Discussion: ‘The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2016.’

small fish pete morin

I’m delighted to have Author Pete Morin as my guest today.

While I have accepted Suzanna’s kind invitation to contribute to her “Relevance of Sex in Literature” series, I confess I feel like quite an impostor. My first novel has all of three sex scenes, two of them less than half a page, and the other three novels have none at all.

 

The sex scenes in my novel(s) aren’t particularly prominent or the principal foci of the plots, but they have a purpose. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t belong any more than two pages of prose to a man tying his shoes (which I’m sure any thriller writer can build into a yuge plot point).

 

So then, armed with this paucity of “experience” writing sex in literature, I shall dispense with essaying on the topic at large, and just focus on the one and only “important” sex scene in any of my novels. I’m not sure what the definition of “relevance” is for this analysis, so I’ll leave it to Sooz and y’all to opine.

The “big sex scene” in Diary of a Small Fish involves Paul Forte rolling around on a canvassed floor, smooshing edible body paint all over a human canvas, the alluring fine artist named Shannon McGonigle. Still heartbroken over his divorce from a woman he still loves, he had become infatuated with Shannon, but for months they had played a frustrating, silent dance you might call Fear of Rejection.

 

They both carry deep emotional scars, they cannot deny their mutual attraction, but they are terrified of being hurt again. Shannon has an especially thick shell against intimacy, because she blames herself for her mother’s death: she was servicing her boyfriend when her mother fell out of bed while under her “care.”

 

On the even of his trial for a crime he doesn’t think he committed, he can contain himself no longer. Impulsively, he diverts his car from its intended route and races to her place, where he finds her in the middle of her current project: painting a wreath of thorns onto a wooden toilet seat, trompe l’oeil style. A brutal defense against intimacy.
____

“There’s something I need to tell you,” I said, trying to be casual about it.

            “Really? What is it?”

            “Something I’ve wanted to tell you for some time.” I said, still looking at the commode, examining the wooden seat as she continued to dab away. “Are those thorns you’re painting on a toilet seat?”

            “Diabolical, isn’t it,” she said, her eyebrows dancing.

            “I’ll say. Makes me flinch just looking at it.”

            She snickered. “Yah, I know. So what’s the big news?” She stood, her brush hand tilted back, the other at her waist, like she could have been holding a cocktail glass at Tanglewood, except for the spattered smock and denim capris.

            “I have to tell you that I am profoundly and desperately in love with you, and if you don’t make love to me right here, right now, I will die.” I tried very much to say this as though I was giving a five-day forecast, but I am just not that smooth, so I choked it up a bit. This was a big risk, I realized at that moment, and no sooner had I said it than I feared I might have blundered badly.

 

____

 

At this point, I would hope that, however the scene unfolds, there is enough of an emotional charge to carry anything that happens.

____

 

She kept her pose, looking like a Nieman Marcus mannequin, except her eyes narrowed, like she was discerning my earnestness and might rate it. Inscrutable. I really thought I might throw up, or perhaps that she would hit me.

            Almost imperceptibly, her chin quivered. Then the tremble spread into her lower lip and up to her eyes, and a tremulous whimper escaped from her throat.

            “If you don’t say something, I’m going to ruin this toilet art of yours.”

            She tossed her brush on the floor and jumped on me like I was a rope swing at the summer lake, wrapping her legs around my waist, clutching me in a bear hug, burying her face in my neck. And I held her so tight I was afraid I might break her ribs, if she didn’t break my back first. At long last, her arms gave out about the same time as my back, and her feet slid to the floor. Her arms came from around my neck, and she grabbed two fistfuls of shirt collar and pull my face close to hers.

            “Tell me it’s okay,” she demanded.

            “What’s okay?”

“Tell me…” yanking both fists, “it’s okay…” tugging again, “to make love to you…” pushing her forehead against mine, “and nobody will die.” Her face went back to my neck and her arms around me.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe,” I whispered. What else could I say? It was the truth.

            She drew her face away from me, hands flat against my chest. “Prove it.”

What was a man to do?

____

What follows involves plenty of description (I suppose), but it’s nothing to what has set it up. Without the set-up, it’s just another sex scene (entertaining as it might be). And worse, it is a sex scene that depicts the mythical perfect first-time lovemaking. In the romance genre, that might be trite.

 

At its core, Diary of a Small Fish is about the criticality of honest communication. Of speaking the truth, no matter how painful or difficult. The absence of honest communication had destroyed his marriage, and he wasn’t going to blow it again. But he couldn’t just be talking the talk. He had to walk the walk.

 

And sex is quite possibly the purest form of communication humans are capable of (not that they always deliver). Prostrating himself on a canvas (his lover’s turf), allowing himself to be doused in paint, to be colored by her, was a sort of re-baptism, where he let go of all his baggage and trusted the outcome. And the result was “a synchronicity so perfect that I could not tell her shuddering body or soul from my own, and we fused together from head to foot in a Technicolor embrace so tight, so full of spiritual release that I feared my heart would burst from my chest.”

 

Before this point, we felt (I hope) we could trust Paul, but now, we’re full on rooting for the pair together. They have bared their most vulnerable souls to us, and we want to reward them for it.

 

Such is my advocacy for one semi-graphic sex scene. What about a more frivolous incident?

 

As I wrote the love story of Paul and Shannon, at one point, they took over the narrative and showed me how sex is used to end an argument. In a scene they virtually dictated to me (one I definitely did not see coming), as Paul faces possible jail time, he tells Shannon he has refused help of a morally ambiguous nature. A hardened inner city survivor, Shannon is angry that he would risk his freedom at any cost, but she’s not going to let it spoil a good dinner:
____
I was pretty steamed and ready to argue. I guess she saw that on my face, because she set her flute down and came over to me, hooked her fingers into my belt loops and yanked my hips into hers with a hard thump. I tried to resist, but she lowered her eyelids to half-mast, and looked up at me with her sleepy, sexy leer.

            “Have I told you how horny champagne makes me?”

            “No.”

            “Do you know how sexy you look in that suit?”

            “No.”

            She stepped away a few feet and slowly gazed from my head to toes. She stopped at my waist, and noticed the effect of her little seduction. Her leer was joined by a dirty grin as she stepped up and ran her hand over the growing bulge, and whispered in my ear, “Let’s be careful you don’t stain the material.”

            At that instant, I began to wonder if it was fair that womankind had at their disposal such an efficient and ruthless means of ending an argument to their advantage. My effort to weigh the equities in this were soon overrun by the notion of just how ridiculous a man looks with his suit pants and boxers around his ankles and his full-masted erection poking out from under his pinpoint oxford dress shirt.

            But Shannon is a resourceful woman, and she distracted me further with a deft raising of skirt and removal of underwear, and we used the prep table for a wholly unintended function which I suspect debilitated the structural soundness of its legs.
After such an experience, it is impossible to eat pasta and duck naked without giggling like a fool, and there is always the sense that the taste is just a little different.

____

 

I suppose one of the reasons there wasn’t more sex in Small Fish is that, once it had established the foundation for Paul and Shannon, there was no further utility in it. There may be brief, fleeting reminders of their attraction, the ever-present “thrill” doesn’t dim, but it doesn’t have to be slathered all over the pages of a legal thriller. As Paul and Shannon grew over the years (in two more novels), they just didn’t seem to feel it necessary to show off. I think they’re confident that their sexual attraction is perfectly evident without it. Perhaps they also reminded me that I was writing CRIME novels, not romances!

 

For pure power, lust may be the most potent of human urges/emotions/motivations. Love (romantic) would not be, because it is so frequently overpowered by anger, insecurity, jealousy, selfishness…and lust. Love requires selflessness, lust is the opposite. Lust ruins marriages, careers, families. It is primal and insistent. It requires morals and prudence to resist, two traits increasingly low on the evolutionary scale. It is a rich field to harvest.

 

Sex will always be relevant in literature because it is ever-present in the human condition, and because its (successful) employment as literary themes adds a complexity to both plot and character that readers can relate to on a visceral level. We do not know what it’s like to be hunted by a serial killer, imprisoned unlawfully, beaten by Russian gang members. We do know (hopefully!) what it’s like to be overcome by sexual urges.

 

 

Discussion: ‘The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2016.’

“The Relevance of Sex In Literature in 2011/2016.”American_Woman_by_Joanne_Sexton_200

My guest today is Author Joanne Sexton.

This is the original blog I wrote about Relevance of Sex in Literature.

This is a very interesting question and one I pondered for a time before I began. I believe the key words in the topic; relevance and the year.

Whether it is relevant or not in relation to 2011 matters little and a lot. Times have changed, porn is everywhere, literature is following the same route. But is it? Has it always been there and was relevant to the time it was written. This I’m not so sure about. I believe sex in literature has always been there in some form regardless of year. Whether or not it is relevant is another thing.

How far back do we look, to see how long sex has been portrayed on paper? Was it ever irrelevant? You will either like the subject manner or you don’t. So it is all a matter of where it fits into the genre, fits the readers, the audience and the demand. It also depends a lot on the writer and how they feel about the subject and its relevance to their work. I like to read about sex so I include it in my writing. I also write romance and they usually go hand in hand, not always and perhaps not necessarily in detail, but there nevertheless.

As a young adult I read a lot of Johanna Lindsey. Her books are raunchy and I loved them. This had it all in the romantic way, the breast heaving way but still sex was there and in this genre it was most certainly relevant. I also have read a lot of Jackie Collins and without sex her books wouldn’t be the same.

This brings me to the side. It depends on the subject, genre and its relevance to the story. Now I love erotic fiction and it is most definitely relevant here or there wouldn’t be the genre. So this plays the biggest part I feel as far as ‘relevance’ is concerned. At the same time if you have a fast paced thriller or horror story, sex may not even play a part. Genre is important.

Non-fiction sexual subjects are touchy but may be relevant to tell an important story. In this instance it could help to portray how sex may not always be in the bosom heaving, pulsing manhood kind of way. Here the sex may not always be loving. It may be about power and abuse. Again do the details of the sex need to be revealed. I believe, in this case, the answer is yes again.

So I think no matter the year I’ve always swayed in the favour of loving encounters and hot sex. When reading fiction I like a bit of steam and spice. When reading non-fiction and where it is necessary to tell a story, then I want to read about it.

Therefore I believe in some forms sex has always been written about and is mostly relevant. I can’t say I’ve ever been reading and thought, no this isn’t relevant or needed for this story and vice versa, if it isn’t there, but could be, I’m not disappointed it’s not.

Much like anything really, if you don’t like it, don’t read it.

Reading through this again, I don’t think my opinion has changed much since 2011. In 2016 …  I find sex in literature just as important as in 2011.

 

Joanne Sexton is an Australian romance writer who has six published novels. ‘Rich Girl’ (formally known as Spoilt under the moniker of Joanne Ellis) her debut novel had over 150,000 e-book downloads since February 2011 and reached No. 1 on the US Amazon Kindle bestseller list and No. 2 in the UK. The sequel ‘Twisted Fire’ (now known as Fire Girl) was released in July 2011. She now has her six novels published by Tirgearr Publishing.

Her short story ‘Mystified’ has been published in the short story anthology ‘Words to Music’. All proceeds of the book go to charity. To read more about Joanne, please visit her website, Musings of a Romantic Mind

Please join in the discussion, your thoughts and observations are most welcome.

 

 

Discussion:’The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2016.’

MIKEY COVER

My guest today, author M. Cid D’Angelo.

 

“The Moral Compass in Writing”

“Morality is a hindrance. We limit ourselves because of our perception of social norms, of believing in fair play. The greatest magicians are those who are willing to accept the consequences of their actions. They do not believe in accidents, in randomness. They believe that they are forever at the center of their existence, in control of their fate.” The Red Queen, ENCHANTRESS ON THE EDGE (M Cid D’Angelo)

It was Machiavelli who illustrated well the philosophy of unreserved action without troubling oneself over consequences. He argued that the Prince should show no mercy when applying his will; that he should accept everything that he does and desire as so long as the Prince understands and accepts the consequences of his actions.

In this argument, morality is abstract; it is but a quaint invention of human society. Nature is cruel, but not cruel by intention if by design. Social animals and insects rarely thrust their individual needs before the group; their instincts hardwired into their behavior for the good of the hive, pride, what-have-you. These social structures in nature become one unit, acting at the will of what that society deems necessary to survive.

Human beings are individualistic social animals. We perceive ourselves with self-identity, yet, we also desire the survival tactic of being stronger en masse. The self-identity then becomes a random factor in what would be a true communistic society if everyone shared the same ideals and goals. We have those who show a great deal of altruism instead of selfish pursuits; we have humanitarians and murderers.

In Dr. Joshua D. Greene‘s essay, “Fruit Flies of the Moral Mind”, the philosopher proposes several well-known scenarios to illustrate the moral dilemma that human beings can face from day-to-day, offering altruistic or utilitarian choices.

The Crying Baby Dilemma

You have an infant in your arms while with a group of people. There are enemy soldiers nearby looking for your group. If they find you all, they will kill you. Suddenly, the infant begins crying, so you place a hand over its mouth. You then are faced with a moral problem: if you keep holding your hand over the baby’s mouth, you will end up suffocating it; if you do not, the infant’s cries will alert the soldiers and they will end up killing you all. What do you choose to do? Kill your baby, or face the wrath of the soldiers?

The Switch Dilemma There is a group of people near a railroad track. At that moment, a train loses control and will jump the track and kill everyone unless the far switch is activated. However, there is no time to hurry over to switch it. The only recourse is to push an unsuspecting fellow into the switch as hard as you can, throwing him into the train’s path and killing him. The upside? You save the many people across the track. The downside? The man you push dies. What is the best option? The life of one for the life of others? Or is the choice of murdering the unsuspecting fellow too much for you to take on – at least if the group of people die, it was not at your hand?

In my Artemus Dark novel, Dark Running, one of the hero’s adversaries is a cold, calculating fellow who will stop at nothing to gain his objectives. He has no social moral compass, but he does possess the capacity for social efficiency, i.e., he does not kill or hinder anyone just for the sake of causing harm. This moral question is brought up again in my other novels, Darkness Becomes You and Enchantress on the Edge. In both we have “villains” who understand the need for social norms and morals for the group to survive, but, individualistically, they are quick to take the road of self-interest in furthering their own goals.

The moral compass of a character in a story, even beyond the dilemmas of the hero/heroine, creates a vortex of inner struggle and turmoil. Are we altogether altruistic by nature, or just a society of individuals bounded by our own self-interest? After all, we live our lives subjectively. No one travels our same road. Whether we live for others or live for ourselves, we all reach the final fate.

Link to purchase ‘Dead Reckoning” http://amzn.to/29mNfIu

 

What are your thoughts on my guests post? Please join in the discussion …

 

Discussion: “The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2016.” My guest today Sessha Batto.

cover for Relevance Sessha

I’m delighted to have Sessha Batto as my guest today. Please join in the discussion by leaving your comments.

2016

To be honest, I didn’t think I would have much to add to my thoughts of five years ago…and then I realized that indeed, there are some troubling new currents in erotic writing. The first of these is authenticity. Lately there have been a rash of blog posts calling out author after author for being inauthentic. This can mean anything from portraying men in a way that strikes the reader as feminine, or not including safe sex as a necessity. Some readers may indeed, turn away from these stories. But, bottom line, it is the writer’s story, not the reader’s. The author can write any story they want, from any point of view, and include or exclude such modern day staples as safe sex, and that is alright. It is fiction, not reality. Fiction can take any path, no matter how dark or transgressive. It can explore consequences of these paths, or not. Either is valid because the only thing that matters is that the story plays out the way the author intended.

 

The other topic which has been hitting my hot button of late is diversity. Again, bloggers have been quick to punish authors for both including and excluding people unlike themselves. Some say you cannot write other races, others proclaim that you must. Some say women cannot write men having sex, that men can’t write women in love. Again, this is all codswallop. Writers do not experience everything they write about. If they did fiction would be hugely boring, a dull parade of workaday trivia and bland interactions. Of course we write outside ourselves, outside our race, outside our sex, outside of our tiny worlds. Why? Because it is there that understanding lies. It is at the margins that we see the truth. It is in seeing through the author’s eyes we can truly see the highs and lows of experiences we will never have.

 

2011

I’m in a confessional sort of mood, so I’ll start by saying this topic has had me floundering for weeks. I must have written fifty pages . . . and then erased them. Then it hit me, the one word that derailed me each and every time, relevance. Only one person can decide whether or not sex is relevant in a piece of literature, and that is the author. Anything else is merely one opinion. You may like or dislike a piece, but only the author knows the story they are trying to tell. Whether it succeeds or fails is always a matter of debate. Art is, after all, subjective. I definitely don’t believe anyone has the right to censor an author’s words, no matter how offensive I may find them. Yes, there are things I find offensive (seriously, there are . . . just not much), and I exercise my right to choose not to read those topics. Once you allow censorship it opens a dangerous door, who knows what will next be considered inappropriate? I certainly don’t want my writing constrained by any limits other than my own.

Since relevance is in the eye of the author, all I can really talk about is why I think sex is an essential aspect of my own writing. Now, before you start screaming about ‘the children, the children’ – nothing I’m going to say is intended for anyone under eighteen, although, frankly, I don’t have any problem with children reading about sex. I live in a city full of pregnant teenagers and, believe me, they did not have sex because of something they read. That honor goes to the media that bombards them daily – television, music, advertising, video games, those are the most powerful influences on today’s youth.

I should come clean – I write erotica, explicit gay erotica. Before I go any further, let me clarify. I’m talking about sex in all its permutations, from barely consensual sexual torture to tender lovemaking and the entire gamut in between. My only real boundaries are no children and no women. I write about men exclusively because of the wonderful shifts of power and control possible in a same sex relationship . . . and because I love men. No offense to the ladies, but I don’t think I could explore the same boundaries of pleasure and pain without seeming overly abusive, and that is at the core of everything I write. Beyond that, there is something wonderfully vulnerable and revealing about the decision to relinquish power, and the potent eroticism of two strong, powerful men being tender with each other.

Remember the old ads in the back of comic books for x-ray specs? For me, sex is my x-ray specs. It strips a character down to his core truth and spotlights who they are with far more accuracy than pages of exposition ever could. Sex is the ultimate act of trust. Who we trust, why, and to what extent reveals much of our psyche that we would normally keep hidden. Sex is the catalyst for revealing hidden baggage, all the events and experiences we think are safely buried but which bubble to the surface under pressure. Our kinks highlight our transgressive natures, throwing into clear definition the whys and hows of our alienation from society in general. In short, it’s the knife I wield to cut to the truth. What knife do you use?

Sessha Batto Website.

 

 

Discussion: “The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2016”

Please join in the discussion with today’s guest, Maxwell Cynn.

Discussion sex

It is hard to believe it’s been five years, Soooz. Thanks for asking me back. Most of what I wrote in the post below still holds true today, though in the wake of fifty shades of everything the lines between “mainstream fiction” and hard core adult erotica have been smashed. The books and stories my wife once called porn are tame in comparison to YA romance today, and some of the current erotic literature is so graphic even an old smut writer like myself is appalled.

But I still believe it is the place of writers and publishers, not would be censors, to categorize and market their work. In todays market self-publishing is more and more common, which gives artists more creative freedom than ever—but also more responsibility. As content producer and publisher we choose how we market our work and to whom. It is our call if we promote a Triple-X narrative as YA romance or mark it as 18+.

Today there are no taboo subjects or editorial censors applied to literature. Anything goes and sex sells. It has been a long time since I’ve heard anyone even suggest parental labels or censorship. Sellers, like Amazon or B&N, have placed some restrictions on marketing by removing clearly adult content that is not marked as such. But slap on an 18+ tag and you can write anything. To me that is reasonable.

Some may say that the 18+ label is in itself a form of Parental Warning Label which I wrote against. To me, it is more akin to the old brick and mortar sellers who had a section in the back for adult lit. I think most writers of adult lit and erotica will agree the 18+ tag is often more of a marketing tool than censorship. If I’m looking for erotica I’m not searching YA on Amazon, I’m going straight to the adult section and searching 18+.

I do, however, continue to believe we have saturated mainstream literature with adult themes to the point nothing shocks anymore. The sweet little erotic romances I once wrote are tame even in the teen market these days, and I considered them to be purely Adult Only when I published them. By the same token I could not compete in today’s adult market trying to sell my works as erotica, they are too prudish, but I refuse to market erotica to teens. In a way I have censored myself by removing all my adult titles from the market.

As I warned in my earlier post, we have pushed the limits to the point that our words become impotent. The teen sex scene in a YA novel is just another scene the reader has read time and again, and watched more vividly in movies or on cable, and perhaps even experienced first hand. There is no power in our words to draw emotions from our reader or provoke thought. I mourn the lost days of innocence when a heroine’s sideline fantasy of her hero’s kiss could make a reader blush with anticipation.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but when we live in a world where anything goes, and often does, there is little left in the writer’s arsenal to shock and awe the reader. Today sex in literature is as mundane as characters sitting at the table talking. Eros has lost his magic and we have lost the power and beauty of erotic prose.

The original post in 2011.

Maxwell Cynn

Should Books Have Parental Warning Labels?

Thank you, Soooz for letting me come on your blog and rant a bit.

Censorship is ever a contentious issue in art. We bring it on ourselves: pushing the limits, trying to be hip, begging attention by being controversial. “It’s art!” is the general cry–when someone pisses in a glass or takes a picture of something in their arse. When Hemingway, and those of his generation, fought with publishers it was about the odd curse word. Hemingway wanted his dialog and prose to be real–the way people actually speak. When romance writers battled against the censors they wanted to show the sensual side of romance. But those battles were over long ago.

Today I can drop the f-bomb in a book or on my blog without anyone batting an eye. I can describe scenes that would make a nun wet or a hooker blush without fear of being arrested. But still some people push the limits. When I first started writing romance my wife accused me of writing porn. But current YA romance makes what I write seem quaint and almost prudish, and teenagers are reading it without blushing. So writers and artists go to unbelievable extremes to be controversial, and then people scream for censorship.

There will always be those who wish to draw a line and keep everyone behind it. The line itself is arbitrary and changes with generations. And there will always be those who seem compelled to step over that line if only because it is there. But there is a difference between being true to our art and being controversial simply for the sake of controversy. Hemingway wanted characters to speak as men speak (he actually had a battle over the word “swell” because it was slang–not proper English) and romantics wanted to portray love as couples truly loved, without resorting to euphemism and purple prose.

The only good censorship is that which we impose on ourselves, for the truth of our art, not that which we impose on others. I often write fairly provocative erotic romance. In the context of those stories I feel it is beautiful and expressive. I enjoy fine erotic art for the same reasons. But I also write hard science fiction, fantasy, and romance, among other things. There is a different standard, a different feel in mainstream fiction.

In a recent manuscript set in the 1920s the dialog I wrote contained virtually no cursing. That fit the sensibilities of the period, the characters, and the setting. I threw the f-bomb into a scene that was very intense and violent. It fit, and added powerful emotion to the scene. The hero and heroine never kiss, until the scene where he proposes to her, and not even the professional girls venture beyond a ‘PG’ rating in their flirtatious behavior. Yet the story is at times highly romantic, the heroine is extremely sensual, and the villains are harsh and violent. It is an adult novel.

When we use sex, language, or violence simply to shock and stir controversy it lessens our art. It also lessens the impact of our words. When a villain in the above novel says, “I’m gonna stomp your ass and fuck your girlfriend,” it’s a shock to the reader. When the hero drops the f-bomb in the midst of an intense and violent scene the reader feels that intensity along with the hero’s fear and frustration. The words have power because they are rare and unexpected.

In the same way, less is more when it comes to sex in literature. If the romantic lead goes down on the heroine in the first few pages what is left for the remainder? Sexual tension is best achieved by no sex at all–the desire, the need, the longing, restricted and contained at every turn. Anticipation builds to a long awaited and often denied climax, yet if that climax becomes common place, mundane, there is no anticipation, but only rote predictable outcomes. His tongue slips over her clit yet again, yada, yada, yawn–let’s move on with the story.

And so we are left with only the most graphic, deviant, kinky scenes with which to titillate our readers, and the would-be censors scream foul. Sex has lost its power and our words are left limp and impotent. Sex in literature is like anything else we write–too much lessens the value of all. The same happens with violence, blood, and gore. Readers become desensitized, writers ramp it up to new levels, and censors try to establish new lines of defense.

I never want to see Parental Advisory labels slapped on the cover of books, nor publishers attempt to censor Free Speech, but writers do bear responsibility for their words whether they wish to admit it or not. With YA, and even Middle Grade fiction taking on ever more mature tone, Adult and Erotic fiction push the extremes to compensate. Writers are why the sensibilities of censors are inflamed. When teen heroes are slinging f-bombs and teen heroines are playing the slut it’s hard to blame parents for being upset with contemporary fiction.

Writers need to understand that by flooding literature with more sex, more graphic language, more violence, and more controversy we dilute the power of our own words. We must censor ourselves or be censored by others. Throwing our characters in bed is cheap and easy, while not letting them quite get that far may be more difficult it is far more powerful and often more erotic. Mama used to say that people curse because they have a weak vocabulary. I implore my fellow writers to use your words. Set limits on your characters and make them strain against the bonds.

Disclaimer: Of course none of this has anything to do with Literary Erotica, which is all about the sex. The above diatribe concerns mainstream fiction. Erotica is by definition pure eroticism–the triple X of the literary world. I write that too, and enjoy reading it as well. But as purely adult entertainment, different standards apply. Erotica is already branded as Adult Only and often resigned to a child proof section in book stores. Should all books with sexual content be likewise branded?

Please join in the discussion. Comment below.

 

Discussion: ‘The Relevance of Sex In Literature in 2016’ Guest: Dan Holloway.

BOOKS RELEVANCE

 I’m delighted to welcome my first guest in this JULY long discussion; say hello to Dan Holloway.  The article begins with Dan’s responses to this discussion circa 2011 … and concludes with his thought now, five years on.

2011

Crossing the Line

I was really excited at the thought of writing this because I thought I’d have a gazillion things to fire off. I’m still excited. But the main thing I think about sex in literature isn’t really expandable on. People have a problem with sex because it’s “different” from the other things we do. Simple as. It goes back to the early Platonists and the argument was bollocks then and it’s bollocks now. End of.

So what am I going to say? OK, here’s what.

I write transgressive material. By no means all of what I write is transgressive. Some of it is just normal everyday lives, like my novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, which has a reasonable amount of sex but just because sex is a reasonable part of what the characters do. Some of my shorts have no sex or violence or swearing or even drugs. Not because my characters don’t do sex, violence, swearing or drugs but because the bit of their lives I’m writing about happens not to have any. Just like the way in my transgressive work the characters often don’t sit in traffic jams (sometimes they do!), not because they don’t do that but because they don’t in the bit of their lives I’m writing about.

So what *is* transgression and why would I write about it?

Transgression is basically just stuff that most people don’t think of as normal. OK, it’s more than a penchant for marmite and eggnog sandwiches. It’s behaviour that “society” considers beyond the pale. I’ll get into examples later.

Now, there’s all kinds of stuff we could say about the line between sensationalism and art, and when it’s OK to write about transgression because it’s for a “serious purpose.” But that’s seven kinds of bollocks, as I hope 1997’s seminal art exhibition Sensation showed. The wonderful, liberating thing about so-called Young British Art is that it took the whole “is this art or is it sensationalism?” debate and gave it a well-deserved finger.

So I’m not going to say there are good reasons for writing about transgressive behaviour and bad reasons, or good texts and bad texts. And I’m not going to talk about copycat behaviour because that’s seven more kinds of bollocks.

I want to talk about why I write what I write. And mention a coupla heroes along the way. The first being the not-very-obviously-transgressive Banana Yoshimoto, the author of N.P., which is my favourite book of all time. It’s about a collection of short stories by a dead writer, and the existence of an unpublished final story. And an incestuous relationship that causes quiet devastation but is – and this is the transgressive bit – portrayed as the pure emotional heart of the book.

It’s this aspect that characterises Transgressive Fiction with capital letters, and is what interests me most: the sympathetic portrayal of behaviour considered to be beyond society’s pale. It’s something that makes readers extraordinarily uncomfortable, because rather like lab rats or Pavlov’s bow-wows we are conditioned to expect certain behaviours to be treated a certain way.

What refusing to paint those behaviours the expected way, or reward or punish them as expected does is jar our expectations. An illustration of how much people can’t get their heads around this kind of thing is the Oscar-winning film American Beauty, which received its 18 certificate in the UK…because it portrayed recreational drug use non-judgmentally…if you’ve ever heard anything so ridiculous.

Which brings me to another thing, which is that to create this jar through the sympathetic portrayal of unacceptable behaviour, you actually have to do a pretty good job of the characterisation. Otherwise you don’t get the sympathy. And part of that is to show characters in the round. Which a lot of writing both on the grim and the rose-tinted side doesn’t do.

This rounded characterisation, which just happens to include things that are “unacceptable” serves two incredibly important purposes which are at the heart of transgressive writing, or at least the kind I do and enjoy. First, it makes us question where the value of a person is located and even whether the idea of a person being good or bad makes any sense.

But even that doesn’t get to the bottom of it, because we’re still accepting the unacceptability of the acts portrayed, and for me the single most important thing transgressive writing does is make us question where we draw our lines. Which isn’t to say we should shift them. Not at all – but if we leave them where they are, we do so having thought about them. Take a person you’ve grown to love over the course of a book, whose tastes run to the exotic, shall we say? Does that mean you were wrong to love them? What does it say about you and your character judgment that you did? Does it mean their tastes are OK – because it’s them who chose them? Or does it just mean everyone’s who they are and there’s a story to be told about each of us that has infinitely more nuances of shade and depth than we can ever put down in words? And is *that* the point where what we read helps us to begin to know ourselves a little better, or at least to ask the questions that will get us on the way?

Let me illustrate a point using a non-sex example. Clothes. By preference I wear t-shirts, jeans a *lot* of accessories like gloves and bracelets, braces/suspenders, and a little make-up. I know several people who’d be offended if I showed up to dinner in that (though they’d always say “it’s because of my relatives” which is seventy times seven shades of bollocks as an argument). They’d maybe tell me whilst wearing a suit. And I might tell them I found their suit offensive. And they’d laugh and say “yes, but what I’m wearing is inoffensive but you’re wearing clothes you know could offend”. Now in case the reason they’re a fucktard isn’t obvious it’s this – if you accept the principle that clothing can offend, and that you as a subjective person can be offended, then you have to accept that any other subjective person can be offended – and if you’re all subjective then what offends may well be different in every case. Now I’m a come-as-you-are type so I *know* I’m a fucktard being offended by suits just because of their connotations with capitalist oppression and the denial of individuality and years of institutional violence to the mentally ill. So I’ll take it on the chin. But the fucktard in the suit better damn well be prepared to take it in the chin back. But they aren’t. They act surprised.

And that’s what transgressive fiction does – slowly makes people less surprised when individuals turn out to be, er, individuals with all the roundedness and unpredictability that entails. And step one in doing that is questioning EVERY stereotype, including the moral ones and those about the association between any two behaviours or any one or more behaviour and “character”. It asks “Is that too far?” and “OK, but is it *always* too far?” and “If it’s not always too far is it ever too far?”

Transgression doesn’t just point the finger at readers, though. We all draw our own lines and what and where they are form questions that constantly prod me in the side. There are things I will write – but not transgressively. Some forms of sexualised violence, for example. I have criminals carrying them out in thrillers. But that’s not transgressive. For me the transgression, the interesting questions, lies as much in the treatment as the material. It’s the tenderness of the incest in N.P. that makes it such a transgressive book ad makes it different from, say, Chinatown.

For me the hardest subject matter of all is nothing to do with sex. The most difficult scene I ever had to write, in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Painted-Agnieszkas-Shoes-ebook/dp/B004QGYH6M), is when a racist is tearfully cradling her dead son. I almost certainly should have made it a more tender scene, forced readers to confront their feelings for her, but I just couldn’t do it. So she remained nothing but a monster. Racism, homophobia, things that could generically be called “hate crimes” terrify me in a way that other behaviours just don’t. I think it has to do with the sheer scope of the hate involved. The most sickening of paraphilias remain between individuals – a single, secretive perpetrator and their desperate victim. Hate crimes involve the complicity of millions in the systematic act of eradicating other millions. I think it’s that group aspect that terrifies me most. Since the first time I was surrounded by a gang of schoolyard bullies, I’ve always found groups the very last transgression, the line I won’t cross. And yet it’s a line I should cross, and I wrestle with myself daily about it.

There’s a line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that says the law made sin sinful. It took away the excuse. I don’t often find myself in agreement with St Paul, but that’s one of the wisest things I ever heard. Complacency, the belief we have it figured out, accepting the status quo but not even thinking we’re accepting the status quo because it’s somehow just “there” – that’s the most dangerous, disgusting, nauseating, sinful trait that infects every part of our society like spores of rot. Transgressive fiction does exactly what St Paul says about the law – it takes away the excuse for complacency. It takes our deepest held beliefs, the things that seem to be the very fibre and fabric of what it is to be human and reminds us that every one of those beliefs is nothing to do with “the way things are” but represents a choice we made.

Remember that next time you see the tabloids calling for censorship. What do they really object to? Some words on a page? Or having something there, in their line of sight, making them think things they would rather not. What’s really worse? The things we write about? Or it being OK for a whole society to hold moral opinions they’ve never questioned?

Dan Holloway’s thoughts now…circa 2016.

It’s fascinating reading this five years on. I guess we always know that lots will change over that length of time, especially in something so rapidly evolving as the digital world. But we never know exactly what that lots will be!

In this case, looking back over what I’ve read, the obvious development has been the flame war that’s taken place over the notion of safe spaces. I said in the original piece that I felt racism and homophobia were more dangerous than any transgressive sexual storytelling because of the extent of their reach, so I guess I was foreshadowing the debate a little.

I don’t want to say too much here, because this is about sex. But I do want to say that I find myself increasingly angry and frustrated with the discussion of content warnings and safe spaces. There is so much misinformation. By and large I have never met a group of people as actively engaged in holding difficult debates as those behind the calls for such spaces – this is not “generation snowflake” or whatever other demeaning term people want to throw at them. This is generation engaged, generation compassionate, generation activist. These are the people working to provide answers to the challenge of the cult of anti-intellectualism, the people working on eradicating hate, tackling climate change. By and large I find it is their critics who are the easily offended, the ones who want protecting, who won’t face what they can’t accept – that the world is changing and changing for the better and that maybe they need to take some accountability for the fact that change was necessary.

But back to sex. My timeline is a little hazy, but I think the original series predates the Paypal battle that nearly sunk a lot of self-publishers and small presses, and it certainly predates the most recent disputes with Amazon over the definitions of taste and decency. In those intervening years we have had cause as a community to examine ourselves. There was the outcry over the publication of the P*dophile’s Handbook, which led to rather less soul searching than it might have done amongst writers who were quick to call for its banning without wondering what the implications were for drawing lines in the sand. And we have had the growth of dinoporn and Chuck Tingle’s unique eroticization of the inanimate, which has led the debate into – a very lucrative – comedic turn at times.

At the same time, the years have seen other areas remain static. Outside of the sphere of erotica there has been very little to question our notion of the obscene. Maybe this is because the preceding years had seen so much. On screen in particular the period leading up to this piece had given us Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, Virginie Despentes’ Baise-Moi, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, and the oeuvre of Eli Roth. What have we had since? The reclamation of the erotic with Blue is the Warmest Colour, and Lars von Trier’s descent into self-parody through Nymphomaniac.

In print, I guess the closest to a debate we’ve had has been the question of the complicity or objectification of young men in relations with older women through books like Alyssa Nutting’s Tampa and Ben Brooks’ Lolito, but to be honest neither of those books is remotely good enough to have raised more than an eyebrow. Controversy comes when the art is so good you can’t ignore it and you have to face down its content. That’s what Lolita did that Lolito failed to do, what The Necrophiliac or Wetlands did. The very best writers just seem not to have really said anything about sexual taboos in the past five years. In a way 50 Shades makes that surprising. But in a way it also explains it. 50 Shades revealed to us a world that wanted to talk about stuff the art world had done with decades earlier. A world that will endlessly dissect such poor portrayals of the mildest forms of excess really isn’t ready to have the buttons of its extremities pressed in interesting ways. It just wouldn’t know what to do with that, would probably ignore it altogether – and being ignored is what the transgressive writer fears most!

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 DAN HOLLOWAY can be found on the following links.

 http://danholloway.wordpress.com 

 Dan Holloway (http://eightcuts.com) runs the eight cuts gallery (http://eightcuts.com) literary project and is a spoken word performer and novelist. His transgressive performance pieces make up the collection (life:) razorblades included (http://www.amazon.co.uk/life-razorblades-included-ebook/dp/B003QTDLBW). His novel The Company of Fellows (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Company-of-Fellows/dp/B004PLMHYC) spent more than 2 weeks in Amazon’s top 100 fiction charts.