JCU professor makes waves with new novel

September 26th, 2013

Cosmopolitan magazine billed it as the “sickest, most controversial book of summer.” The Daily Beast dubbed it the modern day version of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” “Tampa,” a salacious work of fiction, plunges readers into the inner workings of the mind of a female sexual predator who calculatingly preys on her middle school-aged male students. The novel, which has stirred up controversy and garnered shocking critiques since its release on July 2, was written by John Carroll University’s own professor of English, Alissa Nutting.

Nutting decided to take a step back from the explosion of attention swirling around her novel, and after about a month of incessant Google Alerts, she told her agent and publicist she would rather not read any more reviews of “Tampa.” After receiving nasty emails mixed in with the positive ones, she also removed the contact form on her website.

“It’s the kind of thing that can really, if you let it, suck you in and occupy your full attention in a way that really decreases your productivity and how enjoyable your life is, because you’re always waiting to see what others are saying about you,” Nutting said. “And if it’s good, you feel good, and if it’s bad, you feel bad, but you’re not in control of your emotions.”

Part of the reason “Tampa” is receiving so much attention, Nutting says, is because society is not used to facing uncomfortable issues of sexual violence head-on in such a graphic manner.

“We’re definitely not comfortable talking about the ways our society may actually fetishize acts of sexual violence, like I think we do when it’s an attractive female teacher and a male student,” she said. “Writing a book that forces people to directly engage with that contradiction, to come face to face with that, is going to be polarizing. It’s a book that doesn’t tell you how to feel about it. It presents what’s going on with this character and it presents the social response to the character, and the book itself doesn’t comment.”

Celeste Price, the character she is referring to, is the fictional version of Debra Lafave, Nutting’s former high school classmate and Florida middle-school teacher who received media attention when she pleaded guilty to having sexual encounters with her 14-year-old student in 2005. After recognizing Lafave on the news, Nutting began examining the way society often glorifies females accused of such crimes.

“Instead of being treated like a criminal, these women, when they are attractive, are very much treated like a sexual fantasy, instead of female sexuality being seen as powerful and something that can cause an experience of victimization,” she said. “It’s seen as very weak, and something for males, even underage ones, to enjoy. In general, in our society, we really have this values system for women that how you look is the most important thing about you, and I wanted to demonstrate what I think is one of the many Achilles heels to our cultural values system. That is, well, you’re essentially saying that if you look good enough – if you’re young and you’re beautiful and female – you could do heinous things and still be a valued part of society.”

Nutting says that although worrisome thoughts crossed her mind at first when anticipating the University’s reaction to the controversial nature of the novel, she has received positive feedback from fellow professors.

“Ultimately, I’ve just found this to be a place that is very anti-censorship and is very much appreciative of different forms of challenging literature,” she said.

Recently returned from a weekend stint in New York, Nutting balances traveling to promote “Tampa” with teaching and navigating new motherhood, sometimes bringing her 6-month-old daughter along for her travels. While it can be challenging, Nutting said overall, the balancing act is a good thing.

“Part of my job is to mentor my students on living as a working writer, and how you navigate the different aspects of professional obligation,” she said. “Particularly during the school year, my students come first.”

Some of Nutting’s writing students have approached her with technical questions about writing an unlikeable protagonist. Senior Maureen Ginley shared nothing but high praise for the novel.

“It’s a well-written and brilliantly crafted narrative that tackles a subject that is considered ‘taboo,’” Ginley said. “Dr. Nutting took a risk by writing a story of this nature, and I fully believe she succeeds in getting readers to think and re-evaluate the way society views the decisions and morals surrounding the situations put forth and encountered by the novel’s narrator, Celeste. Good literature challenges the reader; it makes them think and challenge themselves as an individual and a member of society, and ‘Tampa’ definitely does that.”

Nutting is currently working on her next novel, a comedy, which she says will be much lighter and less controversial than “Tampa.”