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Putting the merry back into Christmas: Sex and the holidays

December 15, 2010

Vera Ellen, White Christmas, 1954.

I say there, this Rowan Somerville is a good sport. Not only did he show up to accept his “award” for writing the year’s worst sex scene –“There’s nothing more English than bad sex,” he said last month, “so on behalf of the entire nation I would like to thank you” — he’s now compiled a list of 10 great sex scenes.

This has the potential to be so much more fun than a list of the 10 best novels of the year, or the 10 best holiday books, or the 10 most popular gift titles, especially since I personally have always found the Christmas season–er, uh, the most wonderful time of the year.  Admit it, you do, too.

For all of its religious overtones, Christmas is a profoundly sensuous celebration. Actually, it’s the season in which the “sensuous” and the “sensual’ jump their tracks and collide.

I’m not only referring to chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Jack Frost nipping at your…nose, although I’m certainly not above a good double entendre from the vast repertoire of secular holiday songs, almost all of which carry a subtext of seduction.

“White Christmas?” An expanse of virginal snow, waiting expectantly to be sullied. “Winter Wonderland?” One of the purest expressions of young love and the joy of mutual pleasure. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?” Hey, kid, aren’t you supposed to be in bed?

And can anyone deny the orgiastic nature of “Jingle Bells?” Oh, what fun!

Okay, you may accuse of me an unhealthy mind, or perhaps a Christmas fetish, but consider: All that rich, luscious food, the intoxicating blend of nostalgia and fellow-feeling that we call the Christmas spirit, the chill weather that encourages snuggling — these holiday hallmarks are only an arm’s length from outright naughtiness.

Wait — what was I talking about? Oh, right, Rowan Somerville. Ahem, well, it seems that while the good gentleman displayed the best of manners when he collected The Bad Sex in Fiction Award from The Literary Review for his novel The Shape of Her, he was in fact chafing under what he saw as “bullying” from the upperclass “toffs” that staff the magazine.

“Last Monday I was in Paris when the Literary Review emailed me with the irritating news that I was the favorite to ‘win’ the 2010 Bad Sex Award” Somerville later confessed in an excellent essay for the Guardian.. “‘Quel honneur’ I quipped , relieved there was an international frontier, a channel of water, and 950 years of bad blood between me and this unwelcome dishonour.”

Somerville isn’t the only one who is starting to see the meanness behind this supposedly harmless jape of a literary award, not to mention the implication that it’s impossible to write well about sex in a novel intended for adults. Tony Lichtig, also writing in the Guardian, goes so far as to suggest a “Good Sex in Fiction Award” to prove the contrary.

So the question is: Can sexual experience be written about well at all? Or should the curtains be closed discreetly whenever two characters reach the point of physical intimacy, with perhaps a symbolic image of skyrockets erupting or trains entering tunnels, as in an old Hitchcock movie?

In offering his list of 10 novels that portray sex with splendid directness, Somerville argues fiercely that sex, “[b]eing so central to much of our lives and indeed life itself … is a valid and important topic for fiction.” He quotes the American writer Elizabeth Benedict: “A good sex scene is not always about good sex, but it is always an example of good writing.”

Presumably that’s the standard guiding Somerville’s list, some of which I found refreshingly unexpected. For example, the list includes The Story of O, considered by some a work of classy erotica, others outright pornography; Somerville argues implicitly for its status as literature.

He also includes Edmund White’s gay classic, A Boy’s Own Story (“[b]eautiful language, powerful story; saucy too if you can let yourself go”); Dracula, by Bram Stoker (“a superb gothic tale of repressed sexuality and the savagery of its release”); and his No. 1 pick, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov — a bold choice, given that it’s “about a sociopath’s utterly self-serving ‘love’ for a minor.”

But it’s also, Somerville declares, “one of the greatest novels in the English language” (and I would add: one of the funniest). And few who have read it could disagree.

So there you have Somerville’s defense of sex in fiction (plus my somewhat overheated rhapsody on Christmas). Check out the rest of his Top 10 list. And in the spirit of the season — giving, don’t you know — share some of your sexy favorites.

Oh, and have yourself a merry little Christmas.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 15, 2010 2:46 pm

    “White Christmas” has a very different conotation for me than the virginal snow waiting to be sullied. I rather envision lots of Vitamin C dripping from someone’s mouth, or hands, or….

    And I’ve seen Christmas underwear in stores with the slogan “Jingle Balls” and it always makes me laugh and contemplate which I really want to be– naughty or nice…

    All of this while consuming that wonderful spiked eggnog….

    But wait–aren’t we supposed to be discussing literture here????

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 15, 2010 2:55 pm

      Literature AND sex, my dear, and whether it is appropriate or even possible to write about sex. The Christmas stuff is just a jingle bonus. I say: Grown ups can be naught and nice — why should we have to choose?

  2. December 15, 2010 10:02 pm

    LOLITA wins it all, hands down (no discussion especially if you’re a surpressed Puritan). Really, Chauncey, it’s the brilliant writing. Yeah, I know it’s about pedophilia, but the words used to describe Humbert’s lust, which morphs into the pain of pure Love ultimately, are captivating, mesmerizing, the essence of genius. The subject matter itself takes a back seat to Nabokov’s descriptive pyrotechnics. It took great courage to write such a book at all and some publishers wouldn’t touch it even back then, but Nab ended up laughing all the way to the bank and Lolita and Humbert may be the two most fabulously realized characters that he ever created. They gave him an author’s immortality that none of his other works will ever touch.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 15, 2010 10:39 pm

      The thing that is always most striking to me about Lolita is how unexpectedly funny it is. Really, given the lurid subject matter, the beauty of Nabokov’s descriptive powers, the literary heft of the whole project, it is still hilarious, sometimes slyly, sometimes uproariously. One of the great novels of the 20th century, no doubt.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        December 16, 2010 12:08 am

        Buuuut…given the pedophilia theme, Lolita can’t really qualify as sexy. Certainly not as sexy as Christmas.

  3. rowan permalink
    December 16, 2010 6:27 am

    Hi FLC
    what a lovely article. Thank you you…wish i was sitting in the FKC now rather than on my rather cold backside in a cold and dreary London.

    Happy Christams to you too (we are still allowed to say it here…to Jewish, Muslim, Sikh buddies even to Buddhists like myself)

    Love Rowan (Somerville)

  4. rowan permalink
    December 16, 2010 6:28 am

    should read FLC rather than KFC ah the joys of dyslexia

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 28, 2010 11:22 am

      Rowan, in the press of holiday planning, shopping and travel, I failed to notice that the star of this column had responded, and generously. Many thanks. May all your days be bright, including this one, even if you are in dreary old England. I hope to see you someday in Florida, perhaps representing your next novel at the Miami Book Fair, or on tour at your local bookstore, Books & Books. Best wishes.

  5. December 16, 2010 9:55 pm

    You’re right, Chauncey. Lolita is not sexy at all, really. You never find yourself responding lustfully to her. But maybe responding lustfully to the mind-boggling style, the writing? The films made from the book went with nubile-sexpot-caught-in- grip-of-older-man-salivating-all-over-himself angle. James Mason did it better than Jeremy Irons, but I don’t know that either performance would send you to the book itself. The films miss the artistry by many a merciless mile. Heavy sigh. And also the sound of Nabokov rolling in his grave.

  6. January 4, 2011 9:24 pm

    Great Thank to Information ! Very Usealy.
    Happy new year 2011

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