Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sex in Novels

I was once seduced by a Harlequin romance novel at a book store. Don’t worry; I’m not pressing charges. This was back when I judged books exclusively by their covers. This one sported a shirtless, chiseled bronze god embracing a tender belle whose hair tumbled forth like an avalanche of blonde silk. It called to me, you might say. Out of curiosity more than anything else, I wondered why these sorts of books appealed to widows and lonely housewives. But when I got it home and cracked it open, it was neither erotic nor romantic. Not for me anyway. I’ve since learned my lesson.

The Story of O, by Pauline Réage, was both beautifully well written and horrifying. I don’t recommend it. It was banned for a number of years when first published back in 1954. Suffice to say bondage was the tamest of our protagonist, O’s, many experiences.

Then Charles Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and other stories had a particularly scatological tale involving two brutes who defile a female corpse. That’s all I’ll say, beyond, once again, the disclaimer: not recommended.

Oh, and an anthology of short stories composed by lesbians called Women on Women 2. Unfortunately, the sex was little more than laundry lists of naughty parts, naming genitalia and dropping anatomical terms you’re likely to hear in a biology class. But it wasn’t erotic either. In fact, it was downright dull. A tip for all you aspiring erotic slash romance writers: don’t allow your love scenes to read like an exercise regimen or a step by step for applying CPR. It doesn’t produce the desired results.  

Some examples. And no, sadly, these are real.

Her blood roared through her veins as if it were jet-propelled. She arched off the ground, crying out his name. And her whole body convulsed into a chain of spasms, within and without.

‘Jet-propelled’ should be reserved exclusively for water sports vehicles and industrial sized farm equipment. It’s hardly a romantic term, and ‘crying out his name’ is an overwrought cliché. ‘Within and without’ is just excessive. Might as well say ‘both physically and spiritually’, although in fairness the writer might’ve been referring to the woman’s anterior vaginal wall. Romantic, right? I didn’t think so either. Besides, we get the idea long before the distinction is offered.

There wasn’t an inch of her that he didn’t taste – from the base of her throat to the curve of her waist to the backs of her knees to her candyapple-red toenails.

What about her clavicles, her calves, her clitoris? There’s a certain degree of understanding by the reader when a love scene unfolds. Being told the thigh bone is connected to the knee bone is something we can do without.

He stared deeply into her eyes, searching for signs of mendacity, but saw only leaping arcs of desire. He impressed a hungry, twisting kiss on her receptive mouth. His sex became even fuller within her caressing grasp. He nudged her knees apart and settled himself heavily within the cradle of her thighs.

That is so bad it’s actually funny, like a B movie that takes itself way too seriously, causing the audience to crack up and shake its collective head in pity.

A friend once wrote that unless the sex is pivotal to the plot, it really serves no greater function than, say, a character releasing his waste in the toilet. That’s a healthy sentiment, and I agree for the most part. But there are a few exceptions. Perhaps it’s the voyeur in me, but I don’t really mind reading sex scenes if – and this is a big if – if they’re original and tasteful. Of course adjectives like ‘original’ and ‘tasteful’ demand qualifiers, so I’ll try with examples.

Stained Glass, William F. Buckley Jr’s spy novel, has three sex scenes. None of them explore the minutia of the physical act itself. So at no time do you feel you’re reading the details of an inquest or a sex abuse scandal. In fact, if you had stumbled on this scene midway through, you might not think it’s a sex scene at all. Keep in mind this takes place near St. Anselm’s in Germany circa 1950:

… she looked him in the face, squeezing him past pain to pleasure. He breathed with difficulty and suddenly she was Florence Nightingale dressing his wounds, bringing him back to life from battle, triumphant in her powers, and now they were airborne, riding high over St. Anselm’s and the forests of Westphalia, higher, higher, so high they could see all of Germany and now Poland, England, Russia, and soon the Atlantic and the whole world, round and round they sped, the pleasure trip on the nonstop intergalactic flight until the moment came for the dive down to that little twinkling village by the sleepy old castle of St. Anselm’s, just making it in their spaceship, just in time to their bed, in a delirium of pleasure.

Not exactly poetry, mind you, but not a grocery list run down of lips and limbs and fleshy contortions either. This next scene is perhaps one of the more strange allusions to sex:

And, moments later, his mind turned on the legend of the little boy in Holland sticking his finger in the dike to hold back the floodwaters. He wasn’t using his finger, he reflected, but however temporarily, the substitute was working: holding back the floodwaters in his mind. She was Erika, beautiful, warm Erika born to love and be loved, not to attend to the devil’s housekeeping. He? He was what? He was simply the little Dutch boy, holding back the floodwaters. 

The less literal the telling, the more poetic or metaphorical or laced with simile the narrative is, the more I tend to like it. My favorite dead author does it best. In his novel Look at the Harlequins, Vladimir Nabokov makes the vulgar beautiful in ways only the poet can:

The delights of puberty granted me temporary relief. I was spared the morose phase of self-initiation. Blest be my first sweet love, a child in an orchard, games of exploration – and her outspread five fingers dripping with pearls of surprise.

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