Some years ago, a young man of my acquaintance—well, actually one of my kids—surreptitiously took a copy of Pete Hamill's novel Forever off my night-table and started reading it feverishly, long after he was supposed to be asleep. Every morning, I'd take the book back and try to stay ahead of him chapter by chapter. It's a wonderful story about a young man who is given the gift of eternal life as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan, and along with a headlong narrative and memorable characters the reader is given vivid glimpses of New York history along the way.
But then I got to a scene that gave me pause. Somewhere in the mid-19th century section of the book, the protagonist embarks on a bohemian adventure and becomes painter who finds his subject matter in the brothels of the borough. His specialty? Painting portraits of the women's vulvas.
Now I'm hardly a prude myself. In fact, one of my proudest sales took place at a mall outside Philadelphia when a kid walked up to five other authors and myself at a store table and said, "whoever's got the most cursing, sex and violence in his book, I'm buyin' it." But my son was eleven, for Chrissakes. I looked at where he had dog-earred the page and saw he would probably be coming around the bend like a little locomotive and reaching this particularly louche episode within a few hours. So I made a snap—and I thought ingenious—decision. I took a black pen to "vulva," and changed the "u" to an "o" and the "a" to another "o," and voila! The young painter was now paying tribute to a Swiss car, just like our family's humble green four-door Volvo 240 sedan, instead of closely-examined female anatomy.
But I was a little uneasy about it afterwards. I'd always encouraged my children to be fearless free-range readers. And I was uncomfortable with having defaced another author's work, particularly since Hamill was not only a friend but a mentor who helped give me my start in the writing business.
For some reason, I found myself talking about the dilemma with an unusually sensitive film agent (yes, I know, that's like a morally-centered lap dancer), who made an important point.
"So you say Hamill is a good writer, right?"
"And a good man. Absolutely."
"So you don't think he's coming from a bad place, do you?"
"So let the kid have the book. Reading should always be a little transgressive, shouldn't it?"
I realized immediately he was right. There are dirty words and there are dirty ideas, but I'd never come to a full stop to draw the distinction before. Recently, I read Oscar Hijuelos's novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, for the first time. If there's ever been a book with more indefatigable, graphically-detailed descriptions of sex and more slang synonyms for the male member, I don't know about it. But it's also one of the most musical, joyous and sweetly humane novels I've ever read. And as soon as I was done with it, I put it on a shelf with my other favorite works of fiction.
On the other hand, I recently took some time in a bookstore to peruse a few of Ann Coulter's titles, including Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism and Demonic: How The Liberal Mob Is Endangering America. There's very little sexual passion—at least that I could discern—in Ms. Coulter's work, yet the unmistakable feeling I got from her pages was of a kind of wanton, unrestrained incitement. Instead of seeking "to incite lustful feelings" as one dictionary defines obscenity, her drive was toward a kind of violent lathery hatred, meant to divide groups of people and label her enemies as the reprehensible "other." In the first chapter of Demonic alone, she compares "the liberal mob" to supporters of Hitler and Mussolini, and then with a knowing smirk, throws in the crowds baying for Jesus's blood for good measure. By comparison, a book like Herbert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit To Brooklyn, which finds a damaged humanity in the lowest dregs of society, seems almost innocent and open-hearted by comparison.
Yet Selby's book has been successfully prosecuted for obscenity and blocked in various parts of the United States for more than forty years, while I've never seen any of Coulter's titles on any banned books list. But I don't think either of these authors should be censored—though I'm not suggesting anyone put "Last Exit To Brooklyn" with its junkies, drag queens, and gang rape scenes on a sixth grade syllabus. I agree with my Hollywood friend that reading should always be a little transgressive—whether the author under consideration is Ann Coulter or Vladimir Nabokov (now that's an odd couple). If a book isn't provoking you or telling you something you didn't already know, or in some way enlarging your sense of what's possible then what's the point? "A book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us," Kafka said. Yes, there are stories that just entertain and ideological tomes that preach to the choir, but aren't the books that stay with you the ones that break the rules in some way, that say what shouldn't be said, that impart some secret way of looking at the world that responsible adults don't want you to know about?
Of course, shock for the sake of shock is no big deal. Any idiot with a camera or a microphone hooked up to a broadband connection can pull that off. Rappers, bloggers, radio-radio hosts, video-game makers, and the rest will always find a way to one-up each other, coming up with that one lick-and-spatter image that goes a step too far for most people and leaves teenagers creasing themselves with delight. And of course, nothing dates faster. To invest the time to write a book that disturbs and shakes the reader in a more lasting way—and I mean an actual book, not a celebrity tell-all—is an accomplishment of a different order. And maybe that's why One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Catcher in the Rye, Farenheit 451, and the rest are still both widely read and frequently banned, even though their language and imagery seem fairly tame these days. The stories still give a sense of testing boundaries that enthralls one part of the readership and threatens the other.
That said, some texts, no matter how old or revered they are, still have the power to reach across the centuries and overwhelm some readers. I must admit that in the course of doing research for a novel I recently came across a book that genuinely shocked me to the point that I had to put it down and question some of my treasured assumptions. It contained scenes of unimaginable violence and gore, sexual perversities and dismemberments that would give the Marquis De Sade pause, graphic and phantasmagoric depictions of torture and genocide. Genitals are mutilated, daughters couple with fathers, children are slaughtered, populations are decimated, and in one eye-popping scene, the protagonist of the story warns his followers that they'll starve and wind up fighting each other for the right to eat mothers' afterbirths (yes, that's what it says) if they don't follow his directives. And what was most disturbing is that much of the material was not presented as horror, but as justifiable and prescriptive.
Need I say that the book was the Bible?
© Peter Blauner