This post explains my approach to the sexual narrative: Combining the characteristics of blogging with Scott McCloud’s idea of the infinite digital canvas of the web page as a productive aesthetic space for sequential art, this blog category will feature progressively written posts about the writer’s approach that informs my short story collection. It will also contain progressively written statements about creative writing in general. These posts will narrate the central impulse behind why and what I write when it comes to my short fiction, which moves out from the premise of sexual realism.
In Criticism and Fiction (1891), William Dean Howells, the “father” of American Realism, explored what was becoming a central concern within the literary studies of his time: “The question of a final criterion for the appreciation of art [as] one that perpetually recurs to those interested in any sort of aesthetic endeavor.” One might pose the same question for reading prose that invokes the sexual body, especially in our era where the update button has replaced the publisher’ s press. Within Howell’s effort, I find a rationale for writing a fiction that features the sexual body. As a matter of fact, I find within Howell’s discussion a criterion for reading erotic narratives generally. My specific interest is to riff on Howell’s famous call to American realism to express the sense of sexual realism that governs my fiction.
Howells opens by referencing John Addington Symonds:
[Symonds] seeks to determine whether there can be an enduring [literary] criterion or not: “Our hope,” [Symonds] says, “[is that] we shall come to comprehend with more instinctive certitude of what is simple, natural, and honest, welcoming with gladness all artistic products that exhibit these qualities [and be] able to test the excellence of work in any stage from immaturity to decadence by discerning what there is of truth, sincerity, and natural vigor in it.”
Moving out from this discernment, I argue sexual fiction holds the potential to express humanity’s most simple, natural, honest, and I would add sincere, truths. This truthiness stems from our erections, and their potential for truth has already been noted by Susie Bright. In her provocative book Full Exposure (2000), Bright asserts: “Sex is one of the few honest places inside us: it doesn’t know how to lie, even if we change the story for the public” (10). Indeed, for even if the word or deed that follows our sexual response is a lie, this lie is secondary to the already-constituted truth of the body. Herein we find the sexual subtext of our social pretense. So, we might speak of the truthiness of sexual fiction, and this might be considered its erectness. Obviously, this word choice also connotes the physiological condition of being rigid or stiff, which returns us to the fact of our erections.
I also prefer this word for its archaic connotation of being wide-awake or alert. I find contemporary relevance and resonance in this older meaning as we consider the sexual narrative. This word also feels apt as it invokes the idea of construction as one might erect a Gothic cathedral or a skyscraper. This other meaning speaks to the simple question of productivity. All said, it seems to me that we might speak of the erectness of sexual fiction, which I attempt to explore through sexual realism.
To establish his final criterion for literature, Howells’ uses Symonds three-part imperative to “test the excellence” of literary narratives and to frame a call for realism. Howell’s development of a test is not about absolute “truth.” Instead, it is more an effort to develop a gauge for the productivity of fiction as one might consider its sincerity, vigor, simplicity, honesty, and, yes, that problematic word naturalness. This imperative informs my approach to the sexual narrative generally.
I specifically find this approach helpful when it comes to the question of what is considered gay erotica today. The internet is populated with “gay” erotic content that is stuck within the familiar mid-twentieth century double-bind of much popular culture. This complication emerged when hetero-male and homo-female readers came to (not so ironically) form the same reading community for lesbian pulp fiction. Yet, there was also an important difference that bifurcated this larger reading community. This difference comes down to use-value, where the erotic word serves sexually versus its serving socially.
This is the inspiration to write sexual fiction that I take from Howell’s call to realism. This is what I mean by sexual realism, and this may be understood as the difference between appropriation and agency in the sexual narrative. The question is simple: does the sexual word get you off or does it also turn you on? This is the durable sense of wonder that spurs me to explore something of the gay male experience not as we want to see him fuck but to see something of him before, during, or after the fucking.
This approach resists seeing the gay male in terms of the spectacle of his erections in favor of considering them as a rich nexus for the exploration of the socio-sexual nexus. While I have no issue with stroke fiction or whatever else, this is the sense of sexual realism I strive for in my writing.
Does this mean I think I capture the truth and reality of every gay man throughout all times, places, and positions when I write of him in a story? Does this mean I think I speak as a gay man for all gay men? Of course not, the irruption of postmodernism has placed the last nail in the coffin of that easy essentialist assumption. Instead, I view sexual realism as the earnest effort to write something of the experience of skin and not the just feel of it. Whether my fiction is successful at this is another question.
All in all, within this, there is an ages old question for the artist and her art, and it comes down to the question of agency versus appropriation for an author: why do we write and what are we doing with our words? This is also the difference between mere consumption and the appreciation of something like art. It is perhaps fine to operate on either side of this consideration, but the question here is one of intentionality and the earnest effort.
Toward sexual realism, I progress three ways: reflective, romantic, and randy. The first strives for thinking, the second for feeling, and the third, well, that one probably speaks for itself. While any point of the triangle can serve a starting point for my stories, I find their interplay turns the erotic story into a sexual narrative. The first narrative mode turns on the body, but the second turns on the mind as well, and this is the rationale that guides my typing fingers.