Archive for December 5th, 2010

Rowan Somerville: “There is nothing more English than bad sex”

Sunday, December 5th, 2010
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We have a winner!

According to The Guardian’s Susanna Rustin, literary sex appears to be on the way out.  I say it’s about time.

The cause for the ruminations was this year’s Booker Prize and The Literary Review‘s Bad Sex award a few days ago.  Beating out nominee Tony Blair, novelist Rowan Somerville, author of The Shape of Her, took home the dubious prize with “one killer sentence using the image of a butterfly collector – ‘like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.'”

“He graciously accepted the honour, presented by film director and food critic Michael Winner, saying: ‘There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you.’

“The judges were also impressed by his nature notes, such as the pubic hair ‘like desert vegetation following an underground stream’, and the passage: ‘He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her.'”

If you sense a sort of groping for effect (pun actually not intended), join the club. I think that’s the danger of sex scenes in novels.  They try too hard. I, personally, would have awarded this line alone from Somerville:  “She released his hair from her fingers and twisted onto her belly like a fish flipping itself, her movement so brusque his chin bounced off her head.”

At best, they make sex sound like hard, hard work.  At worst, they come across as parody.  Or simply very, very gross.  For grossity, this bad sex passage from The Literary Review‘s potpourri is enough to chase anyone into celibacy:

It felt to him as if he were tending a delicate weeping wound, and as he probed it with his tongue he heard her moan quietly. Excited by the oysterish intricacy of her he sucked and licked the salty folds until they became sweet …  (Anthony Quinn, The Rescue Man)

Ewwwwwwwww!

Yesterday's hot is today's kitsch

The truth is, nothing dates faster than sex – or rather, its expression.  Look at the cutesie or “exotic” nude postcards of the 1920s, or the squeaky clean coyness and plastic artificiality of G.I. pinup girls in World War II.  I have a feeling all these hot, hot, groaning-and-panting sex scenes in our movies and books are going to cause a lot of yucks for a future generation.  Just like we attach funny captions to those 1920s postcards and laugh at yesterday’s turn-on.  Just like the Bad Sex contestants give us a giggle now.

The contest appears to have had a chilling effect on the Booker prizes, the British equivalent of the Pulitzer:  ‘What was really striking, and we talked about it all the time in the meetings, was how little sex there was,” says biographer Frances Wilson, one of this year’s  judges.

“I thought I was going to have to steel myself to read a lot of sex stuff,” says the chairman of judges, Andrew Motion, “and about halfway through I realised that it wasn’t happening.”

Naturally, prudery is blamed, rather than a resurgence of good taste:

“Adam Thirlwell, whose debut novel, Politics, was a startlingly explicit examination of bedroom manners, believes we are living through ‘a very conservative era’ in literary terms. …

He points out that there is no such thing in a novel as a ‘scene’, and that even by thinking in terms of ‘sex scenes’, both readers and writers are showing the influence of cinema, in which sex is depicted according to a narrow vocabulary bearing the taint of pornography, which is all about visual stimulation and bears little relationship to the questions about language, and the representation of interiority, that novelists should be worrying about.”

Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

They ignore something else:  I, for one, as a reader am not that terribly curious about the author’s idea of what his or her characters do behind closed doors.  I actually have a pretty vivid imagination.  Most of the time, I feel that the author is indulging his own fantasies, and, while writing, is … how can I put this delicately?

“Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas goes further, saying that the attacks by some critics on his novel The Slap as being vulgar or pornographic ‘bemuse me as they seem to ignore how much of sexual imagination, particularly male sexual imagination, is now experienced through pornography itself.'”

And that’s what concerns me, as a human being.  I agree with René Girard that we are, to a much larger degree than generally supposed, mimetic creatures.  The one place that had been fairly insulated from imitation was sex — when the bedroom door closed, what happened within remained there. Thanks to our inundation in sex in movies, billboards, advertising, books, people are haunted by the idea that there is something that they are not getting, some fun others are having that they are not, something that some sex counselor, newspaper article, or survey told them they should be doing or feeling.  The one corner for a man (or woman’s) inimitable stamp has now entered the world of the media, marketing, and “branding.”

I don’t find myself agreeing with Naomi Wolf all that often, but this passage in her “The Porn Myth” had something worth pondering, as she recalled a conversation she had with a student at Northwestern, after she had talked about the effect of porn on relationships.

“Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”

“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”