When I started being a slut I was fourteen and still a virgin. (p15)
In 2009 I was at one of Avid Bookshop’s salon events promoting Emily Maguire’s third novel, Smoke in the Room. Maguire told an anecdote to show how reader perception is skewed by what that reader knows, or thinks they know, about the author. After reading Maguire’s first novel, Taming the Beast (2006), one reader sent her an email deriding her for its “violent sadistic misogynism.” Surprised, Maguire apologised and assured the reader that her intent had been the opposite. A few months later, Maguire received another email from the same reader who, after reading her 2006 non-fiction book, Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity, had completely re-evaluated her reading of the novel. She now saw it as a dark and transgressive, but decidedly feminist, novel. “If she only knew me,” Maguire concluded, “she would never have thought that.”
It’s been forty years since Germaine Greer shocked and appalled the world writing about the female body, sensuality and sexuality, and challenged us to taste our own menstrual blood in The Female Eunuch (1970). Like other feminist writers before her – Germaine Greer, Fay Weldon, Drusilla Modjeska – Maguire seeks to challenge the way girls and women think about themselves and each other. But it seems that for a generation resistant to the “F” word – feminism – the message needed some re-branding.
The back-cover blurb calls Princesses and Pornstars “a bold mix of personal story, interview reportage, analysis and polemic.” Sounds like a feminist book, yes? And yet Maguire stated at the Avid salon that her non-fiction publisher, Text Publishing, insisted that the word ‘feminist’ on the cover would almost certainly ensure that her intended readership, girls and young women, would refuse to read it.
Maguire is well-aware that to make her book both commercially viable and philosophically palatable, she needed to codify the title and cover in twenty-first century terms. She agreed with her publisher that it was more important that people buy and read the book than to keep her working title, “the Myth of Post-feminism.” So, to sell the book to her target market she needed to avoid being seen as a “militant feminist”. It didn’t change the agenda or the content of the book, just the perception of it, and by extension, of her as the author. And remember, Maguire knows that it matters what readers think they know about her.
Princesses and Pornstars is a fusion of personal experiential anecdote and informed political and social commentary. In Princesses and Pornstars, Maguire freely writes about her first period, her early teenage sexual experience and her idealistic marriage at the age of twenty. No subject is off-limits, and her disarming honesty garners trust and acceptance from a notoriously sceptical demographic. From the first chapter – “your vagina is not like a car” – Maguire challenges stereotypes and labels, confronting sacred cows and cultural boundaries.
Princesses and Pornstars is a feminist manifesto for a new generation; just don’t tell them that.