Editor’s Note: this piece has been kicking around The ISIS archives since 1983. I was going to write something myself, but I couldn’t be bothered. Then I found this in the archives, and given that it already has my name on it, I was going to pass it off as my own work. So I publish it here, edited by me, for interest. Attached, too, are my footnotes where Louis Davidson (1983) is marked as “L.D.”, whereas Louis Davidson (me) is marked as “I”. Or is that too confusing? I’m sure you’ll pick it up. Hope you like it.
I should apologise for my last story in The ISIS. If you didn’t read it, it caused quite a stir because it was about s-e-x. It was called “An Open Day”, and in it an older female tutor of Classics seduced and slept with a male prospective student while his mother waited downstairs. For some reason, the editors of The ISIS (in their infinite wisdom) allowed this to be published and I feel that the blame for any controversy should start and end with them. Oh well. In any case, the story was supposed to be about growing old and feeling passion, not to mention wanting to have s-e-x with underage boys.
But I feel that in discussing this kind of story we need to have a little conversation about s-e-x and about the way we write about it. Did you ever have sex-ed classes?
We didn’t have many because I went to an old-fashioned school, the masters being so terrified of the female pudenda that they preferred to swear their lives to the bleakness of the Catholic Church. So we didn’t have many sexual education lessons at all. But once they did give us one – I think the government stepped in because we were growing up all “warped” – and a very dry older man called Dr. Clements told us, “Well, gentlemen, this will be awkward for all us, so I had better start with the facts.”
He informed us that masturbation was a kind of self-abuse and that sexual intercourse was the sacred mingling of two fleshes, between a man and a woman. Now I will take a leaf out of Clements’ book and outline the facts:¹
1) My name is Louis Davidson.
2) I study English Literature at John’s.
3) Up until last week, I had never once had sex.
4) I am writer.²
It is up for debate whether point 3) leads to point 4) or vice-versa. In any case, both of them are true, and there is clearly some kind of relationship. Now, I have been thinking a lot about Clements recently. Whenever I sit down to write something, I think of him, and up until now I didn’t think I knew why.
There are, by and large, two ways to write. The worst writers write like they’re having s-e-x – as if the reader and the writer are melded into one flesh, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. This is bad writing because s-e-x is so much better in principle than it is in reality. I had s-e-x for the first time last week and I must say I was disappointed. The rapturous desire for it was much more interesting than the actual ten minutes of fumbling. Good writing doesn’t fumbling. Good writing only needs you and your imagination. Good writing is like masturbation. You spend the whole time on your own (and most likely thinking about people you know) and it helps you get through the day, helps you think about what qualities one finds attractive and which ones you don’t. You take it all in your mind and it starts and finishes with you. You may be compelled to do it by what you read or see, but it’s all yours.
Now, what does all this have to do with my little story? People seemed to assume that, by writing this piece of lurid s-e-x literature, I intended to in some way have s-e-x with the reader – or God forbid the characters in the story. That I was in some way involving the reader in a sexual game – that I was the boy who had been seduced or, even worse, that I was the professor herself. None of that is true. The tutor in that story was based on Professor Warring, who is not my type, while the boy is based on every teenage boy.³
Instead, I would argue that my story was, like all good literature, masturbatory. Writing stories is just a kind of self-abuse and in order to do this we must picture and place within a new context (usually a rather uncomfortable one) the people we know in our lives. So I hope you see that I did not have s-e-x with you by writing about s-e-x. I aimed only to make it clear that all literature might as well be masturbation. I attempted to convey this through fiction, but seeing as no-one seemed to understand that, I have done so more matter-of-factly here. Yes, I merely intended to masturbate on the pages of The ISIS, which I think was quite honourable goal. So they told me that the story was smut or that it was unnecessarily rude or whatever, which I hope you now see isn’t true at all.
I say, wouldn’t it have been funny if there was no story called “An Open Day” and this was all a rather clever meta-fictional trick? If only I should have been so witty. Maybe one day.
¹ I looked up Dr. Clements after doing some research into L.D. Personally I suppose he was a virgin himself. And – surprisingly enough – wrote a couple of rather timid stories for The ISIS, during his time at Oxford.
² Now, L.D. and I share some remarkable similarities! All four points of these are true for me as well. Although I would say it’s a bit presumptuous to call oneself a “writer” if you’ve never been paid for it.
³ We share another similarity here – I looked up Warring and she is not my type either.
Other Louis here again.
Now I know I said I would just publish it with a few comments, but I feel compelled to share with you what I have to say about L.D. and his masturbation theories. Did anyone ever ask you that question: “If you went back in time and had sex with yourself, would that be sex or masturbation?” That feels somehow relevant. You have seen, I hope, that L.D. and I share some very real similarities, the most disquieting of them being that we have almost exactly the same voice. I can almost hear him through the pages, and it has the same disquieting effect as when you hear your own voice on a tape recorder. So reading what he has to say about having sex with oneself is putting me in a rather difficult position. If writing is a substitute for having sex in a way that masturbation isn’t, am I in some way having sex with “Louis Davidson”? Perish the thought! Who on earth would want to do that? I still consider myself to be a virgin, mainly because I haven’t actually had any sex. Also, I don’t think he’s right – I think it’s easy for people who have had sex to say that it’s not that good, just like how the people who seem to have the most success writing like it less than anyone else¹. I just thought it would be an interesting mind game – for what is really more fulfilling, writing or sex? That’s the question at the heart of all this: does it feel better to consummate or to create? I couldn’t find “An Open Day” anywhere in The ISIS archives. Maybe L.D. was joking the whole time. That’s all these damn people ever really do – they play their little joke and then you only realise after you’ve read it. I like to imagine him now, sitting in a room somewhere thinking up the story just because he thought a good first line for a piece in The ISIS would be “I should apologise for my story in The ISIS”. Interestingly, it seems that this is the last thing L.D. ever wrote, in Oxford or otherwise. I wonder. In any case, he wasn’t having sex until “a week” before this article was published. Is there an answer in that? Well, I’ve messaged a girl on Tinder and I imagine we’ll end up having sex quite soon so perhaps this will be the last piece of mine you read in a magazine like this. We’ll see what happens. Maybe if you satisfy that urge you never write again. Maybe one day.
(Not that one)
Edinburgh, July 2018
¹ Isn’t it interesting that we have no word for someone who isn’t a virgin? No one of a literary mind in those terms… ∎
Words by Louis Davidson. Illustration by Sophie Kuang.