'There ought to be a law against men in their sixties writing lesbian scenes," declared a critic on Radio 4's Saturday Review not so long ago. We were considering Craig Raine's under-rated novel Heartbreak, in which a moment of Sapphic love is described in soft-focus detail. Although the scene is not a highlight of the book, it seemed an unfairly sweeping response, revealing a double-prejudice of age and gender.
In writing as in life, sex beyond a certain stage in life poses a delicate problem: it continues, but its appeal as a subject for discussion or description wilts with time.
This weekend, the writer Charles Moore, aged 55, shuddered with distaste while reviewing a new book, Smut by Alan Bennett, aged 76. There was too much sex, he thought – voyeurism, a male prostitute, inappropriate couplings of one kind or another. It gave Mr Moore the vapours, and was an example, he suggested a touch primly, of the "the deadly effect on literary culture of sexual explicitness".
Another rather different writer has sex on her mind. Jilly Cooper has told an interviewer that the time had come for her to give up writing about the subject. "I don't think I can do it any more," she said. While writing her new novel Jump, "I thought I ought to try elderly sex but I did find it very difficult. I just think I was a bit tired."
They are revealing, these differing meditations on sex and age. Charles Moore's view is a familiar, fogeyish complaint which is regularly intoned in certain circles, and which inspired the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards. There is a place for sexual frankness, the argument goes, and that is behind the closed doors of a bedroom. In the pages of a book, it is downright embarrassing.
That view is well and truly out of date. Far from there being too much explicitness in new fiction, there is not nearly enough. In our nervous, safety-first cultural climate, young writers have learnt to regard sex, like humour, as a risky area best avoided. Anyone who has judged a prize for fiction will know that there is a depressing evasiveness among new writers.
The idea that fiction should not explore the one drive which unites most of humanity, revealing personality in a way that nothing else can, is too silly to be taken seriously. Novelists need not go quite as far as Martin Amis, who once said that when creating a character he asked himself "What are they like in the sack?", but, if they are serious about their writing, they should probably know the answer to the question.
Yet the ever-wise Jilly Cooper is also right. If you feel tired or bored, then writing sex has no more appeal than doing it. There should at least be a spark of desire in an author whose characters are in a sack situation. It will communicate itself to the reader as surely as boredom or dutifulness.
Sex is more than itself, being an expression of warmth, cruelty, curiosity, selfishness, humanity or unkindness. With some writers, these things still burn brightly with age. Sabbath's Theater, the late masterpiece of Philip Roth, captures the rage and lust of the ageing male to grim perfection.
It is almost certainly not Charles Moore's cup of tea, but it is doing what great literature should be doing – staring clear-eyed at what it is like to be human.
That may be embarrassing, messy, and not the kind of thing which one would discuss at an agreeable dinner-party in the Cotswolds, but grown-up, serious-minded writers will not worry too much about that.
The original 'Arthur' wasn't funny either
Can there be a more perfect representation of the silliness, the hedonism and the sentimentality of the early 1980s than that alleged film classic Arthur? Apart from being aggressively unfunny, it celebrated, in the hate-it-yet-love-it manner that was all the rage at the time, drunkenness, wealth, snobbery and sentimental love.
To round off a grim experience, Dudley Moore was at his most strenuously adorable in the title role, while Sir John Gielgud cashed in, playing the part of a butler who – hilarious! – swore.
It is revealing that in our own less vulgar but incomparably more hypocritical times, Arthur has been revived, with Russell Brand in the title role. These days we tut-tut about binge-drinking, we rage against unearned privilege, and yet here they are again, two ugly sisters stealing the show from true love, that dreary old Cinderella included to make us all feel better about the world.
Like Dudley Moore, Russell Brand is more interesting than this grim part allows. Both were presumably cast because their off-screen antics brought a degree of moral ambiguity lacking in the scripts.
They at least were doing a job of work. Audiences have no such excuse. A lot of people fell for the original Hollywood confection when it was released 30 years ago. Here's hoping we all do better this time, and make this cynical celebration of all that is dull about wealth the clunker of the year by staying well away from it.
What do Millwall fans make of this?
When I once suggested that, among the fans of the south London football club Millwall, were some genuinely nasty men, there was a deluge of protest and one supporter threatened to report the issue to the Press Council. My version was out of date, I was told, and unfair to a lovely family club.
How odd then that this week, Nathan Ellington, a player from Preston North End, has written on Twitter: "I've never seen a more racist and abusive crowd as I saw today at Millwall! ... I've played in most grounds but never had constant stick with genuine hate in their faces."
It would be interesting to hear a reaction to Ellington's remarks by those so outraged by criticism in the past. Has the player misunderstood the fans too? The Millwall spirit is a favourite subject of their proud supporter, Rod Liddle. Perhaps he could explain what is going on.
Tom Sutcliffe is awayReuse content