Cause célèbre

Can a book be a cause célèbre if you can’t talk about it? My first reaction when I read that an academic had called my first novel Aubade “Kenneth Martin’s cause célèbre” in his treatise on queer literature was “news to me ” or “paper refuses nothing. ” I still spend a lot of time picking apart my ingrained cynical reactions to get at truths that tend to be complicated. It’s that awful uneducated response I still indulge in too often, born of too much too soon (along with too little), or Northern Irish cynicism (born of deprivation), or even up-close acquaintance with the ethics of the English popular press (though that’s more of an excuse than a reason).
When I sold Aubade and moved to London, the English teacher who made my life bearable amidst the fear and torpor of the middle forms stayed in touch with me. She told me that the headmaster had announced in assembly that Upper Sullivan pupils were forbidden to read Aubade. What did he threaten them with? Expulsion? “It’s understandable,” May explained. “Think what an effect Aubade could have on a youngster.”
Think of the contortions that statement contains. She condoned me, a 16-year-old boy, writing and publishing the book (a thrill, echoing her own dreams), but not the content of the book.
The question of being prosecuted for obscenity was raised only once with me, and that was regarding my second novel Waiting for the Sky to Fall. The night I went to hear my publisher’s and agent’s verdict on the novel, they asked me to change the number of male brothels mentioned in the book to just one. I have no idea why that would have made a difference, and in the end they didn’t pursue the change.
Offhand I can’t think of anyone directly addressing the content of Aubade with me around publication time (certainly not at the queer parties to which I was introduced, where it was a given in those men’s lives). One lodger in a rooming house I briefly stayed in when I first moved to London dug out The People interview and suggested I move to the colonies.
The reporters or TV personalities who interviewed me mentioned Aubade’s content (a schoolboy falls in love with an older student). Dot dot dot. Nothing more. One reporter dared to suggest that we were over-encouraging our young people to express themselves. No elaboration. At most they called the book “powerful.” One TV interviewer said it was the kind of book she’d hide in a brown paper cover. Quickly move on to calling me an infant prodigy or an angry young man. But absolutely no discussion of homosexuality, because it was disgusting and illegal and I was jailbait.
And to prosecute an adolescent or his publisher for obscenity would raise more issues than anyone wanted to air in public. It went against the prevailing narrative about the vice of homosexuality, in which perverted adults corrupted the young, or cruised public lavatories. Rent boys didn’t count, because they were the lower orders, and public schoolboys grew out of it.
Can a book be a cause célèbre if you can’t talk about? Of course. Hard for me to admit it, since I live my life fighting the denial I learned in the land of denial. The most important things aren’t necessarily those you talk about. And a lot of people, including in the corridors of power, were certainly talking. But I didn’t know about it.

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