Buy it online
Patricia Anderson is passionate. This will come as no surprise to people even mildly familiar with Anderson's work. After all, her last two books have not only focused on the twin themes of passion -- where it's gone and how to get it back -- they've also both had that word in the title: Passion. Her most recent book, Passion Lost is, in some ways, a sequel to When Passion Reigned: Sex and the Victorians.
Anderson's personal passion isn't just around what we traditionally think of as passion -- the fire that kindles between couples of all descriptions. In person she blazes with a fire for shared knowledge.
"This is my hobby horse, really," says Anderson. "It's about democratizing knowledge, to me. Trying to take all of this knowledge about important, everyday things -- things that are in front of people in everyday life -- like the media, like sex, like love, like death. Those kinds of things that we all have to deal with. And give back all these theories, all the research, all the knowledge most of which is still hoarded in the ivory tower."
A historian and former researcher, Anderson knows too well what goes on in that ivory tower. She says she found that it was simply, "too constricting for me just to be in the university. I wanted to get out and take what I'd learned as a researcher and a scholar."
Part of that burn was to take what she had learned and make it accessible for everyone. The general public, Anderson believes, wants to be able to grab hold of their knowledge easily. "They don't want it couched in some pretentious, unreadable novel or in theoretical bafflegab non-fiction."
In Passion Lost: Public Sex, Private Desire in the Twentieth Century, Anderson concerns herself not only with what has been lost. She is entirely more concerned about how to get it back. "The book is not really about something that got lost and if we'd just go back in time and get it, we'd be happy. It's about something we haven't found yet and I think I see the beginnings of the direction of how people can find it. At least, culturally speaking."
Anderson is currently at work on The Heart Quartet, a series of books on romance, loss, happiness and family and community. "It's really looking at the whole flowering of the human heart, in a way." She lives in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
Linda Richards: This is your third book?
Patricia Anderson: Yeah: it's three. Or the fifth if you count two editor, author type things. The way it went was I did The Printed Image, which was my Ph.D. thesis. But I caused all kinds of trouble and fighting with committees and other people by digging in my heels and saying: I want this to be a book, I want to get it published and I'm going to write it in normal language. It caused a ton of trouble, but I got it through. Within two weeks I had it sitting at Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press and the University of Toronto and they all wanted it. I published with Oxford in the end, for that one.
When was that?
I got my Ph.D. in 1989 and the book came out in 1991 and then came out again in paperback in 1994. Which is considered quite good for an academic book. In fact, that book which is specialized -- you wouldn't read it for a fun read -- do you know that I can actually meet people and when they hear my name, they say: You're not the one that wrote that Printed Image book. There's even a guy with a Web page dedicated to The Printed Image.
What was the book about?
Victorian magazines [is] fundamentally what it's about. It argues that they were the first mass media in terms of their characteristics and reaching a cross section of people. And it touches on the field of publishing studies.
There's a sort of subtext to all of your work, I think. Something that comes from your academic background.
This is my hobby horse, really. And it was since I was still formally an academic. It's about democratizing knowledge, to me. That's really what that book is about and what my other [books] were about, too: Trying to take all of this knowledge about important, everyday things -- things that are in front of people in everyday life -- like the media, like sex, like love, like death. Those kinds of things that we all have to deal with. And give back all these theories, all the research, all the knowledge most of which is still hoarded in the ivory tower. And then, in the places where it gets out -- and this is even worse because I'm not really trying to bad-mouth academics. Many of them would write for a bigger audience if they had the writing ability. It's not that they want to hoard it. But, I just find that when there's a pressure on people like myself to write in a kind of esoteric, pretentious and complex and dense kind of way, it's a kind of intellectual elitism and I'm so against it.
Isn't that also about the fact that the writing that comes out of academia isn't always about sharing information. They're often writing for the colleagues who will be looking at it critically and looking to poke holes in it. The writing can become so solid that it's practically impenetrable.
That's part of it. And, of course, for the average academic that's their profession: they're writing a book for promotion. There's really nothing wrong with that. That's part of how you conduct yourself in that profession. But, one reason I wanted to get out is that it was too constricting for me just to be in the university. I wanted to get out and take what I'd learned as a researcher and a scholar. But you know what gets my goat worse than academics doing their job, I got far more exercised about writers who are writing very pretentious novels full of very self-conscious postmodernist sorts of theories and things like that. That, to me, is trying to control and keep hold of knowledge for themselves. And I see quite a bit of it going on, actually.
I'm planning four new books. One will be about romance -- which is much maligned today -- one is going to be about loss and the third one will be about happiness and how what makes us happy has changed over time. The last one is going to be about family and community.
Do you see the four as sort of a set piece? Or are they independent of each other?
In my mind the four [combined] have a working title: I'm calling it The Heart Quartet. It's envisioned, at this point, as 1000 years. It will start probably in the year 1000. I was a medieval scholar at the master's level, so I actually have that background, too. And I'd like to bring all of that together. But I want them to be popular books and [they're meant to be a] kind of 1000-year biography of the human heart -- the metaphorical human heart.
What led to you writing Passion Lost?
I really feel there's such wonderful knowledge [available]. [I think] people are sick of, like, 12 Steps to the Perfect Relationship or Six Sexy Secrets For the Erotically Challenged, kind of thing. [Laughs] I think people want something more. But they still want to be entertained. They don't want it couched in some pretentious, unreadable novel or in theoretical bafflegab non-fiction. So that's where I feel I come in, in terms of where the book fits in the world.
Tell me about the title.
I had originally called the book In Search of Passion, which is a little wordier, but much more accurate in terms of what the book is actually about. The book is not really about something that got lost and if we'd just go back in time and get it, we'd be happy. It's about something we haven't found yet and I think I see the beginnings of the direction of how people can find it. At least, culturally speaking.
So, how can people find passion?
The longer term answer is cultural change. It's a big agenda but I think it's possible and it just starts with small things. Like, basically being selective. It's not about censorship or being exorcised because there's nudity or something else you don't like on TV. But I think a lot of us are passive consumers of this kind of culture. And now if it's just entertaining you and you brush it off, well probably not a problem. It's just that people don't. They think they're brushing it off, but it ends up deeply affecting people in terms of how they feel about their body image, how they feel about their sexuality, how they feel about their sex lives. Frequency, quality, whatever, you know? It's sex assimilated into a consumer culture where the whole point is to keep wanting more and to be dissatisfied. So part of it is just to rise above this culture. Take what does genuinely entertain you and selectively leave alone what doesn't. And what you know in your heart is damaging to you personally. And I do think you know it. I mean, how many of us are flipping the [channels] and something strikes your eye. It's Sally Jessy on about some lurid topic or it's Hard Copy or whatever. There's times when you go: Oh my goodness, what trash. And you'll flip by it. But these people are professionals and they're paid to entertain you. So you're sitting there entertained and at the same time you're repulsed by both it and yourself for watching it. We've all done it. So I'm just saying, turn off one prurient talk show or whatever small thing. But that's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to change by next week.
It's very difficult because we're surrounded by popular culture.
And a lot of it is loads of fun. Most of it is great. It's there to entertain us. I love TV. But I'm sort of talking about an awareness that over time might lead to change. And, in the meantime, it comes back to ourselves, basically. OK, there's human nature and I don't think it does change a lot over time. I think part of human nature is to be competitive and that's why you get stuff like body image competitiveness. But we have other aspects of our human natures that the culture isn't nurturing. Like I talk in the book about the will to love. I think everybody wants that and I didn't even feel obliged to prove it with any kind of empirical evidence. I just think it's there and the evidence is all around us. I don't think the culture nurtures that in a way that allows true individualism: it standardizes it and directs it and has an inhibiting effect on people.
The ability to love or to be loved. Which is stronger?
That's a really good question. I would say that the culture is nurturing the will to be loved -- basically a narcissistic kind of thing. I guess I believe that deep inside us the will to love -- the simpler will to love -- is the stronger. But things that come from within and are natural are very much directed and shaped by culture and, if cultural messages are strong enough, it can create a kind of suppression.
You want to look good, you want people to accept you, you want to be funny, or you want to be bigger or stronger or faster. You want to be accepted for things that you might not be.
Yes and today's popular culture on one level is very free and individualistic. But at another level it's blocking our internal access to true self-knowingness. And that's why I think self-help flourishes. Deep in their hearts people realize this: they can't find their way out of whatever personal bind they're in and that brings us back to the Twelve Steps and the Six Simple Secrets.
But there seems to be something in us that really believes in the simple answer. The single answer.
For sure. The quick fix. The easy, magical universal formula.
So essentially what you're saying -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- but there is no single answer.
Who said: The heart knows? But that's what it is. You know in yourself -- in the authentic part of yourself, to use a contemporary buzzword -- which is why I think I'm really writing The Heart Quartet. Because I suppose this is almost, in a sense, like the bare beginning: this concept of passion. It's really looking at the whole flowering of the human heart, in a way. So I decided I wanted to know: what else? It's not just about sex. That's a big part of it, but what other things make up whatever you want to call it: The loving human heart.
What do you hope readers take away from Passion Lost?
That we live in culture and we would be the poorer without all our popular culture, but people have to remember that culture doesn't just happen to us. We interact with it, even if that's just consuming something that somebody else has produced, we are in fact creating it. If nobody watched Hard Copy, for example, it wouldn't be there. It wouldn't take advertisers long and it wouldn't be there. Even passively consuming is a way of creating culture. We need to remember that one: that we're interacting with it daily and pulling it into our personal lives when the TV or the movie or whatever is turned off, it's being assimilated into our personal lives. There is a growing body of statistics now that really are starting to indicate that it's having an adverse effect on people's private lives. One of the later studies, I think it's boys and girls ages 5 to 7 who all think they're fat and have body image problems and think they should be working out. Well, where does that come from? I mean, sometimes they would also be emulating their parents because lots of parents have kids and are obsessed with going to the gym and all of that. But look at all of the kids: six-year-olds want designer clothes now. How can that be anything but the effect of a popular culture that values this stuff so highly?
But parents need to play a part. The kids say they want designer clothes and instead of using that as an object lesson and saying: No you can't have that. Or: No, you don't need that. They're reinforcing the importance of the wanted thing by getting it for their kids and then blaming the culture that made the child demand it in the first place.
Although I agree with that and of course we need good parenting, there are studies now that are showing the even good parenting is a less powerful influence than the mass media.
But then some parents really take control of that. A lot of parents are opting to home school their kids and getting rid of their TVs, or maybe they never had one.
Except that then you're depriving your child of participation in the mainstream. I mean, this isn't a science. This book, in a way, is a think piece. It's based on as much evidence and standard research as I was able to do for it. But, in the end, it's somewhat impressionistic, it's not scientific. I just think we need to examine some of these things a bit more and what they're doing to us. And, of course, I come at it from being older but not so old that I can't remember what it was like to be 21.
How old are you?
So are you trying to look at sex and relationships and trying to help people get to a point where it isn't about relying on popular media to tell them who they are and how they should love?
Yes, I think so. I think that's fair enough. But I suppose what I'm also saying is that the culture is a bit of a false culture. If you take it too seriously you bump up against some fundamental falsehoods. It's purporting to support and promote and encourage freedom -- sexual freedom and all others kinds of freedom and individualism, because those things are tied together. I think it really isn't, though. It's doing it only at the most shallow of levels. And that's why we need to go back to how you put it: that we don't need the media to tell us who we are. I think that's right. We need the media for what it's really supposed to do: to give us news and information; to entertain us and yes, of course, some of that entertainment is going to be sexual. Some of it is going to be based on constructive body images and body ideals and yes there's going to be people that are severely affected by it. And right now, without me ever writing the book, there are whole loads of people that are not affected by popular culture. Bad relationships are not just all about being a flawed individual. Some of the happiest, most passionately loving people I know are also the most neurotic people that I know, as well. I mean, you can't say that they have a good, happy relationship because they're well adjusted. But what is it about these people that have happy relationships that makes them different from the people that seem to be perpetually searching? And perpetually unhappy? And it looks to me like they were the people able to shut off culture in the sense that they use it to be entertained by it, but they don't assimilate it into their individual self in the same way. They transcend it. You can probably think about people like that.
It's funny, in talking with you I hear a lot about popular culture and how it affects us. That surprises me. I'd anticipated talking about relationships and passion in a more sexual context.
I guess this book, at bottom, is not about sex. And, in fact, I had a bit of fun with the index. You will not find an entry under "sex" if you look in the index. But you know what the book is really about? It's really about happiness and unhappiness, which is one reason I've decided to devote a complete volume to happiness. Sex, though, is so central to what makes people happy, right? And I think that's both a reality and a perception, so it's almost a double-whammy kind of thing. So that's why it's been important for me to write about sex because I'm really trying to write about something bigger and I'm supremely relieved that I won't have to write another book about sex. [Laughs]
Well, it does encompass everything we are, really. Sex. We are sensual creatures and we're here because of sex. Well, maybe not sex, but relationships.
Sexuality maybe. More than sex.
Yeah. Sexuality. Because we want to be in relationships and we want to love and we want to be loved. It is everything we are.
And we're all male or female, regardless of sexual orientation. Your gender is still relevant. Everybody's life is about sex. Even if you're celibate, it's still about sex. [Laughs] So it is important.
One of my frustrations is that everybody regards me only as an idea person. Which is true: I am. But I'm also a writer and nobody ever talks about the narrative, the pace, the language. If you're a novelist, people ask you: How do you get the idea? Do you write late at night? You know? They ask you about your craft. And nobody does that for writers like me. Like how did I learn to go from speaking of the postmodern, post-structuralist cultural construction of reality to writing a book in normal language. How did that happen?
But I guess that seemed self-evident to me. Just in meeting with you and chatting with you. You kind of have a bit of disdain for portions of academia, so you'd want to be understandable by more people. So I guess it seemed self-evident.
Boy, I tell you: it didn't seem self-evident to me when I decided to write that book for a general market. I had two chapters, some of which had been cobbled together from crowd-pleasing conference papers. A lot of it went, as originally written, into When Passion Reigned. And then when I revisited it and really decided I wanted it for a general audience and not at all for academics, I remember I got up one morning with this decision. And I wrote some that seemed all right and then I went back to this earlier stuff and, with my different mindset, I just thought: I will not get a publisher for this. Because nobody would be interested. Full of little insider academic jokes and the kind of stuff that's a crowd pleaser at an academic conference. And I just read it with these new eyes and it was horrible. I knew something had to be done with it, but I didn't know what. I did not have a clue. So how did I get a clue? I got it from reading novels and then trying to turn novelistic technique into my own voice. To me it was a tremendous act of craft and you never hear non-fiction writers talk about it.
Is it perhaps because writing non-fiction seems less of mystery than writing fiction? That people find it easier to relate to?
I guess the craft really, really interests me.
What do you find more difficult? Academic writing or the type of writing you're doing now?
Academic writing is easier. You just spew out the trendy theoretical stuff, make sure the information you're putting with it is correct. And there has to be a logic to the argument, obviously. But there's no craft to it. It's easy. | August 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.