Friday, 29 November 2013

How to write about, and portray sex in fiction.

"Like many younger readers who had not yet experienced sex, except with myself, I was deeply misled by 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', which seemed to insist that running naked through damp undergrowth, with wild flowers entwined in your pubic hair, was just about the closest thing to heaven."
In his Radio 3 Essay, 'Explaining the Explicit', Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes posed the question, "Is writing about sex, the same as writing about any other human activity - say gardening or cricket?" His exploration of the subject (including an amusing analysis of an Evelyn Waugh sex scene) was compelling, and went on to talk about self-consciousness and exposure; the fear that readers will assume the sexual encounters you're writing about actually happened to you, and how this impacts on the tone of the way you write about sex. "The naming of parts:  which parts do you name and what names do you give them? At the basic level... He put his what into her, or indeed his, what?"  He talks of John Updike comparing the male member, in one novel, to a yam, which made visualising the sexual scene difficult, the reader being distracted by mental images of a vegetable stall.

"The proper, grown up novel is the most intimate of art forms," concludes Barnes, "the one that puts the reader's mind and heart most closely in touch with the minds and hearts of the characters.  It is the place where the most truth about the intimacies of life can, and should, still be told." 

The full recording can be found here:    Explaining the Explicit

Last year, while completing a novel about a fairly dysfunctional (middle-class) family I found myself in the slightly uncomfortable position of having to write a sex scene.

Well, I say a sex scene, but love scene would describe it more accurately, because it's really rather tender and in many ways quite innocent, and though I found it necessary to describe the sleepy, sensual foreplay leading up to the sex act, I stopped short of portraying the intercourse itself, I'm not sure what Julian Barnes would say about that.

I had deliberated long and hard about whether to include the scene at all, but it was ultimately necessary, because the reader needed an awareness that this sixty-year-old protagonist, who is a remarkably likable character, isn't some sort of saint; he is real, vulnerable, sexual, like any other man.  And I think understanding his internal battle adds to our appreciation of his anguish, for the woman he has formed a deep bond with is his own niece.

Now hopefully, I dealt with that sensitively, and while the developing obsessional relationship between these two consenting adults is not entirely healthy, their involvement seeks to harm no-one else, and it's our own narrow-mindedness as the reader, perhaps, which might object to the thought of these two having sex.

More recently, I've been adapting 'Attachment' to a radio play script, and this has given me the added difficulty of portraying sex, through dialogue and sound affects alone.  Given these would-be lovers are barely conscious there isn't a lot of dialogue in the novel, the scene is set through the prose, and so I fear I shall be left relying on sounds, as in, sex sound (or at least foreplay sounds) to convey this love scene in a radio drama version.  This indeed has presented me with a new challenge, how do I achieve this in a tasteful way?.

BBC Radio listeners do not always appreciate such subject matter.  Recently the corporation received several complaints about love scenes portrayed on The Archers, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, and a Woman's Hour drama, with one listener stating:  “Please can all the grunts and grinds of people humping each other stop.  We don’t need that – we’d rather hear the pigs doing it.”

The British public have always been famously prudish about sex and nudity in its serious form, with a preference to reduce the subject to the somewhat immature schoolboy humour of the Carry On tradition.

Back in April 1970 acting stars Susan Penhaligon and Michael Mackenzie set pulses racing and tongues wagging, when they dared to portray an authentic scene from Romeo and Juliet naked in bed, at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing. In total, there were ninety seconds of nudity within the two and a half hour performance, but local residents threatened to cause havoc with tomatoes and water pistols if the scene went ahead, such was the perception of an attack on Christian moral values.

In that same year The Sun newspaper introduced Page 3! The explicit objectification of bare breasts in their daily tabloid was popular enough to save it from declining sales. Clearly there has always been a strange, insidious double standard deep within the nation's collective unconscious, and one that's not at all healthy.  A mother breastfeeding a child on a train will still attract looks of disgust and condemnation!

It behoves all of us who work within the arts to try and educate society, and encourage exploration in a positive, healthy way.  For now, I shall return to agonising over the beautiful, yet problematic erotic scene in my script.

Please feel free to leave your comments, and any sensible tips or advice.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction Award - It seems in some ways, our society has not moved on significantly from D H Lawrence's time.

It's that time of the year writers seem to dread.  Yes, it's the Bad Sex In Fiction awards, but this year it's got a few people challenging the validity of the somewhat unprestigious accolade.

Established in 1993, by the late Auberon Waugh, and organised by the Literary Review, in order to draw attention to the "crude, tasteless and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels, and to discourage it", former nominees include such national treasures as, Newsnight's Paul Mason and Will Self (on three separate occasions); even J K Rowling was tipped for the award last year - not for a Harry Potter book, of course!! -but for her post-Potter novel "The Casual Vacancy".  As it happened, she didn't actually make the shortlist.

Previous winners of the Bad  Sex in Fiction award include:

1993: Melvyn Bragg, A Time to Dance
1994: Philip Hook, The Stonebreakers
1995: Philip Kerr, Gridiron
1996: David Huggins, The Big Kiss: An Arcade Mystery
1997: Nicholas Royle, The Matter of the Heart
1998: Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray
1999: A. A. Gill, Starcrossed
2000: Sean Thomas, Kissing England[3]
2001: Christopher Hart, Rescue Me
2002: Wendy Perriam, Tread Softly[2]
2003: Aniruddha Bahal, Bunker 13
2004: Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons
2005: Giles Coren, Winkler[4]
2006: Iain Hollingshead, Twenty Something[5]
2007: Norman Mailer, The Castle in the Forest[6]
2008: Rachel Johnson, Shire Hell; John Updike, Lifetime Achievement Award
2009: Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones
2010: Rowan Somerville, The Shape of Her [7]
2011: David Guterson, Ed King[8]
2012: Nancy Huston, Infrared[9]

Alastair Campbell openly said he wanted to win it, in 2010.  His comment immediately disqualified him, the award is intended to shame and embarrass writers, and presumably their readers too. Campbell had made it to the shortlist, though, beating his former boss, Tony Blair, who had surprised many with his autobiographical account of his own sexual appetite.

Laurie Penny writes a compelling article in the New Statesman, this week, "In Defence of Bad Sex", suggesting the award is dated and priggish.  While we, as a nation, remain so inhibited about sex generally, and specifically, uncomfortable about portraying normal experiences of sex, she argues, young people will continue to develop their understanding about sex, from the increasingly hardcore sea of pornography, available so freely now on computers, tablets and phones.  You can read her full article here .

Neurological evidence reveals that women who are inhibited about sex, will tend to feel less confident in other areas of life, such as standing up for themselves, against oppressive men.  It is as if sexual confidence affects the actual architecture of the brain.  If a society effectively stops women talking about sex, and exploring normal, healthy consensual sex, those women seem to become easier to manipulate and exploit, and that certainly seems to have been the case for generations gone by.  If you make sex sinful, or even just mucky, women of all ages will be dissuaded from engaging in it, or even thinking about it, through shame.

Many would argue that the seemingly harmless, Bad Sex in Fiction award, plays into that agenda, to some degree.

D H Lawrence's 1928 novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover" is undoubtedly, the most famous book to have received an actual ban, in Britain, for its explicit sexual content.  It wasn't until 1960, thirty years after the author's death, that the public could buy a significantly censored edition of, what many consider to be a literary masterpiece, such was the determination of successive governments to control what art and literature ordinary people had access to.  There can be no doubt that those of less modest means had long been acquiring the book from Florence, and later France.

Back in 1929, a review by Edmund Wilson, praised "Lady Chatterley's Lover", for its attempt to explore sexuality with some degree of sensitivity and intelligence, recognising and admiring the challenge Lawrence had taken on:

"....The truth is simply, of course, that in English we have had, since the eighteenth century, no technique—no vocabulary even—for dealing with such subjects. The French have been writing directly about sex, in works of the highest literary dignity, ever since they discarded the proprieties of Louis XIV. They have developed a classical vocabulary for the purpose. And they have even been printing for a long time, in their novels, the coarse colloquial language of the smoking-room and the streets. James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence are the first English-writing writers of our own time to print this language in English; and the effect, in the case of Ulysses at least, has been shocking to English readers to an extent which must seem very strange to a French literary generation who read Zola, Octave Mirbeau and Huysmans in their youth. But, beyond the question of this coarseness in dialogue, we have, as I have intimated, a special problem in dealing with sexual matters in English. For we have not the literary vocabulary of the French. We have only the coarse colloquial words, on the one hand, and, on the other, the kind of scientific words appropriate to biological and medical books and neither kind goes particularly well in a love scene which is to maintain any illusion of glamor or romance.

Lawrence has here tried to solve this problem, and he has really been extraordinarily successful. He has, in general, handled his vocabulary well. And his courageous experiment, in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, should make it easier for the English writers of the future to deal more searchingly and plainly, as they are certainly destined to do, with the phenomena of sexual experience...."
As a writer myself, who largely navigates plot lines away from sexual encounters, I would say writing really well, about a sexual encounter, is as difficult as doing it well, in real life.  Sex is, by its very nature, often unchoreographed and a bit clunky, is the word I think Laurie Penny used. Few of us have a back catalogue of BAFTA worthy performances, but awkwardness doesn't stop lovers doing it, or enjoying it, and perhaps our slight discomfort in reading about sex, is partly to do with our own personal insecurities and hang ups.

Certainly, when I read through this year's nomination passages, I didn't think they were particularly badly written, it seems to be the actual content that offends judges at the Literary Review.  In some ways our society has not moved on significantly from Lawrence's time, it would seem.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Is BBC impartiality possible, when the Chair of the BBC Trust, was once the Chairman of the Conservative Party?

It has been reported, that staff at Number 10 are "furious" that senior BBC political presenter, Jeremy Paxman, dared to criticise David Cameron over comments the Prime Minister made about plans for a First World War centenary, likening the event to last year's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  Paxman questioned the use of Cameron's idea to celebrate such a calamitous conflict in which millions of men were wounded, mentally and physically, and three quarters of a million, never returned home from.
On the popular Graham Norton Show, Paxman also said he agreed with some aspects of Russell Brand's comments, in a recent Newsnight interview, that people are "completely fed up with posturing politicians" and he believes MPs should be obliged to have done a proper job in the real world, before entering the House of Commons, so that they are more in touch with ordinary people's lives.  He suggested MPs talk "rubbish!" and the public, in fact, see through them, when they insist theirs is the only party which can solve all the problems society faces.  Not only was this greeted with rapturous audience applause, but his fellow guests, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Elton John and John Bishop can clearly be seen clapping too.  And I suspect this as much as anything, has irked government ministers, aware already of their unpopularity.  It may have particularly annoyed the Chair of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, who was formerly the Chairman of the Conservative Party!

Patten was appointed to the position of BBC Trust Chair by David Cameron, on 1st May, 2011, with many alleging at the time, that he may have been purposefully positioned there, to make sure BBC coverage of the unpopular austerity agenda, avoided any criticism of the government.
Chris Patten, current Chair of BBC Trust, and inset image, in his Conservative Party days
The BBC themselves, made no attempt back in March of 2011 to hide the fact that Chris Patten remained very much "an old-fashioned Tory" in their original article which can be found  here.

There would seem to be some intolerance at present, of BBC personalities airing any sort of personal opinion which deviates from the official government position.

Aside from criticism of Newsnight's Russell Brand interview, and Paxman's own comments about the state of British Politics, the BBC appear to have come under pressure now to criticise the much liked presenter and naturalist, Chris Packham, for comments he made on Twitter about the government's controversial badger cull.  The Daily Telegraph reports:

He was also reprimanded for using “intemperate” language on his Twitter feed in the summer (@ChrisGPackham) after an inquiry was ordered by Lord Hall of Birkenhead, the BBC’s director general.
Mr Packham filed entries on his Twitter entry ¬- on which he says he is a “naturalist and BBC broadcaster” - as the badger cull was about to start in the summer.
He wrote: “Tonight could be the darkest for British wildlife that we have witnessed in our lives. That in spite of science and public will the wrath of ignorance will further bloody and bleed our countryside of its riches of life.
“That brutalist thugs, liars and frauds will destroy our wildlife and dishonour our nations reputation as conservationists and animal lovers”.

Naturalist, Chris Packham tweeted his views about the government's controversial badger cull
The British public has huge affection for the BBC, but it is starting to look more and more like an agent for government propaganda, with many now questioning its impartiality and wondering how viewers can express their own objection to this apparent right-wing bias.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Revolution in the UK is perhaps more likely to be driven by the Dramatic Arts, than politics

Most people want to live in a society, and want to bring their children up in a society, that's based on love, fairness and compassion, not hate, fear and oppression...

Russell Brand's ten minute, impassioned Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, has 10 million YouTube views.  Almost as many as voted for David Cameron, at the 2010 General Election (10,706,647), have been interested in watching that single interview, during which the cult comedian calls for people to abandon the current political system and stand together to demand a fairer, more empathic and intelligently run society, which will meet the needs of the majority of people in society, rather than serving a select elite.
Paxman however, has certain sympathies with Brand's view.  While he believes people should vote in general elections, he recently confessed, "Russell Brand has never voted, because he finds the process irrelevant.  I can understand that: the whole green-bench pantomime in Westminster looks a remote and self-important echo chamber.  But it is all we have.  In one recent election, I decided not to vote, because I thought the choice so unappetising."

Earlier in the year, Ken Loach's iconic film, "The Spirit of 45", also captured the public's imagination. The movie looked back at a time in British history, when cooperation, collaboration and compassion were essential components to rebuilding society, following the Second World War.  Many now say we need to recapture those values and aspirations of a collective national spirit and identity, to work together, to solve the problems that our society faces today.  
How can it be, that in a society where some people are earning hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, over 500,000 people have had to turn to hand-outs from food banks, to feed their families; many of those are working adults, hit hard by the coalition's cuts to jobs and services.  This level of child poverty should not be happening in a rich country like Britain, it is surely a sign of government failure, and naturally, more and more people have become angry about the gaping inequality between rich and poor, which seems set to increase further, under the present administration.

Around 45 million people were eligible to vote at the last General Election, yet less than a quarter voted for David Cameron, and only 8,604,358 voted for Gordon Brown's New Labour. Following the expenses scandal, the banking crisis and the Lib Dems wholesale betrayal of their core voters, MPs are held in very low regard by the general public now, with many predicting an even poorer turnout come 2015, despite the unpopularity of the Coalition Government.

On the BBC's iconic political panel show, Question Time, invariably the guest whose answers chime most with the audience in the studio, and at home, is not a politician, but tends to be an actor or director, such as Ken Loach, Russell Brand or Brian Cox, or a writer such as Owen Jones or Mehdi Hasan.  More often than not, the whole of the rest of the panel, is made up from people on the right of politics (the Labour MP tends to be a New Labour politician, seldom someone from the left) and they're more likely to get jeered than applauded; the introduction of Twitter comments, increases still further, the opportunity to criticise the politicians.  It makes you wonder why they agree to go on the programme, because they sure aren't encouraging people to go out and vote for them!

The reality is, people just don't connect with politicians anymore; they don't respect them, they don't trust them and they won't vote for them, and this is especially true of younger voters, who do relate to Russell Brand's message, and this is a huge problem now, for politicians.  Where is their mandate to rule over us, when the majority of people haven't voted for them, and look even less likely to vote in the future.
As our children's generation matures, they want another way, they demand another way.  They don't idolise Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair; far from it, more likely they despise the architects of this unjust, greed-obsessed culture they find themselves living in, MPs who themselves benefitted from free higher education out of taxpayers wages, now inflict tuition fees of £9,000 per year on those same workers' kids, who have studied hard to get a place at university, and dreamt of a decent future, with a rewarding job.  A classic case of  I'm alright Jack, pull up the ladder. 

Too many bright, working class teenagers are opting now, to go into jobs - often poor pay and conditions, minimum wage jobs - because they don't feel able to take on nearly £30,000 of tuition fees for a degree.  How can this possibly be fair!  People can see why the Conservatives, would welcome this, their numbers will surely dwindle as far-right, religious voters age and pass away. As society ultimately becomes more tolerant, more secular, clearly the Tories' days are numbered, so they might be just desperate to cling to power for as long as possible. But people can't understand why Labour ministers would also seek to discourage bright kids from poor backgrounds going into higher education, and that lack of difference between the main parties, and their failure to say, or do anything to protect and support those at the bottom, those families being hit so hard since 2010, is precisely why people have stopped voting.  To many, there seems to be no point.

Enthusiasm for a big sea change, is much more likely to come from the world of drama, art and music, as Brand's interview reveals.  We now need a collective drive forward, to engage and enlighten and involve the public, many of whom are probably desperate for a life free from anxiety and debt and despair.

We need films, plays, documentaries, TV dramas, novels, poems, songs, all addressing an urgent need for change, away from the exploitation of the poor, away from the destruction of the planet. Not another summer of love; how naive that turned out to be; simply getting stoned, taking your clothes off in a muddy field and dropping out of society, brings little benefit to the world, some say it made things worse. There was no plan, no strategy.  Getting out of your head, just allows the oppressors to take an even tighter grip, and you're powerless to stop them!  

What we need is a serious, intelligent, coordinated movement putting forward rational proposals for how we change society for our children, and their children.  Much more emphasis on the human need for family and community, belonging to something.  Education and science and the arts embraced for their own sake, for this is how we enrich society and give our lives meaning.  Less expectation for the individual to cope alone with stresses, such as illness, loneliness and financial worry.  Supporting the vulnerable and helping them to achieve a fulfilling existence, for when we cast out the needy, that impacts on the whole of society.  

Encouraging tolerance and respect and allowing people to express themselves as individuals, building an inclusive society, and if that involves taking your clothes off in a muddy field, as long as you're not harming anyone else in the process, well, so be it!

Russell Brand has today, written a compelling follow-up piece to the Newsnight interview, for the Guardian. You can read it here...