Monday, 14 July 2014

Reading Habits #12: Sex in fiction

Are you still comfortable reading about sex in fiction? I say “still” because as I grow older and possibly more mature as a reader, I find that it doesn't make a difference any more. To the best of my knowledge, I haven't read a raunchy novel in over a decade. However, I have been reading books with a touch of romance or suggestive of sexual intimacy, but nothing explicit.

One reason for the absence of any kind of titillating stuff on my bookshelf or on my tablet is the change in my reading habits, hopefully, for the better. I read more classics and vintage books now while the crime and hardboiled fiction of the mid to late 20th century and modern novels that I occasionally delve into have little or no sex. Maybe, I'm not reading the right kind of books.

This does not mean that I haven’t read my share of adult literature in my younger days. While in school, I quickly graduated from Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton, and Just William to the popular and “sleazy” novels of Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace, to the dismay of an uncle who said I was too young to read the two worthies—“Wait till you are at least twenty.
 That's four years away! Instead, he recommended A.J. Cronin and Frank G. Slaughter. I'm glad he did for I enjoy reading their books till today.

The mass appeal of Robbins lay in his stories, told in plain English, and in his next-door middle-class characters who lost their virginity no sooner they reached puberty. His A Stone for Danny Fisher where a tragic young man dreams big in a crooked world and 79, Park Avenue where a beautiful young girl is forced to become a prostitute when everyone begins to treat her like one, are among his better-known novels. Never Love A Stranger, The Lonely Lady, and Dreams Die First are also entertaining.

Wallace wrote some decent novels, too, but The Celestial Bed based on sex therapy and technique is not one of them. I’d recommend The Man in which a black man becomes President of the United States and The Second Lady, a Cold War political thriller where the KGB kidnaps the US First Lady and replaces her with a Soviet impostor. More on the latter.

Everything goes smoothly for the impostor till it’s time for the inevitable, making love with the President, who has absolutely no clue that the woman sharing his bed is not his real wife. I think initially she spurns his overtures. While the KGB has got everything sorted out, it clearly forgot to take care of that little intimate detail between POTUS and FLOTUS.

The clever “hero” on the KGB side is attracted to the captive First Lady and falls in love with her in what is a one-sided affair. But he is a ruthless professional—the state before self and all that. So to protect his girlfriend’s identity in the White House, he must find out how the President’s wife performs in bed and pass on the information to her. He does the obvious: he sleeps with her. Now the First Lady wasn't born yesterday. She loves her husband and realises that the only way to expose the fraud in her bedroom is to have sex with the KGB agent in a way she and the President never did. Throw off the enemy agent on one hand and arouse her husband’s suspicion on the other. Does it work?

If ever I've read a graphic account of sex in fiction in my teens, it’s in those four to five pages of The Second Lady which has a very ingenious, even if outlandish, plot, and an entirely unexpected ending.

Later, I read most of the titles under English writer René Lodge Brabazon Raymond’s famous pseudonym, James Hadley Chase, and discovered the deceptive covers of his crime paperbacks—semi-nudes on the cover, barely a kiss inside. What a letdown. But Chase told good stories. I liked the ones about cops the most.


For previous Reading Habits, see under ‘Labels’.

24 comments:

  1. I find that most books and movies have a lot less sex in them than they did in the seventies and eighties. It is something hard to get right.

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    1. Patti, I guess present-day writers have probably realised that their novels would read (and do) as well without sex.

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  2. The 70's and 80's were the heyday of sex I suppose. Everyone thought they'd discovered it. I read a lot of romances back then and they were pretty steamy I suppose. But I soon got bored and moved on. Or maybe I just got old. Ha.

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    1. Yvette, I've never read romances and was introduced to pulp novels much later, in fact, in the nineties, I think. However, the popular fiction of the seventies and eighties, which included Robbins and Wallace, had a fair dose of sex.

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  3. It certainly seems to have got less raunchy and more as part of a story but almost fleeting as it were!

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    1. Mystica, I agree with you. I also wonder if readers today find sex an unnecessary hindrance, especially if its purpose is to spice up the narrative.

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  4. I can't recall too much sex in what I read currently, but it wouldn't put me off. I read the 50 Shades trilogy last year, as my wife read it - and she only did because all the women at her work were reading it, possibly the only book most of them had picked up in the time since they left school. Can't say I felt particularly titillated or scandalised - just bored by the whole thing long before we both got to the end of the 3rd book.

    I have the DANNY FISHER book on the shelves somewhere to read one day.

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    1. Col, I'm not familiar with the 50 SHADES trilogy but if it's a good series, I don't mind trying it. Much of what I read now is clean, so to speak. I re-read A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER a couple of years ago and it pretty much held up.

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    2. In truth, I'd be loathe to recommend 50 SHADES to anyone, but on the other hand, I bet she got loads of people picking up books which hadn't done previously for a while and that can't all be a bad thing, so good luck to her. But I'd say stick to the Robbins or Wallace.

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    3. Col, I don't know if I'll ever get back to Robbins and Wallace though I haven't read all of the latter's novels. Robbins' earliest books were some of his best while his output from the mid-eighties onwards was below average.

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    4. Must admit I'm going to look up Peyton Place, see if it's available relatively cheaply and also that it isn't a zillion pages long. I can remember the TV show dimly, not that we ever watched it in our house - late 60's or early 70's? I was a mere boy and it probably wasn't appropriate for me. My parents wouldn't have been drawn by it anyway.

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    5. Col, PEYTON PLACE sounded familiar after Ron mentioned it in comments below though I'd no knowledge about its author, Grace Metalious. It has been tagged as a controversial novel. It's worth looking it up.

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  5. I've never read Irving Wallace. read a few Harold Robbins, for the sex scenes of course. I've read a few adult westerns as well, but mostly those written by folks I know. Most of the stuff I read these days has very little sex in it. I usually don't have sex in the stuff I write either, although the stories in Midnight in Rosary are an exception.

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    1. Charles, I've read about adult westerns online though I've never actually read any of the books. Robbins and Wallace, along with a host of popular fiction writers, were very popular with Indian readers in the seventies and eighties. Barring a few like Robert Ludlum, Jeffrey Archer, Len Deighton and Frederick Forsyth, most are forgotten today.

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  6. Maybe I've said this here before, but PEYTON PLACE (1956) was a big eye-opener for me back in high school days. Deemed racy for its time, it may not have been very graphic, but it really put extramarital and teenage sex out there as a subject for popular fiction.

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    1. Ron, I have not read PEYTON PLACE but I'll make it a point to read it out of curiosity, because it was a bestseller in its time and was made into a film and a television series.

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  7. I was at an all-girl school, and we rather relied on racy paperbacks for some sex education, we used to pass them round in the traditional style. I imagine modern teenagers are much more knowledgeable, and get their info from the internet. I am very intrigued by the plot of the Wallace book, The Second Lady, and feel I might like to read it...

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    1. Moira, THE SECOND LADY is a fast-paced thriller with an intriguing plot and an ending that'll surprise you as well as any reader. In fact, the last page is what makes the novel a good book. That ending has stayed with me more than three decades after I read it. I don't think I'd want it any other way.

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  8. I am sure, as Moira says, that today's teenagers are much more knowledgeable about sex. I do remember reading some books we inherited from my grandmother (at a fairly young age) that had some rather graphic sex scenes in them, as least for me at that age. I don't think my parents ever even opened them.

    Currently, I am fine with sex in a novel if it has a reason to be in a book or is not violent. But I prefer the author to leave most of the sex scene to my imagination.

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    1. Tracy, definitely so. This is evident from the fact that, in India, parents and children often watch Hollywood films and television serials with sex scenes or sexual innuendos, either together or in each other's presence. For instance, the later episodes of TWO AND A HALF MEN is all about Charlie's and Alan's sex lives and little else, and I know people who watch them together. There is no place for prudishness in the internet and mobile age.

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  9. Chiming in late to say: it makes no difference to me but I would *prefer* the explicit details to stay behind closed doors in my mysteries. There are some writers who have surprised me with the explicit sex in their mysteries. I want to say it was either Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard. I can't recall but it was rather surprising.

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    1. Keishon, you're welcome to comment any time. I have read a few novels by McBain and Leonard but I don't recall reading about explicit sex. Perhaps, it's there in some of their other novels. I agree, a pure crime or detective mystery can do without sex and if anything may seem like a hindrance to the reader.

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    2. I'm sure I am remembering them wrong - Ed McBain is good with the sexual innuendos.

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    3. Keishon, the only way to find out is to read McBain's novels and I have got a big pile of them.

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