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…

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