The first book to turn me on was a Nancy Drew book: The Mystery of the Fire Dragon. As a preteen, without any coherent understanding of my own motivations, I began to seek out those volumes of the series in which the heroine was kidnapped, bound, and gagged, as happened with considerable frequency. When she swooned under the influence of chloroform, a little part of me swooned too. Her helplessness, the great danger she was in, intrigued me in ways I wasn’t close to having a name for.
By the time I was a teenager, I had more of a vocabulary for what that feeling meant, although I was better acquainted with theory than practice. I had a cloistered, deeply religious childhood, with highly restricted access to television and movies, but parents who were always indulgent about the library, and who rarely examined more than the first few in my weekly stack of books. I had already begun to find the more libidinal titles in the adult section and was shocked at how much depravity was contained in the Bergenfield Library. Carrie and The Shining and Greek mythology dropped tantalizing hints at a vast encoded world. Then I moved on to the Great Men: Roth and Bellow and Hemingway, Kerouac and Cheever.
Sex ed in my middle school was limited to a one-day class in which the boys and girls were separated and shown slides of the reproductive organs. I recall one of the boys saying later that ovaries looked sort of like a menorah. In eighth grade a boy on the bus used to read out the dirty bits of Leon Uris novels; after all, in our ultra-Zionist milieu, anything by the author of Exodus was kosher. I hadn’t seen an R-rated movie yet. So my sexual education was limited to imagination, Google, the great novels of the mid-twentieth century, and the horny men who wrote them.
What they taught me was that women were to be seen and admired and, above all, to be fucked. I still remember reading On the Road — I was scribbling poems frantically in my notebooks by then, desperate to be an artist, included in the fellowship of great artists — and reading his description of a girl he saw at a bus stop: “Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious.” As if she were a steak. Philip Roth loved breasts so much he wrote a whole novella about them, a pastiche of Gogol, and in The Dying Animal he wrote of a new lover: “And she did something rather pornographic for a first time, and this, again to my surprise, on her own initiative — played with her breasts around my prick…. She knew how much this vision aroused me, the skin of the one on the skin of the other.” (Later, the lover gets breast cancer, and the protagonist is repulsed by the thought of sleeping with her: “I knew that hers was no longer a sexual life.”)
I trudged my way through the entirety of Saul Bellow’s lovely and unwieldy The Adventures of Augie March, in which Esther Fenchel is introduced as follows: “I had heavy dreams about her lips, hands, breasts, legs, between legs. She could not stoop for a ball on the tennis court…. I couldn’t witness this, I say, without a push of love and worship in my bowels at the curve of her hips, and triumphant maiden shape behind, and soft, protected secret.”
Even Hemingway — terse, curt, profoundly goyish, less prone to runaway punctuation and introspection — had attention to lavish on the feminine figure. “Maria lay close against him and he felt the long smoothness of her thighs against his and her breasts like two small hills that rise out of the long plain where there is a well, and the far country beyond the hills was the valley of her throat where his lips were,” he wrote, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. (The bell tolled, as ever, for the protagonist’s swollen dick.)
There were no guides in these novels for what loving a man ought to feel like: how to desire a man, how to seek his love. No one presented me with the great novels women had written and I did not know enough to find them. I wanted to write a great novel. In the pursuit of doing so I wanted to sink my teeth into the canon, but the canon was aiming its erection straight at me.
For a long time in my teens I wanted to die — a romantic and persistent death wish that pursued me for years. I was encumbered with a body that seemed so gross and alien to me that I wanted to flee it. The second-best thing, it seemed to me, was to fall in love. I wanted to fall into love as if it were an active volcano, and annihilate myself. My first kiss was in a synagogue basement at fourteen with a much older boy. I loved him as only a fourteen-year-old can love. And he used me like a rag doll. Before I turned sixteen I learned there was profound danger in loving men.
You never learn about those dangers in the great novels. You never learn what the well-breasted women think about their own breasts, or how they feel about the men who gaze at their breasts with such ardor. You never learn what it’s like to grow enormous breasts by the age of thirteen and carry them through a world that wants them as much as it doesn’t want you. You never read about bleeding profusely from your “soft, protected secret.”
In the company of Saul and Philip and Jack and Ernest and the rest — Tolkien, Apollinaire, Breton, Rimbaud, Tzara, the coterie of male geniuses I read in those lonely and tormented years — I did not want to be a woman. I did not want to be a fuck-thing to be admired and mentioned in passing one hundred pages later, if at all, or simply not allowed in any story of brotherly adventure. I did not want to get cancer and drop off the sexual map, or be left at home to reward Samwise Gamgee for his faithfulness. I wanted to be a man. I felt myself to be as complicated as Augie March or Rabbit Angstrom or the Wapshot brothers or Ishmael; as ardent, as verbose, as pressing in my desire to love and be loved and do great deeds or die. In the novels I loved, men acted; women were enigmas. How could I be a woman and be great? And yet I was never anything but a woman. How to solve this conundrum? I would be a woman who was “mannish,” unfeminine, too loud, too fat, too smart, too assertive. I predicated my entire identity on being too much to be a real woman — and so I could exist. And so I could be great if only I loathed myself enough.
They taught me this, the great male authors. Between my reading I fumbled with boys a little. Throughout those experiences, sexual things were things done to me — not done at my behest and with little relation to my own desire. The first penis I ever saw was put into my hand while we watched To Have and Have Not in my basement. Not having read lavish descriptions of penises, I was afraid of the alien pulsing thing in my hand, but too polite to push it away. I felt grateful to be desired at all (I was too much; I was captain of the debate team; I weighed so much more than my mother or my sisters).
And yet I did desire. I was horny all the time. That horniness bore so little relation to whatever genital-adjacent fumbling did occur that it might as well be a feeling from another planet. Saul and Philip and Jack and Ernest had betrayed me. To desire men was something else, a map I didn’t have. No one laid it out for me in shining prose, the kind your parents have on their bookshelves. Whatever desiring men meant, it wasn’t great art. Women were like Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque or Manet’s Olympia: They can show you their breasts, or their bottoms, not their souls; their smiles have secrets; they are still and silent, not animate and hungry and desperate and sad and angry all the time.
By the time I got to college I caught a bit of a clue. I read Lorrie Moore. I read Alice Munro. I learned to fuck. I read Jamaica Kincaid and Alice Walker…and Anaïs Nin. She wrote: “He leaves the imprint of his flesh-visit on my skin, in my womb, and for days all I know is my legs. No world in the head…world between the legs…the dark, moist, live world.” I was cured of my desire to revere the canon by literary theory classes and the rightful derision of my classmates for that august collection of white men. But I loved them, still.
Now, I read the journalism and essays and fiction and poems of women who are geniuses. I read the dark reported narratives of Pamela Colloff and the trenchant insights of Rebecca Traister; the social analysis of Doreen St. Félix and Ijeoma Oluo. I read the game-changing daily reportage of Yamiche Alcindor, Rachana Pradhan, Jodi Kantor, and Danielle Tcholakian. I am no longer religious. I watch women run for office and paint protest signs for DSA. I read their books. I am writing one. Now I am swimming in women’s genius, a pebble borne along a great torrent along which runs pleasure and pride and joy and wrath and need. I am not demure, but I am not a man. I do not need to be. I wouldn’t want to be. The great men of literature taught me how deep desire runs, but I pull myself onward on the strength of my own desires, which are many, and all my own.
The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.