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Head games

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.

Why should I have been surprised? My publishers were once Salman Rushdie's publishers too.

I didn't live in Los Angeles then . . . "

-- Opening of The Term Paper Artist

["David 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.

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 Arkansas, see 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 accomplish?

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 literature.

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 offers.

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 time.

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 tradition.

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.