On “Literature” (And Also Sex)

On “Literature” (And Also Sex)

In today’s Review section of The Guardian (what a middle class way to start a blog post, I’m ashamed of myself) there was an article by Scarlett Thomas with which I absolutely could not identify. The article, “Forget El James, let’s have some real dirty fiction“, made plenty of good points — that male novelists can include graphic sex scenes in novels without the books being classed as erotica, whereas when written by women, they’re often reduced to that category. Despite that observation, there’s plenty I disagreed with.

First, I can’t identify with Scarlett Thomas’s account of her childhood search for sex in books, or real life. The idea of being even borderline sexual with childhood friends is bizarre to me. Okay, so there was a guy called Alex that I was in love with when I was six and maybe I kissed him on the cheek once and informed everyone we were going to get married, but I was six.

Maybe it was my Christian upbringing, but throughout my childhood, sex was the furthest thing from my mind. The word itself was sufficiently rude to me that I was shocked when a primary school music teacher mentioned the Sex Pistols, and told my mum that she’d said a bad word. I don’t think it can have been just the faith aspect, though: I had friends from secular households who behaved similarly. Do I just live in a particularly repressed area? Or was I just oblivious to people talking about sex around me?

When I was ten or eleven and learned the basics of reproduction, I was so grossed out and horrified that I probably would have taken a vow of celibacy there and then to ensure I never came anywhere near having to do that. And then I told all my friends about it. Just to make sure they were grossed out too.

As for wanting to read about it… well, you have to remember that until hilariously recently, I still looked away when people kissed in films, because it weirded me out. How did it take me so long to consider the possibility I might be asexual? I have no idea. But I was grossed out and also disinterested in all things sexual.

I didn’t know about them. I didn’t want to, either. I was twelve by the time I knew what a condom was, and thirteen or fourteen before anyone in my hearing mentioned masturbation. And to the horror and pity of many of my friends, I couldn’t have located the clitoris on a detailed diagram until earlier this year — and I’m nineteen years old.

This information probably would’ve been available to me if I’d been looking, but I wasn’t. Because sex was weird. And gross. And I didn’t want to know about it.

So I guess when we’re considering it from that perspective, I was never going to see things from the same viewpoint as Thomas does in this article. Having never been desperate for sex scenes in books, and often seeking out stories that focus on platonic relationships, I don’t know what it’s like to search for them. With many books, I’ve skimmed over them as quickly as possible.

(When I read Game of Thrones I was so traumatised that I became convinced Charley had recommended me the wrong book. She’d forgotten about all the adult content, as well as the fact that I was sensitive to it. Whoops.)

But no, the main thing I disagreed with in this article wasn’t even about the sex. Not really. It was about the idea of literature versus other books. The idea that erotica isn’t literature in the same way that other things are.

Now I realise this is a contentious point, and that in the end, it’s actually all about semantics and what you intend a word to mean. I wouldn’t attempt to put a book like Fifty Shades of Grey on the same level as The Dream Life Of Sukhanov (which is excellent, and I wrote an essay on it, so it must be literature). But that’s not because Fifty Shades is about sex and Sukhanov is about an artist having a breakdown. And it’s not because I think only one of them counts as literature. It’s because one’s well written and one isn’t.

I don’t think that content has anything whatsoever to do with whether something is ‘literature’ or not. Books are good or they’re not. But even bad ones aren’t something other. They’re still written. They’re still literature. What else would they be? And how are we going to define what’s literary or not?

Literature isn’t the same as literary fiction, of course (and now we really are getting into semantics and whatnot), but I think it begins to border on elitism to think of some books as literature and some not because of their perceived intellectual worth. I think that’s a load of rubbish. Harry Potter is literature in the same way that Pride and Prejudice is literature.

And don’t get me started on how perceptions of literature have changed over time and how novels were initially perceived, because that’s a whole different issue.

This idea that some things are more ‘valid’ as literature and more worthwhile to read is probably why some of my friends spent years reading classics and ‘improving’ novels that they thought they were supposed to read (according to some decree by a great and powerful book dictator or something), rather than the fun YA fiction they secretly wanted to read.

A friend once expressed surprise that I had time to read books by Cassandra Clare because she was still stuck on a Dickens novel that she’d been reading for a week. I told her it was because I didn’t want to read Dickens right then, so I didn’t.

There are good books. There are bad books. Some of them are full of depth but are poorly written, hard to understand, or otherwise lacking in art. And some of them are simplistic but beautifully written. Which one is literature then? Is the profundity lost amidst grammatical errors, or do the beautiful sentence add depth to the simplicity?

Which one is going to get called ‘literature’ and which one isn’t? Which one are we going to put on reading lists for 17-year-olds wanting to study English at university and which one will be relegated to a corner of the school library?

All books are literature. Not all books are worth reading, but if it’s a book you want to read, then it’s worth it. And if it isn’t a book you want to read, it probably isn’t. So I’ll never understand why people keep trying to divide things up into valid art and invalid art, higher and lesser forms of books, because of content.

… I don’t entirely know where I was going with this. I’ve got distracted, and ended up repeating my manifesto of reading (READ WHATEVER YOU WANT, CLASSICS AREN’T OBLIGATORY, TRASHY YOUNG ADULT FICTION IS AWESOME and I use the word ‘trashy’ in the most affectionate way), with a tangent about sex at the beginning.

The point is — the point is dolphins that there are good books and bad books, but they’re all still literature, and that’s where I think I was going with this.

/end ramble

2 thoughts on “On “Literature” (And Also Sex)

  1. I *did* look for sex in books as a tween, probably because literally no adults around me would answer any of my questions. (So I read the encyclopedia’s entry about reproduction. LOL.) But that’s just me.

    I think both of the points you make here are good, though. And I SO agree about “literature.” Like, read whatever the hell you want. One person will read a book and love it; someone else will read the exact same book and hate it. We need to stop focusing on teaching “literature” and start focusing on things like how to analyze a book/character/etc. There are some books that have soooooo much meaning to me, but they might not for everyone else, and we just need to recognize that that’s OK, you know?

    1. Yeah. I had half-decent sex ed, if by sex ed you mean basic straight sex in the context of a school biology lesson that was focused around reproduction. That was about it.

      I mean, I guess there were points during my teenage years when I was like, “I really don’t get this. There has to be more to it.” But, because I wasn’t particularly interested in myself, I kind of just… let it be? I don’t know. I learned more than I wanted to from books, I think, and still didn’t know very much at all.

      Though if I could go back in time and help my younger self out a bit on that front, I’d send her a link to Scarleteen, because that website has saved me from asking so many awkward questions.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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