What’s the Story #71

"It takes great courage for writers to bring the realities and secrets of their lives to the surface to share"

She is in the hot tub with her husband. His hands are wandering, touching her leg, her thigh. He moves closer, wrapping his legs around her and caressing her breasts, then leaning over for a deep kiss. And they are both more than a little surprised: he because he has an erection and she because she had assumed that, after a year of abstinence, she would never have sex with her husband again. Not since his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Cut to another scene. A man is washing his face in the restroom, looking into the mirror and giving himself a pep talk: “You can do this. Your whole life has been a perfect preparation for this moment.” This, it turns out, is to help another man—a grown adult, middle-aged—have his first ever sexual encounter. The first man is a licensed partner therapist, and after a long training program, this is his first real life assignment.

These are the captivating scenes that begin two of the essays in this issue: “Slipping Away” by Sue Fagalde Lick and “He Was My First, Too” by Roger Tolle. Like the rest of the essays we’ve collected here, these stories depict sexually explicit and mostly hidden slices of real life. And I must say that, after editing Creative Nonfiction for twenty-five years, I am surprised—and pleased. This and many other literary publications could never—would never—have published these essays twenty-five years ago. Perhaps not even ten years ago. We would have feared losing some of our audience and perhaps our financial supporters. 

Not that writers of creative nonfiction are timid or modest or afraid to confront reality and, if necessary, “out” themselves. But editors and publishers of literary magazines have always had to be careful and cautious. You could go off the deep end with poetry and fiction—one could always say poets and fiction writers were being imaginative, expansive, fantastical, improbable, way-out, etc. But nonfiction stories touched a nerve. Real people, real problems, real names. Too much information? Too personal? Too close to home? 

In the middle 1990s, when we first started publishing Creative Nonfiction, there were heated and often very awkward debates in our office about how much readers wanted to learn about the personal lives of writers. Back then, most literary publications weren’t publishing creative or narrative nonfiction, so the controversy mostly played out in the trade press, with literary and book critics taking the lead. “Navel gazing” was the popular criticism in those days, with women writers like Kathryn Harrison, Daphne Merkin, and Mary Karr taking the brunt of the heat. 

Harrison, in particular, was criticized for her memoir The Kiss, about a period in her late teens and early twenties when she was enmeshed in a sexual affair with her Presbyterian minister father. The prestigious critic for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley, was so incensed by Harrison’s revelations that he actually wrote three reviews of the book, nearly back to back. I’m not sure he accomplished what he was trying to do: discourage readers. I would take three reviews in the Washington Post anytime, even if they were mean spirited, which Yardley’s certainly were, calling The Kiss “shameful, slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical, and revolting.” Across the Atlantic, Mary Eberstadt, in England’s Weekly Standard, accused Harrison of inviting “humiliation upon her own children . . . as misery was invited on her.” (Harrison had two young children then, and her husband, Colin, a staunch supporter of her work, was the editor of Harper’s.)

This was a big issue at the time, as it is today: writers write about people without their permission, depicting innocent victims in ways that might violate their privacy and seem unfair or embarrassing or even hurtful. There were many public dialogues and debates in literary circles in Manhattan and in the popular press about sharing such intimate material. Yardley and other well-known critics, like James Wolcott, the guy who named me “the godfather behind creative nonfiction” in a 1997 Vanity Fair roasting of the genre, were calling it “the memoir craze.” They were predicting a short-lived popularity; surely, they seemed to suggest, we would all sooner or later come to our senses—not a particularly accurate prediction, as it turns out.

Remember that this was around the time—throughout the ’90s, in fact—that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was under the gun in congressional circles for funding art which, to some, challenged standards of decorum and decency, beginning with threats and criticism of Robert Mapplethorpe.  His The Perfect Moment” included homoerotic photographs, images of sadomasochism, and, according to critics, child pornography. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, supported by the NEA, was attacked for exhibiting a Chris Ofili painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, that featured sexually explicit cutouts encased with elephant dung. The literary world was not so carefully scrutinized (perhaps because our congressional representatives don’t read), and while it may be a big leap from pornography to privacy, we were all on edge, very cautious, carefully analyzing the content of every essay we published.

At Creative Nonfiction, we went to great extremes to be acceptable and not elicit controversy. It seems quaint now, but we even struggled with the use of the F-word: would readers be offended? On occasion, if we found content uncomfortable in essays we accepted, we changed names or locations in order to make certain everyone was safe from public scrutiny. Sometimes, in the end, making pieces “safe” almost made them fictional—and, therefore, unpublishable, at least by us. 

Of course, we continue to be careful to protect innocent victims and to publish work we feel is in good taste. But things have changed over the years, and mostly, I think, for the better. The risks that Harrison and other writers took with their revealing and candid writing helped transform the lives of generations of women who had spent a lifetime hiding similar secrets from friends and families, suffering in silence. It took great courage for those writers back then, as it does now for Roger Tolle and Sue Fagalde Lick and the half dozen other writers we are publishing in this “Let’s Talk About Sex” issue, to bring the realities and secrets of their lives to the surface to share. 

I should note that we chose to focus only on stories involving consensual sex (although it is certainly important to write and publish other kinds of stories, as demonstrated by the impact of the #MeToo movement). There’s certainly a lot more to say—and write—about this subject, and we know we are only scratching the surface. But we chose this theme to send a message and to provide a platform for writers to dig deep and capture contemporary life and, in so doing, encourage others to share their ideas and experiences with daring and reflective readers.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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