Author Alissa Nutting attends a book signing in the US. Photo: AlyssaNutting.com
The Catcher in the Rye, Doctor Zhivago, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Handmaid's Tale and Lolita. It’s a not just a list of entries in the modern literary canon – they’re also books that have been banned. (Lest you think being on the banned titles list is shorthand for good taste Fifty Shades of Grey is also on there.)
Earlier this month Alissa Nutting’s new novel, Tampa, joined the ranks and was banned in several Australian bookstores. The novel centres on Celeste Price, a 26-year-old sexual predator and high school teacher who abuses a 14-year-old boy. It has proven one of the most controversial books of the year and divided critics with its sexually graphic, satire-laced depiction of a female paedophile. Publishers Weekly stated, “Nutting’s work creates a solid impression of Celeste’s psychopathic nature but, unlike the much richer Lolita, leaves the reader feeling empty”, while Entertainment Weekly said “the writing is often excellent, hilariously dark, and mean”.
Nutting became interested in the topic of female sexual predators when a woman she went to high school with, former school teacher Debra Lafave, was arrested and found guilty of lewd or lascivious battery after multiple sexual encounters with a 14-year-old student. Lefave never served prison time and her lawyer even argued she would be at great personal risk if sentenced to jail due to her attractiveness. The case made international headlines.
The cover of Tampa.
“I was absolutely shocked. I didn’t know her personally, all I really knew of her was my extreme envy because I was super awkward in high school and she was so graceful and gorgeous. I just always assumed that she must have the perfect life,” says Nutting. “There have been cases like this in the States before that made national media, Mary Kay Letourneau is one of the most prominent examples. But I didn’t sit up and pay attention in the same way until I had that experience of seeing someone that I recognised on CNN.”
Nutting began to keep an eye out for the stories of female predators that kept cropping up and started to notice discrepancies in the way they were reported. “I was really interested by the disparate reaction when the offender is a woman and when the offender is a male. I wanted to write a book that drew attention to the ways that we seem to give female sexual predators a pass. We live in a society that has a really hard time seeing women as being able to sexually victimise men at all. There’s this widespread view that men always want sex so there’s no way they can be sexually victimised. And also we tend to look upon the offenders with our very adult gaze and judge their behaviour that way when it’s women. I think a lot of times heterosexual adult men will look at the women and think, ‘Well, I’d want to sleep with her – where’s the crime?’ in a way that we don’t when it’s a male offender with a 14-year-old girl.”
With all the controversy provoked by the book Nutting has been somewhat overwhelmed by the response, particularly in an age where readers can directly voice their thoughts – both positive and negative – through social media channels like Twitter. “I think when you write a book like this people assume you are a provocateur, that you’re looking for these very polarised reactions or that you are almost seeking criticism. But I’m very fragile!” she laughs. “At the beginning I was reading almost everything that was being put out there, but I just had to stop. The internet and all of the capabilities for response that it makes possible is just so much larger than any one person is necessarily equipped to handle. I had to kind of walk away from it and let it live its separate existence out on the internet.” She does say that she’s received many messages from male victims who have thanked her for telling their story and spoken of the negative impact the abuse has had on their lives.
She says writing about the taboo in literature is still an uphill battle to be taken seriously. “Many people have a reluctance to actually incorporate it into literature proper. There’s this urge by many to really keep it on the margins and say that is not art or to say that it’s filth. A sexually graphic book about a teacher who pursues her underage student is really going to be received in a much different manner than a dramatic novel about divorce – no one would question the subject matter of that or say this isn’t literature. [Writing about literary taboos] is still a long way from general acceptance.” When anything taboo is just automatically filed under the banner of ‘sensationalism’ Nutting feels it’s an “adjective of devaluation, of this has no merit beyond shock value or this can’t be exploring important topics or social concerns simply because it contains this taboo”.
Nutting is very aware that her book isn’t for everyone. “It’s definitely a challenging, shocking read. So some people are better suited and better able to digest that, as uncomfortable as it may be. It’s certainly not a book for all readers – it’s not the next Eat, Pray, Love or Chicken Soup for the Soul,” she says with a laugh. “It’s for readers who have that ability to either be challenged or look at the dark side for a moment.”
And there’s one more place it’s been banned – this time by Nutting herself. The author has forbidden her parents from ever reading the novel. “I absolutely banned my parents from reading it. My mother demanded a copy [though] I told her for weeks, ‘You can’t read it, you can’t read it’. So in the front page I wrote in all caps a reminder of how forbidden they are to read it, how it will only traumatise them and they can’t even read a single word!”
Tampa by Alissa Nutting ($27.99, Faber and Faber) is out today.