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Good sex is a peril to literary creativity — or is it the other way round?

June 7, 2010

A  happy sex life may make it less likely you’ll ever write that great American novel or bestselling vampire thriller. Consider E.M. Forster: A new biographer claims that Forster’s first gay sexual experience, at the age of 38, killed his creative drive, according to the London Sunday Times.

Scholars and critics have long puzzled over Forster, who wrote several lasting novels in his 20s and early 30s, including A Room With A View and Howard’s End. After the publication of his masterpiece, A Passage to India, in 1924, Forster never wrote another novel, although he remained active as a critic, broadcaster and public intellectual until his death in 1970 at age 91.

“He never had sex until he was 38, although he never had doubts — even from a very young age — that he was gay,” said Wendy Moffat, associate professor of English at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania.

Working on a new Forster biography, Moffat gained access to previously unseen papers, including a so-called “sex diary” stored at King’s College, Cambridge. Forster suppressed his sexuality during young adulthood, but had his first homosexual experience with a soldier while volunteering with the Red Cross in Egypt in 1917.

Alan Hollinghurst, the gay prize-winning author, tells the Times: “It is certainly true for quite a few writers and certainly for Forster that suppression [of sexuality] was a strong creative force. And yes, the happiness he found from a relationship took away the urgency of his writing.”

In a book review, the London Telegraph says Moffat’s book, E.M. Forster: A New Life is “a superbly illuminating biography” that offers “the most plausible explanation yet for why such a successful novelist remained silent” most of the last 50 years of his life.

Moffat says that once Forster’s sexuality had been awakened — he became active in London’s gay underground — the domestic dramas of his acclaimed novels no longer held much interest.

“The marriage plot fiction had become a masquerade to him,” Moffats tells the Telegraph.

The sex diary reveals that Forster was drawn to working class men. “The love of his life” was a married policeman named Bob Buckingham, a relationship that lasted for decades. Forster was also fond of Buckingham’s wife and child — indeed, the writer died in the Buckingham home, where he lived briefly after suffering a stroke.

Forster’s only “gay” novel, Maurice, was written around 1910, before he became sexually active. It presciently focuses on the love affair between a young upper-class man and a gamekeeper. The novel was not published until after the author’s death.

“Now I am 85 how annoyed I am with society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal,” Forster writes in a diary entry. “The subterfuges and the self-consciousnesses that might have been avoided.”

The new information about Forster’s love life is only one example of the powerful interaction between sexuality and creativity.  Take Somerset Maughum, a contemporary of Forster’s. Though deeply conflicted about his homosexuality, Maughum was reliably productive throughout a long life.

And as Brenda Maddox shows in Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, her biography of James Joyce’s wife, sometimes flaming creativity can kill a writer’s sex drive. Maddox reports that Joyce gave all his energies to the writing of Ulysses, and his previously vigorous sexual appetite waned as a result.

So before you sit down to write that masterpiece, consider the possible cost.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 11:37 am

    Hmmm… Two quotes come to mind, from two heteros:

    Larkin’s ‘deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth’ and Nietzsche’s ‘making music [or literature] is a way of making babies.’. Which is to say, yes, in certain types a tortured love/sex life helps. Just as if the ‘creative juices’ are whole-heartedly, fanatically invested in art, it tends to leave the artist/writer/thinker dry.

    And now another quote, Lawrence Durrell’s characterization of sages & prophets as ‘wounded in their sex’. Of course, this is all doubly true for ascetically, mystically/inclined poets or writers such as Gibran, Rilke, etc… who in addition to jealous mistress of literature are also sworn to an Invisible Other…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 7, 2010 1:43 pm

      And those excellent quotations put me in mind of Faulkner’s Nobel Speech, in which he said the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about. Actually what he said is not quite so pithy: “Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

      I do not think a frustrated sexuality is necessary to art per se, but is useful only to the extent that it puts the heart at odds with itself, sparking discomfort best discharged through storytelling. Consider: Do we think Colette was sex-starved? How about Hemingway? Mailer? Nabokov? Updike?

      And it would be easy — simple-minded, but easy — to conclude from this new evidence that Forster’s gayness killed his creativity. This, of course, is ludicrous. It was the oppression that was the damaging factor, not the sexuality.

      I love Durrell, but his famous quote leaves me unconvinced.

  2. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 7, 2010 11:53 am

    Once he gave up living a life of fiction, fiction ceased to be his life.

    Was he homosexual during all those years he was abstinent, or is a more accurate term a-sexual? I guess the answer to that is another question “Do thoughts alone make you homosexual or must there be activity?” Confusing. I am confused. Not about that, but I am also not happy. So, I should be farther along on my great American/Vampire novel, yes?

    It’s mysterious that he stopped writing. Sure his priorities changed, but Forester was still forced to be covert about his “self”, which could have been a well of inspiration. I am positive sexuality, or the lack there of or, or the suppression of has a great deal of influence on all artists. Yet, the same could be said about environment, disease, drug use, addiction and many other factors. It’s what makes each novelist unique and every novel different.

    • Sean permalink
      June 8, 2010 3:00 pm

      >>Once he gave up living a life of fiction, fiction ceased to be his life.>>

      Nice! One for the Chiasmus Hall of Fame.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 7, 2010 1:47 pm

    The mystery of why Forster ceased writing novels is not quite solved by this new information. It not only had to do with his sexuality, or even society’s repression. It also had to do with the kind of novelist he was — an old-fashioned start-to-finish literary storyteller at a time when his modernist friends were busily taking apart the narrative form and pasting it back together in startling new ways. I think Moffat’s remark about the marriage story, the tidy dramas that can be built on its scaffolding, no longer being of interest to Forster is quite insightful.

  4. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 7, 2010 3:07 pm

    Quite insightful, yet incomplete. Moffat’s theory explains why Forster ceased writing about that subject, but doesn’t explain why he couldn’t or wouldn’t continue to write novels. His homosexual relationship with a married man with children, and the emotions involved, would, I imagine, give him plenty of material to novelize. Perhaps he revered privacy and true concern for his lover stopped him from doing so.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 7, 2010 10:28 pm

      Ummm…Nice thought, but I don’t think so. A novelist, at least theoretically, has access to some degree of imagination that would enable a writer of Forster’s quality to make use of any personal experience without violating the integrity of his relationships, no?

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 7, 2010 3:14 pm

    I hope there is no truth to what you say because that means I will either never have sex again or never write that great American novel….Why or why can’t I have both????

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 7, 2010 10:29 pm

      Or at least one….?!

  6. rachel permalink
    June 7, 2010 3:14 pm

    I think that this is interesting. I don’t think that being happy, and comfortable, and having a fulfilling sex life ruins a creative one. But I do think that when an artist is used to working under one condition, and therefore that condition is a stimulus for his art (imprisonment, addiction, depression, oppression etc), when that condition is removed the artist needs to adjust. And I think that primarily one of two things happens, he either stops working, or at least does it less, or he adjusts to the new situation and learns to write even when he is happy. I understand the impulse for it to be easier to create works of literature and art when one is unhappy for some reason. That it sort of drives the artist to create. But the opposite is true, too much of any of that can destroy a person’s drive as well. And it has been proven that one can get over this. Again and again I turn to Carver as an example of this. After getting sober Carver was just as productive and brilliant as before, when he was in the throws of his addiction.

    I find that in my own writing that so much is rooted in the imagination the what-if’s and imagined scenarios so once some version of those scenarios has been played out there is less of a need to write about it. However, I really think that it is about adaptation, writing under all conditions.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 7, 2010 10:33 pm

      Cheever, too: Although not as prolific after giving up alcohol, Cheever did write good stuff, including Falconer, which many critics believe to be his best novel. But then, he was mainly a short story writer.
      But the point is made: Sobriety, or sexual fulfillment, or general contentment do not automatically end a writer’s creative life. But it can. In fact, almost anything can. The writer’s impulse, and ego, are fragile things.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 7, 2010 8:57 pm

    But bad times (i.e., the economy) does seems to produce more great art. At least in my life experience. Or maybe when things are great, I’m the one not so interested in art. Maybe it’s like trying to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 7, 2010 10:39 pm

    Maybe it’s not that lean times are hospitable so much as fat times being the opposite….?

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