Can SEX & LITERATURE really get along?

I originally wrote this piece for Publisher’s Weekly but it was cut in half for space.  Here is the unedited version.

No Sex, Please, We’re Literary!

No Sex, Please, We’re Literary!

Sex sells. But what about sexy storylines? When it comes to fiction is sex in one category and literature in another, and never the twain shall meet? In this provocative essay, author Karen Essex takes on the issue and responds to critics of her literary thrillerDracula in Love. So get ready … things are about to heat up.

During an auction for the audio rights to my new novel, Dracula in Love, my editor forwarded me an email that was sent from one of the bidders. “This book is so hot that I can’t wait to get home to my wife!” he proclaimed, and then outbid everyone else and presumably went home and made his wife happy. (Mrs. Audio Rights, you owe me.)

We were delighted to hear that feedback because during the writing process, we had tortuous debates over just how much sex would be too much. My most trusted readers are my agent, my editor, and my manager (yes, I’m lucky), and as they read drafts of chapters, each had very different responses to how much sex was appropriate. Without giving away proclivities, two on the team kept begging for more, even though what one thought erotic, the other sometimes found terrifying (go figure). The third loved every sensual drop but kept reminding us of the puritanical level of the basic American reader, specifically, theliterary reader, that elite creature that relies on a host of signifiers to be distinguished from the genre reader. She pointed out that the book had the elements that discriminating readers looked for in a literary work: a strong, authoritative voice, painstakingly composed prose, and serious themes. “This book is too rich to have its seriousness dismissed because of the sex scenes,” our cautious voice reminded us.

“Hmm. Why are erotically charged prose and literary value mutually exclusive?” I asked.

“Please. You know how readers are!” she replied. “They see some sex on the page and assume it’s a bodice-ripper.”

Let me just say that I set out to write something that was both literary and erotic, something that did not just hint at searing sex as lights go down, but truly explored women’s sexual pleasure. One of my biggest motivations for reimagining Bram Stoker’s brilliant novel Draculafrom the female perspective was the hypermisogyny of the original. Today, the book is often read in academic settings as a cautionary tale against the unbridling of female sexuality at the end of the nineteenth century.

In Dracula in Love, I wanted to turn the original story inside out, exposing its underbelly or its “subconscious mind.” A great part of what could not be expressed in any quarter in the 1890s was women’s sexual pleasure. In fact, in my research, I discovered case after case in the archives of the old Bedlam Hospital of women being committed for having what we today would consider normal sex drives. Stoker’s novel is seething with unspoken sexuality; the fun in retelling the tale was to express the formerly forbidden aspects. After all, we are more than seventy years past the days when Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin shocked the reading public by introducing graphic and unapologetic sex on the literary page. And it’s been almost forty years since Erica Jong delighted readers with zipless encounters in Fear of Flying. Yet I have received huffy complaints from some readers that I did disservice to my book — that I literally cheapened both the book and its female protagonist — by including sex scenes.

Let’s dissect this. The point of my books is to give voice to otherwise voiceless females from history and myth; to unlock what has been secreted away in women’s hearts and minds for thousands of years; to express what has been unutterable. Historically, women have either been reduced to nothing but their sexuality, or stripped of it entirely; the Madonna or the whore. Are those two options not more degrading to a female character than allowing her the full range of human experience?

Apparently, this neo-puritanism has also diminished once-lusty literature by the opposite sex. In a recent New York Times essay, Katie Roiphe dissected the state of literary sex by contemporary male authors. Compared to the unapologetic, conquering lions of yesteryear like Roth, Updike, and Mailer, whose sex scenes had “a mystery and a power,” the new male writers — Chabon, Franzen, Eggers, the late David Foster Wallace — craft a world in which “passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life.” (Sadly, one also sees this reflected in the real world. Note to men: man up!)

As for the women, where do we see female sexual pleasure explored on literary pages? In the eighties, Rosemary Daniell boldly published Sleeping with Soldiers, (note: not a novel) her memoir of searching the continental United States for macho men to bunk up with. Mary Gaitskill’s fiction explores sexual taboos — prostitution, S&M, rape — all laced with as much shame and self-loathing as titillation. Kathryn Harrison didn’t mind telling us about her erotic adventures with her father (again, not a novel, and again, shame, titillation, self-loathing).

But where can we locate unabashed, celebratory female eroticism in today’s literary fiction? Is there a knee jerk dichotomy that automatically goes off in the minds of serious writers and readers? No sex, please, we’re literary? Are we, the “literary,” still obeying the ancient good girl versus bad girl paradigm that has bifurcated and inhibited women for millennia?

I have thus far been amazed at some of the prudish responses to the sex scenes in Dracula in Love. After the prologue, the book opens with an attempted rape. It’s jarring and perhaps disorienting, but the scene was meant to convey danger — the dangerous world the character inhabits, and a premonitory insight into the even more terrifying world she’s about to enter. As a writer who aims to give the reader a visceral experience, I’m not sure how to write a tame rape scene. Yet some readers said they had trouble getting past it. Others have been “disturbed” at the explicit nature of later scenes that are meant to be erotic. (By the way, I use no profanity and no crude terms.) Still others have been upset by “the author’s need to shock the reader.” Honestly, the only shocking thing to this author is this sort of response.

On the other hand, the book has received much praise and appreciation for its dark sensuality. Several readers have compared the experience of reading it to eating expensive dark chocolate. Some have admitted to drooling on the pages, while others even hinted at wanting to eat the pages!

These responses are deeply gratifying. Far from wanting to “shock,” I wanted to delight, to thrill, and to frighten in ways that were impossible in the 1890s. I wanted the reader to feel enveloped by the lush velvet of the Victorian era, with its seething sensuality that was contained and corseted, cloaked with layers of delicate lace, and in some cases, restrained with leather straps and straitjackets.

A recent reviewer seemed to understand this, declaring that the sex, while erotic, was tasteful, because the writing was more “artistic” than “literary.” I am not sure I know precisely what that means, but if “literary” implies either apologetic ambivalence (male), or linking pleasure and self-loathing (female), I’ll take being artistic any day.

If readers take pleasure in the literary writer’s descriptions of place, of sound, of weather, of food, of all manner of things appealing to the senses, why shy away from visceral, transporting descriptions of sexual delight? If sex debases women and literature, then please, tie me up and spank me, then wrap my books in brown paper and sell them from below the counter.

by Karen Essex