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March 27, 2000

WRITERS ON WRITING

A Forbidden Territory Familiar to All

By BARBARA KINGSOLVER
Reader, hear my confession: I'm writing an unchaste novel. It's a little shocking, even to me. In my previous books I've mostly written about sex by means of the space break. One reviewer claimed I'd written the shortest sex scene in the English language. I know the scene he meant; the action turns when one character notices a cellophane crackle in the other's shirt pocket and declares that if he has a condom in there, this is her lucky day. The scene then proceeds, in its entirety:




Steven L. Hopp
Barbara Kingsolver's novels have been light on sex. Until now.
  • Featured Author: Barbara Kingsolver




  • He did. It was. (Space break!)
    I think my readers rely on me for a certain reserve, judging from the college course adoptions and the mothers who say they've shared my books with their daughters. They may be in for a surprise this time around. Not that the sex is gratuitous, I keep telling myself. This novel is about life, in a biological sense: the rules that connect, divide and govern living species, including their tireless compunction to reproduce themselves.
    In this tale the birds do it, the mushrooms do it, and the people do it, starting on Page 6 already. I'm having a good old time writing about it, too. I've always felt I was getting away with something marginally legal, inventing fantasies for a living. But now it seems an outright scandal. I send my kids off to school in the morning, scuttle to my office, close the door, and hoo boy, les bons temps roulent!
    Now that I'm closing in on a finished draft, though, I've begun to think about the people who will soon be sitting in their homes, on airplanes and in subways with their hands on this book. Many people. My mother, for instance.
    My writer-friend Nancy, a practical New Englander, offered this counsel:
    "Barbara, you're in your 40's now, and you have two children. She knows that you know."
    Yes, all right, she does. But what about the man from the Ag Extension Service, whom I've asked to vet my book's agricultural setting for accuracy? How do I hand this manuscript to him? And what about those English Lit teachers? I don't mind that they know I know, or that I think about it, in circumstances outside my own experience. Come on, who doesn't? Most people I know couldn't construct a good plot to save their souls, but can and do, I suspect, imagine detailed sexual scenarios complete with dialogue (if they're female) and a sense of place.
    But they don't pass them around for others to read, for heaven's sake. My dread is that people will take my book for something other than literature and me for something other than a serious writer. In anxious moments I've begun combing my bookshelves for fellow offenders.
    Yes, there are plenty of authors before me who have put explicitly sexual scenes into literature. There's a particularly lovely one in the center of David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars," there are sweetly funny ones in John Irving, and of course we have John Updike, Philip Roth and Henry Miller. (Notice the dearth of women on this list.) Even such distinguished 18th-century gents as Ben Franklin and Jonathan Swift scored the occasional love scene in their prose.
    But I was surprised, on the humid afternoon I spent pulling down books and looking for scenes that had burned themselves into my memory, to see how often they were implied situations rather than step-by-step enactments. Copious use of the space break, in other words.
    The scene in "Lady Chatterley's Lover" I've remembered down the years, it turns out, was mostly invented by me, not D. H. Lawrence. (And given Lawrence's knowledge of love from the female perspective, is that any wonder?) In actual word count, if the literary novels in my bookcase accurately represent human experience, it looks as if people spend roughly half their time in intelligent dialogue about the meaning of their lives, and 1 percent of it practicing or contemplating coition.
    Excuse me, but I don't think so.
    Why should literary authors shy away from something so important? Nobody else does. If we calibrated human experience on the basis of television, magazine covers and billboards, we would have to conclude that humans devote more time to copulation than to sleeping, eating and accessorizing the hot new summer look, combined. (Possibly even more than shooting one another with firearms, though that's a tough call.) Filmmakers don't risk being taken less seriously for including sexual content; in fact, they may risk it if they don't.
    But serious literature seems to be looking the other way, ready to take on anything else, with impunity. Myself, I've written about every awful thing from the death of a child to the morality of political assassination, and I've never felt fainthearted before. What is it about describing acts of love that makes me go pale? There is, of course, the claim that women who make a public show of being acquainted with sexuality are expressing deviance, but that's also said about women who make a show of knowing anything, and I can't imagine being daunted by such nonsense.


    WRITERS ON WRITING

    This article is part of a series in which writers explore literary themes. Previous contributors include John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Ed McBain, Annie Proulx, Jamaica Kincaid and Saul Bellow. The New York Times on the Web also makes available a complete archive of previous Writers on Writing columns.
    For decent folk of any gender, the official and legal position of our culture is that sex takes place in private, and that's surely part of the problem. Private things -- newfound love, family disagreements and spiritual faith, to name a few -- can quickly become banal or irritating when moved into the public arena. But new love, family squabbles and spirituality are rich ground for literature when they're handled with care. Writers don't avoid them on grounds of privacy, but rather take it as duty to draw insights from personal things and render them universal. Nothing could be more secret, after all, than the inside of another person's mind, and that is just where a novel takes us, usually from Page 1. No subject is too private for good fiction if it can be made beautiful and enlightening.
    That may be the rub right there. Making it beautiful is no small trick. The language of coition has been stolen, or rather, I think, it has been divvied up like chips in a poker game among pornography, consumerism and the medical profession. None of these players are concerned with aesthetics, so the linguistic chips have become unpretty by association. "Vagina" is fatally paired with "speculum." Any word you can name for the male sex organ or its, um, movement seems to be the property of Larry Flynt. Even a perfectly serviceable word like "nut," when uttered by an adult, causes paroxysms in sixth-grade boys.
    My word processing program's thesaurus has washed its hands of the matter: it eschews any word remotely associated with making love. "Coitus," for example, claims to be NOT FOUND, and the program coyly suggests as the nearest alternative "coincide with?" It also pleads ignorant on "penis" and suggests "pen friend." A writer in work-avoidance mode could amuse herself all day.
    I realize linguistic aesthetics may not be Microsoft's concern here; more likely it's mothers. Roget's does much better, reinforcing my conviction that the book is mightier (or at least braver) than the computer. My St. Martin's Roget's Thesaurus obligingly offers up 15 synonyms for coition -- though some are dubious, like "couplement" -- and an impressive 28 descriptors for genitalia, though again some of these are obscure. In a scene where lingam meets yoni, I'm not even sure who I'm rooting for.
    Nevertheless, the language is ours for the taking. Fiction writers have found elegant ways to describe life on other planets, or in a rabbit warren, or an elephant tribe, inventing the language they needed to navigate passages previously uncharted by our tongue. We don't normally call off the game on account of linguistic handicaps. When it comes to the couplement of yoni, I think the real handicap is a cultural one.
    We live in a strange land where marketers can display teenage models in the receptive lordotic posture (look it up) to sell jeans or liquor, but the basics of human procreation can't be discussed in a middle-school science class without sparking parental ire. The same is true for evolution, incidentally, and I think the reason is the same: our tradition is to deny, for all we're worth, that we're in any way connected with the rest of life on earth. We don't come from it, we're not part of it, we own it.
    It is deeply threatening to our ideology, at the corporate and theological levels, to admit we're constrained by the laws of biology. Sex is the ultimate animal necessity. We can't get rid of it. The harder we try to deny it official status, the more it asserts itself in banal, embarrassing ways. And so here we are, modern Americans with our heads soaked in frank sexual imagery and our feet planted in our Puritanical heritage, and any novelist with something to say about procreation or the lordotic posture has to negotiate that territory. Great sex is more rare in art than in life because it's harder to do.
    To write about sex at all, we must first face down the polite pretense that it doesn't really matter to us and acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, nothing could matter more. In the quiet of our writing rooms we have to corral the beast and find a way to tell of its terror and beauty. We must own up to its gravity. We also must accept an uncomfortable intimacy with our readers in the admission that, yes, we've both done this. We must warn our mothers before the book comes out. We must accept the economic reality that this one won't make the core English Lit curriculum.
    Still, in spite of everything, I'm determined to write about the biological exigencies of human life, and where can I start the journey except through this mined harbor? It's a risk I'll have to take.
    Reader, don't blush. I know you know.


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