In one of his brilliant 70s interviews with Groucho Marx, Roger Ebert encounters the eighty-one-year-old in a very sexual mood. Groucho admits, “I’m a prude”, but nevertheless spends most of the lunch sort-of boasting of his relationship with his secretary, Erin Fleming (who is also present), and sort-of denying it. One moment, he begrudges her the things she won’t let him do; the next, he tells Ebert that Fleming gets a “sexual kick” out of tasting his food – “the only kick she’s getting, by the way.” And Fleming, for her part, plays along with his game very kindly, correcting him only when he tries to claim that they share a house. Once they’re alone, she confides in Ebert that she has given him a sort of hope; when she met him, he was sick in hospital and unwilling to get up. “She loves me,” Groucho adds, “and I don’t blame her for it.”
But Groucho is fickle. The second half of the interview is spent mostly with him ignoring Fleming, in favour of flirtatious wordplay with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls actress Edy Williams – “It’s a Cuban cigar. It’s rather phallic. I hope it excites you.” – though Williams, for her part, seems to be more concerned with reeling off current-affairs questions in order to get incongruous Groucho answers. And, at the end of it all, Groucho confides in Ebert,
"Sex isn't that important, you know. It's a very transient thing. It's a fleeting pleasure, elusive and temporary. Sex is very overrated."
It’s interesting that critic David Thomson also picks up on sexual hang-ups within Groucho’s act itself; when the man is faced with a beautiful woman, he notes, “his sexual urge is throttled by literary cross-reference” – Groucho retreats, constantly, into his own jokes, piling distractive wordplay onto his original statement;
“I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thoughts, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home.”
“Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”
I bring all this up because Groucho was the 20th century’s consummate man of words and the possibility of words, and because, at the heart of things, words are the polar opposite of sex. Words are the unreal notion that affect us in reality; sex is the real act that develops significantly unreal tendrils. Words, which belong primarily to the mind, are snobbish about sex, which is mainly about the body; but, at the same time, they fear it – what if people find, in the heights of physical orgasm, a mental state so fine that words can no longer express it? I think that’s partly why the Bad Sex in Fiction Award misses the point; sex writing is almost always going to be awful, because it’s attempting to express the inexpressible. Like love, writing about sex requires you to take an immensely private state, something not intended to pass beyond two people (occasionally more), and interpret it for the benefit of a much larger audience. The best-case scenario is that you do a decent-enough job that people recognise their own experiences in yours. Worst-case, your rendering is so off the mark that it becomes laughable. Much of the most famous sex-writing is remembered and admired because it is or was taboo (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Justine or anything else by the Marquis de Sade), or because it’s exceptionally instructive ( the Kama Sutra). How much of it actually transforms? How much of it, through the power of words, actually replicates the same state of wordless, thoughtless ecstasy in the reader as we might expect in an orgasm, instead of, as most ‘erotica’ does, simply providing a springboard for their own imaginations?
I actually researched this, a little. Project Gutenberg has only nine novels in its ‘erotic fiction’ section – one of them is Ulysses, which disturbs me not a little. Can there be people out there who’ve been aroused by Molly Bloom’s grand finale? I’ll admit I’m no expert on the subject of erotica, though, so, to avoid gross generalisations in the manner of an older Roger Ebert, is there anyone out there who can suggest some erotic literature that might be objectively called ‘great’?