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Between covers, under the sheets

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, including "A Thousand Acres" and "Horse Heaven." Her most recent novel is "Ten Days in the Hills," published this month.

A FEW WEEKS before Christmas, I was talking to my mother about my new book. I said, “I’ll send you a copy, but I’ve got to tell you that there’s a lot of sex in it.”

She was silent for a moment, then she said, “Did you do that for the money?”

I was silent for a moment, and then I said, “Yes.”

But I didn’t mean it. The truth is that I did it so I wouldn’t have to write about the Bush administration for 450 pages.

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Besides, does sex really sell? Frankly, I don’t know. Nor do I know whether she’ll even read the sexy parts of my book; we don’t talk about that sort of thing.

While I was writing, I did occasionally think about why I was describing so much more sex than I had in previous books. I thought about pornography (and what exactly falls into that category) as well as about embarrassment, my literary reputation and kindred issues, but I didn’t really deal with them.

Then, just as the book was about to be published, it was declared by no less than Mr. John Updike (in a review in the New Yorker) to “set a new mark for explicitness in a work of non-pornographic intent.”

What was I doing? How did I come to write a book that set such a dubious standard? Well, I was just sitting in my office, drinking Diet Coke, cogitating, chortling, plotting and enjoying myself in private.

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Imagine the layers of privacy -- me inside my characters’ minds, inside their bedrooms, inside their houses, inside my office, inside my house, up on the hill, in my town -- a long way from any public space. No wonder I wasn’t really thinking about how I would feel when it came time to read this stuff aloud.

Yes, I was writing the words “penis,” “labia,” “erection,” “moist,” “swelling” and “big,” but I wasn’t speaking them aloud. I wrote them a lot, and then I rewrote them over and over. I sent them off to my editor; she read them over and over.

And guess what? We got used to them. They lost their shock value.

The night after I read the Updike review in which he quoted some (but by no means all) of my explicitness, though, they regained their shock value, because I suddenly woke up thinking of Charles Dickens. Dickens, I knew, would be horrified. He would see me as one of those old ladies like Mrs. Skewton, in “Dombey and Son,” who is all too disgustingly sexual and way past her years of desirability. She is an embarrassment to everyone except herself.

I admit I was groggy, but then I woke up all the way and thought, “I can deal with you, Charles Dickens.” Even so, I was moved to try to remember why I had put all that sex in there in the first place.

Oh, yes, it was Giovanni Boccaccio, my inner Italian man, my inspiration, the 14th century author of “The Decameron.” According to Boccaccio, at least in his most famous tome, sex is interesting. Love is interesting too. Sometimes sex and love are connected; sometimes sex and love are not connected, but both are interesting with and without the other.

He wrote 100 stories, all of them about sex and love, to prove it, and collected them in “The Decameron.” The book was popular and did a great thing in its day -- its pleasures served, for those who read it, as a charm against the civilization-wrecking horror of the Black Death; subsequently, it inspired, first, Chaucer (who included some of the stories in “The Canterbury Tales”), then Marguerite of Navarre (who wrote her own version in “The Heptameron”), then, possibly, Cervantes, then certainly, Goethe.

In spite of Boccaccio’s popularity, though, a funny thing happened on the way from the Black Death to the Iraq war: The joys as well as the dilemmas of sex, love and their complications with and without one another lost their footing in literature, in the novel, and in large part fell away as novels became more respectable, especially to middle-class readers. Relationships in the novel became less sexy and conformed more to social conventions.

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In 2005, I wanted to go where Boccaccio had led -- not for pornographic intent (I was not aiming to arouse myself) but for artistic intent, for the pleasures of working with new material, the insights to be gained thereby, the formal experiment of it. And it wasn’t easy.

I would like to say, of course, that it was one long, terrifying, exhausting, self-sacrificing slog that I subjected myself to for you, the reader. Alas, no. I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t easy because, in fact, the mechanics of sex are rather repetitive in literature as in life. Boredom was the danger. So my only recourse was the conventional recourse of a modern literary novel -- I did my best to have the sex grow out of the idiosyncratic lives and sensibilities of my characters (10 men and women of varying ages, a loosely-knit family taking refuge in a house in the hills around L.A.), and then to result in some furthering of the plot or of the fate of the characters.

Thus, for my Isabel, who is earnest and pedantic but sweet, sex is something she wants to do correctly, so as to endanger neither her own moral development nor (the personal being the political, etc.) the larger socioeconomic polity. While her much older lover is putting it to her, she can’t help thinking of classes she has taken in human sexuality.

Or there is my fairly enlightened guru, Paul, who is sleeping with the most beautiful woman on the planet but doesn’t really care. Is his problem plain old ennui or a more elevated detachment from the things of this world? His technique is good. But is that a curse or a blessing? And what about Charlie, who tangles with a Russian woman 25 years his junior -- does he successfully stand up for his capitalist beliefs or not?

To a novelist, quiet in her office, these things are fun as well as tempting to contemplate, as, I would hope, they are for a reader, quiet in her bedroom or in his deck chair. It is only across that public boundary -- in the review or at the bookstore reading or, perhaps, in the interview -- that discomfort is felt. But the novel has been treading that uneasy ground for centuries now, and that, indeed, is its subversive glory.

Novels of “non-pornographic intent” are often uncomfortable, regardless of how much or little sex they have in them. (Hello, Monsieur Proust! You are not shocked, I know.) A novel may never mention sex and yet still be cruel (“Wuthering Heights”), or it may mention lots of sex and still be kind (“Ten Days in the Hills,” I hope). It may seem terribly intimate in its very strangeness (Kafka’s “The Trial”), or relentlessly public in its obsessive excess (Zola’s “The Belly of Paris”).

What it always does, every time, without fail, what it was created to do, is to depart from the silent recesses of one mind and enter the silent recesses of another, and always by means of some form of explicitness.


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