Putting the merry back into Christmas: Sex and the holidays
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.