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