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All The Dirty Parts

Daniel Handler on writing about sex for teenagers

The author of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ talks us through his new book and why the most interesting things happen to young people

You probably know Daniel Handler best as Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. I did, too, until as a young teen I read his 2000 adult novel, Watch Your Mouth. Watch Your Mouth is maybe best described as a Jewish-incest-opera, and while I enjoyed it a lot, it very quickly shattered any innocence surrounding my relationship with Handler’s work. But I got over it – while I love A Series of Unfortunate Events dearly, Handler’s grownup books give him the space to delve into all the filthy, dark, gross stuff that is evident but can’t be properly explored in his other work.

Handler’s latest book, All the Dirty Parts, combines his talent for writing in a smart, non-condescending way for young adults with his one for writing about sex and personal crises. All The Dirty Parts, while not specifically marketed at teenagers, is for them. It’s an effort to get young men into reading, and as Handler noted in a New York Times article, making a book really filthy is a good place to start. It’s about a boy named Cole who is highly sexually active and, in Handler’s words, “becomes aware of the effect that his own desires and actions have on other people”. Cole has sex with girls, he gets a girlfriend, he watches porn, he fools around with his best friend. All The Dirty Parts is literally just that: all of the sex with nothing surrounding it. The book is structured as a series of graphic, uncomfortable, but ultimately enlightening vignettes from Cole’s life as he explores his own sexuality and emotions.

Where in other hands it could well have come across as crass and cheap, in Handler’s, All The Dirty Parts is an almost-sweet rumination on sexuality, feelings, and “heteroflexibility”. It deals with male bicuriosity in a way rarely seen or read, and through revealing only the “dirty parts”, the narrator shows a lot more of himself than he originally intends to. I spoke to Handler, my first literary hero, to talk about All The Dirty Parts and to further try and reconcile my childhood admiration of him with my kind of uncomfortable grown up one.

So, you partly wrote All The Dirty Parts in an effort to get teen boys into reading?

Daniel Handler: I don't necessarily think: what’s a wonderful core audience I can go out and reach? But seeing as I’ve written so many books for young people and I am a man, I am often asked how to encourage young men to read or keep reading because there’s a real gender discrepancy in terms of who’s reading, so that was definitely something I have been thinking about for a while. But honestly, the real kind of inspiration for the book was just hearing a lot of young people talking about their own sexual lives and feeling like something that was something relatively undocumented in literature. I mean, we think of our culture as being extremely sexualised, but it’s really not, honestly.

You can’t market it at teens, though, right?

Daniel Handler: Well, the decision that the publisher made as to what audience to market it for was a long conversation. At least in the States the kind of gatekeeping that happens in terms of literature for adolescents just meant that this book would be blocked almost immediately upon publication and so it actually has a greater chance of ending up in high school libraries now than if it had been marketed for high school people, which is so weird.

And it’s weird how much violence is allowed in adolescent literature, but not sexual content.

Daniel Handler: It’s astonishing. I was literally having this conversation about a year ago with a publishing executive who was sitting in front of a poster about the umpteenth series for young people about vampires battling each other to the death. He was saying “I don't know, there’s a lot of online pornography in this novel!” and I mean, sure we can be concerned about teenagers watching pornography, but surely we would be more concerned if they were killing each other, right?

You’d like to think. When you have written things that are more for children, like A Series of Unfortunate Events, it never felt condescending. You’re good at bridging that gap between readers.

Daniel Handler: I guess I am. I mean, I kind of stumbled into writing children’s literature. So I didn’t approach it as an educator or someone else with some grand moral to teach young people. I approached it as in: this story would be interesting if the heroes in it were children, which I guess means it’s a children's book. I think as a result, I didn’t have any temptation to write in the equivalent voice as when you kneel down next to a child and speak in a high pitched voice.

“There are stories that are automatically more interesting when they are happening to young people” Daniel Handler

You obviously wrote The Basic Eight as well – what do you find so interesting about teenagers?

Daniel Handler: Maybe it sounds ageist or something, but I just think there are stories that are automatically more interesting when they are happening to young people. I think the consequences are more interesting and there are just more interesting places it can go. So, if I have the barest glimmer of an idea for the beginning of a story, if I think, “oh, it begins with a man walking down a road”, that’s boring. But if he were 14 and he were running, then I am already more interested. There’s already something more fraught happening. It’s always difficult to talk about without sounding creepy.

With All the Dirty Parts, even though it’s current and he does have a computer, It’s not super now. A lot of literature for teenagers can be so specifically now that it instantly dates it.

Daniel Handler: Yeah, I agree. There are so many instant cultural references too that seems unwise. If you read a novel and there’s a young girl who loves Coldplay, you already have a really specific feeling about it and it already feels wrong. Instead, if she loves a band the author invented, then you kind of make up what that is in your head. So I try to avoid that.

You also don't know how much will change between writing and publishing it. The teens might not even be talking about that thing by the time anyone reads it.

Daniel Handler: A few years ago I judged a prize for young adult literature. And it was full of all of these social media devices that were already defunct by the time they were published – like Friendster and old music sites – all of these things no one cares about. And I just thought, it’s so sad to see this novel that’s just been published and is already tiresomely out of date.

I wasn’t sure if I would, but I ended up feeling really empathetic towards Cole and a part of that is that he’s not just straight.

Daniel Handler: Well, that’s pretty universal in young male experience, and it’s rarely talked about. I think there’s more space to think about it with women. It’s just a safer thing to say. And even the labels that we keep throwing at male behaviour are all so definitive and end up being kind of insulting, or at least hyper restricting.

I’ve found that there are less men who say they are bisexual than women, maybe partly because they don't have the same space to explore it or talk about it when they're younger.

Daniel Handler: Yeah, and even if they don't identify with it that way. I mean, there are so many women who can say, “I am basically straight but you know, a few crazy nights!” or “I had a friend!” or something. But for a man to say that it's less acceptable.

“I hope one of the themes of the book is to realise that you cannot separate sexual desire from the rest of you. It’s all part of the context of who you are” Daniel Handler

It would've been so easy to hate Cole. But you just kind of want him to be OK.

Daniel Handler: Well, that’s certainly the idea. I think that as we try to be more sensitive about sexual education and discussion, I think there can be a trap you can fall into of demonising the behaviour of some young men. And, you know, they're people. You don't have to limit their empathy to the other side of the fence.

Even though the point of the book is to not really tell you anything about him, you still learn a lot just through that one lens.  

Daniel Handler: That’s the idea. He thinks he's telling you only the dirty parts, but I hope one of the themes of the book is to realise that you cannot separate sexual desire from the rest of you. It’s all part of the context of who you are.

He's not expecting to have feelings for his friend or the girl but he does, and he's not really sure what to do with it – which is an important part of growing up, I guess.

Daniel Handler: Exactly. I think so and I think it’s an important part of thinking about sexual desire. You can't separate it from the rest of you. You can't pretend that’s just some seedy part of your brain, heart, body that has nothing to do with the rest of your life. It’s a fact, you need to integrate it if you are going to be a healthy person.