A Novel or Verbal Pornography?

In a rare moment of ambition I have started to read ahead for one of my classes. That in itself shouldn’t be too surprising as both the professor and subject matter are the dog’s bollocks. The reading assignments are generally fairly easy to get through, if not on occasion infuriating. The current book, however, has struck me as a bit over the top.

It is a novel. It is a very recent novel that was only published last year in the UK and this year in the US. The infuriating bit is that it had the potential of being an excellent book. The novelist, Lola Shoneyin, clearly has talent. The characters are interesting, well-developed, and believable. The story itself is well-written and believable.

It’s just too graphic. The writer ruined her novel by getting wrapped up in the most minute details of sexual intercourse. I don’t want to sound too stuffy, but it seems that sex, if treated too frankly and graphically, just turns into complete and absolute filth. That’s how this strikes me — three pages graphically describing masturbating to pornography, two-to-three pages every other chapter describing in detail the sex life of a polygamous Hausa household.

Whenever the author stays on the subject of human relations other than sexual, it’s actually quite interesting — especially since she does delve into the lesser aspects of human nature and the frequent jealousy/hatred that arises in great depth.

This isn’t the only time that a more contemporary novel has, at least in my opinion, been ruined by gratuitous sexuality.

Am I alone in thinking this?

Author: Christopher-Dorset

A Bloody Kangaroo

12 thoughts on “A Novel or Verbal Pornography?”

  1. Not having read the book, I guess the author has crossed the line – from sex being part and parcel of the plot to becoming gratuitous. Unless of course that was her original intention – to be outrageous? It’s a fine line maybe.

  2. Janus: what I meant to say was that contemporary writing has often taken on an unnecessarily raunchy tone. It’s all fine and well to make a reference to sex, but gratuitous details seem to be becoming more and more common. Even if a writer might have a good story, it’s overshadowed by unneeded details of activities of the carnal sort.

  3. One of the finest books I have ever read was ‘Lolita’ and particularly so as paedophilia is such an uncomfortable subject and the risk was ‘overstepping the mark’ in the prose.
    I feel that the author trod a very fine line is describing the relationship, without slipping into any gratuitous sex and he succeeded.
    Is it this book?

  4. It would seem that explicit sex is a prerequisite for publication. My wife tells me that Wilbur Smith’s latest novel has gone in this direction and that even Alan Titchmarsh encourages its growth. It could be that such sections are ghost written for some authors. I am bemused that the most popular novels in the ‘explicit sex’ genre are written by women; some of whom have done very well. It may be that while men like their pornography in the visual form, women like theirs in the written word. Pornography is free from a UK local library. I can remember how it all started and as teenagers we were titillated by D.H. Lawrence and the publication of ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’. Tame stuff now of course.

  5. Ms Shoneyin is not the first person to use such graphic terms in a serious novel. Henry Miller’s works ‘The Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘The Rosy Crucifixion’ and Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ were filled with explicit sex.

    “George Orwell called this novel (Tropic of Cancer)
    an ‘important’ book, in a sense different from the sense in which that word is generally used. As a rule novels are spoken of as ‘important’ when they are either a ‘terrible indictment’ of something or other or when they introduce some technical innovation. Neither of these applies to Tropic of Cancer. Its importance is merely symptomatic. [Miller] in my opinion the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance …[6]

    Samuel Beckett hailed it as “a momentous event in the history of modern writing”.[7] Norman Mailer, in his book on Miller, Genius and Lust, called it “one of the ten or twenty greatest novels of the century”. The Modern Library named it the 50th greatest book of the 20th century.[8] Edmund Wilson said of the novel:
    The tone of the book is undoubtedly low; The Tropic of Cancer, in fact, from the point of view both of its happening and of the language in which they are conveyed, is the lowest book of any real literary merit that I have ever remember to have read… there is a strange amenity of temper and style which bathes the whole composition even when it is disgusting or tiresome.[9]

    In his dissent from the majority holding that the book was not obscene,Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote Cancer is “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.””

    And, as I recall from my schooldays, Catullus was prone to a bit of ‘rompy pompy’. Or should that be ‘Rompeii Pompeii’?

    Rather than point you to the poem referred to in this article, I will just point to the article itself and let you do the rest! http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2009/nov/24/catullus-mark-lowe

  6. Then perhaps something ceases to be ‘art’ and becomes ‘pornography’ when it is made readily available to ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’. Given the advances in modern technology and ability to reproduce ‘art copy’ on the web, this would make everything pornographic that doesn’t require ‘interpretation’. I doubt if the founding fathers would have agreed with Larry Flynt

  7. I have to say Peter that I think the Founding Fathers have as much relevance as to the US as Moses has to Israel. They served their purpose, but their views are outdated, which may be what you are implying.

  8. I accept that ‘art’ can be considered and justified in an erotic or even pornographic context, it’s the division between ‘art’ and what we might call ‘popular pornography’ that I struggle with and the freedom to access both. Cattulus may have understood the dangers presented by the plebians having too many freedoms, that feeding these freedoms would eventually lead to a morally bankrupt state and bring about the end of the Republic. However, I don’t that would have stopped him posting his poems on a blog site.

    PS It could be that the Founding Fathers were , for the most part, more liberal minded than many modern fundamentalists (whatever their persuasion). Moses is another story! 😕

  9. Pseu: “Lolita” was by Nebekov, I believe? It does not bother me when writers address sex and sexuality, even if it is done frankly. What does bother me is when there are detailed descriptions of sexual intercourse that go on at length. It is a fine line. Some writers tread it well, others just cross it. Shoneyin (the link you posted was correct and very interesting, thank you) crossed it. I think that Maya Angelou, of all the main modern writers, has tended to tread the line the best. She can be provocative without being repulsive.

    PB: yes, it does increasingly seem as if it is a perquisite. My mother and I were having this discussion and she’s sympathetic. She’s been reading “Waiting to Exhale” and noticed the same thing. It’s things like that that push me into the arms of Vita Sackville-West, PG Wodehouse, Natsume Soseki, and Wu Cheng-an.

    Sipu: well, yes. It’s not exactly new, it just seems to be becoming more prevalent. The most disturbing accounts of sexuality I’ve ever read were in Mishima Yukio’s “the Mask” in which the main character goes on at length about his fantasies of pleasuring himself in the blood of handsome young men he’s tortured and killed. Ihara Saikaku, from the 18th century, also frequently wrote about sexuality both hetero and homo.
    The Romans didn’t exactly shy away from it either, “Dinner with Trimalchio” isn’t exactly an account of morality and moderation. As for you comment about the US Founding Fathers… Whenever politicians begin thinking that, their careers are finished. We saw that last year and we’ll see that this year. The US constitution is sound as a rock, if the idiots in Washington, DC, NYC, SF, and LA can’t live with that it’s their problem. Rick Perry made an excellent case for keeping things as they are in his latest book. The current structure allows people to choose what type of life and culture they’d like to have.

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