dates” you went on.
H: Yes. As we have noted, Chris, neither of us is very good at either shutting up or being appropriate in conversation. So imagine if you were dumped and you had a divorce reaction like I did, and like a lot of people do, which is just to immediately find some new intimate company. You, of all people, would be all “smash the state”, probably. You’re even more disinhibited than you generally are, because you’re so sad and chaotic, and you still have this particular theoretical framework about the world, and whether that is religion or Marxism, you can tend to rely on that even more in times of distress. So I did find myself at a glossy pub in Richmond with a Russian guy arguing about the failure of the Soviet experiment, relative to the failure of the US. Unfortunately, I realised that I had cat shit on my dress at about the time I was saying “state-sponsored capitalism”.
C: You’re more of a “the political is personal” than the “personal is political” person, I guess. Which possibly makes you a bad feminist? I don’t know.
H: This is true. I don’t happen to think that women’s emotional accounts, and this book is an emotional account by a woman, are intrinsically political. Although, obviously, many feminists would disagree, preferring to think that the revolution only comes from thousands of inspiring personal stories, never a unified political act. I am very anti-inspirational in this book. Not only because, let’s face it, I’m a terrible role-model and nobody would ever want to be like me, but because life is, generally speaking, not something any of us gets much better at. And not something one should feel the need to get better at. I want better societies for us to live in, and I do not think, and have never thought, that this starts with me or you. It only starts when we all stand shoulder to shoulder, despite our differences, and take back the means for a better life. And you are absolutely not going to learn how to live a better life by reading about my terrible one. This was an ethical decision, to be anti-inspiring and as miserable as I am. I didn’t want an uplifting emotional selfie where everyone was forced to say, “Isn’t she brave?!” but only, “she’s disgusting”.
I think this idea that all women must improve and become more empowered and shit, and that this is in itself a political act, has become dangerous bunkum. I propose a ten-year ban on inspiring feminist memoirs. A ten-year ban specifically on upholding the belief that white tertiary educated women of the knowledge class have anything that is politically useful to say, especially when using themselves as an example.
C: So, you’re saying your book says nothing?
H: Precisely, Chris. This is my political act: offering only terrible descriptions of unfulfilling sex and my long attachment to barbecue chicken dinners.