Searching for a suitable answer, I raided my bookshelves and reread a pile of my favorite books from my teenage years. Both high and low culture were represented; there were books by men and women, contemporary authors and ones from bygone eras, literature in English and literature in translation, books I still loved and books I can no longer stand, but the books all had one thing in common: They were filthy.
Laugh all you want, but these were books that moved me, fascinated me, not quite because of and not quite despite the dirty parts. Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” for instance, remains a luminous meditation on life’s fleetingness, set against the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia — and also has the all the juicy details of our hero’s voluminous sex life. Oscar Hijuelos’s “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” is a passionate immigration story, recalling the triumphs and scrapes of a Cuban musician making his way in America — and surely contains more oral sex per page than any other Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And Anais Nin’s “Delta of Venus” is about women’s untampered amatory explorations and, O.K., that’s all it’s about, but I loved reading it.
It is a gross generalization, of course, to say that what young men want to read about is sex — or to imply that the rest of us aren’t as interested — but it’s also offensive to pretend, when we’re ostensibly wondering how to get more young men to read, that they’re not interested in the thing we all know they’re interested in. There’s hardly any real sex in young adult books, and when it happens, it’s largely couched in the utopian dreams or the finger-wagging object lessons of the world we hope for, rather than the messy, risky, delicious and heartbreaking one we live in.
My new novel portrays a young boy’s emotional, heteroflexible sex life — and I’d like young people to read it. But it’s being published for adults, partly because the guardians of young people’s literature get so easily riled up about sex, preferring to recommend, say, books about teenagers slaughtering one another in a post-apocalyptic landscape, rather than books about kids masturbating at home.
To which many would say, so what? Don’t we have more important things to worry about than giving sexually explicit literature to young people? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about, say, the rampant misogyny of everyday life, in a nation led by a self-admitted sexual predator?
Which to me is precisely the point. I believe in the power of literature to connect, to transform, particularly for young minds beginning to explore the world. I want books to be an unlimited resource for young people and their curiosity, not a sphere restricted by how uncomfortable some curiosities make adults feel.
The books I read as a teenager, sex and all, made me a better boy and then a better man, just as literature continues to make me a better husband, a better father, a better feminist. I want that for my son, and for all my young readers of every gender. Let’s not smirk at their interests. Let’s give them books that might engage them.