There were some really great comments on my last post about the literary world and its aversion to including erotic sex scenes in literary fiction or eliciting arousal in readers. Laughingly, and perhaps a little brutally, I said that it might have something to do with individual authors and their own feelings of sexual inadequacy. But I’m hoping you realized that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
However, Lauren posed a very valid question and I think it deserves a considered exploration:
“In all other scenarios, budding writers are drilled to show and not tell in their writing, so why is sex getting special treatment?”
First, I’d like to be upfront and say that I don’t have a pat answer. In fact, this question forms one of the branches of what I’d very much like to research in my thesis.
It would be easy to say that we’re hung up about sex. Well, we are. But are we more hung up about it now than we were in the 50’s and 60’s? Because those decades saw the publication of a number of novels which were quickly recognized for their literary merit and contained very explicit sex scenes and/or sexual scenarios that would send the legal teams of major publishers running for the woods these days.
Frankly, I don’t think many of the most acclaimed literary writers today are shy about writing sex. Nor do I believe most of them could not do a pretty good job of constructing a very effective and steamy erotic scene. Perhaps Martin Amis doesn’t feel up to the task, but Howard Jacobson certainly is. Most good writers are. I think they are choosing not to. And it needs to be noted that a number of them of them choose not to write graphic violence either.
I think there was a time – in the later part of the 20th Century – when it was considered revolutionary and innovative for a ‘serious’ novelist to write explicit and erotic sex. These writers were writing this material at a time when, for the most part, media depictions of sex were very conservative. It’s worth remembering that at the same time that Miller published the Tropic of Cancer, (originally published in France in 1934 but not legally published in the US until 1961), Hollywood still had the one foot on the floor rule – an interpretation of the Hays Code (basically, bedroom love scenes required on of the actors to keep one foot on the floor).
It’s also worth remembering that, although the 1970’s US saw the legalization of ‘adult’ films and the establishment of movie theatres which showed pornographic movies, there was still a very strong class element as to who and who didn’t go to see porn. There was a whole class of people who thought it beneath them to be aroused that way, but felt it was okay to be aroused by a good piece of literature. But with the innovation of home video, one no longer had to be seen entering a ‘dirty movie theatre’. One could watch what one wanted in the privacy of one’s own home.
The rise of feminism in the 70’s and the focus on the ‘male gaze’ (Lacanian in origin but appropriated and expanded upon in Laura Mulvey’s seminal and groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“) also probably played a significant part in painting visual pornography as fundamentally evil. So, whether you were from the right or the left, it wasn’t considered acceptable to watch pornography, but it was perfectly fine to read the hot bits in Miller.
Sex has always been used to sell products, but during the height of the golden years of advertising, the strategy became much more focused. Psychology was used to measure its efficacy. And progressively, from the late 60’s onwards there are very few products which haven’t used sex either directly or indirectly as a marketing ploy. And the trend has continued with increasingly explicit associations between sex and perfume, alcohol, watches, airlines. Sexuality is now considered the single most powerful tool of marketing.
And, of course, although prostitution is still illegal in many countries, sex is obviously used to sell sex in whatever ways sex may be sold. Most notably as pornography, telephone and video sex and virtual sexual services on the internet.
In the past ten years, the appetite for sex scenes in TV, in music videos and in film has been so great, it is virtually impossible NOT to have – for instance – a film which involves lovers that does not have at least one scene of them humping away at each other in bed. It really doesn’t matter whether it is acted or real.
So one theory I have is that, because sex is such a present part of mainstream media – in both advertising and entertainment – many writers who pride themselves on taking their readers into new, forbidden and seldom traveled ‘landscapes’ in their fiction, feel that sexuality is such a familiar landscape, there’s no compelling reason to take their readers there.
And here, as a writer of erotic fiction with pretensions of literariness, is where I fundamentally disagree. Because the imagery we have come to identify in many forms of media as sexual bears almost no resemblance to real human sexual experience. We see sex in movies, on TV, in porn, in still images and we have all seen them so often, they have become the signifier of sex. It doesn’t matter that they’re acted or over dramatized or abstracted or stylized. This is what we are constantly told that sex looks like. And since we so very rarely see examples of what real sex looks like, it’s not surprising that, in our minds, any reference to sex in something like text is far more likely to trigger mental images of commercial pornography than it is to trigger memories of our own sexual experiences.
I guess this is why I return to the discussion over what pornography is and why I feel that erotic fiction should be fundamentally different. I don’t think it is a ‘cheap trick’ to arouse a reader, but I do think it’s a cheap trick to do it using imagery that is clearly reminiscent of commercial pornography. When I write erotic scenes, I expend a serious amount of energy trying to make sure they are more likely to trigger memories of real experience than memories of mediated ones. And even when I write fiction about situations that most of my readers may not have experienced, whenever there’s actual sex, I do my level best to keep to my goal of triggering real memory.
I honestly think this is what a lot of literary writers fear – that if they write explicit and erotic sex scenes, they’ll be triggering memories of the last UPorn clip someone saw, instead of lived experiences in their readers. And perhaps that’s because those are the images and memories that are triggered for them in writing the scenes. Perhaps this is why literary writers choose such empty, soulless, unerotic sex scenes when they do decide to write one: because we don’t often have mediated representations of bad sex.
But, what I’d like to say to the likes of people like Martin Amis is… don’t be lazy. Don’t refuse to write erotic passages just because it’s hard to write with a sense of authenticity. It IS hard, but that’s a challenge. The human mind is flexible and our language is rich. Writers who elect to write only what comes easily to them should consider hanging up their laptop and taking up other professions.