Bonus Mondays! Here is a guest post from Elisabeth Eaves:
Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” a memoir about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is full of gaps, and those gaps are full of meaning. Want to know why Smith loves Rimbaud? Want to know the dirt on Smith’s sex life? Want to know how much either of them weighed? You’ll need another book. There is scant information about Smith’s sexual activity; it takes pages and pages to confirm that she and Mapplethorpe were romantically involved. When Mapplethorpe realizes he prefers men, Smith frets mostly about Mapplethorpe’s feelings: “I didn’t derive any pleasure from seeing Robert so conflicted.” She doesn’t seem any more upset about her lover switching teams than about him putting her at risk of gonorrhea, or deciding to drop acid when meeting her parents—which is to say, not very upset at all.
Is this all a whitewash? Was Smith really so unfazed, or is she simply not that self-centered? Whatever the root, her tolerance and modesty go against a rule of modern memoir writing: recount every bruise and tell us how badly each one hurt. Halfway through this book, I became convinced that Smith really didn’t care as much about Mapplethorpe’s boyfriendly deficiencies as she did about their friendship, their freedom to become who they needed to become, and—above all—their art. Not such a bad topic. It’s refreshing to read a memoirist so dedicated to telling a version of her life that is more about ideas than bedpost notches, though sad to think that only someone like Smith could push this past her editors. The New Irony: only a rock star has the moxie to be a prude now.
There’s another gap, though, a flickering space that has little do with Smith and her book, and everything to do with gender expectations: Mapplethorpe’s life as a hustler is handled as yet another non-issue. He occasionally heads up to Time Square to make rent money as needed, and the reader is not invited to think much about this. Mapplethorpe was, as you know, a man. I’m trying to imagine a contemporary female writer or artist who would freely admit to turning tricks when she was young and hungry. There are those, like Tracy Quan or Annie Sprinkle, who ‘fess up and then make careers of writing about sex work, but I’m guessing that most who try prostitution never tell. If they did, it would be The Topic. Instead of critics saying things like “his mission was not to reveal, but to document an aspect of sexuality as art,” as Smith writes about Mapplethorpe, every story about a female artist who once turned tricks would include the phrase, “...who worked as a hooker on 42nd Street.”