ARKANSAS: THREE NOVELLAS
Three stories of escape and exile. In “Saturn Street,” a disaffected screenwriter in Los Angeles delivers lunches to homebound AIDS patients, only to find himself falling in love with one of them. In “The Wooden Anniversary,” Nathan and Celia, familiar characters from my story collections, reunite in Italy after a five-year separation. And in “The Term Paper Artist,” a writer named David Leavitt, hiding out at his father’s house in the aftermath of a publishing scandal, experiences literary rejuvenation when he agrees to write term papers for UCLA undergraduates in exchange for sex.
“The other two novellas in Arkansas, ‘The Wooden Anniversary’ and ‘Saturn Street,’ are perfectly fine, filled with interesting characters and mordant wit. But ‘The Term Paper Artist’ is spectacularly effective fiction, an oblique and very funny commentary on Leavitt’s real-life travails. Having been accused of plagiarism, he spins out a story in which he happily abets plagiarists. ‘Writers often disguise their lives as fiction,’ Leavitt tells Ben near the end of the novella. ‘The thing they almost never do is disguise fiction as their lives.’ This is not quite true. Paul Theroux offered an invented autobiography last year in My Other Life, and Philip Roth did much the same in 1993 in Operation Shylock. ‘The Term Paper Artist’ is as playful as those works and every bit as good.”
—Paul Gray, Time
“Leavitt’s use of his own name and book titles in the first story introduces yet another level of seduction. Taking a stance somewhere between memoir and fiction, ‘The Term Paper Artist’ questions the borders between the two...Ironic echoes of Henry James’s ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ ‘Daisy Miller’ and other classics are introduced into a context of porno films, phone-sex lines, gay bookshops. The voice may be ironic, but what the voice enshrouds is anything but. Again and again the world tempts us with the ideal, the unattainable, and, entranced, we reach out for it—only to grasp something quite different...Leavitt is, like Alberto Moravia or Paul Auster, the kind of writer who goes on pursuing a single sparrow, refining in book after book a select, almost trademarked handful of themes, social settings, characters. Willfully he blinds himself to the larger spectrum only to see more acutely in the smaller—often to spectacular result.”
—James Sallis, The Washington Post
“Esquire pulled the first of three novellas collected here from its April 1997 issue suddenly and without explanation. That controversial piece by itself reflects the remarkable talent of a plainly first-rate writer. The premise for the story is non-fictional: a gifted and accomplished young writer named David Leavitt, fresh from the humiliation of plagiarism charges leveled against his recent work While England Sleeps, visits his father in Los Angeles and begins to write term papers for attractive male undergraduates at UCLA in exchange for sex. The storyline invites richly insightful observations on aging, youth, modernity, authorship, creativity, and artistic inspiration. As always, Leavitt is scrupulously attentive to the enormity and the complexity of sexual drives. ‘The Wooden Anniversary’ and ‘Saturn Street’ are also to be praised. The pleasure of reading his work renews itself again and again.”
—The Virginia Quarterly Review
Bastei Lubbe (Germany)
De Harmonie (The Netherlands)
Edicoes ASA (Portugal)
Anagrama (Spain and Latin America)
Abacus (United Kingdom and Commonwealth)
Before Arkansas came out, Esquire paid me $13,000 to publish “The Term Paper Artist.” The story had been copy-edited, set in type, proofread, designed, and provided with graphics, when Edward Kosner, the magazine’s editor-and-chief, abruptly canceled its publication, ostensibly on editorial grounds. Will Blythe, the fiction editor, then resigned in protest. A few months later Kosner himself left the magazine. Rumor had it that the decision to pull the story was in fact made by the magazine’s publisher, Valerie Salambier, who feared that Chrysler would stop advertising in Esquire due to the story’s subject matter and, more specifically, a scene in which a blow job is given in a Jeep. The fracas was the jumping-off point for “The Squeeze,” an article in The Columbia Journalism Review suggesting that the almost holy divide between the editorial and advertising arms of magazines and newspapers was under assault. No sooner had the news broken than my publisher, Houghton-Mifflin, printed up stickers to be affixed to the book jacket of Arkansas: “Too Hot to Handle,” the stickers read, quoting from Paul Gray’s review of the collection in Time.
For more on the Esquire flap, see Gray’s review (Time, March 7th, 1997) and Baker’s “The Squeeze” (The Columbia Journalism Review, September/October, 1997). The Boston Phoenix also ran a story about the episode, which finds its way into Kenneth Bleeth and Julie Rivkin’s “The Imitation David: Plagiarism, Collaboration, and the Making of a Gay Literary Tradition in David Leavitt’s ‘The Term Paper Artist,’” PMLA 116.5 (October 2001).