My Feral Shelf: On Building a Personal Library of Bad Behavior

In the wake of ongoing discussions about whether we can love monstrous writers, or whether we should even write monstrous characters, I have escaped into a personal library not of monsters, but of mischief. Over the last two years I have built what I call the feral shelf. It began in lockdown, when I was starved for other people and parties. I found solace and satisfaction in books full of sex, intoxication, sass and excess; that railed against wellness, against the proper, against the polite. The feral shelf’s protagonists (often the writers themselves, distorted) have sharp tongues and bad habits: they act with a lust for life and all its possibilities.

The shelf has a father, son and a holy spirit: Eve Babitz, Eileen Myles, and Edna O’Brien. It extends into books possessed of high velocity writing, whether fictional, semi-fictional, or pure documentary. It includes but is not limited to Diane di Prima’s semi-fictional Beatnik shagathon; the sass and gore of Gary Indiana; the speed-fuelled nihilism of Mary Woronov; the sexual freedoms and unreliable narrations of the young Harriet Sohmers Zwerling abroad in 1950s Paris; Cookie Mueller’s collected writing and Samuel R. Delany’s luminous fragmented memories of cruising in Motion of Light In Water.

Do not misunderstand me: this library is not about championing lazy subversion; it does not look to undo any recent progress; it does not use free speech as an excuse to trumpet rape and pillage. It is a library of authors with a white-knuckle grip on the wheel; who share with me the joy and ferocity of life coming at you fast. They might not always be getting it right, but they’re almost always getting some.

I wondered what I loved so much about these writers. I am not solely drawn to them as escape from the doldrums of life because frankly, I don’t live a life in the doldrums. It is perhaps more about the indulgence of gossip and the pleasure of a perfectly delivered anecdote. I called my sister, who loves deeply nihilistic books, to ask why we both might like this stuff. She has a particular taste for the grimmer end of the feral shelf – Gary Indiana’s Rent Boy and Mary Woronov’s Niagara – as well as the raw visions of horror in novels like Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I ask why she thinks she leans this way as a reader. “It’s all about brain stuff,” she replies gnomically, explaining that “experiencing terrifying brain stuff makes other things in life seem more palatable. Stuff that gets you out of your comfort zone is thrilling, but perhaps it’s also a comfort to see that other people have mad ideas, or horrid stuff rattling about in their brain and don’t feel afraid to get it down on paper.”

She articulates something I’d been struggling to understand – that no amount of wellness and self-care can eliminate the badness rattling around in one’s brain or the world around us, although some messaging seems to suggest this is possible. I’m interested in embracing the reality of this rather than eliminating it, and I want to read about it too, articulated with wit, sarcasm, and mastery, because there is too much ‘should’ in the world, that trickles down into the day to day. We should get 8hrs sleep; we should turn our screens off; we should exercise; should curb our unhealthy appetites in pursuit of this promised happiness under strict self-control. But what if our appetites are the engine of life? What if keeping them in balance is the ride?

The writers on this shelf always understand something of the fluidity of desire and of the intensity of our appetites. It’s not quite ‘never apologise never explain’ (The Queen or Kate Moss, depending on who you ask); it’s not ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ (Aleister Crowley). It’s the light and the dark; the party and the aftermath; it’s always telling a good story about the night before. Woronov got close to the atmosphere of the books on the feral shelf when speaking with Gary Indiana for Interview magazine: “Your books don’t seem therapeutic to me,” says Indiana. “No, they’re not,” she replies. “They’re like — what’s that word — detritus? They’re like stuff I’m trying to get rid of, like old dead skin or bad memories.”

The feral shelf champions making your own choices about how to live; about being free from social expectations and subsequent judgements that come from a failure to conform.

The tyranny of “should” can turn not just life but reading into a joyless trudge. The feral shelf is a reaction against it. Your feral shelf will in this way look different to mine, because it ought to be partly informed by what is forbidden to you. Harriet Sohmers Zwerling gets it: Life is about “earthly delights,” she writes in her diaries. “Showers, singing, looking at myself naked, reading, sleeping, sex.” Eileen Myles gets it, too: “time is so short or so long that exchanging cigarettes, listening to the birds, watching the light, you must talk and talk so you won’t be scared by the length or the shortness of it or even its ferocious speed… Danger comes to me but some people are born full of it.”

The feral shelf champions making your own choices about how to live; about being free from social expectations and subsequent judgements that come from a failure to conform. Samuel R. Delany talks about it in A Motion of Light In Water when he’s bedridden with exhaustion, trying to understand his identity tags – being black, and gay, and an author – in 1961. Because for all the progress that has been made since my mother was my age and had not been allowed to go to university or order a full pint of beer for herself, digressions from a linear life of school, marriage, kids, remain transgressions in many quarters, particularly for women, and the writers on this shelf know it. I don’t conform to many of the more traditional emotional expectations of womanhood, and neither do most of these women writers: “I am sort of invincible looking and I never display any of those womanly qualities so praised through the ages like modesty, tact, or sweet vulnerability,” writes Eve Babitz, which I find deeply relatable. She speaks of the way I want to live, which is fast.

There are fuzzy edges here: what makes one writer qualify for the shelf and another be excluded? It is not about the embracing of evil so much as Dionysian excess. It is not censoring the risky, nor denying the difficult, but the feral shelf never goes out of its way to be controversial, or undermines the rights of another to exist. It’s being a bitch but not being a bigot. It is not about very bad lives or very sad lives – there must be light and humour in among the disastrous love affairs and art projects and parties.

Art and writing are a part of life – it has to happen somewhere, and writers on the feral shelf sit among the detritus of life, recording the dirty curtains and the old ashtray; the texture of sex with different people, what love feels like, what despair is, what art is for and when hedonism flips into addiction. There are risks to be experienced solely through the pages of a book and there are things to learn about the perplexing variation in the infinite possible lives of human beings.

I read these writers because they know that to be in control of their own life and destiny is the greatest luxury, whether it’s getting out of bed past noon on a Tuesday, fucking whomever you fall for past midnight in a bar, or heading out of the city to the countryside to recover. It’s laziness and it’s indulgence; the body and the intellect; it’s my feral shelf.

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