Why sexual passion is failing us between the covers
`Passion requires time, energy and, perhaps, a secluded life in a Yorkshire parsonage'
Friday 26 November 1999
A scan down any lonely hearts column confirms these as the facets most people use as a judge of character: as in, "bondage-lover seeks pervert, G.S.O.H essential". So, we learn, for example, that David Huggins thinks penises are a "springy mustard-pot surprise", while Isabel Allende thinks they may be more of "a rosy, perky gherkin surprise".
But, even more fascinating, is the tale of humour and hubris that the Bad Sex Award gives us. Young writers, thrilled to have a book published at all and amazed that anyone other than their mum has read it, take Bad Sex nominations on the chin. They're happy to stand in a crowded room and watch their literary peers roar with laughter as their purple prose is read aloud.
They take some comfort from the British love affair with failure and holding yourself up to ridicule (how else did Jeffrey Archer get so far?). They know that it's essential to all good parties that someone sacrifices their dignity; then everyone else can feel smug and happy. Not so the Sebastian Faulks, Roddy Doyles and Salman Rushdies; they have had the sense-of-humour bypass that comes free with your first million pounds worth of royalties. Their absence from the party and hurt silence has all the eloquence of someone who thinks that, if several hundred thousand readers like it, it can't be bad (Jeffrey Archer again).
So we should be heartily grateful to Auberon Waugh and The Literary Review for providing the vehicle by which hubris is delivered to the correct doorsteps. He understands, just as Tony Blair does by dismantling the House of Lords, that revolution is quicker achieved by humiliation than by guillotines. But, more importantly, Waugh has pinpointed a depressing trend in post-war literature to make sex bizarre or unpalatable - anything but erotic.
Waugh is certainly right in thinking that the proliferation of bad sex writing came from publishers persuading writers that their books would not sell without sizeable injections of nookie. But there's more to it than that. Erotic writing relies on sincerity, honesty and, very often, tenderness. These qualities are at odds with our irony-ridden post-modern society. DH Lawrence made his contemporaries shiver in erotic ecstasy, but if you were to read choice passages to the cynics at the Bad Sex awards they would howl like hyenas. Time and again I try and persuade well-known writers to pen something for the Erotic Review, only to hear them say that they can't do erotic sex but could oblige with weird/uncomfortable/extreme sex. Most will try any kind of sex but sexy sex. Chatto & Windus commissioned a set of erotic novellas a few years back from established writers, then had to cancel the series when the first manuscripts came in. Each of them, so I am told, would have made a worthy winner of Auberon Waugh's award.
The problem may be historical. In our libertarian age it is hard to match the mood of suppressed eroticism that made the Brontes so gusset- moistening. And the earthy sex you find in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones or the Earl of Rochester's filthy poems seems unlikely to be generated by the golf courses and genetically modified crops that constitute modern land management. The sex that is flashed at us by advertisers and magazines (other than my own knee-trembling organ) is lifestyle sex: something that slots in to the gap between the gym and Waitrose; between having children and checking your e-mail.
The sex of great literature is not an interlude: it is the motivating factor, the thing itself. You don't read Anna Karenina for the rural economy stuff - you read it for the grand passion. And therein lies the problem. Passion requires time and energy and, perhaps, a secluded life in a Yorkshire parsonage.
It is no wonder that serial killers are now the subject of most blockbusters instead.
The author is editor of the Erotic Review
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