The End of Sex : What’s the erotic novel coming to when men write sweet stories and women write ugly ones?
Anais Nin argued several decades ago that women equate sex with love and were likely to write fuzzy, romanticized prose, while men were explicit about their conquests and boasted of their promiscuity in the most graphic terms. The tables seem to have turned. In a sampling of recently published first novels by young writers, it is the men who write romantically, with women as the fairly traditional objects of their desire, and the women who tell the graphic tales.
Although all the novels are highly touted by their publishers as literary erotica rather than soft-porn or even pure pornography, the appearance of so many sexually explicit novels at one time does raise questions, starting with whether or not a cluster of novels about any particular subject signifies a cultural trend, and if so, why has this one emerged so strongly at this historical moment? The so-called experts usually invoke the coming Millennium in their answer, arguing that the end of a century causes extremes of behavior in every walk of life. I think it has more to do with cultural realities.
And, whether these novels are genuine literary erotica or mere pornography written with nothing more in mind than to cash in on a trendy topic, they all make me wonder the same thing: Why it is that, not only in the United States but in most Western societies, we seem to have such unease about expressing sexuality, especially in written descriptions of the act? In reality, sex is only one of the many appetites possessed by human beings. After so many millennia, shouldn’t we be a bit more sophisticated about its role, place and value in our lives, especially when we write about it? (Think about what an extraordinary literature there is around food!)
I thought about these and many other questions as I read four of the better sexually explicit novels: “Daddy,” by the English writer Janet Inglis; “Lunch,” by the American Karen Moline; “What I have Written,” by the Australian John A. Scott; and “Fan Fan,” by the French Alexandre Jardin. At the same time, I read an anthology edited by John and Karen Miller called “Lust,” containing snippets of erotic writings by (among others) Pablo Neruda, Simone de Beauvoir and Terry McMillan. I think it is because “Lust” contains some of the finest literary as well as erotic writing of all time, from poetry by Sappho, Dante and John Donne to fiction by Baudelaire and Nabokov, that I was so aware of the plodding, pedestrian prose and boringly routine descriptions of explicit sexual acts throughout some of the novels.
Yet all four plots were far from mundane, which led to another question I must raise: How to make the distinction between bad writing about an interesting or important subject, and how to make the point that the quality of the writing has as much bearing on my ultimate view of the novel as its subject matter? All too often lately, I find political correctness being invoked as the standard by which to judge fiction, and I think it is time to reintroduce the quality of the writing into the equation.
I’ll start with the two novels I found least successful in terms of readability but most powerful in subject matter, “Daddy” and “Lunch.” Both were written by young women who take no prisoners as they make their heroines endure every possible form of sexual cruelty and outrage. If their aim is to engage their readers’ emotions, they succeed admirably.
In a curious coincidence, both authors use the names Olivia and Nick for their woman victim and male victimizer. Janet Inglis’ Olivia, an awkward schoolgirl of 15 whose cultured and educated parents have been divorced for several years, is raped by Nick, her mother’s lout of a lover. Nick’s only emotion throughout the novel is animalistic arousal; Olivia’s primary one becomes animal lust as their couplings continue. No adult in this novel is smart enough to realize that something is becoming terribly wrong with Olivia as she insists, lemming-like, on miring herself in a depressingly sordid existence. Least of all the indifferent Nick, whose consciousness never rises further than this desire to keep on rutting and grunting his way through her ruined life. The outcome is sad, depressing and utterly hopeless.
So, too, is Karen Moline’s “Lunch.” Her Olivia is a mature woman painter who does indeed know better but still allows herself to be seduced by another Nick, a fabulously famous movie actor who has enough money to indulge his every fantasy.
Women suffer terribly in these two books. However, their brutalization at the hands of selfish, uncaring men is so thickly coated under such a glamorous veneer of lust that no perversion is beyond the realm of possibility, indeed, every one of them seems reasonable. In other cases, this has been cited as the true definition of excellent literary pornography, but here, too many other issues cram into one’s consciousness and demand to be resolved.
I wonder, for example, if young women are drawn to write such horrifyingly explicit fiction because they want to call attention to the high degree of sexual abuse of women. Most crisis centers cite statistics showing that one in three women have suffered from some form of abuse; most government agencies believe the figure is more like one in four, some say one in six. No matter: whichever is closest to the truth, all are shocking, but even more is the fact that they all take into account only the women who actually report their trauma. How many others are out there?
So why, then, have there been so many sexually explicit novels by women recently that make Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Hubert Selby Jr.'s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” seem just slightly outside a category that might include “Little Women”? Does AIDS have something to do with it? Has this frightening plague made the new generation of writers so sexually aware at such an early age that to them, no one mention carries more weight than any other? Is this why they write so casually of concepts that were taboo, verboten , anathema even, to their elder siblings, let alone their parents? Or, has AIDS made them so afraid of actually “doing it” that their only pleasure until the plague ends comes from imagining varieties of how it can be done?
The novels by men certainly attest to this view. “Fan Fan” ends on a note of such utopian social redemption that it seems somehow quaint and outmoded. Alexandre Jardin keeps his reader panting to find out why his hero, a young man so jaded by his divorced parents’ ongoing adulteries, chooses to live forever in a state of perpetual arousal without release, even though he is utterly besotted by a young woman who wants nothing more than to be seduced by him. After a rollicking romp through hilarious episodes of unrequited desire, bourgeois morality triumphs when the hero proclaims the sanctity of monogamous marriage and the pleasure of Sunday lunch at Grandma’s house. How disappointing, after all that panting passion.
So too, is John Scott’s “What I Have Written,” the most intelligent of all the novels as well as the one with the most beautifully poetic prose. Here, shifting perceptions of reality and desire keep one turning the pages as a vaguely sinister sexuality always seems threatening to erupt. Scott manages the nearly impossible feat of creating a sexually-charged atmosphere while evading actual sex. What, if anything, will happen as a series of increasing erotic letters is exchanged? Who are these shadowy figures whose names and imaginary signatures divide the novel into three separate yet connected sections? In the end, it’s a difficult puzzle to decipher, which is a great part of the pleasure of reading the book and a welcome antidote to the gripping realism of the first two novels.
In these four novels, Anais Nin is proven wrong, as the women create morally reprehensible fiction brimming with unrelenting gloom and the men write magical tales of ephemeral fantasy. Should this, too, be blamed on the coming millenneum? Or is it more likely that women writers are simply more direct about confronting the truth of today’s cultural sexual reality? Whatever the answer, these four novels provide fascinating versions of possible truths.
DADDY, by Janet Inglis (Pocket Books: $22; 469 pp.)
FAN FAN, by Alexandre Jardin, translated from the French (St. Martin’s Press: $18.95; 176 pp.)
LUNCH, by Karen Moline (William Morrow: $22; 320 pp.)
WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN, by John A. Scott (W.W. Norton: $15; 240 pp.)
LUST: Lascivious Love Stories and Passionate Poems, edited by John and Kirsten Miller (Chronicle Books: $14.95; 144 pp.)