Are there any taboo subjects left in literature? Graphic violence and sex in any of its endless variations have become mainstream. Even excretion is now explicit: Think of the unforgettable scene of Joey searching for a ring in his own shit in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. But read almost any novel in which childbirth, one of the most universal of human events, takes place, and you will find that the actual act has been deleted. An author as celebrated for her visceral and detailed accounts of female experience as Elena Ferrante offers the following as a description, in full, of the birth of the narrator's first child in the third book of the Neapolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay:
I had atrocious labor pains, but they didn't last long. When the baby emerged and I saw her . . . I felt a physical pleasure so piercing that I still know no other pleasure that compares to it.
Pages later, the birth of her second child gets even less elaboration: "Everything went smoothly. The pain was excruciating, but in a few hours I had another girl."
Certain ways of avoiding a childbirth scene in contemporary fiction have become almost predictable, as clichéd as the clothes scattered on the floor in a movie rated PG-13: the frantic car ride to the hospital, followed by a jump cut to the new baby; or the played-for-laughs episode of the laboring woman screaming at her clueless husband, followed by a jump cut to the new baby. What happened to what actually happens?
My latest novel, Eleven Hours, takes place entirely during one labor and delivery in an urban hospital. I've been through childbirth twice myself, and found it the most physically painful and most transformative experience of my life. I wanted to write something I felt I hadn't read: a story that described childbirth from the inside. I wanted to depict the alterations of consciousness that come from the confrontation with great pain, and the ways in which the crisis of labor can cause a woman to find in herself previously unknown strengths. I wanted to conjure up the feeling of long waiting punctuated by intense activity. I wanted to show what it felt like to be so very close, simultaneously, to the creation of life and the possibility of death.
When Eleven Hours had been accepted for publication in the U.S. and my agent was shopping it abroad, a publisher that had taken one of my earlier books turned it down. "Sales and marketing did not feel confident they would know how to pitch it," I was told. "It's such a specific experience recounted here."
Such a specific experience? You mean, one that billions of women have been through? Did not feel confident they would know to pitch it? The novel, as I saw it, was about the severe challenge to mind and body that childbirth is for a woman, just as combat is a severe challenge to the minds and bodies of men. Would any publisher ever claim that they wouldn't know how to pitch a war narrative?