In praise of dirty books: let’s write and read about sex

Some authors believe that good sex, like happiness, writes white – only the disastrous stuff, they insist, can really get the sparks flying. Rob Doyle disagrees

I love dirty books. At times I catch myself wondering why all fiction doesn’t focus on sex. After all, sex stands alongside death as the profoundest, most serious element in human life. The continuation of the species depends upon it – in this sense it counts, literally, for everything. (In a breathtakingly provocative passage, David Foster Wallace claimed that “Aids’s gift to us lies in its loud reminder that there’s nothing casual about sex at all.”) Perhaps all books really are about sex, even if there is no sex in them, just as all books are unavoidably concerned with death because death concerns itself with everything.

To be human is to be obsessed with sex – oppressed by it, in search of it, denying or worshipping it, often broken by it. It offers us the vertex of bliss – the pleasure to which all others are a pallid substitute – and is the agent of hellish suffering. As Freud, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer insisted, sexuality lies behind our loftiest systems of metaphysics and politics, our art, our morality. Schopenhauer called it both “the ultimate goal of almost all human efforts”, and “a malevolent demon that strives to pervert, confuse and overthrow everything”.

Attitudes are notoriously changeable, and what was once taboo in time becomes the norm. Even in Ireland we are now free to consume representations of sex that would have scandalised previous eras, just as it is conceivable that we will one day casually enjoy snuff movies, torture art and atrocity entertainment, looking back on our current prudishness around such spectacles as a kind of Victorianism.

Not long ago, so much was so different. A glance over Irish literature in the twentieth century turns up book after book that was banned by the censors, deemed too explicit and thus potentially corrupting of our Catholic sensibilities. An entirely tame novel by modern standards, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls had the distinction of being burned en masse by a priest in O’Brien’s parish, fervid with outrage like some rural Nazi or hardliner mullah, or indeed like the social-media mobs that twitch curtains in 2016. Masterpieces of world literature were written by Irish authors and promptly banned by Irish censors, even while being lauded beyond our shores. When Ulysses met with such a fate, James Joyce pointed out that there is nothing in his book which does not happen every day in the Dublin city of which it is a dazzling, multi-dimensional mirror.

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As Ireland becomes globalised (read: Americanised) to the point where it is hardly recognisable as the same country chronicled in novels of the last century, the hedonic morality of the consumer society – the West’s only ideological horizon – has taken root. The only wrongs now are those that diminish our degree of comfort here in the Pleasure Gardens of the West. In recent Irish fiction an appealingly casual filthiness has begun to supplant the pious evasions and blushing repressions of yesteryear. Novels like Frankie Gaffney’s Dublin Seven, Elske Rahill’s Between Dog and Wolf, and Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies are as frank (and insightful) in their depictions of sex as books written in less historically repressive cultures over the past century. Philip Ó Ceallaigh and Sean O’Reilly are but two other notably forthright writers on sexual matters. Such instinctually globalised writers see no reason not to call a cunt a cunt; the camera does not pan away when their characters head towards the bedroom. (I don’t have my copy to hand, but if memory serves, Dublin Seven distinguishes itself by being possibly the first Irish novel to include an anilingus scene – a curious instance of the interplay between tradition and the individual talent.)

The Shame Police are still out there, of course, only they have donned new costumes (Nietzsche: “ ‘Whom do you call bad?’ –Those who always want to put to shame.”) Every year the English, that sniggering, belligerent, self-hating race, make sport by mocking a novel they deem to include poorly written and gratuitous sex scenes. I find this Bad Sex Award fairly silly, and hence have always imagined it would be a great honour to receive it. (If I ever do win one, I intend to tour the streets of London in a cavalcade while wearing a cape, like Mussolini.) It might be more interesting if some literary body were to institute a Good Sex Award, for writing on sex that is skilful, insightful, honest and even – why not – arousing? Off the top of my head, I would nominate Geoff Dyer and Michel Houellebecq as possible recipients of a Lifetime Achievement Award.

One of the more irritating words in the English language is “eroticism” – so often it stinks of hypocrisy and smugness. By the same token, my favourite definition of pornography is this: other people’s eroticism. I see no reason why prose shouldn’t be pornographic, if by that we mean frank and explicit. My first novel, Here Are the Young Men, contained a great deal of explicit sex. Because the novel examined the torrid lives of profoundly alienated 18-year-olds, most of the sex depicted was bad sex (alienated 18-year-olds tend not to be very good at sex). Some authors believe that good sex, like happiness, writes white – only the disastrous stuff, they insist, can really get the sparks flying. I disagree. Denying that value can be gleaned from depictions of passionate, pleasurable or loving sex seems to me wrongheaded and arbitrary. That said, a lot of the characters I write about find themselves suffering from sex rather than relishing it, and this is as true for the drifters, writers and maniacs who populate This Is the Ritual as it was in my earlier book.

A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t feel even a little embarrassed or uncomfortable about something you’ve written, it probably isn’t up to much – it could be an indicator that nothing has been risked. Even in a pornographic era, writing about sex will perhaps always be partly embarrassing – after all, sex-writing trades in bodily functions, privacy and intimacy, the human animal stripped of its social dignity and attendant costumes, splayed out in ridiculous positions. But what rich material!

This Is the Ritual features scenes of impotence, infidelity, revenge sex, a threesome that gets very messy, pornographic fixation, sexual violence, sexual obsession, polyamory, stripteasing, and, as one reviewer pointed out, a suspiciously high frequency of masturbation. Occasionally, two people in the book simply like each other and go to bed together, and it is delightful, affectionate, and exciting. Life, after all, is sometimes like that.

This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle is published by Bloomsbury and Dublin's Lilliput Press. This month, we shall be exploring the collection in detail, with interviews and articles by the author, his editors, fellow writers and critics, culminating in a podcast interview which will be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin's Parnell Square on Tuesday, April 19th, at 7.30pm, and published on irishtimes.com at the end of the month