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From Wetlands to The Time Traveler’s Wife
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a fiction editor at a literary magazine. The e-mail went along the lines of: “…What am I supposed to do with this? This isn’t a rejection more…what am I supposed to do with this?” I was shocked to say the least – fiction editors of short story magazines are very rarely human, to the wanna-be writer, plunging their work out into the black, they are nothing but terrifying robots. To receive an e-mail like this made me think I had, at least, hit a chord – whether that was an awful one I wasn’t sure.
I e-mailed back asking if I’d terrified him to which he asked how could I not class my work as pornography. I had sent him two stories and one personal essay. The story he was referring to was one called Masked Man, showing a young man who participates in a threesome, in which one of the men wears a mask. Curiosity gets the better of him and he decides to yank the mask off. The story was – is – sexually explicit but is surrounded by the main character and its odd ending. Perhaps I’m being precious, I always say I’m not.
The editor found the story “trashy” and asked me to send him other stories, he wanted to read more of my work, saw something in it but not that story. I had evidently hit upon something, something I was not really sure of. I sent him four more stories – one full of sex, to prove a point, and three which didn’t go near the subject. Sometimes, stories have sex. I’ve never set out to write a story that has a lot of sex in it, it’s always just happened. This was not the first time a sex scene in my work had evoked discussion – two times being at my Writing MA at Warwick. But I got thinking about pornography. What is pornography? How do we differentiate it from erotica and literature? What is the difference between pornography and sexual explicit scenes? Pornographic sex and sex?
How about Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa, depicting a sexual sociopath who seduces her underage male students and sees sex in everything? Is it pornography? Consider its opening line, “I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep.” At first, perhaps so, but as we continue and understand that we are in the voice of this character, it becomes clear that this is, indeed, not pornography, this is literature, this is not, even, pornographic literature, it is a novel about sex, told from the perspective of a sex addict.
A novel about sex does not necessarily make it pornographic and explicit details are there to drive the story along, sex scenes merely add to the plot. In the case of Tampa, we are inside the head of a sexual sociopath who manipulates those around her to suit her sexual outcomes. The explicit detail is needed because we are in her first person narrative. We are listening to her voice, how she would think and in her view – there is sex in everything.
In novels about people – novels that go deep into the human psyche – perhaps better suited as ‘character stories’ rather than a story driven by ‘plot’ – isn’t sex going to occur? Sex is a big part of many of our lives and it is, indeed, all around us, whether in a pornographic or erotic context. Is there anything wrong with pornography? Of course not. But pornography suits a different purpose. It is not the audience I argue but more the purpose. The purpose of sex used within a story, a novel, what have you. The need and purpose of it, how that contributes to the story or the characters.
Scarlett Thomas wrote of the issue in her Guardian article: “Forget EL James, Let’s have some real dirty fiction”:
I am still considering how one might teach creative writing students why this is literature and EL James’s spanking scenes are not. Of course, in one way the answer is obvious: Lodge deals in reality; James with fantasy. Lodge helps us to better understand our world; James provides easy pleasure. Lodge is writing serious fiction; James, erotica.
Thomas had had a similar situation with regards to her work, pornography and erotica, saying, “I was extremely surprised recently when my US agent forwarded me a rejection note in which an editor wonders whether I intended it as “erotica.”
She is talking of her latest novel, The Seed Collectors, which does, indeed, have a lot of sex but rightly so. Reading it and being aware of this ‘issue,’ as some reviewers put it, I found myself in need to defend but finding it easy, glad that Thomas had used sex in her book for a purpose. Thomas’s work is embroiled in her hobbies – Popco is her mathematical book, The End of Mr Y her science book, The Seed Collectors is her plant book and plants are all about sex.
In one scene, Thomas has one of her characters stroke a plant until it ejaculates in her hand, when told it is, indeed, semen she seems liberated. And then it hit me – yes, this is why, this is why this book, of all her books, she decided to write so much about the sex lives and emotions of these people – because plants are so sexual and this is her plant book. Her characters, just like the writers mentioned, are raw and portrayed as such. Bryony, mother of two and married to a happy, perfect man, masturbates in a train toilet, imagining dirty, sexist men taking turns fucking her, paying fifty pence each to have a go. There’s something to say about Thomas’s representation of women wanting to be dominated – meaning a lot of the women, if not all, in the book do but, given her reading of Fifty Shades, perhaps it is a retort, one that works and shows a power offering and dominance in both sexes.
Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands created a sensation of disgust. Roche did not just present her character naked emotionally but anatomically. Wetlands is about the body. It is sexual. But where Thomas and Nutting stop at sexual explicitness, Roche disguises vaginal bleeding during sex (a whole chapter dedicated to it), smegma, eating ones feces, having anal sex involving feces, among other things. I have never read a book like it and I doubt I will. But no matter how much it disgusted me, I returned and blasted through the pages sitting at the back of Warwick library, skiving off work as a Library Steward.
There were parts, moments, where I queezed and thought, is this enough? It may have been for me but not for Roche and that was OK because this was her book and her character and this was the character’s voice, she had chosen a character who spoke so explicitly, who was, for want of a better word, disgusting but the deliciousness of the disgusting came from her complete vulnerability, her corruption and understanding. Thus, the sexual scenes – discussed in an almost anatomical way – were needed. Wetlands was later made into a film. I purposely didn’t watch it, thinking such a book could never be made into a film properly.
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife suffered from the same clause – a sexually explicit, beautiful, wonderful book, nabbed by the Hollywood Rom-Com cycle. The novel did not get its real treatment which was one about a relationship, a marriage and the affect time-travel had on them. The science-fiction context lingered in the background and when it did affect both Claire and Henry it was because of their child, the need for normality in their lives. The novel was about the two people in front of its page and sex became a part of that. Niffenegger drew her characters so nakedly, so exposed. Henry is not a straightforward person, not necessarily ‘good,’ he is a person who has broken hearts and become violent. Claire, in her depression due to Henry’s death, has sex with her best friend’s husband and screams out her dead husband’s name:
Hands pull me out from my seat, unbutton my shirt. Tongue on my cheek, my shoulders, my nipples. I reach out blindly and find terrycloth, a bath towel that falls away. Henry. Hands unbutton my jeans, pull them down, bend me back over the kitchen table… My legs spread. Tongue on my cunt… I open my eyes; I’m staring at a half-full glass of orange juice. I close my eyes. The firm, steady push of Henry’s cock into me. Yes. I’ve been waiting very patiently, Henry. I knew you’d come back sooner or later. Yes. Skin on skin, hands on breasts, push pull clinging rhythm deeper yes, oh –
Everything stops. A clock is ticking loudly. I open my eyes. Gomez staring at me, hurt? angry? in a moment he is expressionless. A car door slams. I sit up, jump off the table, run to the bathroom. Gomez throws my clothes in after me.
Naked. Naked, raw characters that made a phenomenal book and a film that merely attempted to butcher it. The book, however, has stood over the film – and rightly so – and in doing that has used sex in a way that adds layers to its characters. Is then pornography determined by its story? Or, if we go further, determined by how it is used in the story? It’s a complicated question but one that comes down to what the piece serves. A pornographic piece may have a story but serves as pornography, to eroticise…and nothing wrong with that, of course.
With literature, to have sex, is to contribute to the story, the sex, then, serves a purpose – its continued study of human nature. But why the reaction? Why the reaction from Scarlett Thomas’s agent and the editor of the magazine to me? When re-reading all of the books to write this column, I came across a line towards the end of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. Celeste, Nutting’s narrator, has just been caught having sex with an underage boy by her previous underage lover. The underage lover has bashed the boy’s head in and run away, Celeste has run after him.
Nutting writes, ‘It wasn’t Jack’s bloody handprints on my chest or the knife in my hand that she noticed first of all. “You’re naked,” she finally exclaimed.’ And it became so clear, so clear as to why the reaction, because we, as a society, are still scared of sex. In an ever sexualised society, we still shy away at the topic but novels and stories are to ask the questions we don’t want to talk about and in the novels of Scarlett Thomas, Alissa Nutting, Audrey Niffeneger, Charlotte Roche and others, the questions are asked and the details are exposed.
Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.