Pictures of Marlene

Pictures of Marlene is a novel in the literary genre, 89,000 words long. I am currently seeking agent representation.

Introdcution

This is not an ordinary book. The novel within, Pictures of Marlene, tells the story of a boy obsessed with a woman he knows from pornographic pictures, a woman he believes he meets in real life. But not only does this book contain a novel of extraordinary circumstances, it contains a few features that most novels do not. It features a Teacher’s Guide section containing instructional tools such as Text-Dependent Questions, discussion prompts, writing prompts, and other activities that home school teachers, or any teacher, can use to teach the text Pictures of Marlene. The novel is chunked, passages are measured by their Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level and Lexile Levels; the instruction is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. (Whatever your politics, the instruction can be used with or without reference to CCSS.)

Why does this book contain teacher’s edition materials? In short, because I wish for Pictures of Marlene to be instructive. In high school classrooms around the country this year, 11th graders will read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to understand black culture in Harlem in the 1920s. Tenth graders will read George Orwell’s 1984 in order to understand the threat of government overreach. Pictures of Marlene is an opportunity to understand the condition of the pornography addict. It is a dramatic depiction of a real-world condition. The work is not a moral tract; it does not have a religious agenda, though in all likelihood close readers of the story will conclude that the protagonist Howie Toffler seems to suffer socially and psychologically from his obsession with sex, as embodied by Marlene.

Not everyone wants to lift the veil on the subject of pornography in America, and some  parents might be quick to object to their teenage student reading a book that treats the topic of sexuality so openly. Similarly, not everyone would tolerate their child being assigned Pictures of Marlene in an English literature class. It is the type of literature—truthful, detailed, searching—that was frequently banned and burned 50 years ago. Many concerned parents opposed Beloved, Catcher in the Rye, and dozens of other works of literature that shed light on ungainly human phenomena. There is a word that gets used now to describe entertainments that are anything other than superficial: dark. Please be reminded that the world goes dark every night. This book, features a character who experiences a kind of moral erosion. It does not endorse sexual depravity or sexual obsession.

A broader assurance: art never creates or constitutes the scandals it depicts. The scandal in twenty-first-century America is that pornography is sold to Americans as another happy expression of liberty, just as beer is sold as an enabler of beach volleyball, and as cigarettes were touted by doctors in magazine ads before that, and cola was laced with cocaine before that. Ironically, the same media that has brought pornography into homes and to children’s eyes in new proliferation—the internet—is the same tool that has heralded the information boom that has allowed mindful citizens to band together, inform and support each other, and defrock corrupt institutions of all kinds, from Keystone Pipelines, fracking, sex abusing church leaders, Egyptian uprisings, trigger-happy police and much, much more. It would please me greatly if Pictures of Marlene set a movement in motion[1].

For more about my aspirations for Pictures as an instructive force, a beacon of hope, see the Author’s Note. In it, you’ll find the details of my personal relationship with pornographic material: one of early exposure and inappropriate access, characterized by emotional dependence. I used pornography starting at 13, and did not stop until the age of 36, after a period of years trying to stop and being unable to stop. You don’t have to oppose pornography absolutely to read Pictures of Marlene, to teach it to your students, or to allow your child to read it. These days, we are far too accustomed to taking a side, joining a rank—red or blue, for or against. Pictures of Marlene is not a fable like Little Red Riding Hood that demonizes sexual expression. The only thing you have to be a proponent of to endorse this story is sexual health. It depicts the phenomenon of a male becoming fixated on synthetic forms of sexual interaction, and it depicts the same character experiencing the deterioration of healthy social interaction and attitudes toward the world as he grows accustomed, then expectant, then dependent on the escapist, numbing pleasures of fantasy. It may help your reading experience if you are a sociologist, feministic or a humanist, but all that’s required to begin reading Picture of Marlene is an open mind and a tolerance for stark realism.

You may wonder why readers require an authorial addendum to the text. Doesn’t it speak for itself? To answer that, I would cite an example of real-word classroom instruction in literature to which this book can be compared: In grade 11, one popular, well-respected, pedagogically sound Reading textbook, published by a major New York publisher, has 11th graders reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. His narrative account of the life of Christopher McCandless, the boy who gave away his money and moved to the wilds of Alaska only to die, is studied alongside Thoreau and Emerson in a unit on American Transcendentalism. Students read Krakauer’s Author’s Note as well, to understand the ways that the author personally related to McCandless and why his exploration of him as a subject was so compelling. The Author’s Note provides context. In a similar way, the Author’s Note to Pictures of Marlene sketches out my personal career as a lifelong pornography user; it recounts marriages that failed because of my addiction; it relates my journey into a clinical program at the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota and to recovery programs that have freed me from the tyranny of compulsive pornography viewing. The entire premise of this novel and the instruction around it is very much behavioral, in the Skinnerian sense; and it offers a new way of thinking about pornography use that is not based on frightening myths such as hair will grow on your palms or you’ll go blind. Moral functions and emotional conditions are every bit as real as enamel strength and BPM and body mass indexes when it comes to measures of health. It is only that the tools for measuring are not as easily obtained as heart rate monitors and x-rays: the tools are things like awareness and vocabulary. The tools are developed through learning about events and people. The Author’s Note provides parts to the instructive machinery.

Some parents may find that this was not the way that they were taught literature at a young age, and they may find themselves struggling to understand why the work can’t be read on its own and judged on its merits, however pale. Who the author is was never much pressed on me with much importance, they might say. A hallmark of my reading in college English literature classes was the utter lack of context offered to me for understanding the work, whether a play, novel, poem, or short story. Literature offered views of the world that held value regardless whether its author was white, black, young, or old. I revered the stories of John Cheever, and only through independent reading on my own after college, of Cheever’s journals and biographies, did I come to understand the close connection between the continuous appearance of alcohol and alcoholics in his fiction (“The Sorrows of Gin” for example) and his own struggles with alcohol dependency; between the continuous themes of infidelity, of sexual dalliance, sexual temptation, of straying thoughts and flagging moral convictions in his characters… and Cheever’s latent homosexuality, which he acted upon late in life, shocking the literary world and his family. I was left to surmise, if I liked, that Cheever was an astute chronicler of New England suburban life in the post-war era. Anything beyond that didn’t much concern me. But it’s a different time now, in contemporary thought, and in publishing norms: the Information Age is in its thirtieth year, and identity is every bit as important to an author as his or her work. We would never mistake the authors of White Noise and White Teeth, and anyone teaching professional who did could stand to lose their job.

Ultimately, the incorporation of the Teacher’s Guide and Author’s Note into this single edition allows readers of Pictures of Marlene to avoid feeling lost trying to make sense of the story. I was an advanced reader at a young age, reading a grade ahead throughout elementary school. I was the son of a high school English teacher, my grammar was correct from an early age, and I was directed to a dictionary whenever I asked how to spell a word or what a word means. I was placed in Honors English classes, and majored in English in college. Yet, by the time I was 25 I found my bookshelves holding many novels that I could not claim to have understood, much less recalled. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Louise Erdrich’s Tracks were but a few. Too often, back then (I graduated high school in 1991), novels were taught independently of their social and historical contexts. These days, writers of classroom instruction are ever mindful of what is called Prior Knowledge. What did I know about Father X’s Mexico? Nothing. What did I know of North Dakota’s Sioux? Only that they had been badly treated, their numbers reduced through government-sanctioned murder, then their remaining numbers sequestered into reservations. With this Teacher’s Edition of Pictures of Marlene, being published with its teaching materials, readers can return years later and use the guides again to renew and expand their understand of the text and its character, an indelible figure of the American oughts, when the sky did not fall from the digital turn of the millennium, but it did fall for some in other ways.

In any newspaper (what remains of them), there is little reportage on pornography and its debilitating effects on those who become addicted to it. However, studies show, and reports say, that young people are looking at porn online at a younger and younger age, and sex addiction support groups are sprouting like weeds. This is an age of expanding understanding of the human brain. Occasionally the mainstream media scratches the surface with articles like Time’s June 2016 cover story, and before it Newsweek, and in September 2016, the Wall Street Journal article by Pamela Anderson, etc. As is the case with many moral crises that a passionate few wish to address or reform, it has to start somewhere, and it has to start with understanding, with empathy. I would look no further than the fight for gay marriage equality for a dream outcome of this book. Achieving marriage equality was at one time a dream—a moonshot. It took 25 years or so to change that. In regards to the proliferation of pornography and the silence around its dangers, may that change start today, with Pictures of Marlene.

[1] So I wrote in 2016. That movement has since materialized.