Professor Daniel Wright from the UofT English department writes in this article about how Greenwell’s novel Cleanness challenges readers to see how sex might be “an act of difficult but healing care.”
“The time has come to think about sex,” wrote Gayle Rubin, a pioneer of queer theory, in 1984. Rubin wanted “a radical theory of sex” that would pursue a nonjudgmental attentiveness to sex in all its forms. Such a theory would “build rich descriptions” of human sexuality, while acknowledging how certain histories and social norms shape—and sometimes maim—our sex lives. This radical theory of sex would harness the power of nuanced attention in order to “identify, describe, explain, and denounce erotic injustice and sexual oppression.” In the decades since 1984, plenty of queer writers have taken up Rubin’s call. But rarely has one done so as seriously as the novelist Garth Greenwell, who masterfully employs the art of explicit, empathetic description as a way of theorizing sex. Indeed, his latest novel, Cleanness, posits sex as central to life. Here, Greenwell challenges readers to see how the pleasures of sex, especially for queer people, can be foreclosed by what Rubin called the “erotic injustice” of shame. Yet he also shows how sex might be an act of difficult but healing care.