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A few words on sex

Pop culture's saturated, but fiction writers have yet to find a language to describe its complexity.

June 01, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

Sex in literature, like sex in real life, doesn't mean what it used to mean. In the post-feminist and post-postmodern world, sex is so loaded with assumption (who's being exploited? who empowered?) that writers and readers censor themselves, regardless of gender or who (or what) we eroticize. We've reached a point where, in an orgy of political correctness, everything is true, and nothing is permitted.

We're swimming in a sea of sex, and most of it seems to be oppressive or egomaniacal or, worse, cliched. Religious barriers to the erotic have been replaced by a kind of creative embarrassment -- as though we should come up with some better form of communication than sex. Men are confused, turned on and depressed. Women are unsatisfied, turned on and depressed.

Yet no one trusts a world without sex. Sex is humanizing. And in contemporary literature, real sex is what's missing.

There's plenty of new writing with sex in it, but with a few notable exceptions, most everything being published is of the "Sex and the City" or "Bridget Jones's Diary" variety -- girlfriend novels, basically. And of course, there are infinite tomes of "erotica," which, badly done, becomes simply pornography.

But lovers of literature long for passages that capture real desire in all its frailty, unseared by cynicism, describing the compromised circumstances of the act while protecting the hope invested by the reader. Literary sex, it seems, is best defined by enthusiasm for the characters, the act and the language -- be it as celebratory as Henry Miller's, as funny as Philip Roth's, or as steely as Mary Gaitskill's.

Where is our D.H. Lawrence? Today's situation could benefit from acute observation of passages such as this one, from "Lady Chatterley's Lover": "She still wanted the physical, sexual thrill she could get with him by her own activity, his little orgasm being over. And he still wanted to give it her. Which was enough to keep them connected. And enough to give her a subtle sort of self-assurance, something blind and a little arrogant. It was an almost mechanical confidence in her own powers, and went with a great cheerfulness." Anais Nin, another great poet of the erotic, said of Lawrence: He "began to give instinct a language, he tried to escape the clinical, the scientific, which only captures what the body feels."

Giving language to instinct -- this should be the Big Project in an increasingly proscribed world. There are even strange new brands of sex, like the apocalyptic coupling that occurred after the World Trade Center fell, to drive new plots, to widen the erotic imagination. So where are the books?

There are some hot books coming out in 2003. But few of these describe a world we'd recognize. Indeed, the sexiest and most enjoyable book of the year may be a new translation of a bawdy 16th century Italian libertine text. Similarly, the neo-transgressive work of Rikki Ducornet takes us to an imaginary past. And the "pornosophy" of French writer Michel Houellebecq gives the contemporary moment a French context.

The real hope for writing about modern sexuality in familiar settings may lie with the work of short-story writers such as Steve Almond and ZZ Packer. In brief but literary bursts, they show us an arousing and welcome desire, muddied but not neurotically strangled.

The bigger question is: In a world where trash is king, will readers accept the real deal?

The girlfriend novel

"Wouldn't it be great if we really had a popular novel that captured contemporary feelings about love and sex?" asks Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW-FM's literary talk show "Bookworm." "Unfortunately, there's not one that we can agree is a great book." And part of the problem, he says, is the publishing world's affinity for the girlfriend novel.

These include the cynical shoppers' guides of Candace Bushnell, author of "Sex and the City," the girlfriend guides of Cynthia Heimel ("Sex Tips for Girls"), and the brace of self-absorbed confessionals like Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation" and "Bitch." We also have to throw in the clever lifestyle reportage of "Bridget Jones's Diary," with its canned jokes. Which are, after all, truly at our own expense.

Publishers' salacious marketing hype would have you believe that girlfriend novels are the sexiest thing going. But these books, Silverblatt says, are only the less-accomplished descendants of what was called the yuppie novel in the 1980s, work from Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and the rest of the "brat pack" that created a desire for an audience novel: books about people "just like us."

Bushnell's attempt to feed this phenomenon is best seen in her 2002 book, "Four Blondes." It seems to promise some racy Jacqueline Susann-style hanky-panky, but instead of writing about relationships or sex, often there are only transactions. She pities her characters and their futile search for meaning, and so leaves their real libidos, fantasies, fears -- their true desire -- just outside the door.

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