The Daily Telegraph carried an article last Tuesday in which the author Julian Barnes suggested that the failure of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity prosecution in 1960 opened a whole new world for writers. Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize in for The Sense of an Ending. He said that upon hearing the outcome of the prosecution when he was 14, “At last, I remember thinking, British literature would be able to catch up with foreign, especially French, literature, which for a century had been far more truth-telling – and far more titillating than its British equivalent. But having a new freedom and knowing what to do with it were two quite different things. Instead of a blanket prohibition, there was almost the reverse: not a writerly desire, but a commercial obligation to write in a detailed way about sex. And sometimes all that happened was that the misleading old euphemisms were replaced by new misleading cliches.
“It’s easy to mock, and each generation will mock the previos one because each generation needs to imagine that its attitude to sex strikes just about the right balance; that by comparison its predecessors were prim and embarrassed, its successors sex-obsessed and pornified. And so writing about sex contains an additional anxiety on top of all the usual ones: that the writer might be giving him or herself away, that readers may conclude, when you describe a sex act, that it must have already happened to you in pretty much the manner described.”
This is an interesting point of view. Some I agree with; some I don’t. While the Lady Chatterley prosecution may have been a watershed at the time, in my opinion, it has little effect on literature today, 50+ years later. What affects literature today is what the public wants to read and what critics think they should read. Critics don’t speak with one voice on the subject of sex: some criticise authors for attempting to write about it, and others point out the blank space left by its omission. Some readers today may be ‘prim and embarrassed’, but others, as the success of Fifty Shades of Grey shows, are quite happy to be immersed.
For myself, I don’t feel any ‘commercial pressure’ to include sex in my novels. I include it because it helps to define the personality and values of the characters involved. Here, for example, is a passage from Efraim’s Eye:
Paul was suddenly awake. There was someone in the room. A slight, pale figure had slipped almost soundlessly past the door. The figure made no threatening movements. He tried to see through the gloom. Like a butterfly shedding its chrysalis, the figure dropped its robe. It was Naomi. She lifted the bed covers and climbed in beside him. She was trembling.
“What’s the matter, Naomi?”
“He tried to attack me.”
“You’ve been dreaming.”
”It was horrible.”
Still trembling, she clung to him. Gently, he stroked her hair, which cascaded across her face and shoulders. There was peaceful, utter silence in the room. She lay on her side, against him, her head on his shoulder. He kissed her forehead, and stroked her back. Gradually, he felt the tension seep out of her. There was the faint scent of her perfume. He felt one of her breasts against his chest.
“Thank you, Paul.”
Desire swept over him. “I want you Naomi.”
She said nothing.
She stroked his chest, and her hand strayed down across his belly. “Oh!” For some time she continued to hold him. “Do you have a condom, Paul?”
“No, but I’ve had a vasectomy, and . . . and I have no . . . “
“no STD’s,” she finished the sentence for him.
She continued to caress him. Then deliberately and languorously, she slid on top of him. Reaching down for him, she guided him. She gave a little groan of pleasure and began to move. He was almost passive, knowing that his time was later. He caressed her face, her breasts, her back, her arms. “God, you feel lovely!”
She gave soft mewling sounds as her passion flamed higher, and the pace of her movements increased.
Then, suddenly she convulsed, buried her face at his throat and gave a long sighing groan. He could hold out no longer, wrapped his arms around her, and succumbed to the surge of ecstasy.
They floated down; lay on their sides, her back against his chest, pressed tight against him, his arms still around her. She felt blissfully safe.
They fell asleep.
This passage is intended to reinforce several points about the characters. Naomi can be child-like and she is very frightened by the terrorist; she views Paul almost as a father figure; she did not come to him for sex, but for security. Paul admires Naomi, and would not normally have tried to seduce her, but her naked presence is too much for him.
I don’t agree with Barnes that the ‘old euphemisms’ and the ‘new cliches’ are necessarily ‘misleading’. It is not a word I would have chosen. I think what he probably means is ‘ill-conceived’. For me, this is the challenge: how does one choose the right words and construction to have the reader feel what the characters are feeling – no more, no less?
I think that Barnes has a point when he says that ‘readers may conclude, when you describe a sex act, that it must have already happened to you in pretty much the manner described.’ I had a friend who emailed me after reading Efraim’s Eye to the effect that he felt he now knew me better, “including your sexual experiences ha ha!” My reaction on reading the joking email was to shrug. He doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows.