MAN Booker winner Julian Barnes has admitted to feeling awkward when writing about sex. Well I should think so too.
Barnes with his quiet demeanour, apparent good manners and (according to his book Pedant in the Kitchen) lack of culinary confidence is the perfect Englishman, which surely goes hand-in-hand with the paralysing fear of discussing bedroom antics in print.
But what’s this? The Leicester-born novelist actually wants British authors to write about the beast with two backs, as Shakespeare euphemistically put it – he would just prefer they did it better.
And we should have got all this sorted out years ago – back in 1960, when Penguin was being prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for printing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he reckons.
The attempt to quash DH Lawrence’s bodice ripper failed on the grounds that the book was of “literary merit”, helped by the role call of hight profile witnesses to the books significance, which included A Passage to India author EM Forster.
Incidentally, Penguin’s second edition of the book was dedicated to “the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made DH Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”
Even then, the book’s deriders were accused of being behind the times, when chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously enquired whether it was the sort of thing “you would wish your wife or servants to read”.
Penguin’s victory should have been a turning point in British literature, Barnes told the Radio Times. A time to “grow up” when it came to sex.
But alas, although authors are writing more about it, they tend to have regressed to the playground.
“The comic tone inevitably pushes you towards bad sex,” he said.
“It’s perhaps impossible, to be funny about good sex, but with bad sex the field is wide open.
“That humiliating attack of impotence, the wrong underpants, the social uncertainty of what and where and when and how and how often. This is safe territory for the novelist – perhaps too safe.”
All this does nothing for the Englishman’s hot-blooded reputation abroad, which already runs cold.
Presumably we’re not as shy doing it as writing about it – unless the procreation of the British race is kept up by a legion of storks and cabbage patches.
The problem isn’t excusively British though – American writers suffer from publishers droop too.
Barnes said: “John Updike is a writer whom I revere, and who wrote with precision and understanding about sex, especially from the male point of view.
“But in one novel he kept comparing the male member – as he wouldn’t have called it – to a yam.
“Whenever he did so, instead of my visualising all the more clearly the sex that just was about to happen, I kept imagining a vegetable stall.”
Perhaps that – or the national reliance on the humble cabbage patch –would explain the recent rise in popularity of allotments.