Sex, Outrageous Reversals, and Romance Novels

by | February 6, 2015 |

In Creation of the Sacred. Tracks of Biology in Early Religions Walter Burkert, Professor of Classics at the University of Zurich, writes: ”We must acknowledge the highly ambivalent status of sex in all human societies, with all sorts of disclaimers, secrecy, and repression, and the concomitant possibility of outrageous reversals.” (1996:90).

As an example of an outrageous reversal Burkert offers the following: the monkey’s sign of submission is the presentation of the posterior; humans have inverted this sign and made it one of contempt against the weak. We witness it in the saggy pants phenomenon/fashion choice of some young males.

In 2008 Barack Obama was asked about a possibility of a law against saggy pants. He said such a law was a waste of time, but he added that “Brothers should pull up their pants” as a sign of respect for those around them.

As an example of a disclaimer I will mention the toilet consisting of two footplates and a hole in the ground. The French call it à la turque ‘in the Turkish style.’ Who are they kidding? I call it à la française.

The point is: when we disclaim, we slough off on to some other culture what we don’t want to acknowledge as our own. Case in point: French kiss. What do the French call it? Although the Académie Française coined a term for it only in 2013, namely galocher ‘to kiss with tongues’, older forms of French had the phrase le baiser vénitien ‘Venetian kiss.’ So what do the Venetians call it? I have no idea.

Then there’s the secrecy. Romance novels are good examples. Before the iPad and the Nook, women slipped privacy covers – usually made at home, often of calico – around their paperbacks so that they could read their romances in public undisturbed. In my blog post On Silence and Singularity and the Romance Novel I’ve already noted how romance novels are not displayed on living room coffee tables but rather end up in bedside drawers.

The repression surrounding romance novels is so complete that no romance novelist is ever a contender for the Bad Sex in Fiction award, which is handed out by the Literary Review. Only authors with prestigious prizes can be nominated for this dubious distinction. Norman Mailer won Pulitzers in 1968 and 1979 and the Bad Sex in Fiction award in 2007.

The Bad Sex winner in 2014 was Ben Okri for The Age of Magic. Here‘s a part of a passage that earned him the nod:

“When his hand brushed her nipple it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour….The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

Note: Gods with a sense of humor likely don’t condone the unintentionally funny line about a stray rocket. My guess is they prefer sex scenes with lines that are intentionally funny. If you do, too, try my Swept Away (affiliate) or And Heaven Too (affiliate).

Okri won a Booker Prize in 1991.

The 2014 winner of the Booker, Richard Flanagan, also made the Bad Sex shortlist with: “Hands found flesh; flesh, flesh. He felt the improbable weight of her eyelash with his own; he kissed the slight, rose-coloured trench that remained from her knicker elastic, running around her belly like the equator line circling the world.” Yup, pretty terrible, and made worse by the visual of granny panties.

Two points:

First, talk about the highly ambivalent status of sex! So ambivalent that a literary magazine is inspired, as one account put it, “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

Second, Okri and Flanagan might try reading romances for solid pointers about how to write about sex meaningfully, without squirmy ambivalence, and in a way that makes it not perfunctory but rather integral and foundational to the progression of the story.

My reversal is, indeed, outrageous: we romance novelists have things of significance to teach to winners of prestigious writing awards.


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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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