When Cris Mazza received a National Endowment for the Arts individual fellowship last year, some of her supporters steeled themselves for another vigorous round of right-wing protests. Mazza and the NEA have a history of making waves together. In 1997, after the publication of Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics, an anthology of experimental fiction by women coedited by Mazza, Congressman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan denounced the book–which includes depictions of lesbianism, oral sex, self-mutilation, heroin use, and fetishism–as indecent and “an offense to the senses.” Hoekstra, chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, then launched an investigation into the use of NEA moneys to fund “obscene” works of art. Chick-Lit 2 was one of four books put out by Fiction Collective 2 (FC2), an Illinois State University-based nonprofit publisher of avant-garde fiction, to come under attack.

Mazza, a writing instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is accustomed to controversy. Her first novel, How to Leave a Country, won the prestigious PEN/Nelson Algren award for a book in progress in 1984, but was passed over by several New York publishing houses. The sexually explicit work, which centers on a man with erectile dysfunction and his imaginary lover (who narrates much of the novel), remained unpublished until 1992, after her next two books, Animal Acts and Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, had received a certain degree of critical attention. Mazza has since published nine books of fiction through FC2 and other independent presses. Each has provoked debate–between conservatives and liberals, but also between traditional feminists and postfeminists, who often have different takes on her female protagonists.

In Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?, Mazza raised uncomfortable issues like the idea that some women may still view harassment as flattering. Her refusal to let her female characters lay the blame for their victimization at the feet of men has raised the ire of some traditional feminists and has given her a reputation as antifeminist. Yet her fiction touches on many topics typically considered the domain of feminist fiction–harassment, rape, lesbianism, childhood sexual abuse–albeit with some twists. Her new novel, Girl Beside Him, depicts a girl’s sexual abuse by her mother, and the novel’s sympathetic protagonist is a man who believes himself to be a “sex killer waiting to happen.”

Challenging elements like these were part of what offended Hoekstra, but in the end, his committee failed in its efforts to regulate the NEA. In fact, the agency’s funding has increased in subsequent years, and FC2 has been awarded several organizational grants since the hearings. As Mazza puts it, “Obviously there is no blacklist with my name on it.”

Mazza’s relationship with the NEA dates back to 1993, when she served on her first prose fellowship panel, and she remains a staunch supporter of the agency. “The NEA doesn’t completely support any publisher,” she says. “But without grants from organizations like the NEA, independent publishers, especially publishers of literature, simply could not survive.” As to the NEA funding controversial work, she replies, “I’m sure the NEA regrets funding certain projects, not necessarily because of standards of ‘decency,’ but because art is an experiment, not a guarantee of success. Not all attempted art will become universal or sublime art–but without an attempt, there is no art at all.”

Mazza will read from Girl Beside Him on April 11 at 4 PM at University Hall, room 201, 1897 Sheridan in Evanston, on the Northwestern University campus. Call 847-467-4099 for more information.

–Gina Frangello

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.