The art and artifice of David Leavitt's elegantly subversive talent
by Peter Kadzis
"I was in trouble. An English poet (now dead) had sued me over a novel I had
written because it was based in part on an episode from his life. Worse, my
publishers in the United States and England had capitulated to this poet,
pulling the novel out of bookstores and pulping several thousand copies.
After reading accounts in the New York Times and the
Washington Post that Esquire magazine had abruptly and without
warning canceled publication of a novella by David Leavitt titled The Term
Paper Artist for which it had paid $13,000, I was intrigued.
Why should I have been surprised? My publishers were once Salman Rushdie's
I didn't live in Los Angeles then . . . "
-- Opening of The Term Paper Artist
Another article about David Leavitt is in our 1 in 10 section.
It had been months since a literary incident had acquired the critical mass
needed to break into national headlines. And though the energy expended might
appear paltry by the supercharged measures of the film and music businesses,
the contours of the Esquire-Leavitt controversy assumed classic (and to
the voyeur) almost pleasing proportions.
A top Esquire executive in charge of advertising reads the story on its
way to press and is disturbed by language that she believed to be graphic and
themes that she feared would offend large advertisers like Chrysler.
Editor Edward Kosner kills the piece, citing his responsibility to exercise
"judgment" in matters of "taste." Fiction editor Will Blythe resigns.
Author Leavitt is surprised and hurt. His agent, Andrew Wylie, is outraged. A
number of publications try to buy reprint rights. Leavitt's publisher, the
venerable Boston firm Houghton Mifflin, declines all offers and sensibly
accelerates the release date of his book, Arkansas -- in which The
Term Paper Artist appears -- in order to capitalize on the commotion.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I approached Leavitt's story,
wondering whether he had subtly or even decisively expanded the boundaries of
the literary and the erotic.
Those frontiers have remained remarkably elastic in the face of pressures from
the politically correct left and the Jesus-first right. A number of stylists
of differing temperaments and talents have left their mark since the end of the
Second World War, including Paul Bowles, who rendered with Roman restraint the
story of a teenage boy who seduced his own father ("Pages from Cold Point,"
1947); Vladimir Nabokov, whose expansive masterpiece charts the eerie,
claustrophobic obsession of Humbert Humbert with a prepubescent girl
(Lolita, 1955); John Updike's poetic exploration of athletic infidelity
and spiritual void (Couples, 1968); and Nicholson Baker's somewhat
absurd but equally intense and tender novel of love on the telephone, which
rather chastely presaged the phenomenon of cybersex (Vox, 1993).
Measured by these standards, Leavitt's story doesn't expand boundaries so much
as it quietly subverts them, and perhaps that's why the powers that rule at
Esquire were flummoxed. Whether they know it or not is problematic. And
that's a shame.
The Term Paper Artist is the story of a young gay writer named -- with
mischievous invention -- David Leavitt. The imaginary David Leavitt is riding
out a literary controversy at his father's house in Southern California when he
becomes strongly attracted to a young straight undergraduate who manipulates
David's attraction in order to get the fictional Leavitt to write a term paper
for him. In return the imaginary Leavitt gets to satisfy his urge to perform
oral sex on the college boy. Other students follow.
Of the novella's 70 pages, only about five contain language that is sexually
explicit. But even that is well within the acceptable boundaries of
contemporary fiction. As Newsweek pointed out, "Leavitt does call a
penis a penis in this story, but there's nothing gratuitous or exploitative
about his sex writing."
Leavitt, who lives in Rome, discussed his situation just before he was to
return to the states for his book tour. (For a review of
One in Ten.)
Q: What do you make of this incident?
A: I'm in a odd position because I'm not in the States. If I were in
New York, I would be constantly hearing gossip and rumors. No one from
Esquire has talked to me since this happened. I got an apologetic fax
from the editor I worked with, a very sweet fax. And then I wrote to her and
didn't hear back.
Q: You seem to be taking this with good grace.
A: Don't get me wrong, it is disturbing, even frightening. The most
perverse aspect of this experience isn't that the story made people nervous.
It's that they bought the story and allowed the whole editorial process to go
literally to the 11th hour. Then they dropped the story. If I had received a
rejection letter months ago, I'd understand that.
Q: The New York Observer reported that the word "blowjob"
upset Esquire's ad executives.
A: So I understand. The funny thing is the Observer went
back over a year's worth of Esquire and discovered seven uses of the
word blowjob. The funny thing is I would have assumed that the problem was that
my story was gay; however, one of these instances of the use of the word
blowjob was in an article about bisexual men who date women, are married, but
also go to gay sex clubs. I think what was so threatening to the publisher, or
what was upsetting about my story, was something in the fabric of the story
itself. Maybe the fact that the story is about seductions on the part of young
heterosexual men who are perfectly willing to have sex in exchange for having
their college papers written.
Q: Your story has a Mediterranean feel to it. A sense of relaxed
sensuality. Were you trying to transport the Latin environment in which you now
live to Southern California?
A: That's an interesting reading of it. I hadn't thought of that, but
in a sense the fact that I hadn't thought of that doesn't mean anything -- so
much is in the subconscious when you're working.
Q: The prose you employ is crystal clear, classic plain style.
Yet the concept of having a fictional character named after yourself injects an
element of playfulness into the story. What were you trying to
A: It's probably going to take me years before I know entirely what I
was trying to do. I can tell you what the process of writing it was like, which
I think is a more truthful answer. When I started writing the story, I did not
have a hero called David Leavitt. The hero was a sort of stand-in for myself.
As I continued working on it, it began to seem more and more natural that the
character should be me. I had been feeling frustrated for a long time with the
conventions that writers often use to disguise themselves in so-called
autobiographical fiction. I wondered, what's the point?
Q: You're anticipating my next question.
A: Well, it's a complicated question. It just began to seem more
and more obvious to me that this character really was me -- and that in the
same way I may create a literary character who's different from me and put that
literary character in a certain situation, I was inventing a situation. Yet the
character I was dealing with was obviously myself -- and so I simply decided I
would be honest about that. There's a line toward the end of the novella that
is the key to this idea: when the narrator says a lot of people disguise their
lives as fiction, what people almost never do is disguise fiction as their
lives. And so the idea was to create a kind of alternative to what really
happened and carry that alternative to its natural narrative conclusion and see
where I ended up once this kind of mad idea of writing term papers in exchange
for sex had started to captivate me.
Q: When you wrote this story, did you have a conscious intention to
extend the boundaries of what's erotically acceptable in serious
A: Not particularly. I certainly wanted the story to be as sexually
frank as it needed to be in order to work as narrative, but if I put this in
the context of other pieces of literature that are sexually explicit or
erotically explicit, it doesn't seem to me to be particularly scandalous except
in the sense that the narrator is me -- and therefore on a certain level, I am
confessing certain details of my own sexuality. The fact that the narrator is
me makes the erotic element more intense in people's minds than it would be if
the person were, say, a third person. Then you can't simply say, oh, he's
making all this stuff up. There is an element of confession, which perhaps
makes people uncomfortable. It eliminates that safety barrier that fiction
Q: Who are your literary models?
A: Among contemporary writers Grace Paley and Alice Munro. Also Ford
Madox Ford. But more than anyone E.M. Forster. The curious thing -- if I may
try to anticipate where you're going -- is that none of the writers I've really
felt drawn to have tended to write work that's very sexually explicit.
Q: That's exactly where I was heading.
A: However, Forster I think would have liked to and didn't because at
the point after Passage to India when he probably would have wanted to
write another homosexually themed novel, he simply elected to stop writing
rather than fake it because he knew that if he were to publish that kind of
novel, he could possibly be prosecuted. Although Maurice [published
after Forster's death] strikes me as a very, a quite explicit novel for its
Q: It's explicit for its time, but it doesn't seem as aesthetically
pleasing as his other books.
A: Well, everyone says that. And I think it's probably true. I love
Maurice, but I don't love it as much as Howards End or Passage to
India. It's a curious thing. I think it was Flannery O'Connor who said that
she didn't object to writing about sex as long as it had a purpose. That is to
say, what she objected to was sex being stuck into a narrative simply for the
sake of having sex -- and that's something I've always kept in mind. I've never
written about sex unless it seemed to me necessary as a way of articulating
something about a character, about a situation or about a relationship.
Q: Perhaps that's what ultimately spooked Esquire. The fact
that you are working in such a traditional literary tradition but have such a
casual and completely gay sensibility employed in the service of that
A: Well, that phrase you use, casually gay sensibility, sounds right to
me in the sense that there's no apologizing, and there's also no tendency to
put gay characters into their traditional roles. I had a long talk about this
with a friend of mine who's a novelist, and she's very distrustful of the
supposed new openness about homosexuality, especially in the film industry. Her
feeling is that the film industry is always willing to have gay characters as
long as they stay in their places, that is to say, sort of friendly maternal
drag queens, the sort of effeminate but warm and cuddly brother figure who
seems always to be played by Harvey Fierstein. But in this story, you have a
narrator for whom his homosexuality is neither a problem nor an issue, and you
have a lot of straight boys at UCLA for whom having sex in exchange for term
papers is neither a problem nor an issue. These straight boys are beyond
conventional ideas of morality. I suspect that may be disturbing because it is
very much going outside the traditional roles that are assigned to gay
characters that are in film and in literature.