Sunday, September 10, 2017

Stephen King's IT and me: Some thoughts on second thoughts

I have a confession to make -- about something I've been carrying around for years, for at least seven years -- since I submitted the manuscript for EUTOPIA: A Novel of Terrible Optimism to Brett Savory and Sandra Kasturi at ChiZine Publications.

And it is this: in the original early draft, Jason Thistledown, one of the two dashing heroes of that novel, was considerably younger: fourteen years old, as opposed to the seventeen years old that he eventually became.  When I made the call to age Jason, I went through the manuscript and as best I could, tweaked his dialogue and reactions to reflect those crucial three years of maturation. But it wasn't enough to fool a few readers, who noted that in many ways he seemed much younger than his age. For them, the switch weakened the character and pushed them out of the story. For the sake of the art of EUTOPIA, I probably should have left Jason as he was: a fresh-faced orphaned Montana farm boy, taken under the wing of his aunt in 1911 and hauled all the way to northern Idaho, to endure the horrors inflicted by early-20th-century eugenicists and also a terrible parasitic monster the eugenicists had named Mister Juke.

The only trouble was that horror and atrocity weren't the only reasons Jason was heading to Eliada, Idaho. He was also going to fall in love with a rich girl, and eventually have some sex with her.

Now bear in mind, there are a lot of creepy things going on in EUTOPIA. It is about eugenics after all: that means racism, ableism, genocide all sit front and centre. Mister Juke's nature and its effect on the population of Eliada would for many readers count as blasphemous. The N-word is peppered through the manuscript to a degree that while historically accurate, did open the book (and me, as the white writer who put it all down) to potentially damning criticism.

But it struck me at the time that even in that difficult company, a fairly explicit under-age sex scene was not something I could get away with, or even necessarily should attempt to get away with. So I could either cut the sex scene which I felt was crucial to the plot, or I could change Jason's age, which I thought I could swing more easily. And I chose the second plan.

I've been wondering about that decision, since the book came out. In a sense it was an artistic compromise -- but only in a sense, in that it was a compromise that no one asked me to make. It was entirely my call, in the course of finishing a final draft.

I've been wondering about it more intensely just lately. With the release of the film adaptation, I'm reminded that it was a compromise that Stephen King refused to make, in the middle 1980s, when he submitted and then saw published his magnum opus at the time, IT.

IT is about a group of kids -- four boys and a girl, on the cusp of puberty, who in the 1950s band together to combat an alien evil that lives in the sewers underneath the fictional town of Derry, Maine and regularly preys on the town's children. These children endure awful horrors at the oversized clown hands of the creature, Pennywise a.k.a. It, discovering crucial powers magically derived from their own weaknesses as they go. Finally, the girl, an abused tomboy named Beverly, uses her weakness-turned-power -- her gender, as the novel depicts it -- to empower herself and the four boys for one last push, by having sexual intercourse with each of them. The afterglow of pubescent sex is enough to save the day, if not quite the world (that comes later).

For a lot of readers (including myself at the time) that scene was enough to push them right out of the story. The novel is strong enough to survive the experience. And King himself feels strongly enough about the decision to defend it, even now as the film (without that scene) is in theatrical release.

In 2013 he wrote this (an argument that King told Vulture.com just recently that he still stands behind):

"I wasn’t really thinking of the sexual aspect of it. The book dealt with childhood and adulthood –1958 and Grown Ups. The grown ups don’t remember their childhood. None of us remember what we did as children–we think we do, but we don’t remember it as it really happened. Intuitively, the Losers knew they had to be together again. The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It’s another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children’s library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues."
That's an argument that a lot of people aren't buying -- particularly given the addendum he added when asked about it by Vulture:


“To it I’d just add that it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders. That must mean something, but I’m not sure what.”
This is a passive-aggressive addendum if ever there was one, and I'd hold it more against King if he hadn't otherwise gathered such strong progressive and feminist cred, through word and deed over many decades.  He made an artistic choice in including that scene in IT, and he is standing behind it, and he makes the case that prurient interest in child murder might be just as indefensible as prurient interest in underage sex. I would apply the apples-for-oranges test to that one. The child murders aren't intended to excite anything but empathy for the victims and horror at the perpetrator, whereas the orgy-in-the-sewers is treated as at least redemptive and empowering -- invoking wish-fulfillment nostalgia about too-early sexual experience-- and at the worst, prurient and possibly titillating to pedophiles.

That said, I don't get a say in another writer's artistic choices. And even if I did, and I could somehow travel back in time and send editorial notes to the King residence in Bangor, I'm not sure what else could have been done to make the thematic points that King wanted to make with IT.

But it has got me thinking about my own artistic choices. In EUTOPIA, I did include a lot of other ugly and triggering things: all those instances of the N-word; articulation of the ethical justification for eugenics and forced sterilization; and depictions of sexual violence to a degree that has again, been a bit much for some readers.

Seven or so years later, I've written EUTOPIA's sequel: VOLK: A Novel of Radiant Abomination. It's out now (trickling into bookstores as I write this). And again, I've made some artistic choices. The N-word is still there in the pages, but not tossed with such abandon as it was in EUTOPIA. Part of that, of course, is that the book takes place in Europe, in 1931, largely but not entirely in Germany. There were other words then and there for denigrating black people. But as the world has marched from 2011 to the place it is today, I also felt less easy about using it even in a historically correct context. As King put it himself, "there is more sensitivity about those issues." Although really, there always has been: pedophilia and racism both.

I didn't make any big changes draft to draft -- certainly not changes on the level of aging Jason Thistledown three years in order to keep a sex scene. The book is still filled with ugly eugenics, and shadows of genocide, a little bit of sexual violence... and of course, this time, card-carrying Nazis and their collaborators.

But honest: no explicit under-age sex at all. For the sake of the art of this one, there was no call for it.

2 comments:

Peter Watts said...

Dude, you're far too adept a writer to be second-guessing yourself like this. Seems to me the foremost question should always be "does this element serve the story?", not "will this element get me in trouble with the outrage brigade?". Saying that you're "less easy about using it even in a historically-correct context" is logically equivalent to "it's wrong even if it's right". With respect, I profoundly disagree.

I mean, look at the source you cite (and appear to respect): over at io9, Julie Muncy decries the whole adolescent sex thing basically as creepy and gazey, while excusing the depiction of multiple child murders as existing "in a long continuum of socially accepted fictional violence". She's arguing that child-killing is okay because it falls under the rubric of "community standards"— i.e., that the metric of unacceptability comes down to "social acceptability". Portrayal of gay relationships? Bizarre and creepy, right up until the point where until enough people on main street say it's okay. Islam? In New York maybe, but keep it out of Buttfuck Kentucky. And no way should we teach evolution by natural selection in those communities where 80% of the population are God-fearing creationists.

I suspect Muncy would deny that she's saying any of this; she's really only objecting to the things that she finds creepy. I'd argue that you don't get to draw those kind of lines after poling your tent on long continuums of social acceptance, although Muncy would probably respond in turn that I, like King, just don't "get it" (a favorite fallback among those who just know in their heart of hearts that they're right, even though they're utterly unable to mount a coherent argument to that effect).

You're more than a good writer; you're a fucking brilliant one. You know better than I that the story comes first and last. Fuck this pussy-footing around identity politics; pandering to those clowns only makes them stronger.

And we all know what happens when clowns go bad.

David Nickle said...

And that, Peter, was my struggle. I'm not sure that the call I made with Jason's age was the right one. Best I can say was it was my own. There were a bunch of things that I was doing in Eutopia that were provocative, and because they served the story I kept all of them. Maybe I should have kept Jason at his original age, too. But it seemed to me like it was going to be a distraction from what I saw as the nub of the novel. Jason's youth combined with a sex scene didn't, in other words, serve the story at all.

So I made the call. I think it worked out fine generally, but I did maybe leave a couple of seams here and there that a few people spotted, and because of that, I wonder...

That said, I didn't really have difficult calls to make in VOLK; I think if I'd thrown more N-words in, it would have been gratuitous given the historical context, and another distraction. Which is just as well; it's a shitty word, and I don't like using it any more than other people like hearing it, or reading it.

But when it serves the story...you're right, that's something else.