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Learning to fly

You can't have one without the other

One of the things I've noticed, among the more thoughtful and less ooe-er-vicar-ish of the reviews of In Bed With, is that they often say, 'Some of these are real erotica/only erotica, whereas others are short stories with sex in them.' The 'real/only' division is the giveaway: do they approve more of the former, or the latter? The more I think about this difference, the more I begin to feel that it actually reflects a much wider question about what fiction's for, and how it works.

This anecdote is relevant, so stay with me. I think it's Don McCullin who has a story of driving along one night, and seeing a man sitting on the kerb having a heart attack. He could either take a picture which his instincts said might turn out to be one of the truly great pictures, or he could go and help immediately. He took the picture, and then went to help, and ultimately the man died: who knows if he would have been saved, if help had arrived three minutes earlier? When I was writing The Mathematics of Love I remembered that story, along with everything else I'd studied about photography, and when I sent  my 1819 artist Lucy to the battle field of Waterloo, I made drop her sketchbook with a sharp sigh, and say to Stephen:

"I can go home and look up the uniforms... the public love uniforms...I can draw the horses, and the wounds - not too appalling, of course, just enough to make the buyer shiver. Then there is the excitement of courage, danger, a little fear. In the printshop the customers' hearts beat faster, their eyes grow wide and excited, their palms are damp, almost as if they see a beautiful woman... Is it not making money out of death?"

Stephen says: "There is no shame in memorials. They comfort those that are left behind, perhaps even reconcile them to their loss. And to be the means of transmitting news is honourable work."

"Yes, but I am not making memorials, and Waterloo is no longer news. I am making money from people's desire to taste horror, just for excitement's sake. I am selling the pleasure of fear."

So often when I'm writing in terms of visual art, I'm really arguing with myself about writing, and this passage doesn't only spring from my concern (which has grown stronger since I've acquired a career, however nascent, and even a few readers who are looking for 'the next Emma Darwin') that I, too, default too easily to war. When I was setting out to write my story for In Bed With, I assumed that any novelist would want to write a story which was not only rather than purely about the sexual act. Of course, I thought, sex is by definition at the heart of an erotic story. It's the chief motor of the plot; it's written out, not reduced to *** or naff metaphors. In an erotic story, if that night they were not divided I wouldn't stop there, but be writing every integer in bold. But, actually, I wouldn't stop there in any story if it was a scene which mattered to the narrative. In other words (moving on from Radclyffe Hall to Peter Wimsey) whether it's a short erotic story or a long literary-ish historical novel, sex isn't a separate thing functioning away all by itself; it's part of how people operate, even if they're operating alone. So my story was going to be about how sex operates in people, and people operate in sex. What interested me was that the reviews (and they weren't all Nuts) didn't all regard that greater complexity as desireable.

Trying to sort it out, inevitably one thinks in stereotypes, but stereotypes are handy shorthand for some very real, though immensely more complex, realities. Is it a male-female divide, in that women see sex as part of a larger relationship, whereas men are more able to see it as an event of itself, devoid of wider connections? Is it a literary-commercial divide, in that literary fiction is always trying to operate in several layers at once, some of which may not be immediately accessible, whereas commercial fiction is much more driven by the need to do what it says on the tin without the extra layers (which may be there) getting in the way? Is it a Brecht-Stanislavski divide, which argues about whether the function of art is to make us think, or to make us feel? And of the two, which is the purist and which the pragmatist?

I don't know. I do know that, although using pseudonyms was chiefly about catching the interest of the Press, part of the idea was that it's liberating to write knowing that you won't have to own up to the ruder products of your writerly imagination. I've been asked a few times if I'd have written the same way if it had been under my own name, and the answer is yes. Because while no writer of fiction can altogether plead innocent to a charge of voyeurism, we do also try to get at the human reality of what's going on in our stories. Yes, it's about arousal, in the broadest sense. But if the function of an erotic story is simply to arouse the reader to the point of, shall we say, release, then it's not a story, it's pornography (although even porn usually has a narrative of sorts: even in onanism we are narrative creatures). Brecht may have preached that he wanted his audiences to sit back and judge what was going on on stage, but he knew enough about human nature that to know that, instinctively, we access the political via the personal: we care about Mother Courage. Equally and oppositely, the personal - even in bed - doesn't ever escape the sexual-political. Even if Brecht the Marxist sometimes forgot it, Brecht the artist knew you can't have one without the other, not if it's going to work. And I'm not Brecht, but I think that too.

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