Do you remember how people used to walk about with ghetto blasters, so you could hardly escape the high-volume throb of some visceral drumbeat?
Being alive now is like having your head permanently wedged – viced – between two extremely loud speakers constantly blasting out the duty of pleasure. Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and a wide bandwidth of the internet are all dedicated to encouraging us to rip our (or someone else’s) clothes off.
Right now. Urgently. Breathlessly.
It’s not a global village, it’s a global boudoir. Sex, said Philip Larkin, was invented some time between the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Beatles’ first album. It only remains for writers to un-invent it all over again. We have to go back to zero. The zerotic – which may be the only raison-d’être left to “literature” – must do battle with the battalions of the erotic. I am in the middle of an orgy and I want out.
Hence the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction prize. Last night, at the In & Out club (also known as Naval and Military) St James Square, the outsize plaster pink foot (mysterious, true, but what are you going to hand out?) was awarded to Manil Suri’s The City of Devi. Bad weather apparently detained the author at Kennedy airport, but his absence allowed the fabulous Joan Collins to give a generous plug for her own book, Passion for Life, to the effect that it had good sex in it, as well as bad, and plenty of both.
It is hard, perhaps impossible, to think of a word in the English language that does not also mean “penis”. The great thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to beat about the bush any more. You get to use all those words that one might otherwise feel just a little bit awkward about, such as “cock” and “fuck” and “suck”. It’s like being back in the playground and getting excited all over again about assorted Anglo-Saxon monosyllables.
And that is all very well, the Literary Reviewers seem to be saying. Carry on up the Kama Sutra. But what they fundamentally object to is the hype, the hyperbole, the inflation. It’s not the physical, it’s the metaphysical. Or, as Alec Waugh so eloquently put it last night, “it’s when you make an ass of yourself”.
“Oh, God! It was heaven!” (Motherland, William Nicholson)
“Oh GOD, oh GOD, OHGODOHGOD!” (My Education, Susan Choi).
The phallogocentric hard sell. Whether it’s theo-ontic or quantum mechanical:
“We dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei” (The City of Devi, Manil Suri)
Or botanical: “I saw flowers. Huge yellow and mauve flowers…” (Secrecy, Rupert Thomson).
Or physio-mystic: “She sucked the last drops of his seed into the folds of her innermost soul” (Woody Guthrie – yep, the folk singer and inspiration to Bob Dylan – House of Earth).
The problem with love is not the word “love”: it is the word “like” – similes “like crystal ladybirds” (don’t ask); or metaphors: “Victoria exploded” (The Victoria System, Eric Reinhardt). Shame. Just when we were starting to have fun too. It’s like (oops) taking out a subprime mortgage when you know darn well the property is not going to be worth half that in … I was about to write “five minutes from now”, but something similar still applies even if we allow some artificially protracted tantric marathon (“We made love for five hours” – the superhumanly endowed Reinhardt again). What goes up must come down. In a spirit of diversity, the Literary Review also managed to slip in a lesbian romp (Susan Choi). It’s good to know that lesbians can have Bad Sex too.
The quintessential literary moment occurs at the end of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, when Frédéric and his best friend Deslauriers do a runner from the brothel and then say: “That was the best time we ever had”. Stendhal’s “N’est-ce que ça?” gets us back on the shore after “surfing the waves of neuromuscular euphoria” (the world was all before them, Matthew Reynolds).
Wittgenstein argued that the point of philosophy was to overcome the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language. I think we can now write “by means of YouPorn”. Language, in a spirit of revenge, must set out to disenchant.
Surely that is the only point of a line like, “I found the brie and broke off a fragment of it, sucking her nipple through it” (The Last Banquet, Jonathan Grimwood). Cheesy does not do it justice. Reading this stuff is like spending a fortnight in a nudist camp. It inspires a life of exemplary asceticism.
But, you might well protest, isn’t there a secret, erotic-in-spite-of-it-all purpose orgasmically enfolded within Bad Sex scenes – or as I suggest, the Zerotic – in literature? I suspect that the evolutionary psychologist will say: this is Tony Curtis chatting up Marilyn Monroe by not chatting her up in Some Like It Hot: (Cary Grant accent)
When I’m with a girl it does absolutely nothing to me … See – nothing! Complete washout … like my heart was shot full of Novocaine.
The claim of impotence/indifference is just a cunningly indirect way of getting Marilyn in the sack.
But perhaps there is a neo-existential justification for the zerotic. It suggests that you don’t in fact have to have sex constantly. It’s not about to be prohibited, it’s not censored either (what is the opposite of censorship?) – but it’s not a great genetically determined binding obligation either. You could always choose to … read a book, for example. So that when Lady Gaga is bellowing in your ear, “Do what you want with my body!”, there still remains the blissful theoretical possibility of replying, “No thanks.” Pas ce soir, Gaga.