Novelists take risks. If not the novelist, then who else? Who else would describe to you those unspoken moments, those chinks in the accepted narrative of our lives. Those thoughts that are your silent, lonely mysteries until the right novel, at the right time, reveals a commonness to your desires and guilts that you dared not hope for.
So when our novelist sat down to illustrate, amongst other things, the sexual act, he attempted to be utterly truthful. To emphasise the enormity of the act for his lead characters, he wrote openly about the mechanical aspects of it — the muscles and the membranes. The smells and salts. He detailed as clearly as possible the sensations and emotions that ran through their bodies during this climactic encounter. It was his own history he drew on, of course, for what else is known to any of us? Like all novelists focusing on the inner part of man, he described himself and was assured, from a lifetime of writing, that we would find some part of us in him.
It was his editor, at a meeting in his offices, who first raised some concern. ‘This love bit, Alan. The major one, two-thirds in. Are you happy with it?’
The novelist grinned and nodded his head. ‘I am,’ he said. ‘I think it is some of my best work.’
The editor coughed. ‘It’s just that… well. I’m not entirely sure about the bit at the beginning. Where the fellow puts his.. Well, some of what he’s saying to himself is just a bit… unusual.’
‘It may be unusual to you, John, but I assure you that these are thoughts and experiences that many grapple with. I am describing the trial of being human in this age. Of lust and loss and everything else.’
‘It’s just that… some of the girls in the office have been laughing while typing it up. Not all of them though. Meredith had to take a half day when she heard you’d be coming in this afternoon. She was quite shook.’
The novelist smiled serenely. ‘Ah, youth. I envy them, almost. In time they will understand, as everyone must understand. How is it that as we weather we behave less the animal but understand the animal within us all the more?’ The editor shrugged.
Reviews were confused, to put it mildly. Intellectuals danced around the book, hinting vaguely at some disquiet but unable, in public print, to acknowledge it face on. The novel found its way to bookshelves relatively quietly. From there, due to the novelist’s established audience, it migrated outwards to briefcases and bedside tables across the country.
Three months later the novelist was keeling somewhere between a laughing stock and a sexual deviant. His wife, upon reaching two-thirds way into the book, had walked out (‘If that’s what you’ve been thinking to yourself lying on top of me for the last twenty-seven years, then I’m not interested in another twenty-seven!’). The novelist pleaded and begged. ‘These are just characters,’ he shouted after her, to no avail. His publisher quietly dropped him after a week of tabloid attention, ending a working relationship nearly as long as his recently extinguished marriage.
Context was everything. More outrageous writers had carried of the grossest, most absurd fantasies as satire. Our novelist was too earnest, too serious to claim such a free pass. For this casual reference to arise within the course of a sexual encounter conveyed to the reader, without humour and without doubt, that the writer of the passage meant it to be not unusual.
The novelist’s career effectively ended after this episode. He was never published again. He died believing that he had touched on some truth that his readers were unwilling or unable to acknowledge in themselves. He was wrong about this; his perversion was utterly unique. He described nothing of human condition, but instead his own unshared predilections. But how could he have known this? It is never possible to know the minds of others. Novelists take risks.