Monday 17 June 2019

David Robbins: I'm not going to be anyone's whipping boy when it comes to writing about sex

Despite frequent advice, inducements and even threats, I have managed to keep this column largely free of sex. It's true that there was that one mention of a swingers' scene at a local park, but that was for dogs.

Human relations have been studiously avoided. Although I have never won any award for my writing, I have no desire to start by scooping the Literary Review's annual prize for bad sex writing.

The current holder, by the way, is David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars.

His citation mentions his tendency towards coy euphemisms (eg "crown jewels", "front parlour" etc).

But writing about sex is big business, people tell me. In the heady milieu of writers, publishers and agents in which I move, the talk is of little else.

Take Daniel Defoe, an agent said to me recently. Absolutely coined it with Moll Flanders -- a tale of the London demi-monde in the 1700s told through the eyes of an energetic prostitute.

What about Henry Miller? And Anais Nin? And even Joyce? She was on a roll now. "It's not all porn, you know. It's a perfectly respectable subject for an artist."

A keen student of the publishing industry such as myself -- I'm just waiting for a gap in the market into which my as-yet-unwritten novel will fit perfectly -- knows that sex sells. Especially if it's a true story from, em, under the covers.

Look at Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Callgirl. It started as a blog, became a bestselling book and then a TV series. It became even more famous when its anonymous author turned out to be a respectable scientist saving for her PhD.

Then there was the case of Catherine Millet, a rather prim Paris publisher, who caused a sensation with her candid sexual memoir The Sex Life of Catherine M in 2002. For many, myself included, the Bois de Boulogne was never the same again.

And now, just when I had begun to think that the market was awash in erotic books, along comes Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, the book that has even the Daily Mail trembling at the knees.

The story of a student (Anastasia Steele) who falls under the sway of a young businessman (Christian Grey) is a publishing phenomenon. Initially released by a tiny Australian publishing house, the novel (and its two sequels) has been bought by a division of Random House and is currently topping bestseller lists in New York.

It's a thumping read at 1,100 pages and, not surprisingly, most of its sales have been for e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle.

The book's USP is BDSM (that's bondage, domination, sadism, masochism, but you already knew that). Mr Grey asks Anastasia to sign a contract to be his 'submissive' and she agrees. (Well, he is a handsome 28-year-old billionaire, after all. In his case, such tastes could be filed under "quirky".)

The book -- that's what New York women call it; "have you read 'the book'?" they ask -- has been credited with everything from saving middle-class marriage to boosting the sales of grey ties of the kind worn (and put to other uses) by Mr Grey.

There is plenty of spanking, light bondage and other News of the World staples, but really the book is an old-fashioned love story.

Anastasia realises she has a wounded and damaged man on her hands, and sets out to heal him.

Of course, she has to spend a good deal of time at the business end of a riding crop along the way, but it's all in a good cause.

Sex, they tell me, is a powerful human urge. It is difficult to become a writer without dealing with it in some shape or form. It is part of the human condition.

Rubbish, I say. PG Wodehouse managed to carve out a pretty useful living as a writer by creating a world into which such concerns could not intrude.

There is no mention of religion, politics or poverty in his work. Sex is entirely absent, although there is a lot of unrequited love and fellows staring moodily into jars of newts.

I am determined to resist this rush to sexual explicitness of a confessional kind. This small space in the newspaper will remain pure and dedicated to the higher things. You may leave your riding crops at the door.

drobbins@independent.ie

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