1818 Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse - Portrait of Baron Rene Hyacinthe Holstein
How Much Gay Sex Is Enough (In a Novel)?
In the New Yorker, Caleb Crain writes: “The first thing to say, of course, is that the question is deeply silly. The half answer, half protest that immediately springs to mind is, It depends. Many are the conditions that it depends upon.
History is one. Once upon a time, novels were frank about sex. Two limitations are worth noting: the candor was, for the most part, limited to heterosexual episodes and, in respectable quarters, it did not extend to the corporeal mechanics of sex—it merely noted the fact of it. Still, fact is something, and sometimes it is quite something: consider Diderot’s indiscreet jewels, in 1748, or the many acts of hospitality rendered to Tom Jones, in 1749. (Outside respectable quarters, there were, of course, many authors who were candid about the mechanics, even in the early days of the novel; pornography flourished mightily during the Enlightenment.) As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, however, a “wonderful propriety,” as Henry James put it, took hold. “There came into being a mistrust of any but the most guarded treatment of the great relation between men and women,” James wrote in an 1899 essay, “The Future of the Novel.” James conceded that discretion had its charms. “I cannot so much as imagine Dickens and Scott without the ‘love-making’ left, as the phrase is, out,” he wrote. (The scare quotes, the italics, and the interpolated qualifying phrase are all his.) James was fairly sure, however, that if novelists persisted in the “immense omission,” as he called it, the art form would stagnate. “There are too many sources of interest neglected—whole categories of manners, whole corpuscular classes and provinces, museums of character and condition, unvisited.”
It may surprise those who know James only by reputation to hear that he wanted more sex in novels, but, in fact, he wrote a great deal about the difference that sex made to a relationship. “The Spoils of Poynton,” for example, is concerned with the mistake of restraining one’s greed for physical love (though it’s sometimes misread as a sermon preaching the opposite). Twenty years before the movie “Nosferatu,” James wrote about the sex lives of vampires in “The Sacred Fount,” a novel that is nearly impossible to read today without construing the title as a reference to the purported sanative effects of sexual fluids.
Still, it’s true that James wasn’t known for being explicit about, well, anything. Which illness is the heiress expiring of? Which widget is manufactured by the young man’s family business? A reader of James never learns. James the person doesn’t seem to have been heterosexual, and a need for disguise may have motivated his career-long experiment in omitting specifics. To succeed as a novelist, he had to find a way to universalize a sensuality that he knew to be particular. After all, the law isn’t the only force that one has to worry about when writing about sex. There’s also the marketplace. Long after gay novelists ceased to fear that a man-on-man love scene would send them to jail, they could still justifiably worry that it might cost them sales and literary status.”
"Among recent books by gay men, defining gay male identity under the shadow of AIDS, these hard-edged essays stand out for their persisting faith in the redemptive power of self-determined sexual expressiveness. Hardy, a much published journalist and essayist in the gay community, died in a mountain-climbing accident before he could complete the seven essays assembled here. His friend, David Groff (formerly an editor with Crown), finished the book and edited it for publication. Hardy’s unargued premise is that ‘’ ‘gay’ is the construction of identity through sexual relations.” Out of this beginning, the themes of the essays unfold and the tone that characterizes them, reminiscent of Nietzsche, of tragic, iconoclastic heroism. For if gay identity is liberated homosexual desire, then AIDS has all but squashed it; hence the crisis of desire—really of identity—that supplies the title. How should gay men behave, especially the HIV-positive among them (which included Hardy), when a viral accident of nature undermines their identity? They can: protest and subvert the slow response of medical science to their plight (this response comes in the longest and least persuasive chapter); practice imaginatively reconceived safer sex; opt to die—if the virus has advanced too painfully far within them—as Hardy touchingly shows a friend do in Holland, where physician-assisted suicide is legal; work to memorialize themselves across time (the model for which, in Hardy’s eyes, is not the AIDS quilt but annihilated, medieval French heretics, the Albigensians, whose memory still survives in southern France). What Hardy commends in all these choices is the free and self-determining spirit in which they are made. What does not pass muster is capitulations to ideas foreign and false to gay male identity, as Hardy conceives it, such as long-term relations patterned on heterosexual marriage or resigned acceptances of death. Readers should not be misled by the surface stridency of these essays, which plumb depths of vulnerability as universally human as they are distinctly gay."