by Mason Stokes
One of the most difficult things about graduate study in literature is explaining yourself at the cocktail parties your parents drag you to over Christmas break. This is particularly the case if you’re a white man specializing in African American literature, and if you’re writing a dissertation on 19th-century white-supremacist fiction, and if the setting is South Carolina, circa 1990 (though those cocktail parties had 1954 written all over them), and if your parents’ friends are senior citizens of the unreconstructed variety.
In such situations, I learned that less is more. No need to mention African American literature, since all they heard was Africa!?!?! No need to describe why I was writing about white-supremacist fiction, since that required expounding on how I was against it! I would simply say that I was working on a PhD in English, and that I hoped to become a college professor.
At which point I always got the same question: “So, are you writing a novel?” The first time this happened, I was puzzled. Pursuing a PhD in English has nothing to do with novel writing—couldn’t be further from it, in fact. If I was engaged in anything, it was novel unwriting, fiction as reverse engineering, the breaking apart of a beautiful whole into its separate and ungainly parts and impulses. The question perplexed me, until I realized that my interlocutors had no concept of literary studies, no reference point for the oh-so-meta, very deconstructive energies then circulating in the academy. Writing about novels would have struck these folks as an odd way to spend your time, when instead you could actually be writing them.
Nevertheless, when I told them, “No, I’ll never write a novel,” I was absolutely certain. I loved scholarly writing, and I was beginning to think that maybe I could be good at it. In addition, I had never, even in my surly adolescence, betrayed the slightest interest in creative writing—had never written so much as the first line of a short story about a brilliant though tragically unappreciated loner whose wisdom would save the world, if only the world would let it. No, I rejected fiction writing and held firmly to the binary opposition between the academic and the creative, between scholarship and fiction. I would dedicate my life to the former. I would never attempt the latter.
How, then, did I find myself, at age 40, writing a novel? And how did I arrive at my current moment, now 48, having just published one?
In my first decade or so as a professor, I happily pursued my scholarship. My book on white-supremacist fiction was published, and I moved on to what I thought would be my second book, about the relationship between blackness and heterosexuality during the Harlem Renaissance.
Then things began to fall apart. One night while watching television, I heard a quiet ringing in my left ear. I’d experienced it in the past, usually after a night spent too close to yet another wall of speakers in my earlier days as both a musician and a fan. It had always gone away. This time it didn’t, and when it spread to my right ear and grew more intense, I thought I would surely lose my mind. Tests revealed high-frequency hearing loss, meaning that nothing could be done about the tinnitus. It would be a constant presence in my life, something I couldn’t imagine surviving.
Around the same time, my boyfriend accepted a job in New York City, and my hopes of a long-distance relationship were dashed when he dumped me shortly after. I wasn’t surprised. The ringing was making me a very different person—anxious, depressed, utterly self involved. I would have gotten away from me if I could have.
I had a sabbatical during the next academic year, which meant I was home alone for long stretches of time, just me and the ringing. I tried to write the Harlem Renaissance book, but I had a hard time concentrating, and on those rare occasions when I could, I was unable to care about the questions I was pursuing. They seemed so tired, so ultimately pointless. During that fall and the long upstate winter that followed, I was mostly lost.
And then, on a surprisingly warm day in early spring, I crawled out of my rabbit’s burrow and visited the public library, where my eyes fell upon a guy working at the circulation desk. Young, maybe early twenties, not so much attractive as interesting looking. There was something quite odd about him, in fact, something hard to figure out, and I couldn’t stop staring. I found myself experiencing my first libidinal impulse in many, many months. But there was no way I could approach him; I was probably twice his age.
I could, however, library-stalk him (an ironic, thus less creepy, version of actual stalking). I could read more—and more quickly—than I ever had before, necessitating daily library visits. I could browse like a crazy person, investigating only those shelves with clear sightlines of the circulation desk. I could hover until his place at the desk was free, and then present him with the provocatively titled books that I had chosen just for this occasion: Dream Boy, Becoming a Man, stuff like that. (Once I had David Sedaris’s Naked in hand, but I was already blushing before I could make it to the circulation desk, and so beat a hasty retreat.)
And I could also, it turned out, write about him—well, not about him, since I knew nothing at all about him. But I could invent him, which was even better. I could imagine a life for him in which he was exactly who I needed him to be. I could discover that he was smart, and funny, and a little weird, and that he had no problem dating older men.
I could write too about the ridiculous person I was becoming. I could let this “me” do things that I would never do, like ask a too-young circulationist if maybe he’d like to come home with me. And then I could imagine what might happen next, and I could write it down.
15 pages became a 100, which became 200, which became 300. But the truly miraculous thing was that, at least while I was writing, the ringing went away. There was something about the immersion required of fiction writing that tricked my brain into not hearing it. In imagining the life that I wasn’t living, I absented myself from the life I was, if only for a few hours at a time. I was so grateful, not simply for the silence, but for the ability to be a writer again, which I thought I’d lost.
I was able to get an agent interested in Library Boy: The Novel (after only about 60 cold pitches), and she was certain we were soon to be swept up in a bidding war. I was less sanguine, doubting the market for novels about middle-aged professors who stalk young librarians. Who do you think was right?
But disappointment didn’t erase the pleasure I’d experienced while writing. So I quickly did what all foolish people do: I refused to learn from failure, and I started writing another novel. And this one, Saving Julian, is the one that’s just been published.
Whereas my first novel had arisen out of a deeply personal set of experiences, and had been triggered by the sudden return of a long-lost sexual desire, my second led me, in a roundabout way, back to my scholarship. Years before, I had imagined writing a book on contemporary heterosexuality, and I had done research for a chapter on so-called ex-gay conversion, a practice in which ministers and therapists turn gay men straight through aversion therapy, behavior modeling, and close readings of Leviticus. Looking back over my notes for that long-abandoned chapter, I thought maybe the scholarly route wasn’t the best way into the subject. Maybe there was a novel there.
Saving Julian tells the story of Paul Drucker, a rabidly anti-gay—and deeply closeted—58-year-old psychology professor and part-time preacher. Drucker leads an ex-gay conversion group at his church, which becomes tricky when he’s caught with Julian, a 21-year-old “escort” he found online. I spent a lot of time crawling around in Drucker’s head, trying to figure out what made him tick. The process was difficult, often painful, and it reminded me of what it felt like when, years before, I’d spent hours reading white-supremacist fiction, page after page of vile, hateful pathology.
But this difficulty felt different. In my scholarly attempts to understand the perverse workings of white supremacy, I never found myself identifying with the hate mongers. I kept those white folks at a safe distance. With Drucker, a strange thing was happening. As I wrote him he became, almost against my will, more human, less monstrous; less them, more us.
Drucker tells the self-loathing queers who flock to him that “there’s no such thing as a gay man. There are only men with unmet homoemotional love needs. And this can be fixed.” I’ll admit to having stolen that phrase—“homoemotional love needs”—from one of the many “pray away the gay” books I read while writing my own. I stole it because I found it hilarious, and my novel, despite its heavy subject matter, is also meant to be funny.
But as I explored what that phrase meant to Drucker, it became less amusing, and more real. I found myself, reluctantly, taking it seriously. Because who doesn’t have an unmet homoemotional love need of one sort or another? The young people in my novel are drawn to Drucker because he offers a language, a version of the past, that resonates with them, a language in which, perhaps, even out-and-proud gay men can see ourselves. This rhetoric works on us not because it’s true, but because it taps into the things we feel but rarely talk about, those secret insecurities and vulnerabilities that we avoid precisely because they’re too often aligned with the people who hate us, who want to change us.
As a writer, I’m left with the question of what this identification means. Is the empathy that I discovered for Drucker, and for people like him, a good thing? Most dictionaries offer a two-part definition of empathy: to understand, and to share, the feelings of another. It’s that second part that raises trouble. Simple understanding costs very little. You do the work, and you gradually figure things out. For example, my earlier study of white-supremacist cultures taught me some of the reasons for racial hatred: the economic underpinnings, the familial logics, the perceived marginalization, the anxieties and fears. But to share those anxieties and fears? What would that mean, in this difficult summer, when Dylann Roof can walk into a church and leave nine African Americans dead because they’re raping “our” women? What would that mean as we seek ways to respond to the tragic losses of Michael Brown, of Eric Garner, of Sandra Bland?
To the extent that I was able to mine my past and share Drucker’s self-loathing, it made my novel possible. But what’s good for the novelist can be quite different for the person whose job it is to live in the world, to discern right from wrong, to take action. Empathy can lead all too easily to a suspension of judgment, to an escape valve on the energies that fuel our politics and our activism.
As a novelist, I’ll continue to enter into the minds and emotions of my characters—in a sense, to “share” the motivations of their deepest, even ugliest, selves. But as a scholar, and a citizen, I’ll expose Drucker and his real-life counterparts, who do immeasurable harm every day. And when I think about the Dylann Roofs of the world, and our necessary responses to them, I’ll resist the pull toward true empathy, and the shared humanity it requires.
Mason Stokes teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. His novel Saving Julian was published earlier this year by Wilde City Press.
Homepage photo credit: “Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once” – Stephen King via photopin (license)