Novelist Garth Greenwell writes about writing about sex in The Guardian thoughtfully and — yes — passionately.
I once heard a wonderful writer, addressing students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, say that her ideal of a sex scene would be the sentence: “They sat down on the sofa …” followed by white space. This is a prejudice I can’t understand. One of the glories of being a writer in English is that two of our earliest geniuses, Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote of the sexual body so exuberantly, claiming it for literature and bringing its vocabulary – including all those wonderful four-letter words – into the texture of our literary language. This is a gift not all languages have received; a translator once complained to me that in her language there was only the diction of the doctor’s office or of pornography, neither of which felt native to poetry.
More than this, surely it is absurd to claim that a central activity of human life, a territory of feeling and drama, is off-limits to art. Sex is a uniquely useful tool for a writer, a powerful means not just of revealing character or exploring relationships, but of asking the largest questions about human beings.
He goes on first to explain what he means:
Sex is an experience of intense vulnerability, and it is also where we are at our most performative, and so it’s at once as near to and as far from authenticity as we come. Sex throws us profoundly into ourselves, our own sensations, physical and emotional; it is also, at least when it’s interesting, the moment when we’re most carefully attuned to the experience of another. In no other activity, I think, do the physical and metaphysical draw so near one another—nowhere else do we feel so intensely both our bodies and something that seems to exceed our bodies—and so our writing of sex can be at once acutely descriptive of bodies in space and expansively philosophical. Nothing exposes us more, not just physically, though that’s not insignificant, but also morally; nowhere am I more aware of selfishness and generosity, cruelty and tenderness, daring and failure of nerve, in my partners and in myself, than in sex. Finally, sex puts us in contact with our shared animal nature and is also inflected by a particular place and time.
and then to talk about what he tries to do.
What excites me in writing sex isn’t explicitness itself, but the combination of explicitness and a particular kind of sentence I’m attracted to, a sentence with a history one might trace from the great introspective English prose writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, through Proust and James to Woolf and Baldwin and Sebald. It’s a sentence at once expansive and recursive, plunging forward but also falling back to question and correct itself. I think of it as a technology for the production of inwardness, for putting on the page what thinking feels like. In writing Cleanness I wanted to find out what might happen when that technology was applied to sex of various kinds: tender and brutal, intimate and impersonal, joyful and abject. I felt there was an intervention literature might play, that it might reclaim the sexual body as a site of consciousness.
As a lifetime reader on a wide variety of topics, I thought I knew the kind of sentence he’s talking about, and I thought it might be easy to find an example. I opened Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to a random page, and found this one:
They had now entered a beautiful walk by teh side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene.
It’s entirely about Elizabeth’s private experience while things are going on around her which are far less important to her than her inwardness. And that makes me want to read Greenwell’s Cleanness, because I think he’s right. Sex can be written personally or impersonally, mechanically or tenderly, as private or public experience, but it is almost never written about as inward experience–and I feel sure I’m not the only person who can experience sex from that perspective.
Toward the end of the essay, Greenwell identifies himself as queer, and he ends with a paean to writing about queer sex in particular:
To write something, to make art of it, is to make a claim about its value. Even in our age of marriage equality, when as a culture we tell ourselves a very flattering story about gay liberation, it remains the case that our culture despises the queer body, especially the queer sexual body. To write about the queer body not just explicitly, but with all of the resources of the literary tradition, to write it in a way that foregrounds beauty and lyricism is, I hope, a way to cherish that body. It’s a way not to argue for its value but to recognise and proclaim its value, and to l
avish it with the peculiar, ennobling dignity art can bestow.
If Greenwell’s fiction is as good as his writing about fiction, it’s going to be a treat indeed.
(I found the illustration at the top on writingourselveswhole.org and that took me back to Laurie’s and my interview with Jen Cross. Greenwell doesn’t talk about writing about sex as a route to healing, but Jen Cross does.)
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