By Carina Tan-Van Baren
Imagine wearing a big placard around your neck: “Dud root”*.
This is the image that comes to mind when I contemplate writing my first sex scene. The idea of putting it all out there, describing the steamiest of encounters, only to have readers stifle a collective yawn gives me shivers – and not the good, weak-at-the-knees kind.
Fortunately, if you like a bit of raunch in your reading, there are plenty of writers around who feel otherwise. At the Perth Writers Festival for instance, authors Krissy Kneen, Glen Duncan and Frank Moorhouse were more of the view: “Why wouldn’t you write about sex?”.
Kneen’s writing doesn’t just include sex, it shines a red-hot spotlight on it. And she revels in leaning heavily against society’s sexual boundaries. “I like to think of myself as a pornographer rather than a writer of erotica because I prefer the whole chicken than the feather,” she told the ‘Sex, Lies and Literature’ session.
Kneen’s memoir Affection traces a childhood in which “any whiff of sexuality, any whiff of kissing even, was banned in my household until I was 18” and her relentless pursuit of sexual adventure since.
Her latest work, Triptych, began as an academic investigation into the language of literary pornography but Kneen abandoned her PhD after university management got the wobbles about her sex-soaked writing.
“This was a kind of reality check that maybe we are a much more conservative society than I expected and that even university is not a place where you can explore these issues without them worrying about the negative impact,” she said.
Kneen went on to finish Triptych – a set of three novellas dealing with sexual perversity – independently and it was published by Penguin Books Australia.
“I was really interested in the language of sexuality,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be some kind of marginalised thing that has to be hidden but we can actually talk about sex explicitly and yet still look at it as a literary thing.
“I wanted to write a pornographic novel or a set of pornographic novellas that really kind of connected with the modern world and that looked at where we were in terms of our relationship with each other now.
“I wanted to speak about the unspeakable but in a way that could leave the audience…quite turned on by the experience and then suddenly go, ‘I’ve been turned on by something that I would normally find offensive’ and that would be a forum for thinking about where our own lines are and why we draw them.”
True to her word, Kneen read an extract from Triptych, about a woman seducing an octopus into a sexual act, which left much of the audience shifting in our seats.
Asked how he got into writing about sex, Glen Duncan said: “I have always been writing about sex because I was always reading about sex because I grew up Roman Catholic.”
“The first story I think I remember hearing was the story of the Garden of Eden,” Duncan said. “They ate the fruit, they saw they were naked and they were ashamed. So there was a very powerful set of associations there. It was very clearly a story about a fall into knowledge.
“The idea took root with me quite early on that there was a connection between sex and knowledge. It was a way of discovering something mysterious and potentially transcendent. And then, of course, you actually start having some sexual experiences and your feelings about its potential perhaps start to change.”
Duncan said writing about sex was “just another way of understanding the human, it’s another part of the human animal”.
“The reality is that most of us, lots of us, spend a lot of time thinking about or pursuing or failing to get sex. So, given that I write comprehensively about the whole human animal, it is inevitable that I am going to write about sex.”
Duncan said the violent sexual content didn’t trouble his publisher, Knopf Doubleday, because it was already a known quantity in his writing. He had previously written about sexual sadism and, after all, his lead character was a werewolf.
“But when I first started publishing, I wrote about a guy who was addicted to pornography,” Duncan said. “This was the relationship between love and pornography. And I was really surprised that people found it, found the explicitness of parts of it, shocking.
“It sort of made me wonder what they’d been reading, you know, where they’d been? Because as a reader, admittedly a very precocious reader…I don’t find that material shocking and, moreover, it’s so much part and parcel of the human psyche package that it’s just ludicrous to hide it.
“If you’re a novelist, you’re in the business of understanding what makes human beings tick. Judging whether it’s right or wrong is a different matter altogether. But a novelist’s obligation is to somehow find imaginative room to accommodate every aspect of the human – the good, the bad and the ugly, you know, all of it.”
Frank Moorhouse took a more political approach to the topic, warning of a “genteelism” creeping over Australia in which art and literature were subject to increasing levels of classification, regulation and public warnings. He listed examples from film and book reviews, as well as television.
“Last month, a books editor of a newspaper used an expression to describe a book: ‘Not for the faint-hearted’,” Moorhouse said. “I thought, ‘Who are the faint-hearted out there? Why do they need to be protected?’
“Some reviewers, of course, say ‘This is not a book for your grandmother or grandfather’ as if somehow the grandmother and grandfather…are innocents abroad in the world of sexuality.
“It’s not only the warnings but increasingly interviewers and actors are starting to stutter and express inhibition. They fear that there might be some moral or contentious or politically correct reason why they should not go there.”
Moorhouse spent “quite a few hours” in jail for possessing an ‘obscene publication’ – a collection of writing including sexual themes – in the heavily censored environment of 1970s Australia. He said the current “creeping genteelism” was much more serious than we realised.
He pointed to the Federal Government’s reaction a few years back to an exhibition of images of nude children by photographer Bill Henson, with then prime minister Kevin Rudd instructing the Australia Council to draw up protocols discouraging work similar to Henson’s.
“So the creep of the TV anchors, the classifiers, has now reached the arts and the protocols have been drawn up by the Australia Council,” Moorhouse said. “Essentially they are getting towards classifying pictures and paintings and next they might have notices outside literary festivals, saying ‘This is ‘M’-rated’ or whatever.
“Basically, when we are talking about erotica or pornography, we are talking about work that intentionally arouses sexual feelings,” he said.
“The Supreme Court of the United States has done most of the thinking about censorship and pornography and generally it comes down to the fundamental question of whether we are talking about sin or about something the police should do. Should the police be in the bedroom? It may be sinful but it is not necessarily a matter of law.”
There were no tips for writing a convincing sex scene but it was clear from this session that it requires a certain boldness as well as vulnerability. All of which leaves this writer feeling a touch…faint-hearted.
*For readers outside Australia, see definition here.
More from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >