Love, Spirit and Sexual Maturity in Literature
I don't represent erotica, as opposed to romance for a number of reasons. I didn't think, at first, at least, that this was because I am prudish. Hey, I'm interested in sex and like it! But, I have to admit that some of this material crosses a kind of line for me that I previously didn't know existed. Why is that? At what point does a work, whether film or novel or play cross the line and need those xxxx ratings?
Obviously, standards change. At one time Lady Chatterly's Lover was shocking or Peyton Place or Lolita . Well, maybe Lolita should have been shocking. Perhaps Nabokov intended to shock us with the idea that sex between a 'nymphet' of eleven and an older man ought to make us uncomfortable and the suggestion we should have some concern if it doesn't.
There is the age old question of what constitutes literature and what is. . . well, pornography. Is The Story of O literature, the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade? And if a novel does contain sex with underage girls or animals or ménage a trois or situations of bondage, etc. what might make it literature versus pornography? How do we know? If we are capable of these fantasies and others, why not give them artistic expression of some kind? And why are blue movies not art but just a display of body parts in various positions and assortments?
Everyone has to answer these questions for herself. I can only say my own personal answer is that internal knowing of what my own boundaries are and why.
On one extreme, in Christian fiction there is a censoring of all physical connection even the most loving, even in the context of marriage. There is a reluctance to put spirituality and sexuality in the same box, the sense that physical bodies are, well, the opposite of clean and holy. Marital love is not only not regarded as a doorway to the divine, but the bedroom door is firmly closed because physical contact is not going to be uplifting but merely titillating. One editor told me that there was basically no limit on physical violence in Christian fiction and anything was open season even if it included the practices of Satanic cults and the torture of small children. This wasn't surprising since there is clearly a long tradition of the expression of violence in western Christian culture. I pointed out that there is the Song of Solomon in the Bible as well and that I had heard a rumor that there were Christians who had sex. He laughed and said he had heard that rumor and more-that there were Christians who had sex and enjoyed it!
On the other extreme, is a kind of "anything goes" belief that nothing is sacred and that sexuality is out of the closet. This way of thinking argues that no matter how graphic or unusual such sexuality might be, it will have an appeal to someone and therefore is worthy of consideration for inclusion in books. And, any other view is a kind of censorship. That there are reasons why these fantasies have taken hold in popular culture, and expressing them, beyond being titillating, is a way for these people to find expression like people with handicaps or AIDS or homosexuals, and so on. There may be some validity in saying that the point of view of someone who suffers from an unusual ailment or feels excluded from normal society for any reason may be valuable in the interests of enlarging our view of what it means to be a human being and engendering respect, compassion, fellow-feeling for everyone, something like, say, the movie The Elephant Man.
For me personally, I can only say that this speaks to a level of sexual maturity as well. It is exciting and titillating to tell bathroom jokes at a certain age, wonder about nudity at another, or experiment with touching and eventually sexual contact. Sex without love is one of these stages which is the one that religious novels tend to want to skip over despite the fact that there are probably few virgins marrying today in their mid-twenties in the U.S. Sex without love can certainly be appealing, stimulating and in some ways gratifying. The chick lit (Sex in the City) genre focuses on this phase of life common in our modern world. However, when we engage in it to some extent it diminishes us. It diminishes us because we give part of ourselves away and take on the energy of someone else we might rather never see again; because it erodes our boundaries or may be emotionally draining or hurtful leaving us less open, less innocent, less hopeful about a true and deep connection to another person; and because we become jaded accustoming ourselves to this kind of experience. It's sort of like eating junk food. Yes the chocolate bar is tasty. But more of them are not more satisfying and eventually tooth decay and weight issues and other problems set in. Soon our sense of taste diminishes and becomes a craving rather than nourishment or fulfillment.
Sex with love is so wonderful and both nourishing and satisfying that I would guess that few who experience it wish to then return to "sex without love" voluntarily (I am not even considering the lower extreme of sex as violation which can also be included in fiction and is clearly really deleterious.). Will a woman have affairs if she is happy in her marriage and in love with her husband? Do the majority of women really have a goal of adding more notches to the bedpost for each guy they have slept with hoping to reach 100? Is sex without love really want we want? The success of romances and part of my interest in representing writers who write them resides in examining the ideal of 'sex with love' and the process of making a life with the person you experience that with. The nest-making and preparation for family, but also the bliss of connection, of being recognized and understood and KNOWN and loved for who we are. Is there someone who doesn't want that? How can we have that for ourselves? Romances have explored that in historicals, in time travel novels where a contemporary heroine with contemporary values confronts ancient limiting roles; in futuristics where the roles between men and women can stand outside our current beliefs and we can explore what it means to be male and female and love one another. I think all of this is endlessly fascinating and a core part of what it means to be alive and human — finding a way to love and be loved.
A few years ago Bridges of Madison County was a hugely successful novel with women readers worldwide. This was somewhat surprising because it was about a one night stand basically (okay a few nights) between a married woman who was committing adultery and a man who was a roving photographer. The woman is left with a few letters and some memories of what it felt like for those few days to imagine that this man did see her clearly and know her for who she was. And this was the seminal event of her life unknown to her husband and children until after her death. The shocking thing was that this was the best she could hope for and that in a way it was about having your cake and eating it too, because she could have this taste of love and yet not have to give up the security of home and family. This novel was popular in China and even the Middle East which isn't surprising since the appeal is to women whose dreams are so constrained and limited that even a small hope of being appreciated and loved (not a lifelong being cherished or growing in depth, respect and connection with one another) in that moment was a wonderful fantasy. It demonstrated how poor and limited our dreams are, not how wonderful love is.
Chick lit evolved because young women were not experiencing falling in love and living happily ever after, but a life full of challenges and problems with career and family and relationships. They wanted heroines they could relate to. I could relate to them too having worked in publishing in my twenties in New York and not marrying until my early thirties. It wasn't much different to do that years ago than it is today.
But beyond the sex as violation and sex without love and sex with love there is another option which no one seems to be interested in exploring or writing about: sex as union. There is a mention of soul mate in some novels, but what does that experience really feel like? One of my Christian clients mentioned to me how wonderful, how ecstatic it is to experience sexuality and spirituality together — not only falling in love with a man and feeling that soul connection, but feeling that sexual union is soul union. Once you have experienced that, you then again cannot settle for something less, even sex with love. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. It occurred to me that very few writers in any of the submissions I receive is writing about this. Why is that? The Christian publishers are censoring the union of body, mind, heart and soul and so are the traditional publishers in New York. Why? The traditionals are willing to experience the sex-without-love lust aspect of life in all its forms and Christians are willing to explore love without sex in various forms. But no one seems to want to explore or write about or publish works that are about Ecstasy, about the deepest and truest union possible between mortals — about marriage as a true path to the divine, about the kind of sex one at least sees glimpses of in Hindu texts and their marvelous dancing Krishnas and Rhadas. The highest kind of sex instead of the lowest — the relationships and union of the male and female physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In short, books about whole people interacting with other whole people in the context of a committed relationship and the trials of being human.
I think there may be a progression here. Twenty years ago, romances consisted mostly of Gothics which were novels about women who were primarily victims. The man was the lord of a castle, mysterious, brooding, possibly the villain, definitely all-powerful. The woman was one-down in every way — an orphan, penniless, victimized like Jane Eyre and often depicted fleeing the castle in nothing but her nightgown while looking fearfully over her shoulder. Submissions from writers at this time often included rape scenes because women writing from their creative subconscious had concepts of violation and fear mixed in. Eventually this gave way to boy next door stories and the range of Harlequin lines and even more eventually women began to have roles at work and in the community and more internal and external choices and control over their lives.
I think just as we began to include a broader range of completeness for both male and female characters (think of James Bond really being about the gun and crotch and gimmicks and the hard-boiled detective giving way to men with personal and family issues) we will begin to see women and men who may certainly have problems and issues but are moving toward a more empowering completeness — a sense that life cannot be just about our own little focus, but how we fit into the larger vision of God's plan for our lives. How does sexuality and spirituality fit into what we do, who we are, what we surrender to?
I would like to read and represent books about this. If you write them and I try to sell them, perhaps there is a publisher who would be willing to publish them. The Jewel of Medina is not a book about sexuality, but a book about a young girl's maturation to womanhood and her growth as a person and a Believer at different ages. It at least explores what it means to be human, to be whole, to have faith.
Maybe it is time to write stories about this kind of loving. I have often said, especially to editors and publishing houses, that there is a reason Jesus spoke in parables instead of bullet points. Stories speak to our hearts, we identify with them, and we feel and grow with them in ways that we cannot with a nonfiction book. Certainly there are inspiring and uplifting stories about love and I see no reason why these cannot include stories of whole men and whole women who are present in body, mind and spirit expressing love and receiving love and becoming a beacon of that kind of enlightened loving for others. The novel seems an ideal place not only to explore the possibilities of sex with love but also of sex with spirit. Is it time for us to reach a new level of sexual maturity in fiction?