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Anything Goes in Prose

The Loss of Modesty.

by Barnabas
December 4, 2002

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Anything Goes in Prose_Barnabas-The Loss of Modesty.
“You have something in your mouth that I wouldn’t have in my hand.”
--A grandmother to a young grandson, ca 1945
This is commentary about a trend, not about a specific news item.

Years ago, in Seven Sins and Seven Virtues, Karl Olsson said that comparing sexuality with digestion was like comparing a high-tension wire with a water hose. You can play with a water hose without real damage ensuing, but the high-tension wire is something else again. Sex is a lot more than a bodily function.

I was a college graduate with an English major before I read an explicit description of sexual intercourse in a major, unbanned novel: O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick. This doesn’t mean that O’Hara was first, of course, and it depends on your definition of “major novel,” but for me it was a turning point.

The floodgates opened. The pre-eminent novelist John Updike, hailed by many as a Christian writer because of his worldview, demonstrates his expertise in human sexual anatomy in virtually every novel of his that I have read over the past forty years. Not every one of his contemporaries followed his lead, but the least to be said is that sex, and what used to be called obscene language, are now a staple of literature.

The apotheosis came early on, in the late sixties or early seventies, when Pamela Hansford-Johnson wrote a novel (Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s) about a couple of playwrights determined to write a play too filthy to be produced. But it gets produced. The audience doesn’t notice the filth and like the play. In frustration, the playwrights boo their own work on opening night.

After a couple of experiments myself in mildly pushing the edge of acceptability (my readership, such as it is, is a conservative group) in fiction, and after thinking it over quite a bit, I have come to the conclusion that such writing is self-defeating. Like the inevitable car-chase in a certain kind of movie, or the bare-butt flashed in the first seasons of "NYPD Blue", it momentarily blows the story and theme write off the page. What one remembers most about Pulp Fiction is that one four-letter verb in all its forms is used as adjective, adverb, verb, and noun.

Helping me to this conclusion was a recent reading of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, though it could have been almost any minor classic written before 1940. Sexual desire is big, but sexual activity is never explicit. Anna Karenina tells us more about adultery than we need to know, but Tolstoy doesn’t describe what Anna and Vronsky actually did. Grown-ups know what they did, and do not require a play-by-play report.

To publish or present is to lose control of your work. So here are a couple of standards that applied to the main body of literature from the Renaissance until World War II, I may be restating them, but I am not making them up.
1) If you wouldn’t do it in front of your kids, don’t show it or describe it in print.
2) If you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t say it in print or on video.

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