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My 1980s and Other Essays [Kindle Edition]

Wayne Koestenbaum
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Wayne Koestenbaum returns with a zesty and hyper-literate collection of personal and critical essays

Wayne Koestenbaum has been described as “an impossible lovechild from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag” (Bidoun). In My 1980s and Other Essays, a collection of extravagant range and style, he rises to the challenge of that improbable description.
     My 1980s and Other Essays opens with a series of manifestos—or, perhaps more appropriately, a series of impassioned disclosures, intellectual and personal. It then proceeds to wrestle with a series of major cultural figures, the author’s own lodestars and lodestones: literary (John Ashbery, Roberto Bolaño, James Schuyler), artistic (Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol), and simply iconic (Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, Lana Turner). And then there is the personal—the voice, the style, the flair—that is unquestionably Koestenbaum. It amounts to a kind of intellectual autobiography that culminates in a string of passionate calls to creativity; arguments in favor of detail and nuance, and attention; a defense of pleasure, hunger, and desire in culture and experience.
     Koestenbaum is perched on the cusp of being a true public intellectual—his venues are more mainstream than academic, his style is eye-catching, his prose unfailingly witty and passionate, his interests profoundly wide-ranging and popular. My 1980s should be the book that pushes Koestenbaum off that cusp and truly into the public eye.

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Wayne Koestenbaum is an American poet and cultural critic. He received a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD from Princeton University. He lives in New York City, where he is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

My 1980s
Les Fleuves m’ont laissé descendre où je voulais.
—Arthur Rimbaud
I met Tama Janowitz once in the 1980s. (Was it 1987?) She probably doesn’t remember our encounter. She was a visiting fellow at Princeton, where I was a graduate student in English. At a university gathering, Joyce Carol Oates complimented the ostentatious way that Tama and I were dressed. Seeking system, I replied, “Tama is East Village. I’m West Village.”
*   *   *
I had little to do with art in the eighties. I saw Caravaggio in Rome, and Carpaccio in Venice. I neglected the contemporary. For half the decade I lived in New York City, and yet I didn’t go to a single Andy Warhol opening. Missed opportunities? My mind was elsewhere.
*   *   *
My mind was on écriture feminine as applied to homosexuals. I was big on the word homosexual. I read Homosexualities and French Literature (edited by George Stambolian and Elaine Marks). I read Hélène Cixous. On a train I read Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translated by Richard Howard); I looked out dirty windows onto dirty New Jersey fields. I began to take autobiography seriously as a historical practice with intellectual integrity. On an airplane I read Michel Leiris’s Manhood (translated by Richard Howard) and grooved to Leiris’s mention of a “bitten buttock”; I decided to become, like Leiris, a self-ethnographer. I read André Gide’s Immoralist (translated by Richard Howard) in Hollywood, Florida, while lying on a pool deck. I read many books translated by Richard Howard. In the eighties I read The Fantastic by Tzvetan Todorov (translated by Richard Howard) and meditated on the relation between fantasy and autobiography. I brought Richard Howard flowers the first time I met him (1985), in his book-lined apartment. He assured me that I was a poet.
*   *   *
I discovered the word essentialism in the late eighties. I should have discovered it earlier. Sex-and-gender essentialism was a dread fate. I feared that it was my condition. Essentialists believed in God and trusted the government. In the early nineties, after I stopped worrying about my essentialism, I realized that I’d never been an essentialist after all.
*   *   *
Too many of these sentences begin with the first-person-singular pronoun. Later I may jazz up the syntax, falsify it.
*   *   *
I am typing this essay on the IBM Correcting Selectric III typewriter I bought in 1981 for one thousand dollars. I borrowed the money from my older brother, a cellist. It took me several years to pay him back.
*   *   *
In the eighties I worked as a legal secretary, a paralegal, and a legal proofreader. I freelanced as a typist, $l.50 per page. I temped for Kelly Girl; one pleasurable assignment was a stint at the Girl Scouts headquarters. I taught seventh- through twelfth-grade English at a yeshiva. I tutored a man from Japan in English conversation. I didn’t turn a single trick.
*   *   *
This morning I asked my boyfriend, an architect, about the 1980s. I said, “Let’s make a list of salient features of our eighties.” We came up with just two items: cocaine, AIDS.
*   *   *
In 1980 after Reagan was elected I began, in repulsed reaction, to read the New York Times. Before then, I’d never read the newspaper.
*   *   *
I remember a specific homeless woman on the Upper West Side in the 1980s. She smelled predictably of pee or shit and hung out in an ATM parlor near the Seventy-Second Street subway stop. She seemed to rule the space. Large, she epitomized. Did I ever give her money? I blamed Reagan.
*   *   *
A stranger smooched me during a “Read My Lips” kiss-in near the Jefferson Market Public Library: festive politics. 1985? I stumbled on the ceremony. Traffic stopped.
*   *   *
A cute short blond guy named Mason used to brag about sex parties; I was jealous. I didn’t go to sex parties. He ended up dying of AIDS. I’m not pushing a cause-and-effect argument.
*   *   *
In 1985 I read Mario Mieli’s Homosexuality and Liberation. I bought, but did not read, an Italian periodical, hefty and intellectually substantial, called Sodoma: Rivista Omosessuale di Cultura. That year, I turned to Georges Bataille for bulletins on the solar anus, for lessons on smart, principled obscenity.
*   *   *
A handsome brunet poet came to my apartment, and I dyed his hair blond. I had a crush on him. He talked a lot about Michel Foucault. The poet and I bought the dye on Sixth Avenue in the Village. In my kitchen he stripped to his undershorts, which had holes. His nipples were large and erect: impressive! I’d never seen such ready-to-go nipples. He leaned over the kitchen sink; I washed his hair and applied the dye. I kept on my undershirt during the session; I wasn’t proud of my body (though in retrospect I respect its scrawiness). I continued to read Foucault throughout the eighties. Foucault never deeply moved me. I switched to Maurice Blanchot in the late nineties.
*   *   *
My boyfriend worked out downstairs. We lived above a gay gym: the Body Center, corner of Sixth and Fifteenth, now the David Barton Gym. After midnight we could hear loud music coming through our radiators: the Body Center’s cleaning crew had turned up the sound system.
*   *   *
Geographical facts: during the 1980s, I lived in Cambridge, Baltimore, New York, New Haven. The important city was New York: 1984–1988. There, I worked out at the McBurney Y. I swam in its skanky, dank, tiny, cloudy, over-warm pool. I recall a not-handsome guy shaving off his body hair at the sink. Careful, I didn’t once enter the Y’s cramped sauna.
*   *   *
I read all of Proust in summer 1986. Proust and summer passed quickly. That same summer I reread James Schuyler’s Morning of the Poem and experienced an AIDS-panic-related sense of life’s brevity; houseguest, I sat on an Adirondack chair in Southold, Long Island. My host, hardy in the garden, was ill with AIDS. I recall wild blueberries I picked with him, and his reticence, and mine.
*   *   *
In 1986 or ’87 I heard Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick give a lecture on “unknowing” in Diderot’s The Nun. I had just read her Between Men. Her difficult lucidity gave my stumbling concepts one warm, fruitful context.
*   *   *
In 1984 I took a course in feminist theory with Elaine Showalter and decided to be a male feminist. I decided not to write a dissertation about John Ashbery and W. H. Auden. Instead, I wanted to write a flaming treatise. In a seminar on the Victorian novel, Showalter showed slides of Charcot’s hysterics in arcs-en-cercle and of fin de siècle faces disfigured by syphilis. I flipped out with intellectual glee. Hysteria would be my open sesame.
*   *   *
In the eighties I was happiest when writing “syllabic” poems. Superstitiously I discovered my existence’s modicum of dignity and value by counting duration in syllables, on my fingers, while I typed, on the same Selectric I am using now.
*   *   *
I saw Taxi zum Klo and Diva: two films that made a dent. I went to all the gay movies. Lhomme blessé. On TV I saw Brideshead Revisited and the Patrice Chéreau production of Wagner’s Ring. I went to Charlie Chan movies (guilty pleasure) at Theater 80 St. Marks; there, my treat was buying a blue mint from the transparent vessel on the dim-lit lobby’s counter. I saw Shoah: only the first part. I heard Leonie Rysanek sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Ortrud in Lohengrin and Kundry in Parsifal at the Met, and Sieglinde in Die Walküre in San Francisco. I heard Christa Ludwig’s twenty-fifth-anniversary performance at the Met: Klytämnestra in Strauss’s Elektra, December 20, 1984.
*   *   *
I wore a bright red Kikit baseball jacket and red espadrilles. I decided that bright blue and red—DayGlo, neon, opalescent—were passports to private revolution. I wore a paisley tux jacket and black patent-leather cowboy boots. I didn’t mind looking vulgar, slutty, off-base.
*   *   *
I spent a lot of the eighties thinking about Anna Moffo, soprano—her career’s ups and downs, and her timbre’s uncanny compromise between vulnerability and voluptuousness. I regret not buying her Debussy song album, used, at Academy Records on West Eighteenth Street: on the soft-focus cover, she wore a summer hat. The LP era ended.
*   *   *
I focused on my sadness as if it were an object in the room, a discrete, dense entity, impervious to alteration. I never used the word subjectivity in the 1980s, though I was fond of gap, blank page, masculine, and feminine. I planned to call my first book of poems Queer Street, nineteenth-century British slang for shady circumstances, debt, bankrupty, blackmail. I found the phrase in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
*   *   *
In 1980 my new boyfriend gave me a 45 rpm single (blue-labeled Chrys...

Product Details

  • File Size: 427 KB
  • Print Length: 337 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0374533776
  • Publisher: FSG Originals (August 13, 2013)
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #448,257 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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3.7 out of 5 stars
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wayne's World August 16, 2013
The author is one of our great public intellectuals. These essays are deeply thought out and always incisive. He writes about poets, painters, movie stars and popular culture. The essay on Lana Turner alone would be worth the price of admission. Brilliant!
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5.0 out of 5 stars My 1980s March 2, 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Koestenbaum is a genius. These essays are humorous, insightful, chic, authoritative but not degrading, fun, sexy, smart, unique, lovable and extremely enjoyable to read.
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1 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Had high hopes October 8, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I found the book well-written and critically reviewed, but I personally found it too intellectual for my taste. I was hoping for personal experience rather than esoteric ramblings.
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