The Secret World: Literature Through the Prism of Sex

Shortly after my novel Straight Jacket was published, a work colleague asked me: “Why, during the restaurant scene, did you twice use the word masticate?”

We masticated for a moment in reflective silence.

“Why do you think?” I replied, and she blushed.

“That’s right,” I said. “It was a sexually charged scene working on several levels…hence the pun, which you clearly picked up on.”

This is not a standard lunchtime conversation for two lawyers, but it enabled me to wax lyrical about the deeper textures of my work, and I always love doing that. However, I’m not the only writer who uses sex as a device for both storytelling and plot.

The great American novelist, John Barth, in his masterpiece Chimera said: “writing and reading, or telling and listening are literally ways of making love. There is a bond between teller and told that is by its nature erotic. Its success depends upon the reader’s consent and co-operation which can be withheld or withdrawn at any time…and the author’s ability to arouse, sustain, satisfy and even impregnate with ideas and images.”

When you are writing, you are inviting the reader into a relationship. You must woo them, tease them, excite them, fulfil them and leave them gasping for more, and if actual sex is involved it must be genuinely woven into the fabric of the story. Not just tacked on like a grubby afterthought.

These are articles of faith for me when it comes to the expression of my art. I am so aware that a reader (whether purchaser or borrower) could put the book down at any moment and never pick it up again. It is therefore my duty to keep them turning the pages and, like any ardent lover, I’m going hammer and tongs to warm them up and then keep them interested – for as long as it takes.

But it goes much deeper than just the mechanics of storytelling. My stories are never about sex (that’s erotica) but they tend to be told partly through the prism of sex. By which I mean both the storytelling style and much of the ambience. But what is the point of doing that?

Freud could have told you.

Many regard Freud’s work to be somewhat debunked these days but I would argue there’s a bit that makes sense, especially his ideas regarding the id, the ego, the unconscious and drive theory – ie, that the human mind has two innate compulsions: the aggressive drive and the sex drive. These are necessary for the protection of the individual and the perpetuation of the species, and are seated within the oldest part of the brain – the reptilian complex – to help navigate the perils of life in a state of nature.

These are compulsions that are so deeply a part of us they are impossible to turn off. Sure, they can be restrained by socialisation, but that restraint is only ever provisional. The urges remain – the evil seduction of the savage within – to break free of society’s conventions.

So what does that mean for literature? Clearly it is the sex drive that we’re dealing with today because, in literature (as in real life), sex compels people to do things or make choices which have serious repercussions. In other words: sex drives the plot. Or part of it.

For example, my historical novel The Fighting Man is mainly a reinterpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry, but the main plot device driving the actions of the fictional characters (Brand and Valla) is his promise to her, to lie with no other woman. This promise becomes a source of agony and frustration for Brand, not least because of the perils and temptations I throw in his path for my own evil amusement. It certainly keeps the pages turning.

Straight Jacket, an offbeat crime novel about a lawyer with an unusually powerful sense of justice, takes the idea much further. Most of the main characters are hunting (or eluding) relationships and that desire drives their actions and colours their world.

Morgen, for example, is a first person narrator who is not subject to the usual conventions and blind spots. He sees things that others might “see without seeing”: eg lost panties in the gutter or public toilet graffiti and speculates on the stories behind them. This can be uncomfortable reading for people who do not see as Morgen does, and forces the reader to squint through Morgen’s disturbingly intimate lens.

What they are seeing is the Secret World.

We all have a Secret World – a place rarely acknowledged with the conscious mind, but our deepest truths can be found there. Aspects of our nature – denied or hidden in waking life – fantasies and unspoken desires are permitted. It is a place with its own symbology – a personal myth system imbued with a language understood only by ourselves. Numbers and patterns take on especial significance which, in some cases, can intrude into normal reality.

Morgen is such a case. The veil between the Secret World and real life is so thin that he moves between them effortlessly, which makes him attractive to those who are capable of making a similar transition (including readers). Clare, the detective with whom he has an affair, is challenged by Morgen to meet him on equal terms, which makes for some powerful dialogue. One of my favourite exchanges (and the one most quoted in reviews) goes:

‘I know a great deal about you,’ she said … ‘you like expensive wine and high-grade coke…you dress impeccably, drive a Jag and are completely devoid of morals.’

‘Not completely.’

‘Let’s look at it objectively, shall we? You walk into an old schoolmate’s house…insult him, take drugs and screw his wife in the marital bedroom while he’s playing outside with the children…’

‘And you find that attractive, do you?’

‘I wouldn’t have thought so…but here we are.’

In that scene (and in others) the conversation itself is analogous to lovemaking – thrust and counter-thrust – words both ambient and redolent of sex. They are making love with words and only as the conversation reaches its climax is sex actually mentioned.

I’ve written elsewhere about the mechanics of writing sex scenes and the most important rule is this: the reader must desperately want the characters to do it. If the reader becomes invested in the characters – even cares about the characters – the reader will have hopes and expectations for them, which must be fulfilled.

But not straight away. Like any teasing lover, a writer can set up false alarms so that by the time the deed is finally done, the reader is gagging for it. In Mr Cleansheets, the reader wants Eric and Doreen to get it on from the moment they meet, but it takes a long time (many pages) to happen after a number of misunderstandings and missed chances. (As the Karma Sutra says, the best aphrodisiac is abstinence.)

It is also possible to write a sex scene where no sex at all is described. Romance writers have long been aware of this – cutting away from the rising action to describe the glowing embers of the log fire, for example. But it can also be done just through setting up the expectation and desire in the mind of the reader, establishing the opportunity and setting, and choosing words and rhythms that engage the readers’ sensibilities.

That’s the great secret. Readers always bring their own erotic past to any story and, if your characters and action can dip into that well, their own memories and fantasies will flood forth to fill the gaps left in your narrative. This is powerful stuff if you get it right.

But why do it at all?

All writers (good ones, at any rate) have a prism through which they perceive the human condition. My work, on some level, is always an exploration of humanity and we are never so human – so open and vulnerable – as when baring our souls and skins though lovemaking; its preludes and consequences. This is also the time when we come closest to our own Secret World, sensing its shadows and symbols on the edge of our intimate explorations.

And there must be consequences.

Maybe not so much in the modern Tinder world where liaisons can be nasty, brutish and short, but in literature there must be sequelae, especially where two main characters are put together. The forming of a relationship must be a plot turning point, sending the story in a new direction.

In my latest novel, Welcome to Ord City, the main character is confronted with an exceedingly unfriendly woman on the edge of the rising action. After a strange series of events and a long dinner conversation, the mutual attraction comes (unexpectedly, but not unreasonably) to the fore and the two join forces, which is critical to the resolution of the plot.

Sex is used for a variety of purposes in Ord City, including humour. One of my favourite moments occurs when an aggressive and violent young man with very ignorant views thinks he is making a profound political statement, only to have the tables turned in a surprising (and amusing) way which again has important plot consequences. Some may find this scene a tad distasteful, but that’s another part of the writer’s duty – to go unflinching where the characters lead and to portray elements of life that may be beyond the experience of most readers.

What is really happening here, of course, is that the reader is brushing up hard against the characters’ Secret Worlds and even being confronted with their own. I believe it’s the reason my literature is so enjoyed by some, but others (for whom the Secret World is locked away safely) will find it challenging.

I’m not writing for them. I write for the people who have some glimmering of the Secret World and are open to exploring it, if only vicariously through my characters. We are endlessly fascinated by other people and what they get up to in private. Reading about characters you like (or hate) in their most private moments is a kind of acceptable voyeurism. One of my own most memorable scenes is when Blacksnake Fowler (Straight Jacket) overhears the woman he loves having sex with someone else, and his love instantly turns to hate. It’s a powerful moment, as he physically enters the Secret World, but the reader is hovering invisibly at his shoulder and is all but complicit in his actions.

I want the reader to feel his shame, revulsion and guilt, but I know also they’ll be titillated and drawn ever deeper into the underlying textures of the novel where the greatest secrets are revealed.

Sex opens the doors to our deepest, darkest selves and that’s why I use it in my work.

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