Tampa, banned books and why I am happy to have missed that boat.
A couple of months ago I was alerted to the probable publication of a novel that had as a central theme one that readers of my novel The Bet will recognise. The basic synopsis of Tampa goes something like this: high school teacher is fixated sexually on fourteen year old boys. The book has been described as the sickest book this summer, likened to Lolita and has already been banned by some Australian bookshops. I read a Guardian article about it and the comments were as revealing as the article; many were a version of “This is depraved, filthy and disgusting- where can I buy my copy?” It’s alleged that the author Alissa Nutting has even forbidden her Catholic parents from reading the book.
One of the things that was mentioned in the article is the double standards the book exposes. While a male teacher perving on fourteen year old girls is reviled (and rightly so) there is less obvious repugnance for the reverse. Indeed, reading through comments it seems that there is a fairly widespread notion that most boys at that age are a raging mass of hormones and would welcome such attention.
When the first scenes of The Bet began to form, I was horrified and upset by them. The character who is the victim of this sort of attention is extremely distressed by it, and it’s only much later in the novel that the reason for this is addressed. What happens to him, and what has already happened, scar him probably irretrievably. It’s likely that a normal life is going to evade him for a very long time.
I’m maybe going to be called a prude and perhaps I am but I am heartily sick of everything being sexualised to such an extent that new kicks, new thrills are being sought to tickle palates that have become jaded. I chose to leave much of the sexual encounters in this novel very much to the imagination of readers: the old adage of show don’t tell springs to mind. Sex was not the primary motivator within the book: power was. Power over another human being who is vulnerable to being manipulated into situations beyond their control or desire. Yes, this is fiction, but fiction and so-called real life are far more than kissing cousins. One influences the other, bound together like an eternal Mobius strip.
What I sought to do with my novel was to delve into the mind and soul of a character damaged almost irreparably by having been captured by circumstances that turned him into a sexual toy, an object, a slave even. I lead the reader deep into the tragedy of his life and then I lead him into a place where light begins to dawn.
People might think I am merely jealous of the commercial success of Tampa and there is a wistful part of me that sighs and feels sad that The Bet has not been a wildly successful novel, charting on the New York Times best sellers list. I would not want Tampa to be banned because I believe in the right for literature to be uncensored, and because banned books still sell. But I will be honest and say I hope that once the furore is over, the reviews good or bad are written, this is a book that will be forgotten. It has already failed to engage in the implicit double standards our society applies to sex with minors. It has failed to engage in anything other than titillation and a pandering to the literary machine that demands more extremes.
I’ve joked before now of writing an X rated version of The Bet but I can say now that I am glad this was no more than a joke. To fill a book with gratuitous sex just in the hopes of selling masses is not something I aim to do. So while Tampa has probably sold more via pre-orders than The Bet may EVER do, I am proud of my work and of a story that has touched a lot of people very deeply. As a writer, that’s probably one of the things that gives me the most reason to continue writing.