Thanks For Coming by Mara Altman

(Please welcome a new Litkicks writer, Willa A. Cmiel, who recently graduated from New York University, lives in Brooklyn, and runs a pop culture/literary blog called Look Out Now — Levi)

Everyone’s got an amusing, self-deprecating tale of failure. After all, quirks and idiosyncrasies solidify our status as mortals and determine us sure-fire constituents of the human condition. If not prone to journalistic tendencies, these inescapable tales of woe and wonderment might go undistinguished, as they are par for the course. In order to grow, we must make mistakes and then learn to fix them. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. So, when exactly do your personal oddities translate to a published memoir? When is such a quest for personal development relevant to the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the book-reading population? In the case of Mara Altman and her new memoir Thanks for Coming: One Young Woman’s Quest for an Orgasm, the answer seems to be “When you’re already a journalist”. Too often it is not a question of relevancy, but one of means.

Mara Altman is twenty-six and has never had an orgasm. She’s had boyfriends and sex, and her parents were hippies. But she can’t figure out why she’s never experienced that momentous “O”. Altman, who attended Columbia University’s Journalism School and wrote for the Village Voice under the wing of former editor David Blum, is media-savvy; journalism is what she knows. It is only natural, therefore, that Altman, in researching her memoir, spoke to every living expert on the female orgasm, as well as some not-so-experts. Altman, though, is too thorough and too journalistic for her own good. Rather than just getting on with it — because it’s not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm — she seeks out tirelessly a new expert, therapist, or researcher with every chapter. Her determination is impressive and her prose, if overly precious, is cohesive and clever. But there is something constantly hanging me up. To be frank, it’s just not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm.

During her search, Altman gets her toes sucked at a foot fetish party, visits an S&M basement, an orgasm ranch, air-humps God in Israel, forgets completely about human-to-human sex, and makes routine visits to the vegan-muffin-man at the Union Square Greenmarket for yogi-like advice. Her book is overflowing with conflicting advice from such a plethora of sources, including Zola, a “pussy professional,” and Eric, Altman’s hotter-than-Hercules “sacred whore” who is obligingly the un-monogamous boyfriend of the “Mother of Masturbation” (and impetus of the sexiest and most amusing passages in the book). The state of free-world female sexuality might be a stirring talking point, but why then trivialize it with such an overabundance of facts? (Not to mention an even more overabundant collection of cutesy nicknames for female genitalia). Since Altman under this format could not possibly hope to probe at a greater truth, what exactly is she doing? Is Thanks for Coming supposed to be funny? Cute? Helpful?

In reality, Altman exploits herself. She takes comfort in her naivete and her awkward ignorance, playing up the role of the career-driven, hardworking-thus-sexually-repressed female. After all, a man who couldn’t orgasm wouldn’t get an advance, he’d get a prescription and a hard dose of alienation. And for most of the book, Altman gets caught up in her own gimmick. This natural journalist is so exhaustive that it is difficult to remember what she is trying to achieve. Is it an orgasm or a book deal? If the answer is “book deal” — an event which, fittingly, is often understood as the climax of a writerly vocation — then Altman’s memoir is a fallacy and her sexual “issue” a gimmick. Altman’s orgasmlessness is her own funny, self-deprecating tale of failure, of which each of us have in one mortal form or another. It’s like a fill-in-the-blanks and Thanks for Coming is Altman’s version of this life-sized Mad Libs.

On, for example, Thanks for Coming is coupled with a book called Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. In this case, a young woman discusses her failure at making it in Hollywood, although she certainly has a few close calls. She is intelligent, well-trained from her “glory days at NYU’s theater program”, and oh-so-hardworking. By all accounts she should be successful by now. But dammit she’s still failing! And it’s funny! Sound familiar? Like self-help books and fad diets, the gimmick memoir is a child born of market-driven publishers, many now floundering, more than ready to fit any proposal they can into an already distinguished, even mildly successful, cookie-cutter mold.

This memoir, of course, is not truly about the search for an orgasm. If it were, the book would have been one third shorter. When she finally comes, Altman can’t figure out why she isn’t satisfied. As a result, she begins a search for … herself. “For Mara,” reads the back cover, “orgasm was connected to a part of her that no vibrator could reach.” Well, Ms. Altman, join the club. At this point, the purposelessness of such tireless research reveals itself. It’s no wonder Altman is desensitized: these sex experts have jobs that rely on their ability to objectively examine the female orgasm without those emotions from which the rest of the world can’t separate or don’t care to. It surely isn’t news that most women and many men equate, confound, or enmesh sex and emotions. Whether Altman’s shortcomings can be pinned upon upbringing, societal repression, or the pressures faced by ambitious females in New York, an isolating city where vaginas already have the majority, it’s difficult to say. Altman tries to. The question is, do you care? After all, it’s not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm.

13 Responses

  1. From Woody Allen’s
    From Woody Allen’s *Manhattan* —

    The scene is a New York party.

    Director: I’m making a movie about a man who screws so well that when his partner has an orgasm, it kills her.

    Blonde: I had an orgasm once. But my analyst told me it was the wrong kind….

  2. Maybe this was like when
    Maybe this was like when Laura Albert wrote under the persona of J. T. LeRoy, or when Tim Barrus called himself Nasdijj; in other words, the author is pulling our leg and really has orgasms all the time!

  3. Watched pot etc…

    I was
    Watched pot etc…

    I was actually greatly happy to see your comments at your blog on the Girl Sleuth Stratemayer Syndicate book of a few years ago and see Sandra Tsing-Loh’s wonderful review (which I hadn’t seen before).

    Girl Sleuth was such a fantastically fun book to read and learn about the fascinating world and history of those old pulps and the ghost writers behind Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

    And now today those sort of syndicate books are still among the biggest sellers, all sorts of series for kids about Cats and Vampires and Gossipy girls written and manufactured in the same way.

    Probably the most lucrative form of book publishing there is and always has been.

  4. This is a poorly written
    This is a poorly written article at best. Is this a review or a book report? Judging by the first paragraph, it seems to be the latter. How is it that you feel the need to judge others writing when you yourself cannot do so adequately. This article is garbage, point in fact: “In reality, Altman exploits herself. She takes comfort in her naivete and her awkward ignorance, playing up the role of the career-driven, hardworking-thus-sexually-repressed female.” How redundant can you get? Hate men? Of course you do, just don’t take it out on the rest of us.

  5. Even though I didn’t write
    Even though I didn’t write the book review, I’m trying to decide if the sentence in question is truly redundant. It’s a close call. On one hand, it might have worked better as “…takes comfort in her awkward naivete, playing up the role of career-driven-thus-sexually-repressed female.”
    But on the other hand, Naiveté has a slightly different connotation than ignorance. The same with career-driven and hard working. I know I would have struggled with the temptation to include all the words, but I would probably be wrong. In any event, I really don’t see the relevance, or follow the logic,of the “hate men?” comment. That was weird.

  6. The problem with this review
    The problem with this review isn’t the writing, I thought it was well written, actually. It’s the view that orgasm is a simple matter for most women. It isn’t. The book (and most sex research) has documented that in detail.

    Yes, I’ve read the book, and I thought it was funny, endearing and, at times, moving. And no, I’m not Mara, though I wish I wrote as well as her. The fact that her journey led her to deeper issues about herself is a good thing, not something to attack, and it makes the book interesting.

  7. It IS a VERY simple matter to
    It IS a VERY simple matter to have an orgasm, much like sneezing. or passing gas. How, Frances can you make a statement like that? I’m beyond baffled by this!(And that it is the last comment here, a couple days old is even weirder.

    I must riff on this- indulge me. Hey, I’m married- I have orgasms with my husband several times weekly.
    The sex is rote-as innovative and titillating as flossing one’s teeth. But I would not be married to this man with all his horrible little idiosyncrasies for 16 years if the sex did not culminate in orgasms. Sure, some orgasms are bigger than others. That’s my responsibility- I need to eat right, do my Kegals, get enough sleep, you know put out at least the minimum effort, right?
    I keep a vibrator in my bedside table, next to the pens, Tylenol, and my journal, all of which get daily use. Easy! I can tell you how my friends and colleagues get their orgasms, too. Intrigue, subterfuge, guile, lies, but no difficulty.
    Frances, dear, what the hell kind of RESEARCH are you doing? -Document THAT in detail-


    I’m certain Ms. Mara is yanking our lanyards.

  8. Haven,t read the book,
    Haven,t read the book, nothing unusual in that, the stuff I haven’t read…
    But , and it’s an important but, France is the light of the western world. The food wine, art literature, architecture, Liberte Justice Egalite, and it goes on.
    How could anyone object to France. an’ the plural only increases the wonderfulness of it all.

    Who or what is an orgasm, and, this is very important, are catholics allowed to be associated with whatever it is, without having to attend confession

  9. Catholics have plenty of
    Catholics have plenty of intercourse- that’s where all the little Catholics come from I guess you would only have to confess if you enjoyed yourself

    Which is so wrong! I’m deeply distressed by the thought that there maybe folks out there that find joy difficult, and ASSUME that this is a plight suffered by the majority of women

    Thinking like this is the ultimate sexist behavior

    I have always refused to be a joyless victim It’s quite easy, really.
    This is not a book I would read. I have no criticism for Willa. I do believe she gets it.

  10. A little Catholicism goes a
    A little Catholicism goes a long way, all the way to Hinduism.
    Its ten Hail Mary’s and the Kama Sutra for them tonight.

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