Why Write About Sex?


Ask The Paris Review

Dear Mr. Stein,
A few of the pieces in your most recent issue—particularly Mr. Seidel’s and Ms. Barrodale’s—strike me as rather vulgar. I’d be interested to hear your opinion on why so many contemporary writers, when dealing with sexual content, veer toward explicitness instead of subtlety. I just don’t understand why the crass language is necessary; delicate hints and suggestions of such acts are usually more titillating anyway.
Betty Lou

Dear Mr. Stein,
A while ago I read Elizabeth Bachner’s article “Awkward, Disgusting Copulation: Writing on Sex,” and I found that she expressed so accurately what I seek out in literature: “There’s something deeply unfortunate about the fact that urination, procreation, defecation and orgasm all happen within such inconvenient proximity. Having a human body will kill each of us eventually, no matter what, so we might as well enjoy it. But it’s not for the squeamish. Western culture, in fact, has largely developed around the tension between revulsion and fascination, between being grossed out and turned on.” I can’t find any other explanation for why I can’t close my eyes when Vonnegut gets dirty, or Nabokov cruel. Do you know of any contemporary writers who write with similar … zeal?
Cebe Remulto

As you both point out, writing about sex can be gross and unpleasant—unsexy, even. So why publish that kind of thing in The Paris Review?

Betty Lou, your question strikes me as very reasonable. I’d answer, first, that not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed. Not all of these reasons are vulgar or crass. To my mind, a conventional sex scene, say in an airplane novel (“as she raised her hips and guided him into the hot wet center of her,” etc., etc.), is indeed crass. But is it crass—is it meretricious—to write honestly about the mess and complexity of the individual libido? Not to me. What’s vulgar is an airbrush. What’s really vulgar is a sex scene in borrowed language, where the characters are stripped of individuality and the situation has no moral depth. I hope we don’t publish anything like that.

More generally, it strikes me that fiction and poetry are especially good at dealing with sex—are in some ways designed for handling subjects that are private or shameful or deeply subjective—and that sex is inherently interesting (maybe especially to readers of fiction?). Of course it is boring, plus creepy, to hear someone drone on and on about sex in general. What’s wonderful is how the particulars keep appearing, out of the fog of daily life, to seize our attention. Like faces we’ve never seen before—and could never have imagined, before we saw them. As Samuel Delany told our interviewer in the current issue: “I shall always be able to come up with new fantasies. As long as there are people walking around in the street, as long as I have books to read and windows to look out of, I’m not going to use them up.”

Cebe Remulto, take a cue from Betty Lou: Read the last four issues of The Paris Review (and, while you’re at it, Frederick Seidel’s Poems 1959-2009). You may also find yourself troubled—in various right wrong ways—by Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, Dennis Cooper’s Guide, Louis Begley’s The Man Who Was Late, Eugene Marten’s Firework, Richard Siken’s Crush, and Nicholson Baker’s (very funny) House of Holes: A Book of Raunch. The last doesn’t come out till August, but I think you’ll agree it’s worth the wait.

Help! I’m stuck in a third-grade girl’s reading list and can’t get out! Every time I’m hankering for a good read, I always end up picking up The Secret Garden (again) or trolling the library for an E. Nesbit book I haven’t read yet. Can you recommend some titles that are lyrical, fantastical, and lighthearted but a little more “adult”?
Childishly yours,

The Chronicles of Clovis, by Saki.

Have a question for The Paris Review? E-mail us.