Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sex in Literature

Ah, sex and literature. Given how long the first was not allowed in the latter, its surprising, now that it is, how often it comes up as a debate. Julian Barnes is the latest to stir the pot. "Modern authors feels commercial obligation" to write about sex according to the reports of his piece. I've not been able to find the piece online (its apparently published in the Radio Times) but actually from what I can gather is he's talking about him and his contemporaries - or even older writers - going back to Kingsley Amis deciding against writing a gay character in case it would be misconstrued as him. I found that a bit hard to believe, somehow, as Amis, despite all his macho bluster, always seemed a writer that would write what he damn well wanted to. I'm sure there are gay characters in his novels, though its a while since I've read them. There is certainly sex....

...anyway, I was surprised by that headline as one of the things that seems quite absent from contemporary novels compared with the books I read when I was a teenager, is the shoehorning in of sex, or even novels which are deliberately erotic. Alot of recent books have left the action at the bedroom door, or been pretty matter of fact about the act. The "Bad Sex Prize" has had quite an effect. Chloe Hooper's "The Engagement" was the last book I read, and is actually all about a sexual relationship, but its far from prurient, the eroticism in the novel comes from her description of things, rather than the sex between the two characters. And this seems common to a lot of younger novelists I've read. There might be the occasional comic sex scene but sex is dealt with pretty unembarassingly on the whole. Sex is seen as far less complicated than the other stuff a novelist (and their characters) have to deal with in "NW" by Zadie Smith or "Capital" by John Lanchester, for example. I've almost got the feeling with contemporary novels that rather than "add in" a sex scene at the bequest of the publisher, books are leaving them out. Once sex isn't the big issue then it just becomes more padding.

The one group of novelists who still do seem obsessed with sex regardless what the book is actually about, are Barnes' contemporaries. Sex is at the beating heart of Martin Amis's "The Pregnant Widow", Jacobsen's "The Finkler Question" and (worst of all) Hanif Kureishi's dreadful "Something to tell you." There's a little bit about old men trying to address the issue of sex for them at their age; something that you find done well occasionally (such as Roth's "The Human Stain") but generally badly. These writers have made a career out of novels that are male-centred and involve chasing girls, and like the old devils in Kingsley's excellent "The Old Devils" they are still at it; yet without a concomitant willingness to admit that they're a bit old for all that. From what I've read of Barnes' essay its more nuanced than that; and I'd hope so; as of that generation he's often written best about relationships ("Love etc." and "Talking it Over") whilst being far more interested in the psychological tenor of sex than its physical side.

And I can't quite believe that publishers are clamouring for our great writers to overdo the sexual content anyway. For sex in McEwan provides one of the most horrific scenes of violence in his whole back catalogue in the otherwise controlled "The Innocent" for instance. Part of it's intent, I think. Kureishi's best work may well be the brutally honest divorce novel "Intimacy". Sex is best in books, it seems, when its not particularly good or funny.

Rather than "50 Shades of Grey" leading to more sexual content in literary fictions I reckon it will probably lead to less. Literary novelists have always had to compete with both their more pornographic peers, whereas up until the mid-60s it was probably only the literary writer who could get away with being explicity. Cue Harold Robbins, James Hadley Chase, Jackie Collins and others and the Henry Millers of the world were outflanked.

Gay fiction continues to revel in the physical, perhaps necessarily to keep with the audience (just as gay-friendly pop artists stray too far from the disco at their peril). Though its noticeable that in recent novels by Neel Mukherjee, Max Schaeffer and Alan Hollinghurst that it is casual sex with strangers that provides the erotic charge; I'm yet to read a post-civil-partnership novel of marital lust. From what I've heard of Sarah Waters novels, they don't shy away from the bedroom, but having struggled a bit with her rather mainstream style I've never made it through a complete novel.

I kind of miss the dark sexual adventure that often lurked behind the pristine white spine of some European or American avant garde Picador writer: and Kathy Acker or Milan Kundera still seem to have more of a sexual edge than those writers who have placed sex at the margins of their story; but both of those were politically as well as artistically marginalised. Does sex in novels reflect the times? I don't think we'd be shocked any more by stories of teenage sex - even though there was still a bit of moral outrage when "Skins" first aired a few years ago. Oddly enough, in my own writing, it has receded as a subject as I've gotten older, and I've even wondered why that it. Perhaps because just like everything else in a novel or a story it has to earn its keep. There are, I'm sure, stories that sex still has to tell, but between the old men writing of chasing girls half their age, and the pulp fiction bestsellers of the supermarket shelf - between wish-fulfilment and fantasy in other words - the space to write meaningfully isn't that obvious.

(And just as a reminder, I contributed to a collection of short short stories for adults, "Quickies" with other mainly NW writers, still available as an e-book here.) 


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