Discussion: On Sex in Fiction
by Claudia Dey, Nalo Hopkinson, Russell Smith and R.M. Vaughan (lead by Sally Cooper)
Bookninja is pleased to bring you the next in our ongoing series of literary discussions by some of the biggest and brightest names in literary fiction. Our last, On “The Reader”, had Richard Nash, Barbara Berson, Lydia Millet, and Joseph Boyden (and lead by our own Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer) discussing the idea of where “the Reader” enters the writing and editing processes.
Sally Cooper asks four of the hottest, brashest, most honest novelists in Canada, Claudia Dey (Stunt); Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads); Russell Smith (Diana); and RM Vaughan (Spells) to open up and spill their thoughts on sex in fiction. And they do. In this funny, intimate, occasionally confessional discussion, these writers tackle everything from the hazards and necessity of writing sex in fiction to pornography, the English language, sexual identity, pseudonyms, Martin Amis, the bisexual mind, Jaws, Worst Sex lists and matronly disapproval.
On “Sex in Fiction”
SALLY COOPER: Why have you chosen (when you have) to write about sex in your fiction and what hazards have you faced? How do you go about writing your characters’ sex lives? Do you consciously aim for a particular effect?
RICHARD VAUGHAN: Well, for fiction, I’m not sure there are any real hazards – because you can always rely on the old “it’s just fiction” crutch (I am assuming you mean social hazards, such as being labeled a pervert or having your mother read your dirty book?). The only literary hazard I can imagine is ending up on one of those Worst Sex Writing lists that get put out every couple of years, usually by nerds in Harvard or some such place who never have sex. That would be mortifying, death with your pants down.
As to why I’ve given my characters sex lives, I’ve honestly never thought about it before. It seems to me that reading a book in which nobody had sex, or at least talked about sex, would be like reading a book wherein no characters ate, or used the toilet, or slept.
Having said that, there are consequences to writing about sex in this country. Mainstream Canadian publishers are notoriously sex phobic. When I was schlepping my last novel around, there was some interest, I understand, from “the majors”, but they all wanted the same two things: get rid of the gay stuff, and get rid of the young protagonist’s sexual misadventures. I was not surprised, I’m sad to say.
Regarding the second part of the question, I never think about a character’s sex life in an overarching, plotted sort of way — but I do think about them having sex. So, I let the sex between my characters happen moment by moment. I think that is how most of us have sex anyway, isn’t it? We don’t consciously map out our sexual histories, and I’ve met too many people who have shifting, malleable sexualities to believe that anyone has a sex life that resembles a corporate mission statement. We are all just too messy, conflicted, and clumsy.
All I really aim for with a sex scene is descriptive accuracy. The metaphorical implications are built into the scenario, because sex is always read as a metaphor for something else. Why be didactic about it? Let the reader do the lifting.
But I am interested in the mechanics, the stink and salt of it all. What does it feel like to get finger fucked? What are the comforts and discomforts of doing it inside, say, an abandoned automobile, or an over-decorated heritage home? How do ghosts have sex? What do all the little spaces between the major limbs sound like when they move? What do people smell, or smell of? What does ball hair feel like on the tongue?
I suspect my interest in the base, oily-pores-and-nose-hairs aspect stems from the fact that when I was growing up, I had no fictional representations of my own sexuality. I had to insert myself into the scenes (and, because I know you want to know, yes, I was the girl). So now it is habitual for me to read all sexual activities in fiction as if I am one of the characters, and to write about sex as if it is happening to me (at least in the first draft).
NALO HOPKINSON: It’s difficult to answer any of those “why” questions about writing fiction. There’s a way in which it all comes down to ‘because I want to,’ and all the other, more logical responses feel like at best partial truths. Why not write about sex? If I’m telling stories about the lives of human beings (and other creatures), why would I single out one of the most common, complicated, fraught, fascinating, awe-inspiring, important, conflicted, exciting things we do and omit it from my writing? So I write about sex when it seems like it’d be a good way to tell any part of the story. I write about sex when the story is about sex. (I guess I should make it clear at this point that some of my fiction is erotica/porn.) And I write about sex when I feel like it.
[Hazards?] Fear. Fear that my mother’s going to read it, fear that people will confuse me with my characters, fear that I’ll never be allowed to publish a children’s book, fear of letting my prejudices show, fear of misrepresenting people who are already marginalized and maligned, fear of being openly queer, fear of writing badly, fear of angering my audience for any number of reasons, fear of writing something that ends up being silly instead of sexy (if sexy’s what I’m going for with a particular sex scene), fear of writing outside my experience, fear of writing from within my experience (which is a fear of being exposed). The fear is a hazard that happens in my head. It’s there before I even put fingers to keyboard. The hazards I’ve faced after I’ve published a story with sex in it have so far been piddly by comparison. My mother, bless her, does read my work. Sometimes it alarms her, but she’s an adult and she deals and she remains proud of me. I’m under contract right now to write a young adult novel. I have misrepresented people, been chastised and/or corrected, and have survived. Hopefully my writing has improved as a result. I’ve had someone try to ban a book of mine because its sexual content made her uncomfortable. It seems to have made the book more popular. I’ve had people sneer at my work, etc. etc. On the other hand, I’ve also had people appreciate, understand and like what I do. It’s the big reward for taking the risk.
[How do you go about writing your characters' sex lives?] It depends on what individual characters are like, what sex means for them in their lives and in a particular encounter, how their personalities are expressed when it comes to their sexual behaviours. It also depends on what I want a particular scene to do. I wouldn’t sit my characters down to have breakfast and have it just be breakfast. What they eat, where and when they eat it, what they’re wearing, the weather, what they say to each other and how all convey information about the personalities of the characters, the circumstances in which they live, their relationships with each other, their desires and obstacles, and the building plot of the story. It’s the same with a sex scene. When people complain about ‘gratuitous sex’ in fiction, I find that usage disingenuous. The damning word ‘gratuitous’ is invariably pinned onto ’sex’ or ‘violence,’ as though only sex and violence can be written in a way that has no function to the story. We don’t spit the word ‘gratuitous’ a tenth so readily at scenes of people having breakfast or visiting the doctor or hearing from their long-lost aunt. But it’s just as possible to write those types of scenes without making them do any work in the story. Often people say, ‘gratuitous sex scene’ in the hope that they can derail the discussion by making you feel shame, because then maybe they won’t have to talk about something that makes them feel uncomfortable. When you call them on it, they carefully explain to you what the word ‘gratuitous’ means and why it’s an accurate word for what they’re describing. Well, it probably is. But it’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, imagine an exchange that went like this:
Q: “Do you like apples?”
A: “Christ, I can’t stand the nasty kind! Grosses me out. They taste so awful!”
Q: “Yeah. Myself, I don’t like Macintosh apples. Too mushy for my liking. But are there kinds of apples you do like?”
A: “I guess they’re okay if they’re not disgusting. How can anyone eat that shit?”
Q: “Okay, then; what kind of apple do you find disgusting?”
A: “Oh, you know; when they’ve been sitting too long and they’ve gone mouldy all over. Or worse yet, when they’re rotten. Euw.”
Q: (Increasingly confused) “You’re telling me that you don’t like rotten apples?”
A: “That’s right. Yuck.”
Q: “But nobody likes rotten apples. Why would you even bother telling me that? It’s not like I’m going to try to feed you a rotten apple!”
A: “What’re you getting all upset about? I’m not fussy. I’ll eat peaches, plums, mangoes; just don’t give me any rotten apples, or I’m never speaking to you again!”
Q: “Can I feed you a rotten plum?”
A: “Of course not; what are you, crazy?”
Q: “Can I feed you a ripe, luscious, sweet, crisp apple?”
A: “No! Didn’t you hear me? I can’t stand the rotten ones!”
See what I mean? The response is subtly off topic, tellingly defensive, and weirdly obsessive. Substitute ’sex in fiction’ for ‘apples,’ and the response is no less odd.
RUSSELL SMITH: I laughed out loud at that dialogue. It’s good bad Beckett. I agree totally about the problem with the idea of the gratuitous. Everything’s gratuitous in fiction. You don’t really need any details about a character’s daily life at all; you could write a life story as if it were an encyclopedia entry.
And yet sex is such a site of tension, of emotion, awkwardness and intimacy, it is central to our relationships. To exclude it – and its sticky details – from our accounts of relationships and emotional voyages would be like excluding all the scenes of meals.
I think it was Umberto Eco who came up with a brilliantly technical definition of pornography: he said you know the film you’re watching is pornographic if all the scenes extraneous to the narrative – walking from place to place, having sex – are left in and the narrative is cut out. It’s a great structuralist view of what constitutes a narrative.
Richard mentions stories in which no one uses the toilet. That’s an interesting comparison, because of course in most stories no one does use the toilet. It’s seen as unimportant to the plot. A young woman unhappy with contemporary literature once told me she found sex scenes in fiction distasteful because, well, what if we all wrote every detail of people going to the toilet? I replied that there were quite a few toilet scenes in great literature. Mr Leopold Bloom and his sensitivity to the changes in his digestive tract come to mind. John Updike’s characters are similarly intestinally aware – there’s a great and heartbreaking scene in Couples in which a husband shits his guts out while breaking up with his wife, who lies in the bath with a facecloth over her nose. Anyway, this did little to interest my friend, who just had her ideas about my disgusting interests confirmed.
I think that actually what she was objecting to – this was many years ago, when feminist attitudes tended towards the more strident and simplistic – was the writing of sex scenes by men. She didn’t like reading all those descriptions of female bodies, being reminded of how men see women as bodies and judge those bodies. It made her self-conscious, I think, and I understand that. (I don’t know why she wasn’t reading fiction by women, though.)
I myself found that in my first couple of books I avoided sex scenes, I think just out of an intuitive prudishness. There was lots of sex, lots of people falling into bed with each other, but then the camera would pan to the window and we’d cut back to them in the morning.
I didn’t want to embarrass people. I also didn’t want to be mocked the way English-language writers almost invariably are if they so much as confess to carnal desire. For some reason, anyone who writes a sex scene in this language instantly finds that all the internet trolls in the world have imagined the author in the positions he or she has described and are humorously disgusted by the thought. It’s a curious knee-jerk.
It’s easy to find sex scenes funny: they are funny as soon as you isolate them from their context. And English is a difficult language to write sex in. It is hard and Germanic. It sounds either clinical or comical. Or, if you choose to use slang terms for body parts and activities instead of proper terms, it sounds rough and crude. The most frequent winners of Bad Sex awards are those that shy away from precise language: it’s when writers try to be poetic, or overly emotional rather than graphic, that they end up being euphemistic. And they end up with lines about touching the core of her being or exploding in light.
When I set out to write a pornographic novel (I prefer that word to erotica, a word I find cowardly), I wanted to try it first as an exercise, to get over my hesitation in writing sex, and to explore ways of using language that weren’t comical or clinical or crude. It was really tough. There are only so many body parts, so many acts, and so many words to describe them. I found myself being repetitive. My solution to the linguistic problem was to be – as Richard says – as specific as possible. I always want to know which finger is where and who is on top.
The exercise worked: my fiction since then has had a lot more explicit sex in it. I wish more did. I really want to know what people do in bed with each other and how they feel about it. It seems so central to our identities.
I initially published that novel under a female pseudonym because I wanted the vast dreamed-of female readership, and I knew that women would see sex scenes written by a man as somehow sexist automatically. It was a venal fraud, but I would point out that the Bronte sisters chose androgynous pseudonyms for exactly the same (inverse) reasons.
CLAUDIA DEY: Writing about sex is as unavoidable as the mention of a streetcar or the burial of a cat or peeing on flowers or eating a liverwurst sandwich or being whispered to by a preacher; it is indivisible from the human experience. I am fascinated – curtain drawn, lights extinguished – by other people, the interface between them. Sex is a shortcut – mighty, vulnerable, haunted, sublime – to the expression of that experience. It is a locus of transformation – whether it be the precursor to a suicide note or to ecstatic revelation. It is a set of unscripted rituals and contortions wherein human beings can adopt extraordinary guises: brute, swan, tease, voluptuary. We can explode our more remote corners. It is this kind of close snapshot I want of a character – clothing thrown from a balcony, an earring pulled in the rain, a nipple offered in a stairwell.
The hazards are, I think, largely twofold: language and excess. First, language – elucidator of the brain, point of engagement with the mind of the writer, the mind of the character – does not have the same elasticity and grace around sex as it does around other forms of human confluence. The language of the body is either anatomical (reminiscent of the polished chrome of Cronenberg’s gynecological instruments) or bordering on insult and violence. I prefer the latter as it reads as though written in a howl, in a throb – and what is sex if not that? In Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, carnivorous raconteur, ‘gang’ trolls the corpuscular streets of Paris, looking for ‘cunt’, for ‘twat’, for that ‘dark, unstitched wound.’ The opposite – an imposed mechanical vernacular – transports me to a Victorian classroom and all I can smell is chalk dust.
The second and more cunning trap is excess – in overlong description and to a larger extent, worldview. Exaggerated – almost baroque, relentlessly poetic – beauty makes for sentimentality i.e. sex equals oneness; sex ends aloneness; sex mends. Sex is fruit and sighing and transparent nightgowns and sudden bravery. This is the stuff of album covers. Whereas, as Richard writes, ‘we are messy, conflicted, and clumsy.’ Sex in books must reflect this half-unraveled state.
I try to write about sex honestly. In the ring, we are clumsy and buffoons and unfinished and half-dying and dead. We are naughty and foolish and yearning. We are iconic. We are defeated. I try to punctuate a scene with the microscopic detail that can only come out of a sexual stronghold – the smell of an alleyway after a funeral, the moth hole in her stocking, the flex of a tongue. As in film, I appreciate a good cut. Sex, like fantasy, asks for negative space; a slender portion can convey the whole. For me, a milky thigh at a bus stop can be more persuasive than the Venus slipping off her furs.
The effect I aim for is not shy of seduction – or at the very least, the feeling you have when someone is flirting with you; you are suddenly implicated in the course of their life – however fleeting that might be.
SALLY: You nail it, Claudia, when you write that sexuality is “indivisible from human experience” and thus unavoidable in fiction. Characters with no sex lives strike me as odd, partially formed. Panning away as the clothing drops, as you confess to having done in your earlier work, Russell, though understandable, seems odd, too. I picture stock footage of bees pollinating; sprouts bursting from seeds.
Nalo, I love your complex, precise list of fears. My own fears in writing about sex also go well beyond worrying about my great aunt reading a fisting scene. The risk that I won’t get it right is a hazard, but the chance that I will excites me. I want to write those moments so honest and particular that no other character could have landed there in that exact way. Surgery as sex play, slipping into roles of kidnapper and victim, ways of abandoning (and more truly being) ourselves, moments of intimacy and disguise and brute physicality, these interest me.
Martin Amis has said, “Good sex is impossible to write about … it may be that good sex is something fiction can’t do – like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny but not sexy.” In my own fiction, sex is a vehicle for self understanding, among other things. A teenage girl who involves herself in a couple’s sex games emerges from the experience changed, and perhaps implicated. Funny, no. Uncomfortable? Yes. Sexy even? Depends on who’s reading.
What do you make of Amis’ statement?
RICHARD: Hmmmm, I suspect Martin Amis was just trying to cover his ass. I thought the sex scenes in London Fields were spectacular, horrific, obsessive, etc. Then again, I don’t have to face the evil British media on a regular basis, so I can’t imagine what defensive reflexes that might breed in an author.
I’m not sure there is a recipe for making good sex in contemporary fiction, because I’m not sure there is such a thing, in these parts, as contemporary fiction. Half of what comes out of this country appears wholly ignorant of the last century’s experiments with the novel. I often feel that contemporary Canadian fiction is backward looking, tied to old ideas about nationalism and culture, and thus correspondingly outdated ideas about form and content. So, when I find some healthy bouncy-bouncy in a new Canadian work, I almost can’t believe it. And when said frolicking is presented in a more fragmented, non-linear way, I wonder how it got published. For instance, Derek McCormack’s new book has some great rimming scenes, presented in Derek’s usual wacko style. I marvel at their sheer audacity. And he wonders why the Star won’t review his books.
How does sex serve a story? Well, I’m going to break with all the teachings of Creative Writing schools everywhere and say that sometimes a good sex scene in a novel is its own reward. “Furthering the story” be damned. Novels are meant to be entertainments, after all. What’s wrong with tossing in material that may not directly serve the larger purpose of the novel – sex scenes, violent scenes, drunken chatter – just because you want to, you think it’s fun, or to turn on the reader? There is far too much tidiness in fiction today, too much Raymond Carver winnowing and shaving. A baroque outbreak now and then is a delight. But the cult of the “unified novel” still rages, and it is a very macho cult too. Think of all the wonderful, excessive, meandering novels from the19th century. They would never be published today.
And, I don’t think Amis is right. The idea that good sex is impossible to capture on the page strikes me as a variation on the idea of sex as a transcendent act, a mystical adventure, something that words can’t describe, etc – which, granted, it can be, but isn’t always. Who would want sex to be that loaded with significance every time? Of course, if you are Martin Amis, you probably think everything you do is loaded with significance.
CLAUDIA: I love Russell’s summation of Nalo’s dialogue as ‘good bad Beckett’; I wonder: is there a third player, initially silent with a rope around his neck named Lucky?
Mister Amis, how can sex not be sexy? (Actually, I can think of many reasons, but) as you imply Sally, isn’t this an aesthetic, or more precisely, a visceral judgment that belongs privately to the reader curled under her nightlight, the book folded open in her lap?
When I think of Martin Amis, I think only of stained, crooked teeth. This is, of course, beside the point. Beyond his pummeled jaw and bitter wink, I appreciate his insistence on humour. Amis compulsively offers himself the jester in an otherwise earnest ring. As writers we tend to rely heavily on our tragedy masks leaving our comedy masks to crack themselves up in the cold dungeons we imagine our lives to be.
I agree with Amis’ smoke-ringed assertion: sex can be funny. Unfunny sex verges on carnal melodrama. To run with Amis’ sex-dream simile, unfunny sex is akin to making a character’s dreams heavily portentous (Is it Oliver Stone who senselessly shoots dour-looking First Nations’ men standing at roadsides?) This is the sham of false profundity. When reading deadpan sex or baldly symbolic dreams, I lust for Sally’s stock footage. Give me rockets firing and buds falling open.
I will venture that sometimes writers write the apocalyptically good sex scene because of what Russell identifies: the lazy presumption (unless it is written by Anais Nin) that the character is a thin flirt of a disguise for the writer. It is not ‘She’ of Mary Gaitskill’s ‘A Romantic Weekend’ contorted and flushed and begging and disappointingly not the ‘dim-eyed little slut with a big, bright mouth and black vinyl underwear’ ‘He’ wants, but Mary Gaitskill. With this syndrome pressed in his mind, the writer mistakes his readers to be a harem of possible lovers and his writing a clue to his prowess. ‘I am a poetic stud. I am Leonard Cohen. Hear me roar.’ Extended guitar lick.
I think good sex in contemporary fiction is scarce because of the prudishness that first forced Russell to ‘pan out.’ We are afraid of writing sex for the same reason we are afraid of being naked in a crowd; scrutiny makes for vulnerability makes for Nalo’s extended monologue about fear – ‘a hazard that happens in my head.’
My favourite sex writing is the writing that like Lisa Moore’s Open or Degrees of Nakedness is real sex in seductive portions (the sensuous particulars Richard and Russell describe); Moore offers details and they read like morsels of a slow, blindfolded meal. Or Miranda July’s more canted offerings in her trickily, shamelessly titled No One Belongs Here More than You: the sex is not necessarily good sex but because of that, it intrigues. The sex serves the narrative in the way conflict serves narrative. When pressed against a wall – actually or metaphorically – we are given portals into the characters’ more beastly or sad or worried or excitable parts. Sex dies when it is performative; the same is true of sex in fiction.
Is the point then: it is not that good sex is impossible to write about, but that good sex – at least in fiction – is uninteresting?
RUSSELL: I remember passing around worn paperbacks under desks in junior high… Jaws, by I think Peter Benchley, I remember, was particularly popular because of some surprisingly subtle scenes of what we would now call flirtation that were so gravidly erotic they made every boy just about spurt in his jeans. I remember being excited to the point of leakage, right there under the soccer goalposts in the back field, by a scene in a restaurant in which the lady is getting excited by the gentleman’s seductive language and is wearing a short skirt and bare legs and she thinks to herself she can’t get up from the seat in the diner because she is afraid she’ll leave a wet mark on the vinyl. That very idea – that image, and the idea of its possibility — inflamed me so much that I used it as masturbatory material for years.
I remember the moment when Danny Calda was blurting to an attentive group of guys that we had to read this book because it made him totally horny and Miss Jowett walked into the classroom and heard him say those exact words. The mortification for all parties was great. Particularly since Miss Jowett was the object of all our fantasies as well. I don’t think it was a coincidence that she was our English teacher.
I have not checked that that scene actually exists in Jaws. I remember it now clearly – I fact it’s all I remember from that book – and I read it only that once in 1976. That’s how powerful sex in literature is.
NALO: Kinda neat to continue this discussion this morning; last night I took part in a group reading, and the piece I chose was an excerpt from a porn story I published a few years ago; sort of a circle jerk with two gay men and a butch lesbian. So I’m very much in the mindset of thinking about sex writing. Sally, I completely and utterly disagree with Amis that it’s impossible to write sex well. I think he was talking about his own difficulties writing sex scenes, not uttering a truth about writing sex in general.
Claudia, your comment makes me wish I could remember where I read the story in which a character pees on flowers. (Was it perhaps one of yours?) It was beautiful; made me want to go out and pee on some flowers myself. I think that may be part of what makes people leery about reading sex in their fiction; namely OMG, suppose it turns me on? I think it’s W.H. Auden who’s supposed to have said, in response to an interviewer asking him how he knew a piece of writing was pornographic, “Because it makes me hard.” I suspect that for a lot of people, getting turned on by reading a sex scene is all well and good when it’s sex that fits with their sexual identity, but becomes way problematic when it doesn’t. Because then they start to wonder what that means about their own sexuality and their social acceptability. Sometimes, rather than confront that, they instead choose to be offended by the scene and/or dismissive of the writer. It’s a reaction that misses the point in so very many ways. We are human beings. We are a species with a strong capability for sexualizing pretty much anything, regardless of our individual sexual preferences. This is why advertising works so well. I once did a writing exercise with a bunch of students in which I first had them look around the room and pick an object. Then I told them to spend five minutes describing that object in a way that made the object erotic. They hadn’t known the point of the exercise until I told them that, so then they were stuck with the challenge of eroticizing objects in a pretty mundane room. I still remember the riff that one of them wrote about the keyboard of his laptop. By the time he was done reading it to the class, I was ready to invite that keyboard out for dinner and a movie. If you don’t like the taste of beer, yet you find yourself one day responding to a beautifully lit shot of a stein of cold beer with sunlight playing just so off the beads of condensation on the glass, one of which has just accumulated enough liquid weight that it’s begun trickling ticklingly down the side of the glass, does that make you a closet beer lover? Well, perhaps. But it’s just as likely that the artist(s) who created the shot have successfully used their skills to get you to imagine the power in an experience that you otherwise wouldn’t appreciate. Maybe you see that image, get yourself a glass of the cold lemonade you prefer, and perhaps the memory of your response to the shot of the glass of beer permeates your experience of the lemonade and renews your ability to appreciate it.
Yeah, I know; euphemistic enough for ya?
Russell, thanks for that bit about Umberto Eco’s definition of pornographic. I like the filter he uses, but it still does seem like another way of saying that pornographic writing is by definition bad writing. There, I disagree.
SALLY: I love Claudia’s idea of writers authoring stellar sex scenes as elaborate Lavalife calling cards for their own prowess based on the degraded idea that readers interpret all sex as if it’s happening between them and the author (twists on Richard’s and Russell’s earlier characterizations of reading).
Mary Gaitskill has said “There can be something innately erotic about [losing control] because there’s a sense of limitlessness to [it] especially if you’re a person with a lot of limits.” Sex is a motif throughout Gaitskill’s work, her way of getting at her characters’ buried emotional concerns. Claudia, your comments on Miranda July remind me of Aimee Bender’s heiress heroine in “Call My Name” who is auditioning men and the lovely sense of expectation and horror and letdown of a stranger offering to cut off her satin ballgown, the possibility that the sex we think we want is a cover for an emptiness more deep and terrifying – contempt, perhaps, and complication – and certainly fascinating. In your story “But Who Will Slap Marguerite,” Claudia, sex likewise serves these subterranean purposes, is about, as Marguerite says, “negotiating pain.”
It intrigues me that you felt, Russell, that women would automatically see sex scenes written by a man as somehow sexist when you chose to publish your work of pornographic fiction, Diana, pseudonymously. Did you think readers would disbelieve the book? Dismiss it? Why then wouldn’t you assume women readers would reject any female character written by you? How is writing about sex different?
All of which leads to my next question: do men and women write sex differently?
RICHARD: I have had many, many, many variations on this conversation with many writer friends. Just two days ago, a straight novelist and critic I know told me he was fired by (and simultaneously fired) his agent, because the agent considered his book too full of sex for Canadian tastes. Now, the interesting part is that the agent was a “matron” who just happened to be a straight man in his late 50s. Matronly views are not exclusive to women.
I would like to suggest a book called Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s by Ann Douglas. In this history she describes the scene in the US in the 20s, wherein almost all of pop culture was controlled by a kind of matron figure that existed in people’s heads, men and women alike, a figure left over from the late Victorian period. Douglas charts how artists rebelled against this figure and the push for Temperance (in all forms) by inserting foolish, uptight dowagers and stuffy old burgermeister types in popular entertainments (the Marx Brothers being a great example, or early cartoons, such as Betty Boop). I feel we are living in our own version of a matron period in Canada, and I know I am not alone.
I think my answer to the last question is simply no. No, with provisos. I suspect that men and women believe they write differently, or have been taught that they do, especially around intimate subjects, but I distrust essentialism (even after I use it for a cheap dig at Canadian publishing! Yes, I want it both ways).
CLAUDIA: Are we, like the language available to us, Foucault-encoded? Embedded? Straight-jacketed and thus in the pursuit of a pre-inscribed or ‘natural sexuality’ – let alone its rendering in literature – fated?
It is either romantic, stubborn or both but, I think the whole point of writing is to be, to Sally’s point, ‘limitless.’ To take the dare. Gwendolyn MacEwen said her mind was ‘bisexual.’ Her ‘muses’ were often male. She was unafraid of choosing extraordinary twins for her work – most famously, T.E. Lawrence.
Writing is simply and expansively a form of engagement with the mind – and what is not limitless but the mind? It is defeat to think it otherwise. Consequently, it is dangerous and small to apply qualifiers and expectations attendant to gender. Male writers are cigar-smoking, plot-driven mechanics with extensive wilderness and medical training, a vast knowledge of bombs, maps on their walls and nymphets coiled around their ankles. Women writers are lonely and medicated, live beside lakes, have old cats, a flask, and a subterranean access to emotion that allows them to portray the interior life with a heightened sensitivity.
Let us compare – not mythologies – but the imagined prescriptions of gender to form. Does form too have an electric fence around it? No. Lucian Freud could abandon his reclining nudes and paint abstracts, work in plywood and encaustics. Peaches could sing lullabies. Annie Sprinkle could sculpt figurines. Karen Finley could puppeteer. There are countless examples of form being trespassed, artist as nomad: painter-filmmaker, country crooner-leading man, installation artist-essayist, collagist-screenwriter, cartoonist-opera singer. The transiting artist is the most interesting artist and the one I would most like to be stranded with. (David Bowie.) The same is true of gender.
More to the point, of course men and women will sometimes write sex differently, but I reject this as a rule and its paler cousin, a generalization. Who wrote about the vulva as ‘an Arabian zero, the sign from which spring endless mathematical worlds, the fulcrum which balances the stars and the light dreams.’ Could be Anne Sexton. Could be Anne Michaels. No, it is my favourite ‘prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty’: Henry Miller.
The epilogue to Lolita reminds us that fiction – written and read – deserves to be treated as sublime, existing beyond the claustrophobia of gender and form. Nabokov writes: ‘For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, this is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.’
RUSSELL: I second Claudia’s nomination of Miranda July’s scenes as good sex writing. The sex in her fiction is completely matter-of-fact, and inserted as seamlessly into a narrative as any mundane event. What’s remarkable about it is that the tone doesn’t change when the actions move into the sexual. (It’s still basically the perspective of an autistic person.) The sex is almost always awkward, and often funny. It’s brilliant.
Sally, your question about a female point of view and female characters in any fiction is a good one, and the answer is a depressing one. Indeed, I do feel that female characters in any fiction written by men are often dismissed (by female critics) as one-dimensional or not strong enough and in some way flawed, and I often feel that these judgements are knee-jerk ones, coming more from a bias or an ideology than from a genuine attempt to understand a text. I fear that there are some critics who will automatically dismiss a man’s attempts to write a female character, as if the enterprise is inherently doomed. (You know the critics I mean – they tend to write for student newspapers and free city weeklies.) Such critics tend to expect male characters to be idiotic and weak, but get upset if the female characters are. They tend not to notice if all the characters in a certain story share, say, superficiality: they will only get upset about the girls. They have a double standard.
(Incidentally, men are prone to the same hypersensitivity. A lot of guys say they hate Margaret Atwood, for example, because, they say, the male characters are all jerks and losers. In this they see evidence of a male-bashing feminism. What they have failed to notice is that Atwood’s female characters are almost universally cruel, venal, superficial or manipulative. By and large, they are nasty pieces of work who mistrust each other. Atwood does not simplify the world.)
Again, I have to refer to the Bronte sisters, writing in a publishing environment entirely dominated by men, who chose to hide their genders for exactly the same reasons. They knew that male critics armed with knowledge of the authors’ identities would determinedly find evidence of a female mind behind the text in order to dismiss it. People will read all sorts of things into a text based on an idea about the author.
For the record, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a woman’s voice, or women’s fiction. Any talented writer can inhabit the mind and body of any imaginary person, whether of a different gender or race or alien species. It’s just a question of talent and imagination. I’ve often thought that one could play a wonderful prank on a first year women’s studies class by giving them Molly Bloom’s monologue from Ulysses and telling them it’s the unjustly neglected work of James Joyce’s long suffering and unpublished wife, a true female voice that was silenced by a male establishment because of its unconventional and feminine meanderings… you’d have them fooled in a jiffy.
NALO: Richard, I suspect you may be right about Martin Amis just trying to cover his ass. There was something of that about the comment, wasn’t there? I chuckled when you mentioned Derek McCormack’s rimming scene, and his wondering why the Star won’t review his books. “Rimming” is probably not a word their reviewers can use! Now I want to get Derek’s book. And thank you for the audacity of “‘furthering the story’ be damned”! It’s a tonic. I’ll think of it next time my courage is waning as I write a sex scene.
I have a porn short story in which the protagonist is male-identified with a female body. That and the risks it entails for someone trans in their sexual life is not an experience I have directly, and I had to think long and hard about how to tackle those issues in the story. I had to find the places in my own experience and understanding that gave me some insight into my protagonist’s. And I had to ask people. All complicated, of course, by the face that no group of people is monolithic. Experiences vary and how people respond to them varies. The first time I read the story out loud, there were a number of trans men in the audience, and you bet I was worried as I read it. I think that’s just fine. Yes, there’s a culture war going on around appropriation of voice. Yes, it trickles down to representations of sex. I don’t have a problem with that.
And I can’t help pointing out that writing sex scenes about experiences one has not had is arguably a good excuse, should one need it, to do a lot of primary research.
Sally, you talked about Russell’s fear that ‘ that women would automatically see sex scenes written by a man as somehow sexist.’ I think it’s a legitimate fear. There are women who would respond that way. There are editors who would refuse to publish such a work simply because they worry that some women would respond that way. But there are also readers and editors who would be able to judge the work on its merits. We become pretty savvy about which publications can deal with what we write.
SALLY: Thank you for bringing Nabokov into the ring, Claudia, and the aesthetic connection to other states of being he demands of literature. In the epilogue to Lolita, he also writes that “No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous,” likening the endeavor to decisions made by magazine editors about how close to the nipple the neckline can get to both titillate and placate.
If, as Richard suggests, a Matron Culture does exist in Canada, encouraging writers in the business of what goes where, how should one (how do you) respond?
CLAUDIA: With everything but strategy.
NALO: I’m not sure how to respond to that one, partly because I’m not convinced there is a Matron Culture. What I do find as I teach all over the world, is that many writers convince themselves that they are limited to their own countries and to the opportunities there. And of course you want to be recognized in your own country or countries, but you don’t have to be published there in order to do that. When I began to write novels, I pretty much had to search outside Canada if I wanted a chance at making a living, because there was no major Canadian publishing house that focused on science fiction and fantasy; in fact, there still isn’t. I gather there aren’t the Canadian numbers to support it. I’m also a Caribbean writer, and the situation there is the same. Macmillan Caribbean has just begun the first ever anglo-Caribbean fantasy imprint with a line of novels for children. So my publisher is American. And of course it isn’t as easy as ‘take your marbles and play elsewhere’, but what about being a writer is easy? I guess I’m saying that if the market for your work doesn’t exist in one place, look for where it does exist. Uppinder Mehan and I couldn’t find a U.S. publisher for our anthology of post-colonial science fiction, but I suspected that a Canadian imprint would be interested in what we were doing, and I was correct; the wonderful Arsenal Pulp Press took the project on. And if the market doesn’t exist in conventional publishing, maybe you self-publish. (A caveat there; much of the time when someone gives me the rant that the publishing world just isn’t “ready” for their work, the real truth is, it’s a badly written book that self-published, is just as likely to disappear without a trace, except all the cost will have come out of the author’s pocket, not the publisher’s.)
RICHARD: I think the only response to matronly shushing is to be equally rude, to shush back, so to speak. Or, to poke fun at the whole situation. A friend and fellow novelist, Jared Mitchell, wants me to co-write a “woman’s book” (what an awful phrase) with him, along the lines of A Good House, one of those unhappy middle class family books, called “The Fallow Garden”, a book set to the seasons of gardening, with gardening notes running alongside the text. We would then hire a Boomer-aged actress to pose as the author, preferably from some rural, white community. We figure it’s the only way we’ll ever earn any money. I remember once reading a review of some novel in The National Post, and the reviewer, a prominent novelist, actually wrote that one of the best things about the novel was its “killer potato salad recipe”. You can’t make this stuff up.
I was thinking about Russell’s comments about sex scenes and how they are often not well received by readers who are not part of that group (the men writing about women thing). I have had a parallel experience. When my play Camera, Woman was published (a play about a lesbian film director, based on historical characters), The Lesbian Review of Books tore it to shreds, arguing that I had lifted the words of the women characters from interviews and had not credited them, and that this was a typical example of gay male appropriation. The thing is, I had not done so – I made the whole thing up. And I could not have stolen texts anyway, because no records of interviews with the characters in question existed (as far as I know). But, the critic had an agenda (only lesbians can write about lesbians), and the facts were irrelevant. The publisher had to write to the magazine to get a retraction, but it never happened because the mag went out of business (and no wonder, I’ve yet to meet a dyke who ever read the damned thing). The lesson I learned from that event is that agendas trump critical responses, and that the whole assessment business is poison. I stopped reading responses to my work years ago.
RUSSELL: I agree with Richard’s idea that the Matron is not necessarily of one gender. I would like to nominate as this country’s most influential cultural Matrons right now Rex Murphy and Robert Fulford. Both can be counted on to furiously represent the interests of Respectability. For a while, Noah Richler was doing a similar thing in the Post. (He denounced my pornographic novel as being, well, unseemly.) And, in his day, I would have awarded Peter Gzowski the title as well – as proud defender of the unchallenging.
Nalo, I have a couple of anecdotes that complement yours regarding censorship and the fear of one’s audience.
My first novel had no graphic sex in it at all. There were some pretty girls on the cover, but fully clothed. A friend of mine included it in a package of books that were sent to an unfortunate friend of his, a young woman serving a prison sentence in the United States for drug trafficking. Mine was the only book in the package returned by the prison censor as being “unapproved material”. No one could figure out why – unless it was the line on the back cover about “a strange world of hip fashion and surreal nightclubs”. We figured this line suggested the presence of drugs. There is actually no drug-taking in the book, but it was probably this suggestion that got it banned – as a word like “market” might have got a book banned in the Eastern Bloc. I mention this just to show that the cultural taboo of the moment can change on a dime – and that it almost always comes from some temporary hysteria. I would say the current paranoia over “child pornography” in art in the United States may look equally ridiculous from a distance.
Second anecdote, this one about appropriation of voice. My last novel, Muriella Pent, is about a middle-aged man of mixed race and a middle-aged woman. I was just as nervous about trying to do the female thing as I was about trying to do the race thing: the life of a middle-aged society widow is as foreign to me as any overseas culture. I had a nerve-racking test when I had to speak to a book club in Moncton, New Brunswick. It was of course entirely female, and they were from an even smaller town as well. They didn’t really like the book much, I think, and one of the things they objected to was one particular sex scene, a threesome involving the man, the woman and a much younger woman. They just didn’t buy it: why would a well-off woman their age do something like that? I was in a tricky situation – I was embarrassed to tell them (indeed, I started blushing when thinking about it) that the threesome scene had been inspired by a real threesome I had had, with similar age differences involved. I had really done my research on that one. “Believe me,” was all I could say, “such things do happen.” And I wondered too, in that moment, whether there was anyone in the room who had had an experience just like mine (or who had them once a week) but who couldn’t bring it up in that respectable atmosphere. There was just no way you could get full honesty in that environment, once the disapproval had been voiced.
I guess the point of my anecdote is that self-censorship is more insidious and more powerful, in this country at least, than official censorship. I think there is widespread hypocrisy in the mockery and sneering that often surrounds sexual revelations.
I once published an essay about S/M. It was quite a heartfelt essay, not really about sex but about relationships. A reviewer claimed to find my sexual proclivities hilarious, saying that “the list of accoutrements alone” reduced him to tears of laughter. (All I had mentioned was handcuffs.) I was honestly tempted for a second to try to find a private investigator and do a little looking into this guy’s own sex life. Scratch the surface of these people – people like the US governors who crusade against prostitution, or the senators who sign bills against homosexuality – and oh boy, do you find accoutrements.
I guess that would be my only response to matron culture: a public plea for honesty.
SALLY: Russell, I agree with your call for honesty. Sex in fiction can be a source of conflict or emotional revelation – and more, surely. The challenge is to work the gaps between animal and swoon, between the erotic dream and the imperfect body (language) before us.
What place do you think sex has in fiction now? Lampoon? Theatre? Hatboxes? Or is there – can there be – more?
RUSSELL: My hope, if not my prediction, is that literature will grow more pornographic and pornography will grow more literary.
CLAUDIA: It seems to me sex in fiction is occupying the same place it always has – the half-queasiness of an ill-kept human secret. The performance of language disappoints just as much as it anoints resulting in distortions underserved.
At its worst, sex in fiction is like a bad sculpture of a deity. A token for a curious-enough tourist, it is awkward and shoddy, a grotesque comedy for your purse. At its best, it is the parceled-out erotica of a much larger, more purposeful narrative: a cowboy’s bitten palm, his lover astride him (All The Pretty Horses.) Or Rushdie’s hilariously rhapsodized heroine in The Satanic Verses: the sheets thrown back to reveal her in all her ‘lavishness’ weeping milk. Or the accumulated sultriness of Alison Pick’s The Sweet Edge; the book is written the way we might live the moment before dying – a reel of lushness. The contemporary habit I most lament – in its effect on the presentation of sex – is the insistence on a beauty-less apocalypse. Harmony Korine suffers from this most famously.
Perhaps the ‘more’ is that we are moving – however hesitant, stuttering and tragic the effort – in the words of Vyacheslav Ivanov, ‘From the real to the more real’ – wrestling with rendering this vast, noisy, kind of embarrassing act of true salvation, this one thousand conversations between bodies, our only human shortcut.
NALO: Well, first of all, Richard and Russell have convinced me; there is a cult of matronly disapproval. Shame on them. Though it sounds as though they already have too much shame. I comfort myself with the strong suspicion that the prurient outnumber the prudes, so hopefully we can always find an audience for our sex writing. Back to the question: I think sex in fiction still has the place it’s occupied forever; it’s part of the lives of the characters. It’s very easy to make fun of because it’s so loaded and so fundamentally weird, precious and contested an act – my partner had a field day with how egregiously I overused the sea and ocean metaphors in my first sort-of lesbian sex scene. I didn’t have the first idea what I was doing. (Primary research is ongoing.) Sex is something that humans love to experience, think about, talk about, gossip about, read about. And writers, as much as their readers, are human. Those of us who’re interested in writing about sex are going to want to get our hands and our minds all over it just as much as we want to do with other human fields of endeavour. I’m reaching for some profound ending statement here, but really, all I can come up with is, people have sex, so of course we write about it. Why wouldn’t we? Even if only as a tonic against “killer potato salad recipe” fiction .
RICHARD: If some enterprising publisher starts a line of books for readers who enjoy reading about sex and other realities of urban life, readers who are tired of the intergenerational-love-story-on-a-Canola-farm crap, and said publisher aggressively markets these books via non-conventional methods (sex shows, hook up sites, etc) … it might just take off.
And then the big bosses will copy the formula and wreck it. But, golden ages are not meant to last. Dare I hope?
In the meantime, all we can do is write what we need or want to write, and hope that, eventually, the world will find us. My only true goal in this life is to outlive all the people I dislike (so far, I’m up to ten people! I am winning!!), and if some book sales come with that, I consider that bonus material.
Given all this sex talk, shouldn’t we five get together and, um, you know, fool around? It would make for a great story, told five different ways.
Sally Cooper is the author of the novel Tell Everything, published by Dundurn Press. She teaches creative writing at Humber College. Photo credit: Daniel Hill
Claudia Dey’s novel, Stunt, is published by Coach House Books.
Nalo Hopkinson writes science fiction with sex in it and porn with science fiction in it. She’s the author of 5.825 books of fiction, and desperately hopes to have that last 0.175 of Blackheart Man completed by April 1. She lives and writes in Toronto, and teaches creative writing in the correspondence programme in creative writing at Humber College. Photo credit: D.C. Findlay
Russell Smith is the author of the pornographic novel Diana: A Diary In The Second Person, published by Biblioasis, which hit the fiction bestseller list in Calgary and only in Calgary. Nobody knows why. Photo credit: JOWITA BYDLOWSKA
RM Vaughan is a Toronto-based writer and video artist originally from New Brunswick. He is the author of eight books and a contributor to over 50 anthologies. His videos and short films play in galleries and festivals across Canada and around the world. Vaughan comments on art and culture for a wide variety of publications and writes a weekly celebrity-interview column for The Globe and Mail.