Let’s talk about sex. In books.
I recently read The Eye in the Door, the second novel in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which explores the psychological impact of World War I on British soldiers. By focusing on treating mental illness, Barker strips away the glorification of war all too common in literature and film. The trilogy is an important work, but there was one aspect of this second book that turned me off. In my review of The Eye in the Door I wrote:
But here’s the thing: in the first fourteen pages, the reader is treated to one episode of heterosexual foreplay, followed almost immediately by a more graphic gay sex scene. OK, the character is bisexual, I get it. Ms. Barker, why didn’t you just say so? Did you have to hit me over the head with it?
This inspired some thought-provoking comments from Marieke at Athyrium filix-femina:
- Would the sex scenes be Barker’s way of ’showing not telling’ when it comes to the characters’ sexuality?
- Does the sexuality need to be subtle? Or was it unexpected because of how subtly it was dealt with in the first book?
Generally speaking, I love the “show not tell” technique in literature, and the awakening that occurs as an author slowly reveals a character. And sex scenes don’t normally bother me. So I’ve been exploring my reaction to the scenes in the opening pages of this book, and I’ve discovered an uncomfortable moral overtone. I appreciate sex in the context of a relationship — “when two people love each other very much …” and all that. In The Eye in the Door, the opening scenes are purely physical, almost primal. There is no relationship, and not even any affection, between those involved. Is that why the scenes bothered me? Well, I’m afraid so. And frankly, I don’t like discovering this little hangup. I thought I was more open-minded. Damn.
The other day I listened to an NPR interview of Ewan McGregor. The interviewer asked him about his nude scenes, and I loved McGregor’s response:
“Movies reflect life, and in life you’re naked some of the time. And movies are about the dramatic side of life — and sex and sexuality and love and romance are definitely in that area of drama.”
I think this is equally applicable to sex in literature … I guess I need to keep that in mind!
What do you think about sex scenes in literature? What works? What doesn’t? Why?
Read more from The Sunday Salon here.