Apparently even in our relatively enlightened society, writing about sex openly isn’t, or shouldn’t be, acceptable by some people’s lights. This is understandable, because we’re still trying to throw off the cloak of disrepute that several thousand years of Western indoctrination regarding negative attitudes toward sex and the human body has shrouded our thinking in. This critique by author Julian Barnes was quoted by Hannah Furness of the UK Telegraph in the link below:
The crux of his argument, and the main thrust (*ahem*) of the radio show which he is publicizing, upcoming BBC Radio 3 show The Essay: Explaining the Explicit, seems to be that if your book doesn’t contain sex, it ain’t gonna sell, or at least you should be losing some sleep about whether it will or not, as evidenced by this quote:
“Instead of a blanket prohibition, there was almost the reverse: not just a writerly desire, but a commercial obligation to write in a detailed way about sex…And sometimes all that happened was that the misleading old euphemisms were replaced by the misleading new clichés.”
I did a little homework after reading this article, because I wanted to know who exactly I was speaking to and about. Come to find out, Julian Barnes is actually Dr. Julian Barnes, a professor of literature at the European Graduate School. To many people’s minds, this should give me a certain amount of pause. After all, a mere undergrad should not have the audacity to question his academic superiors.
Hey, call me an untutored, uneducated Colonial boor if you must, but that’s not my style. Sooooo, in the famous words of Samuel L. Jackson:
“Allow me to retort.”
Let’s put the record straight on a few things, starting with the difference between lit fic and genre fic.
Literary fiction is restricted to events that can or could happen in our real world, in a time and circumstances current to the reader and the author alike, and requires that the events be believable enough not to require any suspension of disbelief in order for the reader to experience them for the reader’s self. By contrast, genre fiction allows for “flights of fancy” that permit elaborate subplots, interaction with supernatural creatures, and is really limited only by the imagination and ability of the author to convey and the reader to understand the story believably. This is a very off-the-cuff example, as the lines have become very gray and faded indeed of late, but this is a working definition I deem to be good enough to be getting on with, in the idiom of my cousins across the pond.
There’s an ongoing rift between lit fic and genre fic authors. Literary authors tend to view genre authors as hacks who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag, while genre authors tend to view their literary counterparts as unimaginative but competent crafters of competent but uninteresting stories. (Obviously this does not hold true for every author on either side of the aisle and should not be taken ; see above regarding faded lines.)
In the last thirty years, there has unquestionably been a societal shift toward a more open sexual discourse. The word “orgasm” is commonplace on prime-time television, and we have made great strides in sexual egalitarianism based on both gender and preference. I do not mean to say that things are perfect or that Utopia is at hand, by any means. My last two blog posts would put the lie to any such assertion faster than a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder can go from zero to sixty. However, from my perspective, such discourse is an important and valuable part of our modern era: we’re moving away from the superstition and fear of the past into more reasoned and philosophical discussion of sexual matters as a society.
Taking Dr. Barnes’ assertions at face value, they do have a certain amount of validity in the modern mantra “Sex sells.” (Again, see my last two posts for more on this.) He quite cannily anticipated a counter-argument of this kind by saying in the article, “It’s easy to mock, and each generation will mock the previous one because each generation tends to imagine that its attitude to sex strikes just about the right balance; that by comparison its predecessors were prim and embarrassed, its successors sex-obsessed and pornified (emphasis added).” However, the last six words of this quote point up that he himself is not immune to this generational mockery.
There are tales of authors being forced to write scenes or subplots into their books to increase their salability before an editor or publishing house would touch their work. As an author, I find this an unconscionably predatory practice on the part of any publisher, and any author who finds themselves so compromised should immediately sever ties with the house in question. Plenty of publishers are willing to produce anything from sweet romance without so much as a ruffled blouse to literary fiction about a young girl’s summer. If an author is uncomfortable with the demands of the publisher, then the author should reconsider their contracts.
On a social level, I don’t think there is any more “pressure” to write sex than there has ever been. The only real difference between then and now is that the sex is more explicit and honest in its execution, rather than hiding behind purple prose and euphemistic gymnastics. (Don’t believe me? Check out The Story of O, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Venus in Furs. Anal sex, lesbian sex, gay sex, interclass sex, interracial sex, BDSM, outright rape: it’s all there, if thinly cloaked in semantics.) I myself have never had anyone hold a gun to my head and thunder “THOU SHALT WRITE SEX SCENES IN ALL THY STORIES!” On the other hand, I never really needed them to; it’s something I do naturally, if occasionally to my own detriment.
Many readers may bewail the sexualization of literature, and that’s certainly their choice. I’ve read more than my share of books and stories where the sex seemed to be shoehorned for no other reason than just to be there. (And I’ve had a couple of readers level this same accusation at me, so fair is fair.) The vast majority of authors who write sexually charged scenes and plots do so because they prefer to do so. My suggestion is, if sexually oriented or involved literature of any stripe bothers you, do your research before you buy a book and then pick something else. This is not complicated, people. Your TV remote has buttons that allow you to change the channel. Your stereo has buttons that allow you to change the station. And a book has these things called “covers,” that you can choose to open or close at will.
Finally, Dr. Barnes makes this point: “And so writing about sex contains an additional anxiety on top of all the usual ones: that the writer might be giving him- or herself away, that readers may conclude, when you describe a sexual act, that it must already have happened to you in pretty much the manner described.”
Uh-huh.I’ve written about people being shot, decapitated, stabbed, bludgeoned, beaten, and exsanguinated by vampires, and have never once been questioned as to whether I actually committed the acts in question as research. (Although, on one notably strange occasion, I had some guy in Florida leave me a series of most insistent emails. The man in question was under the belief he was a vampire and was requesting my “help.” I freely admit I had absolutely no idea how to help him, and suggested he go see a doctor. After several attempts to calm him, I finally suggested that he speak with a mental health professional. I have not heard back from him since, to my intense relief. I just hope he hasn’t hurt anyone in the intervening time.) I’ve never had gay sex, and that doesn’t stop me from writing gay romance. I’ve never had lesbian sex, ditto. I’ve never had sex with an angel, a werewolf, under the threat of zombies (unless you count the risk of some drunken friends bursting in on me and a young lady during a party), with a ghost, or with any other supernatural being.
Just because a writer writes it doesn’t mean they have first-hand knowledge. If that were the case, a lot of writers would be rotting in prisons for having committed hellish atrocities. Since the population of writers in prison is actually lower than that of many other occupations, we can conjecture this is not typically the case.
Bottom line, if you want to write sex, write it. If you don’t, don’t. Same goes for reading it. But the choice to write or read sexually charged material should always rest with the author and the reader, no one else. Sex is natural and healthy, and it seems to me that to ignore the sexuality of the human mammal is to ignore a key aspect of one’s own humanity. But, hey, everyone has their own thing.
I’ll be listening in to “Explaining the Explicit” if I can find a streaming service that picks it up, because I’m really very curious. From the tone of Dr. Barnes’ commentary, I feel safe in predicting I’ll be doing a fair amount of yelling.
Until next time,