More on bad sex: “Eros calls for something better.”


John Adams over at The Gentle Rereader offered such an elegant coda to our recent post on the Literary Review‘s bad sex award (we wrote about it here and here) that we couldn’t leave it alone in the comments section, where he had put it for us.  Here it is:

Barzun’s big thoughts on bad sex in books

Prize-giving as ridicule doesn’t seem to be having the intended effect. Even badly written sex sells. Eros calls for something better. As ever, Jacques Barzun looks deeper into a question, in this case of sex scenes in books. In Venus at Large: Sexuality and the Limits of Literature he concludes:

“Since sexuality is of our very being, sex cannot be called illegitimate, immoral, or uninteresting. But it is terribly limited; and its appeal being unfailing, it is – or it ends by being – a cheap device. When, moreover, sex is present to make up for deprivations in the culture of a whole age, it becomes a burden to literature. As Shaw said in praising the purity of Poe, ‘Literature is not a keyhole for people with starved affections to peep through at the banquet of the body.’ One is permitted to think that the glut of sex in our prose and verse fictions will remain as the special mark of our work, the brand of the times on our genius; and one may perhaps imagine further that sooner or later a Cervantes will come, who in a comic saga of sex will bury our standardized bedroom adventures like so many tales of chivalry.”

Before reaching that conclusion, though, he surveys a broad array of literary sex examples before distinguishing those from sexuality:

“Sex – that is to say the particulars of the act – is an inescapably trite and insignificant event for literature. … Sexuality is on the contrary the very atmosphere in which all literature breathes and lives. But sexuality can be made palpable in thousands of ways, ancient, modern, and still to be discovered. There is surely more to the sexual instinct and its derivatives than the rapid mechanical transaction we have been given as its sum and summit. There are tendernesses and hesitancies, sensations and fantasies that are not of the readily nameable sort, and the language for them does not as yet exist. It is the business of art to create it.”

(Excerpted in A Jacques Barzun Reader, Michael Murray, ed., HarperCollins, 2002, pages 175–186; full essay in Encounter magazine, March 1966, pages 24–30.)

Thank you John and Jacques.  We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.  In fact, we didn’t.


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