Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sex and the Historical Novel

Sir Walter Scott some consider the first author of historical novels. It depends upon your definition – Gilgamesh might be considered the first historical novel to have survived to the 21st century, and if that’s one’s point of view, then the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Satyricon, the Arthurian Tales of Wace and Layamon – myriad surviving early works are “historical novels.”

But if Scott is the first we must allow that the historical romance was there at the beginning, The Bride of Lammermore setting the tone for stories of tragic girls unhappily wed. There is no sex in The Bride of Lammermore. Nor are the details of the lady’s gruesome murder of her bridegroom at the marriage bed described for the gloating reader.

At what point does meticulously described sex become the basic fare of the historical novel? Dorothy Dunnett in her Lymond series has, in the course of six volumes, two fairly graphic descriptions of sex, though the language is poetic even in this sparse offering. 

But at any time the curious library browser could find novels with grayed page edges where readers had dulled the paper, choosing just the sexy parts and marking them with extra wear.

Master and Johnson published their quasi-scientific study of sexual responses in the 1950’s and there followed, trailing in the wake of popularized Freudianism, a then-scandalous literature – largely published in France and brought in translation to America: Andre Gide’s The Immoralist titillated the literati; Jean Genet shocked the public with his heated novels of homosexuality.

In the United States we had Norman Mailer. Until Mailer, the books Americans wrote that were considered terribly racy were published in Paris, in English, by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press.

Girodias moved his business to New York by 1968, and the contest was on to see which press could still achieve some shock. But this was the wild and woolly sixties. Matters got pretty competitive between New Directions and Olympia, with Playboy Press joining in and paying more in advances than anybody else could.

Olympia was closed down after publishing a satire about Henry Kissinger (with a photo of Kissinger at the presidential podium on the cover), though some say it was their attack on L. Ron Hubbard that brought the folk of Scientology upon them with a vengeance. Truly what put them all, New Directions and Playboy included, out of business was the big trade publishers saw profit in explicit sex and by the 1980s they were requiring their authors to fill their books with ever more graphic sex.

The historical novel editors were not at all the first to insist upon more, lengthier and more biologically explicit sex scenes. But now some authors feel compelled to insert a sex scene or a scene of violence, or better yet a scene combining both, every twenty pages or so in a large historical novel. These are books published by major publishers and backed with promotional funding. So it is hardly a wonder that these books succeed in totting up substantial sales numbers – confirming their editors in the rightness of their formula.

I will no doubt be yelled at for saying this but, in my view these books are actually providing a variety of masturbation. Such a literature is not new, there have been pillow books for centuries, even millennia, but what is new is their open dominance of the publishing market. 

Yes, sex sells, but such a marketing concentration upon it points to a profound lack of faith in the variety of interests among readers. As so much of American television has dumbed down since its inception, following producers’ ever lower estimation of their viewers, so cynicism regarding the reading public has lowered the quality of literature in the mass of publications. Yes some fine books are published, but most are shaped to the market – and the market will be what the promotional machines make of it.

Is it possible for publishers to regain faith in the reading public? Small publishers are gallantly exploring that issue with some fine historical novels and other works of fiction. M.M. Bennetts, Judith Rock, Linda Collison are superb writers – and their publishers are fighting the good fight for new historical novels of high merit.

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series