The sex plot: a discussion for novelists and readers

I wrote to a friend:

I wonder about the extent to which novels in general are continuing to have trouble with sexual liberalization; so many major novels in the canon deal with that topic, but it’s much harder to use those tropes in a permissive age.

He replied: “This intrigues me, but I’m not sure what you mean. Can you elaborate?”

Yes!

The novel as a genre has tended to thrive on sexual repression, and has used steadily increasing sexual liberation as fuel for plots. Leslie Fiedler wrote about this in Love and Death in the American Novel, and Tony Tanner wrote about it in Adultery and the Novel. In taking courses about the novel as a genre, I was struck by how many times I heard or read phrases like, “X pushed the limits of the sexual mores of his / her day,” where X is any number of writers ranging from Richardson to Flaubert to Dreiser to Roth and Updike. (Weirdly, however, the Marquis de Sade has always been lurking beneath the history of the novel as a genre, mostly unacknowledged and often hidden from the reading public).

But working against sexual repression as such doesn’t really work so well as a plot device anymore because the barriers are mostly down. If you’re over age 18 today, you can more or less do whoever you want as long as they’re not under 18. This may be why professor-student plots are somewhat popular: it’s one of the few forbidden-but-plausible-and-not-gross relationships left.

There are only so many sexual lines one can cross, and too many books like 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, to make the mere crossing of the few lines left all that interesting. When an entire society is set up to repress, re-channel, and control sexuality, a novel like Lady Chatterley’s Lover is shocking. In our society, it’s not. Today, if you want it, go get it—just don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not hard to live a life of constant sexual novelty and most parts of society won’t really censure you, provided that you don’t marry someone else, and even then lots of people divorce.

It’s much harder to get wring major consequences from affairs and what not. Don’t want to cheat? Don’t get married. It’s not impossible to use sex and romance plots—my to-be-self-published novel, Asking Anna, is a comedy about such subjects—to get material from these fields, but it’s a greater challenge than it used to be, and hard if not impossible to shock. A novel with the sexual politics of Stranger in a Strange Land wouldn’t have the same shock-value today then it did when it was published, though actually now that I think about it I still think it would raise a few eyebrows.

Some genres, like science fiction, don’t rely on sex plots as much, but even in SF sex plots are still often present. The growth of murder mysteries and thrillers may also represent some veering from sex plots, since premature death is still a big deal and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

On a separate but related note, it also seems that many “literary” writers borrow SF-ish ideas. Think of Ian McEwan’s Solar. Not a great novel, but I liked a lot of what McEwan was doing by meshing discovery, politics, social ideas, environmentalism, science, and a not-very-nice character into one bunch. It’s McEwan, so the writing is good on a sentence-by-sentence level. The technical descriptions are also interesting and too uncommon in novels. I like the idea of writing about intellectual, social, technical, or business discovery as a motive. It’s underutilized as a driver of plot.

One section of Paul Graham’s essay “The Word ‘Hacker’” addresses this point and continues to have a profound impact on me:

Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit. (He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Most novels focus on money, sex, revenge. Why don’t they focus more on intellectual curiosity: perhaps how intellectual curiosity relates to money, sex, revenge, and similar topics? That seems like a fruitful avenue, especially because we might be moving towards a world where many people’s material needs are met, making money less immediately important; though of course many people are still driven by keeping up with the Joneses, in large swaths of the industrialized world we have plenty of money and plenty of stuff.

(A relevant side note about money: Among people interested in “game” and picking up women, it has become a common observation that additional money above the amount needed to buy drinks, dress reasonably well, and live independently doesn’t do much help most guys. A guy making $50,000 a year and a guy making $200,000 a year are mostly on a level playing field, and if the guy making $200,000 has to work 60+ hours a week, he’s at a disadvantage. Personalities and tenacity count far more than incomes, all else being equal. This could be seen as a variant on one of Geoffrey Miller’s points in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.)

I don’t see money, sex, or revenge—and motives for revenge usually reduce to money and sex—becoming unimportant as long as humans remain humans and not brains in vats or on chips, but intellectual curiosity and a sense of wonder and discovery should be more emphasized in narrative. I think the tedium of Jonathan Franzen’s novels can in part be explained by the tedium of his characters: if those characters had a greater sense of discovery and possibility, they wouldn’t be so annoying. The other day I was listening to a friend describing single electron chain reactions in photosynthesis and how she misses research and life in the lab. It’s very interesting stuff, and the sort of thing that is rarely really discussed in novels.

But it should be!

Plus, the progression of science, technology, economics, and the attitudes that go along with them have ameliorated a lot of the money-revenge resource-distribution fights that used to define every aspect of human existence, instead of most aspects of human existence. To the extent major societal problems in the future are going to be solved—most obviously involving energy, but certainly involving other topics too—the solutions are going to come from intellectual curiosity and the intellectually curious. Maybe we, collectively, should be thinking about art that cultivates and glorifies those traits, instead of art that cultivates or glorifies simple status domination, or the ability to be cooler than the other guy or girl.

Another Paul Graham quote, from “How To Make Wealth:”

Making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation.

Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world’s history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds’ lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.

A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.

People still steal to get rich, and even more people make many movies and write many books about stealing, along with efforts to thwart thieves. Making stuff people want is, again, an under-explored avenue. It’s also harder to represent dramatically. The movie The Social Network does this successfully, albeit at the expense of accuracy; most of the important parts of Facebook actually happened in the heads of Zuckerberg and other programmers, not in interpersonal drama.

Still, The Social Network works as a movie, and it does something very different than yet another version of Fast & Furious, which is about sex, power, tribal loyalty, and blowing shit up—like most movies (sample from the link: “Like any reasonable person, I watch the Fast and the Furious film franchise primarily for its insights into moral philosophy and political economy. At a fundamental level, the franchise is about what Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard identifies in The Sources of Normativity as the ‘intractable conflicts” that arise from our conflicting practical identities'”). I like Solar despite its flaws in part because the protagonist, Michael, makes his money and gains status by discovering something that may turn out to be essential in solar panels.

Solar and The Social Network don’t deploy straightforward sex / family plots, and that’s refreshing. They’re part of an answer to the question of what happens in a world where you can, if you have sufficient skill or are sufficiently desirable, sleep with anyone who’ll have you? Because that’s the world most people above the age of 18 or 19 find themselves in. Marriage rates are dropping. Arguably the most interesting parts about marriage and children right now are economic: what’s happening with alimony and child support, and how those issues affect behavior and emotions.

Moreover, for the highly sexually experienced—people who’ve had their share of three-ways, sex work, group sex, etc.—the sex plot is going to be dull. Juvenile. If you’ve slept with five people in a week, agonizing over who you’re going to sleep with for the rest of your life isn’t going to seem that important. It’s going to be more important that you find someone who loves you but who also has an sufficient level of adventure compatibility. Arguably a more interesting question is what it takes to be a highly desirable person, which a lot of romance novels appear to be exploring (strangely enough) and how to become that desirable person if you aren’t already. Becoming the sort of person who can get the man / woman / men / women of your dreams is often more interesting than the immediate process of getting him / her / them.

Sex plots need a sense of the sacred attached to sex, along with the dangers of pregnancy that can be ameliorated by IUDs and other forms of birth control. Danger used to generate sacredness. Most people today still don’t want their significant others to sleep with random people, even though many obviously do anyway, but taking away or reducing the risk of pregnancy also reduces the fear and risk of affairs or multiple partners. One reason Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) got written is not just because of the affairs Plump and her husband have, but because he knocks up the other woman, or the other woman deliberately gets knocked up by him. Women tend to fear that their man will impregnate another woman and thus split his resources / time / affection, and men tend to fear that their woman will be impregnated by another man and thus stick them with the costs of raising another man’s child. While these fears can obviously be alleviated by the judicious use of birth control, not everyone is diligent about birth control and deeply seated fears aren’t always allayed by modern technologies laid over atavistic drives.

The highly adventurous and experienced probably don’t represent a hugely overwhelming portion of the general population, but they probably represent a portion that is either growing or coming out of the closet. Through divorce and other means, many people are already leading a serially monogamous and/or hypocritically adventurous life, though perhaps because they are bad at anticipating what temptation and desire feel like in the moment and good at rationalizing. The only thing missing is intellectual honesty, which may itself be rarer than fidelity.

There will probably always be challenges in admitting to fantasies or taboo desires, and it will probably always be difficult to find another person with roughly similar tastes, predilections, and preferences, but I’m not sure how easy it is to build a novel around those ideas. That question might be best answered in novel form.

Once you get away from the sex plot, where do novels go? Martha McPhee’s Dear Money is one successful recent example. Cryptonomicon is another. Solar, which I mentioned before, is a third. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a fourth. More writers need to get this memo, and more readers need to use their attention to direct writers towards topics that matter instead of those that have been exhausted by the tradition.

Further discussion:

* Sexting and society: How do writers respond? Sample:

Questions like “What happens when people do things sexually that they’re not supposed to? How does the community respond? How do they respond?” are the stuff novelists feed on. They motivate innumerable plots, ranging from the beginnings of the English novel at Pamela and Clarissa all the way to the present.

Pamela and Clarissa are interesting as historical documents, but it’s not easy to project the modern mind backward into the dilemmas of someone with a very different set of social and intellectual concerns.

6 responses

  1. That’s a remarkable insight: “most interesting parts about marriage and children right now are economic: what’s happening with alimony and child support, and how those issues affect behavior and emotions.” This is probably reflected in the literature of passion and sex as well. We definitely see consumerism: Sex and the City clothing fetishes, the luxury lifestyle (which includes extensive travel and exotic sexual partners) and the blending of porn/online dating in pop culture. Economic pressures might also account for a certain prudishness nowadays. Americans have more important things on our minds.

    From the 60s on in the US, fiction took on sexual themes, but now — what is the point anymore? If books aimed to demystify sex while titillating the reader at the same time, certainly R-rated movies (and porn) have done that and more. What’s left for fiction is to analyze interior (but conventional) feelings and dreams and ponder moral questions. Also, while we’re talking about forbidden, books are equipped to portray adolescent sexuality in a refined way without having to check everybody’s ID.

    Looking back, it seems remarkable that Kundera was able to balance so many themes in one novel and still have a lot to say about sex.

    Memoirs are growing popular these days, and in a way the confessional tale is replacing the erotic tale. Of course that’s all about the cult of the author.

    Two other thoughts: Scott Esposito and Barrett Hathcock wrote a great long essay, Lady Chatterley’s Brother about sex in fiction and how Nicholson Baker isn’t “sexy”. Also, I’ve written about (albeit in fictional form) some of these same questions (Warning: semi-NSFW).

    Like

  2. Pingback: Counterpoint to the sex-plot post: Jenny Diski on The Sexual Life of Catherine M. | The Story's Story

  3. I often think of these lines from “my diner with andre”:

    ” I grew up on the upper east side, and when I was ten years old I was rich! I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money.”

    There is something about money (and sex) that hangs around waiting to pounce.

    Like

  4. Pingback: What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition | The Story's Story

  5. Pingback: What makes a person special: Name of the Rose edition | The Story's Story

  6. Pingback: Links: The Boring Company, boredom, marriage and writers, Screw Wisdom, personal essays, and more! « The Story's Story

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