Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On not writing about s*x*

*Yes, that is a joke.

I've been seeing a fair bit lately, online and off, about this book: Krissy Kneen's Affection: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Intimacy. I have not read it and this is not a review, just some brief thoughts about the idea.

The review in that link refers to Kneen's quest for 'essentially innocent pursuit of pleasure without harm'. I don't know whether that's what she says herself and am responding only to that notion, with which I take issue on more than one count. Here in my mid-fifties I've come to the conclusion that there is no bodily pleasure without harm: sex, drink, drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, they all involve risk, if not to oneself then to some other poor sod. The only truly harmless pleasures are those of the heart, the mind or the soul and sometimes not them either. And as far as casual sex is concerned there is very rarely, if ever, pleasure without harm at all. It is not 'essentially innocent', indeed it is not innocent at all. I don't mean 'not innocent' as in 'guilty'; I mean it as in 'knowing'.

I'm not saying don't do these things, oh my goodness me no. Goddess forbid. What I'm saying is don't kid yourself that there is no harm done. Rainy Day Men #3, #7 and #9 please note, and #7, no, you did not say you were sorry, and you are not forgiven and will never be forgiven.

The other thing, as suggested by that last sentence, is that I cannot imagine writing such a memoir without in some way identifying the men involved, if only to themselves and that would be quite bad enough, thank you, unless of course I was doing it out of revenge. (Even if he read this blog, #7 wouldn't recognise himself there, which of course was part of the problem.) One would have to circumlocute and vague out to the point of blandness in the writing and extreme frustration in the writer. And they are not my secrets to keep.

But one positive thing. How wonderful that a woman can write such a book. Not only that she can write it and have people engage with it seriously, without shaming her as a slut (well, only the religious nutters and the very old will do that these days), but that she can even bring herself to write it at all. Here's Virginia Woolf in Professions For Women (1931):

... she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say. Men, her reason told her, would be shocked. The consciousness of what men will say of a woman who speaks the truth about her passions had roused her from her artist's state of unconsciousness. She could write no more. The trance was over. Her imagination could work no longer. This I believe to be a very common experience with women writers - they are impeded by the extreme conventionality of the other sex. For though men sensibly allow themselves great freedom in these respects, I doubt they realise or can control the extreme severity with which they condemn such freedom in women...Telling the truth about my experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.


Casey said...

Wait. I love this post. This is the most fascinating post.

But what do you mean you cannot write such a memoir? They are your memories created from a shared experience. They belong solely to you. Part of intimacy is the vulnerability involved. When #7 chose to, and all that, he gave over to you the power to disclose, should you wish, what you took from it. It is the nature of intimacy. It is part of it's woundedness when it goes wrong. You two created two things. His memory and yours. Yours belongs to you. It's an act of creation interred in the memory. Most writer's write in part from memory. Lovers are interred in fiction all the time. I think of Byron's sister and her fictionalisation of her brother. Rushdie's fictionalisation of Robyn Davidson. Peter Carey, on and on. What does it matter that it is coated in the fictive. We know. The writers want us to know.

And this: We may not write it, but we tell our memories all the time. To our friends, our lovers. They are ours to tell. And in telling them we recreate our past lovers through our memories, in our image of what we want them to be. So what's the diff between writing it in memoir, fiction or telling it to your friend down the pub?

You are a fascinating blogger Pavlov. I love this post.

Casey said...

I don't intend to suggest however, that the Mark Latham diaries are a beautiful piece of writing. Revenge writing is not my bag.

Casey said...

Will you please ignore the grammar? I know it bugs you. I'm typing on the run and I just loved what you had written here...

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

In your case, Case, I don't even notice the grammar (with which there is little or nothing wrong that I can see in any, erm, case). Too busy saying 'Yes' and 'How interesting' and 'HAHAHAHAHAHA'.

Regarding writing, I have given these matters of privacy, and generosity or self-protection in the maintaining of privacy, a great deal of thought over many years, often while contemplating the smoking ruins of someone else's life in the wake of writing or being written about too frankly. The cloaking in fiction is another thing, I think, and in poetry as well. ('Tell all the truth / but tell it slant' -- Emily Dickinson, NB have not checked accuracy of quotation.) But surely the whole point of memoir is to tell all the truth as unslant as one can.

Non-cattywumpus, as it were.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about the issues of broadcasting shared intimicy too, although in relation to children more than partners these days.

I once broke up with someone on the grounds that she spoke constantly and unflatteringly about her exes. She didn't identify them, and I didn't know them, but it was still unsettling to be involved (however unwillingly) in her betrayal of past intimacies. She wasn't a bad person, she was merely processing difficult experiences and bad relationships the way people do. Unfortunately her version of processing meant telling all the "bad" points (at least, her perception of the bad) and never mentioning her partners' redeeming features. She wasn't broadcasting the failings of her exes to the whole world, but she was regularly reminding me that she could (in amongst her many fabulous qualities) be judgemental, unforgiving, that anything I did wrong would be conversation for the next relationship. Knowing that she betrayed her exes made it impossible to trust her.

What I wonder is whether I might have felt differently about these revelations if they'd been mentioned in the context of the exes' good points, or acknowledgement that relationships fail for complex reasons, if laughing at the ex had been warmer etc.

Casey said...

Pavlova, in your view, how is fiction different ?

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Innercitygarden, that is really interesting and a bit scary. I sometimes think, when hearing a friend or acquaintance trash an absent third party, 'Oh dear, what does s/he say about me when I'm not there?' and it does make me worry about how sharp my own tongue can be.

Casey, oh dear, that's a book-length question. Answer. Whatever.

Fiction, technically, ideally, works like some self-contained object -- a perpetual-motion executive toy or a clockwork mousie. Obviously you want to be saying something about the world ('Only connect', 'Life is short', 'Good will triumph over evil', 'War is hell', 'Women are awful', etc etc) but to that end your plot and characters' interaction with each other is what the act of making up a story is about, rather than giving an accurate account of a person or event. So Macbeth (yes yes I know it's a play not a novel but let us call it a fiction) is about ambition and sexual power and the deadly ironies of prophecy and the restoration of social order and what-all else, but chances are it's not a particularly accurate portrait of the real Dark Ages Thane of Cawdor on whom it's based, much less his relationship with his wife.

Nonfiction on the other hand says 'This is the truth about what happened and who dunnit.' It's to do with the nature of the contract between reader and writer. If you call a piece of writing memoir, autobiography, history, then you have contracted with the reader to tell the truth as you see it, and you are claiming that what you say about another real person is accurate. But if you call a piece of writing fiction, you have contracted with the reader to tell a made-up story. Yes, of course people put 'real' people and events in their fiction all the time, but they do it as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, and they are under no obligation to draw an accurate portrait, which in a way makes recognisable 'portraits' of real people in fiction far more morally problematic IMO. But what's far more usual is for a fiction writer to piece together fragments of real experience to make a story that works on that level of abstract meaning.

At a more detailed level one will write a character who has the features of five or six different real people one knows plus a lot of other features one has simply made up. Any fiction writer will tell you this. My favourite among my own fictional characters is the narrator of a story called '14 October 1843', who is an amalgam of all the hundreds of women writing 19th-century letters and diaries that I'd spent the last two years reading, plus all the mothers I've ever known, plus a woman from the mid-19th century called Mrs Gerald Butler who wrote a diary while stuck in a tent on the beach at Robe (which didn't exist yet), looking at the immovable piano on the beach, suffering from digestive issues, listening to the wind and rain, and getting energetically stuck into the laudanum. (As you would.) And, of course, a lot of her is also me.

I don't think I've explained this very well. Recommended, if you have five or ten minutes to read it with the care it demands: a superb review essay by Delia Falconer about James Wood's How Fiction Works. It was in The Australian last year and if you Google all those terms it should come up -- finding links and putting them in a comment on Blogger is an appalling pain in the arse, soz.

fifi said...

I keep drifting back to this post, having written some shreds of, lets say, kind of erotica, and having commented recently in conversation about the very sentiment expressed by Virginia Woolf.

What I find interesting also is that whatever term one uses for the private bits in question will entirely colour the piece. I have not found an apporopriate word for man parts that does not sound either hilarious or pornographic.

But it is lovely to recreate some things in words, even if just for myself.

I am now off to read that link.

lucy tartan said...

What a great post and comments. I wish I could have worked with you, Pav. I've been teaching The Group the last two weeks, and both weeks we've discussed how in amongst the voices channelling midcentury feminine popular culture, there is another voice that has the ring of an authentic self telling about its own actual experiences - and that voice is the one that narrates Dottie's first sexual encounter (with the aptly named Dick), and later on, Priss trying to breastfeed her newborn. It's a very matter-of-fact, descriptive, unsqueamish, accurate voice, and it sounds like life writing. So I've been wondering why the sex scene in particular does not seem like an overshare, or a betrayal or some other kind of breach? All I can come up with is that the genre labels really carry a lot of weight and have a lot of influence which we don't always credit, now that everything is a discursive formation. The sex writing would bug me if I had to think McCarthy was writing about her own sexual experiences with an identifiable man. As it is, just calling it fiction (even if it's as straightforward a life sketch as it appears to be) seems to defuse a lot of the personality issues, and puts it into that more abstracted realm where I can enjoy it and engage with it imaginatively.

Casey said...

No that was fantastic. I'm going to find that story you wrote. I will read that reference. I hope I have read you correctly, but I note that in your explication of the difference in writing of past intimacies in a memoir versus fiction, you have moved from an implied contract/decision between the self/ex lover/friend/whatever to an implied contract between the reader and the writer.

Don't you think the self/ex lover/friend/whatever will still see itself/themselves in the slivers of the character you put together? One anecdote? One moment sliced from a life? Is it not at least similiar in that instance to straight memoir, at least from the ex lover's/ ex friend's ex ex's perspective?

Peter Carey's ex did, no matter how irritated he got, no matter how much he explained what you did above.

Thanks again for this.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Laura, I do so love The Group, which when I was a child was one of the novels in the house that I was 'not allowed' to read and therefore took the earliest possible chance to peruse in secret, and that experience of Dottie's was one of my earliest and most valuable practical lessons about what to expect from sex in particular and adulthood in general. That is such an interesting point about the bodily scenes -- I'd never thought of the voice recording them quite like that, but you're right, of course. I am always so haunted, to this very day, by the scene in which Dottie sits on the park bench waiting for hours with all the contraceptive gear stashed under the seat that I always forget about what leads to it.

Casey, I gravely fear I still didn't really answer your original question so I will have one more go:

"So what's the diff between writing it in memoir, fiction or telling it to your friend down the pub?"

I think I did the memoir/fiction part already, but the friend down the pub is another distinction again. I think we converse, and diarise, and (at least some of us) blog, as a way of processing and making sense of our experience, and of course that includes our experiences of sex and love. But that is essentially, IMO, a self-directed exercise: that is, one does it for one's own self's sake. But writing fiction -- that's making a piece of art, which is essentially an other-directed act. One is doing it for other people to read / listen to /look at / whatever. Which kind of fits your explanation about the different contracts:

'in your explication of the difference in writing of past intimacies in a memoir versus fiction, you have moved from an implied contract/decision between the self/ex lover/friend/whatever to an implied contract between the reader and the writer.'

Exactly, but I didn't realise that until you said it. And again, it's specifically about sex rather than other things.

Perhaps the main issues here are vulnerability and trust. There's a very funny scene in David Lodge's Small World (which is the most wonderful comic academic novel) where two fiction writers (Ronald and Desiree, if I remember rightly) are invited guests at an academic conference but are feeling rather left out, because all the papers are very theoretical and abstruse and the academics and the writers are basically finding each other a bit puzzling and boring -- so the two writers are thrown into each other's company and inevitably, this being the 80s, end up in bed. But they are very, very suspicious, because each fears the other will write about it later and it is only after they have made a pact not to do so that they can get down to, well, you know. Or, as Desiree puts it, 'Then let's fuck, Ronald!'

My friend and then housemate D once said, many years ago now, to a bloke who was chatting me up in the pub, 'Don't do it, mate, you'll find yourself written up as a ludicrous character in a short story before you know where you are.' But only because she could see I needed rescuing.

As for people seeing themselves: oh yes. They often see themselves even when they are not, in fact, there. And a lot of people think they can extrapolate from a single detail -- say your ex had a really interesting scar or birthmark and you borrowed it to put on the body of your (otherwise completely different) character, the ex -- along with most of your readers -- would be quite likely to think it must therefore "be" him or her in all particulars, and no amount of discussion of how the creative process works would make a blind bit of difference. There is an incredibly powerful impulse among many readers of fiction to think (often subconsciously; they would deny this if asked) that the act of reading is essentially one of detection: of finding out who all the characters "really are" and then assuming that everything said about them in the novel is true. And I'm sure the Carey matter is grounded in this impulse.

casey said...

Thanks Pav. That will keep me going for a few days now....I'd do a smiley face but those things drive me nuts.

Er, I should say, in the spirit of being written about - I have quoted bits of your review of "Sorry" in my thesis. I know, I know this is an intimacy of inordinate proportions. How very dare I. But I won't remove it. I got three ticks from the supervisor with a note saying: "Use this" - and you know, that is kind of postgrad gold Pav. You'll live I reckon.

Three ticks. I reckon he knows you or something..

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

HAHAHAHA ... more than likely.

M L Jassy said...

I read the review of Kneen's book with interest. I agree that the most impressive thing to me is the freedom with which the book can be published, received and discussed. I was intrigued by the reviewer's insight that sex fell by the wayside on the road to self-realisation.

I am jotting here in response PavCat to your notes about innocense and harm. I think it is the heart and mind which are the most vulnerable, with the ego a close third, and that the absolute debauched cesspit that Sydney (as a microcosm of the online and therefore shagadelic world) has become free. Sex is now recreational and its power as a social tool is that it is chipping away at hypocrisy, faster than ever. It's a good climate for a book like 'Affection' (the book about sex.)

I always was an optimist though. Perhaps the thousands of swingers in the Hills District will always vote liberal and hate refugees. Whose to say?

One other life Vs fiction nugget. I see this played out on my friend's blog (Sluttsville) and similar. All of our involvements (play, casual and relationship) are coded so as to protect the 'innocent', those who are involved but not named, and discreetly but accurately described.

The moral imperative to protect the identities of others is paramount, yet that does not wreck the juiciness or intention of a great read.

Elisabeth said...

In some ways I regard all 'creative' writing as a fiction, even when it bears the non-fiction label.

A writing friend tells the story of how in her early writing career she made the mistake of making a gift of a successfully published short story she had written about her grandmother to several members of her family.
Her aunts were furious.
‘You make Grandma sound like an alcoholic,’ they said.
When my friend asked how they had surmised this from her story, her aunts pointed out a passage in which my friend had described in vivid detail the image of her grandmother’s knuckled, arthritic fingers folded around a crystal whiskey glass.
‘Grandma never drank whiskey,' her aunts said. 'Only ever brandy. And she certainly never drank during the day.’
There you have it. A slight alteration of ‘facts’ not only reduces the writer’s credibility in the eyes of her aunts it makes her a dishonest reporter who wants to defame her beloved grandmother.

I have another brief vignette that outlines the difference between fact and fiction: In his novel, Empire of the Sun, J G Ballard wrote the story of a small boy interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Although the book was well acclaimed and later made into a film, some critics attacked it. Ballard had in fact been interned in a prisoner of war camp with his parents and brother. Why did he not write the actual truth of his experience? Why deny the existence of his parents and brother?
In his defense, Ballard argued: he wanted to explore the emotional truth of his experience, the trauma and the loneliness. Despite the presence of his family at that time, he had felt completely alone.

Fiction reaches for emotional truths that would be otherwise impeded by a strict adherence to the facts.
And in many ways we cannot stick to the facts, anyway.
They're such slippery things, these so called facts.
And yet truthfulness, as opposed to absolute truth, is so important.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Elisabeth, of course you are right. Untold reams of painstaking analysis have been written over the centuries by literary theorists on these matters, with incredibly delicate and precise distinctions being made about the subjective nature of reality, and the imprecise relationship of language to experience, and so on.

(My own theory is that sex, like violence, takes over in real life when language fails, and it is therefore always already impossible to represent either adequately in language. This may be why Fifi has trouble with the many words for 'penis'.)

It is not possible to make too fine a distinction in these discussions, ever. And more power to that level of detail.

(If people really are interested in these things, and many do seem to be, let me recommend Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), which is a most wonderful book, written in during the war in Istanbul, in exile from his native Germany, with almost no access to libraries. This, he later said, was probably the reason he got around to actually writing the book: 'It is quite possible that the book owes its existence to just this lack of a rich and specialised library. If it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might never have reached the point of writing.' All those in the throes of a PhD thesis take note. Being a Jewish exile during WW2 does seem to have most wonderfully accelerated the writing process. Anne Frank is another case in point.)

Anyway, I love Elisabeth's story about the grandmother and the brandy and the whisky. Again (and I hope people will forgive me for using my own fiction as examples, but it is the only fiction on which I am an expert), let me offer an astonishingly similar grandmotherly anecdote: I once wrote a very short story called 'Roses and My Brother' in which every single thing is true, but in which specific facts have been selected and arranged in order to put together a story about how families work, and about how the world is gendered. My sisters read the original version of this story, in which I describe my grandmother making jam (something I was sure I remembered) from the peaches and apricots that my grandfather (called 'Papa' to distinguish him from the other grandfather, who was 'Grandad') grew in their suburban back yard in their old age, and my older sister said 'No no no, you've got it all wrong, it was Papa who made the jam.'

I changed it, not (only) so that it would be true, but because it added a layer of complexity to what was otherwise becoming a too-schematic image of gendered experience. A grandfatherly cat among the gender-role pigeons, as indeed he was in other ways.

I should mention that I am drinking Laphroiag as I write this. You can probably tell. Hooray for single malts and unpronounceable Scottish Gaelic. (See 'Thane of Cawdor', above.)

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your further thoughts. I must get hold of Auerbach's book.
I am working on a PhD part time, using my own autobiographical writing along with explorations of other people's writing mostly, non fiction, to explore the degree to which the desire for revenge can lead to the creativity of writing. I see, revenge has already been touched on here in this blog. Every time I mention the word, revenge, people shudder.
Certainly gratuitous revenge, built upon blind unthinking rage is unhelpful and destructive, but I'm interested in a more benign form - the spark that arises in all of us from time to time when we have been deeply hurt. It can give rise to creative writing once the pain of the desire (and I stress desire) for revenge has dissipated, been worked through, whatever.
Maybe it's as you describe with Auerbach: some level of deprivation - he without access to libraries in his isolation, others who are fired up with desiring revenge because they have been wounded - is necessary to get us writing.

This is a terrific posting, very much up my alley. Sorry if I've gone off on my own tangent, but it seems related.

Fyodor said...

Excellent post, Mme. Pav, made excellenter by terrific comments, folks. Top banana.

Anonymous said...

Can I just say: I dropped in here just before my morning duties for a bit of distraction, and I'm absolutely floored by this discussion. Thank you PC for these generous responses. I will save this as a pdf and then read it all again at leisure—as well as check the references. What a magnificent blog!

anonymous editor

Ann ODyne said...

Ditto from me on the above, Fyodor, P.Carey, and the BrandyGran story too (in some families, one drink can brand you a drunk forever).

An author in England was successfully sued by the ex-partner after the novel published about their experience alone on an island ( I wish I could recall one searchable fact though).

WV= dumbuz

Armagny said...

Fascinating. My view would be that such acts are intimate and by their nature private, unless somehow understood otherwise.

That being said there are levels of privacy, the most plenary being identifying the person along with the account, that is, sharing what happened in a way that can be related by others to the other person....

...possible exception being where you are colourfully extolling their wondrous virtues.

Describing what happened in a less specific, or even fictionalised form, may be different. I think it breaches some level of privacy, but that needs to be weighed up against the beauty of honest writing and the sharing of knowledge (I won't specify what SORT of knowledge). Something like the Carey book is much more likely to be understood by others as a dig at his ex, due to contextual knowledge, and therefore to potentially humilate her. Not that I've read it or necessarily agree that it does that...

Anonymous said...

I was thinking more about all this and wondered if our perceptions of what's fair or humiliating in revelations or accusations about other people depends on how honestly one writes about oneself first. If I write about all my own flaws, about how hopelessly I screwed up my relationship with X, does it make it ok to mention that X also screwed up? I certainly find that I squirm less reading or listening to an author (in however broad a sense you like) telling me intimate details if they appear to be reflective and open about their own failures, embarassments or intimate tattoos.

I'm reading Dear Fatty by Dawn French at the moment, she's clearly grappling with the same issues. The book is structured as a series of letters to friends and family etc, I'm up to the one addressed to the first boy she had sex with. She makes it really clear that she sees how her celebrity impacts on her family, how what she says publicly is weighted differently from what they might say about her, the challenge of writing an honest memoir without exposing others to humiliation or (particularly for her daughter) that there is nothing that is private and family only.