A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer

This post, by Julia Fierro, originally appeared on The Millions on 3/27/13. NOTE: this piece contains explicit language.

In writing my first novel, Cutting Teeth, when I got to the first scene that demanded dramatized sex — action, sound, smell, taste, the works — I paused. The word that made me lift my fingers from the keyboard was “clitoris.” Was it okay to use this word? What would my fellow literary writers, my former teachers and classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop think of me? I laughed at my insecurity, although part of me loathed my hesitation. Of course it was okay. It’s just a body part, I told myself. I had the same reaction in the other sex scenes I wrote — most involved a man and a woman, one two women. Nipples. Cock. Dick. Balls. Even typing these words now gives me a shiver of fear, as if the literary gods will strike me dead, or brandish me with a scarlet S for writing not only bad sex, but any sex at all.

Today, sex is everywhere — on TV, our computers, even our phones. But in the last two years, since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, the jaws of literary writers have dropped, their shock over the book’s success, despite its unliterary style, echoing over the Twitter-waves. Part of me wants to say I was one of them — if only to be included in their elite ranks — but I wasn’t that surprised. I haven’t forgotten the lusty attraction of my grandmother’s paperback romances, which, as a pre-teen, I had secreted away to read at night by flashlight.

Long before I thought of myself as a writer, I was a reader. I grew up in a house of few books — my father’s set of encyclopedias in his native Italian and a handful of history books left over from my mother’s college education. My mother has a Masters in Education, but she hasn’t read a book in decades. My father was hungry for knowledge, but struggled to read our middle school science and social studies textbooks, the basic English too much of a challenge.

As a child, books were a magical distraction from my anxiety — what, 20 years later would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, every real-life, real-time decision — who to befriend, who to avoid — carried an infinite possibility of catastrophe, but I was safe when living inside a book. The day came when it seemed as if I’d read every book in our small school library, and the librarian was at a loss for suggestions that were age-appropriate. This was the mid-1980s, years before the YA market exploded. I needed the imagined life books gave me — without them it seemed as if real life lost its luster.

I stole one of my grandmother’s Danielle Steel novels. I don’t remember the title, only the pearlescent cover’s gold-embossed cursive that promised diamonds, high heels, and Farah Fawcett-hair — a glimpse into a dramatic adult world. What I do remember are the sex scenes. I replaced the book the next week and stole off with another, and so on, until I had read all in my grandmother’s collection. Those books taught me so much — that you could have sex standing up or even underwater in a pool! Along with the sex came emotion. These men and women were brazenly sentimental, confessing passion, hatred, and envy, and that melodrama kept me glued to the page.

 

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