Essay: Ronnie Scotton writing novels

Sex and the Single Subject Position

What do people think they’re doing when they’re writing novels? I’ve never found an answer that feels completely satisfying. When writers invoke the value of stories – we’re all storytellers, us humans – I catch the whiff of a strategy to reduce one’s threat level, otherwise the predominance of this idea would be absurd on its face: as if anybody thinks when they’re opening a novel that the story is the main thing happening.

One thing they clearly do is represent things. For Guido Mazzoni, to record something in the mimetic novel ‘signifies a belief that particular actions, people, or things … deserve to be isolated from the limitless expanse of equivalent entities’. When he puts it like that, it’s a heavy job and also kind of kinky. (Do you deserve to be isolated from the expanse of equivalent entities? I don’t know – have you been good?) And if we define ‘contemporary realist novels’ in as catholic a manner as we should, to mean novels that posit worlds that have things and time and people, we can see how that representational job is also quite far-reaching, and speaks to the purpose behind ‘entities’ as different as characters, attitudes and styles. But it makes me very nervous whenever a case is launched that the novel is a unique technology for recording human life, in whatever inner or outer direction that takes us. If the most interesting thing about AI so far, to paraphrase Jaron Lanier, has been not what it brings to language, but what it brings out, then still, as Shoshanna Zuboff reports in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, there are currently engineers working ‘at the speed of dreams’ (their words) to gather intimate and unconscious ‘territories of the self’, including traits in humans that don’t quite exist yet, made observable and saleable through a process of rendition that is ‘coveted for [its] rich deposits of predictive surplus’. In other words, I’m not so sure the eggs are going to stay in this particular representational basket. Still, if the main point of the novel really was representation of different kinds, other technologies would have long ago outpaced it.

Unless it’s not the job we’ve got wrong, but instead the metric? Maybe the stories and representations that find home in the novel aren’t meant to be ‘rich’ in the sense that they’re complete, even within the precepts of mimetic realism; here, for example, I’m thinking of Parul Sehgal’s appreciation of Shirley Hazzard as a maker of artifice who ‘relishes handling her characters as characters’, guided by their inner robot functions. In his book Rethinking Consciousness, Michael Graziano points out that not only do we not know that we ourselves or other beings are conscious, but for evolutionary purposes, we don’t need to. I don’t need to know my cat is conscious in order to love him, or to know that I am conscious in order to trust that love; I just need to know that I work in a model of consciousness that can interact predictably with other beings’ apparent minds, which Graziano compares to a phantom limb, writing, ‘One is the ghost in the body and the other is the ghost in the head’. So, perhaps a reason novels are still read and written, after all, is that they match the sleek, effective natures of our model minds. The reason that the novel feels so much like coming home is that it speaks intuitively to our own robot selves.

Although I think there’s something off about questioning purpose in the novel at all, when anyone who’s read one knows they do it to entertain and challenge themselves, and anyone who’s written one knows they do it for pretty much the same reasons, what I like about the image of a novel as a model of consciousness is that the novel, in this reading, as well as speaking to us intuitively because we’re models of consciousness ourselves, also serves a social function, letting us practice with all the other predictable but imperfect models of consciousness with which we share the world. It’s interesting to position the novel’s social role as being equally important to its meaning or purpose as what it ‘covers’, or the story it tells.

My novel was about an unequal friendship between two white gay men who have to figure out how to change their friendship, to accommodate the relationship that one of the men has entered into. The protagonist, who is kind of a shut-in, is pushed out into the world to date other men, and as he meets the novel’s four secondary characters, also men who have sex with men, you’re eventually meant to realise that their role in the book is to present different models for friendship than the one the two main characters enjoy. On balance, you can say that it’s the story of a friendship, and that what it depicts and includes – what’s ‘in’, not ‘out’ – is the two main characters and the four other characters who are skulking away in the background in their nakedly functional forms.

So whose model of consciousness is it for? Among gay readers I know, one of the most potent insults that can be levelled against a piece of gay art is that it was written ‘for’ straight people – which is another way of asking (and answering) this question. It’s equally fun to say about other people’s writing and excruciating to hear about your own because it satisfies the requirements of an ideal insult, in that it contains both an element that is wildly unfair (so the insulted party is compelled to respond) and an element that is true at a deep and intuitive level, so any response sounds desperate at worst, and at best somewhat flimsy.

On the unfair side: one, of course you should make work for straight people (you should make work for whomever you want); two, as David Halperin has shown, gay readers tend to prefer to read work that’s been queered and appropriated, rooted in gay identification rather than gay identity, and while this is not an idea that feels as true as it once was, it’s more likely true that the preference persists, just newly veiled and coded; three, on a whole other level, no one’s making work for anybody; as Zadie Smith writes, ‘No matter what anybody tells you, the underlying principle is not consumer satisfaction. There’s no feedback loop’ (in a short story about cosmic invention, but you know what she means); and four, I’m not sure anyone really wants something that’s made ‘for’ them anyway, that feeling that, to somewhat warp Clare Vaye Watkins’s term, a particular book or author is ‘pandering’.

On the deep and intuitive side, the insult tends to land because to ask who gay art is ‘for’ is also to ask who the world is for – in this case, which kinds of queer people, which most often means what José Esteban Muñoz calls the ‘crypto-universal white gay subject’, one of whose political missions is to shift, after Lee Edelman, ‘the figural burden of queerness to someone else’. He has many means at his disposal to effect this transfer; in gay male fiction, the use of sex is one of the best-studied techniques. Sarah Schulman has shown in detail how male writing with gay content becomes ‘“quality” if its sexual content is acceptable to straights’, leading to the immortal line ‘We all love David Sedaris, but he doesn’t write explicitly about his Master.’ Sex in fiction tracks clearly to a readymade value binary that in gay male terms is often, at the next layer down, about ‘clean’ and ‘not’; within what Dion Kagan identifies as ‘post-crisis’ media – art made roughly since 1996, the advent of antiretrovirals – sex vs. not-sex can be mapped onto healthy vs. pathological, deviant vs. normal, extraordinary vs. mundane. Outside of gay male fiction, Namwali Serpell locates such binaries within ‘our evergreen debates about the relationship between art and ethics’, where a dialectic like ‘good’ and ‘fun’ can be mapped onto: ‘aura of authenticity vs. mechanical reproduction; high art vs. mass culture; midcult vs. mass cult; avant garde vs. kitsch.’ And although, as Kagan notes, the way oppositional terms are practiced is often quite intermeshed – here we might think of Jacqueline Rose’s psychoanalytically-driven criticism, which highlights the way our strongest impulses generally conceal their inverse – a dialectic between risky and safe, and clean and unsanitary stands behind many debates about writing with primary gay male content that seem first to turn on whether or not somebody likes someone else’s tone. It’s not a theme whose recurrence tends to surprise writers or readers in other marginalised groups, but with regards to gay fiction, when the theme surfaces in pop-culture discourse, the terms of its expression are often enticingly literal, as when Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory’s movie of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name cut one of the novel’s more memorable intimacies. (Representative dialogue: ‘Don’t flush. I want to look.’)

This essay arose out of conversations with the novelist Peter Polites, whose book The Pillars happens to contain one of the world’s best set-pieces about a gay meth orgy. They should teach it at the set-piece school; they should teach it at the orgy school. One day, when we were discussing these and other education policies, Peter asked me, ‘What would your novel be like if your protagonist had an orgasm?’ I like this question because, although I did what I did in the novel, an opposite decision, equally plausible, didn’t stop being ‘live’ for me. It’s hung around like a spectre, and it will probably keep haunting me.

The novel became a novel, rather than a stockpile of words, when I figured out its logic; before then, I’d thought it operated on a logic of referral, with a protagonist who couldn’t admit or act on desires that he continually passed to someone else, but this turned out to be secondary to a logic of restriction, which shaped the novel’s approaches to time, plot, class (sort of), geography, gender and race. Because I was led towards parts of this logic by different readers, multiple times, when it cohered as a logic it felt like a proper gift, as opposed to the gifts in the novel (which are always acknowledged as somewhat equivocal), and in the last year of drafting, I embraced it for the tensions it exposed; for the things it didn’t expose, but shored up as they ran under the surface; and, while I’m unfairly suspicious of novelists who elevate characters above all – I had the misfortune to be around a writer at an impressionable age when they made fun of another writer by saying, ‘Don’t you just love to go home at the end of the day and hang out with all your characters?’ – the logic worked because it mirrored the drives of the protagonist, his desires for his primary friendship and their basic insupportability.

Given this, it’s funny that sex was the last thing to go, and I think it speaks to the fact that, in contrast with the bulk of my choices, the long list of reasons to write an unconsummated novel was answered by a counter-list of equal weight. In the prohibitive column – away with thee, orgasms! – no-sex aligned with the structural themes that were coming to the fore of the novel. Sex is often seen to confer a story with a kind of gritty realism – although I think this does a disservice to sex, grit, and realism – and in the context of other factors at play in my novel, it seemed relevant to ask what effects these impressions would be producing or occluding. In the fullness of my characters’ indexicality, I thought: isn’t repression sexy? In life, no – but in fiction, sure, and, because the engine of the English novel is so frequently repression, it felt interesting for reasons of both affinity and difference to write my six men into the extension of that tradition, where they so often find themselves the temporary recipients of Jasbir K Puar’s ‘measures of benevolence’. Meanwhile, there really are people who use sexualised spaces unsexually, and it’s completely interesting to think about why that’s so. I don’t mean asexuality here – although if you want to talk about pandering, it can be interesting, too, to think about the response to asexuality within queer politics, which can be outright hostile – but if we accept that queer politics is less about whether sex is ‘there’ and more about whether bodies, including sexual bodies, can express themselves as they want, then it also seemed fun to work inside a ‘middle zone’ where my character was presumed sexual in the future and past, but not within the bounds of this novel. And then there was what this had to do with the HIV-positive body, which is a topic for another essay.

As my drafts moved closer to the draft that became the novel-as-published, not-sex came to seem like the choice that best advanced the novel’s goals. Just as queer readers know not to misestimate the sex that appears not to be happening (we get this idea from Foucault), we also know not to overestimate the liberatory potential of anything that appears to be prolifically ‘there’. If I wanted to regulate a particular concept, I would get to work setting up processes that appear to express it. Rather than liberation, I like Rahul Rao’s metaphor, borrowed from Elizabeth Grosz, of the Möbius strip as the relational image between queerness and the various surfaces against which it generates its theoretical and material frictions, causing us to see queerness less as being ‘crosshatched by other categories than as becoming a metonym for those categories, rather like one surface of the Möbius strip becomes the other’. In the case of this novel, the inclusion of sex increasingly came to remind me of the main reason I’m not much of a cheerleader for the generalised power of stories, which, if they can be said to reveal something that’s innately human, it’s an appetite for the power differential between who’s understood as belonging to the tribe and who belongs outside it – between who gets to sit back and accept the story, and who justifies an experience through the telling.

So, I chose not-sex, for these reasons and others. Still, what made it a sticky decision was that to each of these points there’s an opposite. I do think that if you’re looking for interesting gay male sex in current fiction, there’s quite a bit of it, and it doesn’t seem confined to a fixed set of tastes, be they commercial or political or aesthetic or venereal. Then again, for every Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas’s very well-received novel featuring a scene where the relief of shitting is completely, carnally, sibilantly linked to bottoming (is that in the ABC adaptation?), there’s a disappointing anecdote that runs counter to this narrative, like that Guardian article about the behind-the-scenes skulduggery at the Booker Prize, which conveys the gossip (anonymously sourced, so grain of salt) that Adam Mars-Jones’s eerie, yearning love-abuse novel Box Hill ‘was considered by one or two of the 2020 judges unsuitable for recommending to friends and family’, with one judge ‘wryly describ[ing]’ Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain as ‘gay, but not too gay’ to take the prize.

The question of sex in my novel: I felt in a bind with it, and I still feel in a bind, and to me, this is a much more exciting reason to write and read novels than the reasons that are usually given for such practices. (Don’t you just love that feeling when the characters show up at your door and seem to start writing themselves?) The writing of novels involves making choices, yes – but to this unamazing point, we can add that the making of choices in a project that accrues over time involves frequent contact with echoes of the paths you might’ve taken, but did not, which also happens to be a condition of life, where there are also actions that are done and options that are discarded, and very rarely the solacing sense that what has been done has been ‘right’.

And so, while many writers I admire value something like the ‘total control’ that is the stated goal of Joan Didion, noted Cylon, what I like most about novels is that they are in the end a contingent form, which drag with them a considerable freight, of their own spectres and shadows. If consciousness is the ghost in the head, what is the ghost in the novel? When I’m writing novels, I feel above all in contention with processes that I sense to be larger than me, and traditionally we know that these are the ones that crush you. But it’s nice to work in a form that you can’t see the extent of, where there are teeth in the gaps and also gaps in the teeth. If you squint, this is a formalist spin on Eve Sedgwick’s ‘middle rages of agency’, where here, beyond ‘the extremes of compulsion and voluntarity’, change and creativity are found.