Back in the nineteen sixties, whenever my mother exchanged library books for my grandmother she was invariably sent off with the instruction: ‘Nothing with sex in it, please dear.’ Which even then I have to say was easier said than found.
On the other hand, and unlike Granny, there were many even then who demanded novels from provincial libraries and bookshops that could be relied on to set the pulses racing – books by Henry Miller, Harold Robbins and the like; and at the age of seventeen, I must admit that I was in the queue to buy the first unexpurgated paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – handed to me in a plain brown paper bag by a grimly pursed-lipped shop assistant.
Our sexuality is naturally (and I do mean naturally) a part of what we are. So fiction has to deal with it in one way or another (and I do mean one way or another). The spinsterly Jane Austen hints of ‘intimate attachments’. Charlotte Brontë permits Jane Eyre more freedom of expression with her ‘bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh’ allusion to intercourse with Mr Rochester. Thomas Hardy writes of a ‘coarse pattern traced on the beautiful feminine tissue’ of his poor Tess. Margaret Mitchell allows Scarlett at least one ‘wild thrill’ as Rhett’s black moustache traces its own unstoppable course southwards. D.H.Lawrence gives his Lady Connie all she’s dreamed of – and some. All of it unflinchingly described, and in one memorable instance garlanded with wildflowers. Jilly Cooper’s Riders gallop at it with unbridled zeal. Jackie Collins’s suntanned Californians perform as for a porn film with little left to the imagination.
All of which compounds the problem fiction writers face of how far to reveal the emotions, the sensations (and let’s face it, the perspiring bodies) of characters who move beyond the point of what the US Dictionary most unappealingly describes as ‘heavy petting’?
As a writer myself I’m well aware that many novelists use graphic sex deliberately to sell their books. (Not Lawrence to be fair, who was on a mission of his own to liberate the prudish Brits.) Personally, I tend to work on the principle that sexual episodes are there to help define and to progress my heroes and my heroines – and yes if you like, to thrill somewhat while they’re about it. (Why not in fiction, after all, as in real life?) I like to think I use sex in my stories to exercise my characters in ways beyond the physical; to throw a selfish, loving, fraudulent, sincere or even comic light on that familiar act, depending on the plot’s requirements.
In my third novel, the tale of a nineteenth century prostitute, one of my main objectives was to contrast the more sordid aspects of commercial sex, with scenes of passionate, emotional involvement which would transform my heroine’s whole view of life and help decide her future. Crucially (and partly I admit as an experiment) I planned an entire chapter of erotic prose – 9 pages of it in the paperback edition of Painted Lady. Not only for the participants’ enlightenment and pleasure, but to see if as a writer I could steer a steady course between lyrical and pornographic detail.
‘So how do you think I should attempt it?’ I asked my agent over lunch.
She took her time to answer. ‘Well not in terms of glistening giblets anyway,’ was her considered judgement.
I spent some time myself wrestling with that chapter, and have been teased about it often since (although I’m pleased to say that no one’s gone so far as to propose it for the Guardian’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’). As far as I’m concerned it achieved its purpose as a driver of the story, rather than as a gratuitously heavy-breathing interlude. Which as I’ve said, is how I think we should enjoy our sex in fiction.
Or is that just the view of a male writer?