Monday, November 21, 2011

It's Sexy Time ... or is it?

Fresh Girls and Other Stories by Evelyn Lau (HarperCollins Canada, 1993) 109 pages

Evelyn Lau's writing represents perfectly, for me, the internal conflict I have as a writer wrestling with the concept of how much sexual detail in my writing is too much? Once, a friend who was trying to "help" me with my writing showed it to someone (mercifully I have forgotten the writer's name) who was to assess my work. He was an established writer of some sort although I did not recognize his name. The verdict that came back was: "too ethnic, too sexy".

Hmm. I thought (rather cheekily as I was unpublished then): wrong. Not only wrong, but one day you will regret you uttered those dismissive words. Still I struggled, continue to struggle with it. How much sex is too much sex in a literary piece? When it arouses you? When it repulses you? When it removes you from the story?

Lau's writing on the sex trade in this book is perhaps, not so strangely, soulless and cold but likely that is her precise point. I don't want to make the error of assuming that the Janes, the Marys, the Sabinas, the Carols and Monicas (how oddly non-ethnic these names seem now) who populate her stories of working girls in this ten story collection represent her specifically but I think we can infer that at least a portion of their thoughts may represent Lau's own feelings from her time spent as a teenage prostitute. No need to go into all that. I think we talk too much about that aspect of her life. Read Lau's Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid for a frightening trip back into that world. She went through it, she survived it and is now thriving as a respected and critically recognized writer/poet.

When I read this collection I see and feel the characters' pain and loneliness and feel not a speck of arousal regarding the scenarios depicted: relations with married men, older and old men, a surprising number of medical professionals, businessmen, masochists, doting lovers/clients, fathers and husbands. They are largely into S&M, mostly bottoms, not tops and it is sad, painful to hear it from the women's perspectives who seem so detached from the process of satisfying them.

Dominatrix, working girls, women in hopelessly one-sided relationships with married men, women with esteem issues, women with Daddy complexes, women who hint at pasts of incest or abuse - depressing and distressing. I don't want to castigate working girls but I would rather it was not positioned as a career option either lest someone interpret this as tacit approval of the shenanigans.

The problem with these roles although they might appear superficially empowering - these women are not shackled in unhappy marriages, no children encumber them perhaps, they have some autonomy, they literally, and figuratively, wielding the whip in the relationship with men - is that these advantages are ephemeral. Once your physical and sexual appeal diminishes you are relegated to the dust heap by men.

These women seem to be continually relegated to second or third place by men who must defer to wives, professions, children, or the insatiable need to try a "fresh girl" once the appeal of this one has worn off. The women in these stories (while sexually engaging their lovers or clients) openly long for a walk by the pier, a good glass of wine, to listen to poetry undisturbed, to be cherished as a wife, as a daughter. They don't seem to want sex. The ability to humiliate the client, yes. The ability to inflict pain, yes. Power, yes. Sexual pleasure, not so much.

Yet Lau's voice is brave, revolutionary, still threatening. Take a look at some of the comments posted on the Globe and Mail website after the recent announcement that she was selected to be Vancouver's poet laureate. The negative ones range from vitriolic to psychotic. Then again, that might just represent an average comment section on a news site.

She can write beautifully about terrible things. That is the artist's job. To write with passion and beauty and clarity about things which are, at times, terrifying to behold.

But I'm digressing a bit ... again I wonder, how much detail about sex is too much? I think the amount and quality of detail is important. Is this vehicle primarily written to get you off or to add texture to an intense, impassioned story? Is it clumsily and poorly written, cliche ridden? Is it boring - even explicit sexual content gets boring (porn anyone?). If it becomes any of these things - clumsy, cliched, boring or serves the god of Eros rather than the gods of literature then I would say it's too much.

If it engages the reader, arouses intense feeling, possesses beauty in the description, allows you to connect with the writer then I would say ... let a thousand orgiastic flowers bloom.


Al said...

I think there is no too much or too little in art. I'm sure I'm not the first person who has said that I know porn when I see it, but by the same token, I know a cheesey sitcom when I see it, too. One has gratuitous sex, the other has gratuitous cheese. If the sex serves a purpose, it can't be too much. Just like cheese. Nobody ever said, "there is too much cheese on this pizza". If it serves a purpose, it is always just the right amount.

Michelle said...

Hmm, I don't think so ... you can overdo a scene with sexual content. It can be a distraction and take you away from the story. Just because a writer put it in doesn't mean it's a good fit for the story told.