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Can sex sell ‘Britain’s most distinguished literary quarterly’?

April 21, 2010

Granta magazine has just published its first “Sex” issue. Lessee: that’s 40 years after the Sexual Revolution, 38 years after the release of Deep Throat, 67 years after U.S. courts ruled James Joyce’s Ulysses not obscene, and seven years since former ballet dancer Toni Bentley wrote The Surrender, delicately termed “a manifesto for anal sex” by The New York Times.

Western culture and entertainment is so saturated, if not to say satiated, with sex that Granta has generated almost no controversy.  There’s been some mild feminist grumbling that the cover objectifies women (uh…sometimes a pink purse is just a pink purse?). And the Guardian‘s Chris Cox finds only one story in the issue remotely transgressive: Emmanuel Carrre’s “This Is For You,” with its theme of masturbation.

“It’s a heroic piece of writing,” enthuses Cox,  “and trumps everything else in the issue, for this simple reason: it makes the lonely journey to the last frontier of literary sex. You see, we’ve read about every kind of sex imaginable. Nothing shocks us anymore. Few will bat an eyelid that Granta has published a sex issue; some are even mourning the golden age of literary sex, when there were still taboos left to smash.”

Well, I don’t know that masturbation is near any frontier whatsoever..Philip Roth made a book-length joke out of the solitary vice with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Brian Aldiss, best known as a sci-fi novelist, was doing much the same at much the same time with Hand-Reared Boy (1970). Going South, the Jack Nicholson Western, had a comic masturbation scene in 1978.

So while Cox doesn’t quite prove his thesis (“In 2010, the only sex that’s truly dangerous and unbounded is solitary”), the larger point about how blase we’ve come to be about sex is on target. With the hope of salacious scandal and blue-nose disapproval removed, Granta is left to depend on its usual stock in trade: literary quality.

Fortunately, observes Nicholas Shakespeare in the London Telegraph, in this regard the magazine does not let us down. After grousing about a story concerned mostly with a man’s “intestinal disorder”, and a “dud poem” by Anne Carson, he announces: “But for the most part, the mixture of memoir and fiction is unusually successful.” Shakespeare praises pieces by Jeannette Winterson (“the best I’ve read by her”), Adam Foulds, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Roberto Balano and Mark Doty.

You can get a sampling of the wit and frankness of the issue at Granta‘s website, where Evie Wyld’s memoir, “Woman’s Body: An Owner’s Manual,” opens with this: “In the year before my first period, my mother gives me a book called Woman’s Body, An Owner’s Manual. My mother’s greatest fear is that I will become pregnant. Mine is that my mother will talk to me about sex. So we are both happy with the gift.”

Regardless of Granta’s current theme, this consistently excellent magazine deserves plenty of readers on this side of the Atlantic. After all, it is the most Yankee of British periodicals: It was revived in 1979 by the idiosyncratic American writer and editor Bill Buford, who guided Granta for 16 years.

And its current editor, John Freeman, is an American as well — a distinguished book reviewer, freelance writer, author (The Tyranny of Email), and a former president of the National Book Critics Circle.

If you don’t know Granta, now’s as good a time as any to give it a try. Meanwhile, let’s play: Do you think there’s too much sexual content in contemporary culture? And if so, how do we regain “tabboos” worth smashing?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 2:34 pm

    As long as the sex is a necessary part of the story, the novel, the poem, I’m all for it. But if the author seems to feel obligated to tickle our diddle, it really turns me off. Portnoy aside, Roth handles sex about as well as it can be done without giving us that ick factor. No slavering allowed. Well, maybe a little.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 21, 2010 2:58 pm

    But the question may be: Is sex necessary at all? As you are aware, I’m quite certain, James Thurber and E.B. White (how’s that for a starting line-up?), posed that very query more than 80 years ago in their self-help satire, Is Sex Necessary: Or Why You Feel the Way You Do.

    Birds do it, bees do it — but should they?!

    I jest, of course. More seriously (if anything about this topic can be serious), the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given each year by the Literary Review, frequently “honors” our best writers, including, recently, Philip Roth, John Banville, Amos Oz, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe… We all should remember how very difficult it is to describe the ineffable…

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 21, 2010 3:48 pm

    While I find the cover to Granta offensive, it does highlight the connection between money and sex (albeit in an artless way). A connection that I wish did not exist, which makes it almost impossible to believe that there is a world, where finance is not intertwined with romance. Realistically though, I understand sex sells. Sex has been, is and probably will be, forever a commodity.

    From the Granta site:
    Sex is our oldest obsession. For as long as we’ve been doing it, it has been used as a mark of decline and a measure of progress. It has been at the centre of rituals and responsible for revolutions. We make money from it, hide behind it, prohibit and promote it. It relaxes us, revolts us, hurts us and helps us. But whatever we think about it, however we do it, it defines us.

    I agree with everything said, except the last line. Perhaps, sexual behavior can be used to define a nation or time-period, but on a personal level, I define sex. I give it meaning (or lack of). Not the other way round.

    Is there too much sex in contemporary culture? I don’t know. Who’s to say what too much is? I doubt a perfect, or even agreeable level could be attained.

    I usually can relate better to women writers one the topic of sex, I find guys (even some of the best male writers) turn the topic into a “fish story” where the conquest becomes grander and grander. That being said D.H. Lawrence’s writings always strike a chord within me, the bashful and awkward relations are spot-on.

    I am also unsure how we could go about making any subject that has become blase into a taboo once more.

    You have given me much to think about, Thank You.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 21, 2010 4:47 pm

    Well. What a thoughtful response from you, Mr. Smartt. First, I believe the only way to restore taboo to sex is, as the transgressive Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller once said, is to restore its sacredness — that is, hope that strict religion makes a come back and starts telling us what’s dirty and forbidden again. Wertmuller, in case you don’t know, had her heyday in the 1970s with great films like The Seven Beauties, Swept Away By An Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, The Seduction of Mimi and others. Her last film, released in 2004, is, interestingly enough, titled Too Much Romance…It’s Time for Stuffed Peppers. I haven’t seen it, more’s the pity.

    I though the cover photo of the pink purse quite witty and charming, not at all offensive. But that’s just me.

    Not to be argumentative, but I must dispute your claim that you define sex, not the other way around. I’m not sure such an achievement is humanly possible. After all, in the coarsest terms the meaning of human life is reproduction. As Woody Allen, and most other artists know, sex and death are not only paramount features of human existence, they are also closely linked. John Banvile explores this connection explicitly in his elegant (if faintly disappointing) new novel The Infinities.

    As for sex saturating the culture, Quentin Crisp thought it had ruined the movies. And this was a man who said: “Life is a disease for which movies are the cure;” and “It is true that movies are as addictive as dope, but they are less injurious to health and ought not be as expensive;” and “Comrade Dostoyevsky said that without tobacco and alcohol, life for most men would be intolerable, but he had never been to a double feature.” Sorry, I can get carried away quoting Crisp. Allow me one last, apropos our conversation: “For flavor, instant sex will never supersede the stuff you have to peel and cook. ”

    I wholeheartedly agree that women writers are frequently more interesting (if not necessarily better) on sex than male writers are. As I often say, men writers are hopelessly romantic, and as you say, often resort to fish stories.

    • April 21, 2010 9:33 pm

      Lina Wertmuller! Oh man, Chauncey, I just eat her up (not a pun) and think she’s one of the great and most insightful directors of her time. I’m so glad you mentioned her. No one nailed the power and beauty of sex the way Lina did. A fabulous filmmaker. I wonder if she’s still alive? Hope so. Now I have to go have a Wertmuller festival. Thanks!

  5. Sean permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:29 pm

    I’m trying to think of a taboo that’s been reclaimed and I’m stumped! But in all our history there must be noteworthy cases in which a line that people crossed was observed again once they discovered that crossing it was a bad idea.

    Gas guzzling? Hummers and the like became an embarassment in the last few years because of rising fuel prices and war in Iraq and terrorism exported from countries that supply our oil. But I can’t quite say poor gas mileage or extravagantly wasteful and conspicuous consumption are taboo. Not yet. And oil might not be as politicized five or ten years from now. Though it’s possible that shortages of various things could cause changes in mass behavior and culture that are then translated into new or revived taboos. Thrift seems to be enjoying a comeback as a virtue, considering the economy and general antipathy toward Wall Street. But who knows if that attitude will just continue to wax and wane with economic cycles.

    And besides that’s mostly global-scale, disaster-movie or public-policy stuff. You’re talking about a finer art of taboo restoration for how we express our sexual selves. For me, even here it’s tough to not think about it in mass-market, pop-cultural-apocalypse terms – like, it’s too bad a Decade of Britney didn’t prompt a backlash and new taboo against every form of brainless, vapid, graceless, gratuitous, undignified and decidedly unsexy sexual packaging, not to mention against every poser who fancied his or herself a taboo smasher but really wasn’t. Because now of course we’ve fallen into the abyss and we can’t get out …

    Ok now I’m just stalling here trying to think of something. Help!

  6. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 21, 2010 8:41 pm

    Yes, the cover is sly. It is also wrong. It’s Granta’s “Sex” issue not their “Vagina” issue. Maybe I am just being rigid. Why not the male sex organ, or the breast, or even the brain? That’s what offended me about the cover, plus my mom had a purse that looked just like that.

    I still maintain that I define sex and not vice-versa.

    Sex ruined films? I thought color was the culprit.

    I am in agreement with you and Wertemuller on the effect restoring sacredness to sex will have. I hope individuals choose to do this on their accord, instead of a religion imposing. Of course I could not advocate this movement for others, only for myself. In reviewing my own life, I went about doing this exact thing. Not in an effort to make sex taboo, but to breathe life into an area that had become meaningless, degraded to the same level as common bodily functions.

    The best illustration of the link between sex and death is the French (of course!) expression for orgasm, “Le petit mort” or translated “the little death”.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 21, 2010 8:55 pm

    Now see, you’ve provided another opportunity for me to quote Quention Crisp: ““The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.” And of course the prevailing genius of our civilization — advertizing and marketing — has figured out how to commodify this and sell it and resell it to us. Everyone’s a proud nonconformist, which of course is the purest contradiction in terms.

    The only way we could regain some useful taboos, or sexual prohibtions — a sense of sex as dirty and transgressive, that delicious religious guilt that gave fornication its deepest zing for the generation of Updike and Roth — would be a pendulum swing of prodigious arc.

    Something like this has happened before, and therefore might happen again. I’m referring to the loss of freedom of expression ushered in by the Victorians. In the 18th century, novelists like Laurence Stern and Henry Fielding wrote with a sexual frankness unavailable to the great 19th century novelists, and indeed, absent from Euro-American literature until the modernists came on the scene in the early 20th century, and the great smashing of taboos that characterized modernism began.

    And it was only when there were no more taboos to bust up, that postmodernism (also known as
    “The Silly Age”) began.

  8. rachel permalink
    April 22, 2010 9:24 am

    I actually don’t find the cover offensive. There are a lot of offensive images they could have picked, ideas they could have run with, but I don’t think this is one of them. It’s not in-your-face explicit, but rather almost subtle. Almost literary, in that it is more suggestive and thought provoking than direct and…and, and, for lack of a better word offensive.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 22, 2010 10:13 am

      I agree. It’s quite clever and subtle and suggestive — as the best writing about sex often is. Come to think of it, the best writing about anything. (Yes, yes, I know there are exceptions, but I’m laying down a rule here, okay?).

  9. Sean permalink
    April 22, 2010 1:03 pm

    Ok, there you have it: The Victorian lockdown. Thanks for the rescue! I didn’t know that lit had been more free-swinging pre-Victoria but of course it makes sense: The prudes had to be responding to something when they arrived bearing fresh prohibitions.

    Obviously I don’t want another Victorian era; I’m guessing lots of artist were marginalized under that regime. It was a negating impulse to do what the Victorians did, and while arts and lit no doubt adapted to the changed climate, and came up with new vocabulary and subtler ways to broach sex (I’ve read where filmmakers in undemocratic countries have been ingenious at rendering forbidden topics in ways that Hollywood could never imagine), it’s always scary when the pendulum takes that massive swing because we don’t want people getting walloped. The Wertmuller observation is a great one because it feels like a positive prescription – return the sacredness to sex. Now if there were just a way to do that that didn’t involve the church …

  10. Alexis permalink
    April 23, 2010 9:25 am

    A pink purse is NEVER just a pink purse.

    I also do not find the cover offensive. It is very subtle and there are so many more offensive ways they could have gone with the cover.

  11. Sean permalink
    April 23, 2010 5:48 pm

    Cover’s OK by me. But maybe what’s needed is a new taboo against bad taste, and that would just collaterally cover all the stupid that passes for sexy?

    Over at Facebook, there was a semi-related thread started by a story about SCOTUS striking down a law that banned dogfighting movies (the Michael Vick kind, not ‘Old Yeller’). Somehow that discussion there and this one here merged in my still-functioning brain (I’m 47 so according to Chauncey’s other post I have 18 years left to still be smarter than Gen-X brats). After winding through legal theory and the limits of permission, it was sort of agreed to that cruelty to animals is a bad thing to film but animals abusing people might be ok. One commenter split the difference by suggesting a film of “mother cats gently picking up Kardashians by the scruffs of their necks.”

    BTW ‘anal sex’ as a tag on a lit blog is pure comedy gold.

  12. Sean permalink
    April 24, 2010 11:53 am

    Jeebus it’s gotten awfully quiet here … must be time for Sean to stop talking now.

  13. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 26, 2010 3:20 pm

    Not familiar with the magazine, but I do love that cover!!

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