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Three shades of sex talk: female writers on the challenges of erotic fiction Add to ...

Swan: Early on, I made a promise to myself to try to write as honestly as I could about sexuality because I couldn't find many authentic literary descriptions about how women experienced sex. This gave me a reputation for writing about sex and I had some obscenity charges thrown my way for The Last of the Golden Girls. William French trashed it in the Globe and Mail, but critic Alberto Manguel thinks it's my best book because it's so unmediated, more or less unshaped and raw.

Whittall: I love that you had obscenity charges thrown your way – how hard-core – although, in all seriousness, that is so sad at the same time.

Swan: Under the Canadian legal definition, obscenity is something that offends community standards. The charges were discouraging.

Heti: I would think they'd be encouraging. Obscenity seems to be “what can't be said,” and it's wonderful as a writer to say what can't be said, and to be told that one has done this.

Swan: In a sense, you are right, Sheila. To experience an actual obscenity charge, though, is like getting a wacky, mean-spirited review, because it's coming from people who have misunderstood my intent. That always feels bad.

Heti: Men often tell me they had a particularly hard time with the sex passages in my book, but not one can really explain to me why. Susan, I’m sorry it felt bad. I vividly remember reading The Last of the Golden Girls when I was 14 or so – being in the hot sun in a bathing suit by an outdoor public pool, totally rapt.

Every generation has its own fight. Sex is all over the culture right now. It doesn't seem to me so shocking to write about it in a book when there's all this internet porn, which is far more degrading than anything I could ever think of, and even the way girls are portrayed on most magazine covers, which is like soft porn. There's soft porn everywhere you look. I think writing about the “soul” is more shocking (See: I even have to put it in quotes! that's how hard it is to write that word straight) than writing about penises and vaginas.

Swan: Well said, Sheila. And is there ever a conclusion to a discussion about writing about sex? Except that most writers just want to do it well, as well as we can in our different ways, and not be called smut peddlers.

Sheila Heti’s most recent novel is How Should a Person Be? Susan Swan’s novel, The Western Light, which shares a heroine with The Wives of Bath, will be published in late summer. Zoe Whittall’s latest novel is Holding Still for as Long as Possible.

WOMEN WRITING ABOUT SEX

For further reading:

Poems of Sappho. This 6th century B.C. poet focuses on passion and love for various persons and both sexes. Only fragments remain of her considerable opus.

The Pure and the Impure, by Colette. A guided tour of the erotic netherworld with which the French writer was so intimately acquainted.

Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong. This 1973 novel by Erica Jong was enormously influential and famously controversial for its attitudes towards female sexuality (think “zipless …”)

Kathy Goes to Haiti, by Kathy Acker. This 1978 novel details a young woman’s sexual adventures on vacation. But, really, almost any of the punk experimentalist’s gender-busting fiction will do.

The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet. Edmund white called this 2001 memoir by a French art critic ‘the most explicit book about sex ever written by a woman.”

Lie with Me, by Tamara Faith Berger. A novel that is half literary fiction (quotes Ovid) and half young woman’s sexual fantasy. Filmed by Clement Virgo relatively explicitly.

Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write about Real Sex, edited by Erica Jong. A wide range of women makes for a ferocious, frank and funny collection of essays and fiction and celebrating female desire.

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