Friday, July 1, 2011

Topic..."The Relevance of Sex in Literature," Join my Guest JD REVENE.

Hello and welcome to author J D first Guest Blogger in the month long discussion of "The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2011"

These posts are open to discussion.

What are your thoughts on the topic? What feedback would you like to give on the article?

The Relevance of Sex to Literature in 2011: JD Revene a personal perspective


When Sooz asked me to write a post about sex and literature I jumped at the chance. You see, I don't consider myself a writer of erotica, I just happen to have written one work that has significant—and explicit—sexual content, but when Harper Collins reviewed that work-in-progress, Appetites, in late 2010 their review included the comments:

I feel that ‘Appetites’ is a little confused about what sort of book it wants to be. It’s not straightforward erotica as the sexual scenes are unromanticised and often unflinchingly honest. In other words, they are more sordid than arousing . . .


The main thing you need to do is decide what you want your book to be, not least because it would present a publisher with considerable problems as to how to market it in its current form.

And so the issue is one dear to my heart.

It seems to me that there are two questions tied up in Sooz’s prompt for this post: first, what is the relevance of sex to literature; and second, how, if at all, has this changed in recent times. I shall consider each in turn.

Everybody’s doing it

Funny how sex always attracts attention. Consider how—at least here in Australia—American Pyscho (1991) is sold in cling wrap, whilst Red Dragon (1981) is freely available. Here we have two protagonists who are both psychopathic killers, but it seems that the sexual aspects of the former makes it more threatening than the latter.

After reading my review, academic, author, publisher and literary thinker Dan Holloway (check out his website here) made some interesting posts about transgressive fiction—American Pyscho is an example—which according to Michael Silverblatt, as quoted in Wikipedia :

graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships

It and the related genre of blank fiction have been around since the 70s, though its roots can be traced much further back. [1]

In fact, sex in literature is nothing new (that's right folks, we didn't invent it). Whilst the bible may have been the first work off Guttenberg’s press I wouldn’t mind betting it was quickly followed by some piece of smut—and, just quietly, even the bible contained the odd bit of nooky. Erotic verses have survived from ancient Greek and Roman times and the genre is represented throughout the history of literature, even Shakespeare wrote a poem or two that could be considered erotic, see for example Venus and Adonis .

There are any number of reasons that writers may include sex scenes in their work. The aim may be to titillate, to shock, to educate, to amuse or to realistically reflect life.

It is that reflection of life that most interests me, as a reader and a writer, though each has its place. I’m a fan of what has been coined Dirty Realism, where the focus is on unexceptional characters and the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life (See Wikipedia for a little more on this). And, let’s face it, sex is a part of our mundane lives. To exclude it from consideration results in a depiction of the world that simply is not true to life.

Of course, the writer's intention and the readers experience may not be aligned. I remember as a child sneaking Mantissa off my parents' book shelf for night-time reading; I'm not sure titillation was John Fowles intention. And there were scenes in Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal that were more riveting—and puzzling—to a young teen reader than any surreptitiously obtained copies of Mayfair magazines.

For me sex is relevant to literature to the extent that a work requires it, no more, no less. One might as well ask: what is the relevance of car chases or ‘deep and meaningfuls’. None of these are mandatory, but none should be forbidden and none should attract particular attention for any reason other the quality of the writing. Like all other action sex in literature should serve to advance plot or develop character. I’d advise all writers who include sex in their work need to exercise caution, if only to avoid the bad sex writing awards. Those interested in writing sex scenes could do a lot worse than getting their hands on a copy of Elizabeth Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex, one of the best books on writing I have read.

Wherever my adult work is displayed I make sure that it is marked as adult and that the sexually explicit content is noted. When I was pursuing the pot of gold at the end of Authonomy's rainbow that is an ED review I guided readers uncomfortable with sexual content to chapters of the work that were PG (well G anyway). Of course, there is always a danger that warning of adult only content will serve to attract younger readers rather than discourage them.

I believe strongly that there should be no prescriptive dictums as to what is or is not relevant to literature or any other field of the arts and that, as writers, we should all resist any attempt to tell us what we can and can't include in our writing. However, I also believe that rights imply responsibilities: I will defend any writer's right of free expression, but I also hold that we each have a responsibility to do our best not to cause harm, which must affect how we exercise our rights.

The times they are a changing (or are they)

So what of the second question, what’s the state of play in 2011? Realism and the impetous for more honest consideration of sex in literature is certainly not new, this is a movement dating back at least as far as the nineteenth century. And we’re long past the obscenity scandals of works such as Tropic of Capricorn or Lady Chatterley’s Gardener. So what has changed in the early twenty-first century?

One often hears that Gen Y have shorter concentration spans and higher thresholds to being shocked and we are told that society has become more permissive, but is this true?

If I compare 1985s Less Than Zero with 2010s Imperial Bedrooms, it seems to me that the former is more reflective of fragmented attention and self-conscious angst than the latter. Of course that may simply reflect Brett Easton Ellis’s own maturation, but I see little to suggest that readers today are any less capable of following an intricate narrative than those of yesteryear.

It may be true that what once shocked now seems tame—anyone read Madame Bovary recently?—but the fact remains that there are those who continue to object vociferously to any mention of the act.

At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival there was some considerable controversy regarding pornography. And it seems to me that many don't differentiate between pornography and erotica or even passing mention of sex: it's all tarred with the same brush. There have been similar signs of rising conservatism in other fields of the arts, for example photography where a 2008 Sydney display of the work of Bill Henson generated much media attention, if not hysteria. I fear that rather than living in more permissive times, the baby-boomers’ Iiberalism is being challenged by a new conservatism.

It is interesting that this is an area where elements of the feminist left are united with the Christian right. Men who write about sex risk being accused not only of moral interpitude, but also of objectifying women.

And yet, off course, explicit literature is not only produced by men. From The Delta of Venus to The Bride Stripped Bare women too are writing about sex. I spoke earlier of transgressive and blank fiction, genres dominated by men, but it strikes me that Nikki Gemmel's sex scenes ares more explicit than those of Ellis, Palahniuk or Houellebecq, and more real. And the same applies in popular fiction: boys, I’ve got to tell you the sex scenes in chick-lit are way hotter than anything I’ve seen in the crime and thriller genres—try pretty much anything by Marian Keyes, you’ll be surprised. Interestingly, lad lit (I'm thinking Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons) seems to have much less sexual content.

There is, I think, a tendency for us all to believe that we live in times of particular significance—that we are in some way different from all who have gone before us. I’m not convinced. Throughout the history of publishing there have been works that have challenged the conventions of the time and there have always counter movements decrying the erosion of morals standards: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Have you finished yet

It seems to me that writing about sex—now or at any other time—is dangerous, but then the same could be said of politics or religion (and I’ve probably sinned in both those areas in this post). However, if the job of literature is expose the truth, then that’s always a dangerous exercise.

With regard to my own work-in-progress, I’ve taken Harper Collins advice on board, to a degree; there’s less sex and I’ve worked on character development (though a certain distance is deliberate, after all it worked for Camus) but there remain explicit scenes—though I hope that they are honest and serve to advance the story.

It is my intention as a writer to be confronting and I make no apology for that.

[1] For those interested in finding out more about transgressive fiction and other anti-establishment literary movements I recommend the paper Postmodern Nihilism: Theory and Literature

JD Revene is an Anglo-Australian writer. His style is minimalist. You can find the first five chapters of Appetites, his work-in progress, here. He also has two short stories in the collection Words to Music (which also features contributions from Sooz and Dan) available in paperback and for Kindle.


  1. Now that's an interesting set of thoughts, JD. Having read the original version of Appetites, I'm surprised that HC couldn't work out where it fitted.

    Okay, it's not erotica, but if you read the short stories in porn mags (don't ask!) they aren't erotic either. The Mechanics of Sex just aren't erotic!

    I'd love to read the new version, just to see how different it has become.

    In this day and age of electronic publishing being so easy, surely there will be a new breed of story, where the sex is more realistic, more prominent. There is an audience out there that may not have been tapped yet, so why not aim for it?

    Maybe the traditional publishers are a little *too* traditional for such boundary pushing work? Or perhaps are they scared of the Christian right?

  2. Well written and informative post JD. You make some wonderful points, and I’ll just comment on a few.

    One of the stories in my current book of erotica was rejected numerous times for a particular scene considered “non-conformist” for erotica/romance – a mock rape scene. I included it as a way to reveal the psyches of the characters who were intimately exploring sex games and role-play.

    I didn’t write it to shock or educate, but to create a story that was real and exciting. After its original rejection, I rewrote and submitted it to several other publishers, and the result was the same.

    Essentially, they all wanted me to “dumb” down the scene to where it would be impossible to misinterpret it. I knew there would be no compromise from the publishers on this matter, and it was the turning point for me to become self-published.

    In a recent interview, I was asked “What is the toughest part of writing sex scenes?” My answer was:

    Keeping it real. Essentially, if I’m a good storyteller, I can make you believe the impossible, but it’d be difficult to make you believe the improbable. My goal is to always respect the readers’ intelligence. I don’t like being taken for a fool when I read a book, so I will do my damnedest not to treat my readers that way. Given that sex is something most adults have experienced, it’s essential to write it in an interesting and arousing way, but always with the implicit understanding that it needs to stay real.

    After reading your post, I could’ve given the same answer if asked: What is the toughest part of writing sex scenes that traditional publishers will buy?

    Last thought: One of my favorite writers is John Fowles. I was deeply moved and aroused by both Mantissa and The Magus— both books I consider classic erotic literature.


  3. Hey Jay Dee, it can't be easy to go first in this series not knowing what the rest of us will come up with and to have to bite off the head of these discussions. So well-done, first and foremost!

    I've read your piece with interest as you present yourself as a writer who doesn't shun "doing" the sex scenes. Very unlike me as my post will show. I'm glad you've broken a lance for careful sex in literature and I agree with you, it's always been done and it will always continue to be done. Not just youngsters light these paragraphs with their torches under the duvet!

    I didn't realise Australia was rather prudish regarding sex (in literature). Coming from possibly the most liberal country in the world (Holland), there may also be a cultural difference at work here.

  4. A very insightful and intelligent post to start out the discussion. Well written, JD!

    Personally I enjoy a more romantic brand of erotica, which may be less realistic, but as you say, sex is a normal part of life and there is no reason it shouldn't be included if it pertains to the story.

    When my boys were teens, I would have much rather them read a romantically erotic story than an explicitly violent one. We, speaking as an American, are far too hung up on sex. We hide sex away and promote violence.

    In modern American lit, and all media, it seems acceptable to be very explicit with violent scenes to the point of sickening, yet brand anything with a visible breast "Adult" and shun it. Someones head ripped off is PG while clothes ripped off is Restricted.

    Go figure o_O

  5. A great opening to the series - I agree with your, er, thrust that sex is like anything else. which I guess is why I was quite surprised by some of the things you say.

    For example:
    "I also hold that we each have a responsibility to do our best not to cause harm, which must affect how we exercise our rights" after talking about letting people know there's adult content - that little "not to cause harm" phrase is used a lot but I'm really suspicious of it being used as though it's obvious. I just don't buy in what way a sex scene is "harmful"

    On transgression, I'd recommend the academic journal Transgressive Culture.

    1. you seem to suggest that it's the explicitness or even the transgressiveness of sex that people object to - really? btw, you may be interested in the "objectified" series on

    2. Is Imperial Bedrooms any good? I'm really nervous about reading it because Less Than Zero is one of my absolute favourite books

  6. Starting with Dan's questions:

    1 - I'm not sure that's the argument I intended to make, as others have noted sex is somehow considered worse than violence in Anglo-American cultures. I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect there's a religous aspect to it, some clinging remnant of puritainism.

    2. Yes. Not as good as Less Than Zero--at least to my mind--but still *very* good. (And is some ways more polished.) Read it.

    Oh, interesting observation re 'harm' too. I take your point. What I wanted to emphasise was that rights imply obligations or that no transaction or social compact is one sided. In terms of 'harm', here I am mainly thinking of giving people enough warning to be able to make their own choices.

    Hannah, I'm not sure Australians generally are prudish, but certainly influential segments of our media are.

    Eden, I too love John Fowles. His The Collector is right up there with Less Than Zero for me.

    Maxwell, yes it's that dichotomy between sex and violence that really puzzles me.

    And, TP, whole different subject, but I agree that the changing paradigm of publishing is going to have an effect in this area.

  7. Yes, you're right. Sex is a part of our lives and in writing it reflects life. I remember Appetite in Authonomy.

    Pure erotica and cautious depiction of sex in fiction has got a wafer thin difference. Recently, i read two novels of an Indian writer. The first one i liked but and bought another one from the same writer. After reading i discarded the writer because I found his writing as pure erotica. The details he showed are like in the Penthouse series books.

    I thought just to feel excited i'd not fish out 10 dollars. Literature is complete depiction of life in every form. Excess and uncontrolled depiction of sex in mainstream literature that has a wider audience sometimes mar the literature i think.

    It has become an essential part of young adult and middle grade literature. Recently, i read a book, without sex, romance the book was complete in every respect. I love that book.

    Sex one can't avoid but one can show caution.

    Thanks JD.

  8. Thanks, Sudam, glad you enjoyed the post.

  9. JD, on answer 1. absolutely agree. I don't think you even have to contrast violence and sexualised violence. Just compare classifications of films with really brutal, malicious violence with those where consenting partners engage in a loving act and you'll see there is something deeply disturbed going on.

    on 2. OK, I'll give it a read. That sounds like a point I regularly make - if someone is going to write a "great" book it will almost certainly be one of the first things they write. But almost certainly their later books will be "better"

    I completely see your point about informing - I vary according to what I'm writing. With my regular books, I would always make subject matter clear, but when I write transgressive fiction the whole point is not to let people make an informed choice because they *need* to be shaken up


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