Sex, capitalism and antidepressants

By Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill

By Salon Staff
Published August 18, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

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I've read Moody and Gaitskill and have heard them speak on two separate occasions. I know them both to be powerful storytellers and critical thinkers, and so read their correspondence with interest. I find the issues they explored inarguably relevant and many of their insights about marketing astute, if not entirely original and revelatory.

A few points irked me, however. Moody and Gaitskill are right to acknowledge that the ideology of capitalism leaves no room for sadness and depression because, after all, in the idealized world that advertisers (even the postmodern, ironic ones) create, there is only room for bliss. But Moody and Gaitskill neglect to acknowledge that other ideologies (like communism, for instance) have had a similar imperative. Look at Bolshevik posters from the revolution and you'll see hearty, glowing worker who may be filled with gravitas, yes, but not sadness. Russians practically invented depression, and yet there's no trace of it in communist propaganda. There's a certain leftist paranoia inherent in the idea that capitalism is unique in its effort to deny the normal range of human emotion.

I also take issue with the idea that TV is at odds with literature and is poisoning its well of creativity. Both writers cut themselves off from TV and in doing so forfeit a crucial lifeline to popular culture. How can fiction writers respond to TV if they are ignorant of it? David Foster Wallace, who is himself highly critical of the effects of TV on fiction, has a brilliant story about the game show "Jeopardy!"; a story that offers insight into how this medium might produce alienation and loneliness. Moreover, modern culture has become increasingly linked with popular culture. Look at the "real TV" phenomenon, look at political issues energized by shows like "Ellen," talk to any number of young adults and it will become painfully obvious that, to a large majority of American youths, culture is pop culture. If a writer intends to document his/her society in some fashion, then it would seem beneficial to engage with TV, instead of just dismissing it.

Lastly, I don't think narrative fiction will be doomed in our lifetime to the status of poetry. I think narrative fiction won't die because a) marketing has and will continue to find new ways to sell it and b) people will always crave good stories. Between film adaptations of short stories and novels, Oprah's book club, and the Harry Potter series, there is a great resurgence in literature as part of mainstream culture. And even if you don't agree that Potter is literature, wasn't Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" on the bestseller list just a few years ago?

Perhaps it is painful for these two writers to see their work compromised by marketing strategies, but it's also hard to ignore that today's novelists have fatter, sweeter book contracts (with the possibility of selling lucrative film rights) than previous generations of artists. Would Moody and Gaitskill rather struggle in penury than enjoy the commercial success that marketing often produces and that enables writers to devote themselves to their craft?

-- Emily Fancher

As a member of the advertising community as well as a writer of fiction, I found your dialogue stimulating in many ways.

An advertising creative director once told me, "Every great spot begins with either the promise of sex or the threat of death." This is partly because advertisers communicate the value of the product with messages of fear or desire, but also because sex and death usually make for entertaining narratives.

The self-mocking advertising, where advertisers knowingly wink at viewers as if to say, "No smart guy like yourself would believe this marketing bullshit," is a response to increasing cynicism and the fact that people often don't believe what marketers have to say anymore. Advertising's goal is to create a situation where the viewer relates to the scene in a superficial way (wink-wink) and yet also sees the product solve a problem by assuaging fear or sating desire.

In this way, material goods could be called tools of avoidance or as antidepressants in their mildest dosages. As humans, we are aware of, and perhaps even fascinated by, "the pit" of extreme feelings. While we enjoy the periods of deep ecstasy and fear the darkest despair, we know that day-to-day living is easiest in mild happiness. And often, we can achieve mild happiness through the novelty of material goods. Or we are led to believe we can.

Perhaps one of the roles of literature is to examine "the pit" the way most other media don't. Certainly Rick Moody and Mary Gaitskill write about extreme depth of feeling and are admired for it. Television and film devote increasingly large amounts of time to sex and violence, but because these media are often unable to pair the action with the feeling behind it, the shows seem a little hollow. Or at least they do to me. Great literature is sometimes scary with its truth in feeling.

As I've got no proof whatsoever to back up any of these thoughts, perhaps they count as nothing but joyful theorizing. But what fun. Thank you.

-- Victoria Ludwin

While I enjoyed reading most of Gaitskill and Moody's dialogue, I have to take exception to their characterization of antidepressant medications. Antidepressants, especially SSRIs, are definitely overprescribed. However, they have also been nothing short of life-saving for many severely depressed individuals, including me. For us, these medications do not create the kind of artificial euphoria that Gaitskill claims to have felt during her three days on Zoloft. Instead, they simply dispel the depression, making us once again able to function in the world. I also can't help but suspect that Gaitskill's experience with Zoloft may have been a result of the medication's side effects -- it takes most SSRIs at least two weeks to start working, but nervousness and agitation are two very common side effects as the body adjusts to the medication.

I think it's also important to point out that while SSRI's often do impair sexual functioning, so can severe depression. While I was on Paxil, I experienced sexual side effects. However, I didn't lose interest in sex, as Gaitskill and Moody seem to believe I would, it just became much harder to achieve an orgasm. But because I was feeling better, my interest in sex was actually considerably higher than it had been when I was depressed.

Finally, I would like to point out that most people with major mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder often resist seeking treatment for as long as possible. Although taking psychiatric medications does not carry quite the stigma that it used to, nobody wants to be labeled "mentally ill." This fact contradicts Gaitskill and Moody's assumption that people run right out to their doctors and demand Prozac at the first sign of lingering sadness. It also means that those of us with mood disorders are very well acquainted with "the pit" and the darker side of the human experience, and are therefore, according to Moody and Gaitskill's definitions, perfectly capable of creating meaningful art and literature.

-- J. Peterson

Salon Staff

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