At the risk of having many soft, rotten, mouldy and mouldering and/or hard objects hurled at me by those who strongly disagree, I’m going to say what I think about this.
What I think is this: in general there’s too much of it.
Explicit sex, that is.
And I say this having just read a book which possibly contains the highest word count of the c-word and the f-word on record. And no, I wasn’t particularly offended.
I am of the opinion that a writer should be unafraid of language and there should be no word that a writer fears to use, if it’s the right word.
But the problem remains that once an author has used and used and reused those words (so that it’s more a veritable cascade of obscenity than a sex scene), they lose all ability to shock or titillate or even, eventually, to raise the eyebrow. It becomes business as usual. No more expressive than “yadda yadda yadda.”
Which is a grave shame.
There’s another problem with lots of explicit sex in a novel.
Frankly, it gets boring.
And when I say boring, I mean it.
A list of the most boring books in the world has got to include that outsize tome by de Sade. Possibly if his French could be called something other than the sub-literate ramblings of a puerile adolescent, I might feel differently. Still, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” as the reaction to uber-naughty sex is just stupid. In any language.
But I digress.
Because as far as the novel goes, lots of explicit sex has little or no point; it contributes and achieves nothing. It won’t demonstrate character development or action. And as far as the rule about not repeating oneself goes, it breaks that little sucker in every conceivable way.
I mean, let’s be honest, once the characters have gone at it hammer and tongs for ten pages, what more is there to say? You’ve emptied the thesaurus. We’ve got the idea. And after a certain point, it becomes hyperbolic and ultimately ludicrous.
So why is it so relied upon? I don’t know.
I’m guessing that it’s the modern literary equivalent of charity, there to cover a multitude of sins–literary sins that is–such as lack of character development, lack of writing skill or literary merit, lack of a proper plot.
Or perhaps it’s there to shock me?
Er, I’d just like to mention that I and millions of others read Lady Chatterley’s Lover some years ago. That didn’t shock me, though I did wish Lawrence had not written it into such a Mills and Boon ending. I was hoping for a bit of early and interesting feminism. But that’s just me.
I don’t mean to suggest that I disapprove of the idea of sex in novels. Because I don’t. But I do believe it has a proper and good context and use.
For myself, I always use that old film, Coming Home, with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda as a yardstick–he as the returning parapelegic Vietnam vet and she as the Susie Homemaker cheerleader hospital volunteer married to the gung ho officer.
Voight’s character has been incapacitated by the war; she has always worshipped physical perfection. The love scene in that film is amongst the tenderest on screen, and only through showing her loving him, can we see how far she has travelled in her understanding of the horror of war, and equally, how her growing love for him has redrawn her character. They couldn’t have demonstrated the point so effectively in any other way.
It also served to question the audience’s definition of what is man at a time when it was needed. So much so that one was tempted to quote Burns: “A man’s a man, for a’ that.”
But a novel isn’t real life. It is a distillation. Or perhaps a single or a sequence of life-altering episodes.
We don’t write dialogue as we really talk–that would be tedious beyond words. (Try it if you disbelieve me: write down what you actually said to your mates down the pub and see what it reads like…) Instead we capture the essence of speech, though every bit of dialogue in a novel should have some point, be making some contribution to the whole, adding some nugget of enlightenment to the reader’s perception.
So too, therefore, with love or sex scenes. If they’re there, let them serve a purpose, let them contribute to our understanding of a character’s transformation or illustrate a side of his or her character we’ve not yet encountered and can understand in no other way. Let them forward the plot. And above all, let us see how the act worked upon their emotions…
Otherwise, we might all just as well go and marvel at Lion Watch on telly where one can see what it really means to be shagged out: every ten minutes over a 48-72 hour period when the lioness is in season. And the expression on that poor lion’s face said it all.