The One Body Problem

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body.” —Clarice Lispector


In all the fiction and nonfiction that I read, I am searching for the body. In fiction, I want to know how a character feels; how they churn and bleed, how they laugh from deep in the belly or cry their crocodile tears, how they plunge their hands into dry beans for the pure sensual joy of the act, or crush a half-rotten orange beneath a chunky heel just for the pleasure of decayed destruction in the gutter. Each of these actions of the body tells me something about the character and something else about the world. It is as important as dialogue and as plot, and it is the inescapable fact of the meat that carries our consciousness. But often I find myself the detective in the story: I know there’s a body here somewhere, but I cannot locate the scene of the crime.

In nonfiction, I carry the same hunger. With memoir I practically thirst for blood, turning the pages like blades hoping to peel the author’s skin back and see what lies beneath, wanting more exposure and more viscera than perhaps is deserved or warranted. In essay, I always hope to find the author willing to be vulnerable, connecting or pining to connect with the idea they’re peddling and proving in prose. This is trickier, because for many writers and readers alike, nonfiction is the place they come when they want to pretend we are something more logical and changeless than meat. We come to nonfiction for fact and formal argumentation. We come here to forget our feelings and reach past them to what is real, to connect to something solid in a nebulous universe where we are preyed upon by time and capricious fate. We try to put a pin in the truth and hammer it home, to settle an argument once and for all with what we have discovered and count it as progress for the whole human race, never to be questioned again.

None of that works, of course. We have the same arguments on a cycle of minutes, years, centuries. We do this because we are meat; our desires are endless and our intellects are vast, our art is timeless and our ambition is boundless, our souls are unstoppable and our bodies do nothing but stop. We stop writing, stop speaking, stop breathing, and everything we’ve ever said is forgotten. That pin we hammered into the truth inevitably comes loose so that someone in another century can step on its rusted point with the pink sole of their undefended foot of flesh and discover the argument anew, unaware that meat has had this thought before.

This search for the body is political. When I read a story or an essay wherein the body is invisible, illusory, or subjugated beyond the hearing of its demands, I know what kind of world I’m reading in. A world in which bodies do not grow old, feel sick, get injured, get hungry, get dirty, or get railed is an antiseptic one. It’s a world where the reader can pretend that none of those things ever needs to happen because the body is irrelevant. Worlds and works that hold the body as irrelevant make me wonder whether the author knows they have a body. It makes me assume this story is not a safe place to be queer or trans or fat or disabled. It makes me think the author has an assumed baseline of what a body should be and do in order to be above notice; that there is a right way to have a body and certainly no one here is having theirs wrong.

These antiseptic works contribute to a literary landscape where all sex is taboo, but some sex is more taboo than other kinds. When we leave the body out of our work, we accept submission guidelines that say things like “no erotic content, obviously” or “all queer content must be relevant to the story.” We accept qualifying statements in a review of an anthology like Kink, edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, that say something coy like “well yes it is erotica, but of an extremely high literary caliber,” as if that were not to be expected. We endure challenges to works like Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, because we must always think of the children who may be listening to a story that is too queer to be proper. We learn to expect that genre fiction will contain no explicit on-page sex scenes between consenting adults, but will commonly portray rape and assault in graphic detail because it’s relevant to the plot and it helps us understand the world.

How people have sex is relevant to the plot. It is relevant to character. It helps build the world, the meaning of beauty, the economy, the society, and everything. Sex belongs in genre fiction.

The body is relevant to the plot. It makes up a significant part of any character who is not a ghost or an incorporeal spirit. The body belongs in genre fiction.

The authors who bring the meat to their stories are doing daring and important work. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” by Nalo Hopkinson was published in the 1990s and pulls off a sci-fi body swap that opens up a delicious discussion of what it would be like to switch bodies while copulating, and it shouldn’t read like a subversive revolution to a 2021 audience, but it does. Charlie Jane Anders’s “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” mercilessly drowns the reader in the leaking vulnerability of a body at the mercy of the system and state, and it never lets up in its sense of objectified misery and the total oppression of the delicate meat of humanity. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente solves the intractable problem of hurling human meat through space by letting us drink space whale milk, while Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion brings a brutality and suspension of humanity to the same question of how we meat bags are to survive the endless reaches between the stars.

We have always lived in this castle—the greatest writers of genre wrote straight from the body, unafraid. Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr., Vernor Vinge, and Samuel R. Delany, even Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, wrote from the body, biased though their point of view always was. (Meat is made of bias; meat is never neutral.) Outside the castle, a cold wind is blowing. It’s banning books from libraries for being too queer, too trans, too visibly angry in their demands for justice. There are cracks in the walls of our castle, and this cold wind is getting in. It gets in every time an editor wonders if this space opera really needs a sex scene. It slips past a poorly sealed window every time someone argues against the queering or racebending of a classic text. It drips through the cracks when a publishing house says they’ve already got their unruly body story for next year. It rushes in the door every time the SF/F community demands moral perfection and identarian purity from an author when they write from the body, to the body, and of the body.

No castle is forever, and we spend too much time tearing it down from inside to blame the wind for very long. The bodies doing this work today will cease their meat occupation and the next generation will have to decide whether these walls are worth patching, reinforcing, and defending. I work, as an author and as an editor, to make sure they have countless examples of the body, the one powerful and precious body given to each writer and each reader, so that they know that they, too, can make art the way only meat can.

The body is not the problem, and it is not the obstacle to art. It is where all art, good and bad, begins. Honor your meat. Write it with your hands of meat and let your meat heart sing it out, as brave as that braying traitor can be. Let our eyes and ears of meat read it in our faltering, decaying glory, let our meat brains misunderstand and connect and forget for a moment that the lifespan of meat is the wet blink of an expiring eye. Do not forget for a second that this is what we all are.

Read and write until we rot.


Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, Big Girl with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, Find Layla was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, Number One Fan, will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

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