Are explicit sex scenes OK? Peregrine Worsthorne raised a storm by objecting to a gay orgy in a novel by Philip Hensher. Here, both authors argue their case
Yes! Philip Hensher
In April, I published a novel, King of the Badgers, about a series of events in a small town in Devon called Hanmouth. It is, in a way, about private and public lives, and the surprising and sometimes deplorable events that happen between people when their front doors are closed. It got very enthusiastic reviews: the Sunday Times said it was ‘a really good old-fashioned novel: the sort of thing George Eliot might have written if she was interested in gay orgies and abducted chavs’.
Though it doesn’t make a point of obscenity, it does contain one scene in which a group of overweight gay men meet, as they regularly do, to have sex with each other. The scene has a pivotal function in the book, and some characters have their minds changed by it; others have their moral principles laid bare by it; for others, it has a terrible consequence.
Sometimes, in the past, I have omitted a pivotal scene, to let the reader reconstruct a catastrophe from its consequences. I know that technique often irritates readers. This time I thought I would actually say what happened.
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, some months later, read my novel, and in The Spectator Diary quoted one of the orgy scene’s frankest sentences. He asked, rhetorically, whether a novelist who describes a gay sexual encounter in specific terms risks reawakening homophobic prejudice in his readers. If an innocent homosexual is beaten to death in
Trafalgar Square this weekend, I suppose that Sir Peregrine thinks that I bear some responsibility for that, by alerting readers to what some gay men might do, consensually and in private. But should one, as a novelist, tailor one’s invention to the requirements of people who obviously find gay people disgusting and repulsive on every level? Would any depiction of gay characters satisfy such a reader?
It’s important to distinguish between what people can and should do in real life, and what may be described in a novel. All sorts of behaviour generally considered a not very good idea in real life may perfectly well be described specifically in a novel — embezzlement, murder, sex with strangers.
As a novelist, one strives continuously against the vague and unobserved, and towards the specific. One tries to evoke the world through detail, as well as through implication of the specific: both are important tools of the novelist’s trade. In the past, sexual behaviour was described by novelists through implication and metaphor. When Frank Churchill hands Emma a pencil that has no lead in it, we know that his marriage to Jane Fairfax will not be satisfying. The long-echoing Roman corridors of Dorothea and Casaubon’s honeymoon say a good deal about the events in the bedroom.
The question is one of decorum. Jane Austen’s sense of intimacy and decorum is so fine that she never allows a heroine to accept a proposal of marriage other than in indirect speech. My novel, too, I believe, is strongly about decorum. It does follow a group of adult men into the orgy room. On the other hand, when a man who has kidnapped a child for sexual purposes enters the story, I would not let the novel follow him down into the cellar. Those events are reported using a disgusting euphemism of the character’s own. That was a very specific moral decision.
Nowadays, a writer may without fear of prosecution say what actually did happen between a Dorothea and a Casaubon.A good novelist will always try to bring specificity to every other part of human behaviour — how a character talks, eats a pizza, grooms himself, walks, dresses, even smells. He now has the freedom to describe him in the bedroom, or in this case, being buggered on a dining-room table. A bad writer will write unevocatively, banally about all these things, bringing his observations from a bank of stock gestures. If a good one does not choose to pass over these subjects altogether, he will write about them with freshness and observation. My personal rules in writing about this subject were two. I would not be euphemistic to spare a reader; and I would not idealise. There is far too much idealising writing about sex, and hardly any accurate observation.
A writer does not control how a reader will respond to his scenes of sex or, really, any other scene. The reader may, I suppose, be sexually stimulated by them even if (as in my case) there was no such intention; he may, just as unpredictably, be actively disgusted. My hope was that this scene would startle, exhilarate, and then make a reader laugh as two participants have a very confused conversation about Madonna. What I do think is that a reaction of primal disgust to something like this, and seeking to legislate on the basis of individual disgust, is not compatible with the novelist’s and reader’s motto of humani nihil a me alienum puto.
the spectator | 17 September 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk