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Tuesday 22 January 2019

'Irish literature doesn't contain much sex - and when it does it's not great'

Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright says Irish writers shy away from the big O, writes Niamh Horan

sexual Ulysses: Writer Anne Enright says Joyce has sex sewn up as far as Irish literature is concerned. Photo: Ger Holland
sexual Ulysses: Writer Anne Enright says Joyce has sex sewn up as far as Irish literature is concerned. Photo: Ger Holland
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

When it comes to good sex - or writing about it, at least - our very own James Joyce stole the show.

Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy which explodes in her orgasmic "yes I said yes I will Yes" still makes readers tingle all over but in Irish literature, the earth hasn't moved much since.

That's according to one of Ireland's greatest writers, Anne Enright. Speaking as she received the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature last Friday night, the author of The Gathering explained how attempts at writing about sex in Irish literature since then have left her scratching her head.

"I cannot think of a sex scene in a major Irish book. Is it possible that we just don't do them at all? There are a few but they are never great. Nobody is really enjoying themselves," she laughs.

"I suppose a post-Catholic oppressive [society] means people aren't so [willing]… and we also have a tragic muse. Maybe it's the combination of the tragic muse where there is very little romance and very little redemption and a post-Catholic hangover where you don't discuss these matters. It means there is not much written about these things by Irish writers of previous generations, apart from Joyce."

In 2010 British author Martin Amis told a literary festival audience that it's "impossible" for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex.

He said: "Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal", adding: "With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can't write about then that would be it."

But Anne says: "Martin Amis writes quite well about it." And she feels sex is not the only subject to leave writers pulling their hair out: "Swimming is also hard to write about. And sleep, who can write about sleep?"

Still, she doesn't take the advice of Literary Review editor Nancy Sladek, who once said: "I don't think there are any cases where it works" and advised avoiding literary sex altogether.

"Everything that happens in my books, happens from the characters' point of view, so I suppose their love lives are part of their lives and I can't leave it out," Anne says.

On picking up her award, she says: "I am a big admirer of Irish PEN and PEN international, especially their work on freedom of speech and free expression throughout the world, so it's really lovely."

And the days of keeping female writers in the shade were over, thanks to the one thing that made publishers sit up and listen: money. "Literary fiction has really shifted over the last 10 years, possibly because it's been so chipped away by online resources. Print has been scared and when print gets scared it goes to the people who are actually pulling in the readers and the people who are pulling in the readers are women.

"If you look at the list of bestsellers a couple of weeks ago [roughly] seven of the people selling over 100,000 copies in a year, were all really well-established female names that have been coming up over the last 10 or 20 years. So whatever needed to happen has happened. Ireland was one of the last dominoes to fall."

Despite winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Anne still struggles with doubt every time she starts a book. "It is exactly the same. When you sit in to write a book there is always a really, really bad year at the desk and I am just coming out of my tenth bad year at the desk.

"I think, 'I can't make it go' and then you remember this has happened nine times before. But it is the same difficulty and anxiety every bloody time."

Asked why she puts herself through it, she says: "It's very satisfying - and as with a lot of things that are satisfying in life, you really have to put your back into them."

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