Published 13 August 2020
French paperback with flaps, 136 pages | Audiobook read by Maxine Peake
I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the old, the bull dykes, the frigid, the unfucked, the unfuckable, the hysterics, the freaks, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh. And if I’m starting here it’s because I want to be crystal clear: I’m not here to make excuses, I’m not here to bitch. I wouldn’t swap places with anyone because being Virginie Despentes seems to me a more interesting gig than anything else out there.
I think it’s amazing that there are also women out there who love to seduce, who know how to turn someone on, women determined to get hitched, women who smell of sex and others who smell of cakes freshly baked for their kids’ after-school snacks. Awesome that there are women who are very gentle, others who are comfortable in their skin, young women, pretty women, women who are kittenish and radiant. Honestly, I’m really happy for all those women who’re resigned to the way the world works. I say this without a hint of irony. It just so happens that I’m not one of them. Obviously, I wouldn’t write what I write if I was beautiful, beautiful enough to turn the head of every man I meet. It’s as a prole of the feminine underclass that I speak, that I spoke yesterday, that I carry on speaking today. When I was unemployed, I didn’t feel shame at being excluded, all I felt was rage. It’s the same when it comes to being a woman: I don’t feel remotely ashamed at not being some super-hot babe. What I do feel, on the other hand, is fucking furious that as a woman that men don’t really find attractive, I’m constantly made to feel that I shouldn’t even exist. We have always existed. Even if there was no mention of us in novels written by men, who are only able to imagine women they want to fuck. We’ve always existed. We’ve never spoken up. Even now that women publish lots of novels, it’s rare to come across female characters who are physically unattractive or plain, incapable of loving men or of being loved by them. Quite the reverse, contemporary heroines love men, have no trouble meeting them, sleep with them within a couple of chapters, have a shattering orgasm in the space of four lines, and they all love sex. The figure of the loser in the femininity contest is not just one I find sympathetic – she is crucial to me. The same goes for social, economic or political losers. I prefer people who don’t make the grade, for the simple reason that I don’t really make it either. And because, for the most part, we’ve got humour and creativity on our side. People who haven’t got what it takes to swagger around are often more creative. As women go, I’m more King Kong than Kate Moss. I’m the sort of woman you don’t marry, you don’t have kids with, I speak as a woman who is always too much of everything she is: too aggressive, too loud, too fat, too brutish, too hairy, always too mannish, so they tell me. But it’s precisely my masculine qualities that mean I’m more than just another social outcast. All the things that I love about my life, all the things that have saved me, I owe to my virility. And so, I am writing this as a woman unable to attract men’s attention, to satisfy men’s desires, or be satisfied with a place in the shadows. This, then, is the place from which I write, as a woman who’s not seductive, but is ambitious, drawn to the money I earn for myself, drawn to the power to act and to refuse, more attracted by the city than the home, eager for experiences and incapable of settling for other people’s accounts of them. I don’t give a shit about giving hard-ons to guys who don’t do it for me. It’s never seemed particularly obvious to me that hot girls are having such a great time. I’ve always felt ugly, I’ve found it all the easier to deal with since it’s spared me from some shitty life putting up with nice guys who’d never have taken me beyond the blue horizon. I’m happy with myself as I am, more desiring than desirable. I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women, the psychos, the skinheads, those who don’t know how to accessorize, those who are scared they stink, those with rotting teeth, those who have no clue, those that guys don’t make things easy for, those who’d fuck anyone who’s prepared to have them, the massive sluts, the scrawny skanks, the dried-up cunts, those with pot bellies, those who wish they were men, those who think they are men, those who dream of being porn stars, those who don’t give a flying fuck about guys but have a thing for their girlfriends, those with fat arses, those who have dark bushy pubes and aren’t about to get a Brazilian, the women who are loud and pushy, those who smash everything in their path, those who hate perfume counters, who wear red lipstick that’s too red, those who’d die to dress like horny sluts but haven’t got the body, those who want to wear men’s clothes and beards in the street, those who want to let it all hang out, those who are prissy because they’re hung-up, those who don’t know how to say no, those who are locked up so they can be controlled, those who inspire fear, those who are pathetic, those who don’t spark desire, those who are flabby, who have faces scarred with wrinkles, the ones who dream of having a facelift, or liposuction, or having their nose broken so it can be reshaped but don’t have the money, those who are a hot mess, those who have only themselves to rely on for protection, those who don’t know how to be reassuring, those who don’t give a fuck about their kids, those who like to drink until they’re sprawled on the floor of a bar, those who don’t know how to behave; and, while I’m at it, I’m also writing for the guys who don’t want to be protectors, those who want to be but don’t know how, those who don’t know how to fight, those who cry easily, those who aren’t ambitious, or competitive, or well-hung, or aggressive, those who are timid, shy, vulnerable, those who’d rather look after the house than go out to work, those who are weak, bald, too poor to be appealing, those who long to be fucked, those who don’t want to be dependable, those who are scared on their own every night.
Because the archetypal white woman, sexy but not slutty, married but not meek, a good job but not so successful she upstages her husband, slim but not hung up about food, eternally youthful without needing to be hacked at by plastic surgeons, fulfilled as a mother but not overburdened by nappies and homework, a talented hostess but not some retro housewife, intelligent but less intelligent than a man, this blissful white woman constantly being waved under our noses, this woman we’re supposed to strive to be like – though she seems to slog her guts out for fuck-all in return – is someone I’ve never encountered, anywhere. I suspect she doesn’t exist.
This book is supported by the Institut Français (Royaume-Uni) as part of the Burgess Programme. Cet ouvrage a bénéficié du soutien des Programmes d'aide à la publication de l'Institut Français.
‘I write from the realms of the ugly, for the ugly, the frigid, the unfucked and the unfuckables, all those excluded from the great meat market of female flesh, and for all those guys who don’t want to be protectors, for those who would like to be but don’t know how, for those who are not ambitious, competitive, or well-endowed. Because this ideal of the seductive white woman constantly being waved under our noses – well, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.’
Powerful, provocative and personal, King Kong Theory is a candid account of how the author of Baise-moi came to be Virginie Despentes. Drawing from personal experience, Despentes shatters received ideas about rape and prostitution, and explodes common attitudes towards sex and gender. King Kong Theory is a manifesto for a new punk feminism, reissued here in a brilliant new translation by Frank Wynne.
‘I can think of almost no book I’ve enjoyed in recent years as much as King Kong Theory – in part for its content, in part for the ferocity of its style. In a world that continues to have difficulty contending with sex work, porn, class, and sexual violence without resorting to tired tropes, Virginie Despentes offers a fresh, necessary, inspiring path forward, just as she has been doing for decades now in a variety of media. This book is a classic, and I’m so grateful for it.’
— Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
‘I love King Kong Theory. It’s a fuck-you push-back against a blood-sucking patriarchal culture that keeps murdering and raping women till they get the idea (the survivors, ha) that they should be stupidly grateful to serve men, just lucky to even be allowed to play. This is liberatory galloping prose, inhale it now and if you’ve read it before read it again in this new jangling translation, ornery and alive like we need to be. This short fiery book is essential.’
— Eileen Myles, author of Chelsea Girls
‘In the dire age of corporatized and sanitised feminism, King Kong Theory is the radical – and darkly funny – manifesto we need.’
— Amelia Abraham, author of Queer Intentions
‘Despentes is often described as a “rock-and-roll” Balzac ... She also resembles, by turns, William Gibson, George Eliot and Michel Houellebecq, with a sunnier attitude.’
— Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick
‘Part-memoir, part-critical treatise on masculinity and power, with reference to rape, pornography, and prostitution, King Kong Theory is the kind of book you want to place in the hands of everyone you know. It is arresting from the very first lines; there’s something aggressively incantatory about it, a kind of battle-rap braggadocio.’
— Lauren Elkin, Harper’s
‘Wynne’s translation perfectly captures the radicality of Despentes’s manifesto as she discusses topics such as rape, sex work, and pornography with such confrontational panache that you feel as if the writer herself is screaming her words at you through a megaphone. The manifesto is already a classic but Wynne finally offers us a translation as brash and effortlessly cool as Despentes herself.’
— Barry Pierce, Irish Times
‘the testimony of an uncompromising life and its difficulties. The book has one theme that it reiterates over and over: don’t delude yourself that a life lived with freedom and in search of experience will be free of damage. Punishments will arrive, especially for women, but conformity is worse. Punk informs her sensibility as much if not more than any school of feminism. Like Simone de Beauvoir before her, she has made of her life a long critical inquiry into gender and sexuality, and her trauma is a fact of her personal history rather than a delicate porcelain object.’
— Emily Witt, New Yorker
‘Despentes has become a kind of cult hero, a patron saint to invisible women: the monstrous and marginalized, the sodden, weary and wildly unemployable, the kind of woman who can scarcely be propped up let alone persuaded to lean in.’
— Parul Sehgal, New York Times
‘A prequel to #MeToo. A unique queer feminist radical voice that has been crucial to the transformation both of fiction writing and political action in the 2010s.’
— Paul B. Preciado, author of An Apartment on Uranus
‘A manifesto for our times.’
— Paris Review
‘Perhaps the most honest account of gender to have been written in the twenty-first century, King Kong Theory [...] is a piece of work that has shaped perceptions of femininity globally. ...The book also serves as a sort of prelude to #MeToo; it screamed the need for such a movement before social media did so.’
‘The feminist movement needs King Kong Theory now more than ever. A must-read for every sex worker, tranny, punk, queer, john, academic, pornographer – and for all those people who dislike them too.’
— Annie Sprinkle
‘The history of literature in translation is filled with good and bad matches. Great matches – Juliets who get their Romeos, with not a single suicide along the way – are few. The new novel Vernon Subutex 1, written by Virginie Despentes and translated from French by Frank Wynne, is the kind of match that is so great it won’t occur to readers that these two entities – author and translator – might have ever been apart. In fact, their prose is so powerful, and so perfect, that we forget we’re even reading.’
— Jennifer Croft, LA Review of Books
‘[Despentes] redefined French feminism in her 2006 manifesto King Kong Theory. ... Today King Kong Theory, with its account of Despentes’s rape, is the book she is most often asked to sign at events.’
— Angélique Chrisafis, Guardian
‘Virginie Despentes is a true original, a punk-rock George Eliot with a keen taste for the pitiable innards of her characters: no one else has her slyly penetrating eye, her spiky sense of humor, her razor wit that cuts like wire through the accumulated crud of our age’s default thought patterns.’
— Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
‘France has a long tradition of writers and artists who have propagated their own challenging visions of sexuality - from the Marquis de Sade’s sadomasochistic reveries to Georges Bataille’s explorations of the ambiguity of sex as a subversive force in Blue of Noon. More recently, Michel Houellebecq’s work has included unsparing descriptions of sexual conquest. But it is only relatively recently that women have felt able to tackle these same themes in public. ... Despentes’s new book, King Kong Theory, gives them a manifesto. Part memoir, part political pamphlet, it is a furious condemnation of the “servility” of enforced femininity and was a bestseller in France – the title refers to her contention that she is “more King Kong than Kate Moss.”’
— Elizabeth Day, Observer
‘You have to take Despentes with a pinch of salt: her writing is often ambiguous and, in places, she is purposefully difficult, misleading and incongruous. This is also the book’s strength. She is restless, keen to move forward, and in doing so her prose is scatty, brilliant and unflinching.’
— Bryony White, Elephant
‘King Kong Theory should open your eyes to the confusion and hypocrisy of modern feminism and the lives of women and girls in the capitalist economy. In fact, it should rip your eyelids off your face; that is the intention with which it is written. While your eyelids are bleeding, Despentes’ words will likewise expose the grip of the profit motive on the bodies and minds of women, girls, men, boys and every other gender in this twenty-first century.’
Virginie Despentes is a writer and filmmaker, and former maid, sex worker, and freelance rock journalist. She is the author of fifteen books, including Apocalypse Baby (2010), the Vernon Subutex trilogy (2013-2017) and the autobiographical essay King Kong Theory (2006), reissued in 2020 by Fitzcarraldo Editions in a new translation by Frank Wynne.
Frank Wynne has translated works by authors including Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano, Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, Javier Cercas, Carlos Manuel Álvarez and Almudena Grandes. His work has earned various awards, including the IMPAC Prize (2002), the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2005), the Scott Moncrieff Prize (2008, 2016) and the Premio Valle Inclán (2011, 2013).
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