Is it political, provocative or sensationalist to document realistic experiences of sex in contemporary or literary fiction? I don’t think it should be. Literature documents ideas. The experience of the characters we write should ring with with truth and clarity. That should extend to sex they have.
My friend C Green and I share our writing with the goal of moving it towards perfection (writers call it ‘workshopping’). We have discussed and agreed that sex is messy, physical and sometimes uncomfortable to read about. But what better reason could there be to write about it truthfully, juices and all?
Some great literary works ran with sex as the tag line when it was scandalous to do so. Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Lolita and Madame Bovary spring to mind. Jump decades, if not a century ahead and we have a whole genre dedicated to fruity literature. Erotica, a genre for which I have respect (although not one which I contribute to or read) booms in sales and, via books like Fifty Shades of Grey, has seeped into the mainstream and got people talking. This is not the sex that I am talking about.
C Green and I do not write sex for sex’s sake. Our discussion was about whether or not writing honestly about sex in our literary prose was wise. Talking specifically about sex scenes we had written, we raised the question, within our genres, is this even publishable? We are writers from different backgrounds, sexualities and nationalities, but we agree – as do all the women that we can think of that we know – that sex is a vital part of life and the human experience. And so it seems natural to include it when we write about the human condition and how humans experience the world. Yet we hold back, or we write with trepidation, for fear that we will taint our work with what others will view as distracting salaciousness.
As women, our sexual experience is well documented by men. Men have claimed ownership of porn, even lesbian porn, and men have decided for a long list of historic reasons (if you don’t know what they are contact me, we have a lot to talk about) what sex should look like. But men’s widely accepted narrative of sex is not representative for many women. And porn, and also some erotic fiction, ignore the role that real sex plays in both the joy and the catastrophe of life – of emotional life, tragedy and comedy. The role that sex plays in literature need not be the subject of the work. As female authors who are not writing erotica we may go as far to say that to bring real sex into the work we produce is to reclaim some of the reality which pornography and erotica has taken away.
For that reason we will strive to treat sex with the weight that it deserves and include it in our work as honestly and graphically as it need be, whenever it will help the reader understand the plight of out protagonists. Perhaps you feel differently. If you do let’s talk about it. As always, comments are encouraged.
In particular, if you feel that there are books that already do this well, please let me know. I am keen to read them. I can recommend the book How Should A Person Be by Sheila Heti on this point. Her portrayal of the protagonist’s relationship with the character named Israel illustrates my idea of melding sex into contemporary literature to great effect. It is also a very original novel, worth reading.
This essay was first published in January 2016 in the print edition of I Don’t Want to Be Your Lobster.