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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Literary sex - unsexy?

The literati seem to have a problem with sex - or rather, a problem with writing sex. Just check some of the entries submitted for the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards, given out for "crude, tasteless" sexual depictions in literature. Even the esteemed Tom Wolfe took the 2004 award for the following entry from I Am Charlotte Simmons:

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns.

If the above is representative of literary sex, then God yes! the literati have trouble with sex and eroticism period. Ponderous metaphors aside, why do literary writers have such a hard time writing about the act itself? Well, according to author Jane Smiley, for her it's the fear of being seen as prurient. Prose written to provoke sexual arousal seemingly runs counter to prose aimed to stimulate intelligent analysis and explore the depth of human emotions. But that's the irony - lust, desire, passion - the hallmarks of "lowly" genre works such as romance - are valid emotions. Writing about her latest work, Ten Days in the Hills, Smiley laments the explicitness of the sex in her novel, where she admits to the overuse of words like "penis," "labia," "erection," "moist," "swelling" and "big". Author John Updike's review of Smiley's novel said it "set a new mark for explicitness in a work of non-pornographic intent."

Before Updike's review, Smiley was all right with the sex in her book, even in its explicit details, because during the course of writing the novel, the words eventually lost their shock value. But after reading Updike's review, the words regained their power to embarrass her and she began questioning her motive for putting "all that sex in there in the first place." Even in her second-guessing herself, at least Smiley confronts her embarrassment; other writers often attempt to mask their discomfort and embarrassment with painfully poetic phrasing, faulty metaphors, and other ineffective subtefuge, as though seeking to "hide" the act itself.

Smiley rightly points out that today's literary prudery was not an obstacle for literary greats of the past such as Giovanni Boccaccio, the 14th century author of The Decameron. Inspiration for Chaucer, Cervantes and Goethe, The Decameron was a collection of 100 tales about sex and love. Although allegorical, there was no stumbling, no prettifying. The tales are bawdy, erotic, guaranteed to have stymied the pens of some of today's literati simply because of their prudish discomfiture.

As for the question of whether sex and "true" literature are antithetical, note that sex has worked fabulously in previous literary works: Cleland's Fanny Hill, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover; Miller's Tropic of Cancer; Nin's Delta of Venus are prime examples. The use of explicit phraseology, and the intent to stimulate sexual desire, do not run counter to true literature. Which begs the question: can any of today's romance literature ever be considered "literary?" Although I don't know of any books offhand, I'm sure there are some that rise to the literary standards but are deemed not "worthy" because of the explicitness of the sex, the conscious intent to stimulate sexual feelings. If a book provides intelligent characterization and a story that inspires in-depth introspection, is its merits somehow obscured by use of words like "penis," "dick" or "fuck"? Personally, I prefer straightforward words than a metaphoric mouthful like otorhinolaryngological caverns. Literary esteem aside, I truly doubt Updike could write a good romance.


Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 2/21/2007 04:37:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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