A year ago, when my editor at Tin House Books first asked whether I had any suggestions for the cover of my second novel, The Virgins, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of anything specific, but I knew what I didn’t want. I tend to dislike covers that are too literal, I told him, and I think that abstraction is often a wonderful choice for fiction. My novel focuses on three teenagers at an East Coast boarding school, two of them in a complex, sexually charged relationship, and a third who observes them obsessively from a distance and tells their story. I joked: “Just promise me that it won’t be of two young people lying together in soft focus in a field. That would really depress me.”
So I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw what Tin House Books was proposing for The Virgins. Admittedly, it wasn’t two young people lying together in a field. It wasn’t in soft focus. But there was a photograph of a young girl lying languidly on her side. In a field.
That wasn’t all. She had her hand on her crotch.
Let me back up a minute. I had plenty of positive reactions to the cover. Its composition was elegant and intriguing; I loved the softness of the girl and her floral dress against the bolder geometries of the cutout circle and the rectangle of the book itself. I loved the vintage-y, dusky green jacket color. I loved the retro feel.
I didn’t like where the girl’s hand was lying. Specifically: I couldn’t get past the way my eye was drawn straight to the spot between her legs, smack in the middle of both the photo and the cover.
Why, though, I had to ask myself, did I have such a strong reaction? My novel is about many things, but one of those things is certainly sex. The Virgins contains numerous explicitly sexual scenes. Body parts are called by straightforward names. It wasn’t as if Tin House Books was trying to grab stray eyeballs at any cost, relevance be damned. And I did find something quite compelling in the image of the girl that couldn’t be reduced to titillation. So what exactly was my objection?
There were my kids, of course. I’d so been looking forward to walking into a bookstore with them and seeing copies of my novel on a table. My kids aren’t exactly kids anymore. They are 16 and 15 years old, just about the age of the protagonists in my novel, which is shot through with the acknowledgement that teenagers are deeply sexual creatures. But we all know that even grown men and women find it seriously icky to associate their parents with sexuality. How would my son and daughter feel about the fact that — in my gloomiest judgment — Mom’s new novel looked like soft porn? I had somehow believed that for my children to know what was in my book, they would have to open it. They would have to read it, page after page. This would necessitate an act of will, which they would probably commit only if they felt really ready. I hadn’t stopped to consider that a cover image could fly right under the radar of their will, entering them and exploding its meanings within them without their full assent.
After the kids, came the worries about in-laws. Neighbors. Former teachers. That’s when I began to see that my unease wasn’t really, or wasn’t only, about the cover. It was about the way the cover advertised what was in my book and gave a taste of its sometimes solipsistic and voyeuristic eroticism. The sexuality in The Virgins has many different meanings and implications, some of them contradictory. Sometimes it is an attempt to express or forge love and affection; sometimes it is exhibitionistic, a performance; sometimes it is desperate or aggressive or, as the proposed cover suggested, self-pleasuring. If anything, the cover perfectly captured the overdetermined, shifting nature of sex in the novel. And there lay the problem. It hit me that the cover I’d hoped for, though I’d never been able to create a distinct picture of it, was really a cover that would have covered up, like the brown-paper wrappings that mask the dirty books and magazines at newsstands. If the cover accurately expressed the feel and content of the novel, and the cover embarrassed me, what did that say about my relationship to my work? And had I really never pictured what it would be like to have people read The Virgins?
Apparently not. When I was typing alone in my room, it felt entirely natural to write about sex, which has always seemed to me a great and rich subject. None of the scenes I wrote troubled or embarrassed me at the time. But now, the whole endeavor felt horribly intimate. Aviva Rossner, my female protagonist, is not me, even if I gave her my hometown and my departure for boarding school at age 16, but the sex in The Virgins clearly comes from my own, personal brain — whose else’s could it have been? Would readers find that sex — and therefore me — laughable, sick, or otherwise distasteful? Years ago, I published a long, meditative essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review about breastfeeding in which I got pretty specific about body parts as well as the spiritual and physical yearnings that breastfeeding aroused in me. A neighborhood acquaintance who happened upon the piece online told me with a frown that she “couldn’t believe” I would “put that out there.” Was I ready to be revealed to her and others as the author of a novel sprinkled with the words “cock” and “cunt?”
I was in college when I first came across Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum, in her essay “Professions for Women” from the collection Women and Writing, that writers must kill the Angel in the House. By the Angel, Woolf meant the female — more specifically, the mother and wife — whose role in life was to be the gracious hostess-cook-and-mender, smoother-over of family tensions, and graceful supporter of the endeavors of husband and (male) children. Woolf had to kill the Angel, she said, because its top priority is self-suppression and conciliation, while to write one has to display “what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.”
My reaction at the time was: Doesn’t apply to me. It was understandable that Woolf, born in 1882, had been intimidated by the Angel ideal, prominent in Victorian poetry and sentimental novels, but to me that ideal was absurd. I was 19; it was the early 1980s. The second wave of feminism had transformed the culture, and women and niceness no longer necessarily went together. There were women on campus with shaved heads or green, spiked hair; there were rugged women athletes and pro-porn activists; the era’s patron saint was Madonna.
But time — 20, 30 years — went by, and I went from being a student to a single working woman to a married working woman to a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs. Those changes in status, I saw, had changed me. Motherhood in particular gave me an appreciation for the value of “nice” — patience, softness, nurture, and, yes, self-sacrifice. Living in a small, tight-knit community made me want to be seen as agreeable and a good neighbor. I liked to think I in fact was patient, nurturing, agreeable, and a good neighbor. I’d spent a couple of decades building up my kinder, gentler persona, while at the same time daily sitting down to my computer to write about sex and/or people who thought and did things that were sometimes very peculiar or ugly. I had managed for a long time to keep these two sides of my life from having much to do with each other. My first novel, about an antisocial man with severely obsessive-compulsive habits, must have tipped off my neighbors that I was thinking about more all day than feeding the kids and folding the laundry, or even the local school board elections. But in part because the novel was published by a very small press and sold in limited quantities, I was able to continue to be the woman in the red-and-white house who’d written, well, something or other.
Woolf wrote that “when I came to write I encountered her [the Angel] with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page…” I suppose I should be grateful that my Angel cast her shadow not during composition, but during the strange limbo between completion and publication. Surely this is cultural progress. Yet I’m startled at how relevant Woolf’s words remain, despite the example of so many women writers who in past years have opened up the possibilities for writing about sex. After Woolf (who never did write much directly about women’s bodies), there were Mary McCarthy, Anaïs Nin, Edna O’Brien, and Erica Jong, among many others. In recent months, Jamie Quatro’s story collection, I Want to Show You More, and Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, have made waves for their powerful depictions of women and desire. My reticence, my fear of departing from the Angel ideal, feels almost silly in light of such examples. But the Angel ideal must run very deep in many of us, not excluding those who in our youth were smugly convinced we were immune to it.
I want to be clear that I am in no way mocking or belittling the Angel ideal. In fact I have a great respect for it. It’s now clear to me now that Woolf wasn’t mocking the Angel either. When I reread “Professions for Women” recently, I discovered that I had seriously misremembered it. I’d recalled that Woolf put her hands around the Angel’s neck and strangled her. In fact she simply says that she flung her inkpot at her. We don’t even hear the thud of impact. Yet Woolf otherwise uses the strongest possible language, saying that “the struggle was severe,” that “had I not killed her she would have killed me,” that, left to live, the Angel “would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” I suspect that Woolf couldn’t bring herself to be graphic about the imagined killing because the Angel is, in fact, an angel and not a devil. Even Virginia Woolf saw the beautiful side of the ideal; she lovingly embodied it in the vivid Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse. I can’t read that novel without wanting to be Mrs. Ramsay — calm and competent, beloved, the arranger of marriages, the felt center of the family — far more than I want to be Lily Briscoe, the novel’s solitary, fretful artist. There is a place and a role for the Angel in the House, even if her perfections are unattainable, and I feel unapologetic about spending good part of my adult life aiming to be more like her.
But, like Woolf, I also sit down each day and try to tell what I “think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.” Thanks to her and others, I can have it both ways, because, in the 21st century, the Angel need not be quite so ethereal and self-denying, and the public has a far greater tolerance — not to say appetite — for the sexually frank. There will always be neighbors ready to make thoughtless comments, or people who consider a frank book to be smut, but I don’t risk public ostracism of the sort Edna O’Brien details in her new memoir, Country Girl, or (as far as I know) divorce.
After admitting to some of the handwringing detailed above, I told my Tin House editor that I was fine with the proposed cover, but of course it wasn’t all Zen from there on. That became evident when the image was finalized and I made it my profile picture on Facebook. Not being all that Facebook savvy, I didn’t realize that this meant my new cover would pop up in the News Feeds of my however many Facebook Friends. All of a sudden people were “liking” the cover and commenting on it left and right — positive things, but I had peeled back another layer of protection and subterfuge. The same exposed feeling was roused again and again as more people saw the image or heard about the book, but I know now that this was merely the continuation of a kind of coming-out that had started well before, when my agent and I came up with the title The Virgins — no, earlier, when I’d sought out my agent in the first place. I wanted to be published again, after all; that is to say, from the beginning there was a desire to let others once more into my private imaginative world. Like the girl on my cover — like the girl in my story — I was presenting myself to be seen. Look, I said. And later: But don’t look. Look. Don’t look. Look…Does the toggling ever end?
I doubt it.