I read with great interest Observer Editor Brian McMillan’s take on the appropriateness of George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue in high school libraries.
Brian is that rarity among newspaper editors in that he’s very well read. He’s also the only newspaper editor in the history of newspaper editors who doesn’t cuss. Last week on WNZF he said he’d “thrown away multiple books that I thought were going to be good and had explicit things in [them] that I didn’t want to read myself.” How he and I on endless occasions have had orgasmic talks or texts about the liver-caressing thrills of Philip Roth and John Updike, I don’t know. But at least he knows the difference between the explicit and the prurient, the graphic and the pornographic.
In Wednesday’s Observer, Brian wrote that he would restrict All Boys even from high school libraries, even though he doesn’t find it pornographic. His conclusion surprised me a little, but it didn’t shock me. Brian’s reasoning did. And I think it makes his argument untenable, because it rests on a premise that is not merely flawed, but that is simply not applicable under any literary sun since Odysseus raised his sword to slay Penelope’s 117 suitors.
Entirely aside from the debate over All Boys, the reasoning shocked me on literary and artistic grounds, because I did not expect it from someone who knows literature, someone who is a writer himself well beyond our grubby journalism, someone who knows the difference between art forms and media, and who knows how apple-and-orange comparisons between these forms is often used to muddy the water and exploit ideological ends that knowingly have nothing to do with the works in dispute.
To be specific: Brian agrees that “the author’s intent is educational, not erotic, and therefore it’s not pornographic.” But the hinge of his argument–that untenable premise I’m referring to, what allows him to square his circle–is his analogy with film. Referring to one of two passages in contention in the book (about 30 to 40 lines in all, out of over 300 pages), Brian wrote: “If the scene is depicted faithfully in a movie, genitals and all, it would be Rated-R, meaning theaters wouldn’t allow children under 17 without a parent.”
The statement is accurate. But that if in there makes it just as much a fabrication, and a patently unfair one to George W. Johnson, who wrote a book, not a screenplay. They wrote a memoir–a confession–not a film. All Boys is written text, without images, and the validity of its presence on library shelves must be discussed exclusively as a book, as text–not as what it would look like in a non-existent film.
To make the obvious point that Brian knows well, a novel or a memoir is its own art form, a film is an entirely different art form. Even if we disagree on All Boys’ artistic merit, as Brian and I do not, as countless reviewers and readers have not, the book would still be its own work, autonomous from a movie, and could not ever fairly be compared to a movie. How the same material may be depicted in one has nothing to do with the other. A book is the author’s vision. A film is the vision of the director. A book allows for a form of description, and a reserve of description, that lets the words interact with the reader’s imagination to suggest or complete the picture, a picture that will be different with every reader. Borges has gone so far as to suggest in one of his most famous stories that a work of literature is recreated every time someone reads it. I think he’s right. Austen, Balzac, Dreiser, Thomas Pynchon (a recent favorite of Brian’s) all work as novels because of the prose, the internal monologues and that intangible dialogue with the reader that a movie screen simply cannot replicate, which is why so many movies based on these writers fall flat–unless the director appropriates the works in entirely new ways, Borges-style, essentially creating a new work.
Directors are notoriously indifferent, if not contemptuous, of the writers on whose works they base their films. And how a director may depict a scene, even explicit scenes in a book, is entirely up to that director. John Huston is one of the greatest directors of all time. “The African Queen,” one of his films, is one of the most sexually suggestive films of all time, the sexual tension between Bogart’s Charlie and Hepburn’s Rose fueling the Queen down that river. But there’s not a single sexually explicit scene in there. Imagine how Huston might have recreated the scene of Odysseus slaying the suitors. He’d have left no doubt about the meaning behind that sword–just as Homer intended.
Countless books with explicit sex scenes, including those of Updike and Roth, were unrecognizably transformed in their film versions. “You’ve never seen an R film with so little nudity,” New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby complained of the 1972 release of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the terrible film version of the book that every adolescent read with one hand in the late 1960s while the other did what’s also briefly described in All Boys and that seems to come as news to the likes of Jill Woolbright. (Kids masturbate. Imagine that.)
There’s not a single vulgarity, not a single explicit or graphic scene in Nabokov’s Lolita, one of the last 60 years’ greatest novels. But it remains the confessions of a pedophile who serially raped a 12 year old–and the artistic achievement of a writer who was able to convey the psychological monstrosity of Humbert Humbert without resorting to vulgarities. No movie can match the achievement, because no director is Nabokov, and movies aren’t novels. Would Brian suggest that Lolita is child porn because of what a movie director could do with it, as I have no doubt underground directors illegally have? Of course not. But his R-rated analogy draws its power from the same kind of logic. It is intuitively attractive at first, a perfect fit for the superficiality of social media memes. But give it a little thought, and it collapses.
I don’t think Brian did this knowingly. But I do think he did it sloppily: he did not think through his analogy, and fell in a trap of his own making, lending credence to a conclusion that will find appeal for the wrong reasons, perhaps even on the district’s committee reviewing All Boys. Without the R-rated premise in play, there is no defensible prohibition since he’s conceded that the book is not porn. (To be clear: I’m not suggesting that FPC and Matanzas start stocking copies of Lolita. The example is presented only as part of the analysis of Brian’s book-film analogy.)
Bottom line: movies and books are incomparable, the more so when the comparison is speculative. It is grossly unfair to judge a writer’s work based on what the written word might look like in somebody else’s hands on screen. As it is, All Boys has been optioned to Gabrielle Union for a movie–on TV. You really think a single penis will make its appearance even then? Not likely. It would still be unfair and artistically inapplicable to compare the book to its eventual screen version. They’ll always be two entirely autonomous creations.
So let’s now address All Boys on its own terms, literally and literarily, as it must be addressed by the reviewing committee.
And let’s be honest. A student at FPC going from the lunchline to the picnic tables will overhear “cocksucker” four times, “motherfucker” twice, “faggot” at least as many times, and “I’ll shoot up this school” probably once, all in the space of 50 seconds and 150 feet, some of it copiously documented in our recurring sheriffs’ reports. Not so incidentally, those same words never appear in Johnson’s book. The F-bomb, as Brian would describe it, appears five times, not once in the context of actual fucking. There are five references to masturbation, two to dicks (one of them to Dick van Dyke, the other to the more common kind) and none to “sodomy” (sorry Jill).
So I don’t think that lines from the book like “You then grabbed my hand and made me touch it,” or “There you stood in front of me fully erect and said, ‘Taste it,’” or “That’s when you began oral sex on me as well,” or “You began stroking yourself in front of me” and “ejaculated into the toilet in front of me” can really compete, or shock. Unless the color and same-sexedness of the conjugation bothers you. And of course there’s always that unless, that unspoken undercurrent of revulsion that attaches to gay sex in our our brutally heterosexual culture, not to mention Black sexuality. But that’s as graphic as it gets in the molestation scene in All Boys, the scene Brian referred to.
Speaking of ejaculation: there’s a famous scene in Rousseau’s Confessions when Rousseau is in a novitiate (where else) and a fellow novice, much older and coarser, molests him. As with Johnson, it’s Rousseau’s very first experience of the kind, and he is shocked. The scene is weirdly similar to the one Johnson describes, including the “caresses [of] such violence that I was frightened,” how the boor “tried to work up to the most revolting liberties and, by guiding my hand, to make me take the same liberties with him,” and how, as the novice worked up to orgasm, “I saw something whitish and sticky shoot towards the fireplace and fall on the ground.” Rousseau’s description is more graphic than Johnson’s. But no one today would call for the removal of the Confessions from high school libraries–only mourn its more common absence from them.
The other few lines in All Boys, when Johnson describes their first act of consensual sex, are a bit more explicit, though they still read more like IKEA directions on how to build a night-stand: “He reached his hand down and pulled out my dick. He quickly went to giving me head,” “He then came up and asked me if I wanted to try on him. I said sure. I began and he said, ‘Watch your teeth.’ I didn’t want to let him know I was inexperienced. So, I slowed down and took my time and luckily got into a good rhythm.” This is no John Cleland. It’s not even 1950s Harlequin. A few more paragraphs get into the more coital sex between the men, what Jill Woolbright of course prefers to refer to by the more Biblically prosecutorial term sodomy, though in fairness, she may not have yet caught up to Lawrence v. Texas.
And that’s it. That’s what the controversy is about, at the expense of what Brian accurately described as a book that “has uplifted me.” A book that is so much more than these reductive mischaracterizations we heard so many times in the well of school board meetings. Taking away the movie analogy and the inapplicable R rating, what we’re left with is a work of literary, social, educational and political value. It’s not Rousseau. But it’s not Cleland, either, and it certainly isn’t Larry Flynt.
A final point about the prescriptive part of Brian’s column, which echoes similar suggestions in the community, and, like Brian’s R-rated analogy, carries similar appeal. But like the analogy, it’s equally inapplicable, and may cause more harm than good.
Brian couldn’t bring himself to call for an outright ban. So the book would be made available only to students 17 and up, or (he was vague on that account, as all hair-splitters who aren’t quite convinced of their own arguments are) “available only with parental consent.” The prescription is written as if in Flagler County–I’m sorry, in Trump Country–all parents were card-carrying LGBTQ organ-huggers wonderfully aligned with their teens’ sexuality, and all teens were happily and safely out of the closet. For anyone to make that assertion almost anywhere in the country is absurd. For a newspaper editor with his finger on the pulse of this county’s divides to do so is dispiriting, and for my colleague and friend to do it is heartbreaking.
Brian, you and I have sons and daughters. You have a whole village of them, I just have two. We’re close, loving, trusting (well, my daughter and I are having issues right now). But we’re deluding ourselves if we think even we knew or still know at all times what they want to share of their sexual identity, what struggles, if any, they may have had, how they may choose to work them out. We have some right to know. We do not have an absolute right. Their space is in our hands, and it is our responsibility not to make that space feel like a prison, or even an attic. If our children are to learn and respect freedom, it begins with us, letting go.
All Boys may be about a queer Black. Its universality is no less valuable in the hands of white, brown, or any other ethnicity. But freely so. Not through the intermediary of permission slips, parental consent, or other veils of parental power. For God’s sake, these kids aren’t asking to snort crack or sneak booze. They want to read a book!
Let them read, and let us, sanctimonious old fucks that we are, get out of the way.