This Is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there's been much discussion and debate over the nuances and ambiguities of sexual harassment. Mary Gaitskill's This Is Pleasure attempts to concentrate all that down into a short novella about Quin, a well-known figure on New York's literary scene, and Margot, a fellow editor who becomes a long-time friend. 

At the start of the book, Quin is clearing his office of his belongings and he's persona non grata in the publishing world after a series of allegations of harassment and assault. There's a distinctly self-pitying tone as he finds a gift he once gave to a younger female colleague has been returned to him - once they enjoyed lunching together and he paid her daily 'compliments', he says, but now she's one of his accusers. Is Quin really a predator? Or is he a harmless flirt?

Margot, who narrates alternate chapters, seems unsure. Indeed, Quin attempted to grope her - let's just say he favours the Donald Trump approach in that regard - when they first met, but Margot simply told him a firm 'No' as if she were telling a dog not to jump on to the sofa and that was enough to stop him. Why didn't these other women simply say no to him? Why did they thank him for the dinners, the gifts, the witty repartee, if they felt coerced into his company? And yet, most of the women are very young and new to the city ('stunned and stunning girls, barely out of their teens, from Eastern Europe or Ethopia'), or are working for him in a junior role, or stuck with him in an airport lounge, or - well, I'm sure you can see the problem.

Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and Margot finds herself questioning her own (entirely platonic) friendship with Quin. Margot mentions in passing that she made her name in publishing by taking on a book that other editors (including Quin) deemed too misogynistic 'although of course we didn't call it that' and I think perhaps that tells us something. It's not that Margot doesn't challenge Quin - she assures us that she 'lectured about respect and boundaries' but on the other hand she still treats his behaviour as an eccentric quirk. Quin gets away with treating women like this, she believes, because he is genuinely fascinated by them and interested in what they have to say - although he is, it seemed to me, mostly interested in what they have to say to him about sex.

And for me, therein lies the problem. Margot's view seems to be that Quin is charming and funny and interesting and that his incorrigibility is what draws women to him in the first place and then induces them to forgive his behaviour. But I didn't feel that about him. I found him entirely insufferable from start to finish and I don't think there's been any point in my life, even when I was in my early 20s and at the start of my career and when sexual harassment was more readily ignored, at which I would have been in the slightest bit impressed by him. Where we're supposed to believe that Quin is a witty, eccentric, roguish charmer, a man with his own vulnerabilities, I just found him a pretentious, entitled, disingenuous attention-seeker, and I detested him from the off. That means that some of the intended ambiguities simply weren't there for me. Quin is a misogynist who doesn't know he's a misogynist.

This Is Pleasure is undeniably thoughtful and at times a deliberately uncomfortable one. It's extremely well-written and all too plausible and it certainly feels very topical: it distils the essence of many a broadsheet feature or erudite late-night discussion progamme post-Weinstein into a sharply written, one-sitting read. But like most of the discourse around the #MeToo movement in the media, it centres very much on affluent older men in positions of power harassing and assaulting ambitious younger women who are publishing interns, catwalk models and socialites. It's set in a very wealthy world, a very educated world, and a very white world. At this point it's time we started looking beyond the inappropriate comments over cocktails at a book launch and focusing on the teenage shelf-stackers harassed by their supervisor, the chambermaids cornered in motel rooms, the cleaners groped as they bend to empty a bin. Nobody seems to be speaking for them.