Readers ask literature to open windows to the human soul. It’s sad, then, that they don’t usually get to witness the editing process. In the editing process, two people who both lead a literary life — an augmented reality where the connections between existence and sentences are investigated daily — converge on the text one of the two has written, and wage sensual war on each other for the soul of the page. This battle shows how vulnerable the two players are — it shows an abyss that is then hidden from view in the finished product. Before sentences are streamlined and steady flow is established, those windows on the human soul give rawer, starker insight. The editing process might in that sense be the real literature — the real experience of drowning in a haze of feeling and meaning, surrendering to the uncanny impression that we have no idea what reality is.
A fellow writer, who’d made the switch from their native language to English for their next book, told me years ago that their American editor was doing something very strange to their manuscript — they were drawing red circles around those passages where a parent was either smoking cigarettes or drinking beer in front of their children. Under those red circles, the editor was adding the comment, « bad parenting ». I assumed the editor was signaling discomfort at the idea that a bad parenting model was on casual display inside the story, that the writer could carelessly portray bad examples outside the context, say, of a cautionary tale. That beers and cigarettes were not harbingers of tragedies to come. That beers and cigarettes were just — there?
A European writer might want to distance themself from this kind of editor and rant about the puritanical idealism of American publishing. A writer writing in English for a European publication aimed at forging a conversation among European writers might want to start here, draw a line, and say—this is what we are not.
Drawing such a line would be a dangerous choice, I feel, because if the brand of idealism that creates this sort of obsession for morality in American literature comes straight from Christianity, that means we have it in us: were we to dismiss it in haste, I’m sure we’d be swallowed back into it by convoluted way of some roleplaying: we would exaggerate our role of jaded sinners and thus end up unwittingly justifying the morality of American literature.
Put it like that, and it looks as if I’m talking about a big battle for the soul of literature. What I have in mind is in fact something way smaller.
Here’s a recent moment of vulnerability I experienced myself with one of my American editors. In 2020 I was asked by my friends at the magazine n+1 to participate in an homage to their office in Brooklyn, which was shutting down because of the pandemic. I run an online magazine in Italy, Il Tascabile, we’ve never had an office, and it occurred to me that I might write a few lines on what working from home feels like.
… I meet with the other editors on video one morning every week. We used to do it without video, but last March we started feeling the need to be visible to one another. There were mornings following marriage blackout nights where you only wanted to be seen and acknowledged by people you respect. The other day I was sitting on my bed, the usual briefs and t-shirt, camera on the lines of my face and the new grey of my beard, when my wife came in the room as she was taking off the t-shirt she’d slept in. Nobody saw her, on camera, but I made fun of her, I told the others she was naked. It’s so unprofessional it may not be a profession.
I have underlined the parts that I think make the paragraph. When my editor sent it back to me, this specific paragraph had two proposed cuts:
…last March we started feeling the need to be visible to one another
. There were mornings following marriage blackout nights were you only wanted to be seen, [the need] to be seen and acknowledged by the people you respect.
the usual briefs and t-shirt
If I had accepted both of these cuts, the scene would have worked as follows: a writer sitting on a bed, aged by the pandemic, making fun of his naked wife. In my version, that writer is also in his underwear, and the reader is informed that the couple is having some sad, drunken nights (« marriage blackout nights » doesn’t sound right and would have needed editing anyway, but bear with me). These are two expressions of, well, vulnerability. The briefs and the blackouts. If you take them out, you still have the lines on the writer’s face, but you basically get a man that is whole. Sure, with the proposed edits, the paragraph goes somewhere — it goes to a place where a man at work is making unearned fun of his wife for being naked at home.
The thing is, I wasn’t taking the scene anywhere. I was sketching a scene hanging in the air. We’re in lockdown and we’re drinking day and night, we’re spent and miserable, and one morning I get fleeting solace by mixing private and public, and I also get solace from the connection my wife and I have, and from the connection I have with my fellow editors. Nothing is good, nothing is too bad. I’m neither a good nor a bad character. My wife is so close to me that we can go through drunken blackouts together. The scene briefly lingers, we are vulnerable, we aren’t getting anywhere with it.
Yet when the editor showed me their notes, I felt bad, I felt I was wrong. I felt that mentioning my briefs was wrong. It was as if I were being called out for a misdemeanor. The editing was so subtle and penetrating, it sent me on a tailspin. How can I explain? In my version, I was in my underpants, and that specific shame was inherent to the portrayal. That shame was existential yet not political. Putting my underwear on the page was a way to show vulnerability, but without making it too clear a predicament, a way of adding the warmth, the sleaze, the camaraderie, the confusion. In their edit, though, it became something altogether different: my making ironic fun of my naked wife was now unfair — even unjust — as it was now coming from a presumably fully-clad person. And without the hint of our drunken blackouts, we now had no shared sadness and exhaustion, and also no affection and complicity.
So I had to reply to the editor, a person I like and whose feedback I value. Pretend nothing happened or express my feelings about the red and the barring? I did both and succeeded at neither. I sheepishly asked:
please don't edit out both the underwear and the marriage blackout nights. keep the one you dislike less. at least one of the two is crucial to the experience.
Re-reading this email now I encounter a double whammy of shame. Shame at not having told them that both were crucial; shame at having been too ashamed to ask why they had taken out those two things. I was bargaining, which means I was missing my own point.
This experience of editing is definitely less distressing than the trial of bad parenting in my fellow writer’s manuscript. Still, I prefer my case because it’s got more to do with the subtle allure of shame. After all, you can make the case that showing cigarettes and beer to your kids is healthier than hiding them: your kids’ liberties and budding discernment are in danger where there is too much censorship. But you can’t really make a strong case that those briefs must stay in that paragraph. It’s too small a problem, too small a point. Defending your right to raise non-puritanical children might be a good cause. The right to chisel a scene of marital nothingness is harder to rally for.
So the shame draws you in.
A naked body has a way of piercing the bubble of everyday situations that we take too seriously. Work, in this case. After all, I was discussing what not having an office does to you, what experience it offers. The scene might be showing, if it shows anything, that not having an office makes you feel naked, because, maybe, the point of work is not « being productive », but merely signaling your presence and worth via the codes of « productivity ». What happens to non-physical work when you take out its signifiers is something a lot of people in the world have had to deal with since the pandemic started. We’re ritualistic animals. In my vignette, I was trying to show how literally naked you can feel when work becomes less ritualized.
To the eye of an American editor, though, sometimes the smallest hints of vulnerability, when they don’t service any big and explicit narrative, often end up looking like disposable details.
American readers need body/sex stuff to be told as stories and not as facts (so says my friend Sara Marzullo, about whom more later). The problem is that even if sex always requires storytelling, you can still just show a body — or a feeling, a glitch in the software of life where sex transpires — in a way that is not easy to interpret, or in a way that maybe doesn’t need to be interpreted at all, but that only needs to ring true. And even if this thing I just wrote sounds wholesome and real, somehow American literature — writers, editors, critics, readers — needs sex always to be contextualized. It should be raunchy. Or loving. Or a cautionary tale. It cannot be open-ended. My editor for this piece, the one you are now reading, an American who’s lived in the Netherlands for a good chunk of his adult life, wrote me a note here, I’ll just pick it up from its comment box in the margin and put it in the main text: « I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency vs. opaqueness — maybe a parallel binary here … — the ‘American’ demand is that sex be transparently meaningful, rather than opaque — when the point here is that opaqueness is human ». Love his attempt at creating a concerned voice, quintessentially American, and yet a voice that can linger instead of hastily solve the moral tension.
When I mention to my colleagues that my wife is naked, I am disrespecting work. In fact I’m telling them — as I often do — that we must disrespect it. They know from my general behavior that this is my belief, and that I have rarely called out anyone at the magazine for not « delivering ». And yet maybe I make people uncomfortable when I disrespect work. In Max Weber’s diagnosis, work is our culture’s only road towards salvation. Not for Mediterranean Westerners it isn’t, Max. The thing is, I am not « making a point » about inappropriate behavior. My little vignette has undertones while not being a whole story. I am showing a scene where a woman is naked in her bedroom and her husband instinctively mentions it to his colleagues.
The minuscule piece’s next minuscule paragraph mentions that I’m by far the oldest person at the magazine, but that detail came back red and barred, too, which took away an important nugget context. An older man was mentioning his naked wife. This adds to the « fact » of the naked body, without creating a story per se.
This is a good chunk of what literature is for me. An opaqueness that affords us openendedness. Openendedness that is based on a feel for the world where details create facts so vivid you can touch them. They make you say « that’s real ». If stuff is put in a story only to create the sense of a story, then often it won’t coalesce into a simulacrum of reality.
Let me give you a different example of this dynamic. In this instance, I’ve singled out a scene where the editor had the strong argument, and when they made me feel ashamed, I didn’t yet have the subtle, humane counter-argument that I have now articulated. I feel ashamed already for choosing to disclose this secret. It reveals a weakness that my editor had helped me hide away from the book.
As they were editing the English translation of my last novel, The Women I Love, my American editor spotted something that smelled fishy in a silly yet crucial passage: two people meet each other through a friend and go on an improvised date where they end up planning sex before actually doing it. The scene is inspired by a night of vertigo-inducing sex, ten plus years ago, with a work friend. Here’s the English version, after my editor proposed that I cut out one single thing. I wonder if it’s easy to guess:
… went out to the balcony with her, she latched her hands onto the railing, and she bent over as I lifted her dress from behind, and that’s how we made love, drunk and amazed with our realized fantasy, both of us mysteriously unaffected by vertigo. I came inside her, her knees buckled.
When I wrote this scene back in 2017, I recorded everything I remembered about that night. She and I had smoked pot, it had been friendly and hysterical. A surreal, unexpected suspension of my lifelong, crippling vertigo. This memory I in turn attached to a different story, largely inspired by the way my wife and I became a couple after sleeping together as friends. My wife knows who the friend from the balcony anecdote is, and we have discussed the fun times I had with that woman, whom she knows from work too.
Let’s see if I can explain the kind of ongoing sex conversation my wife and I share. We are curious about the other’s desires. We have grown accustomed to the other’s desires. Jealousy is not a lurking ogre anymore. So. She’s told me a couple of times that she’s curious about what this other person and I shared back then, as it sounds to her that it possessed a light quality that she’s not sure she’s experienced herself, and she’d love to, sooner or later, she tells me — she’d love to experience it with somebody other than me.
Conflating two people and two memories into one character is one of the pleasures that literature gives me in its interaction with real life. And if you can explain this to your unwitting models, and if you do it thoughtfully, you’ll make two people feel a strange connection. You can create kinship, sort of.
Now to the embarrassing part. As I said, I wrote down everything I remembered. And I remembered that at some point my friend had told me she was climaxing. In the Italian version of the novel, which came out in 2018, I had written « she came, her knees buckled » (Venne in piedi, con le ginocchia piegate). This affair happened around 2009, a time when you believed a woman who told you she was coming/had come. (Are you already moving a few feet farther from me? Can you feel the unease?) The times we had sex, her climax always seemed to come easy. She was exuberant both at work and during sex, she never showed up without bringing weed and laughter and a camaraderie that still puts a smile on my face any time we cross paths for work, anywhere in Italy.
After getting to work on the translation, my American editor said they weren’t sure about some of the sex. I remember my legs getting all weak. What had I done? The issue was the orgasm. My editor thought it sounded impossible that a woman might climax like that, standing on a balcony, vertigo and all. I now felt instantly ridiculous, outdated, fake, vain, clueless. But then a burst of peace surged from my belly — I realized it was easy to solve the problem, and substituted my orgasm for my friend’s, as in the version I gave you. « The crucial part is the fun of the evening », I remember telling my editor, « I really don’t need to state that she came ».
It was easy to edit that orgasm out. The passage sounds better without the uselessly controversial bit, so the reader can concentrate on the experience the two characters are having. Then why am I bringing it up now, if I agreed with my editor? Not because I think I should have kept my friend’s orgasm in — I really think the edited version sounds better. I’m bringing it up to exhibit something that was polished out of the book. This incident can illuminate what literature offers — the writer’s sense of not grasping the whole truth, the writer’s sense of his own limitations and vanity. Literature, for me, is not tying up all the loose ends.
The novel in question is expressly about the problems of not being able to write an actual book, and — more specifically — of not being able to invent realistic female characters, so I guess this thing I’m writing now for the European Review has more right to be in that novel than anything else that’s already in it. I’m unearthing my mistakes. This is what that book was about. Its narrator is honest and unreliable at the same time, because he knows he’s an unreliable narrator and still has no other instrument at hand than writing and editing. He knows he doesn’t know.
I’m not sure I need to state explicitly what connects the two editing experiences. Well, here it is. I want to be in that space where the moments when I’m right and the moments when I’m wrong both show the same emotional truth; that space where I can slowly unfold the layers of experience in a way that I need neither to attack nor to defend. There’s a certain kind of reckoning that needs all your best and worst stuff to be there together, so you can have a clear picture of what your life is. I want to have a place where an edited-out orgasm becomes proof of frailty. Any male cis-het writer who isn’t aiming at some alt-right pride — who isn’t representing through his writing, but is writing about what he knows — is now entering a wonderfully rich era of disempowerment. This (admittedly mild) disempowerment is a gift, it requires your best efforts, and it provides many new and conflicting angles to the question of sex. Literature is a vehicle roomy enough.
I now have to do something that made one editor at the European Review cringe: I’ll comment on a review of my novel. I hope it can become part of this process of autocoscienza maschile. (Autocoscienza was and is used by Italian feminists to describe the communal sessions of political and psychological therapy-without-therapists, and maschile means male.) Kirkus called my book The Women I Love a « disconcerting mix: part sendup of toxic masculinity, part middle-aged cad's apologia ». The term apologia, both in Italian and in Latin, doesn’t mean « apology »; it means defense, justification. The short review implies that writing the deeds of this average, privileged Italian man — representing him — must be a de facto defense of this character, since he errs constantly and doesn’t redeem himself. I see the reviewer’s point. And yet it’s tough to read a review that says I wrote an apologia of a sex offender — especially, to make matters worse, when the protagonist looks queasily autobiographical. It made me feel ashamed the same way American editors make me feel ashamed. But I didn’t think I was trying to defend or justify my protagonist’s actions. The direction of his narrative is pretty clear to me, and it must have been clear to Kirkus, since they pointed out: « The women he loves are shape-shifters, elusive, complex, sybil-like figures who refuse to sit still and allow themselves … to be butterflies whose beauty is celebrated by getting pinned to a specimen board ». What Kirkus failed to see is that all the information the reader is gathering about these female characters comes from my protagonist’s autocoscienza. The writing is his. It is also mine. So the review says I’m writing a defense, an apologia of my character, but highlights the female characters’ vitality: « …gradually, as he gets more accustomed to his limitations as man and as artist, as he reflects on the ways men have tried to capture or subdue or simplify women in their portraits, he relaxes, starts to pay attention. And once he’s sufficiently chastened and self-conscious enough to give up on the ideal of master portraitist, the women emerge more sharply and in greater detail. » As Kirkus put it, The Women I Love is « A novel about the male gaze . . . and about what happens when its power has begun to dim. »
What shall I do with this kind of feedback? « Cad’s apologia » takes the air out of me. It’s a beautiful-sounding indictment of my research. And yet, Kirkus also seems to have noticed that the women do emerge, that they are not stifled by the « cad »’s alleged attempt at defending himself. Maybe the apparent contradiction only means that any attempt to put together a portrait without a streaming-service-friendly narrative of redemption will be by default an apologia of the character.
I sent the unedited version of the piece you are reading to a younger Italian writer I often ask to read my work in progress. Sara Marzullo is also well versed in American contemporary literature and writes about it in magazines. Among other things, she introduced me the distinction between « stories » and « facts » I used earlier. So I wanted her to take a look at this piece and give me feedback. About the previous paragraph, she wrote this as a comment:
Everything is turned into a cautionary tale and a story, these days. Your protagonist is on some sort of journey, and the fact that you describe this character is not a defense of his existence per se. These days, everything that is put in a novel is interpreted as a manifesto on behalf of the existence of a certain subjectivity. This eliminates the possibility of an unreliable character… and writer… You have some empathy for your character, and I’m free to consider that empathy. And you can have mixed feelings towards your own characters, and maybe you have no idea how to judge them… So what is it we’re more interested in, with literature? Resolution and judgement? Or process, writing as apparition, emersion of experience, of what’s real?
I called my friend from the balcony sex on the phone and asked her out of the blue: « Can you remember if you climaxed when we had sex on the balcony twelve years ago? »
She said, « I have no idea, who cares… I’ve forgotten everything I did before turning thirty… » Then she added, « Ma io vengo tranquillamente da dietro » — but I have no problem at all climaxing when having sex from behind. I loved the instant connection, the quick answer. I don’t think the two of us have ever discussed sex in the past decade, not once, and there she was, being so specific.
I told her I remembered her climaxing and calling it. I explained what had happened with my editor. She balked at the idea that an editor might investigate whether an orgasm was there or not.
The conversation was short but nuanced. I realized I was talking to a woman who has children and a husband. I realized she was pausing when she heard the questions, processing, gauging possible consequences, maybe figuring out whether I was insane for making this phone-call. Then, after processing, she was generous in her answers, enjoying them while neither exactly oversharing nor being schmalzy about our past fling. In the five minutes we were on the phone, I got the gift of hearing a person up close, feeling all the little measurements and distances that form human interaction.
This phone-call is the fifth interaction I’ve accounted for in this piece. There’s Sara and her note. There’s my two editors, and there’s the Kirkus Review person. Five very small interactions where it isn’t clear where we’re going. No, six: there’s also my wife commenting on the friend from the balcony and musing that she might one day try her hand at a light and breezy sexual affair.
We are the offspring of two empires — the Roman and the American. We, as intellectuals, still have imperial ambitions: everything we do must be a statement, we’re not simple people, we need to have purpose, every second of our life.
An empire is a show about nothing. When the belle époque collapsed into World War I, modernist literature was born. Modernist literature was about smallness, about actually being nothing. The men in modernist literature were all useless. The man without qualities; « Marcel », Zeno, Leopold Bloom… Some of those books were superhuman tours de force, yes, but really they were odes to the smallness of the men at the end of an age of obnoxious grandeur.
The imperial ambitions propel the need for redemption, the idea that everything can be fixed, that after being the villains we can erase the sentences we don’t like and become good.
It’s a stance I refuse.
We are nothing, we are the smallest creatures in all of humanity. Let our smallness glow through our orgasms, real or fake. Let our smallness glow through our briefs, when we work in our bed-offices during the worst time of our life, a swollen liver, dark circles under our eyes, and we make smitten fun of the woman we love because there’s nothing else we can do.
For my brother,