Sex As Key To Literature?

The other day I was reading The Atlantic Monthly and came across a statement by one of their reviewers who noted that he had “never bothered with the genre” of science fiction because of its “dearth of sex.” After I re-read the statement to make sure I had read what I thought I had read, I began to think about his aside.

The assumptions contained in and implied by that statement, besides being flat-out incorrect, also illustrate, I believe, the ignorance and intellectual poverty of those who have anointed themselves as the U.S. literary “establishment.”

First, to say that sex is not part of the SF genre, as anyone who has read it widely knows, is patently false. To paraphrase a noted scientist, that statement is so incorrect that it’s not even wrong. Now, I happen to be older than the reviewer is, and while the SF of the 1950s, with some notable exceptions by Philip Jose Farmer and others, did not deal with sex directly, since the 1960s there’s certainly been a significant segment of fantasy and science fiction that deals with sex, sometimes far more graphically than is to my taste, and it often deals with sexual issues that few mainstream novelists explore. Even in the comparatively prudish 1950s and earlier, however, F&SF dealt with sexual dynamics, if not always that well. Admittedly, in those days, it seldom went past the bedroom doors. But in that period, comparatively little English language fiction did so.

To make such a totally inaccurate assertion, even as an aside, about another fiction genre reveals both ignorance and contempt, leavened heavily with arrogance.

Second, the paramount implication of the reviewer’s statement is that no fiction genre which does not deal graphically with sex can claim to be literature, nor can it be considered as such. While I will be among the first to note that sex and sexual tensions are among the primary drivers of human behavior, I will also note that to explore the social, practical, political, and psychological implications of sexually-motivated human behavior does not require that each and every novel explore in graphic or even semi-graphic details the mechanics of sexual plumbing.

Third, the emphasis on sex, and its graphic portrayal novelistically, is in fact sexist. Humans do have sexual drives, but their biological basis is skewed by gender. Put relatively bluntly… men want sex; women want sex with attached conditions, such as security, closeness, babies and protection. This is not to say that there are no men who want closeness and children and no women who want sex for itself, but there is a biologic bias in the direction I indicated. The graphic portrayal of physical intimacy is, in most cases, effectively exalting the masculine preference.

Fourth, graphic portrayal of sexual intercourse is all too often, but not always, merely a tool for selling more books, and as such, a confession of literary ineptitude. If a writer cannot carry his or her readers without lots of sex and plumbing, what are the literary and redeeming qualities of the work? A good writer ought to be able to make the moment when a character leafs through a telephone directory [or an email address list] interesting, and without a striptease being involved. This does not mean that there are not novels that deal well and meaningfully with sex and physical intimacy. There certainly are, but there aren’t nearly so many as their authors think there are.

All in all, I found that single aside in a three page review far more revealing than anything else on those pages, including the basics of the review itself, which, by the way, was about a biography of Kingsley Amis.