Longform You Have to Read: Mary Gaitskill’s True Stories


In a world where you have more options for satisfying longform reading than ever, your friends here at Flavorwire are taking the time once a week to highlight some of the best that journalism and longform has to offer. Whether they’re unified by topic, publication, writer, being classic pieces of work, or just by a general feeling, these articles all have one thing in common: they’re essential reading. This week, we’re looking at the best of Mary Gaitskill’s nonfiction work.

In this week’s New Yorker, there’s a devastating, excellent essay by Meghan Daum, “Difference Maker,” about her work with foster kids and her feelings over whether to have children (it’s also one of the highlights of her upcoming book of essays, The Unnamed, out in November). While reading it, I was reminded of the Mary Gaitskill essay “Lost Cat,” an unforgettable look at trauma and its discontents — lost cat, lost children, lost opportunities. We all know Gaitskill as a fiction writer, but she can be just as haunting in the realms of nonfiction. Here are some of our favorites.

The Easiest Thing to Forget,” by Mary Gaitskill, Slate, April 2014

In this year’s reissue of Carl Wilson’s blow-up-the-33 1/3-book-series look at pleasure and popular music, Let’s Talk About Love, several other writers and thinkers offered up their own essays on the topic. Gaitskill reads the book, thinks about Celine Dion (about whom she is too Mary Gaitskill to even have previously registered), and then wrestles with taste in her inimitable voice: “Bitch, excuse me?”

The Halo Effect,” by Mary Gaitskill, Elle, October 2013

Wherein Gaitskill talks about a girl-crush on her friend Sandrine, a gamine who she describes as a brunette Julie Christie, but “weird, slightly off-kilter, better.” The essay continues along those lines, into strange areas of girl-love and jealousy.

My Inspiration: Vladimir Nabokov,” by Mary Gaitskill, Salon, November 1995

Gaitskill on the writer of Lolita and other works of genius is a sublime pairing, and her essay focuses on literary cruelty and morality. To wit: “What such critics forget is that a certain kind of detachment permits the most intense feeling, and that intense feeling is not always moral.”

On Not Being a Victim,” by Mary Gaitskill, Harper’s Magazine, March 1994

The link above features a selection from Gaitskill’s Harper’s story about rape, consent, and sexual cruelty. (The full story can be read here.) It’s striking to realize that, well, 20 years later we are having similar conversations about consent and trigger warnings; but for a little context regarding Gaitskill’s piece, she’s taking apart Camille Paglia’s “Rape and Modern Sex War,” in an era when Katie Roiphe’s campus rape crisis takedown The Morning After was causing a media stir.

Lost Cat,” by Mary Gaitskill, Granta, Summer 2009

Do whatever you can to find some time and settle into this masterpiece. In a narrative that runs over 17,000 words, Gaitskill starts with the story of her cat, Gattino, and what happened when he went missing, and folds that trauma into other parts of her life — namely, her relationship with the two children who would visit every summer thanks to the Fresh Air Fund. After you finish this piece, read Gaitskill’s interview with Neiman Storyboard about the process of composing this memoir.