We're All Damaged

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Theory of Unintended Consequences

I recently discovered a strange by-product of selling a novel, and that is the fact that people might actually read it.  This obviously sounds completely ridiculous, but I have the feeling that this sudden, mildly alarming realization is not uncommon among the writers of first novels.

By the time you actually sell a novel, you’ve probably written one or two failed novels and suffered through about a dozen soul-crushing false starts.  And, of course, there’s the ungodly number of short stories you’ve hammered out—Cheever and Carver rip offs mostly—which have never seen the light of day.  You share your drafts and wrinkled manuscripts with a select few, sometimes in formal workshops and sometimes with fellow writers you’ve met along the way, but, in reality, no one outside of your carefully constructed circle of book nerds ever actually reads them.

And then, one day, miraculously, you’re standing in your parents’ kitchen in South Carolina a little drunk and your uncle picks up the advance reader copy of your soon-to-be-published novel and starts reading it aloud in front of your family.

This is exactly what happened to me a few weeks ago.  My extended family had converged under sad circumstances, and so, as Catholics, we were obligated by papal decree to drink.

My novel, which is due out in August, has a fair amount of casual swearing, but it’s by no means raunchy.  Somehow though, my uncle managed to randomly open to a section in which my main character gives a vivid (ok, very vivid) description of his physical reaction to Viagra.  I’d read that section dozens of times, like every other section in the book, over the last two years or so.  But there, standing between my mom, dad, younger brother, and several aunts, I couldn’t help but wish I’d practiced a bit more restraint. I believe the phrase “chemically altered robot penis from the future” was used, which is a phrase one’s mother should probably never hear—particularly in her own kitchen. 

Everyone laughed, because, well, what else can you do in a situation like that?  But, as the laughter died down, I couldn’t help but feel like I should explain myself—or, at the very least, prove that I’m not some kind of degenerate.  I considered telling them that the impotence is, in this context, metaphorical.  It’s less about one man’s struggling penis and more about one man’s struggling sense of his own masculinity in a world that’s out of control. 

But, even in my head, that sounded pretty lame, and, at best, only about 45% true.  And then I imagined other people—people who aren’t even related to me—reading it and wondering what kind of person would come up with something like that.  I doubted very much that I’d ever have the opportunity to stand in their kitchens and defend myself. 

And so, finally, I did what a million writers before me have done.  I shrugged and said, “Well, it’s not a book for the kids,” and then I had another drink.


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