Most semi-sentient people will tell you that there’s something wrong with being able to watch porn or be sent to war at eighteen, but not being able to order a beer until you’re twenty-one. It’s a standard complaint in high school and college, but it does reflect some serious problems with our culture’s understanding of personal development. If I got to choose (and I’m sure the president will be calling me any day now), the age/responsibility breakdown would look something like this:
I will admit that some of these rules could be broken without adverse consequences, but the prohibitions against writing before a certain age are the ones I take most seriously. And though there are historical examples that go against my breakdowns both Keats and Rimbaud wrote world-class poems in their teens and early twenties, and Nerve contributing writer J.T. Leroy (a.k.a. Terminator) wrote “Natoma Street” at fifteen and, now twenty, is about to publish his extraordinary first novel, Sarah there are plenty of examples that prove the rule. The caveman-like poems that I wrote on the walls of my college dormitory attest to the fact that I should have paused before penning; Ethan Hawke might have let a few more wrinkles set in before beckoning the muses; and the Jugendschriften of even such greats as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are better left unopened.
An interesting case study is Catherine Breillat’s first novel, A Man for the Asking (L’homme facile), published in 1968 when the author was only sixteen. Few novels are as badly written, yet few contain so much explicit sexuality. And coming from a milky-skinned, ember-eyed lycéenne (a close-up of Breillet graces the English cover and frontispiece ), the book becomes more of an anthropological document than a work of literature. Breillat, who scandalized America again last year with her supposedly racy (but really rather prudish) film, Romance, set Europe on its ear at the close of the ’60s with L’homme facile‘s accounts of infidelity, indiscriminate fucking, bondage and anal sex. You can be assured it sold well.
Curiously, there’s a definite continuity between the portrayal of sex in L’homme facile and that in Romance. Both are extremely graphic yet amazingly detached, even judgmental, as if Breillat has spent her life having oodles of sex she never really enjoyed. Perhaps that is the case. And perhaps, then, her book is an argument for not starting so young; if you’re only sixteen and you’re already sexually jaded, something is very, very wrong.