“I see you’ve got another dirty book out,” one of my colleagues remarked recently.
“A very literary dirty book,” I gently corrected him. I tried not to take his comment amiss, though it did make me sigh. And remember—
—my dissertation advisor haranguing me for having thrown away my promise as a serious scholar.
—a senior administrator at my college lamenting, “I’m all for having well-known writers on the faculty, I just wish we weren’t saddled with this one.”
—a student confessing that his parents advised him not to study creative writing with me, given the kind of books I write.
I always have to remember that I am not entirely respectable.
I write dark literary romances. My characters range from astronauts and space widows (Sea of Tranquility) to military contractors working in Iraq and beleaguered housewives surviving in Poughkeepsie (Immaculate Blue) to avant-garde movie directors and holocaust survivors (Boys of Life) to Russian exiles and real-life artistic celebrities in 1920s Paris (The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov). I do a lot of research in an effort to build textured, believable, historically accurate, hopefully interesting worlds. But whatever elaborate and “literary” superstructures I painstakingly erect, through all my novels runs the dark undercurrent of erotic desire—gay, straight, bisexual, queer. And hand in hand with that erotic desire comes its embodied counterpoint: rapturous, reckless, soul-crushing, life-affirming, misguided, confusing, clarifying sex.
The dirty part.
There’s a reason I write frankly, graphically—dirtily, if you will—about sex. I just can’t see how any account of ordinary people that leaves out the sexual dimension of their lives is going to be very accurate or honest. Yes, I want fluttering romance—but I also want reality. I read fiction because I love being able to see in its vividly-imagined lives all the things I’m not allowed to see in real life: not only people’s innermost desires and fears but the private things they get up to behind closed doors. All the stuff that’s none of my business in real life but is wonderfully available in fiction.
Or at least should be available. I invariably feel cheated when the author decides at some point to stop telling a richly detailed story midstream and instead draw a discreet veil over whatever happens next as the characters “enter the carnal realm.”
I’m not (necessarily) advocating for pornography. Whatever else it may be, pornography is merely mechanical, an arousing—or dull!—choreography of body parts and procedures. The erotic, on the other hand, is electrifying: the merely mechanical infused with all the other elements of a character’s life. In the erotic moment everything we know about our characters comes into play. All the powerful and contradictory dynamics of soul and body jostle together. No moment provides a more fertile opportunity to understand characters in their totality.
Sadly, it’s an opportunity too many writers (and readers) seem willing to forego.
That’s why I say that I write literary dirty books. My definition of literary has very little to do with style or genre or even respectability. For me, a work is literary when it attempts to encompass the totality of people’s lives—the vivid specifics of what they eat and drink, what they do for a living, whom they love, what music they listen to, what pasts nurture or have damaged them, what dreams they entertain, what demons they battle, their politics, their selfish lusts and selfless loves, their public selves and their private selves, their physical bodies, their ailments, their shame, the ghosts that haunt them, the sex they have or want to have or are afraid to have, even the sexual possibilities they just plain want to steer clear of at all costs. All these things. Not just a few of them, chosen arbitrarily or because of convention or squeamishness or imaginative laziness or a misguided longing for respectability. All of them.
This totality can make readers feel threatened or disturbed. It can make them feel challenged. It can even feel make them feel just a little bit dirty at times. But hopefully, if everything falls into place, it can also make them feel a little less alone in the world.
Thanks for having allowed me to share these thoughts.
About Boys of Life
Country boy Tony is seduced by a smooth talking pornographer, who brings the young man to New York to star in a violent sex film. An escape, a marriage and a murder follow the story’s cinematic arc of innocence, betrayal, redemption and revenge.
Paul Russell is the accomplished author of various works of both fiction and nonfiction, including several award-winning novels, anthologies, poems, short stories, essay, and book reviews. He is a Professor of English at Vassar College. He lives in upstate New York.