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by Victoria Branden

Get That Grin Off Your Face! Dismalsex only, please, we`re Canadian SEX AND GLOOM: can there be a connection? "Forall her brilliance, Margaret Laurence was a downbeat writer," complainsBonnie Malleck, in a review of the Atlantis film based on The Diviners, and I recall feeling morose and drained after reading most of herbooks. The film affected me much the same way." Should onereally feel morose and drainedafter reading a truly brilliant book? Surely one should feelmoved, excited, even exhilarated at the thought of what the human spirit hathwrought. Margaret Laurence has been called the Canadian Tolstoy, but I don`t feel morose and drained after readingTolstoy. Nor do I feel morose after watching Shakespeare, even the tragedies.Tolstoy`s books have a lot of nightmarish stuff, both in peace and war, but heleaves me feeling there`s still hope for humanity, that in spite of our greedand stupidity, we`re worth saving. Same thing with watching Shakespeare`stragedies. I may feel emotionally exhausted, after Hamlet orKing Lear, but I`m uplifted by the experience. Purged bypity and terror, possibly? But Margaret Laurence makes me wonder why we botherliving, when life`s so dismal. "I`d be remiss," warns thedangerous iconoclast Malleck, ,if I didn`t mention that there are threeexplicit sex scenes [in the film] that some viewers will find too graphic forthe early time slot." That`swhen I began to wonder whether those explicit sex scenes and the downbeat,morose, drained element aren`t somehow related. Because theres something aboutsex that makes Canadian women writers ham-handed and club-footed.And this is rather odd, because sex scenes are mandatory in all forms ofcontemporary art. "Man, where`s your hussy?" an editor is said tohave demanded of an author during the Gonewith the Wind period. "Where`syour full frontal nude and your on-stage copulation?" fretfully demandall the theatrical and film and TV producers. I`ve been told more than oncethat my big problem is my failure to writegraphic sex scenes: "What`s the matter, You afraid of sex?" Actually, I haven`t bothered writing blow-by-blowaccounts because I thought everyone knew how it was done. I was writing anovel, not a sex-instruction manual. But Laurence, whether it was heridea or that of her publishers, seemed to feel that every book had to provideseveral episodes of sex- instruction-manual stuff. "Margaret!" I wanted to shout, ploughingthrough painstaking details of what he did to her, and she did to him,"you don`t have to bother! We know how! Everyone knows how!" Birds do it, bees do it, even educatedfleas do it. We don`t need a blueprint. It comes naturally! It`s easy! Too easy, in view of the population explosion. But Laurence slogs on regardless. Hestimulates her nipples, she puts her hand on his sex. (For some reason, themale organ is usually referred to as "his sex.") Why is it downbeat and draining? Becausein Laurences world, sex is no fun. It`s terribly serious. But if it`s no fun,why put yourself through all the discomfort? When I was a girl, people did itbecause it was just so much fun you couldn`t resist. The risks were awful, butthe sport was terrific. Not in the Laurentian lexicon: there, sex was no damnjoke. It was grim and gloomy and moroseness- inducing. But why is thisconsidered brilliant writing? Brave Bonnie Malleck`s is the first dissentingvoice I`ve heard raised against this Canadian icon. On the same page, the Hamilton Spectator prudently included theusual panegyric: "It`s a splendidly rich dramatization about fictionalnovelist Morag Gunn`s brave step into her troubled past." All critically okay Canadian heroineshave troubled pasts. It`s a law. But have you ever met anyone who didn`t have atroubled past! "...The character, even when numbedby booze and cigarettes, is one of the strongest women in fiction,"continues the politically correct review. Mmmm. Being numbed by booze andcigarettes may not be absolutely mandatory in a Canadian heroine, but itsdefinitely preferred. The bother is that numbed heroines tend to numb theiraudiences. Interesting as psychological case histories, perhaps, but stimulatingand involving they just ain`t. However, after the critical raves, insecurereaders are nervous about admitting that a book has bored them to stupefaction.The reviewers must be experts, or how would they get their jobs! So it must betheir own fault if they can`t stick Margaret Laurence and some of the othericons. They fear that their failure to see the brilliance must be their ownstupidity or insensitivity. "Oh, I`m so glad to hear you saythat," a writer-acquaintance exclaimed when I defiantly condemned The Stone Angel as unreadable."I`ve never enjoyed Margaret Laurence, but I figured it must be myfault." I remember thinking as I read A Jest of God that its style wasrather Ladies Home Journal-ish. In TheDiviners not only was some of the dialogue straight out of a Harlequin romance,but it suggested surprising sexual naivety. When the professor kisses Morag forthe first time, he says, "I`ve been wanting to do that for -,I longtime." Can we really call an author the CanadianTolstoy when she perpetrates a line like that? It`s what practically every guysays to practically every girl, even when the "long time" referred tois about half an hour. It`s a staple of every romance writing hack in theRipped Bodice School. It makes me wonder about the Laurentianexperience with males and what one of my aunts used to call Old Sex.("What`s this book like, Nell "` "Oh, tiresome, dear, nothingbut Old Sex.,,) Nevertheless, Laurence has been soapotheosized that filming The Diviners had the producers"paralysed by fright" about changing or adapting the sacred text,test Laurence scholars be outraged. Even lines like the professor`s declarationabout the kiss? Margaret Atwood is a different story. In The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle the heroines rather likesex. There are no descriptions of ecstatic orgasms, but neither is there anyagonizing or soul-searching; she proceeds on the assumption that herreaders know what it`s about, and don`t have to be given a guided tour. Best ofall, her sex scenes are funny. The romance between Joan Foster and the RoyalPorcupine (the con-create artist of road-kill) has just about thefinest sex scene CanLit has produced so far, for my dough. But something",cut wrong. Someone, I Suspect, got hold of MargaretA. and said, Look here, Peggy, you can`t go on writing these funny books. Yougotta be serious if you want to be an Important Writer, see? Now write Lis somethingSignificant and Meaningful, with a tragic orphaned misfit heroine numbed bybooze and cigarettes, and the mandatory graphic dismal sex scene,,,, You hear,and get that grin Off Your face. So Margaret wrote Life Before Man, which seemed to he about adultery in the big city, thoughRobert FuIford said that anyone who thought that was beneath contempt, and 1,who had been joyfully looking forward to more good comedy, was bitterlydisappointed. TheHandmaid`s Tale was a Really SeriousNovel, based on the dubious premise that the world was threatened with acatastrophic decline in Population. This at a time when population wasexploding like all the nuclear bombs in the world`s arsenal, so that theChinese had to Iimit families to one child and right around home we havenowhere to Put our garbage. Millions of people have neither roofs over theirheads nor enough to eat or a hope of getting a job in their entire lives,except by working as prostitutes or drug dealers. In such an era, one could be forgiven forfinding it difficult to take seriously a novel warning LIS of a populationdecline. But since it was really depressing and gloom- inducing, Withpainfully explicit and very unenjoyable sex scenes, it metthe Canadian criterion for excellence, winning all sorts of awards and prizesas well as critical acclaim. What happened to the funny, delightful Atwood? I kepthoping she would reappear, but after I read Cat`sEye,about a dreary tittle girl who sat around peeling the skin off her feet becauseher girlfriends were mean to her, I gave LIP. Life is sad enough withoutdeliberately exposing oneself to moroseness-inducing downers. Marian Engel`s heroine (she had only one,who appeared under different names in all her books) was also a misfit, and Ibelieve a booze- and cigarette-numbed orphan as well. Herincapacity for relating to men was such that eventually she gave them upcompletely, and had a love affair with a bear -- and it dumped herin the end, too. Her love scenes with the bear were so full of unintentionalcomedy that I remember feeling embarrassed for her. But it was so much to thetaste of Canadian critics that it won a Governor General`s Award, as did The Handmaid`s Tale. Dreary sex is a sure-firerecipe for the big awards. In Judith, Aritha Van Herk`seponymous heroine also eschews association with the human race, preferringpigs, but it`s a platonic relationship: no Laurentian/Engelian descriptions ofeither bestial or heterosexual lovemaking here, praise God. Judith manages hersex life unassisted. There is a masturbation scene that (depending on yourframe of mind) is either blushingly embarrassing or gut-bustingunintentional comedy. But no doubt it`s what won the book the Seal First NovelAward. I found myself thinking, while struggling through these laboriouscontortions, of a Monty Python sketch, "Nudge nudge, wink wink," inwhich a nervously grinning Eric Idle tries to get Terry Jones to talk aboutsex. Was his wife a go-er? (Nudge nudge, say no more!) The sketch endswith Eric asking, desperately, "What`s it like?" Often, readingfeverish descriptions of how he took down her drawers and she put her handinside his jeans, I can`t but suspect that many of our authors are in the samefix, hence all these hectic fantasies. For thousands of years, writers felt noneed to offer instruction nianuals on sex; they trusted their readers to fillin the gaps. It`s only in the last 50 years (since D. H. Lawrence) that theyhave felt obliged to give these wearisome blow-by-blow accounts.Why are we doing it? As Donald C. Westlake writes, in Dancing Aztecs: Novelists, when their characters drivecars, never feel compelled to describe precisely what the physical actions areof hands, feet, eyes, knees, elbows. Yet many of these same novelists, whentheir characters copulate, get into such detailed physical descriptions you`dthink they were writing an exercise book. We all know the interrelationshipbetween the right ankle and the accelerator when driving a car, and we don`tneed to be told. In sex we all know about knees, thighs, fingers, the softnessat the side of the throat.... And if you don`t know it, you shouldn`t readdirty books anyway: they`ll only give you the wrong idea. No one nowadays bothers describingdriving techniques, but when cars were a novelty, and they wanted to display familiaritywith the exotic things, bum novelists gave detailed descriptions of how they let out theclutch, and eased `er from low into second, etc. Novels from the early 1900sare full of this stuff, as well as descriptions of taking showers, and telephoning.(Proust, of all people, devoted a whole chapter to the phone.) Nevertheless, publishers believe, as anarticle of faith, that graphic descriptions of sex are indispensable for highsales. They push books with such scenes with all their might, and the bookssell because of the furious promotion. Writers who think such scenes aretedious and unnecessary either can`t get published or (if they do manage to geta word squeezed into print) get no publicity, so that the public never hearsabout the book, So it quite naturally doesn`t sell. Aha, cry thepublishers, see that? No sex, no sell. And they are confirmed in their credothat explicit sex is the sine qua non for big sales. So we get more -- and morewearisome -- descriptions of oral sex, lesbian sex, kinkyheterosexual sex, kiddy sex, bestial sex, masturbation. How many do we need?Once-respected publishers, as a result of this faulty assumption, havebecome porn peddlers. The writers of non-porn can`t find a publisher, andnon-porn-readers can`t find anything to read. Are my views on sex in the arts simplythose of an oldergeneration female who can`t stand Truth, as I`ve been toldmore than once? I`ve discussed it with younger readers/viewers, male friends ofmy son`s, daughters of my friends. To my surprise, they felt more stronglyabout it than 1, objecting to the assumption that they are all voyeurs. Oneyoung man said hotly that he considers sex an exclusively private andparticipatory sport, censuring spectator sex as not merely voyeuristic but designedfor sexual couch-potatoes who, like flabby sports fans, can`t performthemselves. So I say, and others have said it beforeme: the crassly explicit is bad art, unsubtle, insulting to the reader`sintelligence. Good art assumes some brains and sensitivity in itsreaders/viewers; you don`t have to hit them over the head with a club. WhenRhett picked up Scarlett and ran up those stairs, we knew what was going tohappen. We didn`t have to see them feverishly undoing the buttons. Whenever I protest, it`s invariablyassumed (with a superior smirk) that I`m shocked. Merciful God. If sex sceneshad any shock value left, we`d all have been dead of shock years ago. Myobjection is that they`re monotonous, repetitive, unoriginal, and boring,boring, boring. When you`re personally involved in thesport, it is absorbing to the exclusion of everything else. Secondhand, unlessyou are a sweaty adolescent or a neurotic voyeur, it is dreary and tedious. In fact, I`m beginning to suspect thatthe sex-writers, producers, directors, and publishers are all frustratedvirgins. Heavens, I`ve only discussed Canadianwomen, no men at all. Next time, guys.

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