Monday, 14 December 2009

Le Fiasco..? ( a sort of continuation)

Sex is a part of life, obviously, but it’s not just any part of life. Double entendres, well timed and conceived (ahem) can still afford even the most sophisticated of us some amusement – so clearly there’s something about sex that sets it apart from everything else we do. It is the very exemplar of marketable commodities, the thing the whole world supposedly wants more of…

And yet there are, with the honourable exceptions of Lawrence, Miller and Nin, no recognised ‘great’ writers on sex – not even sex-genre masters of similar stature to, say, Elmore Leonard or Robert Heinlein (though Heinlein dealt with sex in his SF and Fantasy). De Sade is certainly no Proust. Is there a good reason for this? The privacy aspect? Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both wrote openly about violence, but sex in War and Peace is present mostly in the shape of Helene Kuragin’s shoulders. Or is it that most writers feel description of sex is simply not essential to the development of their story? Fiction Books Perhaps; The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen nodded approvingly at Nick Hornby passing lightly over a sexual encounter in High Fidelity, but in his puzzling over why other authors didn’t do the same, Franzen seemed to (deliberately?) overlook the possibility that in some cases, showing characters having sex is precisely what will reveal most about them, about the way they view each other or even themselves. There is still, somehow, a nagging feeling that writing about sex is not something mature authors should do. Maybe this is partly because it’s so easy to do badly; even the likes of Will Self have not escaped censure in this field.

Or maybe I’m perceiving a problem where there isn’t one – but somehow I don’t think so. Sex has its place on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs just above the basics of food and shelter, but while we’ll all happily browse cookbooks and look longingly into estate agents’ windows, we’re less sanguine about being seen scanning the shelves of adult stores. And yet is bondage any less unnatural, fundamentally, than cooking food? Children are fiercely protected from sex, but how many of them have to eat up their greens…? (Food doesn’t have the same psychological complexities surrounding it? Consult an anorexic.)

There is another aspect to this. Pornography, of the most explicit/hardcore kind, tends to be very boring. I suspect this is because there is no tension, no real yin-yang about it. Sexual desire is fuelled precisely by the sense of other, of division, of a gap to be bridged – which is in essence the same force that drives writing. (‘Why do writers write? Fiction Books Because it isn’t there.’ T. Berger) Pornography has an inevitability about it that dispels all possibility of drama. And maybe something of the same holds true for most sex scenes; the goal has been achieved, what more is there to be said? (cf. William James’ reaction to the Chautauqua community as cited in ‘What Makes A Life Significant’)

Is it possible that despite its great significance in our lives, despite it being perhaps the provider of many of our greatest personal experiences, sex is simply too trivial a subject, viewed on a broader canvas, to be worthy of sustained attention?

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Big D and la petite morte

Let’s talk about sex.

Comics publisher Gary Groth, who has expended considerable energy vilifying comics companies who publish superhero stories - which he regards as artistically bankrupt - asked about his own company’s flourishing pornography offshoot, responded straightforwardly: ‘I like sex. I don’t like superheroes.’

Would that we could all be so unashamed. It is still somehow subtly more shameful to engage openly with sex in one’s work than to do so with violence. If Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris came in to talk to a class in film school, eyebrows might be raised, but bring in Jenna Jameson or Tera Patrick and students would probably be pulled out of their class by parents. On the literary side Fiction Books Cormac McCarthy has been justly praised for his breathtaking depiction of violence in Blood Meridian, but would the book enjoy the same level of acclaim had he been describing sex in such slow-motion detail?

Nowadays, to escape the label of ‘pornography’, more esteemed writers write ‘erotica’. I sometimes suspect that writing about sex can only be safely labelled ‘literature’ if it is written in such a way that the sex isn’t actually sexy. Somehow that makes it more worthy--the element of detachment. What makes something sexy, of course, could be argued endlessly and is very much a matter of taste, but there still remains the question of why sex writing - and open enjoyment of same - is still very much less than respectable. There are possibilities; for one, sex is a private matter, by convention, whereas violence is often public—certainly in war. Therefore perhaps it is simply more acceptable to show it (we very rarely depict defecation, after all)? Also sex is pleasurable where violence is not – at least not for both parties – so it might be feared that depicting sex would encourage people to act, in a way that showing violence does not. (Although it still seems bizarre to me that children can be allowed to watch endless bloodless, unrealistic deaths but not a single frame of a naked human body)

Sexual violence is an even thornier issue. Suppose Blood Meridian contained not bloody massacres but gang rapes? Both are acts of extreme violence, and I personally would not like to weigh one against the other, but I have no doubt which would cause the greatest outcry. And I think this has less to do with the suffering involved (I do appreciate that there are women who would rather die than be raped, but there are many who would not) than the fact that there still exists a great ambivalence about sex. Consider this: if it were possible to shag rather than shoot an opposing state into submission, what government would dare advocate it? It would be seen as utterly shameful, I suspect, by at least a sizeable minority.

Writing about sex, Fiction Books for this writer at least, is beset with pitfalls. (Even in a blog...) However, this is already reaching its word limit, so I must defer that discussion for a day or two. I am aware that this is not much more than a series of disconnected thoughts; I hope to tie things together a little more securely by the end of the next entry…

Thursday, 3 December 2009

All Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know...

Bob Dylan, confronted with listeners’ enthusiastic reactions to his album Blood on the Tracks (written in the wake of a painful and protracted break up with his wife) said he didn’t understand how people could enjoy hearing about that kind of pain. His Bobness, of course, is renowned for spiky utterances, and no doubt some of them are deliberately provocative and/or disingenuous. But the point raised bears some kind of investigation.

Why endlessly revisit Hamlet, Macbeth or the Greek tragedies? Why tread the dirty streets presented by Dickens or Dostoevsky? Fiction Books Why listen to Blood on the Tracks – or Joy Division’s haunting, sepulchral Closer? The obvious and easy answer is because these things – pain, tragedy, loss – are a part of human experience, but it could be countered that we get enough of those at home. Why seek out more—and just as crucially, why – how – do we get such pleasure from these works?

The Advaita Vedanta tradition of Hinduism states, essentially, that there is nothing wrong with the world, nothing that needs fixing—that pain and loss are part of a great drama that we act in. The correct response to being alive is to enjoy it all, but never to forget that it is, in the fundamental sense, unreal. Any atheist would have a hard time accepting this, and I fully appreciate why, but believing in any kind of deity or even a spiritual reality is not necessary to get the point here. There are people who reach a point where life does seem unendurable—I’ve been to the outskirts of that place many times myself, and I wouldn’t trivialise the feeling. But – there is something within us, so deeply buried in most cases that we cannot see it for what it is, that loves every moment of our lives, no matter how apparently painful. Crises wake us up, make us feel our existence more intensely (cf. Sartre’s comments on his wartime experiences). Even horrific events like 9/11 or the 2004 Tsunami present us with something so huge, so undeniably real, that is as if our hearts and minds are wiped clean of the everyday trivia that normally occupies our thoughts. And for all the accompanying horror, this feeling in itself is a good thing; it renews our sense of what life is really about.

This, I think, is partly what we seek when we revisit (or write) literary tragedy;Fiction Books the extremes of human experience, where we are most our real selves. And the beauty of experiencing these ‘events’ in a literary or dramatic context is that it is perfectly safe – as indeed the Advaitists (not to mention the mystical core of most religions) claim our life here is. Perhaps the literary experience of all extremes of life is so satisfying because it reminds us of something fundamental within ourselves, about the way we can choose to see life—about a possibly divine heritage?

And if everything in creation is good, as Advaitists say (and cf. Durrenmatt’s Angel in An Angel Comes to Babylon), then there is another reason why tragedy is so exhilarating. The truth, accurately and honestly expressed, is always beautiful.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Why Not Simply Live?

Why write at all?

Why closet oneself away (or worse go out somewhere, then wilfully ignore your surroundings) and weave patterns of unreality when there is so much to be seen and experienced?

Put another way, what makes someone a writer? It has been said that writers write ‘because it isn’t there’ – every work of fiction Fiction Books is an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to recast the world in a mould closer to the writer’s ideal. Or to colour the world the colour of the writer’s darkest nightmares (an even more obscurely-motivated action). Whichever, it bespeaks a certain dissatisfaction with the way the world actually ‘is’. A writer has other worlds and other people calling, worlds and people which somehow seem more important, for a period, than anything the ‘real’ world has to offer.

This could be applied, of course, to reading—and by extension many forms of entertainment, from TV to playing Farmville on facebook. This is a turning away from reality, also, a plunge into a sub-world that bears many resemblances to real life but carries none of its responsibilities. And (almost) everyone does this...for relaxation, for relief, for diversion.

The act of writing is at once similar and very different. It is an act, a conscious effort (and what an effort, sometimes). So why do it? What is about that world beyond the world that draws us so powerfully? Hemingway said about writing daily that ‘when you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again.’ I know that feeling. There is something about this recasting of the world that reconciles us to it in some powerful way; somehow fiction Fiction Books is, for some of us, an essential way of dealing with reality.

Martin Amis said good writers must be innocent; I would go further and say that for good writers writing is a way of rediscovering their innocence, reconnecting to the world and their perception of it. Done right, it is the ultimate working meditation. A true religious experience: the creator’s. And because it involves that effort, the rewards are much greater, if occasionally more slow-burning, than those of the more passive acts of relaxation.

The short answer to the question why write is ‘because it’s necessary’. That’s my answer; even if I’m not physically writing, there are characters, scenes and situations playing themselves out in my mind. They never go away. These characters present themselves as if they are real (I once caught myself wondering what a certain character of mine would think of how I was behaving), and the act of transcribing their reality becomes a way of connecting to what common sense would call ‘reality’, a way of mastering it and understanding it—and most deeply, of appreciating it.

Why write? Because it is an aid to living.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Make it count

Writing is a luxury. Reading is a luxury. Curious things for a writer to say? Stories may go back to the Palaeolithic campfires, but when they were told then the day’s work was done; any crisis was past. That is no longer the case. A tragedy or a triumph, if it is of sufficient magnitude, is all around the world in minutes. Famine, disease, crime, war: we know, we can see, that these things afflict real living people every moment of every day. And this is without even mentioning that the ecosystem is in a state of potentially disastrous flux. Everywhere there is suffering, every week brings a new crisis.

And we sit and write, we lounge and read. Is there anything we can say to ourselves that justifies such self-indulgence, such apparently wilful negligence of real problems?

I don’t know the answer to that. I have 1700 books in one room, more than I can ever read in the time I have left to live—if I want to actually live as well. Averaging out their value, every single one of those books could provide money to save a human life, somewhere in the world. (Let’s not even go near the DVD box sets…) How can I even hesitate, if I can pick up a collected volume of comics and know that it’s worth four or five human lives?

Stories are part of our human makeup, it could be retorted; literature is a treasury of the human spirit, a repository of inspirational dreams and salutary nightmares. We require myths, ancient and modern, in order to better understand the world and ourselves. We need fiction: even the lightest, most superficial works provide relief from the harpies and furies of the world, giving our hearts and minds essential rest before we plunge back in. And writers need to nourish their work; we need the stories of others to stoke the fires of our own inspiration. Fiction Books

Perhaps this is the crux. I look around at the books I have collected and know that at the time each one seemed essential, served a purpose, if only for some tangential aspect of research. If I am to justify these acquisitions, it must be through the work that they support. In an age when people starve almost literally in front of my eyes, if I can break away from my desk to get a biscuit, I had better be fucking certain that what I write when I come back to that desk (too busy usually to even attend properly to the taste of the food) is worth the effort. Dig deep, mine the very depths of your experience and your imagination, write true, make it good—make it count.

Raymond Chandler said we’re competing for beer money, so we have a duty to make our work gripping, entertaining. If we write with our eye on everything the world is, everything about it that demands our attention, we have a duty to do much, much more.

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