Monday, September 15, 2008

Writer, Ho!

quan.jpg
Tracy Quan is a Manhattan-dwelling former prostitute turned Salon columnist and novelist, presumably drawing heavily upon her own experiences in creating the adventures of Nancy Chan, the business-savvy call girl heroine of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, Diary of a Married Call Girl, and now Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, which I’m happy to recommend for its educational value even while seriously questioning the ethics of the main character.  If that makes me a hypocritical Victorian, I will just say that I have always admired the Victorians, who may have been the most ethically balanced people who’ve yet lived on this planet, with a good understanding of what to keep private and what to endorse in public (they also tended, for example, to be fascinated by violent crime even while making great strides, historically speaking, in suppressing it, which sounds like a wonderful combo to me — as hinted in the conclusion of my entry yesterday).

I met Quan — in a non-professional capacity (I haven’t hired and wouldn’t hire a prostitute) — through one of our fellow libertarians, and I subsequently learned the hard way that while she claims to have given up the old(est) profession and concedes she was too young when she started in it, that does not mean that she accepts arguments that people ought to give up the profession, and she continues to work with activist groups that support and defend sex workers.  (This is the sort of thing that, if mishandled, can give libertarians a bad name, while I try so hard to make the point that legalizing something need not entail social approval of it — but just as I’m willing to cut smokers some extra slack while the law is against them — despite thinking that smoking is objectively a suicidally bad idea — I’m inclined to be measured in my criticism of prostitutes; they’re already living under threat of arrest, so they don’t need me attacking them as well.)

•••

My main moral objection, though — and this may well become a central point at our Sept. 28 (8pm) Debate at Lolita Bar about sex between Stephanie Sellars and Anna Broadway (I mean it’s a debate between them about sex) — is that even though I think (a) there’s no God (about which, more tomorrow), (b) individuals fully own their own bodies and should be legally able to do what they want with them, and (c) there’s nothing inherently evil or decadent about sex, I nonetheless think that with people as stupid and shallow and callous as they already are, the last thing we need is to turn one of the most powerful physical and emotional experiences possible — one capable of binding two people together like little else — into the moral-emotional equivalent of a McDonald’s purchase.

(Of course, some will defend prostitution precisely by arguing that people in singles bars are often just as shallow and mercenary as prostitutes and johns, which may well be true — but as anyone familiar with my overall misanthropy might guess, I’m opposed to the behavior of a lot of those bar-goers as well.  Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the tacit rules of the game in dating, at least in New York, outside a small intellectual elite, is basically for both parties to act like complete assholes and see how much the other person will put up with, from females’ contemptuous sneers and upturned noses to males’ unsolicited hand-to-torso contact and arrogant bellowing or suggestive comments, with the most audacious jerks being the social victors in the end and the handful of nice people quickly intimidated into exiting the field of combat — not that I’m complaining about my own relatively civil dating life or social circle, notwithstanding one or two practitioners of “the negs” and the occasional woman deceptively pleading perpetual schedule conflicts without the decency to say “no.”)

As alluded to in my Barbie-themed entry two days ago, having qualms about one sort of market activity does not make me anti-capitalist.  It is merely a reminder that, as Buckley once put it (in phrasing that is quite apt regardless of what policy prescriptions, right or wrong, he may have had in mind), a conservative (if I can still use that fast-eroding term in its twentieth-century sense) is “a libertarian but other things as well.”  That is, my moral obligation not to put Quan in jail (which would repulse and morally outrage me far more than the thought of prostitution does, as it should any non-barbarian) does not prevent me from making additional moral observations that do not pivot upon jail-or-no-jail concerns (lifestyle-left libertarians are sometimes as quick as statists to forget that “bad” and “illegal” need not be synonymous).

To put it in slightly more morally-neutral terms, though: few people seem to think dispensers of advice such as psychotherapists are being excessively authoritarian (though some people do), so let’s not waste time with accusations that I’m obliged by my free-market views to say prostitution is completely cool.

•••

In fact, I shouldn’t waste time with further philosophizing at all when I should be describing the new Quan novel, so: The book is a fascinating nuts-and-bolts (so to speak) examination of the sheer amount of strategy that goes into being a successful call girl, from the maintenance of fake names and cover stories to the challenge of gently controlling clients while keeping them happy (even on protracted overseas excursions).  The novel also makes you aware of just how important the “call” half of the phrase “call girl” is, with the heroine’s whole business life physically incarnated in that cell phone to a very important degree.  When to answer it or not answer, how long one can safely ignore its ringing, whether to get out of the business by selling the clients’ phone numbers en masse, all become central questions.

To return to the ethics issues a bit, though, I couldn’t help noticing that the really big question — Why is a woman who’s now married to a high-earning Wall Streeter still working as a call girl in the first place? — is barely addressed.  However, since the previous volume in the series is called Diary of a Married Call Girl, perhaps all that was dealt with already (and the founding conceit of the series has to be maintained, after all).  And I’m afraid if I ask Quan why Chan persists, she’ll reply, with some annoyance, “Why shouldn’t she still be a call girl?  She put a lot of work into building her business.”  Fair enough.  Then again, Nancy Chan seems to spend an awful lot of time lying (especially to her husband, who remains unaware of her profession, and to several other relatives) and engaged in schedule gymnastics that would put even a polyamorist, hitman, or freelance writer to shame.  Surely, that in itself constitutes a “cost” (to put it mildly) in need of serious offsetting benefits, even if we’re to be coldly calculating about it all.

But then, life isn’t perfect, and people find the balance of productive work and awkward compromises most suited to them.  And if you’ve wanted to see a character work out those problems while making occasional references to phenomena like a French collective of anarchist whores, now you know where to look.

9 comments:

Mark said...

Those novels are absolutely brilliant – the first two anyway. I wonder how long Quan can keep the series fresh and interesting. I can’t wait to get a copy of her new book!

Ron said...

The novel also makes you aware of just how important the “call” half of the phrase “call girl” is, with the heroine’s whole business life physically incarnated in that cell phone to a very important degree. When to answer it or not answer, how long one can safely ignore its ringing, whether to get out of the business by selling the clients’ phone numbers en masse, all become central questions.

Jack said...

‘the last thing we need is to turn one of the most powerful physical and emotional experiences possible — one capable of binding two people together like little else — into the moral-emotional equivalent of a McDonald’s purchase”

Would you, for similar reasons, have a moral problem with pornography?

Todd Seavey said...

I would at least suggest, as would any decent neo-Victorian, that it should be carefully “contained.” As with a lot of other things, I would be less troubled by circumspect private consumption than by even a mild, watered-down form being publicly celebrated and treated as a model for everyday behavior — the first acknowledges that “there is a time and place” (as for drunkenness) while the second implies we are no longer capable of making or respecting such distinctions. But a little of both will be addressed in my Wednesday and Thursday blog entries, for good or ill…

Jack said...

Not to get into a long back-and-forth here, but your response raises a couple of questions:

1) How would you propose to “contain” it, if not by law? You certainly will never succeed in containing it merely through moral argument, because the legality of porn guarantees its ubiquity, and its ubiquity more or less guarantees its acceptance.

2) You worry about “even a mild, watered down form of porn being publicly celebrated and treated as a model for every day behavior”. But why? Porn is far more accessible and extreme than it has ever been before, and yet I don’t (often) see people fucking in the streets these days. Nor, I’m sure, do you. (Actually, I probably saw more of that kind of thing before porn was everywhere. In fact, I’m certain I did.)

Why then do you think that the public acceptance (or, as you put it, the “celebration”) of porn leads somehow to the widespread failure to distinguish the right time and place for sexual adventure?

No need to answer these questions at length, or at all. But maybe you could address them in your Wed. and Thurs. entries?

Todd Seavey said...

Etiquette.

Jack said...

You mean I’m in violation of a point of etiquette, or the porn enthusiasts are?

Jack said...

That’s a real question. I’m unfamiliar with the rules of this blog. (Are there any?)

Todd Seavey said...

Etiquette is the means of “containing” without law.