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